Phyllis Schieber Author

Women's Fiction by Phyllis Schieber

To Young Women Everywhere

I came across a photograph of my friend Claire and I from the summer of 1969, the summer we spent touring Israel. I was sixteen, newly graduated from high school, and Claire was eighteen, almost nineteen.  Because I had skipped two grades, all of my friends were older. I was fortunate that I was always physically mature for my age because it made it easier to fit in with my peers. The photograph was taken at Eilat, Israel’s southern most city, located at the northern tip of the Red Sea. Claire and I are horsing around in the water. I am perched on an inner tube, wearing a skimpy black and white bikini, and a huge smile. My wet hair is plastered to my head. I appear to be trying to help Claire onto the tube as she struggles in the water. She is laughing. A golden tan makes her look especially alive. We both look very happy. We had been camping on the beach for several days with my cousin and her friend, both Israelis. Eilat was incredibly beautiful. We were incredibly beautiful. When I stared at the photograph, I remembered my reaction when I first saw the photograph more than forty years ago. In those pre-digital days, you had to bring in the film and wait for the pictures to come back. I didn’t want anyone to see this particular picture because a little roll of fat was visible at my middle. I remember thinking that I looked “so fat.” In fact, I look remarkably healthy and sexy in the way that only a buxom (does anyone use that word anymore?) sixteen-year-old can look.

In those days, I was always trying to hide some part of myself—my large breasts, my full thighs, my something, anything. Several years later, a friend in graduate school told me that I look like a “Renaissance porno queen.” I laughed, but the description made me uncomfortable. While I never had any shortage of male attention, I never really felt beautiful. Certainly, most teenagers feel awkward and self-conscious, a lamentable condition that continues to perplex me.  I carried my doubts into young adulthood and while I knew my friend’s apt description was meant as a compliment, I was embarrassed by his observation. I was foolish where I should have been proud. What I would give today for that former body of mine… there are no words. And that is why I have a message for young women everywhere. I want you to look in the mirror and marvel at the tautness of your skin, the way your breasts stay high on your chests, and the lovely and luxuriant thickness of your hair. Stand naked in front of a mirror and appreciate your beauty, savor it, and celebrate it. It merits your admiration.

These days I often think of all the times I was self-conscious about my appearance. I wanted to look like Claire. She was the perfect Sixties girl—tall and thin, long, straight, dark hair, and legs that began at her neck and just kept going. I had a crown of wild, curly hair. I also had a formidable chest, and curves that belonged on an older woman. It was a body that emerged when I was fourteen.  I bemoaned my appearance every time I allowed myself to take a peek at my naked self. Shopping was difficult. My mother was adept at letting out the darts in blouses and dresses that were invariably tight. I straightened my hair, wore clothes that hid my full breasts, and dieted constantly, even though I was not fat (What I regret is not learning to exercise early in my life and taking some form of exercise into adulthood. Stand warned all you young beauties: exercise will prolong your beauty, and whether or not you believe me, you will be sorry if you don’t learn to exercise now). I wanted to look like Twiggy or Cher, the role models for beauty in that era of peace and love. I wasted so much precious time on that hopeless fantasy.

If I could go back to those years, I would flaunt my voluptuousness with abandon. I would never have straightened my hair. I used a horrible smelling product, Curl Free, that made my hair coarse and lifeless. At night I would pull my hair up into a ponytail, roll it backwards onto an empty frozen juice can and secure it with long, metal clips. For good measure, I often ironed my hair on the ironing board, using my mother’s iron and a damp towel. My poor mother would monitor this process, fearful that I would set myself on fire!  I would have looked more kindly on my body instead of wishing for thinner thighs, longer legs, and smaller breasts. The good news is that I have finally come of age. In some ways, I am the woman I wanted to be then even though I still do not resemble even a vague proximity of Cher or Twiggy, or even my friend Claire.  The main difference is that I am now comfortable with myself, a remarkable achievement. I practice yoga six times a week, and I ride a stationary bike at least three times a week. I feel fitter than I did all those years ago.

I write about women like myself because it is what I know and love best. We are friends, and wives, and mothers, daughters, and sisters. The women in my novels, WILLING SPIRITS and THE SINNER”S GUIDE TO CONFESSION are also the woman I am still becoming. I am ever mindful of how times passes, how much I have yet to do, and how grateful I am that I no longer straighten my hair. Of course, I am still critical of body, but I express that criticism with gentleness and humor. I know who I once was, and I know who I am now. It was good then, and it’s better now.  Still, I wish I had been s bit wiser, a bit more aware of how ephemeral youth is… I wish I had enjoyed my body rather than pass judgment on it with such harsh eyes. I wish I had loved myself more.

