Birthday Letters, Desert Hot Springs, Weddings and Work

Here’s something: if you’re going to steal someones’s idea and ask your dearest friends and family, in lieu of sending you a birthday gift (not that most of them were planning on it…) to write you a letter in which they give feedback on who you are and where you’re going, you are asking for it.

And “it,” I’ve learned, may well include lying by yourself in a king-sized bed in Palm Springs, California, where are you are staying with a middle aged gay man named Chuck because it is a cheap place to sleep while you attend a writer friend’s wedding, and reading, on your iPhone, a letter from a college friend so touching it makes you weep and then compels you to go running in 95 degree heat–despite the interaction you predicted this choice would prompt with your host. (“I’m going for a run.” “Oh, you’re one of those.“)

There were many reasons that letter made me weep: gratitude, nostalgia, sadness; this friend and I, despite a shared set of interests and mutual adoration unparalleled among liberal arts alumna nationwide, have led largely separate adult lives: in separate cities, with separate friend groups and, as she pointed out, along rather divergent paths.

But here’s a big one: among the questions she posed was this–are you happy? What does it mean to be happy?

It seems like a basic enough question. But, of course, it isn’t. Frequently, it’s one that becomes trendy to pose in the commentary sphere: How do we find happiness? What’s the formula? Such that it can feel trite to even bring up.

But I’m going to anyway. Because my dear friend did. And because it’s interesting. And because all of the people I’ve raised it with in the days since have offered a range of thought-provoking answers. (And: truly, because I would feel guilty if I received a selection of thoughts and questions and wisdom and then just hoarded it all, rather than attempt to share some of it with you.)

So.

Another thing you might do, the day after reading such a letter, which was also the day of the wedding, at which a lot of accomplished, interesting guests celebrated the commitment of two extraordinary people, one of whom had waited (it didn’t go unremarked) until age sixty to choose someone as extraordinary as him, you might drive by yourself to a town with the phrase “hot springs” in the title and soak.

You might reflect.

You might rest in the indoor pool with a view of the outdoor pool and the San Jacinto mountains, and sit with this question of what it means to be happy. You might notice that the first images that come to mind are those of being with your family–a set of people from whom you are choosing to live a plane ride away; a response that might make you question everything, not limited to but including whether you love yourself enough to grant yourself happiness, and whether the experience of being with them is actually as pleasant as you would like, from three thousand miles and dozens of degrees of distance, to believe.

You might cry, again, and then treat yourself to guacamole.

And then you might, as you do, pose the question to people you trust: your roommate as you walk around the lake, your new but dear friend who you jog with on Wednesday mornings, the handful who, conveniently, are collected in your Tuesday-Thursday YMCA boot camp class.

You might listen as one of them explains how, despite agreeing with the general consensus that our lives contain happiness in moments (and in the pursuit of passion, and in sharing space and intimacy with the people we hold dear), she recognizes a certain kind of whole happiness in having all of the parts: the things she’s always known she wanted — a meaningful career, a strong partnership, children.

You might recognize that this is the thing that you wish you didn’t have to acknowledge, but do: that you have some of the parts (rewarding work, deep friendships) but you don’t have all of them, yet (a committed, passionate relationship, children) and that if and when you do is something you not only can’t control but can’t foresee, and that this fact does make it difficult to feel a complete, convincing degree of “happy.”

You don’t want to accept this.

As I write, I’m standing at my kitchen counter baking chocolate cookies for a friend’s cozy family dinner. Last night I cooked salad and soup for three other friends. This may be the most glorious Minnesota fall on record, with temperatures so warm I don’t need a jacket on my bike. In three days I’m going off for a four-week residency where someone will actually give me money to finish (n’shah allah) writing the thing I have always felt that I needed to write.

In other words: I am so fortunate and so loved. It feels absurd to say, to think, that I’m not, or that I may not be, completely happy.

And yet: knowing what you want and not knowing how you’re going to get it isn’t an easy thing.

As I, and (hopefully) you know, if all I wanted was a relationship, I could have one; what I want is something bigger and deeper. What I want is something I have no idea whether or how or when (at sixty? sure!) I’ll find.

