Taos, AWP, Going Back and Paying Attention

My friend K likes to measure life experience with pizza.

So it was that, during a recent visit to New Mexico, I received a text that read: How many pizza slices are you right now?

A few friends sent similar messages throughout that visit, checking up. They knew it was a big deal for me to go back: one year after the three-month stint there that, in ways both personal and artistic, transformed me.

Those months were in Taos. But when I got K’s text, I was back with grad school friends in Albuquerque: finishing a Sandia hike, stopping for a snack before dinner and beer.

I’d left Taos a few hours earlier: the sacred mountain and my favorite breakfast burrito, a few good friends, a person onto whom I projected a great bulk of the emotional intensity worked up last spring.

There is always melancholy in returning to a place, particularly one whose impact looms so fresh. And so, my two days in Taos felt somewhat bittersweet, tinged with that inevitably sad recognition: I don’t belong here anymore.

But it didn’t mostly feel sad. In fact it felt, mostly, good–comforting even. I’m happy where I am. I no longer nurse dreams of roving back to New Mexico the way I did in fall. I’m not worrying about whether I should be in New York, the way I have most of my adult life. I’m secure that I like my life here, and that I don’t know, don’t need to know, where I’ll be in a year, or five years, or ten.

My visit closed on an extravagantly tender note, one that affirmed this feeling. (For more details and reflection on this, I refer you to an essay likely to arrive at a publishable state circa 2019. Writing, friends.)

For now, suffice it to say that when I got in my rental car, I swelled with feeling. I’d found unexpected closure, and with it, a newfound appreciation for so many ineffable things; joy and gratitude leaked from my knuckles and pores.

I listened to Fleetwood Mac on the satellite radio. Outside the car windows, the Rio Grande streamed and Jemez mountains stood. It was one of those rare moments when the majesty of the scenery matches the majesty you feel.

And: no one cared.

In those particular moments, driving south down Route 68, no one texted. No one called. No one emailed, about pizza or anything else. It was just me and the scenery…and an inordinate, irrational quantity of shock. It seemed impossible, unjust, to be bursting with so much, and for no one else to know.

A similar sensation surfaced one week later, in the aftermath of AWP: the annual conference where 14,000 writers descend on a city (this year, happily, this one) to drink heavily, talk craft, buy books, and drink more heavily. For four days, there are so many readings/panels/parties happening at once that just the thought can overwhelm, and I’d anticipated the event anxiously.

But once you let go of various envies and insecurities and streaks of panic about all the events you’ll miss (inevitably, most of them), you remember that writers tend to be thoughtful and interesting, stylish and intelligent. My time at the conference was energizing and inspiring and a total blast.

And on Sunday, after getting brunch with a pal from Portland and dropping her at the airport, I cancelled the rest of the day’s plans.

Part of me was eager to gush: about fancy new poet friends and cute book editors, bonding with favorite novelists and the late-night scene at the Hilton bar.

But also, my throat hurt. I’d slept for approximately two hours Saturday night, and could barely string together a coherent phrase. So instead of returning phone calls, I took a walk around the lake. I listened to a little Kendrick Lamar and a little of Let it Bleed. I watched people with fishing rods sit on cement.

And wallowed in that feeling: the one that happens after. After a trip or summer camp or the party or the fling or four days of writerly fun: the mix of residual contentment and a kind of muffled disbelief.

That happened?
I
t’s over?
Do I have anything to show for it, besides the bruise on my left butt cheek from biking home tipsy at 2 am?
Is anyone paying attention? 

It’s an extreme version of a constant challenge: to hold on. To be okay and be alone. To keep something of those passing pleasures (even ones blurred by gin and beer), always in your wake. To make your own meaning and afternoons. To keep moving, looking up and looking back.

To pay attention, no matter who else is.

 

Postcard from An Online Dating Binge

“I think you should max it out!”

I was chatting online with N, and at first wasn’t sure whether she was referring to the poem I’d just sent her or my love life.

The poem definitely needed more (I tend to hold back), but I knew she was conferencing with undergraduates in Albuquerque, and therefore unlikely to be reading rough drafts–so guessed the latter.

I would like to take a moment here, if I may, for a public thanks to N: my trusty gchat, poetry and online dating wingwoman, who, despite being in a serious relationship, keeps up an OkCupid login so that she may help me scout prospects.

“The internet dates, you mean?”

“Yes!”

“Do it until I can do it no more??”

“Yes!”

This is a thing that I have done, sometimes do. And, currently (this is where if I knew how I’d include the anxious-face emoji my friends tease me for overuse of in texting) am doing.

(“Wait, which one are we talking about again?” That night I drove home from a concert in St. Paul with my roomie, H–a date that, obviously, beat the rest of em hands down. “There are too many for me to keep track.”)

As anyone who has ever dated online knows, discomforts, frustrations and bizarre moments accumulate quick: you assemble a carefully curated outfit, only to walk into the bar and realize your date is wearing a t-shirt he appears to have bought at a Mexican arcade; you discover that you not only know your date’s ex-girlfriend, but have been told that you look similar (you learn things: people have types!); you go to a block party and feel that you’ve stumbled into a parade of Tinder profiles; you, suddenly, have a Tinder profile.

It is trying work.

And due to the conniving algorithms of certain, profit-driven parties, the more you participate in these online antics, the more attention you tend to receive. And while much of it is easy to dismiss (the men who can’t spell, those posed beside dead deer or Barbie-esque ex-girlfriends), not all of it, thankfully, is: as one recent date observed, in a smaller city where there aren’t that many “people like us,” “people like us” have an easier time finding each other–even on the internet.

