Thursday, April 30, 2009


When I was a tiny baby Cynthia, who was very pregnant with her son, stopped one of my parents on the street – I have heard both versions of the story – to remark on what a beautiful baby I was. A neighborhood friendship ensued, in which I played with her son in the park and also attended the nearby day care where she worked. I have vague halcyon memories of that time, including picnics by the Hudson and reading Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl. When I was in first grade we moved eight blocks downtown and lost touch with her and her family. At some point my mother ran into her and learned that she had divorced and remarried. In truth, I forgot her as I grew up and became immersed in school and other activities. In high school I baby-sat for my neighbors. One day I was looking for a book to read to my charge and found Fantastic Mr. Fox on the shelf. My memory flooded back and I wondered what had happened to her. That is when I asked my mother, who did not remember her new last name.
In college I worked at Shakespeare and Company (may it rest in peace) the great local independent bookstore. One day I was sitting at the bag check station when a woman came up to me, stared and asked “Are you Leah? You have an unforgettable face”. It was about fifteen years later and Cynthia had recognized me. She looked different, mostly heavier from a bout with illness, but her German lilt and smile were familiar. She gave me her card – she was now an astrologist – and we proceeded to be in touch. She often sent me sunny letters decorated with fun stickers, often with typed messages.
It was from Cynthia that I first learned in-depth about astrology as well as other New Age concepts. At the time I was not interested in the subject area at all, but I listened and took it all in. The personal growth section of the bookstore was one that staff members often made fun of, in part because we fancied ourselves intellectual and it was so popular. Although I never read anything from it I absorbed the titles of many of the more requested books, effortlessly storing in my brain a list of future classics: You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay, Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss, Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain and many more. Cynthia never cast my chart but she did explain a number of terms to me: Sun, Moon, Rising Sign, (mine are Leo, Caner and Aries, respectively) Houses, Angles and so on. Today you can cast your own chart online: try; you will need your exact birth time in order to learn your rising sign. We continued to remain in touch for over a decade, waxing and waning, especially as she struggled with further health issues. As she grew unwell I was often wary of overtaxing her and so heard from her less often and we drew apart.
The year that I started my doctoral program Cynthia passed away, something that I did not learn immediately, so I did not attend her funeral or say goodbye in any formalized way and this saddened me greatly. I was mad at myself for not being in close enough contact to know of events as they unfolded. I also began reading personal growth, in spades, shocking myself and at first causing tremendous self-consternation. What was the cause? Perhaps it was because I had lost a spiritual muse, or I might have been rebelling against the over-intellectualized world of academia. I might have been swerving into early mid-life with a desire to explore inner realms in a new way or I may have been answering an intuitive attraction that had always been there but gone unheeded. In any of these cases I do wish that I had been able to talk to Cynthia these last few years, to go back and ask her further questions about astrology, her beliefs and related topics. As some consolation I have the knowledge that her family is prospering; her daughter no longer lives in New York but one sunny day I found her sitting on a bench in Riverside Park, site of those long-ago picnics and playdates. I also have the internet, with no end of material for browsing. I imagine what Cynthia could have done with her own website, the colors and illustrations that she would have gleefully included. And every time I read a horoscope or explain an astrological concept to someone or watch myself as I integrate these layers of exploration into my knowledge bank and sense of self I think of it as an homage to her and thank her for expanding my horizons. (Your rising sign, by the way, is the constellation that appeared on the horizon when you were born). The name Cynthia is Greek for the moon and is of course an alternate name for Diana, the moon goddess. I used to think of Cynthia as moonlight in my life, the mystical light that comes at nighttime. But in truth she is more like a sun, a shining adult presence that lit up both my childhood and my early adulthood. It guides me still.
Astrology is an ancient knowledge system and that has always fascinated me as well. I often picture people in ancient times, unable to sleep, perhaps sitting by a fire, trading stories and staring up at the stars in the great heavenly expanse that must have looked ever so much more mysterious and powerful then it does to us today. Jewish culture has a number of astrological references, but most people do not realize the connection: “mazal tov” literally declares that an event has occurred under a good star. We wish that a child be born “b’sha’ah tovah” – at a good hour. Whether one believes in astrology or not, it is a system of understanding that is striking in how it helps humans capture our way of seeking meaning while feeling small in the grand cosmos, wondering about our lives on earth and recognizing the moments of brightness that grace our existence.
Some interesting astrology websites:,,,, to name just a few. The publishing company is an excellent starting point for books in personal growth.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Monday, April 27, 2009

