An Unhappy Birthday

I’ve never really liked birthdays. In fact, I grew up dreading them. My mother almost always forgot the occasion. Relatives I hated swarmed in from out of town. People watching me eat meant I had to eat more. I felt I didn’t deserve any of the presents I received. The passage of time made me anxious about how little I’d accomplished. I frequently spent the day in a hospital of some sort. And then there was the cake.

The cake! Oh god, the cake! The cake was the worst part. I’d spend all year worrying about the cake, planning for the cake, calculating how many calories were in the cake, devising ways to compensate for the cake. A slice of cake had 1000 calories, right? So, if I ate nothing else that day, I could have half a slice and not gain any weight, right? Or I could eat normally and exercise for five hours to burn it off? Or I could purge it? No, that would only get rid of 30% of the calories, providing I did it properly, and I’d still have 666.66 calories in surplus. What if I restricted for two days before? Could I have a whole slice then? Or could I just have a bite? How many calories were in a bite? Or a tiny bit of the frosting? Just a lick! That was my favourite part anyway. But there would be crumbs on the frosting. How would I account for those calories? It wasn’t worth it. I just wouldn’t have any. But I would exercise extra anyway—just in case, to burn off the cake I didn’t eat.

That was my birthday every year, and it was miserable. Like many people, I used birthdays as an opportunity to beat myself up, to get down on myself for all the things I hadn’t done, for everything that I wasn’t. The event emphasised my biggest insecurities—failure and fatness—and I spent the holiday punishing myself for my ‘obesity’ and ‘idiocy’. Needless to say, it was not much of a celebration.

It was my birthday last week, and although my circumstances were not ideal, I tried to make the best of it. I bought myself a book I wanted. I didn’t receive many other gifts, but I’m glad I have this text for my research. I attended two dance classes. They weren’t the challenging jazz ones back home at Pineapple, but they gave me an opportunity to work on my technique. I redeemed my birthday reward for a free drink at Starbucks. Maybe I ordered my hot chocolate with nonfat milk and scraped the whipped cream off in a panic, but at least I challenged my fear of liquid calories. I spent some quality time with my cat Katherine. It was sad not to be in London, but Katherine is so adorable and sweet. I stopped at my favourite bakery. My cake was delicious even though my friends were not there to share it with me. Did I have the best birthday ever? No, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I know that I’m lucky to be alive having this birthday at all.

Birthdays can be hard, I know. You don’t have to like them, and you don’t have to celebrate them. You can treat them like an ordinary day if you want to! Just please, please don’t use them as excuse to hurt yourself–mentally or physically. Acknowledge who you are and where your at. You may not be who or where you want to be, but you are someone, somewhere. I hope you can appreciate that.

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Disclaimer: This cake was from the Saturday before my birthday. I enjoyed a chocolate cake on the day itself, but the icing smudged on the bus trip back to my flat, and consequently I didn’t get any good pictures.

The Will to Survive

I believe in life after death—just not in the religious way. I don’t believe in God or Heaven, in reincarnation or ghosts. No, I believe in something very different. I believe in recovery, hope, and second chances, in the future and the promise of a better life. I believe in miracles, magic, and medicine. I believe in literature, cake, and fairy dust. Most of all, though, I believe in Shakespeare. Let me explain:

When I was seven, I stole a copy of Hamlet from my second grade teacher’s desk because the cover reminded me of orange sherbet; I took it home and acted it out with pieces of bread. I had no clue what was going on, and I recall having to crack open Polonius (an aptly cast dictionary) every other word. Nonetheless, I found myself enchanted; the words mesmerized me, and I wanted nothing more than to be a part of their world. Thus began my lifelong love affair with Shakespeare.

I devoted the next couple years to reading, seeing, and performing as much of the cannon as possible. I’d devoured the comedies (Romances exempted) by the close of fourth grade, and just prior to sixth I used the prize money from my violin competitions to fly to London to see the Globe replica; the following year I played Hermia in my middle school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which led to further performances in school, local, regional, touring, and festival settings. Performing and sharing Shakespeare became my greatest joy, and I vowed to star in the Royal Shakespeare Company someday.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, however, that I was introduced to academia. Ms. Kimberly Horne was lecturing on King Lear, and for the first time in my life I found myself challenged in an English class. Disoriented but intrigued, I practically lived in her office for the duration of the unit, interrogating her about everything from fundamental prosody to textual variation to the role of milk in Shakespearean tragedy. A gifted teacher as well as a brilliant scholar, Ms. Horne gave hours to my cause, talking me through passages, answering my questions, and acquainting me with relevant theorists/criticism. She exposed me to a whole new side of Shakespeare, the academic side, and I loved it; inspired and amazed, I decided to pursue criticism professionally.

I spent the following summer at Harvard with Ms. Horne’s favorite Shakespeare scholar, Dr. Marjorie Garber. The latter was leading two graduate seminars, and I, fresh out of high school, had managed to worm my way into both. The experience was truly transformative. Dr. Garber, the absolute apotheosis of intelligence, revolutionized my views on Shakespeare, literature, and the world. Under her tutelage I learned to read critically, think analytically, write professionally, and speak eloquently. I went into her class a Shakespeare aficionado, but I left a Shakespeare scholar.