And to the man who sent me a message suggesting that I am “too cute” to need an internet profile, I graciously inform you that the last time a girlfriend and I went to a bar with vague intentions of meeting dudes, the only member of your species to approach us was an 80-year old fellow named Vern. (For the record, I danced with him, it was lovely and, I could tell, he once was a looker.)

Seriously, though: there have been long stretches when I have felt that I didn’t need to date online, that I was meeting enough people in person, or that I just wasn’t up for the work. Porch and bike season is upon is, which hopefully means such a stretch will soon resume.

And/or: it is probably a matter of minutes before, as N put it, I max out.

I’ve gotten better at “changing the narrative” around the whole enterprise. I no longer feel a crush of disappointment each time I discover that a first date has zero sex appeal/is not my husband. I try not to talk about dates with friends until there’s something substantive to ask or say. I fib that I’m not feeling well if I don’t have it in me to stick around for a second drink, and if it’s rough getting through even one, I remind myself of the old, writerly adage: it’s all material.

But it is, also, exhausting.

“Why are you so tired?”

At a St. Patrick’s dinner this week with friends, I could barely keep myself awake for a second helping of corned beef and cabbage. (Don’t worry, I pushed through.)

“I haven’t been sleeping well,” I said.

My friend R leaned over to insert her own explanation: She’s been dating a lot. 

It isn’t just dating: as one of my friends with the initial K recently pointed out, when one is busy, one tends to take on even more obligations. I’ve found myself under a heap of imminent deadlines and commitments at the same time that I’ve (inadvertently) launched this sudden burst of meeting men. If I try to sustain it, it won’t be long before you’ll find me hiding underneath that rock that Macalester students are always painting and re-painting on campus. Or, you know, being cranky and anti-social.

But limits and exhaustion and pileup of painful moments aside, here is what I want to tell you, friends: it hasn’t been that bad. I’ve met more men that I’d consider seeing again than men who I wouldn’t.

And whether or not any of em stick, it’s refreshing (and, actually, really important) to remember that there are interesting people around. That I may know more about what I want at 31 than I did at 25, but that I still feel open and unclear in a way that will likely never change. That I’m capable of giving and getting something a little bit like love, even if only for a few awkward hours.

The Knicks, the New Yorker, On Kawara and Making Sense

“He sounds pathetic.”

I was standing in the entry of my parents new midtown apartment, and my father had just emerged from his office/my sometime bedroom, where, minutes earlier, I had set before him the latest issue of The New Yorker–one that, the morning prior, whilst sitting at gate C4 of the Minneapolis airport, I had found to feature a Talk of the Town about a man I used to date. Specifically, about the fact that (as the piece informed me) said man had left his lawyer job to follow around the New York Knicks for a full season and blog about it.

“Well, that’s harsh,” I said, miffed.

I’d found the whole thing pretty charming. He and I, after all, had bonded over the Knicks, our first date drinks at Clyde’s, a subsequent several watching games, and since seeing the article I’d been indulging various one that got away fantasies (I was just thinking of him earlier this week…we did part ways for reasons more to do with context than chemistry…), even checking to see whether he was free for coffee over the weekend. (Alas, as neatly as they’d brought us together, the Knicks and their road games pried us apart: Would love to catch up, he wrote, but in the morning I fly to Denver.)

Friends were similarly inclined, offering such enthusiastic affirmations as Wow! Wild! and Did I meet him? I vaguely remember thinking he was cute. 

My father and brothers, on the other hand (Knick fans most): less enthused. I caught their drift. Sure, the guy might be giving up a perfectly good career and life savings for, potentially, the worst team in NBA history. But, I strained to reason, at least he’d gained some media attention! The possibility of a book deal! Probably, the faintly renewed interest of at least a few ex-girlfriends!

And, of course, the obvious: a purpose.

Two days later my mother and I spent a storybook sunny Manhattan day: a walk, a shop, a museum. She would have preferred to see some mid-century paintings at The Met, but, game woman that she is, humored me for a visit to the Guggenheim, where I was interested in checking out a retrospective of works by the conceptual artist On Kawara.

Among the items on view: canvases adorned only with the written date, hung beside a (seemingly arbitrary) newspaper cutout; maps of cities overlaid with the artist’s travels; binders filled by typed lists enumerating people he’d met in a given day.

I was most enamored by a display of postcards sent to friends announcing I got up at 10:45 pm and I‘m still alive, don’t worry. It reminded me of that familiar impulse, upon getting off a flight, or waking up on a Saturday morning, or getting through a class, to call someone (usually my mother, and usually, I don’t) just for the vague comfort that this matterssomeone cares, I’m here. 

It reminded me, too, of the way that I sometimes lapse into thinking a partner will supply me with purpose. (When, in fact, the only thing I know I can rely on to provide the kind of shape and urgency I am prone to crave is writing.)

Before taking her leave for the miniature Kandinsky exhibit and the gift shop (where she purchased postcards to write her granddaughters–presumably less cryptic–missives), my mom dispensed some characteristically sage insight.

“It’s striking how unemotional it all is,” she said.

Indeed, the curators noted the distance Kawara maintained from his work, how one could fully absorb the art without gleaning much at all about the life or attitudes of its creator.

“I guess so…” I said.

But, I had to tell her, I kind of disagreed.

Strolling up the Guggenheim’s grand, sun-lit ramp, I felt rather close to Kawara. There’s a way in which, I thought, it tells me a lot about a person that they send John Baldessari deadpan postcards, that they chronicle dates in Heveltica font on plain painted canvases, that they make maps and binders and newspaper cut-outs in elaborate effort to represent the fact of their existence in the scheme of time.