When You have Naturally Curly Hair

This weekend I met a new curly girl, a redhead. She suggested that we could discuss products. Yes, but I said more important was hair care routine. I am not often a zealot, but I am about curls. I told her that she must read Curly Girl, penned by Lorraine Massey, the owner of Devachan Salon in New York City (, which I recommend to every curly-haired person I know. It is a manual for curly hair care that is liberating, empowering and very playful. I know many who will only get their hair cut at Devachan or at Ouidad (; once you find your inner curl you get very fussy about who gets to come close with scissors. If you need more propaganda, look at for articles, photos and product descriptions. I like to play with products and often go browsing in stores that cater to ethnic markets. A particular favorite is; Avon’s Advance Techniques Dry Ends Serum is my single favorite product, even though it is not specifically for curls. (See
Frieda, the redhead in the Peanuts cartoon strip, (go to for a history and picture of the character) was also a curly girl and would tell you that people “expect more” from you when you have curly hair, but in my childhood it taught me to expect less, especially to have no hope of thinking I was attractive. Actually, I had fine, lank hair until the age of ten (I have the photos to prove it…somewhere) and my mother originally kept me in severe short cuts like hers. I hated them. As I grew older I was able to persuade my mother to let it grow a bit longer, but she never ceased to complain about it. I cut my hair a bit shorter in fifth grade and it grew back thick and curly, a marvel, except that it was impossible to manage. Who knew how to take care of it? It was the mid-70s, the era of Charlie’s Angels and straight hair, preferably feathered or flipped, was the ideal of beauty. No matter what, my hair could not learn any of those tricks and was a perpetual frizzy, messy disappointment. It makes sense to me that, as reported by Wikipedia, Frieda’s last appearance was in 1975. Also, I had black hair and almost all fairy tale princesses were blonde, redheaded if they were feisty and chestnut if they were sultry. Snow White was the one exception, but her hair was straight and she was drugged into sleep for most of the story. By the time the 80s came around and I hit junior high school I had given up on my hair ever being reasonable. Even when perms were in they did not look like my head, but had a slick perfection to them and remained in place. Real curls have minds of their own. The Medusa myth comes from deep truth.
At some point something happened and the trends turned around, as did my own attitude. When I graduated college I finally got rid of the woeful bangs that I had clung to, thinking that they would help frame my face. (I am so embarrassed). I think I first realized the potential of it all when a hairdresser in DC (at Supercuts on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park) kept me in the chair so that he could play with my hair. “So tell me,” he asked “are you Jewish or Italian?” “Jewish, how did you know?” “Oh, the hair.” He played with it for a good half hour. I started to pay more attention to hair, and standards of beauty, as markers of ethnic identity. And I took charge of learning how to take care of my own coiffure. I have not blown my hair dry since around that time, even in salons, sometimes causing much consternation. A few years later I discovered hair product (I was late to this… I could blame my mother or my own puritanical streak or the lack of curl mentors) and found out that my hair curls instead of frizzes when it has enough moisture in it. Down the road I minimized the use of brushes, combs and shampoo. The book encouraged me to abandon them altogether. Gulp, I did, just about. And I have been happier ever since, as have my tresses, which stay soft and untangled with what is now minimal, easy care. I also figured out that many hair accessories did not work for me. I tended to use scarves instead of hair bands and elastics became verboten.
I am now on a personal mission to help other women unleash their inner goddesses, to stop punishing themselves and allow unfettered the tremendous beauty and energy in their locks. It helps that for the most part curls are in style these days, and I trust likely to stay so. Truthfully, it seems harder in our global world to justify prejudices against them, even though many still see them as unruly or even unprofessional. As a museum person I often stop to note the prominence of waves and corkscrews in the art of earlier eras, pointing it out to companions. Curls are timeless; Curly Girl has a great illustrated timeline. Curls, color and culture: our hair sends all sort of messages, intended or not. I feel most confident and calm when it sends the message that I celebrate who I am and what I have, naturally.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Sunday, April 26, 2009

