On Transitions, Cuddles, and The Swings of Self-Care

“You need to hold yourself like a baby.”

My friend J and I were sitting on the side of a hiking trail on the eastern edge of Taos, eating cheese wrapped in red wax and examining white wildflowers and talking about what will happen when we leave.

She has some flux in her life as well, but more certainty than I. During my three months in Taos I’ve managed to upend just about everything that was stable when I arrived: my apartment, my relationship. Even my connections with family feel shifted—hurled into a different light by the (abrupt) process of change.

J turned to look at me as she held her arms out in the shape of a cradle. “Just imagine that you’re holding yourself like a child. Just imagine you need to give yourself that kind of care.”

Self-care is one of those wiggly terms whose meaning never seems to cease sliding. What does it mean to be good to yourself? It depends on what it is you need—and knowing that, it turns out, is the hard part. More and more I’m realizing how deeply, frighteningly difficult it is to know what we want: in relationships, in people, in place, in nurture. It’s easy to mistake proximity for understanding; learning our own needs takes as much work as learning those of others’. Maybe even more.

Eventually, the work I’ll be returning to is figuring out my needs in the long term. But right now, as one transition glides into another, I’ve got to focus on the immediate ones: the urgent care that I can give myself.

Which has meant, mostly, a lot of touch.

“I kind of can’t be alone,” I told A over the phone, explaining how I had spent the last couple of weeks bouncing between friends and visiting family, heaving myself into their arms, emotionally and physically. “Do you think that’s strange?”

“Are you kidding?” she laughed. “Of course you can’t be alone. Don’t.”

I’m not. I’ve spent a lot of time lying prone on friends’ floors. Draping my legs across laps. Going for hikes and walks with my arms stitched through another’s. Cuddling in a king size hotel bed with my ten-year old niece (who managed to take up a shocking amount of it). The little time I’ve found myself without company I’ve filled with baths and melancholy folk songs: Bob Dylan and Gillian Welch. Some writing. A lot of herbal tea.

“Your pulse feels homeless.”

I also spent a few hours with a woman who does Ayurvedic healing: tall and regal with a heavy French accent and penetrating green eyes, she recoiled when she saw my tongue (“It could be the poster child for anxiety!”) and paused when she held onto my wrist.

“Homeless?”

She nodded: empathic, but not exactly alarmed.

She left me with a Ziploc bag of an unpleasant-tasting wheat-colored powder. A list of foods to favor and others to avoid. Shockingly accurate insights into my restless soul.

Also, a few pieces of rather significant wisdom.

“You need to be your own mother,” she said. “You will become a mother later. But you can begin now by becoming a mother to yourself.”

In her opinion, this would mean feeding myself with more regularity and better nutrition. Taking the time to sit still each day. Learning to quiet the deep, fiery panic that resides within me and trust that regardless of where or with whom I end up, I will be alright.

In other words: cradling myself like a child.

I’m going to try it out. I’m going to keep seeking what kind of self-care will serve me best in the future. And for the moment, before I leave Taos and pack boxes and resolve loose ends and begin to make yet another round of Big Decisions, I’m going to give myself permission to lie on the floor and hold on tight to all the warm people in my path.

 

 

On Re-Orienting, Taos, And the Hardship of Heading Home

“I can’t believe we’re leaving so soon.”

A couple of my fellow Wurlitzer residents and I were having dinner together at a Middle Eastern restaurant in town. A chalkboard on the wall described its’ vision as promoting peace “through evolving people’s consciousness and taste buds.”

We slunk down towards our pita, homemade in the name of harmony, and commiserated about the fact that being in Taos is not unlike being on a different planet.

“Three months seemed so long,” someone said. It had been about two since we arrived. Then, departure seemed a remote, un-envisionable destination. Now it feels like a brick wall toward which we’re being driven, unwittingly.

I was reminded of this conversation a few days later, in a yoga class at the airy, light-filled studio with wood-beamed ceilings where I have been spending much time. As he guided the class through a series of physically demanding postures, the teacher reminded us to re-situate our bodies at every opportunity—to take each chance, whether bent in a soft forward fold or standing in a fierce warrior pose, to take stock, soften the breath. The usual yoga stuff. Except he used a particular phrase that struck me: continuous re-orientation.