On the surface, I can see how Kawara’s gestures appear cold and calculated. But beneath, I think there’s a rawness, a desperation, even; a literal and very human expression of a very human need: to imbue our leaves with meaning, with purpose.

The way I reacted to the exhibit shed some light on how charmed I’d felt by Dennis’ project: whether it takes the form of conceptual art or a (maybe mildly misguided) dedication to one of sports’ most terrible teams, I find something inherently appealing about a person making great grasps to figure it out.

Figuring it out, I know, is not a luxury we all have. You need not walk many blocks in this, or any city, to feel reminded of the many whose daily survival is nothing short of heroic, not to mention exhausting: if I had to work a menial job, feed a bunch of kids, care for my or someone else’s aging parents, commute multiple hours in packed subway cars or on interstates…well, I doubt I’d write this blog or peruse museums or read much of anything. (Although, who’s to say? Maybe my idle time is a curse and if I had eight children and overtime I’d be on my fourth novel by know. We’ll never know.)

But among the few with more fortune and flexibility, I applaud those who try and seek some framework, some narrative, make some comment on what the hell it might mean to get out of bed in the morning.

When someone suggests (whether earnestly or absurdly, or from some unknown place between) that their purpose might be all about the people they meet or the places they walk or the fortunes of a basketball team, it prompts the rest of us to consider not only what that might mean, but what purpose we have in our own lives.

And that’s something, I think we can all agree, we should probably consider more.

On Mantras, Mondays, Gym Friends and Feelings

The problem with Monday morning spin class is that it’s difficult to talk.

Lest you’re unclear, what motivates my regular gym habit (as much as the need to offset particular passions for almond croissants and malty beer, and the happy accident that I genuinely like exercise) is, in a word: gossip.

Probably you are clear that I take pleasure in few things more than turning my personal problems into entertainment. For you, lofty readers, I attempt to deliver stuff that is polished, (sadly, sometimes tragically) censored, hopefully sense-making. The gals at the Blaisdell Y get the dirt: the raw play-by-plays and (occasionally) juicy bits.

And while the late-30 and early-40-something moms have a pretty hefty appetite for vicarious Single Gal Tales, it’s not a one-way street. Last week I found myself doing bicep curls next to a woman who I’ve seen outside a sports bra a grand total of one time (we ran into each other at the co-op), whilst getting the update on her marital counseling.

“I just had this big breakthrough about the way I approach intimacy!” she said.

I turned to her, breathlessly hoisting a purple pair of twelve-pound weights.

“You mean physical intimacy?”

She nodded.

I looked out at the gym, a blur of neon and blondish braids, and smiled. “I fucking love boot camp,” I said.

But back to Monday spin class, where, this week, I was on a bike beside my friend K. K is closer to my age, and for the year that we’ve known each other we’ve regularly floated the desire to meet for a drink. Maybe someday we will, but already she knows my life better than most close friends.

I had promised her a story, but the fetal-position nature of cycling was preventing much chat.

“I’m dying to hear the rest!” she said.

“I’ll tell you after,” I assured her. “If you want. But, you know, you can already guess how it ends.”

This is the part where I would recite my relentlessly reliable dating pattern, if not for that I’m pretty sure you know it too.

Okay fine, quick refresher: man pursues me. I take interest in said man because he’s (circle as many as may apply): stylish/intelligent/tall/builds things/reads poems/DJs/loves NPR/plays music/is bearded/writes absurdist horoscopes. 1.5-3.5 dates later, aforementioned man realizes that I am incapable of playing games/being casual, remembers whatever issue made him single in the first place (again, circle any): commitment-phobia/emotional scars/arrested emotional development/existential attachment to someone else. He panics. Flees. I am shocked, but also not. (Because: really?? And because: yup.)

I’ve been trying to come up with mantras–a genre in which, it turns out, I am pathetically unskilled. A sampling:

It’s his loss.
You know what you want.
If he doesn’t contact you he’s an idiot, and you hate idiots.
He’s not even your type.
(What is your type again?)
Stop comparing yourself. 

A contributed the standby: You dodged a bullet. 

A new Minneapolis friend, this gem: When boys blow, they really blow, hard. 

But, heavens. I need something, at this rate, to help me through these Dating Moments, as we may as well call them. (It fits, a bit too well..) Because no matter how many times they hit, they still really suck.
*
In response to this recent essay that I hopefully managed to get on your screen, a friend in California wrote to laud me for being so in touch with my feelings:
It’s impressive to me, she wrote. I don’t think most people can do that.
Thanks! I wrote back. It’s called Years of Revision :)
It’s true: one reason literary nonfiction takes me (and many others) so long to get any good is that it takes time, and discipline–basically, work–to sort out how the hell you feel/felt about an experience you want to render.Finding the right words can often feel like the easy part. It’s not that I’m any better at being in touch with my emotions than anyone else; I just happen to (be trying to) make it my career.
I thought of her words yesterday as I drove a South Minneapolis route that I used to take regularly, a little over a year ago, when I was living with N. He’d shown up in my dream the other night–after I went to sleep feeling sad and sour about my latest prospect’s exit.”It’s a signal,” my friend (a different) K said, when I told her the next day over lunch of soup and crepes. “A reminder that you know what you want, and being alone is better than settling.”Driving from my old library to the gym, I thought of my California friend’s comment. I thought of it because, I realized, when I was with N, I didn’t know what I wanted. More than that, I didn’t know what I felt. I was so afraid to find the truth, festering just barely beneath life’s daily layers, that I didn’t let myself look. The truth wasn’t that I was unhappy, or that N was anything but an extraordinarily good, loving, supportive partner. The truth was that I knew we weren’t right.

Few things are more painful for me to admit to myself than that: how much I was able to distance myself from how I truly felt.

And amidst the disappointment and frustration, that is one piece of comfort and calm: that, at least, I know how I feel. That I’m (most mornings) living honestly, and with the kind of (attempted) self-understanding I denied myself not many months ago.

It’s not a mantra, exactly, but it’s something. And I’m holding on.

On Dating, Not Dating, Pauses and Points

“Wait, can we define dating?”

“Wait, can we define sabotage?”

“Oy.”

I turned back toward the sink, away from the group, and leaned my head into my hands.

It was that cabin weekend with a big bunch of friends, and one of them had insisted that I announce the resolution I’d spoken of in the car ride up: namely, to take a two month break from dating–an announcement that had prompted one pal to ask whether “sabotage” was allowed.

More questions ensued: Are you allowed to make out? Have sex? What, exactly, is the point?

At the time, I wasn’t particularly prepared to answer any of these. Fortunately, cabin life features many more compelling pastimes–sauna, snow, a fridge full of beer–than my love life. No one was bothered.

But one (mostly-successful-depending-on-how-you-define-success) month in, I’m not sure I can do much better. My own game, my own rules—or lack thereof. I’m a writer, after all, ever resistant to binaries and boundaries. Clarity: who needs it?

But then, it can be nice to feel purposeful. And, while I’m not sure I’ve got the how down, I have been trying, a little bit at least, to sort out the why.

Here are some known things:

Partially, the choice was motivated by some extension of that whole protecting myself project I told you about. That felt needed.

And, perhaps more significantly, I wanted to focus: I’m feeling (again…) like I’m in the final lap of my memoir revision, and it didn’t not occur to me that fall’s pile-up of romantic disappointment might have been the universe’s subtle suggestion that I veer away from male attention and toward other goals.

In that vein, I recently had a writing (platonic!) date with a friend who has lived with her girlfriend (see?) for years. It had been a while, so we exchanged compressed life updates. I told her briefly about the situation in which I’d found myself–one that walks and talks not a lot unlike dating but has been going by some other (or rather, no) name.

“I’m trying to take a two month hiatus,” I told her.

“Ugh.” She shook her head, reflecting on the historical period of her life in which she had been single. “I think those were my least productive years.”

“I know,” I leaned toward her, as if discussing war. “It’s so fucking distracting.”

And here is the thing about that. Dating is distracting. Not dating is distracting. Being in a relationship is distracting. Being a parent (I imagine) is distracting. We are not monks—life is distracting. (This is why residencies exist.)

I have been more disciplined writing-wise lately, but mainly because I’ve made a conscious effort to do so. I’m not sure that a romantic interest would be getting in the way.

It is true, though, that I’ve found this self-imposed break to be something of a relief. It’s a sensation not dissimilar from being in a relationship: when I see someone attractive, I take a mental note, and then another that says, oh, but I’m not looking. (Instead of continuing, maybe when I’m single again, it says, maybe in March. Don’t judge.) When someone (like a parent or distant friend) asks what’s up with my love life, I have an easy out: Oh, nothing. I’m taking a break. This is much simpler than my usual performance of Oh, there’s this guy that I think I’m into/not that into/trying to be into/can’t tell if I’m into, but I don’t know what his deal is…

Anyway. That part is nice. But, also, I have felt like a lie.

I spent the weekend reading Meghan Daum’s new essay collection. One of them discusses the way she approached dating (until her marriage, at thirty-six) as a means of collecting experience. I relate to that, in that I tend to feel open to different kinds of people. But unlike her, I do know that, ultimately, I want something committed. I do (most days) know that I’d like to have a family. I would like to be someone who feels kind of meh about the whole thing. I’d like to be someone who doesn’t want to meet someone sooner than later.

I’m not.

It’s like that dumb adage: that you always meet someone when you’re not looking. I suppose this phrase could be useful if spoken to someone who genuinely doesn’t want to meet someone, as some kind of singsong-voiced threat. But for those of us who do, it’s useless. We should pretend we don’t want to find someone for the sake of finding someone? I don’t even want to be friends with a person who’s dishonest about what they want, much less date someone who is, much less be one myself. Okay I’m done.

Okay not quite. I shouldn’t have to close up shop because I want to “focus on myself,” as (well-meaning) folks are also wont to say. I know myself and what I need to do: write things, socialize, teach, work out, travel when possible. I know that I can do these things with or without a relationship. I know that, eventually, I would like to meet someone who would make the work of a relationship worthwhile.

And the truth is that I learn most about what kind of person I want that to be not when I’m dismissing potential interests at coffee shops but when I do, in fact, attempt to date–as clunky and painful as that process might be.

 

 

On Groups, Needs, Elena Ferrante and Balance

Immediately following the 5rhythms dance class that I mentioned in my last post, I called A.

(Well, not immediately: first I dried off and re-applied layers and shoes and chatted with the Canadian next to me: “Wait, so how are you supposed to re-enter the world after that?” I asked him. “Gently,” he replied, handsome head tilted back. “That’s too bad,” I said. “Because I have to go meet my mother at Bloomingdale’s.”)

Anyway, after that, and while walking up Sixth Avenue en route, I asked A (from whom I’d learned of the class, and who would have joined me if not for the flu) the most urgent question that hurled to mind during my experience: how, I asked, could she balance those twin impulses vying for attention—the one to turn inward and explore your soul’s discrete qualities, and the other, to look out and absorb the (completely fascinating) scene?