August 8, 2010 Posted by | Sinner's Guide to Confession, Willing Spirits | , , , | 2 Comments

The Beginning, Not the Middle

When I was in my early teens, I was at my friend Claire’s apartment one evening. We were getting ready to go out, and Dina, my friend’s mother (who passed many years ago) was watching. It was the Sixties, and I was a hippie-type, not in the least familiar with make-up or anything that smacked of the “establishment.” Dina was Cuban and extremely glamorous. She had gorgeous, long legs (something I never had and always wished for) and a beautiful figure. She used a cigarette holder, wore skintight capris, and always heels, typically mules that I found incredibly sexy even when I was only ten.  She must have been younger than I am now. I idolized Dina. She looked the other way when we smoked cigarettes and made us wonderful, strong, dark coffee.  I thought Dina was spectacular. That evening, she studied me as I brushed my hair. Cigarette smoke swirled around her head, and she smiled at me through the haze. “I can’t wait to see you when you’re thirty,” she said. “That’s when a girl really becomes a woman.” Of course, I had no idea what Dina was talking about, but I never forgot her words. Thirty seemed so old to me then. Now, I wish I had a chance to go back and truly appreciate the ripeness of the beauty that those years bestow on a woman. I know a number of young women in their thirties. As I was, they are all busy with newborns and toddlers, juggling many different roles at once. There is no time to savor in the fullness of their womanhood; there is hardly time for a shower and clean clothes. From the vantage point of my fifty-seven years, I relish the smoothness of their taut, unlined skin, the thickness of their hair, and the speed with which they chase after their children. These thirty-something women seem like exotic creatures to me now. I am happy to merely be in their presence, but I am neither envious nor sad when I am with them. This is their time. I’m having my own time, and it’s called, rather blandly, middle age.

I don’t think the term does this time of life the justice it deserves. I do not feel as though I am in the “middle” of anything. On the contrary, I have the sense of being on the beginning of yet another journey. I have the battle scars: my knees often ache, my hair is not as luxurious as it once was, and my skin, well, what middle-aged woman doesn’t pull back her face just a little as she glances in the rear-view mirror, remembering what it was like to look like that. I think back fondly on the years when I couldn’t walk down the street without creating a stir (and that was in just jeans and a tee shirt and absolutely no make-up), but I don’t mourn my youth. I have too much to celebrate now to waste time dwelling on the past.

In the last year, I have committed myself to yoga practice with intensity unparalleled to anything else I have ever done except for my writing and, most importantly, raising my almost twenty-six-year-old son. He is my greatest achievement. I did a good job, and I am proud of that. However, yoga practice has taught me to care for myself now in a way I never have in the past. This fifty-seven-year-old body can now do a split, a full wheel, a shoulder stand, and a myriad of other poses that I would not even have attempted until now. I think the confidence and determination that I have developed in yoga has inspired me to try poses no matter how difficult they seem to be. I know that eventually I will succeed. I want to do well in yoga. I want to be stronger. And I take pleasure in how persistence pays off. This all translates to other areas of my “middle-aged” life. I don’t feel the same sense of urgency about everything that I did in my twenties and thirties. I have more trust in myself and in my wisdom. I recognize the person who looks back at me when I gaze in the mirror, and I feel more kindly toward her. I see a body that gave birth (and has the stretch marks and pouch to prove it), a face that has known much pain and loss, and eyes that have shed tears of sadness and joy. I have lived, and I plan to live much more. I continue to feel sexually vibrant, intellectually curious, and eager for new experiences. I do not believe that middle age suggests that I am unable to know the thrill of passion or the satisfaction of being understood and valued by another. I anticipate the wonders of being a grandmother some day. I have more novels to write, more countries and cities to visit, and more people to love. And I believe it will all come to pass because I will make certain it does.

In my novels, Willing Spirits and The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, I write about middle-aged women who are wives and mothers, daughter and sisters, lovers and friends. The “friends” part is really important, especially as we move through these years. I would be lost without my girlfriends. I know all the women I write about because I am all these women, and I have had all these roles, managed them in spite of their clamoring for equal attention. But these women are also struggling, (as I have and continue to do) to sustain happiness and to make sense of their lives. They want to know more passion; they want to be more of who they are, never less. Sometimes, they succeed; other times, they crash miserably with devastating consequences. I love these women because they always keep trying, Just like me. I feel very certain that if Dina were still alive, she would tell me from the vantage point of her advanced years, that I will never really come to know myself as a woman until my fifties… my middle age. And she would be quite right.