You Know Everyone

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where I completed a masters degree in Jewish Education in the 1990s) I had a reputation for “knowing everyone” as I was often accused of by fellow students when they watched me greet others, especially those from other programs, by name and with a smile. A natural extrovert, I was confused by this reaction. At the time the Seminary population, including all forms of staff, could not have topped five hundred; most students were bound for clergy positions in congregations that were likely to be as large and in which most members would hope or even expect that the clergy staff would know them by site as well as by name. So why not start practicing now? That is what I really thought about these exchanges. I was unusually adventurous in my choice of classes: I sat and studied with rabbinical, cantorial and doctoral students. I also took courses at Union Theological Seminary and Teachers College, neighboring institutions that offered reciprocal enrollment. I participated in a number of extra-curricular projects in which I worked with representative students from other programs. So I have this tendency to explore and meet people along the way and get to know them. This is often because I am curious and friendly and ask lots of questions. When I was younger I think I thought everyone did this…
At Interlochen (see New York City State of Mind, entry below) I made friends with Geoff, who worked in the kitchen, because on the first day at dinner while I was waiting online I looked over at him while he was at the sink. I must have made a terrible face as I watched him work at the Army surplus trays on which we were served, causing him to ham it up. He kept me company Saturday afternoons; classes met and I attended but did not perform on instruments, due to my orthodox Jewish praxis, so instead of going to practice sessions I sat with him and debated theology on the lawn. I recently Googled him in a fit of nostalgia after telling the story to a friend (the internet is an amazing and dangerous thing) and learned that he composes music in the Christian world. It was lovely to hear samples of his music. I also became friends with a young librarian who was a pianist and studied at an evangelical college. Both of these friends became pen pals; my pianist friend worked hard to get me to convert. I still have the copy she sent me of a biligual New Testament in Hebrew and English.
Over time my gregariousness has faltered, especially when I feared that it was somehow unappreciated or seemed to be too much. I have been trying to re-cultivate it in different ways. In the last few years my building has undergone a change in ownership and a condo conversion that brought tenants together to discuss the changes and issues that have arisen. I live on the first floor and without the benefits of elevator chatting time I knew many folk by sight but not by name. As a result of the recent activity I have gotten to know most of my neighbors and become good friends with a few of them. It is a treat and a blessing that my building now feels like a shtetl. And it is one; many of the tenants have lived here for decades, are close with each other, and remember as I do the ways that the ‘hood has changed over the years.
I am quite fallible, despite the reputation. I have been surprised on a few occasions when younger schoolmates recognized me even though I had no recollection of them. I can still hear one alumna of my high school saying “But we remember you” and feeling terrible about the ageism of adolescents. There was a time when I really did remember most everyone I met but now I forget more often than I would like; I especially forget names. It is embarrassing, but names are hard for me to remember unless they are attached to people’s stories. So sometimes I can tell you many details about a person’s life and circumstances, but I have forgotten their name, especially if it is a more common one, like David or Rachel, because when I heard it when I met them there was not story yet.
In a related vein but somewhat off-topic, the Manhattan School of Music is in the same neighborhood as JTS. The first time I went with a friend to have lunch there I almost cried because the excited buzz in the hallways was so different from the church-like or sepulchral tone across the street (a common joke or slip of the tongue is to substitute “cemetery” for “seminary”). The School of Music was alive with noise, notes and chatter. I often wonder about the difference between the two places and if it can in part account for the phenomenon that I am describing. Do students at places like Interlochen or MSM engage more with each other because of the nature of their activities? There are of course a host of other factors to consider in making such comparisons; I can still feel what it was like to walk down the halls in both places. And I sometimes wonder why, after these experiences, I did not return to music or the arts; I am so moved when I remember the vibrancy of the arts settings in which I studied as a child. How do our environments inspire or dissuade us from getting to know each other and learn about each other’s lives? What are the educational opportunities and costs of these environmental factors in terms of how students learn and engage with each other? How might educators pay more attention to the cultures of their institutions? And can you teach people to be interested in others, in learning their names and stories?
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Monday, April 20, 2009