She answered in monotone: “I’ve never had that problem,” she said. “It’s you. The class is just a mirror for how you go through the world.”

“Right,” I said. “I know that.”

I did know that. I do know that. (It’s just that, books and films notwithstanding, we tend to experience life pretty exclusively through our own lens; it can be frighteningly easy to forget that others exist.)

I remembered that conversation last weekend, which I spent with a group of ten friends at a cabin in a bluffy, snow-draped section of southern Minnesota. We sled, we skied, we saunad and sang and feasted (pork butt and oysters, I’m actually not kidding) and danced until we hurt. It was, in other words, wondrously, enormously joyful.

And, also, extremely exhausting. As one pal and I took a side moment to note, groups are great—but they can also be a lot of work.

Especially if, like me, you have a hard time pulling yourself away.

I don’t even want to go pee, I murmured to those adjacent on Friday night, before racing downstairs to the precise sound of pealing laughter that I feared missing whilst away.

It is a basic human need to belong, to feel included and intimate and connected and warm. But those needs take particular shape within all of us, and to different degrees; my childhood (along with DNA, I reluctantly suppose) fostered within me an acutely fierce longing to be part of a group, to feel secure within a community. It also instilled a chronic, sometimes paralyzing sensitivity to the social energy around me: does that person feel sad, or are they just tuning out? Is she doing okay in the back of the car? Are we spending too much time on a topic that someone won’t be able to grasp?

It’s an extension of empathy, I guess–a quality for which I’m thankful. (Though I don’t see it as purely positive: often I’m so focused on what other people may–or may not–be feeling, I tend not to notice much else. Like, what the landscape looks like or whether the oven is turned on.) I also think it’s part of being female in our culture: we’re taught from early on to be emotional caretakers.

One of my favorite lines in the book I’m reading comes at a moment when the main character, a young girl, goes with her father to see the ocean. She’s awed: “I had the impression that, although I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them.”

That image resonates: who doesn’t sometimes fear being unable to keep up with the richness of what’s around us? I’ve felt that way in nature, in the Rocky Mountains or red-arched Moroccan coast. But more often I feel that way about other people: there are so many interesting, intelligent, complicated humans in this world; I feel fortunate for the many with whom I cross paths. Will there ever be enough time to soak them in!?

Of course, there won’t. Just as we can’t ever witness all of nature’s vast offerings, we only have time to get to know so many people. In the grand scheme of humanity and space, we are so limited and so small.

And, as I am continuing to learn, we are often more limited than we realize.

I loved being around friends last weekend. But when I got home, I felt like I needed about a week to decompress. I loved paying attention to those dancing around me in that dance class, but I also wish I’d spent more time focused on myself.

There are certain challenges in keeping up with external demands, but others, perhaps greater, in responding to internal needs. Often, they aren’t as overt or as loud. They don’t suggest fun things, like limbo at one in the morning or cross-country skiing the next day. They just fill space quietly, their only expression a formless, inarticulate ache that expands and expands until you remember to pay attention.

I do need to be around people, to feel connected and secure and all of that. But I also need a good deal of time alone, to process and be quiet and think and write and read. All of us require at least some of that in order to take care of ourselves.

And for me, I am increasingly reminded, that time is something I can too easily let slip. The impulse to remove myself, to focus on what’s happening internally, doesn’t come naturally: too easily and often eclipsed by the urge to look outward, to connect, to participate and watch and observe.

I need both. We all do. And for me (and, perhaps, for you) striking the right balance may be a lifelong piece of work.

On Christmas, Ecstatic Dance and Letting Go

I met one of my closest friends in Minneapolis during a barbecue at the start of summer.

I was holding court: surrounded by a circle of open-mouthed, maxi-dressed women as I described the short-lived love affair that had lurched me into months of longing and compulsive poetry.

When K approached I assumed she was part of this group of women, all of whom had grown up together. I (wrongly) made that assumption because of the assurance in her tone as she ambled over, flicked her hand in a show of nonchalance, and said, perfectly, “Life is long!”

The particular, challenging contours of K’s life that I’ve since learned have only deepened my appreciation of that wisdom. And it’s one I keep returning to. Particularly, as it happened, during my holiday visit home.

As a culture, we tend to emphasize the opposite advice: life is short! Act now! Make sure you have no regrets!

And of course, there’s wisdom there too. We shouldn’t be prone to inertia, we shouldn’t procrastinate decisions and changes too long once we’ve recognized them.

But the more I experience, the more I recognize how little use there is for regret–and how little anyone can (or should) predict.

“A year ago I was getting rejected from Sweaty Betty!”

A and I were drinking elaborately infused vodka martinis at a subterranean East Village bar on Christmas night. (After a day spent ingesting an excess of sugar, sesame noodles and sporadic bursts of Family Tension, I impulse-gifted myself a late night speedwalk down Second Avenue and, bless her compliance, a duo of drinks with a dearest friend.)

Red-lipsticked Russian waitresses slid around the room. The bartender played dissonant pop songs from the early 2000s. And A and I reflected on how much our lives had transformed in the last year: one in which she’s moved, professionally, from a place of searching and insistent frustration to one of stability and promise.

“Where was I last December?” I mused, for a moment unsure. “Oh. Right. Practically married!” I sipped my drink. Shook my head. “Wow, things have changed.”

A nodded. “I mean, it’s crazy to think that we have any idea what we’ll be doing in five years.”

A few nights later I visited a Brooklyn bar with my brother, J. (I swear, I did more in New York this vacation than just drink.) It’s the sister bar to the one where J works, so we’d barely made it through the entrance before he started giving out handshakes and hugs.

