Bohemians and bread.
Two words on my mind this past week, both laden with layered meanings, so much so that their original meaning are almost obscured.
I remember the first time I encountered the word "boho"-- used outside the context of a fashion magazine at any rate. I was wearing a dress I'd made myself out of an old skirt, and a girl at a party said to me, "I don't know. Isn't boho-chic out? That's what the magazines say." Now, I know in the context of "magazines" and "party", an image of some really sophisticated mean girl might spring to mind, skewing this story, but that girl wasn't being mean. Or not intentionally so. She had a Moaning Myrtle quality-- borrowing Harry Potter shorthand to arrive at my character description here, which is a cheap trick but bear with me. Anyway, I didn't take her comments to heart. Mostly, she made me grateful I'd lived in New York, where (and I think the experience is duplicated in any large city) peacocking display is not confined to a magazine but tangible in the streets, where no rules truly apply beyond those of swagger and style.
But we weren't in New York and that experience at a dull party in the suburbs-- in a basement drinking beer out of red cups and refusing to play beer pong again-- was only memorable, because it made me HATE the word "boho" and refuse to ever use it (until now).
But Bohemian? Does that word have the same whiff of fashion magazine fold-out perfume stinking it up now, too? Does "Bohemian" mean anything anymore beyond a style trend? Has our culture's love of meaningless fashion labels stripped the word of its original, chic-or-not-chic-free origins?
And that actually brings me to "bread"-- another word that's lost its original meaning: the staff of life. Nowadays, it's more like "the bane of existence".
I was at a rehearsal dinner recently where delicious but tiny portions of food were served. Starving, I gnawed the roll on my bread plate, eyeing the tempting untouched rolls on the bread plates of every other New York City girl at the table.
I guess I am now a Philly girl, and we eat bread.
Perhaps not coincidentally I was the only girl with a considerably-sized ass at the table. Then, in the same spirit that made me turn to my husband reading in bed one night and say in a demon voice, "Ned Stark dies" I set those girls up. "Gosh, I'm so hungry I could eat your bread, too." That sounds pretty innocuous, except I knew pointing out they wouldn't eat their bread because it was bread was me pointing out... well, they wouldn't eat bread, period, and that they were silly. That was my version of being mean. (Although the Ned Stark thing is the meanest thing I've ever done.)
"Oh, I love bread," one painfully thin girl said, her clavicle sharp as a bread knife, so at least more likely to have direct contact with bread than any other part of her. "I just ate so much bread today."
Let me tell you from bread-lovers. There is not a bread-lover on this planet who would not have at least nibbled a wee nibble from that golden, crusty, soft but hard, delicious decadent piece of oven-warmed heaven on their plate, especially on a cloudy day on the shore when fresh fish is being served in a white sauce, and... I'm making myself hungry.
"I'd rather have a tiny ass than a nice face," another girl at the table moaned later after telling us she'd given up smoking.
"Oh totally," my neighbor agreed, her bread whisked away by a waiter before I could make good on my threat.
"But, but..."I stuttered as if, like Hodor, my brain could only champion one cause at time. (Sorry for the pun.) The next night, at the wedding, the seating chart punished us with each other again, and no one, including the self-professed bread-lover, ate their bread. Again. Even the New York men didn't eat their bread. It was like the bread was now the equivalent of what kale garnish used to be when we were growing up:something vaguely edible and decorative but not entirely palatable.
I was forced to conclude loving bread has become more subversive than calling yourself a Bohemian. I made the link, because, in my weekly selection of stories from the New Yorker's archive, emailed to me every week as part of my subscription, this introduction to "Bohemians" made me curious to explore what Bohemia means now and if it still exists as a state of mind.