June 9, 2010 Posted by | Sinner's Guide to Confession, Willing Spirits | , , | 2 Comments

Aging Defiantly

I always took sex for granted. I was always curious, always interested, and an eager and willing student. In my fifties, little has changed, except I no longer take sex for granted.  The changes in my sexuality surprised me as much as my first period, my first orgasms,  the loss of my virginity, and childbirth. My reaction to all these events was consistently the same: did my body just do that?”  I was eleven when I got my first period. It was hot. Probably the end of June. I was wearing sky blue Wrangler shorts. My mother asked me to go to the grocery store. I remember waiting at the corner of Ellwood and Nagle for the light to change. I felt nauseated, and I had a headache. I had never had a headache before.  On the way back from the grocery store, I felt faint. Once I got home. I put the milk in the refrigerator and the bread in the breadbox. When I pulled my shorts and underpants down in the bathroom so I could pee, I was mildly surprised to see blood. I knew what had happened. I just never knew it would really happen to me. I went to get the sanitary pads and belt that I had sent away to Kotex for on my own and clean clothes. I soaked my shorts and underpants in the tub and went to tell my mother. In keeping with European tradition, my mother slapped me on the cheek and said, “You’re a woman now.” I didn’t feel like a woman, but I was pleased. My father brought home roses for me that night, and my older brother grunted something indistinguishable at me. Nothing seemed to have changed.

Orgasms were another story entirely. I welcomed them with ardent enthusiasm though I didn’t really understand the mechanics of this almost out-of-body experience. Still, I loved that my body could experience them—with or without a partner.  In retrospect, there may have been nothing sexier than all those years of making out and groping that I enjoyed with my high school boyfriend, and then later with the boy I almost lost my virginity to before fate intervened. The doorbell interrupted us at the definitive moment—a lifelong regret that still leaves me wondering.  I could have kissed him for hours. All those years of preparation offered the promise that orgasms would always be available. Then, of course, once I was no longer a virgin, orgasms took on a different, even better context.  It never occurred to me that there was anything my body could not achieve.

I don’t remember my first orgasm, but I do remember the day I was no longer a virgin. I’m fairly certain everyone remembers his or her first time.  Mostly, I remember looking at myself in the bathroom mirror after it was over and wondering if anyone would be able to tell. I didn’t feel any different, and I certainly didn’t look any different. Nevertheless, I had passed a milestone. My body had obliged, forfeited its status, catapulting me into alleged womanhood. I applied myself with intensity to my new rank and enjoyed each new discovery. I was a college freshman, but I was only sixteen, still very young to play at womanhood in spite of my body’s impatience.

Childbirth was remarkable for any number of reasons. However, after twenty-two hours of labor and a forceps delivery, I looked down between my legs and seeing the screaming, bloody head of my son and feeling somewhat stunned that he was emerging from my body. It seemed impossible that this creature was not only mine, but that I had carried him around for over nine months in my swelling body. The separation was profound. When the nurse placed him against my chest, I wondered how it would feel to move through the world without him inside my body.

None of these events, however, could have prepared me for menopause. In my own way, I mourned the end of my periods. I know that might seem strange to some women, but the loss confirmed the inevitable—unwelcome changes that would require some commitment.  I was not ready to abandon my sexuality, so I initiated a campaign to circumvent the realities. In the process, I developed a kinder, gentler attitude toward my body. Perhaps, for the first time in my life, I am less critical of my body. It’s a perfectly fine body for a fifty-seven-year-old woman. Indeed, it is flawed, but I so foolishly thought that the fifteen-year-old body I once had was also flawed even though the boy I then loved told me that I looked like an angel.  Mostly, my body still works. It works differently than it used to, but it works. I have finally come to understand that desire is about how someone makes you feel. It’s such an easy lesson that I wonder why it too me so long to learn it. The women in my novel The Sinner’s Guide to Confession are still looking for love and still enjoying sex.  They are strong women, women who acknowledge the changes that cannot be ignored, but I know that any one of them would be happy to go back to those long days of endless kissing and fondling with a boy who made her heart skip a beat each time he looked at her. And any one of them would agree that here and now is still a good place to be.

May 21, 2010 Posted by | relationships. women, Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment