Here are two of my personal essays, “The Jungle in Me” and “A Woman’s Belly.” I read the first aloud at the Tasty Words essay show in Santa Monica.
[WANT TO REPRINT EITHER OF THESE ESSAYS ON YOUR NOT-FOR-PROFIT SITE OR BLOG? You may, but only if you also include a byline (i.e., “by Nomi Isak”) and the following: “Copyright 2013 by Nomi Isak. All rights reserved— https://writingcoachnomi.wordpress.com.”]
The Jungle in Me
By the age of seven, I was spending as much time as possible either naked or upside down. I ran around the backyard in a loincloth, pretending the nubby, sunburnt grass was tall river reeds or jungle undergrowth. I was trying to commune with my native land—my true home—the land of Anywhere-but-Here.
I was sure I’d been born into the wrong family, on the wrong continent, and definitely in the wrong heritage. My true people were jungle people and did not eat salami and chicken schmaltz together in one sandwich; nor did they triple-lock the door after opening it half a second for Elijah during a supposed celebration of freedom. No, my true people swung naked from vines and lived without locks, and sometimes even without doors.
And Los Angeles— What kind of place was that for a jungle child? The tract housing and smog and the lack of wild animals were all an affront to my innate aesthetic. I craved deep green, dappled sunlight, and the smell of mud. Old mud, where the leaves had never seen a rake, where the layers of decomposing organic matter were ancient—prehistoric.
At school I spent my recess hanging upside down on the playground, transforming the metal high-bar into a gnarled vine. Or sometimes I’d lie on the ground on my belly and watch ants deconstruct the pavement, one grain at a time. I rooted for the ants, as well as for the weeds that grew up through cracks in the blacktop. Deep down, I knew nature would win out . . . or maybe that feeling deep in my belly was the fear that nature would lose.
When I was thirteen, my family was blessed with a windfall. My mom’s writing career had finally ripened, and it landed her in television. There was now enough money to remodel the house.
During rebuilding, my dad’s pet orange tree was to be saved, but the avocado tree would have a different fate. The avocado tree stood strong and tall—clear above the roof. My brother and I had shimmied along its branches and had built a tree house—twice. I had scraped myself many times on its bark; my skin knew its skin intimately. I didn’t even mind that the tree didn’t produce avocados—something about its gender. I loved that tree for the space it took up in my life.
“Can’t we build around it?” I asked. “Can’t we make a sort of glass atrium that stands in the middle of the living room?” My parents seriously considered the idea, but the contractor won out. “It’ll leak,” he said. That was his favorite response to any of the unusual ideas presented to him.
A stained-glass window?
An outdoor shower to wash off the sand from the beach?
Leak or no, the avocado tree was scheduled to be removed. Removed. To my sensitive jungle-ear, the term sounded like something a Mafia don would say about his double-crossing brother-in-law: “Remove him. Rip him out by the roots. Leave no trace.”
The hit men were supposed to arrive on Wednesday. But hit men are, by nature, unpredictable. On Tuesday, I was walking home from school, and from four houses away, I heard a new power tool. There’d been plenty of power tools since the remodel had begun, but this one was different. This one had teeth.
Adrenaline shot upward in my chest and my heart sank. I hesitated a moment, then turned around and took off, no destination in mind. I ran until my legs and lungs ached. I ran until the buzz of the chainsaw no longer lit up the air. I stayed away until well after dark—risking my parents’ angry panic. I had to be sure the deed had been completed and the men were gone before I could return home.
When, finally, I was too hungry to wait any longer, I headed slowly back. I would come in through the front door and would not go in the backyard for several weeks. If I didn’t look at the emptiness where my tree had stood, I could believe for a while longer that nature had a chance. That my connection to my roots—my true jungle roots—had not been severed.
Now, three decades later, I still find myself drawn upward into the branches of trees. I plant any pit or seed that has started to sprout in a fruit I’ve bitten into. And—as often as not—you’ll find me with rich, dark soil under my fingernails.
In the yard I share with neighbors, there’s a 25-foot jacaranda tree that I planted several years back as a spindly three-foot sapling. All summer, its leafy, rich green graces the windows of my second-story apartment, cooling my afternoon naps with dappled sunlight. In spring, a wild celebration of purple blooms saturates the view from my bedroom, often stopping me in my tracks and filling me with wonder that such beauty is possible.
I’d like to say my story ends there. But it doesn’t.
The two buildings that make up this apartment complex are scheduled to be razed. Built in their place will be ultra-modern condos that my landlord loves to describe—especially the part about his plans to sell them for a million-point-four a piece.