First, here's the description of the old Bohemians:
'“To be young, to be fond of pleasure, to care nothing for worldly prosperity, to scorn mere respectability, and to rebel against rigid rule,—these are the qualities which alone may be regarded as essential to constitute the Bohemian.” That’s how the WestminsterReview, a British journal, defined Bohemianism in 1862. It’s striking how much that definition still rings true—and yet it leaves out the seriousness and nobility of the Bohemian enterprise. Bohemians reject conventionality the way artists paint over their canvasses; they erase because it feels good, but also so they can make something new. The Left Bank Bohemians of nineteenth-century Paris (where the term originated) would recognize in the Bushwick Bohemians of today that common sense of purpose.'
I'm not so sure where they got the last part: in my experience, most of my friends from Brooklyn regard those so-called "Bushwick Bohemians" as an invasive, gentrifying species akin to the kudzu vine razing forests in the American South. I kept searching, hoping Bohemians still exist as more than just a fashion label.
If you Google, "new Bohemians" the search results are varied, unhelpful, and amusing. There's a band called Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians. I'd never heard of them, but I've heard their most famous song plenty of times. Plenty. Of. Times. (It's a good song, I'm sure, but sticks in my head. I hate that.) Although I do like the bridge and the chorus. I'm not really sure what's Bohemian about it, either, except that it makes fun of philosophy and religion, and the refrain kind of reminds me of a Donald Trump speech, "I know what I know, if you know what I mean."
There's also a new book out called "The New Bohemians". Not sure what's truly "Bohemian" about it, either, as in the spirit of wiping away the old to create the new, except that it does sound visually sumptuous and creative in terms of decor.
"Designer, artist and all around rad human Justina Blakeney just released her long awaited book The New Bohemians and boy, is it good. The 300 page bohemian bible showcases the homes of 20 creatives in cities all over the country – each with with interior style that is free of rules and full of spirit – as well as twelve amazing DIY projects and a Plant-O-Pedia, which explains every plant in the book and how to care for it! Justina has also divided the homes into six glorious chapters, redefining the different kinds of bohemians: the modern bohemian who favors clean lines and functionality, the folksy bohemian who is distinguished by stories of family and tradition through art and artifacts, the earthy bohemian who lets plants take center stage, the romantic bohemian who possesses a sense of sweet nostalgia, the nomadic bohemian whose home is like the grand bazaar, and the maximal boho who believes in more is more. I’m a folksy bohemian through and through. What kind of new bohemian [sic] are you?"
What kind of new Bohemian am I? No, no, no, no, no!
I don't mean to sound like a snob, but I really don't want to label myself as folksy bohemian or earthy bohemian.
Once upon a time I wanted this, exactly this, instead: "Bohemia is a district in the Department of the Seine bordered on the north by cold, on the west by hunger, on the south by love, and on the east by hope"
Finally, eschewing the new and embracing the old, I look up, "What is a Bohemian", and I find this fantastic blog immediately and the stunning portrait of this woman with the severe gaze of a goddess below. "Bohemians", I am told, "are known for their vagabond lifestyle, for their merry poverty, for their disregard of money for the pursuit of music, color, and relationships. They are groups that have different priorities than the dominant cultures of their societies, groups that inspire both disdain and envy.
Disdain and envy. What a combination. Actually, it made me think of my table at that wedding as those girls watched me gorge on carbs and augment my ass. So disdain then because Bohemians eschew aspirational living? And envy... why? Who envies the poor? (The New Bohemian is decidedly not poor.)
Can there be more to this human experiment than an attempt at full material saturation? I tried being a true Bohemian once myself and nearly starved, but, funnily enough, those difficult, challenging, restless days in my tiny apartment in the East Village without health insurance or a couch or a car or enough money to buy mustard, are the days I dream of all the time. I can't really imagine returning to that kind of feckless existence now that I have children, but there's something to say for living with your head in the clouds, so long as you keep your feet grounded. It seems to me the old idea is busted anyway-- New Bohemians are just girls in jangly earrings. And Boho...? I can't even go there. But the spirit on high and the bread-bloated body grounded below: maybe we can come up with a new, living, un-archived, un-label-worthy word for that.
My very short poem "Bohemian Days" explores the question, and that time in my life, in a more succinct way. You can read it here. It's also included in my collection available on Amazon here.