A month later, I started my undergraduate education at King’s College London, my so-called “dream school”. It was, in short, a nightmare; my courses were elementary, my lecturers lackluster, and my peers imbeciles. Wasn’t this supposed to be a world-class institution? Were these acclaimed academics capable of nothing more than meager plot summary? Where were the Baby Blooms and Little Lessings I was so hoping to meet (and why did none of my aforesaid classmates comprehend that fairly mainstream allusion?!)? Bored and betrayed, I relapsed into my eating disorder. Starvation supplanted studying, seminars were shirked in favor of trips to the gym, and before I knew it, I had swapped out my degree for a bed at the local A and E. My ill-conceived endeavor at amusement had suddenly spiralled into a devastating deringolade, and by the end of term I was a 30 kg cardiac patient with no hope of a meaningful future. I had lost Shakespeare, my Shakespeare, and I just wanted to die.

Anorexia nearly killed me. It stopped my heart, ruined my life, and left me for dead, but somehow, somewhere, I found the will to survive. I had the one thing stronger than anorexia’s desire for thinness, and that was my love for Shakespeare. So armed with my Norton Anthology, I decided to fight; I packed up my critical collection, withdrew from university, and returned to America to get the help I so desperately needed. Two years, four cardiac rehabilitation courses, seven doctors, and nineteen kilograms later, I can now say I have recovered from anorexia. I am currently writing two academic articles, preparing a lecture circuit, and compiling a curriculum for an forthcoming symposium. I will also be returning to university this Fall. I have future, a rather bright one at that!

Anorexia is in my past now. It has to be. There are plays to read and books to write. So thank you to University College London for giving me a second chance, Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop for the most amazing cake, and William Shakespeare for saving my life. This year is going to be LIT(erary).

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Brownie Sundae

In honour of Father’s Day, here’s an essay I wrote a couple years ago about my dad’s death:

There were dead people in the letters. Birds’ nests braided, golden, in the hollow of the O and around the corners of the H, and the dead people walked through them, tiny at first, tiny as they slipped through the toothpick-thin cracks in the concrete, as they spun between the letters and out into the heavy air. That’s when they disappeared, dissolved, disintegrated. They became part of the bubblegum blue sky, the tissue paper clouds, and the grass–the parched, the yellow, the grass, the grass with its life all hacked and sucked away.

What was it like to die? Was it like getting your ears pierced? Just a pinch! Was it sweet like eating a brownie? Was it like jumping into Barton Springs in December?

The dirt was slippery, quite, and grainy, and dry. That’s because it hadn’t rained in ages. (I was fine with that. I mean, I didn’t want it to rain tomorrow. Rain would ruin the Keep Austin Weird parade.) Hey, that’s why–why the grass was dead.

“We’re near TCBY, right?” I asked, tired of standing on the dirt by the side of a busy road, surrounded by suffocated grass, looking at the lettering on the side of an ugly, grey building.

“I–” The grumbling of a passing car gobbled up the rest of the nameless  family friend’s sentence.

“My dad would let me have ice cream,” I crossed my arms defensively.

An old, silvery woman with skin like a wet paper bag had just peered out from behind the L.

“Are you sure you want ice cream?”

“Um, duh.” What kind of question was that?

We got in the car. The doors, as they shut, clicked like the trigger of a gun. “Here,” I took out my phone, my nine-year-old self’s prized possession, which looked rather like an enlarged green jellybean, “I’ll call my dad.” I said that like it was such an imposition. “He’d let me have ice cream.”

The phone rang. There was no answer. I tried again.

We weren’t moving; it wasn’t the 5:30 traffic; he hadn’t started the car. “I promise,” I whined, impatiently slamming my fingers onto the phone’s plastic buttons. “My dad takes me to TCBY every day.” That wasn’t entirely true. (We went almost everyday, but only when I had practiced violin for an hour and twenty minutes and only if we rode our bikes around the block and down the steep Far West hill to our destination.)

“Stop.” He said quietly; he sounded like his mouth was stuffed with cotton balls.

“Stop what?”

“Stop calling him.”

“Why?” He wasn’t going to get me the ice cream. I could feel it.

“He’s not going to pick up.”

The nameless family friend sounded so serious. It wasn’t a big deal. My dad was probably just brazenly taking the Band-Aid off his knee–why would he even need it? he just fell off a bike!–or signing the discharge papers. He’d meet us there. “He’d even pay you back.”

I heard a “fine,” a defeated, muffled “fine.” The red car turned on, and the engine spat golden-orange, glowing sparks. We drove away from the building, from the faces in the lettering, down the highway, and past a screeching ambulance. The dead people faded into red, and then into grey, then into white. They were just dead people, dead people in the letters, getting fainter, getting lighter, getting softer, as we got farther and farther from them.

It did not occur to me that at 6:53PM there would be crooked, yellow teeth, a mustache, and a white bicycle in the crevice on the letter P, bicycling, bicycling in circles, bicycling up and down. As we drove, the family friend and I, in the maroon car towards the swirls of frozen yogurt and the fountains of sprinkles, they–the corpses–looked down, placid, knowing, watching. They smiled; they smiled, because they knew, the dead people in the letters.