GeGe & MeiMei, Part Two

Our feet at the beach in Rio 1999

Our feet at the beach in Rio 1999


The other lessons that came from Alexander were cultural. One day, sometime in the mid eighties, while waiting for the bus in Brooklyn, Alexander turned to me and gravely stated: “Promise me, Zoë, that you will never wear designer jeans.” I asked him why, and he said, “just promise me.” So I promised him. I didn’t figure that one out until a few years later. The ironic thing is the only designer jeans I have ever owned is a pair of turquoise Calvin Klein jeans that I had picked out and Alexander bought me as a birthday present three years ago.

And then there was the time I was sitting in my room, and Alexander walked in with a new record. It was David Bowie’s Changes. He showed it to me, and I asked him who it was, and he said David Bowie. I told him I thought he was a girl. And he said, well he’s not. Then he put the record on and I was transfixed. 

When Alexander was in college, he majored in religion and philosophy. He was very interested in Buddhism, as well as other eastern thought. I was a senior in high school at the time, and curious about Buddhism--he recommended that I read the book “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula. I read it and recognized what the buddha taught to be truth. But I also knew that I was not ready to transcend my ego. I knew I was still addicted to the highs and lows that ego attachment brings, and that I had I would return to Buddhism later in life.

A year later, I was to go to Beijing for a summer with my high school Chinese class to do a summer course in Chinese language. While I was preparing for my trip, and starting to feel anxious about going so far away, Alexander tried to give me courage. He said, I have three pieces of advise for you about your time in China: “1) Don’t bring your walkman. 2) Speak as much Chinese as you can. 3) Stay aware.” I actually can’t remember if I followed the first piece of advice, but I did follow the second one. I pushed through my fears, and struck up conversations with Chinese people as much as I could. I even made some Chinese friends. But number 3 is a piece of advice from Buddha, via Alexander, that has been with me my whole life. The experience of being aware, being the observer, not only of others, but of my own thoughts, actions and interactions, has led to much wisdom and relief from suffering. It is a wonderful piece of advice for teenager (who can be so self conscious).

During a summer visit from college, my brother introduced me to yoga. This was still the 1980‘s when people still aerobisized. I didn’t know anyone else who did yoga. He would practice his poses on the porch of our house in the Berkshires daily, and I found it fascinating to watch. I took black and white photographs and wrote a poem about it called Yoga in Earshot. A year later, I bought a book on yoga, and started doing headstands in college. I have continued to practice for all these years.

In high school, the influence that my brother had on me made me feel different from people, and sometimes alienated. He initiated me into the world of cultural criticism and spirituality. He inspired me to be rigorous in my thinking and to question everything. He became an anthropologist, sublimating his personal cultural alienation into a discipline of social science. And I became a therapist/artist, sublimating my sensitivity and emotionality into artmaking and helping others. 

We have visited each other or traveled together in many parts in the world, including: Kenya, Tanzania, France, China, Vietnam, Brazil, Holland and Mexico. And now, in some ways, we are going in opposite directions--I have become a sort of society drop out, while at the same time using my memory and knowledge and personal experience to engage in a cultural dialogue. And him, a professor and writer in Amsterdam, living an urban plugged in life with all the bourgeois trappings. We are each going our own paths, influencing each other along the way. As I go, I continue to see all the little and big ways that Alexander’s early lessons have stayed with me. And now, more than ever. I probably won’t ever use Algebra or Latin ever again, and I do hope to play more basketball, but as I look at my life, I am continually reminded of his ideological and intellectual influence. He helped build my school confidence, and encouraged my development as an emotional spiritual intellectual. To illustrate his kind of influence, I will end with an excerpt from the personal statement I wrote for my undergraduate college application, which was an excerpt from my journal (which had only one section.) 

And now I know everyone needs a voice, each person has her own but she needs another to feed on. Another to accept hers and expand its possibilities, to go beyond what is expected. I know that no one at high school is that voice. Alexander is that voice. And even though I have discovered his voice is not always perfect, not always consistent, it is alive. It is there. Not everyone has, or knows they have, or knows they need a voice. A voice of love, of understanding, of influence. I know my own voice follows love; love of the abstract, the personal, the unique… I need a reason to be voice. It has to be person, someone to speak to me… a voice that speaks to mine… My dream is to be a voice. Maybe it is a voice that quivers or that is shy, sensitive, or silly, but it is a voice that communicates.

Okay, now we’re going to the beach.