Girl with Glasses

I started wearing glasses in third grade and did not move into contact lenses until I was in eleventh grade, late in the game if you consider the trials of adolescence and development of self-esteem at that time. I was bookish and studious, so it made sense stylistically that I wore glasses. But I also went to high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; the fashion and make-up trends in the air (even with a strict dress code)were terribly sophisticated and seemed beyond my purview, like the fuzzy space of one’s peripheral vision when wearing glasses. The way that glasses frame and limit one’s clear vision annoys me terribly to this day. My father wore glasses too and when I was little his were quite thick, the Coke-bottle kind. My prescription grew stronger in tandem with technological breakthroughs in lens-making so I only wore thick lenses for a short time; I liked large frames and they were tricky with the heavier prescriptions. I still have most of the pairs from my childhood, but they are so out of fashion that they cannot be worn in public.
I still think of myself as a girl with glasses even though most of the people I currently know or interact with have no idea that my eyesight is shoddy and that I wear lenses. This was true as early on as college, but even then I had a residual sense that I looked at the world from behind a protective and distancing lens, the way a teenage girl with glasses might find it impossible to think that she is pretty or that others might see her as so. I still remember the first time I walked out in a storm with contacts on; the world was truly then for me more wondrous and beautiful than it had been before. On the rare occasions that I need to wear glasses I am surprised at others’ surprise that I need them. I am usually in a bad mood as well, trapped again and not able to see the world as widely or clearly as I would like to. It is always a bit of a mystery to me – do people perceive me differently once they know? How am I affected by how I perceive myself with my memories?I could go on about glasses and/or I could spin out the metaphors: seeing, lenses, frames and framing, clarity; all of these could be illuminating lines of rumination. But these reflections really take me somewhere else; to thinking about how our physical characteristics and limitations shape the way we experience and understand the universe. I know that my being left-handed is significant to almost every movement that I make and that my height affects everything from the ease with which I move about in my kitchen (greatly helped by wearing wedge clogs) to how easily I tire at parties or in crowds, where I am forever looking up at others. Yes I am vertically challenged (the PC language is thanks to Gary Trudeau’s Class Day speech at Yale in 1991); the funniest moment of awareness was the day I met a friend’s outspoken and inquisitive nephew. He looked me up and down and pronounced “You’re awfully short for a grownup”. Some of these characteristics are easily observable; others are not. There are characteristics that are not physical and perceptible only to those with particular kinds of awareness or sensitivity. Still other characteristics only exist in the mind’s eye, where we remember our past experiences and sometimes forget to separate them from current reality. Consider the stud or bombshell who still feels like the mousy or obese child that they formerly were. I think that in America, with our cultural myths about independence, pioneer spirit and the like, we often have a hard time taking such differences into account in a way that feels comfortable; limitations and inequality of all sorts are hard to square with some of our collective beliefs. And yet those very differences do sometimes require that we adjust things for different individuals. As well, these characteristics and the combinations of experience (that stud that used to get bullied…) lie at the heart of so much of human creativity and genius. Because of my poor vision I learned early on to recognize people’s entire beings, not just their faces. I would startle people by recognizing others at a distance, like the time in DC that I stunned my roommate by identifying the gait of someone walking a block ahead of us. He was a childhood friend I had not seen in almost a decade. I am certain that this habit is why I have a secret gift for mimicking others – facial expressions, voice and body language. I like to think as well that it is the joy with which I can now see so widely is related to my interest in the big picture in every sense of the term. And that my poor eyesight combined with my love of music bred a keener sense of hearing. There are more connections and consequences I am sure and I hope to come upon them in time, startling at their distinct beauty, detailed and crystal clear as raindrops, snowflakes and bolts of lightening.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Riddle Me This