That’s what we have to keep doing, always, he said.

Not only in our bodies, of course, but in our minds, our selves. We’re constantly re-orienting, in terms of our internal state, but, probably more often, based on our external context: where we are, and with whom. It’s unconscious, how we gently rotate our manners and personas depending on what surrounds us. It’s also exhausting.

Taos, somehow, demands less of that action.

The space is so open, so generous, the community so eclectic and spiritual, one can almost feel the mountain holding out it’s arms: inviting you to relax, stay a while, be whoever it is you’re meant to be, at this very particular moment in time! It’s the opposite invitation of a hectic urban environment, with its message of Keep up! Get someplace! Keep busy! Do something!

It’s not difficult to understand why so many permanent residents have come here as an escape from previous versions of themselves: post-divorce, post-mid-life crisis, post-professional reinvention or spiritual awakening. To say nothing of the breathtaking scenery, the perimeter of spacious sage fields and rolling peaks, Taos demands that you know what you want (the space will strangle you otherwise), but it allows that desire to take whatever shape.

And then there’s the fact that my co-residents and I don’t actually live here. (Yet.) Most of us have really lovely lives in the places we’re from: New York, San Francisco, England, Atlanta. Good partners and cozy apartments and supportive groups of friends. It’s no reflection of our home lives that we are so loathe to go back.

But going back means (in addition to leaving the majectic scenery and life-altering green chile breakfast burritos), going back to that normal pattern of constant re-orientation.

It’s difficult, and perhaps, for most people, undesirable to lead a purely creative life. Most of us who choose to make art a part of our lives must also wear additional hats to get by: in academia or advertising, journalism or graphic design. Even those who don’t have other relationships in which we play different roles—daughter, girlfriend, brother, uncle, friend. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it does require a constant re-situating of our identities and minds.

Being in Taos has given us the rare opportunity to focus, as exclusively one can, on the creative piece of ourselves.

And in that sense, it’s no surprise that the prospect of going home, of returning to the “real world” in which we must inhabit not just one but a whole series of selves, in which we must be constantly re-orienting to the people and places around us, sounds hard.

On The Noise, The Process, Listening to Others and Yourself

“Trust yourself.”

The woman with wavy red hair and painted lips stood in front of a life-size, watercolor John Wayne. She leaned her elbows on a case of vintage turquoise and baskets of silver.

“I learned the hard way,” she said, telling me how she’d quit three waitressing jobs to take a gamble on supporting her kids as a stunt double. How she’d tried to make it in Nashville and misunderstood the rules on her way to writing a Country Song of The Year. (Never know who you’ll meet in Taos!)

I’d just finished telling her how the anxiety of waiting for feedback on my first book was making it hard to focus on the new project I’d just begun.

She’d nodded, empathic, and smiled as she told me to “let go of my ego.” And repeated that phrase: Trust yourself.

The words seemed to strike at the heart of where my head’s been lately—or rather, where I’ve been trying to get it.

Here’s one suggestion: if you’re setting out for a day of novel-writing, try not to begin it by reading this article. And try not to take personally the endless stream of rejections, or the news of diminishing, risk-averse publishers, or the emails that talented friends receive in which editors lavishly praise their work before, mysteriously, taking a pass. In other words: shut your eyes and ears.

I’m trying. Switching over to a data-free flip phone, circa 2006. It’s a step—one I imagine will send me into something like heroin or sugar withdrawal before setting me, hopefully, a little more free.

But the noise won’t go away, since most of it is in my own head.

The endless, boring self-doubts: Is my story worth telling? Are these sentences any good? Will anyone ever read them? Should they?

It’s perhaps unsurprising that at an artist colony, (if that term eludes you, see this) the question arises: why do we make art? In a climate where the prospects of one’s work ever meeting the world feel so bleak, the query takes on a sharper edge. Without faith that our writing will ever be seen, what should motivate us to get up in the morning, put our heads down, silence the noise, and get to work?

