IANAUAs a student in France in 2002 who, the previous year, had spent the majority of her time with international students who were trying to learn English, I knew my best chance of gaining fluency in French was to spend as little time with those who spoke my own language as possible. The best French teachers were the ones who spoke no English at all. Still, the study abroad program I’d signed up for was set up in such a way that I couldn’t possibly avoid all the other Americans. We were forced to take grammar, phonetics, and other French as a foreign language (FLE) classes together and as hard as I tried to resist forming attachments to my fellow countrymen, I couldn’t justify ignoring them completely. After all, it wasn’t our fault that we all happened to have been born within the same political boundaries.

My first month in Montpellier I had to live in the student residence where at least I had my own room. Afterwards, I managed to procure a small studio apartment atop a building on rue Joachim Colbert near the cathedral and one of my American classmates took the apartment just below me. Later on, a young Irish and English couple moved into the apartment below him so my attempt to totally immerse myself in French was somewhat thwarted.


My attitude changed when I decided to let go of my pride and begin to see my compatriots in France as people like me. My neighbor, whose home university was William and Mary, began hosting Bible studies in his apartment and invited me along. He also introduced me to a Pentecostal church in Antigone with a congregation full of young people who spoke French. A group so passionate about their beliefs that we’d even sing praise and worship songs on the tram together.

Soon my experience became less about blocking out my fellow Americans and more about my quest to turn my study abroad experience into something truly deep and meaningful. Nevertheless I still distanced myself somewhat from my American friends. To be completely honest, I hardly had any friends at all and I’d become very accustomed to loneliness. I’d wander solo around the narrow streets of Montpellier lost in my thoughts. I didn’t bring headphones with me when I traveled. Headphones, I’d learned, were a tool for isolation and I wanted to be as open as possible to new experiences. It was on one such wandering that I saw a young man looking at a poster advertising international calling cards. He had a dual-language dictionary with him so I asked him in English if I could be of some assistance. Before long we were sipping coffee together in my apartment and sharing stories. He was a medical student from Germany searching for a place to live. He knew a little French but English was far easier for him.

We met up a few weeks later, after he’d settled in a bit. Around that time, my wallet had been stolen and I had no money. Without telling him my situation, I suggested a “cheap date” of exploring the Centre Ville and scoping out the local bookshops. The escape from my loneliness was more valuable than anything money could buy and I was extremely grateful for it.

The wallet situation, on the other hand, was more serious than I’d let on.  Still, I didn’t think I could tell the few friends I had in France about my hardships. I didn’t want to seem needy and besides, what if my wallet hadn’t actually been “stolen” but simply misplaced?   What if some kind stranger had found it and would return it to me at any moment?

This, of course, was nothing more than wishful thinking. When reality finally set in, I reached out to my parents for help who, in turn, wired me some money from the States and helped me replace the DEBIT card linked to my US bank account as well. When it all cleared up, I finally told my friends the story in a generic email sent on December 9, 2002:

I didn’t really get into the holiday spirit until last week when, at one moment I was sitting in my room, staring at my almost empty shelves and praying that money would arrive in my account soon so that I wouldn’t have to start asking my friends for food and toilet paper and so that rent could be paid on time. Of course, that same day, a letter arrived in the mail box from the bank saying that the money transferred from my account in the US had arrived and was already in my account. I was so thrilled that I almost started crying on the tram to class.

To put things in perspective for you, my wallet was stolen about a month ago, with all my credit cards, ID’s (except passport), and cash inside. This scenario is a familiar one, I know, for some of you, but it’s stressful nonetheless. It was the closest I’d ever been to poverty which sounds pretty lame when you consider the fact that even though all I had to eat was rice and canned vegetables for a while, there are children in this world who only dream of such things. So, as you see, when everything is put into perspective, you find that you have a lot to be thankful for.

As for me, I had given up going out for an entire month. This meant no movies, no eating out, no new CD’s or clothes, and not so many trips to the internet cafe. So what did I do? I did lots of reading. I read all of the books Fleuriane loaned me, the entire New Testament in my English translation of the Bible plus Genesis and Exodus, two of the books my professor recommended for my one class that I have with the French students, Le Petit Prince (for the second time) and any magazines my parents happened to send me.


That month of rationing taught me many amazing things about gratitude and certain symbolic images remain engraved in my mind. For instance, because of the way my studio window was positioned, my place had more sunlight than any other apartment in the building and I began to let the sunlight dictate my day. I’d read and write for as long as I could in the natural light and then, as the sun began to set, I’d race to le Peyrou, join other dreamers and romantics, and watch the sun set. At the FNAC and Virgin Megastore, I’d stroll through the music department and pause to listen to the latest French music with the in-store headphones.  Everywhere I walked I began to notice details I’d never noticed before. I discovered the jardin des plantes and tried to learn the French names for every tree and flower. I learned to walk slower, to enjoy every sent and every sound. But for all I experienced alone, the most endearing moments happened when I encountered other people.

Take for example the American friend I’d run into on the tram one day. We hadn’t really hung out with each other before but for some reason that particular day he felt compelled to tell me he was having a bad day. I had nothing planned except lunch and no one to share my lunch with so I invited him to join me. He offered to pitch-in so I let him buy us a baguette at the neighborhood boulangerie and then we went to my apartment and made (if recall) some sort of rice and vegetable combination with a little cheese on the side and plain, tap water to drink. Then he looked at the bookshelf my landlord had built for me when I moved in and saw my CD collection which included the two-disc original recording of Notre Dame de Paris. Suddenly he became ecstatic and told me how much he loved this musical. I smiled and we put it in the CD player. He couldn’t resist singing along with the opening number Le temps des cathédrales.  He belted the song with all his heart and I just sat near him, intoxicated by his joy.

He gave me a hug before he left and I couldn’t help but smile as I sat on the stairs and watched him go. On his way out, he turned around one last time and said “thank you.” I remained on the steps for a few moments, lost in my thoughts. Then, in a split second I felt as though perhaps I should run after him and tell him “thank you” too. After all, he had no way of knowing the depth of my loneliness that day. He had no way of knowing that what I did for him was nothing compared to what he had done for me.

My final months in France are filled with such stories. I’ve thanked people from that time period for the things they’ve done, going above and beyond the call of duty that last month in France when I was stuck in a hospital. But the people who rescued me in my darkest moments, who freed from the prison of my mind no matter how brief the escape, those are the people I most wish to thank but can’t. You see, when I lost my mind, I left town without telling anyone. I almost told my neighbor on my way out. I remember hearing him as he played his guitar and sang so I knew he was home but as I walked toward his door, I quickly turned around and changed my mind. He won’t understand; he’ll only try and stop me, I thought. To him and so many others I disappeared without a trace. Even when my whereabouts were finally discovered, the nature of my illness made it impossible for me to turn around and say goodbye. But I do hope that somewhere, deep in their hearts, they know how grateful I am for them.

A week or so after I returned to the United States, I received a card in the mail from France. The boy who lived downstairs along with a few of the people from his Bible study had gone to the trouble to find out why I’d “vanished.” They’d inquired with the director of American students at the university. I’m not sure how much of my story they learned but it was enough for them to find my address and send me a note of encouragement. These Americans who I had tried so hard to distance myself from were the only friends from Montpellier to reach out to me when my world had fallen apart and show love with their words. The card they gave me is one of my most precious possessions.



DandelionI used to imagine what it would be like to have more than one sibling. How wonderful would it be, I thought, to have another sister or brother to hang out with when I wasn’t getting along with the one I have now! Then again, if I’d had more than one sibling, I’d most certainly have had to share a room.  After coming to this realization, I decided I was far better off with just my sister and me because, if nothing else, at least I had my own room, sanctuary, and hiding place.

Growing up, I was prone to sudden, emotional outbursts that no one else in the family seemed to understand. Yet alone in my room I could talk to the inanimate objects, the plush animals or my cat. Then, as I grew older, I learned to talk to God, but not as though he were a distant figurehead.  More like my closest friend, sitting beside me, listening to my thoughts.


I quickly learned when it was appropriate to cry in public and when it wasn’t but that still didn’t make the tears any easier to control. My only option, if I didn’t want to be perceived as crying over something stupid, was to run away and cry in solitude.


It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be seen and heard. I just didn’t want to be seen and heard by the wrong people. I needed someone there who was strong yet compassionate. I needed someone who wouldn’t judge my tears, but accept them; someone who would accept me as I was. That person didn’t exist in my reality, but in my imagination he was always there. I never gave him a face but he was always larger than me, stronger than me, and both loving and gentle. Over time, this was how I imagined God when I talked to him.

Solitude became synonymous with freedom. In the secret and quiet place I could be anyone or anything. I could write my thoughts or draw pictures of places I’d never seen. If the isolation were great enough, I could even sing at the top of my lungs and no one would silence me.

Although there are certain people I yearn to spend time with and they are the only ones who, if they were willing, I’d invite into my solitude. But no one else may enter because this is my realm. I have built walls and fortresses and I alone hold the keys.


Solitude is full of amazing gifts because in it you can read whatever you want with only your own thoughts to distract you. But for all the enrichment there is for your mind, solitude can still be dangerous.  When my own mind is left to wander for too long, my thoughts begin to betray me. I start to believe my fantasies and, if left unchecked, I can succumb to delusional thinking, paranoia, or, in worst-case scenarios, hallucinations.


This is why I don’t advise living a solitary life. I feel as though true hermits eventually go mad and become the Ted Kaczynskis of this world. We’re social creatures after all and long periods of isolation are never healthy, for any of us. In my case my mind is already broken and with or without solitude I need to regularly bounce my thoughts off of someone who is slightly more sane than me. I call these my “reality checks.”

I remember reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom and I remember what he wrote about his time in prison and how he and his fellow prisoners of conscience would keep their minds active by having “debates” and so on. However, he said the worst punishment thrust upon him was solitary confinement. Solitary confinement was more than mere solitude. It meant no windows, no sounds, and no writing instruments to make sense of your thoughts.

Of his experience he wrote:

As I have already mentioned, I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything. Did I make the right decision, was my sacrifice worth it? In solitary, there is no distraction from these haunting questions.

From Long Walk to Freedom, Chapter 65

Solitude is most beneficial to me when there is something to observe like people or nature. I’ve stepped away from difficult roommate situations in college with my pen and a notebook and written about the giant trees and the nearby ants I see marching across the dirt and pebbles. I’ve written about the beauty and ugliness of a slug on a California morning when I woke up before my traveling companions and simply had to go someplace peaceful to write. Or even a moonlit moment atop the parking garage nearby the place where I once worked, an empty parking lot lit by a thousand street lights and my building reduced to the size of a doll’s house, the ant-like people stepping out for their smoke-breaks, oblivious to the fact that I am staring down at them from afar.


After I graduated college, I finally had the dream-come-true of living on my own.  Finally, my own place to return to after a long day at work! But solitude had its dark side then, too.  The suicide attempts occurred more often when I was alone. More than once I’d fall asleep after an over-dose or slit wrist only to wake up the next morning as though nothing happened. I still look back and wonder how I managed to survive those years.