Wearing a thrifted Ella Moss dress and thrifted Hudson rain boots both from Greene Street Consignment on Main Street in Manayunk, Philadelphia. The necklace is from a vintage-sustainable designer in San Francisco. Check out her beautiful Etsy shop filled with whimsical designs here.
Mother's Day seems like a good day to ask myself this question: what does it mean to be a good mother?
Actually, that's a question I've never worried about too much, because, having worked with a lot of children with truly terrible parents, parents who ran the gamut from drinking to verbal abuse to emotional absence, I happen to know I'm a good enough mother and that is worth its weight in gold. I am present, and I am loving, and, in my opinion, that's what it takes.
So, although the trailer to Bad Moms doesn't look like it's going to be earth-shattering or even that good, I maybe watched it ten thousand times already, and I cannot wait to giggle through that crap film. And I know it's going to be a Hollywood movie. It's going to be Vacation but with moms and no dads or a rom com minus the rom. That's just how it is these days, and that's no conspiracy theory as this Slate article lays out in fascinating terms. (Incidentally, that's also why my husband prefers television to movies, although I am trying to get him into independent films, but that's another story.)
Regardless, I'm still excited for this non-earth-shattering, same 15 key-story-beats story, because I have had it up the wazoo with mommy culture already, and it has only been three years and my daughter hasn't even started school yet, officially.
Only three years ago, I had no idea mommy culture was even a thing. In fact, I had this naive fantasy that now that I was so in love with this tiny creature still tucked into my tummy, I was going to have this magical bond with all the other parents who felt that same seismic shift in perspective. We were all going to be best friends and braid daisies in our hair and skip through Prospect Park, singing "Wheels on the Bus" and other embarrassing daydreams of utopia.
Then, my daughter was born, and she couldn't nurse. Her jaw receded, and she couldn't latch. I was devastated. I consulted lactation consultants, not consultant. I pumped. I cried. I tried so hard. For months. She just did not want to nurse, so I decided to stop stressing. I gave her formula, and she thrived, and I tried to heal and focus on other aspects of this new parenting experience. Then, I went to my first mommy support group in Brooklyn, and those bitches destroyed me. The group was so large, we were subdivided by birth month, and there were still more than a hundred of us in our group. I went in with an open heart, excited to meet other new moms with babies the same age as my daughter. An email went around arranging a meet-up in a cafe in Park Slope. It was easy to spot us; we didn't need rose buttonholes. These were my new peeps-- a coven of chubby women with newborn babies in slings, some of them pulling their boobs out directly over my latte to nurse and then forgetting and leaving their breast dripping milk into my coffee cup, and I am not making that up. There was something about this group that made me repress the smart-alecky joke that naturally came to my lips. Instead, I tried to make myself equally comfortable and pulled out a bottle to feed my baby, so I could hang out longer.
I might as well have taken a viper out and thrown it in the middle of the table and then asked who wanted to toss their infant into the makeshift, milky arena first.
"Um," one of the mothers piped up helpfully, "you know, studies show babies' brain development is affected by whether or not they get breast milk?"
Oh, really, uptalker? Thank you so much for that helpful tidbit. I have LITERALLY NEVER HEARD THAT BREAST IS BEST. Wait, stop the presses! What a helpful mnemonic! We should get the word out!
Which is what I did not say as the rest of them turned gimlet eyes of disapproval on me.
That was how my disenchantment with mommy culture began, but I don't quite know how I arrived already at the point of echoing Mila Kunis' tired, whispered battle cry in the trailer. Arrived I have, and some. "No," she says in response to participating in a bake sale that eschews wheat, salt, sugar, and every other known ingredient. "I'm so tired of trying to be this perfect mom."
I don't think I ever tried as hard as Mila Kunis, but I tried. One small concession that I made was dressing conservatively, and it made me miserable.