“What if your writing wasn’t appreciated until after you’d died?” V, a British artist and filmmaker and my neighbor at the residency, serves as both collective muse and spiritual guide. She meditates for hours a day.

Across my kitchen table, another neurotic writer from New York and I exchanged a wary glance.

“Sure,” we both muttered.

“But I mean…” I hesitated. “It would kind of suck.”

V summoned us to think of everything in the world as connected, to detach our self-worth from our art, to fulfill ourselves with the process instead of it’s end.

The next morning I took a break from the novel and dashed off a comedic story, feeling smug that I’d actually found pleasure in the writing. And the day after that, I could hardly wait to share the piece and send it into the world. So much for process.

When I left the stuntwoman/country singer’s shop my eyes were wet with ambiguously derived tears: or maybe not so ambiguous. I’d managed to get through two days of writing that didn’t make me totally hate myself, and then ruined it with an abrupt panic over my first book’s word count. (iPhone: be gone!)

I walked to the indie bookstore and listened to an employee explain to a customer that, yes, it was easy to click the button on Amazon and writers could release work there, but they’d never get paid. I bought a book. Across the street I plopped myself down at a diner and ordered an oversized breakfast burrito. (Just, because.) Outside, small pebbles of hail fell from the gray clouds slipping west over from Taos Mountain.

I pulled out my notebook and pushed myself to answer that question: why?

All of my answers felt like tired clichés. For the fun of it. Because it helps me make sense of things. Because I like it! Because, as Alison put it the other night on the phone, I don’t really have a choice?

Flustered, I remembered those words—Trust Yourself—and decided to resolve that, for the moment at least, they serve as answer enough.

Notes on Rejection and Awe

When one sends out an essay on Friday and by Monday has received not one, or two, but three (three!) rejection letters, it’s difficult not to feel as though the universe is trying to tell one something.

One perk of being a person with a merely blithe belief that the universe tells one things is the attendant ease with which one can then decide what the universe is saying: in this case, of course, I concluded the universe was (rather harshly) urging me to write about getting rejected three times in forty-eight hours.

Unfortunately, all I have to say about said subject amounts to: Ouch.

Or, if I must elaborate: No matter how deeply, intellectually, I understand that all writers, even famous, brilliant writers, have gotten (still get!) their work (even good work!) rejected lots and lots of times before they get it published, no matter how many times I send work into the world only to have it come back with the literary equivalent of ‘Thanks, but who cares,’ no matter how earnestly I assure myself that it’s inevitable, that rejection is going to happen, and that it doesn’t (necessarily) mean that I am (as a person) a failure or (as a writer) failing, it still fucking sucks.  

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to move on to another, more positive, but, in a sense, equally stifling emotional experience:

Awe.

As I mentioned, I’ve been making some rather pitiful, highly unusual attempts to write poems. In effort to render said attempts less pitiful, I did what any self-respecting baby poet would do, and took out some library books—including How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch.

“The spirit of poetry is awe,” Hirsch writes.

That line hit home. Indeed, my awe-inspiring surrounding are just what’s jiggered this impulse to write poems, after thirty years in which I’ve done well to avoid it: the thick, towering cottonwood trees in my yard, the snow-covered mountains in the landscape, the way they appear a different shade of stunning below every angle of the sun and formation of clouds.

Of course, merely experiencing that moment of awe isn’t enough; perhaps, I wondered, one reason why it’s so damn difficult to write a good poem is because it is so challenging to animate, or explore, or even share, the experience of awe.

One of my favorite sections in Geoff Dyer’s totally cynical, totally awesome book Out of Sheer Rage is this moment, where he describes regarding the ocean:

The sea: you watch it for a while, lose interest, and then, because there is nothing else to look at, go back to watching it. It fills you with great thoughts which, leading nowhere and having nothing to focus on except the unfocused mass of the sea, dissolve into a vacancy which in turn, for want of any other defining characteristic, you feel content to term ‘awe.’

 

There is something inherently unsatisfying in the word ‘awe:’ it describes the impact of being struck by something, beauty or brilliance, usually the likes of which we can’t quite comprehend—but does nothing to explain it.

And, being human, we aren’t content to know that something makes us feel awe. We need to know why. It’s that pesky, ineffable need: to narrate, to explain, to create causal relationships.

A paradox of literature, and maybe all art, is that we’re endlessly striving to capture an experience that can’t be captured. Of course, art doesn’t derive its beauty or significance solely from its proximity to truth. And yet, authenticity matters: particularly when it comes to words, often what makes us swoon is recognition—the sensation of yes, I know that, that is me, that feels real.

How, then, to render the truth of something as gauzy, as deeply personal, as, often, inarticulate, as the experience of awe?

But it’s one thing to render awe, and another, quite different thing to actually experience it. In order to even contemplate the former, it seems one had better get good at the latter. And, like many an impatient, progress-driven Americans, I struggle: I can hardly notice a mountain or cloud or sea before I notice my noticing…and it’s hard to observe a moment that hardly has a chance to happen. Like Dyer, I content myself to term the experience “awe”…and then set about trying to describe an experience I’ve barely had.

(Not that I intended to even try and make this cohere, but what the heck. Perhaps that aim of lingering in the awe can be instructive when it comes to managing rejection: there are certain moments in which we must allow ourselves to linger. And others, like when you’re told you’re shitty, that you had best leave right quick.)

But anyway. I guess we’re really talking about the same mental muscle when it comes to experiencing awe, writing poems, and even reading them: the one that allows us to slow down and pay attention. Tomorrow, promise, I’ll start meditating.

 

 

On Imposter Syndrome, Coffee Rocks, And Being a Resident Artist

“I mean, I’m not going to knock on your door and ask you to show me your paintings or stories!”

Across from me, the Most Genial Man in New Mexico laughed. A painter from Memphis sat to my left; both of us wriggled in our seats. I muttered: “Maybe you should…”

We chuckled, nervously.

“No really,” the man continued, explaining how the woman who began the foundation didn’t just want artists to come and create, but also to provide them respite from their normal, urban lives.

“If you want to sleep for three months,” he said, “that’s totally fine.”

I didn’t say: Maybe for you! But I thought it.

The last, and only other time I attended an artists’ residency, I had a concrete goal: to write a new draft of my book manuscript. I had five weeks, and I used every minute (well, every minute that I wasn’t falling in love with N…) to get the thing done.

This time, I have three months, and my objectives are less concrete. When I applied, I assumed I’d be editing that book manuscript, still. I might. But at the moment it’s on pause. And so: I find myself with a cute little casita of my own, a lot of time, no obligations, and, evidently, an expectation no greater than a solid nap.

I am vastly grateful: for the charming space surrounded by tall cottonwoods, for the picnic table outside and the snowy mountains jutting along the horizon and the rock crystals that, for one dollar, a nearby coffee shop suggests you put in your coffee to aid with walking an unknown (presumably internal?) path.

And perhaps most of all, I am grateful to sit across from an exceptionally nice man (no superlative can really suffice) who makes me mint tea, looks me in the eye, and regards me as part of a community of artists–all selected on the basis of their work to come to this beautiful place, and do whatever.

Imposter syndrome. It’s the feeling I never had the words for until graduate school, when my advisor explained it.

“Every writer suffers from it,” he announced, his voice flat. “I still do.”

All artists are are beset with twin compulsions: to relentlessly expose ourselves, our intimate, deeply personal (regardless of subject matter) work to the world; and then, to relentlessly worry that it isn’t good. That we aren’t good.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that no amount of validation can convince us not only that something we’ve made is decent, but that we, personally, are worthy of acclaim–even that we are worthy of being dubbed an “artist.”

“If any writer is going places, it is Laura Van Den Berg.” That was Publishers Weekly in 2013. When asked by The Rumpus whether she ever felt she’d made it as a writer, she said, first “Not even remotely,” and then, something I’m sure I’ve heard other writers say: “I’m only as good as the next project. I’m only as good as the next book.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are moments: that split second right after someone sends you a nice email, or you get something published, or three hundred people hit “like” on your beloved blog post…oh wait, that never happens.

But anyway, those moments come, and then they go. And that is okay. Many writers say this insecurity is what drives them, that the need to constantly prove ourselves is what compels us to keep going.

But there is the danger that we give up: that those moments come fewer and farther between (as, for periods of time, they inevitably do), that we spend so much time doubting that we let ourselves believe the internal cynic, and we stop.

And so, while I would like to think that I will do more in these next three months than sleep, I appreciate that the value in this experience is so much more than what I might make, and so much more than the inspiration or rest I might get: simply being acknowledged, somewhat formally, by someone who is not my grandmother or my roommate or my grad school peer, that I am, indeed, a writer.

So far I have been passing the days walking around town. Reading books. Doing some yoga. Getting to know the other residents: a varied group of artists that could make the New Jersey turnpike interesting, much less a town where no one blinks at Coffee Rocks and half the (white) population has dreadlocks. And writing: mostly fiction and poetry that I’m pretty sure are unreadable.

At first, I felt something like panic: I have three months to write! I should be drafting another book! Not dabbling in genres in which I am completely worthless!

And who knows what’ll end up happening between now and April, when I go home. It’s a lot of time. But what I’m realizing is that what matters even more than what I do here is what happens when I do get home–rejuvenated, inspired, reeking of patchouli, and, hopefully, resolved to keep writing.

 

 

 

 

On Moving Back to a Place

Here is a significant sampling of the very few things I know for sure:

1. I would like to eat a Golden Pride breakfast burrito every day forever.
2. There is no place I would less like to be than any car in any city during rush hour.
3. Tomorrow is the weekend. I think.
4. Moving back to a place is a funny thing.

I’d hate to overwhelm you with my profundity, so I’ll stop there.

As you may have guessed (okay, one last thing all of us know: the last item on any list tends to be the most important/punchy), it’s that last one I’d like to discuss.

Because, for the last six months that I have been living in the Twin Cities, a place I lived before, but not in a while, “a funny thing” has been the awkward zenith of my descriptive capacity.

Another thing we sort of kind of all know (last thing for reals this time) is that perspective yields clarity, along with, sometimes, enhanced describing acumen. And so, now that I have temporarily launched myself, hyperactive puppy style, into another kind-of-sort-of familiar place (Taos, New Mexico, where I’ve spent a total of about four weeks in life and have just arrived for a three month writing residency*), it feels an opportune time to take a whack at writing about my return to Minnesota.

As the Internet often illustrates, when you don’t have anything particularly significant to say, it’s nifty to disguise your thoughts in list form. Alas, here you are:

*What happens when you mix together eighteen acres, Taos, New Mexico, three months, and eleven artists uprooted from their jobs/partners/homes many miles away? Stay tuned.

1) People move on/still exist even though you forget them.  

Soon after I moved to Minneapolis, I had a conversation with an old friend in which she mentioned a woman who both of us used to know and whom I hadn’t thought of in nine years.

“Oh, her!” I said. “So, you still hang out with her?”

“Um, yeah,” my friend said, agreeably. (Cause, you know, she’s Midwestern and all.)

She could have said, “I see her a lot,” or “Of course I do,” or, “Just because you leave, Elizabeth, people don’t stop hanging out.” All of which would have been totally fair.

Intellectually, it’s obvious that things continue to exist even when we don’t live near them/ they aren’t on Facebook or Instagram. But the whole “out of sight…” thing isn’t small: we only have so much space to which we can pay attention; tenuous ties and sizable distance inevitably take hold.

2) Minneapolis and Saint Paul are different cities.

This may seem intuitive, but when two towns sit right beside each other and share a boundary so elusive that even natives are often unsure which one they’re passing through, the divergent characters of each place are worth noting.

I went to college in Saint Paul: half my time there was spent within the confines of a bitty college campus; the other half within a radius of no more than a mile. My friends and I explored the occasional Minneapolis diner or record store, but for the most part we stayed nearby, in the well-heeled, Whole Foods-progressive neighborhood that Jonathan Franzen so aptly skewered.

Here’s what I have re-learned in the last six months:**

* Minneapolis hipsters are really really hipster-ish, like, to the degree that, if not for the negative thirty five degree wind chill, you might think you were in Portland.
* St. Paul hipsters are mostly in college. (And later might become Minneapolis hipsters, if they don’t move home to Iowa or try to make it in Chicago.)
* Minneapolis is denser, busier, and more fast-paced.
* Saint Paul (or, as one old friend used to refer to it, “Saint Small,”) has more old-world charm. It’s sleepier, has majestic residential neighborhoods with more character than those in Minneapolis, and is pleasantly less concerned with being Chicago.

**Yes, what’s happening is a list within a list. Believe it.

3) Both cities have a lot of suburbs, and a startling number of them start or end, confusingly, with the word “maple.” 

4) Smells really bring you back! Also, you don’t know anyone anymore.

A couple of weeks ago I met N at a coffee shop near my old college campus: a coffee shop where I’d spent literally hundreds of hours as a student, studying American history and literature and, mostly, preening. The décor was identical, the scent of roasting beans exactly as thick.

The place was packed. I couldn’t stop looking around: surely I’d know somebody there, surely somebody there would know me.

Nope.

My rational brain knows that people and places move on without you; my rational brain knows that nine years is a really long time, especially when expensive and transient liberal arts college neighborhoods are involved. But my senses seem sadly slow to catch up.

5) Sounds also bring you back! And, again, things and people change.

Recently, I went to a yoga class taught by a friend. It was the first class I’d been to in ages, and the music (Hanuman! Hanuman!) and the postures transported me right back to Albuquerque: I began to feel wistful for my old studio and friends there…only to realize how many of them had already left, too; how different the place would be if I were to go back. How, most often, the places we leave are never again the way we left them.

6) New bars and restaurants open a lot!

Right???

7) College acquaintances are people too!

One thing about having gone to school with fewer than two thousand others is that, by the time you graduated, you recognized pretty much everyone in your class. You probably didn’t know their name, but there’s a good chance (especially if they’re the same race as you, which, probably, they were) that you knew them by association: they were on the soccer team, or sang acapella, or hung out with a bunch of kids who smoked severe amounts of pot. There’s also a good chance that you know very little else, say, nine years later, when you run into them at a coffee shop, and realize that, despite having had a distinct area of interest/drug of choice, they are actually a three-dimensional human beings who (like you!) drinks coffee and (like you!) enjoy music and bagels and (like you?) is probably, also, pretty smart and interesting.

I told you moving back places was funny!

I hope you learned something, friends. Or at least, I hope I successfully distracted you with all of the numbers.

 

 

 

On Being Cold, and the Mythology of Finding The One

“No, that’s too cold.”

I was having coffee with a friend of a friend at my local hipster hangout, and we were talking about relationships, and he was pausing to reconsider his language.

I wasn’t immediately sure what he was referring to, but suspected (correctly, it emerged) it might be the way he’d described his relationship as a “project.”

“Right,” I said, once it was clear. “A little cold.”

But then, later, he used the same word to describe this blog–which, considering its’ totally inadvertent origins and haphazard (whimsical? better) operational strategy, seems even more absurd.

But back to the idea of thinking about one’s relationship as a project. Because while, verbally, in casual conversation over fairly traded coffee, this may seem a bit, yes, cold really is the word, there’s a way in which it doesn’t totally not fit.

As in: you date enough people in your twenties, by the end of them, you’re thinking of relationships with less of that blurry, bullshit gaze of Hollywood and fantasy and magazines and television and Everything Everyone Ever Told You About Love, and more with eyes that are clear and pragmatic. Cold? Maybe. But also: real.

There is something really giddy about being in a relationship after spending a lot of time single. Cuddling! Sharing meals! Taking Walks! Reading, side by side! I take none of it–not a second–for granted. I feel totally, thrillingly lucky–blissed out–to be sharing my life with this person.

But instead of waiting around for a bright, light-centered object–bulb? strike?–to intervene, prophetic, and assure me that this is It, the One, the Only, the Meant To Be Forever and Ever, I am enjoying this time, fully conscious of the fact that being with this person forever is a choice that I–that both of us–may make.

“It’s kind of a radical idea,” my friend-of-friend said the other day, as our conversation came round to this notion. “That it’s a choice. It goes against everything we’ve ever been told.”

Indeed, it does. Which isn’t to say that there hasn’t been a saturation of persuasive argument on the other side: a persistent tapping on that cultural bubble that says, “Excuse me, but you know there’s no such thing as The One, right? You know there are lots of people you can be happy with, not just one person or even two people or even ten?”

“Yeah, yeah,” we say. “We know.”

And then we go back to watching romantic comedies with Jennifer Aniston and Amy Adams and relishing that warm, wistful feeling that goes along with believing our lives are fated.

In other words: intellectually, we get it. But practically, emotionally, the force of all that stuff, all that storybook nonsense with which we’ve been pummeled since cartoons and fairy tales, is tough to counteract. And to accept that it might be false, that we might have a decision to make instead of a fate to find, is not only hard but fucking scary.

Who wants to take responsibility for determining the balance of what one wants and needs in one’s most intimate and committed relationship? Yikers.

But then, like freedom is, it’s terrifying at the same that it’s liberating

We can use that clear, pragmatic vision to free ourselves from the pressure that The One idea can place on a relationship. (This isn’t what I expected, this isn’t perfect, it must be wrong!) We can act like grown-ups and take responsibility for making a conscious, purposeful decision that doesn’t have to do with what the culture or anyone else expects, but what we want for ourselves. What works for us.

Cold? Maybe. But, and I speak (write) this as the most romantic of hopeless romanticals, I’d rather be cold than blind.

 

On Compulsive Cooking, Little Free Libraries, and Getting Settled–For Reals This Time

We’ve been here before.

Well, at least, I’ve been here–and some of you, I suspect, have been here with me.

The afternoons absorbed with fish sauce. The sweatshirts coated with flour and nutritional yeast. The morning runs to Whole Foods and the co-op.

It’s back: I can’t get out of the kitchen.

First it was an innocent effort to make cookies from a book given as a birthday gift by dear friends. Then it was N’s visiting sibling, for whom I couldn’t help prepare a couple of complicated vegetarian dishes involving blended herbs. And then relatives of a friend were hosting us out of town before a wedding–and how could I not bake something for them? By Tuesday night we were sitting down to eat piles of frittered cauliflower no one around (with one, glaring exception) was especially hungry for.

I rationalized that it had been a year since I last had my own kitchen. What a thrill–to boil water or or saute a zuchini, without getting in anyone’s way! (Except the large boyfriend, whose slim but solid frame consumes about our half our kitchen space….or the large dog, whose length does the same…no matter–they don’t mind!)

And I assure you, this is no small achievement: this possession, after more than twelve months living with various family members and acquaintances, in various houses and apartments absent my privacy, belongings, and sound mental space, of a place that is mine. (And the boyfriend’s, and the dog’s, but also mine!) For the first week I walked around South Minneapolis in an ecstatic state: I made oatmeal for breakfast! Tonight I’m going to cook a curry! I felt, suddenly, invincible.

But it is something else, too: it is that, for me (as for many Americans who could stand to lose between five and three hundred pounds) cooking and food represent a haven. And in my life, I tend to seek that haven no more than when I am in transition.

Which, having slithered up this three-decade precipice with the grace of a disabled bassett hound, is pretty much All Of The Time.

Ah yes, friends, the Odyssey continues. This time: in the form of returning to a new place with a new boyfriend; only, the new place not being totally new because I lived here for four and a half years starting when I was still a teenager, and the boyfriend being pretty new but feeling not that new because our relationship began on the legal, romantic version of high-impact stimulants.

All to say, in many ways I am enjoying comforts that I have gone without for a while: regular cuddling, meals cooked myself (in my own kitchen! Have I mentioned my kind-of-own kitchen?), the privilege afforded paired up people by everyone in the world (more on this later), the sheer delight of living in a place with people who like books so much they actually give money to writers and build their own “little free libraries” on leafy street corners.

But in other ways, the awkward transition goes on. Yeah, I lived here, but with qualifications: a long time ago, in a different part of town, with friends who have mostly moved on to different places and people and lives.

That said: I could not be more excited about being back and reading library books and getting inspired by and involved with the local scene. In fact, I’m not even asking myself, as I did every single day of my twenties, where I want to live long-term: I’ve accepted the fact that I have no idea, that I’m ready to put roots down, that I want nothing more in the world at this moment (except, maybe, a litter of children–but that, too, is another post) than to feel part of a community and settled in a physical space–and that this is a great place to do it, and more importantly, where I am this particular second, so here goes.

Also, of course, that getting there–getting to the whole “settled in” feeling–will take some time. And that along the way, I am going to perfect some mean white chocolate chip and dried cranberry cookies.

On Big Birthdays, Reflections, and Extraneous Pillows

Like most days, on the first day of my thirties, I did some things. These include (but are not limited to):

  • consuming: an almond croissant the size of Rhode Island; Kir Royals at home and a three-course fancy dinner out with pals
  • my first FaceTime with family in Philadelphia
  • a lakeside meltdown, catalyzed by an argument over a lamp smaller than my tricep (+ a week of insomnia + turning thirty)
  • a resulting bout of retail therapy (producing: one CB2 accent pillow and a used collection of Alice Munro. hello, aging!)
  • a copious amount of vaguely prompted tears

Also, between hysterics, some (inevitable) reflection.

I know that the numerical aspect of aging is not worth considering—thirty means something quite different to me than it does to various others my same age, just as seventy is a whole different set of experiences for most men than it is my fit, youthful father.

(To say nothing of what a hundred and three looks like on my grandmother, who, though lacking the dinner routine of this guy, lives alone and has better vision, probably, than you.)

And yet, it’s hard to escape that birthdays–particularly those with zeroes placed at the end–provoke introspection. They are markers. And whether we like it or not, they prompt us to compare ourselves: with who we’ve been, with those around us, with the expectations we harbored earlier of how things would be. (Also, for me at least, evidently, to lose my shit.)

Perhaps it is moving back to a place where I lived as a far different (read: younger) version of myself. (A subject, indeed for another story.) Perhaps it’s just been anticipating the tail end of my Extremely Late Twenties. Whatever the reason, my head has been there a lot lately–in that place of comparing who I thought I’d be with who I’ve become.

In memory, as a college student just a few miles from where I sit now, my friends and I did not just expect Big Things of ourselves–we assumed them. We were vessels of curiosity and desire, thrilling about our radically left campus, our minds blown daily by one or two joints and the breathless deconstruction of Western teachings most of us had never actually absorbed.

We were going to change the world. Make a difference. Be exceptional. We held ourselves above such cliches, of course, but the ambitions they contain were in the ether: as ever-present as greasy cafeteria food and caffeinated all-nighters.

We graduated. We got jobs, went to grad school, dispersed around the country–to the cities we’d fled or new ones we’d found. We realized, in some gradual but penetrating way, that aspiring to happiness was challenge enough.

We got jaded? Gave up? Sold out?

The night before my birthday, crumpled in bed, I moaned that I wasn’t sure what had happened; that I have yet to fully abandon these idealistic ambitions–that I still do aspire to fame, to changing lives, of being, to being, somehow, exceptional. And still, or perhaps more, now that I’ve learned how complicated everything is, I don’t even know what these ambitions mean.

Is it enough, say, to have a positive influence on a few aspiring writers? Is it enough to have a few dozen, or hundred, or (not that I would know) thousands of people reading your work? Is it enough to be loved? By how many? What will make me, make one, feel fulfilled? Where do we accept compromise between our youthful ambitions and adult limits?

A writing teacher once told me an anecdote (one I’ve probably recounted before) about a Nobel-prize winning author confiding her reaction to a book critic who had commended her recent novel as her “best in years.” (“What,” the author bemoaned, “Was my last book no good?”)

In other words, it is never enough. And to the extent that it doesn’t make us bitter, that’s okay: we should always strive and reach and seek. We will always question and crumple and crave and wrestle and soothe.

I’m okay with that. Even if, every so often, it results in extraneous pillows and tears.

I guess the only thing I can ask of aging is that along with the doubts comes gratitude–for making tea in the mornings and phone calls with loved ones in the afternoon and the mental/physical health that allows me the privilege to probe as I, as so many of us, can’t help but do.