Now I live again with my parents and my sister. My self-destructive behaviors of the past led me back to that sort of life but I’ve adapted well enough. I’ve had my time of healing and time to know my family so much better than I did before. The self-harming days are behind me and I’ve even managed to build trust in my family members. For example, my father is in charge of my finances and yet he has permitted me to go out-of-state for as long as a week (so far) to attend conferences and workshops. He’s also allowed me to go on a couple of solo retreats. But the best part about living at home again is having my own room and my own car. I live in the Phoenix area and relish long, solo drives to visit friends who live across town or even just to visit another one of my favorite libraries or bookstores. The point is, solo drives allow me to sing my heart out or just listen to whatever music I’m in the mood for without a single complaint. My car, by the way, is a hand-me-down from my dad.



or “Imparfait”

I used to want to be a songwriter so I began scribbling lyrics down for potential songs when I was a senior in high school. I would say I “wrote” songs but writing music implies putting pen to paper, staff paper in particular, and scratching out notes, each one representing a different pitch and a different length of time for said pitch to be held. I could read music effortlessly because I’d taken piano lessons since age 10, but to write it? That was simply too mathematical.


Nevertheless, I secretly continued to write. Most of my songs were fragmented, unpolished and unfinished. Songs were a way for me to confront the emotions that most tormented me and I longed to share them but I was afraid to because they weren’t perfect.

The one I was most proud of was the one I wrote between jobs when I was functionally depressed. It was based on memories of all the times I’d sat alone in my room at night, feeling absolutely worthless, as though a God who supposedly doesn’t make mistakes had somehow screwed up big time when he made me. And yet while I contemplated suicide and sometimes even attempted it in my solitude, a thought kept haunting me. It went something like this:

If I die tonight who will remember me?

If I die tonight what will be my legacy?

Am I to die alone in the cold, unfriendly dark,

And how and why and who’s to blame? 

When I first sang it I was standing in the shower and I belted it angrily into the emptiness surrounding me. But then I realized it would have more of an impact if I sang it a little softer and made the surrounding lyrics kind of about everyone.

I had to work fast. I didn’t live alone at the time and so I had to plan my recordings for when my roommate was out. That didn’t leave much of an opportunity for do-overs. So, I hooked up a microphone to my laptop, sat at my piano keyboard, and quickly put this together:


Nothing I’ve created in the musical realm has ever come close to perfect. My award-winning choir days lasted from seventh to ninth grade and I’ve no trophies, plaques, or certificates to boast of since then.


But is there a silver-lining to having something that’s not perfect? Can beauty be found in imperfection?

Perfection is basically the absence of flaws. If you are a singer with perfect pitch, then you can sing the note as true as possible without sharpening or flattening it in the slightest. A perfect circle is one in which the radius is constant throughout. If you take a test and answer every question correctly, you are given a perfect score.

Some people strive for perfection and if you’re such a person, you’re a perfectionist. And we need perfectionist, right? After all, the world applauds perfectionism. Competition thrives on our quest to be perfect. Aren’t we always trying to push the limits of what we as humans can and can’t do?

Once I met a twenty-something young woman who’d shot herself in the head and somehow managed to survive. We met in a psychiatric hospital, a place where the broken, the imperfect, and the misunderstood are often thrown together.   The pressure to be perfect makes some people thrive but causes the rest of us to simply shut down and feel worthless. What if I can’t make straight A’s? What if I’m not good enough to be hired for the job I applied for? What if I fail as a human being? I can’t be everything you want me to be. I can’t be perfect.

Still, I believe imperfection permits a certain kind of beauty to be revealed and, despite our best efforts, there will always be a bit of imperfection in our pursuit of perfection. Ask anyone who has achieved great fame for his works. If you manage to rise to stardom, there will always be someone who will bitterly and jealously try to dig up whatever dirt on you he can in order to bring you down. If you’re the star, do you embrace your imperfections once they’ve been revealed or do you deny them? I think a celebrity is much more relatable when she admits she’s not perfect.


Last year I received a bit of a shock as well. A professional counselor accused me of being a perfectionist. I looked at her with such disbelief that my expression demanded an explanation. Me? A perfectionist?

Yes. She said. You’re a perfectionist because you won’t finish anything or share anything unless you think it’s going to be perfect.

That’s not true, I said. My Youtube videos and my blogs and my audio recordings, they’re all terrible and I post them anyway. 

You see how you’re judging your work? You don’t feel like anything you create is or ever will be perfect. You’re a perfectionist. 

I guess the perfectionist gets into all of us now and then.

When it comes to friends, I prefer to spend time with people who are flawed and not afraid to admit it. I find such people easier to connect with. It works both ways too. Many times I’ve met another broken person, showed him the scars from self-inflected wounds and suicide attempts on my left wrist and arm and heard from the depths of his loneliness the familiar words: Oh, so you do understand.



Or “Égoïste”


I begin writing this a few hours after learning about a terrible attack on the city of Paris. A terrorist attack that left more than a hundred innocent people dead and many more injured. A horrific Friday evening that so impacted the people of Paris that a curfew was forced upon the residents for the first time since World War II. The fear and shock was spread throughout the world in minutes via social media. I was at the library when I learned of the attacks, posting shameless self-promotional Tweets and Facebook updates, trying to stir up interest in my blog. But all that selfishness came to a halt when the Paris news hit me.

Suddenly I can’t justify posting anything about me. I must post my support for the Parisians. After all, I’ve been to Paris a couple of times and my ability to speak French only strengthens my feeling of kinship with the French. I do the majority of my social media in French for the rest of the night to show my solidarity. It is a dreadful night for Paris and all of France. I cannot even begin to comprehend such a violent and senseless tragedy but I also know that it would be incredibly selfish of me not to drop all my other projects and immediately join them in mourning, right?