In the lush yard between the two old buildings, where my jacaranda reaches for the sky, I catch my landlord as he passes through the yard on a garbage run, and I find myself digging for old phrases: “Don’t you think it would be cool to build one of the condos with an atrium in the living room?”
My landlord shakes his head, cans and bottles jangling in his garbage bag. “Not really.”
I try another tack: “Maybe a small yard with a tree would increase the property value.”
But he knows better. This yard’s value will jump a million dollars with a condo standing on it.
I call a tree company to come out and “evaluate” the jacaranda. This company removes large trees alive, roots intact, and sells them to landscapers. “It’s a beautiful tree,” the guy from the tree company says. Something in his tone tells me he’s preparing me for bad news. “Landscapers want trees with four faces.” Four faces? I have seen many more than four faces in this tree. I have seen hundreds of faces in a single glance out my window into the feathery green of her. The tree guy indicates the bend in the trunk, how it gracefully grows off to one side—apparently robbing the tree of two or three of its faces.
“But it’s a beautiful tree,” he assures me before he leaves.
“Do you want it—personally?” I call after him. “It’s only had three years of full spring-time bloom.” I feel like a mother selling her teenaged daughter into slavery, knowing full-well that I’ll never see her again. But a mother will do anything to keep her child alive.
The night before I vacate my apartment, I sit in the jacaranda, remembering when she was a skinny little sapling that had outgrown her pot. The decision to put her into the ground was not made lightly. I don’t own this land, I’d thought. Anything could happen. But to deprive her of her rightful place in the earth seemed wrong. Now I caress her smooth branches, letting the fullness of her limbs fill my palm. “I’m so sorry,” I say quietly into her bark. “I don’t know what else to do.”
I know that once I leave I won’t come back. Even if she survives one last spring, I’ll forego her final explosion of flowers, followed by a steady purple snow upon the grass.
At least don’t cut her down while she’s in bloom, I want to say. But instead I just sit quietly one last time among her branches, letting her limbs have my weight.
A Woman’s Belly
Men have an easier time looking like men than women do.
Women run miles further, kick box and spin and sweat hours longer, eat more pounds of undressed salad, just to see their bellies grow taut.
If God had wanted women to have taut, flat bellies, he (or she?) would have found some other place to put the uterus. (It doesn’t make good engineering sense to put an organ that can expand a thousand times its original size behind something as unyielding as a washboard.) Yet we do our daily crunches and fight the five “extra” pounds with the ferocity of an anti-terrorist unit.
I grew up Hollywood-adjacent, hating my curves and slow, dark curls. I live in the land of beach volleyball looking like a bohemian with brains—preferring reading and moving slowly through Nature to step aerobics and shin splints. Yet I’m not unaffected by the images around me—the seven-story billboard blonds with jeans unzipped to reveal boyish bellies; magazine headlines that urge us: “Lose Your Butt. Annihilate Your Tummy.”
We collectively have forgotten the exquisite functionality of our curves. We just want our mirrors to match the magazine covers. “If only I looked like her, I could finally like myself and get on with my life.”
Even some men have fallen under the spell. My dear friend Benjamin has an obsession with perfection in a woman’s body. Or is it perfection? Benjamin owns and runs a women’s clothing store. Shortly after he opened his business, he invited me to come in during off hours and choose any three items on the house. I was touched, but doubted I’d find much that appealed to me. I prefer the functional and the comfortable to the latest trappings of the hip and the cool. And Benjamin’s store is hipper and cooler than most.
But this was not a usual shopping trip. I didn’t even have to bring money. Somehow this freed me up, and what was normally a task for me became playful. I was like a kid in her mother’s closet, pretending to be someone else. It didn’t hurt that I was particularly fit at the time—having rediscovered the pleasure of yoga and dance the previous year. I tried on one trendy outfit after another, actually liking what I saw in the mirror. I even dared to don a dress that was oh-so-much-sexier than anything I’d ever worn. The material was slinky and quivered with every move I made, the dress hugging and releasing my figure as I turned. In the mirror, the lines were smooth—my usual bulge-dip-bulge at the hips on hiatus. I turned sideways. Slender and sleek—even my belly was flatter than usual. This was a rare experience for me to approve this much of my body, and I was enjoying it.
I exited the dressing room and found Benjamin. He turned from the stacks of folded jeans he’d been reshelving. He smiled when he saw me in the dress. Then he motioned for me to turn, and I did—180 degrees. “Nice,” he said, then directed me to turn so he could see me from the side.
“Hmm,” Benjamin said when I’d displayed my lateral view. He was no longer smiling. “Sweetie,” he said gently, “this is tricky fabric. The problem is it shows every imperfection.”
At first I thought he was referring to an imperfection in the fabric itself. Then I realized he meant me—an imperfection in my body. The realization sunk to the bottom of my being like a waterlogged stick in a pond. This was the closest I’d ever come to embodying the Southern California ideal, and still I hadn’t measured up.