Among the people he knew were a married couple with grown kids, a man and woman with that distinctly New York version of openness that pings me with warmth. We sat with them by the bar as they spoke lovingly of their family and 19th century Gowanus home, told us how they’d waited until five in the morning on Christmas to open gifts so that they could be together, just them and their four kids.

It didn’t emerge until later in the conversation that both of them are in fact divorced, that their four kids come from both their first marriages, that they’d met as colleagues and that she had attended his first wedding as a guest.

At this, J and I traded looks of awe.

“I’m practically crying,” he said, in partial jest. (And, predictably, in the same tone: Don’t you think you should write about their family instead of ours?!)

I thought: Life is long.

The following morning I rushed out of bed to subway into the West Village for a 5 Rhythms dance class: a space where the vibes of nightclub and zen center converge. I’d been wanting to go for years, but this was my first time, and I spent the full two hours feeling torn between the impulse to close my eyes and explore the sensual particulars of my soul (as the instructor/DJ implored), and opening them to absorb the erratic movements around me: fifty-plus bodies ranging infinite human types (fat, thin, young, old, black, Asian, white…even one guy with a yarmulke) in varying modes of motion: flow to staccato to chaos and (other things and) back.

Everyone poured sweat. Boundaries melted. Some bodies moved through and around each other, some faces marked recognition, and I could see that for many, this class represents a regular community–a kind of church.

I felt reminded, again, of how little we can trust our assumptions about anyone.

With one or two exceptions, no one in that room was someone that I would pass on the street and expect to find at the Joffery Ballet on a sunday morning doing ecstatic dance. I had to imagine some of them had been doing it for years, and some began more recently. The practice is new enough that few present could have been raised with it. Somehow, somewhere along their way, (likely, as I did, through a friend), they’d happened upon it; likely, the experience had dramatically shifted their lives. In just those two hours, it had, not insignificantly, affected mine.

What am I getting at?

It’s the same point where I keep winding up. It’s the reminder of how little we know. It’s the certainty that nothing is certain. That the marriage we think is solid may break in a day. The friendship that seems improbable may change everything. The dance class we give into trying one Sunday may transform our worldview. I’m saying I may stay in Minneapolis for one year or fifty. That I might never get married, or find three husbands yet.

Hermann Hesse: Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go. 

Letting go: a daily struggle. But at least, we hope, one that starts to come with greater ease.

Letting go, that is, of any illusions that we know what’s coming; of any assurance that we can say what the next day or week or month or year will bring.

I know: there’s a way in which that’s terrifying.

But there’s another in which it can seem the most comforting thing in the world.

Happy 2015 :-)

A (Rare) Resolution for 2015 (and Possibly Life)

“Hallelujah!”

A folded her torso toward the bar. “You have no idea how many years I have been waiting for you to say this.” She lifted her hand for a high five, then motioned to clink her hot toddy glass against mine. “Amen!”

She and D and I were absorbed in the regular ritual my New York visits provoke: a day decadent with long city walks, afternoon drinks and bursts of group therapy. We’d meandered from Union Square to an empty, wood-paneled restaurant on the Western edge of the Village, and after hours discussing how we would do better at steering ourselves toward respective Life Purposes, I had asked permission to re-orient the conversation.

“I feel silly talking about boys after all this Big Talk…” I said, dipping my head and offering an overt wince.

“No, no,” they both replied, quick. “We are done with anything meaningful! Boy talk, go.”

I went on to tell them about a recent shift in attitude about my approach to dating–still hypothetical, but one that I hope will lead to, well, an actual New Approach.

Historically, I have tended to go about romance in the same fashion as I go about most aspects of life–from writing to general health maintenance: somewhat recklessly, without a lot of guidelines or restrictive parameters.

Put another way, in pretty much the opposite fashion from a young man I met recently who, upon hearing that I write a blog about relationships, announced that (before settling down with his current girlfriend) he used to date “very seriously.”

Pressed to explain, he described the vast constellation of rules that organized his ways with women: the two Los Angeles restaurants to which he’d alternately escort first dates, the number of questions with which he’d always come prepared, the drinks and dishes he’d suggest, that he’d never end the night with a kiss, but if he was interested in a second, would always suggest cooking at his place.

This guy was terribly charismatic–which made me find the whole narrative charming, too. But I also found it completely baffling, as I’ve always found anything like a rulebook around romantic relationships.

We know where this attitude gets me: if I don’t feel an immediate spark, I bail. And if I do, I open myself up with such freedom and force that I allow the guy to forget he’s actually not looking for a relationship, or still getting over his divorce, or has a girlfriend…until he remembers–leaving me lurching back atop my net of supportive pals, to whom I moan embarassing things like: “I did it again…” and “I know there’s nothing wrong with me, but what the fuck is wrong with me?”

I never say: “I’m not doing this again.”

Historically, I have dismissed my dangerously open tendencies as just another endearing quirk, no different than my fear of night driving or savvy with salad dressing or inability to whistle. It’s just who I am! I say. I have thick Jewish hair and hate purple and am really shitty at protecting myself! Cheers! 

To this line of defense I add that I appreciate being open: I wouldn’t want to be shut down. That being someone who easily connects means also being someone whose heart is often sore.

I don’t think that’s untrue.

But I also think, after a pair of weeks in which I’ve felt pummeled, grasping for the remnants of what had (for a minute) been feeling like a sturdy base of self-confidence and grit, there’s got to be a balance.

I may not have to protect myself, but at this point, I want to.

(Which is what I told A and D, which is what made A fall forward in relief. Friends, people.)

The question remains, though, of how. It’s not as though I’ve been leaping into bed with every first date (and the problem of intimacy isn’t, of course, only a physical one), but the fact is that, like a lot of my peers, I don’t put off physical intimacy as long as I could. And, think now: should.

Here’s something else. In the last months that I’ve been single, I’ve done some reflecting about past relationships. One thing that keeps coming up is that I want to wind up with someone I value beyond as a romantic partner; I want to fall for someone not only as a lover, but as a person. That’s something that’s easier to know through friendship, before other stuff entangles.

Suggestions have varied: from A (female, straight, southern)’s idea of putting off intimacy for a month, to D (dude, gay)’s concern about going past three dates without “checking out the goods.”

But based on early findings of my Informal Friend Poll, pals are less concerned with how I go about protecting myself than the fact that I, in some way, do. Like most things, it’ll be considerably more difficult in practice than in theory. Physical touch is compelling, especially when it’s cold enough to freeze your fingers and minivan doors. I’m already anxious about how I’ll resist kissing my next crush.

But then again, I’m usually anxious about something. And, for the moment at least, I’m looking forward to being anxiously cautious instead of anxiously reckless.

It’s 2015. I’m thirty-one. Why not?

 

 

Courtship, Crushes, and Being A Basketcase

“You’re a basketcase.”

My (married, male) friend shook his head. We were sitting across from each other at the coffee shop, and I was amped: a combination of third wave caffeine and the distant sighting of romantic connection.

A few days earlier this friend and I had gone to lunch, and I’d been irritable: feeling sullen that I didn’t have any love interests of which to speak.

“Last week you were freaking out that you didn’t have anyone,” he implored, his palms flat on the crumb-specked table. “And now you’re freaking out that you have everyone!”

Substitute “one person” for “everyone” and you have something like half of a truth: last week I had no one, this week I had the (uncertain, premature) idea of a person.

It had been a minute.

A minute, by which I mean a couple of months, since I’d had anything like a sincere crush object. Half that time, of course, I was away; the other half I was anticipating that I would be away. Still, it felt sad.

Here’s the thing: my single girlfriends and I are less likely to complain about not having a boyfriend than we are about not having a crush.

Sure, we worry, as one does, about how and when we’ll meet someone we want to wake up with forever. But independence has perks. Being boyfriend-less is just fine. Crush-less, though: un-fun. We depend on crushes to brighten the corners of our daily, weekly, nightly routines.

“When you like someone, it just makes everything feel a little bit more exciting!” is how one friend put it.

Another supposed that those of us with especially busy minds need crushes to help populate the peripatetic trenches of our relentless internal chatter.

It tends to sound pathetic: the notion of feeling dependent on the idea of a man as unsavory as that of depending on an actual one. But this isn’t about dependency; it’s about desire. And, as I’ve recently reminded you, I’m done feeling any kind of bad about wanting intimacy.

But back to being a basketcase: because, while it does feel nice to have a specific face with which to lift up those interstitial moments in stalled traffic or overcast afternoon walks, it also feels, you know: terrifying.

(I’m realizing that my memory may process dating the way women are supposed to process childbirth: blocking out the traumatic parts so that, in fits and starts at least, I manage to press on with the endeavor–until the trauma re-surfaces, by which point I’m already stuck. Anyone?)

*

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve learned to manage expectations around people.

In certain relationships (mothers come to mind), it will always be a struggle: the stakes and pressure so high that it’s hard, if not impossible, to ever accept the gap between what you desire from someone and what you know they can give.

But mostly, I feel I’ve gotten better at navigating the different ways friendships can function and people relate. I know the friends who pick up on the first call and those who prefer to keep up over email; those who are game for impromptu walks but can’t commit more than hours ahead, and others who like to plan dinner weeks in advance. I have friendships with people I’ll hardly hear from until we see each other, when it’s just perfect, and others where a few days without an online catch-up feels big; some friends who I know want to hear all the gushy details of every boy encounter, and others who would prefer to talk Terry Gross.

We are, all, essentially, piles of needs: physical, cerebral, emotional–they gather and disperse in the fluid way we all shift and change. And at the same time that we learn how to depend on ourselves, we learn how to depend on others.

“It’s part of maturing, I think,” one friend recently commented. We were having coffee in my Minneapolis dining room, the stark morning sun no indication of frigid temperatures outside. “You learn to tell people in your life what you need from them.”

I agreed. And, thought later, here is the problem with dating: you can’t.

I mean, sure: you could walk into a first or second date and announce that you are an anxious person who prefers the assurance of hearing from someone every few hours, lest you panic they’ve lost interest/fled. Nothing, technically, is stopping you from rolling on into the bar and declaring your particular expectations around sex or communication or emotional support.

But, probably: you don’t.

At the early stages of courtship, no one’s committed to anything. There’s no foundation upon which to set each person’s gathered residue of projected pasts. It’s all discovery: a cryptic, high-stakes dance set in a charged, hormone-rich sphere.

And this, friends, is what entitles me (and you!) to be a basketcase.

Just identifying what we need takes work and no small amount of self-awareness; expressing those needs clearly to others is a challenge even with those most close.

When it comes to the Beginnings of Things, unless you are my stunning Brooklyn hairdresser which means you are named Sunshine and comfortable demanding your suitors call you (on the phone!) at least once a day, chances are you’re not going to tell it straight.

Chances are, you’re going to flail through those early stages like a dolphin pup blindfolded on a Pacific beach: feeling your way with the most minimal clues pushing you along, uncertain, awkward, and probably a little bit lost.

Unlike dolphin pups, who may or may not match the human capacity for relationship angst: you will feel like a basketcase.

Because while it is swell to have someone to think about, it can be terrible not being able to share what that might mean.

 

On Art, Ferguson and Fear

I was going to write a post about not seeing a single attractive man during four weeks in Nebraska.

I was going to tell you about the fish fry at the Eagles Club and the wine tasting at the apple orchard where wines labeled “dry” were sweeter than your average juice.

I was going to tell you how I got so tired of myself inside that writing hovel that I resorted not only to binge watching episodes of Nashville, but also to dusting off that old OkCupid account. (At which I have received, among other sundries, the most polite and thoughtful request to participate in a BDSM threesome in the history of such requests.) (Also, and yes I’m using back-to-back parentheticals, panic not: I did make substantial progress on my book.)

I was going to commiserate with you about Minnesota winter: how I’m unsure which is more (so to speak) chilling–not having someone to cuddle with as temps edge to zero, or marching into my early thirties with child-rearing prospects pinned on a crowd of digital avatars, many wearing Packers jerseys or cradling fish.

And then.

And then last week.

Listen. I tend to avoid politics here because that’s not why you come. There are so many others more informed and eloquent than me writing about our world’s varied injustices. (Like him and him, for instance.) Years ago I realized I lacked the ambition for hard-hitting journalism, that my territory is more the stuff of personal relationships.

But that’s only a partial truth. The other part is that I avoid politics for the same reason we tend to avoid many things: out of fear. Fear of offending, fear of getting it wrong, fear of hitting a false note, fear of looking bad.

And if there is one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot in this past week, it’s how fucking dangerous it can be when we let fears drive us.

*

Of all the ways in which I am privileged, few felt more important last Tuesday as the one that allowed me (because my work is flexible, because I’m healthy, because I live in Minneapolis and have engaged friends here who tell me what’s up) to spend my noon hour listening to Bryan Stevenson.

It was the day after the Ferguson verdict, and like a lot of you, I didn’t know what to do with myself, and being in a sanctuary full of people hanging on his words (and crying about them, and standing and applauding energetically in response to them) felt perfect.

And oh, he said so much that’s so important. Much of it hinged on this idea: that our culture is so broken, we are so broken, because we have let ourselves be manipulated by fear: we’ve let those in power exploit our fear to put too many people away, to give up on those people while they’re imprisoned, to abandon them further when they come out. We’ve allowed fear to trump everything: human rights and and compassion and redemption and anything like equal justice.

And then, Friday, I took a break from my hermit-happy holiday weekend (reading thisthis and this, all of which I brightly recommend) and went with a friend to see CitizenFour. And there it was again. Say what you will about the film or the filmmaker, Snowden or the Obama administration, the message seemed plain: post 9/11, we’ve let fear be the primary engine of our public policy. In the process, we’ve sacrificed our most basic liberties. Worse, most of us aren’t especially concerned.

It’s hard to know what to do with all the injustice swelling up around us. (Though, certainly, there are things: from hitting the streets to, fellow white folks, engaging where we can). Still, so many of us feel so persistently heavy when meaningful change–in terms of racial equality, Spying In the Name of Safety and countless other national and international fronts–seems so, so far out of reach.

I don’t want to sound righteous. And I don’t have answers. Too often, I let myself simply clamp my ears to it all. It’s another privilege: I don’t have to worry about being unfairly stopped, I don’t have to spend each day worrying that my father or brother or uncle or child will get killed for their race.

And that’s just it: in fact, we are all driven, in varying ways and to varying degrees, by fear. The thing about fear is that it’s human. The thing about being afraid is that we all are.

We can’t inoculate ourselves from fear, but we can choose how we respond: we can strive to not let fear enable decisions that are irrational, or hurt others, or become dangerous.

But perhaps just as toxic an effect of fear is inertia. Fear compels us to hurt, but it can also compel us to sit still: to not make ourselves vulnerable in whatever way.

As I was reckoning with all this I came upon this A.O. Scott article, along with this conversation, on the role of art in politics — specifically, the premise that artists are missing the boat in this time of critical unrest.

This subject came up recently with a pair of grad school friends who I visited in Kansas City. We were driving to the contemporary art museum when I declared that I didn’t think overtly political art could ever be any good; they disagreed on principle, but between the three of us we could only name a single, World War One era poem that belied the thought.

An hour later, gliding past one another at an exhibition of some of the most stunning, evocative paintings I’ve ever seen (by the Chinese painter, Hung Liu), many of which curators had described on small white placards as “overtly political,” I whispered to them: We better have that conversation again. 

Later, we hypothesized that maybe visual art is different, that it’s easier to separate the aesthetic from the subject matter in painting than it is in a story or poem. I’d say the same is true for a song.

Still: it’s more complicated. And not very satisfying.

A.O. Scott pleads that it’s the job of artists to reflect society and all its woes. That resonates.

But I also agree with the artists he gathered, who express that art’s first fealty is to storytelling and true, human characters. No one wants, as the writer Justin Torres puts it, “literature that functions as a rant.”

The hypothesis I served my friend about art’s trouble with politics is that art should ask questions: complicate, not resolve. One way to make art bad is to make it polemical, to make it have something clear and unwavering to say. I do believe that.

But I also want to think there’s a way for art to wade into important issues without serving up a clear, one-note message.

Too: I want to think that what stops me, and other artists, from wading into the issues that trouble us is something other than fear. Because while it’s true that bad art helps no one, it’s also true that there’s no such thing as making things without risk.