At home I follow the T.V. news and social media as closely as I can. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to be there, though, but I can’t tell anyone because everyone else in the family is also totally fixated on the situation. If I pull away now I’ll look like the bad guy, the cold one, the person lacking compassion. Would it help if I cried?   I’m so good at crying when it’s inappropriate to cry, why can’t I cry now when the tears would actually be meaningful, welcome and understood? That would prove once and for all that I am compassionate! But then, wouldn’t that make my tears selfish too? Would I then still be crying for the wrong reason, to make myself look like the good guy and not necessarily out of genuine empathy?

My self-injurious years were filled with friends accusing me of being selfish. Suicide itself is considered a selfish act so why wouldn’t failed suicide attempts follow the same suit? The profundity of clinical depression however robs us sometimes of the moral, Mother Teresa-like ideal of selflessness. Until we find the care we need, we tend to suck the lives out of those who mean to love us.


When my emotions and self-harming behavior escalated, I tended to call my inner-most circle of friends more and more often with a sense of urgency, crying and venting my frustration with life over the phone. My really good friends eventually began to call me out on how thoughtless and selfish my actions had become.  Unfortunately being reminded of my manners in no way quelled the underlying emotions.  More than once I suffered break-ups with friends who couldn’t handle the drama anymore.  What’s worse is that I never wanted it to be this way.  I never wanted to be that person and the more powerless I felt the lonelier and more desperate for an escape I became.

That selfish gene (to steal a term from Richard Dawkins) was always something I fought against, even when I was very young. Before what I like to call la crise de 2003, I saw selfishness as the epitome of sinful nature.

Fighting against all my selfish desires left me vulnerable to codependency and manipulation. It became extremely hard for me to say no when anyone asked me for help. To say no would mean to suffer a severe wave of guilty feelings. My self-worth plummeted and I found myself apologizing for everything whether it was my fault or not.   I would apologize for being born.

The first and one of the most intense attacks in my war on selfishness began when I was just 14-years-old and traveling with one of the school’s service clubs to the orange groves to feed the migrant workers. It was the first time I’d laid eyes on such stark destitution. These human beings were living worse than animals, barefoot, hungry, cold, leaving glass bottles filled with urine beneath the trees. Winter was around the corner and although winters are mild here in the desert parts of Arizona, they can still be deceptively cold. The group we partnered with brought extra clothes including blankets, to hand out to the migrants. Tickets were passed out with numbers on them to keep the distribution smooth and organized, otherwise the relief workers would be mobbed. Blankets, of course were the most coveted commodity.


When all who were hungry ate and it was time for our van to pull away, I observed one last act of kindness. One of our sponsors, a teacher, noticed a shivering, helpless, barefooted migrant woman whose feet looked to be about the same size as hers. So she selflessly removed her shoes and gave them to the woman who needed them more. At that moment I knew I would never see the world the same again.

That kind of third-world existence wasn’t very far from home and yet I felt like I had crossed many borders to find it. Suddenly I became aware of how truly privileged I was. I did not share my inner thoughts with the world but at 14-years-old I was able to justify days of fasting and a refusal to buy any new clothes. That was the year my parents were too preoccupied with my sister’s problems to really pay much heed to mine anyway so Mom didn’t seem bothered by the fact that I was still going to school in shorts well into November. If someone questioned my style, I’d just tell them my legs didn’t get cold and they actually believed me. They believed me!

This all worked well until I was sent to the nurse’s office one day after becoming ill during a choir rehearsal. The nurse took one look at the shorts I was wearing that chilly morning and asked me if my family could even afford pants.

When word of this insult on our family’s pride reached my mom, she hurried to J.C. Penny and bought me two pairs of jeans as soon as she could. There was no way her child was going to freeze to death nor would she let anyone question her and my dad’s ability to provide for me.



Nowadays I’m faced with numerous charities who seek my financial support not to mention the local homeless people I meet who seem genuinely hungry and, moreover, terribly lonely. Fortunately I don’t have to make decisions about that kind of stuff anymore because I’m not in control of my finances. If someone needs something, I have to ask permission because literally none of my money is really my money. If it’s just someone who needs a good meal, I ask him to give me a moment to call and seek permission and, in most cases, my request is approved. Then, if time allows, the homeless person and I will dine together, swap stories and learn from one another. It’s a win-win for both of us.

But there are also times when I’ll meet someone who’s a little like a younger version of me. Someone who doesn’t have a lot of friends and who needs a little more attention than most people do. Because of my own past, my first instinct is to befriend this person. But I must admit, it’s hard to be friends with people who are too much like me. It’s kind of like our personalities are so similar that they actually cancel each other out. What happens if the depression or the mania hits both of us at the same time? What happens when the rotation of people who we call when we’re needy is worn out and all we have left is each other?


So I guess there are times when being selfish is justifiable. If I need help, psychological, physical, whatever, I need help and I won’t be able to help anyone else until I’m able to help myself.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years reflecting on the famous quote from Jesus that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When I thought I was loving my neighbor long ago, I still hated myself. I didn’t see myself as someone who deserved love. My ex-fiancé received the “reasons-why-you-shouldn’t-date-me” speech within our first two weeks of dating . Even when he showered me with poetry and flowers I refused to believe I was worthy of being loved by him (or anyone, for that matter). In the end, our relationship dissolved. I had told him many times how much I loved him, but how could I have really loved him if I never loved myself?


It’s like the emergency oxygen masks flight attendants prep you on before you take off on an airplane. We’re told to place the masks over our own nose and mouth before assisting the passenger sitting next to us. This is for safety reasons. If I can’t breathe and I’m trying to help you to breathe, I may lose consciousness in all the panic and chaos and ultimately fail to help either of us. Selfishness, then, is not the greatest of evils and complete selflessness can be detrimental to our health and the health of those we’re trying to help. So if you need to be selfish then do it. Take time for yourself  now.  Then, if I still need a lift, you can reach out to me (and vice versa).




or “La Belle”

 Dear Readers,
In the following post I’m writing about feminine beauty .  I know men have issues with their appearances as well and it’s an important topic to address, but for now, I’m focusing on what I know best.  Try not to be too disappointed. 


You are beautiful, he said to me.

We were in a dark and smoky bar in Annecy, France but I was completely sober when I heard the words. After all, I hadn’t really gone to the bar to get drunk. I’d have a drink or two maybe but my real motivation for being there was to strike up conversations with the locals and practice speaking French. He was obviously on the tipsy side so his words were not quite as flattering as he might have thought they were, but I take what I can.

I looked him in the eyes.  S’il te plaît, dites-moi en français.

 We were both in our early twenties, young and free to make the mistakes we would later attribute to being young and stupid.

Tu es belle. Tu es comme une mannequin.

 I look like a model? Really? How drunk are you monsieur? Let’s take a walk and talk outside by the lake. It’s too noisy to really understand you anyway and the cigarette smoke makes me feel sick.


If his intentions weren’t clear enough before, they certainly were now. I sincerely just wanted to have a conversation yet he thought I wanted what he wanted, at the very least a slobbery make-out session on the grass near the harbor.

Qu’est-ce que tu fais comme travail ? Es-tu un étudiant ? Tu étudies quoi ?

My broken French only led to short, uninterested responses. He was bored with my questions and I was bored with his tongue touching my face. Is this what a French kiss is supposed to be like? It looks so much more romantic in the movies.

We parted ways, each of us disappointed with the outcome of our little adventure. But I was able to take one thing away from our encounter: being told I was beautiful instilled in me a strange sense of confidence. When we left the protection of the crowd for a bit of solitude under the stars, I never felt like I had to follow his lead. He was, in my mind, at my mercy. I had complete control over the evening because I was beautiful in his eyes. I was using him to practice this new language I was learning. I couldn’t care less about his primal desires.

As a teenager, I didn’t think I was a pretty let alone beautiful. I knew what beautiful was. I read fashion magazines and watched popular TV and movies. The leading lady was always thin and sometimes athletic (so long as her muscles weren’t too large). Stomach had to be flat. Her face, evenly toned and blemish-free. When measured against the leading man, she had to be shorter than him and light enough for him to literally sweep her off her feet.


I interpreted it all as: the thinner the better. I didn’t necessarily link feminine beauty to power. Beautiful, to me, meant being noticed and loved. The obese girl eating alone on a bench at lunch time in junior high was ignored because she wasn’t pretty, I thought. I wasn’t ignored as a teenager, but I did feel a strange kinship with the loners. Occasionally I’d seek out the loners and have a chat with them. I always expected them to be sad, and sometimes they were, but other times they seemed to enjoy their sometimes-self-imposed isolation.

In my current phase in life, I’m the obese woman and I’m not convinced I can call myself beautiful, but I’m okay with that. Nonetheless, I still hold the memories of what it felt like to look different at different stages in life. After all, change is not just in whether or not we gain weight. Aging has a huge impact on us, especially as women in a culture where older men are still revered and older women go to great lengths sometimes to maintain the illusion of being young.

By now you’re probably thinking about all the adages regarding beauty.

Beauty is only skin deep.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

True beauty is on the inside. 

If outward beauty is not important, why even mention it?

I went through my thin stages in life. I was never an obese child or adolescent. When I turned 19, though, my body started changing quite a bit. The high-metabolism of my youth seemed to shut down without warning. But, I reversed it during my running phase in college, an exercise I learned to enjoy until I fell and fractured my knee while I was studying abroad in France. For a little over a year I didn’t gain any more weight and then new medication combined with working a late shift at a call-center and all of a sudden my skinny French clothes no longer fit. Photos from 2004 to 2009 show my rate of expansion and it’s not pretty – certainly not beautiful.


In 2009 I was introduced to the plus-size clothing industry, an industry that’s grown in recent years as women in our culture seem to be exercising less and eating more. It was a strange adaptation at first. Even now I walk past all the clothing stores I used to shop at and admire the fashions knowing my body, in its current state, could never support them. And although an attempt as been made recently to elevate the status of plus-size models and actresses, I’m not, as a plus-size woman, on board with it all. After all, obesity is not usually something you’re born with. The tendency to gain weight easier than others may be genetic, but we still have an element of control as to which direction we’re going to tip the scale.

That said, let me share a few observations I’ve had of us women and how we view outer-beauty. The way I see it, there are five different ways we tend to see ourselves when we look in the mirror:

The beautiful woman who doesn’t realize or believe she is beautiful.

The beautiful woman who knows she’s beautiful and uses her appearance to her advantage. (Think: femme fatale – a beautiful woman can be the best spy, for example, because she knows how to use her sexuality to manipulate powerful men into divulging their secrets.)

The woman who desires to be beautiful so she will be liked (or even just noticed).

The unattractive women who tries to distract from her appearance through wit and intellect. 

The confidant woman who feels she is beautiful no matter what she’s told.

A woman who is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and smart has the greatest advantage. This may anger my feminist friends to read this but look around. We’ve made huge strides in women’s rights but we have yet to erase the double-standard where women have to be smart and beautiful to make it and men just have to be smart. The entertainment industry is the worst offender I think. Yes, actors must have the ability to act but they also must have a certain “look” if they’re to be hired for the part. Even the music industry seems to be so influenced by their artists “marketability” that you pretty much have to be beautiful and talented in order to make it with the greatest pressure to be beautiful on female artists.