Concealing my humiliation as best I could, I prodded him for details. “My hips are pretty smooth now . . . aren’t they?”
Benjamin nodded. “Mm hm.”
I lowered my voice, even though the store was empty except for us: “Can you see my underwear lines?”
He searched for the words, his eyes looking up into his mental dictionary of gentle let-downs.
“Just tell me,” I insisted. The suspense was worse than anything he could possibly say.
Benjamin patted his boy-flat abdomen. “You really can’t have a belly with a dress like that.”
I weighed 115 pounds at 5’5”. I danced and did yoga and hiked every week. I’d even been doing ab crunches. But it wasn’t enough. I was inherently unfit for a dress like this. I hung my head and returned to the dressing room. In the fight for perfection, the slinky fabric had won. I returned the dress to the rack and chose a stiff, tailored shift and a couple of pairs of jeans.
But as I pushed open the door to leave, something stopped me. Something kept me from walking out of the store and back to my car with my humdrum bounty. Benjamin had said, “Choose any three items you want.” Not “any three items I approve of.” I was not one of his girlfriends; I didn’t have to pass inspection. I rushed back into the store and yanked the slinky dress from the rack. On the way out, I dropped the folded shift on the counter and called to Benjamin in the back, “I just forgot something. Thanks again!” I would try the dress on again at home. Maybe it would look better under different lighting. I would ask three other opinions before I wore it out of the house. Worse come to worse, I could always double the number of ab crunches.
* * *
A full year passed before I had the courage to wear that dress in public. A guy I was dating—Sean—asked if I had anything sexy to wear to a special party. On automatic, I said no. Then I remembered the slinky dress hanging somewhere in the depths of my closet.
“Well, maybe,” I said. “I’m not sure.” My uncertainty wasn’t about whether the dress was sexy, but whether I was sexy in the dress. I now weighed 120 pounds, and I’d given up on the ab crunches. I was still in pretty good shape, but my belly was hardly a washboard.
“Show me,” said Sean.
I made him wait in the living room while I changed into the dubious slinky dress. I looked in the mirror from straight on; if I took in a side view I’d never leave the closet. Before I opened the bedroom door, I took a deep breath.
When I walked into the living room, Sean’s eyes widened. After a moment of silent staring, he said, “Wow.”
“Wow,” he said again.
I was careful to conceal my lateral view, keeping my front view toward him, like a sunflower following the sun. But I knew I couldn’t keep this up all evening. There was no way I could keep my front to every person at the party—not unless I kept my back to the wall. Sunflower turned wall flower.
“I don’t think I’m comfortable wearing this,” I said and turned quickly—180 degrees—ready to retreat to my closet to find another outfit.
“Wait,” said Sean, “I’m not done looking at you.” He put his hands on my shoulders and turned me around. Slowly.
Game’s up, I thought. He’d surely seen what Benjamin had pointed out a year before. I never should have taken home this dress. I was sure Sean was thinking, “The girl doesn’t know what she can and can’t get away with.” But, to my amazement, Sean said, “Do you know how hot you look?”
Sean’s approval gave me the courage to wear the dress to the party. Several times during the evening, I noticed him watching me—biting his lower lip, his drink half-way to his mouth. I never once felt the need to check the bathroom mirror; Sean offered a far more encouraging reflection. By the end of the night, I was loose-hipped and sassy.
“What I like most about this,” Sean said later that night, as he touched the slinky fabric, “is that it shows how much of a woman you are.” He ran his hand over my hip, then across the soft curve of my belly. “I like this,” he said.
* * *
It wasn’t the fabric that had been a problem when I’d tried on the dress in Benjamin’s store. Nor had the problem been any of the imperfections of my body. My dear friend Benjamin had simply learned what the billboards were teaching: When it comes to our bellies, a male exemplar is the gauge for perfection.
I am still surprised when a man confesses his predilection for something softer, a bit of roundness, for my upbringing in the land of sun and sleek bodies has helped form my aesthetic. But there’s room for my aesthetic to expand. To broaden enough to embrace the exquisite functionality of my curves.
I have been slender and fit most of my life and still my belly reveals my secret: I am not a man. My soft low belly yearns to precede me, stretched to the limit with new life—forever holding its breath. Waiting to receive.
[WANT TO REPRINT EITHER OF THESE ESSAYS ON YOUR SITE, BLOG, OR IN YOUR E-ZINE? You may, but only if you also include a byline (i.e., “by Nomi Isak”) and the following: “Copyright 2013 by Nomi Isak. All rights reserved— https://writingcoachnomi.wordpress.com.”]