As an adolescent I read a fair share of science fiction and fantasy, something that should not come as a surprise. I was of the geeky, intellectual bent that favors such narratives at that age and had a number of friends who shared this interest. I still own many of my favorite books and on occasion return to beloved worlds and characters. Long before Harry Potter arrived at Hogwarts and on our planet, protagonists in these epics searched for wisdom, knowledge, power and control over both internal and external forces. Usually their journeys included formal training as well as quests filled with danger and adventure. Ever the educator, I have always paid attention to the presence of schools and systems of knowledge in these universes; I have attended as well to the ways in which knowledge, both practical and philosophical, is imparted. Often the stories told involve tumult around transfers of power, the culmination of historical epochs and the chaos of a changing world order. It is no wonder that memories of the genre have been bubbling up in my mind of late.
One of my particular favorite series (as this genre breeds multi-volume series) is relatively obscure. It came to me by accident when an elementary school classmate loaned me a bunch of books that included an early omnibus edition. A current single volume, titled Riddle-Master, is available, but I own Patricia McKillip’s work in its original three parts: The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire and Harpist in the Wind. The protagonist, Morgon of Hed, is a young land ruler and a drop-out of the College of Caithnard, founded by wizards, where study is conducted in the form of answering riddles, with accompanying strictures, in recitation style. But Morgon himself, branded with three stars on his forehead, is a riddle that the established codes of knowledge cannot answer. The growing threats of violence in the world, which kill his parents before the story begins and then start to close in on our hero, combined with his own impetuous drive to ask questions, send Morgon on a long journey to escape danger and uncover answers. In the process of his chase the order of his universe as well as the details of his identity unravel and reconstruct themselves. Morgon is headstrong, too inquisitive for his professors and too restless to stay in his own small country. But his personal power is greatest not because of his intellect or charisma; what marks Morgon most is that his mind and heart remain open to learning from others and to diving into new experiences. Along his journey his fellow land rulers respond to this quality and teach him all that they know. Their knowledge is quite physical: land rulers are bound to every living thing in their countries and are attuned in unusual ways to the nature and animals around them. I love questions and I love that in this story the structure and limitations of questioning are the fabric that hold and also break this world, but it is in the moments of mentorship and communion that Morgon has with others that I see the truest, deepest learning take place. I could go on and tell you more but please, read the series instead. McKillip is a beautiful writer.
I like to think that at my best I too am this way with others but I know as well that this kind of questioning and desire for knowledge is usually threatening to others. Actually, I have learned this from hard experience. Because a part of me is as fearless in intellectual quest as Morgon is. One must wonder – if questions are so threatening, then what is it that those in the know are truly afraid of? This is most especially so when some questions are allowed but others are verboten. What questions should we be asking in our world at this point in time?
I have a question myself about the seriesm for McKillip. I would like to know what becomes of Rood, Morgon’s schoolmate and brother of his intended, Raederle. For the romantics: Morgon wins her hand because he wins a riddle contest with a ghost in her native country. Rood is perhaps more temperamental than his friend or his sister – and that says much – and at the end of the last book his role has changed in a way that must surely chafe, but we learn nothing really of his reaction. This is a geeky question from a fan left a bit restless by loose ends…

Other worlds to explore: is a fan website with a bibliography for this prolific author. is one of the best and wisest writers in this genre, practically without peer. Her Earthsea Series is required reading; it now stands at six volumes. I am not sure that anyone should be allowed to grow up without following Ged on his adventures. My favorite single volume work of hers is The Lathe of Heaven. Roger Zelazny’s Amber series is a guilty pleasure… all ten books, two series of five, each focused on a different generation of the dysfunctional royal family. I have long wanted to walk the Pattern. For “younger readers” I particularly recommend (and I trust that if you are under 50 and reading this that your world was rocked when you first read A Wrinkle in Time) and Lloyd Alexander; his Chronicles of Prydain (five volumes) are the masterpiece but my sentimental favorite is The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, with his perfectly named cat Presto. Watch for the children in the street playing out the events of the day with great prescience. Wisdom and discernment can appear in the unexpected corners of any world.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