Moms are expected to wear conservative clothes: jeans and khakis and button-down shirts, high-collared dressed. Then there's me: I have always dressed like a rejected extra from the set of Girls. Wild thrift-store layers of mismatching gauzy materials laid one upon the other. Sometimes the effect is achieved-- Lower East Side bar rat melded with my vision of my Parisian older sister -- and sometimes (often) it is not.
I've worked in corporate offices in my life. I've worn suits and pantyhose, or, at less formal offices, long-sleeved henleys and wool-blend pants.
These are clothes that make me feel encased in a woolly tomb of conformity.
Equally constricting, as I learned from this previous blog experiment copying the more ladylike Rachel Parcell with her high status item style, I don't particularly feel comfortable in that other uniform on offer to the Good Mommy: mommy-jealousy clothes now on sale at Tory Burch and other outlets!
I don't want to dress like an office-worker, since I don't work in an office, and I don't want to make other mommies jealous, either. I just want to continue to be a little bit me, which is the really revolutionary act. That's really where the "no" Mila Kunis whispers comes from, and what I can already relate to: there's an expectation that when you become a mom, you no longer get to be you, too.
And, personally, I think that's crap. I think it makes for a bad mom, actually, a repressed, unhappy person at any rate, and that's kind of a waste of this brief, flickering existence.
I think I didn't truly understand this until this exchange at the book sale at my daughter's old daycare, which I've also written about here for Easy Street Mag. The owner of my daughter's daycare was ringing up my purchases, which included one grownup book among the touch-and-feel picture books I'd selected, "Not that you'll ever have a chance to read it," she said.
"Oh, I'll read it," I told her without meaning to say anything particularly loaded.
May I present viper #2, ladies and gentlemen.
I'm not sure where this idea came into being that to be a good mommy means to sacrifice every aspect of your own being, but I don't subscribe to that notion. Granted, I think if you go out partying every night, or even often, you're probably not a very good parent. If you smoke in the house or even hold your baby against the jacket you wore to smoke outside, you're probably not the best parent. (Smoking particles stick to your clothes!) If you hire a sitter, immediately leave for a week, and never phone your kids-- that happened on my first nanny job-- you probably suck big-time in the parenting department.
But if you hang out with your kids and your daughter sees you reading, and so she picks up books and reads to herself happily and quietly for hours at a time, then you're probably not Satan on Earth.
So, reading books and wearing my wild thrifted outfits is maybe not earth-shattering stuff on my part, either. But I've decided: being a mommy is not a corporate job. My boss is my kids, and my kids, if left to themselves, would dress exclusively in tutus and princess skirts over pajamas-- well, the three-year-old would. The baby is just happy not to be wearing something encased in poop and vomit. I'm not going to change the way I dress or how much I read, as if those obliterating acts would somehow make me a better parent or not.
In my experience, a good parent is simply one who is present and cares. That's all a kid needs to thrive. Love. I'm going to endure the sharp looks and the comments, because wacky costumes make me happy. As an ex-actor, they're a huge expression of myself, and it's not perfect, and I'm not perfect.
But perfect is a lie. There are no utopias. There's just right and wrong. I'm saying no to perfect, and yes to being happy.
My chapbook The Voices of Women about these issues, minor and major, is available on Amazon now! More and newer thoughts about sustainability, conformity, and books and other such matters will be up at Easy Street Mag soon. In the pics above, I'm wearing my first pair of specifically vegan shoes that I found as part of my education on sustainability-- my birthday/ Mother's Day present. I found them at Free People for less than a hundred dollars here.
I'm a busy mommy of two and a writer who loves fashion. I also want to teach myself and my children to care for and love the environment! I don't have the energy or time to be as 100% perfect as I'd like to be about my carbon footprint, but I'm trying to do the best I can. For example, I switched to a vegetarian diet (with a little bit of fish thrown in for now-- ah I cannot live without fish tacos!--), walk when I don't have to drive, wear as many sustainably made or secondhand clothes as I can, and recycle in other ways, too. Follow me as I try (at least 50% of the time) to strike a balance between the two-- mothering and writing, shopping and sustainability. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram @IsabellaMDavid.