On Bike Crashes, Compassion, and Other Kinds of Love

I didn’t know where the arm around me came from, but there it was.

I swiveled my neck: from the asphalt of Marshall Avenue’s right, westbound lane, where my friend R lay prone on her back–eyes open, bike helmet still on, face frozen in fear–to the face attached to the arm, that of a blond women in pink cycling gear. I’d never seen her before, and likely won’t again.

“It’s not your fault,” she said, her grasp still firm against my shoulder. “I know you feel like it is, but it isn’t.”

I nodded slightly, let the air between my ribs expand. It was just what I needed to hear.

To be clear: I was fine, and R, we’d learn some four hours in Regents Hospital’s Emergency Room later, was mostly okay, too–bruised, but not broken.

We’d been riding home from a reading in St. Paul, speeding down the (notoriously perilous) hill before Lake Street’s bridge, when the traffic light changed and I stopped short; R was closer to me than I thought, and crashed into my bike from behind–causing her to fall forward and collide with the curb.

I didn’t see her fall happen, but other people did, and a startling number of them stopped to help. Within, seemingly, moments, a small village had assembled to attend: there was the young woman in yoga clothes who instantly parked her SUV behind us and called 911 (and also, later, spirited away our bicycles to lock them in her backyard so we could ride the ambulance); the older woman with short hair and a floral scarf who stood watch over oncoming traffic; the neighbor with the small dog who walked over after driving past and insisted on giving us her contact information in case we needed rides later that night. A doctor, even, who suddenly appeared, knelt down to take R’s vital signs before the EMTs arrived.

When they did, the kindness continued: the pair of (not gonna lie, Central Casting Handsome) men who drove us to the hospital were charming and kind, as was everyone who proceeded to help us: from the techs to the aides to the doctors to each and every nurse. Surrounded by strangers, we felt in such good care.

I have known R, a fellow writer, less than the length of one year. In that time we’ve grown close, connected over shared interests and values and similar struggles with our parents. I wouldn’t list her as an emergency contact or think of her first in a crisis. But in that moment, she was nothing short of family: it didn’t cross my mind to leave her side. Just as, when we finally got ahold of our mutual friend (and R’s roommate) M, she didn’t consider doing anything but exactly what she did: pack up a pair of tuna sandwiches, meet us in the ER, make us laugh (someone had to document the flower vase-esque Female Urinal), and drive us both home. 

*

My Tuesday therapy appointments tend to begin roughly the same: breathless from the bike ride and (inevitable) anxiety of being a few minutes late, I spill onto the couch and, as I contemplate where to begin narrating the week’s (inevitable) dramas, she calmly asks how I’m doing.

Routinely, lately, my response includes some variation on the following: that amidst the moments of sad and unsteady and doubt, that overall, I feel so supported.

During our most recent session, I observed that some of the most important support I’ve felt lately has come from people who I didn’t expect, and not from those who I might have thought.

This is something I’ve noted before–that it isn’t necessarily my closest or oldest friends whose presence, lately, has felt most significant. That, instead, I’ve felt held up by people relatively new in my life–in particular, a set of writer friends whose vastness of empathy, compassion and smarts can feel, at times, like some great karmic gift.

But in the past, that observation felt tinged with some sadness, some regret. It does tend to be sad when once intimate ties feel loose. But when I spoke to my therapist this week and as I sit at the coffee shop counter writing this now, I feel detached from any disappointment; instead, I feel flush with gratitude for the support that has lately felt so essential, and so strong. 

Yesterday, the day after the crash, I spent the morning in tears: not of sadness or fear or the tiredness of having been up late in florescent hospital halls, but simply from being overwhelmed–with thanks and awe toward the strangers who stopped to help.

We tend to place a premium on permanent ties: the notion of unconditional love that we’re supposed to get from our parents, from the life partners we choose.

But that love can be more conditional than we’d like to think; less durable than we let ourselves believe. And lately, with those ties damaged, I’ve had to trust that the necessary net would come from elsewhere. This means first, I suppose, learning to trust myself: you can’t rest faith in people you don’t know or see. But learning to trust ourselves might also mean trusting our capacity to draw the kind of support that, in different moments, we differently need. 

We want to be able to envision the love that will get us through. And there is, of course, something beautiful and important about long-term intimates: friendships and marriages that endure across decades. But in this moment I feel equally appreciative of more transient intimacy; of the kind of love that might come out of nowhere and might only be around for moments–but in those moments, might mean the whole world. 

 

Notes on Justin Bieber, AWP, Confusion and Drifting

“It’s just like the Justin Bieber song!”

“Wait, what song?”

“Wait, I need to find the lyrics.”

I was lying on my back in the sun of a Culver City backyard, describing to A over the phone the neuroses I’d stirred up in the days prior—days spent at AWP, the giant, annual writers conference that Minneapolis hosted last year and for which, last week, I (along with 14,000 other poets and writers) sojourned to LA.

One reason I’ve been on a deliberate hiatus from dating is because of the way it tends to provoke tornado-force anxieties and emotions–things that would be a major (if not undesired) distraction from the intense self-work with which I’m now engrossed.

This hiatus goes most smoothly when I am home: in the quiet company of some poems and plants, a girlfriend or two, snacks and Spotify and a Manhattan or wine.

Things complicate when I leave the house.

Outside, more dynamic variables emerge. And at this particular conference, such variables included an overwhelming incidence of intellects, hormones, feelings and alcohol such that it would have been hard for the most resilient, rooted of creatures to avoid a poor choice or two. (As one friend put it, “AWP is all about bad decisions.”)

Still, I might have made bad decisions (too many books at the bookfair! a lackluster panel!) with consequences more emotionally benign.

Also, after four consecutive nights of very slim sleep (sharing a hotel room with three beloved girlfriends is dreamy, but not conducive to a whole lot of rest), I felt roughly as though I were being continuously struck by a truck.

Which brings me back to the Culver City backyard, where I was lucky to find a welcoming batch of longtime family friends from Brooklyn–along with their shaggy-eared pup, Biscuit, who quickly and blessedly sensed my tender-heartedness and swiftly replied with an aggressive course of licking and snuggles.

And, to my emergency phone call with A–who responded, for the first time in the history of our friendship, with Justin Bieber lyrics. 

“How do you not know this song?”

I rolled an arm over my forehead. “I don’t know how to answer that.”

“Oh here it is, I found them.” She got through a few verses of his (apparently quite popular!) ditty (if I’m going to sound ancient I may as well sound ancient) What Do You Mean, before declaring that she felt “ridiculous” and that I should just look it up.

The gist, lest, like me, you are not up on Bieber’s latest, is this: women are confusing.

A thought of it because I had been describing my own behavior–in relation (in the days/weeks prior) to both men and my mother, as, in a word, confused.

Apparently, (thanks, Justin!) I’m not alone.

*

A central set piece of AWP is the hotel bar: once the masses pass through some daily parade of panels, readings, and the florescent vortex of the giant Bookfair, a good number gather in the Hilton/Marriott/Radisson lobby to drink, preen, network and gawk.

The Marriott in downtown LA is adjacent to the Staples Center, which resulted in a late-night scene featuring a mix of poets and Laker/Knight fans equal parts amusing and bizarre.

For the first few nights, in addition to whatever crew of grad school friends and Minneapolis writers were around, I felt rooted in that chaotic mix by the happy company of a well-known poet with whom I struck up an unexpected friendship at last year’s AWP. (You guys are kind of like Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, N whispered to me as we sat together in the back of a panel on Intuition vs. Intention; I giggled, then hesitated, turned to her. Wait, am I Piglet? She tilted her head in a sympathetic nod. Yeah, she said. I think so.) 

But by Saturday night, he had left–as had N. My other roommates went to bed early. I linked up with a Minneapolis friend, then lost her in the shuffle.

I found myself alone.

I felt adrift–a sensation that surfaced as panic. Was I not attractive or important or accomplished enough to be significant? What would people think, seeing me by myself?

I beelined to the bathroom. Redid my lipstick and hair. Stared in the mirror. Eavesdropped on a conversation about battling body odor during twelve hour stretches in the convention center. Breathed. Remembered that most people are concerned, primarily, with themselves.

I went back out into the lobby, where i found a seat at a near empty table and talked to a series of two poets from the Pacific Northwest–one who looked as though he’d stepped out of an accounting office, and another from a Portlandia episode. I went to the bar to get a drink, which led to behaving confusingly toward someone I’d (likely) confused earlier in the Conference, which led to feeling more confused myself, and (inordinately) irritated. I found some friends on a couch and joined them.

“You’re staring in to the middle distance,” one observed. “And looking kind of sad.”

She was right. I went to bed. 

*

On Monday, it was overcast and cool in Minneapolis. I wandered around Powderhorn in a daze: I’d taken a redeye and barely slept at all before having to teach. I didn’t have anything to do that night, but didn’t want to go to sleep before dark, and couldn’t focus enough to read or write.

I tried calling a few friends; none answered. Thought about calling my parents. Remembered I didn’t want to. Texted with a couple pals about meeting up, but schedules didn’t align.

I crossed the bridge over I-35 and looked down at the steady streams of traffic and felt an echo of the Marriott lobby on Saturday night–the sensation of being adrift, unsteady, acutely alone.

I decided on a destination: the co-op (I was starving) and brought a salad to the coffee shop, where, I’d figured out, a friend was working. Another friend stopped by on her way home for a quick update on my trip.

“I’ve never seen you look so tired,” she said, and demanded that I immediately sleep.

*

By Tuesday, I felt a lot like the bookshelf I recently bought at a Salvation Army that, despite looking pretty together in the store, once in the parking lot, collapsed entirely.

I fell onto my therapist’s couch like that particleboard on the asphalt as I began to narrate the encounters still stirring me, the sensation of feeling adrift that kept echoing. 

“I don’t think you’re drifting,” she said. “I think you’re rooted in yourself.”

I told her about my guilt for sending conflicting messages to my mother, and to men.

“Of course you are,” she said. “You’re conflicted.”

“Right,” I said.

It’s cliche to remark the gulf between what we want and what we need. But that gulf is rooted in a very deep truth.

Rationally, I know what I need: to disconnect from certain relationships, and abstain from (emotional, romantic) intimacy.

But, emotionally, I am a person. And as a person, I desire  (emotional, romantic) intimacy. Due to the issues I’m trying to sort through, though, I am prone to desire the wrong kind.

Knowing what we need, unfortunately, does not–immediately, and maybe not ever–alter what we desire. 

Put another way (by my therapist to whom I should probably outsource my blog/all future writing): You can’t control who you’re attracted to.

This is, in a word, confusing. 

And can feel, in moments, like a bummer. But in others, even in this last week when I have felt buried under layers of emotion like I haven’t in a while, it can feel–oddly–empowering.

I may feel conflicted, but at least I’m aware that I do. And, at least, I’m working toward uncovering some deeper place that can hold those conflicts with less neuroses, and a little more calm.

 

 

On Isolation, Identity and Alice Miller

“When do you feel most like yourself?”

My new, dear writer friend S was sitting opposite me on the brown futon in my office/living room.

(Sidenote: I’ve moved! From one South Minneapolis house with a couple who are old friends, to another South Minneapolis house with a different couple, also friends. This time I’ve got two rooms-with the help of pals, I’ve painted my south-facing, corner-room office a gray blue, trekked to Home Depot for a batch of hanging plants, and managed to russle up enough shelves to display almost all my books. It’s, in a word, divine.)

S had just returned from a trip abroad, and we were catching one another up: her telling me about the stark, stunning beauty of Iceland, me telling her about the space I’ve lately needed to take from some family.

Related to that is a recent (therapy-driven) recognition with which S can relate: lifelong shape-shifters, we’ve been conditioned since childhood (like a lot of women, like a lot of artists) to attend to other people’s emotional needs–allowing us, too frequently, to lose sight of our own. And when your interactions with others are governed by a, to use S’s term, vigilant attention to the energies around you (sometimes, as we noted, anticipating others’ emotions before they’ve even surfaced) it can be difficult to grasp not just what you need, but who the hell you are.

So, I’ve been trying to figure that out. You know, resolving your identity at age 32–no big deal! Easy, right?

Well, no–but I don’t think I’m alone.

There’s the friend who I recently took an impulse-trip to visit in Portland, whose eyes began to bulge as I talked–”I’m glad you’re saying this,” she said. “I thought I was the only one working out my mother issues in my 30s!”

And the acquaintance who I recently bumped into at a coffee shop; she and I had only met once, but nevertheless wound up in conversation about our personal lives–specifically, how much work we’re both doing, in therapy, to sort out the childhood issues we know we’ve come up against in dating. “Gosh,” she exclaimed, caving her chest backward as she clutched a latte and looked out at Lyndale. “I swear to God, I keep having this same conversation–therapists’ offices must be flooded with women in their 30s!” (At which point, of course, we bemoaned that they are not more flooded by men…)

Also, the writer friend who I’ve been meeting for group meditation on Sunday mornings. After last Sunday’s session,  I asked her how she thinks one goes about truly, finally, seeing ourselves.

“When you find out,” she muttered as we slipped into a cafe for brunch. “Let me know.”

But back to S’s question. Because, while  I’ve considered self-discovery from different angles over the last few months (the mindfulness practice, the whole dating break thing, etc.) I hadn’t posed that simple, seemingly obvious question. And when I took a moment to consider it, what surfaced surprised me:

“When I’m writing, I guess…” I said, a little reluctantly. And then, “and when I’m in my body…really, when I’m alone.”

*

The day before, I’d caught up briefly, over the phone, with another friend who’s been out of town–my friend R, who I met in Brooklyn but reconnected with here. I shared with her what I’d shared with S.

“I want you to know that I’m here for you,” she said. “I don’t want you to feel isolated.”

A couple hours later, following a yoga class and en route to go thrifting with my friend K, I’d experience one of those rare moments of pure contentment and calm that feel, these days, like existential gold. The prior afternoon, I’d had to pull over my minivan in a north Minneapolis suburb to let out a sequence of three howls–the urgent expression of a fierce sadness and rage.

And in that moment, hearing R use the word isolated, I started to cry. In part I was touched by her caring. But I was also struck by how much that word, isolated, hit home.

I think of myself, as others probably do too, as highly social. Connected. Surrounded by many networks of peers and friends.

But there’s a difference between having friends, and having one person for whom who are top priority, a person you consistently check in with, whose job it is to know where you are–when your flight’s landed or if your doctor’s visit went okay.

And for all the vast gratitude I have for the friends who support me with generosity and tenderness, for all the ways in which I do feel good, and genuinely myself, when I’m alone, it’s true–though I hadn’t quite let myself admit it–that (choosing, for now) to be without that person, and (choosing, for now) to loosen those family ties, can feel not just sad and hard, but deeply lonely–yes, isolating

There’s no great fix for this, except to move through the moments as they come. I think there is comfort, though, in the hopeful promise that the work of discovery and healing will lead, long-term, to more moments of calm, and fewer of desperate dark.

*

Last week, in what couldn’t help but feel like glaring metaphor, three large boxes arrived on the porch of my new house–the last of my belongings from the childhood home that my parents recently sold.

As I steadied myself to open them (having zero clue what they might contain), the first thing I saw was a book–one that’s come up in conversation lately. It was first recommended to me by a beloved professor in graduate school, and recently suggested again by the writing/meditatation buddy I mentioned above.

The book is Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, and it’s one of those that should probably be required reading for most humans. I’m tempted to quote the entire first page, but I’ll restrain myself to this, which says, pretty much, everything:

“In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom.”

Cheers, friends, to that.

 

 

A Post-Valentine’s Day Dispatch: on Desire, Anne Carson, and Stepping Back

Generally speaking, I’m not big on restricting myself.

It’s February in Minnesota, for Christ’s sake. Since 2016 started, I’ve been encountering more virtuous people on various “fasts” and “detoxes,” barring themselves from ingesting anything likely to induce bloating or joy.

My response: perhaps I’d join them, were it not for the fact that I’m exerting every ounce of discipline I posses to simply wake up (in two-ish degrees), dress myself (in clothing that is warm/comfortable/masking of Winter Weight) and leave the house (aka scrape the frost/snow/ice from my oversized windshield and freeway to the suburbs, or don the numerous, ridiculous, identity-concealing accessories required to mount my bike and ride to the gym or coffee shop).

Life, in other words, is hard enough.

Which, in part, explains my initial reaction to my therapist’s suggestion (one I’ve since embraced) to take a pause from dating.

For six months.

“Oh,” she said, offering a vague extension of her arm, when I replied to this idea with an expression similar to the one college freshmen habitually give me upon being asked to read or write more than five consecutive pages. “I didn’t mean to suggest that it wouldn’t be hard.”

“Right,” I said, my eyes fixed on the floor.

At the time, I was two weeks into what I’d then labeled a one month hiatus. I’d shown up at her office all smug, content that I’d made it (mostly) so far; feeling slightly anxious, even, about the prospect of getting back on Tinder! 

But
six months: the concept sunk my ribs. I stuttered a series of opposing arguments:  I’m not that young. I want a familyI’ve been alone so much.

She nodded, patient and compassionate as ever.

“I know,” she said–reiterating that it wasn’t a requirement, just a suggestion. “But it’s something different to choose being alone.”

Here’s the thing: I’ve spent many winters by myself–as in, outside of a relationship. (Essentially, with a handful of interruptions, all of them between 1983 and now.) 

Rarely, though, have I made it very long, through any season, without the prospect or promise of another person.

So while I’ve become accustomed to living my life independently, I’ve also become accustomed to that life including some form of longing. 

And, as said therapist likes to point out, that longing is chronically misdirected–hence, the pause. (For more on said misdirection, I refer you to the preceding six years of this blog/most 30-somethings who are still single.)

*

If you are going to be alone on Valentine’s Day, you would be fortunate to spend it as I did: at a cabin-like house in deep St. Paul with the company of a sweet, shaggy dog, two angora rabbits, some coconut red lentil soup and a copy of Anne Carson’s Eros, the Bittersweet. 

I’m only a quarter of the way through the book (“forgot” to mention another V-Day companion: an embarassing number of New Girl episodes) but already, it is proving itself the kind of text that challenges you not to underline every phrase. The book’s premise is that Eros contains a paradox: a perennial tension between love and hate; through an examination of philosophy and literature, Carson explores why. 

She writes that eros is “an issue of boundaries”–that desiring another “alerts a person to the boundaries of himself, of other people, of things in general.”

“If we follow the trajectory of eros,” she writes, “we consistently find it tracing out this same route: it moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the lover himself and the hole in him, unnoticed before. Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole.”

When we experience desire, wherever (or however mis-) directed, we carve out a part of ourselves–we recognize our incompleteness.

Longing for someone can consume, excite, intoxicate–and distract from ways in which we feel less than whole. It can take us away from ourselves. 

Ourselves can be a hard place to spend time.

But, as the woman said, hard isn’t the same as not worthwhile.

And so, here I am, rather contentedly, now (the sunny porch and cuddly dog, temporary gifts, do help): shacking up.

You can’t, of course, turn off the very human tendency to seek love.

And I don’t expect that I will. (Also, I tend not to believe in radical denials–see above.) Already, I’m interpreting this hiatus loosely: I’ve gone on a couple dates, I’m open to being available were the right person to come after me. (It feels rather dramatic, in the end, with or without the accompanying forehand-to-forehead sweeping gesture, to declare myself unavailable until June.) 

But I’m not making it a priority. I’m not allowing fantasies of a particular person to take up the parts of me they so often do. I’m hoping to spend some time getting to know those parts, instead.

It might be, in some moments, difficult. But it in others (such as, say: a dance party with countless attractive women and fewer desirable men, or whilst choosing to stay home for 48 hours and eat a not insignificant amount of Extreme-flavored goldfish), it can be liberating, a relief.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a talk about sex delivered by a celibate Buddhist nun who says she’s learned more about desire while abstaining from sex than she did while having it. (I could, and probably should, write a whole nother post on this; but first, all of us should listen several, or several more times.)

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll discover about desire or love or the dimmest depths of my spirit and soul.

But for now, at least, I am settling into the promise that I might gain something: some new awareness, some shards of clarity that might equip me to begin again.

 

On Commiting, Amal and Calling In “The One”

“Two words,” she said. “Amal Clooney.”

In the form of my personal Christmas miracle, A had made an unexpected emergence from two days of bungled holiday travel, turning up home in New York twelve hours before my return flight to Minneapolis.

We sat by the window of a midtown pub.

A’s expression did not appear to include evidence that I’d shared with her the best compliment I’ve recently received: a suggestion, given around Halloween by a man with whom I’d gone on a few dates, that I might dress up as Amal Clooney–one that I opted to interpret as proof of a striking physical resemblance and with prompt, smug incredulity, shared with most people I’ve met. Somehow, I’d failed to include my closest friend.

“You didn’t tell me,” she said, shaking her head as she sipped her vodka martini and gave me a look that I understood to say, simultaneously, you look nothing like her, and, I’m exhausted, let me get on with my more important point.

Her point being: by the time she (Amal) met her husband (arguably, then, the world’s most desirable unmarried man) she had become (extremely) accomplished herself–as an international human rights lawyer who just happened to possess perfect hair and an exquisite couture wardrobe. She was so desirable because, not in spite, of her achievements.

I needed to hear this.

I needed to hear it for a few reasons.

The first, lesser reason, relates to an exchange I had this Fall with a new-ish writer friend. We were mounting our bikes en route to a literary festival in St, Paul, volleying, as new friends are wont to do, first date-ish sort of questions. I asked whether the bulk of her friends were coupled or single; she replied that nearly all of them were paired off.

“I guess my only single friends are you and…” She ticked off a few other names. “…I guess all my smart writer girlfriends…”

We proceeded to trade eyerolls and a series of stories about men we’d tried and failed to date because they don’t read books; men we’d tried and failed to date because they do read books, but prefer to be the person in the relationship that (euphamistically speaking, kind of) reads more. I told her about the (book-reading) guy who’d once told me about his friend’s observation that I was “too smart for him”–how at the time I’d heard it in flirtatious jest, and now understand it to be a sad statement of fact.

This–the tendency of some men to feel threatened by women who might intellectually outdo, or even match them–is a real (and sad) problem; unfortunately, it is one I can do nothing about.

So, on to the second reason, about which (theoretically) I can.

Let me back up.

A and I have been getting together (in bars and living rooms and lately, mostly, over iPhones) to discuss dating (and all else) for most of our adult lives. Throughout, we’ve coached one another through our opposite, equally unproductive patterns: for all my exuberance to be vulnerable and careen my heart around assorted urban enclaves, A is cautious, wary, reluctant to approach intimacy.

(A snippet of dialogue from last night: Me, ”I need to take a break from dating in January. I’m going to need so much support.” A: “I really need to date in January. I’m going to need so much support.”)

Lately, however, our conversations have taken a more formal turn.

To be specific, we are, together, reading a book. I’d tell you the title, but then you’d judge me. Okay fine, it’s called Calling in the One, and, despite the rather tacky cover illustration, it’s brilliant. “The one” is in quotes, and it actually has nothing to do with going out and meeting people, but everything to do with the kind of holistic, mindfulness-oriented self-reflection on which both A and I depend.

We have a Google doc.

Also, weekly debriefs in which we go over the lessons and exercises (sometimes meditations, sometimes journal entries) contained in each chapter.

Among the recent subjects: making commitments.

Which includes: recognizing what your purpose(s) are in life, and committing to their pursuit–with or without the romantic partner that you (if you are reading this book), are, also, committed to seeking.

I’m fortunate to feel clear about my purpose: to write. I also want to teach and build community and attend regular boot camp classes at the Blaisdell Y (and, oh yeah, find a husband), but these endeavors are secondary. I know they must remain fluid in order to enable what’s primary.

This doesn’t mean that I need to sell a lot of books before I meet my husband. (Or, hopefully, even publish one…or, you know, resolve some Thai-Cambodian border dispute…) What it does mean is that I mustn’t, in any way, temper my ambitions or goals–essentially, my life–because I haven’t yet partnered.

At the moment, I do. 

I feel more committed to staying in Minneapolis than I have to anywhere else; which is to say, not committed enough to sign a lease, buy a decent car or refrain from discussing, each time I visit NY, whether I should move back.

I feel more committed to teaching than any other path; which is to say that each time I walk in to a coffee shop a part of me wonders whether I’d be better off working as a barista.

And over the course of the (admittedly, extremely overwhelming) fall semester, one thing that felt abundantly clear is that, on those days when I stopped from hurling myself along a mental bungee cord, I felt better. I probably did a better job.

It makes sense: to invest in your life as it is enables you to be present within it.

I want to be present within my life.

I don’t want to carry around a constant, low-lying hesitation to commit myself–to a place, to a career, to a half-healthy Subaru or pricey winter sport–as though I am waiting for someone else.

Yeah, I do want that person: I want that deep, soulful connection, that partner with whom to share stories of my students and days.

I am human; and of course, I want that very much.

But I need to teach myself to know, to really, deeply in my bones know that there’s nothing I can’t do without it.

On Aging, Coping, Self-Pity and Moving Through

How are you?

Everything is a mess. I mean, I’m awful. I’m fabulous. Everything’s fabulous! How are you?

I had called A on my way home from a work event. That night I’d planned to stop by a party, but in the end, couldn’t bring myself to do it.

“It’s exactly the kind of party I should go to,” I told her: hosted by friends who I like a lot but am not super close with, a party where I knew I’d see a lot of people that, under other circumstances, I would be inclined to talk with and meet.

But I couldn’t.

“I just don’t have the energy for small talk right now,” I said. “Also, how am I supposed to answer when people say, how are you?”

As you know if you are reading this, I am an intensely open person: incapable of lying, hopelessly transparent. I can’t pretend to be okay when I’m not okay.

I (like, apparently, the co-worker of A’s who delivered the candid, cocktail party response quoted above) was not okay.

It’s been a month. A month in which I’ve gone through an (unexpected, unpleasant) breakup. Navigated pretty heavy conflict relating to family relationships. Reconnected with an old, unavailable flame–flaring up that familiar cycle of intense connection and disconnection that does not, despite past efforts to convince myself the contrary, get any easier with (relentless) repetition.

I’m inclined to write that “on top of all of that” I’m still acclimating to the new and rigorous responsibilities of college teaching, editing the journal of our prison group’s work, and balancing a handful of freelance jobs.

But the truth is that work has been a welcome escape.

It is also true that there have been days when I’ve felt so overwhelmed by emotion that I’ve had to cover up tears while teaching. It’s also true that I’ve lost many potentially productive hours to feeling sorry for myself and staring vaguely at the maple trees outside my pleasant porch windows.

Mostly, though, I have felt thankful for the direction(s) in which to focus my energies.

As A put it, in the wake of a hectic professional time of her own: “It’s so socially acceptable.”

As in, it is much easier to say, as I did to the small group of close friends assembled in my kitchen last Saturday night, that I had to go do transcription work, for example, than it is to say, I’d love to hang out with you guys but I’m feeling too sad and self-pitying to socially interact.

It is vaguely less depressing, in other words, to have one’s work to immerse oneself in–especially when that work feels meaningful–than it is to not have that.

Still, small talk is hard to avoid. Even amidst this anti-social spell, I still have to go outside. (And to the coffee shop, and the gym, and, you know, the campus where I teach.)

And it is a struggle to put on a simple, Midwestern grin and act as though I’m alright when (barely) beneath the surface I feel like I am falling apart. And so, to the extent that I can, I am avoiding situations that require me to do it.

Be choosy, my therapist advised.

As in: be careful and cautious about who you open up to.

This (see above) is hard.

There is a large part of me that yearns to open up to every other co-op shopper about the hardship of mother-daughter relationships. (That would be the part that writes this blog; the part that falls in love once every Thursday.)

But there is a sensible part of me, too: a part that understands that not everyone has the interest or the capacity to “go there”–at all, or when it comes to someone else’s or my particular problems. That all our energies are limited.

And that one of the gifts we must give ourselves during difficult times is the gift of space, and of being selective about who we bring in close and how much.

I can never write about hardship without nodding to my many good fortunes, so indulge me (in this other way) a moment: besides the basic privileges of being healthy and here,  I have so many strong, wise people from which to choose. I have generous girlfriends who feed me and then dispatch me home with bread and wine and framed art; who check in and check in and check in, who listen and listen and listen more. I have an older pseudo-mom who makes me vegan cookies and cloaks me with deep care. I have a brother and sister-in-law who are (if geographically distant) relentlessly present and funny and kind. I have books and money to buy them.

Another thing that happened in the last month is that I turned thirty-two.

Birthdays don’t feel cute anymore: they are beginning to feel, rather, like markers of mortality and stress.

But for this moment, at least, my age feels like something to a little bit celebrate: because as tough as things may feel in certain moments, I’ve lived enough, now, to trust that things will get better. That I will move through this as I’ve moved through things in the past, that things will shift, that there will be other parties that I will feel like going to, and that, yeah, everything is fucked up and a mess but also, everything is fabulous, and it’s going to be fine.

Transitions, Therapy, Yoga and Giving In

“My therapist told me to be kind to myself.”

It was 9 pm, and I was driving home from the downtown Whole Foods, where—as I was telling A over the phone—I had made a post-therapy pit stop to impulse purchase a pair of expensive probiotic beverages along with an eighteen dollar, copper-colored tube of organic mascara.

A paused. “Do you even wear mascara?”

(Answer: aspirationally?)

An hour earlier, I had practically lunged between our couches as aforementioned (new) therapist asked whether my current load of responsibilities constitutes my normal.

“Do you do this often?” She asked, her expression curdled to one of grave concern. “Overcommit?”

“No!” I said, perhaps too loud. “No. I do not.”

It is a terrible thing to be misunderstood, and especially terrible in the context of therapy. So I hastily explained that, contrary to my current reality, in general my life is not this way.

In general, I told her, my life is rather leisurely: for the three years since earning a pretty low-impact graduate degree (let’s be honest: my “dissertation” was a story about my life), I have strung together just enough work to afford a (low-cost, Midwestern city-based) lifestyle—one that leaves a surfeit of time for my own (haphazardly disciplined) writing, very regular exercise, and a pretty active social life. Also in general, I am single.

Which is to say that all the things that are generally true for me are, presently, not so much.

My therapist replied with a skeptical nod. The gravely worried look remained.

Your face may have looked similar, had I listed off (as I had for her) all that’s been going on in the last two months: how I’ve begun a new, intense teaching job (one that involves regular grading of eighty composition papers, two thirty-minute daily commutes, and conflicts with my long-beloved exercise class routine) at the same time that I’ve entered a new relationship at the same time that duties with both my prison work and freelance writing have amped up, at the same time that I have had to travel across the country four times in eight weeks to the bachelorettes and subsequent weddings for my two oldest, best friends.

Like I said: not normal.

And you can probably guess at how my nervous system has responded—not well.

Hence: kombucha and expensive beauty products that I rarely remember to use.

Also, yoga.

Here’s the thing about me and yoga: since first taking up with it five years ago, I have not been faithful. I’ve dipped in and out, for some stretches going every day, for others neglecting the practice in favor of sweatier, less mindful things like boot camp and running.

When I have turned to it, it’s been for a range of reasons: at first it was a post-break-up respite; later, a haven from drama-frought grad school moments. Sometimes I’ve gone for the activity, sometimes for the quiet, often for the simple act of leaving my phone at home and being reminded to take long breaths.

Last Thursday, between bad rush hour traffic and a bike ride/movie date with the dude, I managed to squeeze in a class.

And as the gentle-voiced teacher warmed us up with instructions for moving our arms and fingers and ankles and toes, I thought: this. This is the reason that, in this moment, yoga feels so valuable.

This being one hour in which someone else tells me what to do.

I rarely think up certain words or ideas when yoga teachers invite you to conjure an intention for class. But on Thursday, as I filled with gratitude for having a stranger control some small chunk of time, I thought of the word surrender.

There are so many ways in which our culture encourages us to assert authority over our lives. Our relationships, too, and careers and creative achievements. We are founded on the idea, after all, of self-reliance—the perverse notion that we can achieve anything through our own work.

But in infinite ways, our control is limited: our efforts mitigated by stronger forces—other people often among them. And as valuable as it is to pursue our goals and be disciplined and persevere, it can be just as necessary to give in.

Especially right now, but pretty much always, I feel a low-lying anxiety about not doing enough—not working enough, not writing enough, not being a good enough aunt or daughter or teacher or friend. (Often, this is true.)

But this anxiety is rarely productive. I hear that people exist (such as, evidently, the kind philosophy professor down the hall who has taken to checking in with me while making copies, occasionally taking a staple or two and always leaving a nugget of teaching or life-related advice), who, respond to busyness with relentless and efficient efforts to manage their time.

My response, on the other hand, is to get so overwhelmed as to feel panicked, and then paralyzed—such that I do nothing but lean back in my windowless office chair, stalk strangers on Facebook, feel horribly guilty for all the things I should be doing but am not, and daydream about sex. (Oh, hello, Thirty-One-Year-Old Female Body, is there something you’re trying to say? Sheesh.)

Fortunately, I can most often summon the tools to override this tendency. I meet deadlines. Eventually, uncomfortably, I do get things done.

But in this transitional moment, with all those normals upended and my nervous system in a basic state of what the fuck, that yoga class seemed like a significant reminder that giving myself kindness can mean, in some moments, giving in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On What Our 30s Do and Don’t Bring, and a Birthday Message to My Dearest R

On Tuesday morning, word leaked around the gym that my friend R was about to turn 30.

The surrounding women struck up a familiar chorus, one that echoed all the reasons why this is such a great thing:  Your thirties are so much better! You’re so much more confident. More together! More yourself. You know who you are. I was so glad to be finished with my twenties.

A barbell awkwardly draped across my back, I took a moment to reflect on how the (small!) fraction of my adult life that I’ve spent in the 30-something section compares with the rest. It was very humid in the gym and I was anticipating that the clip on the right end of my barbell would fall off, again, so the moment was brief: reflexively, internally, I concurred with the crowd. Yeah, sure, I thought, in these last twenty-two months I have felt stronger and more self-aware, happier and more confident than I did before.

And then, later, post-shower and teaching and less encumbered by iron, I remembered Friday.

The thing about Friday was that, in the end, it wound up being a good day. A great day! A great night, even. But in the morning, I came close to losing my mind.

For reasons that I am currently seeking a therapist to explore, the mere prospect of having to make photocopies and a (three column!) spreadsheet, paired with some vague (and, ultimately, irrational) anxiety relating to communication with the man I have been (sort of suddenly, somewhat seriously) dating, compounded by (not unrelated) extreme exhaustion, combined to set me on edge of what I was sure resembled a panic attack.

Oh, I thought. Maybe my thirties are not so together after all…

And then I reflected on what I did next:

I went to FedEx and made the aforementioned copies.

Intermittently, remembered to take deep breaths.

Resolved, that evening, to go to yoga.

Called a dear friend: one who, I was sure, would understand.

She understood. Talked me down. (On love: “I know, you think you’re cursed. I think that sometimes, too. You just need to let go a little bit and give it time.” More importantly, on spreadsheets: “We’re creative people. Microsoft Excel makes me want to throw up, too.”)

Taught my class, which, reliably, vanishes other problems.

Afterwards, visited with a St. Paul friend who toured me around her community garden and plied me with pineapple rings and white wine before dispatching me, purse full of tomatoes, to yoga and later drinks with aforementioned fellow.

By Saturday morning I felt, if a tad sleepy, like a normal, happy human being. I issued a missive to the small cohort of women with whom I’d been in touch during Friday’s meltdown: Thanks for listening, I wrote. Feeling much better and more secure.

To one of them, I added: …at least for today.

In fact, my run of strength lasted a solid few days. But by Thursday, I had resumed life resembling a certain, red-haired character from that infamous children’s book: leaving a bottle of almond oil unsealed in a gym bag next to clean clothes and my computer, such that said bottle exploded all over the surrounding items, causing me to ruin some shorts, be late to teach, and (indirectly, sure) trip going upstairs at The Loft, stub my big toe, and spill a not super small amount of coffee.

After, miraculously, making it through my class without incident, rather than attempting a productive afternoon, I rode my bike to the movie theatre across the river: I saw Trainwreck, spent eight dollars on soda and popcorn without a blink, and felt only a flicker of shame when I cried at the movie’s absurd climax, in which two low grade guilty pleasures (the Knicks City Dancers and certain Billy Joel songs) happily, ridiculously, collide.

Thanks for listening.

I hope you’re feeling better about your Thursday morning, and perhaps your organizational skill set.

But, too, I hope you appreciate the thing at which I am, rather slowly and perhaps vaguely, trying to get: that, even in one’s thirties, and likely forever, we fuck up. We freak out for ridiculous reasons. We spill expensive organic products that we have just bought. We stub our fucking toes.

But, hopefully, as the years accrue, we get a little bit better at how we respond: we collect wise women friends to remind us of important truths. We indulge in cheesy movies and overpriced snacks when the afternoon calls. We remember that exercise always, always helps.

We get, in short, a bit better at being compassionate with ourselves.

So today, on the day after one of my dearest friends officially crossed the thirty-mark, I want to tell her that not terribly much is going to change. She will continue to sometimes suffer anxiety and sadness and difficult mornings and frustrating weekends. But she will also become more and more able to make those things mean less. And, for whatever it’s worth, I’m happy to hang around, and maybe even be of some small help, whilst she does.

Happy thirty, R: let’s fuck up, freak out (slightly less), and fill ourselves with all varieties of pizza and love, this decade and beyond.

 

Some Notes On Prospects, Feelings, Being Boring and Being Real

“I think he sounds like your best prospect in a while.”

My friend S took a bite of her oversized burger.

I cradled my spoon beneath a bowl of sun-colored soup.

I said, “You know he lives in a different time zone?”

S nodded, flashed the hint of a smug smile. “Yeah,” she said. “I do.”

I recalled the last time someone made such a comment. It was last summer, whilst having a drink with my grad school friend D. We were on a South Minneapolis patio, and had just run into a local bartender in whom I was then interested. Not long after that, said bartender and I went on a date. He didn’t ask me out again, but did, one afternoon two weeks later when he, evidently, had about thirty minutes to spare, attempt to lure me to his house. (“Is this an afternoon booty call?” “Yes.” Truly.)

I don’t offer these exchanges to discredit D or S, both of whom, I wholely trust, hold the interests of my heart deeply in theirs. To them, a good prospect is someone who (to the best of their knowledge) genuinely likes me.

Nor do I want to diminish the (many) merits of the prospect of whom S spoke.

I report them, rather, to highlight some recent, redundant chapters in the ongoing saga that is my love life, working title, Predictable Pursuits in Pointedly Unavailable Men. (Forgive me: when it comes to alliteration and men whose creative/professional ambitions preclude paying me much mind, I am weak.)

Some days after lunch with S, I flew to New York and was between turbo visits with friends and family when I walked the length of Park Slope and called my grandmother.

S and my grandmother belong to the same generation. S, however, is not my grandmother. And in the ten years since I stopped seriously dating her son, she’s grown comfortable asking, rather directly, about my sex life.

My grandmother, on the other hand, prefers a less forward approach.

We spent the first ten minutes of our conversation dancing around the topic, covering items like Donald Trump and the varying health of family dogs. Then, How’s your social life?

Also because she is my grandmother (her initial, as some may recall from the time when we were roommates, also happens to be S), I tend to give her a hard time.

“If by social life you mean, literally, social life, than it’s great. But I have a feeling that isn’t what you mean. I have a feeling what you mean is men.”

“Well, they might be included in your social life…”

“Yeah,” I said. “They are. And it’s terrible.”

“Oh, dear. Why is that?”

I was walking alongside the Prospect Expressway, and the traffic was loud, and so was the wind.

“Ugh,” I said. “It’s the same as always. I fall for men who aren’t available and can’t get excited about the ones that are.”

Grandmother S may hold back on the interrogation side of things, but, bless her Manhattan-raised soul, this is not the case when it comes to judgment.

“Well,” she said. “That isn’t exactly original.”

“I know,” I replied. “Tell me about it.”

Equally cliché is the attendant question: But, would you be more into him if he were less into you? Or, Would you be as into him if he were more into you?

The short answer to both questions is, of course, always, I have no idea.

But then there are the other short answers, which are, respectively, Probably, and Probably not.

To elaborate: when the touring musician who literally can’t find time to launder his towels doesn’t text me for several days/months, I’m left with a surplus of hours in which to question his level of interest. But the available guy? The one who visits when he says he will and says all the things I theoretically wanna hear? I don’t have to waste a minute worrying about his affections, and can instead go straight to exploring all the ways in which he may or may not diverge from the Imaginary Man Who I Still, Stubbornly, Think Should Be My Husband.

The problem with this extended answer is that, while interesting, it ultimately leaves one exactly where one began: with short answer number one. One, still, has no idea.

*

“Haven’t seen a blog post in a while…”  Available Prospect recently commented.

“Yeah…” I said. I didn’t explain. I couldn’t.

Here’s a thing:

It’s bad enough feeling bad because you have a strong, mutual connection with someone who is unable to date you.

It’s worse to feel like there’s something wrong with you because this has been a pattern throughout your adult (okay fine, and adolescent) life.

Add to that the guilt of boring your readers because, as Grandmother S succinctly phrased it, your love life is so unoriginal.

And, oh yeah, the fear of hurting people you care about. (A: “You tend to spend a lot of time thinking about your broken heart, but man, you’ve broken a lot of them, too.” Me: “But it’s so much easier to dwell in sadness than hurting others!”)

You know, it’s enough to keep a girl blogger quiet for roughly six weeks.

Here’s another thing: as I discussed with some budding creative writers the other night, no one wants a victim narrative. In literature, as in life, we’re interested in characters who act, who take accountability for their choices, who make choices. We’re less interested in what terrible circumstances befell people than how they chose to respond.

And, sweet readers, I am making no choices. I am sitting here in a quiet, sunny, south-facing room north of downtown Minneapolis, hiding from choices. (Also, my novel draft. Which, quietly existing, as it does, as a nonverbal file on my hard drive, is a terribly easy task.)

Instead, I am thinking about my conversation with A over drinks at a quiet French bar in Greenwich Village last week. I’m thinking about the different words she and I used to describe a shared feeling: for her it was grief, for me it was a tossup between anxiety and sadness. It’s something we both recognize as a constantly present sensation. A low-lying layer of, well, Name Your Own Feeling, that we deal with daily.

Sometimes ‘dealing with it’ means trying to ignore it, or cover it up with things like popcorn and reality TV. Other times it means tending to it, with yoga or friendship or writing or inordinate-seeming tears.

It’s the product of not having something you deeply want, compounded by being at a stage in life where not having this thing sets you apart from the bulk of your peers (have I mentioned how many weddings I’m going to this summer?) and subjects you to a vicious stigma that suggests inherent flaws with your body/brain/capacity to be loved.

I know, people. It’s uninteresting and unoriginal as hell.

But damn, is it real.

 

On Patience, and Letting Go

When you are three months out of graduate school, at the end of a summer spent walking around Prospect Park and writing wretched revisions of your MFA thesis, a Big Deal Writer whose work you admire and with whom you have a very loose connection might, generously, offer to meet you for a glass of wine.

She might, unexpectedly, talk with you about the structure of your memoir, which she hasn’t read, but, based solely on your conversation, is able to grasp and talk through so expertly that you use her name in the subject line of subsequent drafts.

And then, three years and countless revisions later, when you are on the verge of sending out said memoir (drafting a query letter, making final line edits, setting yourself a hard June deadline), you might run into said writer at a conference and take her up on her offer to meet again, when she visits Minneapolis the following month.

You might giggle at the neon hotel bar with the techno soundtrack and the drunk, overdressed couple behind you, wrapping each other in slinky dance moves.

And you might sit there as she, again, without having read a word, and with no motive besides a disarmingly generous, empathic spirit and seemingly supernatural quality of wisdom, says the painful words that are also the exact ones you need to hear: You know it isn’t ready. 

*

One spring day a couple of years ago, A and I walked down a side street in the West Village. This was during a brief section of time we then recognized as charmed: both of us living in New York and working from coffee shops, coaching one another through tough, transitional times. (As, we’ve since learned, most of them are…)

I was feeling better about the manuscript at that point, but still not great. And I’d spent that afternoon struggling. I told her.

“I just listened to this really great podcast,” A said. We were crossing Mercer, side-stepping NYU kids with earbuds and denim coats. “It was about failure.”

My muscles stiffed.

“It was just about how, it’s such an important skill, as an artist. You know, to recognize when something isn’t working, and to let it go.”

I don’t remember what I said. I remember that I listened the way you listen to someone giving someone else driving directions, or the way you listen to something you’re not ready to hear.

It isn’t, now, that I am accepting failure.

I still hope, and believe, that a time may come when I will be able to finish this book.

But in this moment, I am accepting that that time isn’t now, or, likely, anytime soon. I am letting go of the way I thought things would go; accepting that my writerly life will unfold not how I wish it would, but as it must.

It isn’t pretty.

On Friday night, after talking with Dani, I biked home in tears. I’d forgotten my lights, again, and the mix of danger and disruption had me rush through downtown in a dizzy, slightly drunken cocktail of panic: I might get hit, I might have lost the primary purpose that had come to organize my mornings and afternoons.

When I got home, I let rip. I let my body heave with emotion, with shock, with loss. In the days since, I’ve felt something like grief.

But along with it, and perhaps even more strongly, I’ve felt relief.

I knew, I know, that the urge I felt to rush that book into the world didn’t come from certainty that it was ready. It came, instead, from impatience. From the desire to get on with it, to be done. Also, ego. (“But Dani, it makes such a difference to have a book in the world!” I moaned. She didn’t miss a beat. “No,” she said. “It doesn’t.”)

I had tried to convince myself of it’s doneness, I’ve realized, in much the same way I’ve tried to convince myself that I was in the right relationship. I have to assume that, when a book project does feel complete, and when the right (or, a right) person appears, I will feel some tendril of doubt: I don’t think we find total certainty when it comes to art, or to love.

And it is easy, when you’ve never finished a book or found a right person, to assure yourself that the grave, deep doubt at the bottom of your belly that you know should be troubling you, perhaps halting you, is simply normal. That this might be as close to complete, as close to right, as you’ll get.

It’s easy, in other words, when you want something deeply, to tell yourself stories and convince yourself it’s yours.

*

The morning before meeting Dani for a drink I got the good news that a wonderful journal will publish a new, weird poem of mine. I also got an email from an old friend, writing to tell me she’d connected with a recent blog.

It seemed to be some small gesture of foreshadowing, and of comfort: a reminder that in fact, my writing energies are driving me elsewhere. That even if I’m letting go, for now, of one project, it is worthwhile to pursue others.

In moments, I remember that. That things are right as they are, where I am.

And in others, of course, I despair.

“I just try to touch it once a day,” A said. Last night, I stood in my kitchen and talked to her on the phone; she was in her Lower East Side apartment, listening. “That feeling that everything’s perfect.”

And that, I replied, is the thing that we truly must remember.

Not just to be patient, but that it will always be hard. That those moments when we find patience, when we touch the reassuring idea that what is is what’s right, will so often elude us.

That no matter how much we meditate or trust ourselves or practice mindulness and intention, there will (if we’re lucky) be parts of the day when we feel strong, and others when we crumple with impatience and doubt.

*

You know how it goes: when a subject is on your mind, the universe has a way of surfacing all that relates.

So it was that, earlier this week, I opened Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I opened it in search of some morsel I might share with my Monday night class as we began our segment on poetry. Instead, I stumbled on the passage below, which says, I think, everything:

There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!