Ladies, you know we’re always checking each other out. I’ve also gone out with my guy-friends a few times and seen them check out other girls while they’re with me. Of course I tell them off but not before turning my head to have a peek as well. How beautiful must this girl be to make the guys I’m hanging with lose focus on our conversation? How ugly must I be that another girl can easily steal his attention away from me?

Then I realize, it’s not necessarily about being beautiful. It’s about feeling beautiful. Whether you see another woman as beautiful or not is not the point. Women who believe they’re beautiful approach life with confidence. They know it is impossible for everyone to meet society’s standard for beauty. They know that external beauty is fleeting but ideas can last forever.



or “Le Succès”

What does it mean to be successful? Is it determined by the amount of money you make or the high level of education you’ve obtained? Is it based on how famous you are or the kind of recognition you’ve received for your work? Is it a status thing or can it be something as simple as not dying for yet one more day?

I posted the above questions on my Facebook status update not long ago. Only one person responded which, in comparison to most of my posts, is a good thing. You see, most of the time my friends either don’t see or don’t care what I have to say. Of course, maybe if I were successful at something, they’d change their minds.

I suppose the closest definition of success to that of the dictionary is to set a goal and achieve it. This I have done, though none of it’s been newsworthy. Even so, here are a few examples:

In high school, I really wanted to attend an out-of-state university, the further from home the better. Of course, when I fell in love with a boy, I kind of made a compromise and went to school in the neighboring state of California. The following year I came back to Arizona and attended Northern Arizona University, but not before spending about 5 weeks in Sibiu, Romania. So in roughly a year’s time I achieved two goals: studying out-of-state and travelling to Europe. I’d say I was pretty successful.Knight and MaidenRomanian-Kids-2

Then, in 2001, I made it my goal to study abroad in France for a year. Sure my grades were poor and my French was feeble but that didn’t stop me. By the end of the year I obtained my student VISA despite my academic short-comings. I made it to France. I was successful.

That same year my best friend convinced me to train for a marathon.   Once she persuaded me to run, there was no turning back. For my first marathon, all I really had to do was finish and when I crossed that finish line, my best friend was there to encourage me. I was successful.


The turning point came while I was studying in France. I struggled a lot with something inside me that I couldn’t name and barely understood. Once more, unexpected hardships were thrust upon me that I couldn’t find the courage to tell others about. Instead I wrote in my diary and prayed to God. It was a time of unprecedented emotional pain. The world became something I merely observed and I rarely felt a part of. Even amongst people from my own country I felt foreign.


About 8 months after I arrived in France everything I’d bottled up inside began to surface and I experienced what the doctors would later call bipolar mania. Then I was involuntarily placed in a French psychiatric hospital and ultimately repatriated. It happened so quick I wasn’t even able to say a proper goodbye. But when all the excitement of mania finally came to a crashing halt, I felt not only an intense depression but a profound sense of failure, shame, and defeat.

I didn’t finish my year abroad. I didn’t reach my goal. They wouldn’t let me say goodbye. I came home in a cloud of shame. I was a failure.

A failure like that is hard to recover from. In the following years, I tried to commit suicide more than once. I did manage to earn my bachelor of art’s in French at Arizona State University, but it was by the skin of my teeth.

For three years I tried to live on my own as college graduates are supposed to. I searched for jobs in which I could use my French. I tried to convince myself I didn’t have a mental illness. I tried to convince myself I could do whatever I set my mind to. That was the expression my mom used, wasn’t it? “You can do whatever you set your mind to.”

The problem was, nothing I tried seemed good enough. My mind was broken. No one seemed to care about the songs I made up or the stories I wrote. No one seemed to care about my photographs or movies. Was there nothing of value I could give to humanity?


Then again, maybe success doesn’t always happen to us in our lifetimes. I mean, the things that become viral are here for a moment then gone. They briefly capture our attention but they don’t have the power to withstand the test of time.

The French definition of le succès, at least in Le Petit Robert, mentions the word “happy” as though success is not something you’re granted by public opinion, but instead something drawn from within. You wanted to be the change in this world?   How’s that working out for you? Forget what people say. The real question is, are you happy?

I won’t lie. One of the six definitions in Le Petit Robert does link success with being well-known and viewed favorably by the public, but I don’t think that’s the most important one, especially since it’s almost at the bottom of the list.

I’ve also heard from people who are successful in the public-eye that failure is part of success. In fact, we really do learn from our mistakes and if we just learn how to handle failure, our chances of success are even greater. I think I even remember Donald Miller saying at one of his Storyline conferences that we should practice failing, meaning we should actually set ourselves up for failure so that we grow accustomed to the feeling.

So if failure is a part of the human experience and a part of success, we need not fear it. In fact, we should probably accept it, even embrace it.

Am I a success? If you compare me to no one, then yes because, although I have goals I still hope to achieve, I’m happy to be alive. I’m happy to have had the experiences I’ve had (even the painful ones). I’m happy to have a family who accepts me as I am and who’ll support me in my creative endeavors. I’m happy to be able to share my thoughts with you.

The Trouble with Memory

or “Le trouble de la mémoire”

My memory is not that great. Even so, some moments stay engraved in it and I can recall them as if they happened yesterday. Like my nine months in France and the year proceeding it which never seem to fade from my mind. But then my best friend who, outside of my family, has known me longer than anybody, will bring up something that will just leave me baffled and yet I feel like I should remember what she is telling me. Take, for example, a campout we went on together with our church youth group when we were in junior high.

Here’s what I remember from that trip:

We were in eighth grade and camping with the lady from church who voluntarily organized events for the youth before a full-time youth director was hired. I know the camping trip took place because I still have pictures from it. There was a lake and all of us brought bathing suits. One of the other girls convinced me to let her borrow my two-piece so she could attract the attention of a boy she had a crush on. But I may have caused a little bit of jealousy when her crush was assigned to drive me home early so that I could attend a prior commitment. All I remember about the drive home was him boasting about his ability to multitask. He said he could do almost anything while driving and demonstrated it by eating a sandwich on the road and then smoking cigarettes with the window open.


