The Goddess of Flowers
(Washington Post, 7/11/2004)

This Thanksgiving, This Ramadan
(Washington Post, 11/11/2002)

A World of Difference
(Washington Post, 9/6/2002)

On Recognition and Nation
(Washington Post, 9/30/2001)

$125 For My Thoughts?
(, 2/10/2000)


$125 For My Thoughts?, 2/10/2000

Last year I received an e-mail from a student in my online fiction-writing class saying she'd discovered a Web site she thought I'd find "gratifying." I was instantly intrigued, rarely having received anything gratifying from a writing student before. The URL she gave me turned out to be a bookstore in New England that sold first editions and signed copies. And, indeed, the site had a listing for a signed copy of my novel, "Arabian Jazz." Innocent enough, I supposed, if I let go of the instant grudge-thought that some book collector had flattered me into signing a hardcover and then turned a nice little profit on it. But then I looked closer at the listing and found that the bookshop had sweetened the deal by including with my novel a collection of "seven long personal letters detailing the author's educational and work experiences while pursuing her Ph.D." These letters, the listing promised, would reveal "details of her hopes and plans, her frequent moves, her marriage and divorce, her loves and adventures."

And I wasn't even dead!

After reeling with mixed astonishment and skepticism at the thought that I'd ever had "loves and adventures," I recovered enough to see that they wanted $125 for the packaged set. I then vacillated between feeling flattered that someone thought my old letters could fetch anything at all and insulted that my hopes and plans and loves and adventures — whatever they might turn out to be — amounted to a mere $125 on the open market.

Always up for an adventure, my boyfriend, Scotty (he comes after the marriage and divorce), called and spoke to the bookseller with a shameless pseudo-English accent, pretending to be a collector. The bookseller — who you might think would be eager to unload an item with a vaguely sinister if not outright black-market provenance — refused to negotiate or to sell the letters alone for a flat $100. But he was an amiable enough sort, and he was quick to reveal the source of the letters: my old college advisor.

Like anyone who's ever discovered that a secret is out, I immediately started kicking myself: Why did I trust that guy? My advisor, now retired, had been the head of the writing program at State University of New York at Oswego. Formerly of the CIA or the Green Berets — I forget which — he taught his poetry class by reading our sonnets and villanelles out loud while slamming out the beat with a yardstick on his desk. Sometimes he would march in place at the same time. Why did I ever write letters about my loves and adventures to this lunatic?

I've decided that it had little to do with him — it was the very act of writing letters that seduced me. I had always trusted letters; they were magical to me. Every person I addressed on paper became an idealized recipient: good, kind, generous, forbearing. Sitting down to write a letter would put me in mind of my grandmother, who would arrive at our house with a layer of correspondence lying in wait at the bottom of her suitcase. These were not her letters to me, but rather letters I'd written to her, each of them covered in red ink. She corrected my letters! After the unpacking of the suitcases and the distributing of the multifarious cakes and cookies she had lugged onto the Greyhound bus, we would sit at the small desk in my bedroom while Gram went over my pre-teen ramblings line by line and quizzed me: "Now, how do you spell 'Popsicle'?" In these letters to Gram, I learned how to squeeze the nectar of news out of the daily banalities of elementary school. And it wasn't just the content of letters that was intriguing, I soon discovered, but also their form — the stationery, the ink, the particular penmanship that elevated each missive into an article of intimacy and disclosure, an ever-renewing pact between friends.

Besides my grandmother, I never expected anyone to save all my letters (as I do theirs, guiltily — even two-word Christmas and thank-you cards — toting bursting trunks of yellowing pages through my frequent moves). But I didn't expect anyone to sell them either. I considered writing a curt letter to my treacherous ex-advisor, attaching a little price tag? maybe $5.98 — in the upper corner. But my native sloth got the best of my sense of injustice and outrage, and for a while I neglected to do anything at all about it.

Two weeks later a package arrived from UPS. Scotty signed for it and handed it to me, even though his name was on it. A present, he said. And it was: There were the letters, all seven of them. The first one dated from a time when I still referred to the ex-advisor by title ("Mr." He never did finish his Ph.D.) and I still wrote in cursive: big, round, earnest loops. The loves and adventures chronicled were long-forgotten dates: a trip to an apple orchard, an excursion to a beach. As far as my hopes and plans went, I asked the ex-advisor a naive question about the difference between writing for love and writing for money. There were several mentions of grad-school teachers who'd encouraged me to drop out, move to New York City or Hollywood, and do something more fabulous than they were doing. There was even the startling but quickly discarded notion of writing for the National Enquirer. I also wrote about buying a word processor, starting to teach and a few other mundane matters.

I was delighted, for once, to see how uneventful my life had been.

Since then, I've mulled over what could possibly have moved my ex-advisor to sell my letters. Certainly he didn't make all that much from the sale. It seems like hawking your hair or fingernails: something you don't want to do until you pretty much have to. And even then, it strikes me that some outdated notion of loyalty or sentiment would make such a transaction feel, at least, inconvenient. But perhaps he never thought of me at all. It's possible that the activity of letter-writing has come to seem so anachronistic or quaint that, like certain antiques, people traffic in them not so much for their function or beauty as for their whimsy, personality, the whiff they give off of a fading history.

While I still can't quite get over a lingering indignation that my boyfriend had to pay to get my words back — a sort of demented twist on self-publishing — I've learned, more literally than I ever wanted to, the value of keeping quiet. I haven't had the heart to confront the ex-advisor, now referred to in our household simply as Snidely, or Mr. Whiplash. But I tell myself that the twin gods of bad conscience and bad karma may have struck pangs in his heart more efficiently than I ever could have done, and that's comforting. And I reassure myself that, as far as my grandmother was concerned, red corrections were one thing, but not writing back was always the worst punishment.

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