The Scent Track of Our Lives

I first realized the depth of my interest in perfume because of visits to my friend Amanda’s house starting early on in elementary school. Her mother loved perfume and gave Amanda a host of samples to keep on her dresser; we routinely sniffed them. I loved the elegance of these essences, the sensual pleasure of them and the ways in which the scents triggered my imagination, transforming a pre-war Manhattan apartment into an exotic and opulent interior. Occasionally we also looked at her mother’s own collection; she favored orientals, spicy perfumes that I would later on identify as my own favorite category of fragrances (although as I have gotten older chypres have run an increasingly close second). On her tray: Opium, Bellodgia, Must de Cartier, Samsara and others in similar deep warm-toned hues and bottles. I began to wear perfume myself while still in junior high school, not cottoning to the typical adolescent favorites of the day - Lauren, Anais Anais, Oscar de La Renta. I preferred Tuxedo (Ralph Lauren’s original evening counter-part to Lauren) and Bellodgia (in its older, much spicier version which in my opinion no other carnation soliflore can match).
My mother, a chemist, had no interest in perfume. But once I started talking about fragrance she told me that her father, a pharmacist (like his own father) had mixed perfumes for clients in his shop in Bulgaria. When they moved to the new state of Israel in 1949 he found little demand there for the product, something that has changed quite dramatically, as a visit today to any drugstore there or to the duty-free shop at Ben-Gurion can attest. I usually consider myself to be thoroughly my father’s daughter, interested in writing, texts, culture and history and all things Jewish… so to have this interest in scents (and also, although less intensely, in beauty products and treatments more generally) be traced through my mother’s lineage is ironic. I call it the revenge of my mother’s genes. It is a sultry love, fragrance, and my mother is a Scientist with a pioneer personality, fond of very few frills. I have seen video and photos of Bulgaria and know the terrain to be lushly green, producer of the world’s most prized rose oil. So something from the generations my ancestors lived there has come to me and I know that I have a hidden capacity for enjoying sensual indulgences.
Surprisingly I did discuss this interest with friends while in school – in high school a group pooled resources to buy me a bottle of Fidgi as a birthday gift - but I was largely silent about it as a younger adult, even though I continued to collect articles and books on the subject. In the last few years I began again to tell people about my love of fragrance. I stopped being embarrassed by this seemingly trivial interest, so different from the persona I usually focused on developing and presenting to the world. I began to wonder about the ways in which our often forgotten sense of smell influences the way we react to and make meaning of the world, all the more mysteriously because we understand it so poorly.
A few years ago I wrote a paper on perfume, focused on Chanel No. 5, one of the most iconic and classic fragrances, for a class on the Sociology of Objects. (My paper focused on the question of what constituted the “object” of a fragrance). In doing research I explored offerings on the web and found a wealth of new resources: blogs, forums, resource sites, e-tailers and niche perfumers. The virtual fragrance world is a revolution; a recasting of what was once a secretive and cloaked arena into one where aficionados publish criticism and trade tips and perfumers are acknowledged and feted; where it is much easier to hunt discounted and discontinued fragrances and where indie perfumers can develop international followings. I joined Sniffapalooza ( and began attending their events, where I was introduced to a host of new scents, lines and perfumers. My collection has grown accordingly. I also made friends with people who share this passion, usually superseding me in their holdings, knowledge and skill. Our conversations, rooted in fragrance, expand into many other topics and issues; every perfumista is an artist and philosopher at heart. Lucy’s recent posting on captures the beauty of these exchanges. Daily SOTD (scent of the day) postings online allow group members to share the micro and macro events of daily life as they are matched to fragrances, a soundtrack for the nose and a chance to focus on those brief moments of beauty and artistry, both natural and man-made, that our senses capture fleetingly in the crush of our routines and trials.
Forums: (see also,,
Blogs: (Now Smell This, the best for industry news and links to articles),, Follow the links on each to find other blogs – there are many, they are quite varied in style and of exceptional quality.
© 2009 Leah Strigler