Here’s what my friend told me I did on the afore-mentioned trip – a memory completely lost to me:

Apparently some of the kids in the group wanted to catch a fish and grill it for dinner and, with a little persistence (and probably a lot of luck), they managed to capture one in the lake. Of course, the lake was a bit lower than the campsite so the fish had to be carefully carried up the bank and down the path a little ways. At this time, the fish was still alive and I was, for some strange reason, given the task of carrying it back to camp. But suddenly I began to feel sorry for the poor creature. In a swift burst of compassion, I apparently decided to free the fish by throwing him back into the lake thus giving him a second chance at life. This irritated the rest of my comrades who had put a lot of effort into obtaining that fish. Furthermore, my friend informed me very matter-of-factly that I’d probably done more damage than good. The fish, after all, was thrown such a great distance into the lake that it most likely died on impact.

This was such an interesting story. Here I was, the main character, and yet I couldn’t remember it for the life of me. We were what? Fourteen? Fifteen? That’s an age when one should actually remember things. Right?

Recently I met a friend I hadn’t seen in about twenty-five years. That means we were fifth-graders when last we saw one another and, although I was super excited to be reunited with her, I was also very nervous. In preparation for our reunion, I flipped through the old yearbooks and photos I had of her and the rest of my school-buddies from that era. I knew her from the four years my family lived in Fort Worth, Texas and I remember, before we moved to Arizona, my classmates threw me a fancy surprise party to bid me farewell. No one had ever done anything like that for me before.


There was little I remembered about my childhood friends, though. A couple of them became pen-pals for a few years but not this one. What I remembered about her was her clever and unique imagination. She was a kid who loved to draw and had a gift for it. She was also good at telling strange and fascinating stories. But that was about the extent of my memory. I knew I liked her when we were kids, that she was one of my five favorite people to hang out with. I just couldn’t remember all the reasons why I liked her.

When we met again as adults, she helped fill in some of my memory gaps. She didn’t seem to have as many blanks in her childhood memory as I did and I was a little envious of her for that.

Over the years I’ve saved many letters (and some emails which I’ve printed and put into binders). Almost every hand-written letter I’ve received from age twelve onward is carefully preserved in a sheet-protector and organized into three-ring binders. Being able to access the words of old friends and acquaintances helps me recover some of my favorite memories. Journals, diaries, essays and other things I’ve written help me as well.


I met my good friend from France when she was studying here in the United States. We’d go on road trips together and when we did so, she’d carry around a notebook so she could write down new words and expressions she’d learn along the way. Since I was learning French, she encouraged me to do the same. The following year, when it was my turn to study in France, I bought a notebook and did as my friend had instructed me. But then, when we were Euro-railing together, I was the only with a notebook so she would “borrow” it to record the names and email addresses of people we’d meet in transit. Pretty soon she decided she wanted to remember everybody, even people we’d only spoken with for a moment, whether we knew their names or not.

“The nice American guy from Pennsylvania who helped with my ticket (in Munich).”

“Guys from Morocco who we told that Clara was from Shyland.”

“The American and French guys on the train to Paris.”

“The five guys who hitch-hiked with us in Sarlat.”

“The Irish in Venice.”

“The Dutch guy who didn’t want to talk with the other English-speakers on the hill.”


My friend was a classic extrovert who could strike up a conversation with anyone. Later I met one of her best friends while visiting her in Strasbourg and she told me my friend would keep a notebook with not only phone-numbers and names of people she met, but descriptions so she wouldn’t forget who they were we they called her.

I found this to be incredibly inspiring and started to follow suit, only I wasn’t collecting a long list of phone numbers. It’s just that, if I happened to meet a stranger and have a once-in-a-lifetime conversation with him, I’d go home and write about it. Like the dancer I met at a hostel in London from Israel who told me about the Hebrew version of My Fair Lady that he’d been a part of and even wrote the Hebrew alphabet and the first line from Genesis in Hebrew for me on a tiny piece of paper (which was, unfortunately, lost since I was not able to pack my own apartment when I left France – but that’s another story).

My favorite memory of a stranger who managed to captivate me was someone I never spoke to and yet he left such a lasting impression on me that I wrote about him in my diary and I talked about him on a cassette tape for my best friend. He was the artist I saw once during one of my routine outings to watch the sunset at Le Peyrou in Montpellier. It was a popular place for romantics like me to congregate as the sun went down and this young artist was one of us, drawing on his giant sketch-pad. Then, for a brief moment, he closed his tablet, glanced up at the evening sky, and smiled. I knew nothing about him but I after I caught his smile, I, too, smiled and remained smiling long after both he and the sun had departed. I longed to meet him – or at least someone like him.

As a student I could write spectacular essays (sometimes even in French) but I was a horrible test-taker. I’d also sometimes forget assignments. I remember coming to class once and the professor asking everyone to hand in their homework and I sat there feeling like an idiot and wondering why everyone seemed to know about this except me. Lapses in memory combined with a poor work ethic made university-level schoolwork extra difficult for me. As a result, I barely earned my undergraduate degree and have attempted to return to school twice only to end up dropping out.

I asked my psychologist what was wrong with me (besides my obvious diagnosis). Why are some ideas and experiences so easy to remember that all I have to do is close my eyes to they’re right there in front of me whereas the every-day stuff tends to slip my mind? She told me it had to do with my emotions. Intense emotions are so powerful that they can fuse memories to your mind better than anything else. I remember the most painful and the most blissful moments of my existence because they were accompanied by strong emotion. Trying to remember what I’ve learned for a test, on the other hand, is a completely different story.

Memories, also, do not stagnate in our minds. They change as we grow older. The distance of time gives us new perspectives. In my case I look at my first attempt to write a memoir. I was twenty-five and thought I had a riveting story to tell. It was most certainly unique (I’ve yet to meet another American who’s been hospitalized in a French psychiatric hospital) but it lacked depth and maturity.   Back then I’d fixate on my last month in France – the mania, the hyper-religiosity, the hyper-graphia, the hallucinations, the mixed-state of emotions. I was very successful at recalling the “what” but somewhat neglectful to uncover the “why.” Now, more than a decade later, I finally understand how the whole story fits together. It’s not really a story about a failed study-abroad adventure. It’s about a wake-up call followed by a quest to understand a higher truth.

I recently wrote another rough-draft of a memoir. It is as true as I could make it but, because memory in general (not just mine) is so unreliable, it’s sometimes been said that all memoirs are works of fiction. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the real purpose of memory is not to spew out a list of facts to try and prove that I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s more like a repository of lessons learned and those lessons are most valuable when they are shared.

An Imaginary Conversation

or “Une conversation imaginaire”

I’m lost.  I thought I had things figured out a little while ago but then something happened and now I feel like I have to start over – again.  I need a little advice and a bit of encouragement from someone I know, love, respect, and admire.  I need to talk with my best friend, but she lives far away and doesn’t seem to have time for me anymore.  Yet I know from experience that we can go for ages without a word and then, when we finally meet in person again, it’s like no time has passed at all.  We’re young and carefree again.  We act silly and perplex the people around us as we regress into our adolescence.  She is one of the most amazing people you will ever meet, but also very private.  So, I decided that since I couldn’t have a real conversation with her, I’d see what kind of help she’d offer in an imaginary conversation.  I’ll also conceal her identity so she can maintain her secret identity and continue being the superhero that she is.


Me: So I’m trying to write a memoir or something and I’m stuck. I wrote my first draft. I gave you my first draft – and don’t worry, I don’t expect you to have had time to read it yet – I just hit a roadblock recently. A creative block maybe? Whatever. The point is, I’m not moving forward with anything and I need a little help.


Deirdre: [prompting me] Deirdre, how are you? How’s life? How’s your family?

Me: Sorry, I forgot. I’m not trying to be selfish and you know I listen to you when you need me to. Remember when we were going for a walk in Flagstaff after my last hospitalization up there and I repeated something back to you that you told me a few weeks before – a personal thing? You turned back to me in shock and said you didn’t think I listened to you. But I did and I still do. I always listen to you. I still think of you as my best friend even when we’re far apart.

So yes, of course. My bad. What’s up?

Deirdre: Life here is pretty good right now. [smiling] And don’t worry, I’ll let you be selfish this once, but just this once.


Me: [sigh] Thanks so much! I’m so sorry. I’ll totally make it up to you. The next conversation – all about you. I promise.

Deirdre: Go on then.

Me: Okay. So when I wrote my memoir the first time – well, not the very first time but, you know, last spring – I was full of confidence. I thought my story was intriguing, compelling, and could potentially change lives. But now I think I may have gone in with the wrong motivations. I wouldn’t have admitted to it back then, but I think I actually did believe the memoir would pull me out of this rut I’m in and open doors to travel and speaking engagements and movie deals and so on. But now I realize I was wrong. I’ve done a lot of introspection since then, but if I give up on the memoir, what else is left for me? 

Deirdre: I’m sorry, Clara, but that’s a tough one. I’m not sure I’m qualified to give you the answers. I know you’ve tried many creative things since you’ve moved in with your parents but you haven’t made money off any of them. Have you even tried? I mean, even something as simple as entering a writing contest or submitting an essay or article to a local newspaper won’t garner much money, but at least it’s a start. Also, and don’t take this the wrong way, but you tend to stay fixated on the past. I don’t think it’s healthy for you. From what I see, the longer you linger in your old photographs and writings, the harder it is for you to push forward. You have so much potential! But it just seems to be wasting away.

Me: [wiping away a tear] Woe! Was that a tear? Weird. But yeah, I know I don’t show it by my actions but I totally see what you’re saying. And we’ve already talked about my work dilemma. It’s possible I can gain some help from the state mental health program. There’s also my parents. Dad said he’d pay for me to return to school, I just need to figure out what I’m going to study. And, to solve that problem, I need to kind of figure out what the end-game will be. So let’s be realistic. What am I capable of and what’s beyond my reach?

Deirdre: I still believe that almost anyone has the ability to achieve what they want to achieve in life. It just takes hard work and perseverance. Just look around. Remember the books I’ve given you over the years?

Me: Let me think – the one about writing by Anne Lamott, the Writer’s Notebook by someone else, the Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory to help me with my songwriting attempts, um, Coaching the Artist Within, and the Robert McKee one about screenwriting. Though I’ve probably missed something somewhere in there.


Deirdre: The point is, the tools you need to do what you want to do in life are within your reach. And you know that, even though we don’t talk much anymore, I’m still routing for you. The one thing you can’t do is just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. I spend my entire day working whether I feel like it or not. If you can’t do the same, you will never succeed. Plain and simple.

Me: I wish I had a boss. You know I’m not much of a self-starter. I’d never have run that marathon years ago had you not pushed me and encouraged me even when I whined and complained. How could you not have been annoyed with me? Never mind. I will figure this out. I’m so glad I talked with you. Have I told you lately how much I love your story? Because you’ve had your share of trials and tribulations too and you’ve emerged victorious! I know you can inspire others. You inspire me.