What I want is to find a way to be happy without knowing those things.

What I want, in other words, is what we all want: to live with uncertainty.

Because whether we’re in a relationship or not, whether we have all the parts we’re seeking or we don’t, none of us knows how the next minute or hour or week or day will impact our lives.

What we want is to be at peace with that; to trust that we’ll be okay. That we have enough love within ourselves and around us to be okay no matter what’s next.

That kind of steadiness requires daily work: mindfulness, reflection, affirmations, writing, pizza–whatever it takes.

It’s work I’m grateful to those around me for the reminder that it’s work I–like all of us–must do.

 

 

 

 

On Comfort and Contradictions, Beer Halls and Eve Ensler, Gardens and Art

To the list of Things For Which I’m Grateful, add: not being the person responsible for operating on my 104-year-old grandmother’s femur.

Alas (thankfully), such a person exists. And alas (miraculously), Grandma Edith, ever her charming, social (if oft difficult) self, is currently recuperating from a bedside fall that broke her (104-year-old!) hip in a rehabiltation facility across from the top of Central Park.

So it was that, during a two-day trip home, my mother and I followed a visit to her (and her harem of heroic nurses, all nicknamed mamelah) with a walk through the Park’s Conservancy Garden. Established by some set of Vanderbilts, it’s one of those idyllic urban oases you can’t quite believe: bridal parties take pictures, tourists herd families, hardened Manhattanites read the Arts section and library books.

And, people sit and have Real Talk. There were a pair of them: on a bench, a man and a woman, vaguely young, maybe British, with a relationship I couldn’t discern. There were tears, clipped voices. We passed them twice: strolling through the manicured hedges and circular stands of flowers I can’t name. Both times, I had to strain not to slow down, turn back, gawk–wonder: what are they fighting about? Who are they? What’s their story? 

The next evening, at the East Village after-party for the wedding I’d come home to attend, I shared the anecdote with a pair of fellow guests.

What was that? I asked them. Why was I so desperate to know what was going on with two people I’d never seen before and would almost certainly never see again? What is it that makes us so compelled by strangers drama?

It’s about connection, one said. The other agreed. We want to know we’ve felt the same thing. 

Do we? I asked. Or do we want to know that we haven’t? Don’t we want to know other people’s pain in order to feel better about our own?

Or: is it both at once?

On the flight home I began reading Eve Ensler’s memoir of illness, recommended recently by a dear friend. In one chapter, she describes the “cancer town” of Rochester, Minnesota–where, in her experience, wig shops dot corners and waitresses double as therapists.

“I cannot say,” she writes, “if cancer town was a comfort a horror.”

I’ve been to exactly three places in Rochester: a dive bar where an ex played a rock show; a hotel restaurant; a parts factory owned by a friend’s dad. But the phrase struck a different kind of chord. It struck at that familiar tension and fluidity between two emotions that I felt surface in the park. And in other moments, too.

Just from the weekend, this one: watching the handsome, elderly, wheelchair-bound black man in the elevator of the Mt. Sinai Rehab facility who, likely due to stroke, couldn’t speak the word seven and had to strain to press that white round button himself. I can see the young man in his face, I thought. He could be anyone; he could be me. The horror.

And this: sitting, hours later, at a Bloomingdale’s makeup counter while a stunning young woman (having transformed a simple lipstick purchase into a full-on makeover once learning that I was en route to a wedding) narrated her latest episode of male disappointment. I waited for him for three hours, she told me. What does he think I am, a goddamn drive-thru? The comfort!

In each of these interactions, I felt a simultaneous sense of relief and alarm in the recognition of likeness.

As many do, I often say and think that illuminating our connectedness is art’s most important purpose: that we need art to remind us, again and again, how we all share the same constellation of feeling. That our hurts and troubles aren’t unique. That we aren’t alone.

We can’t be reminded enough.

All of Frank O’Hara’s poems or Alice Munro’s stories or Mark Rothko’s paintings won’t ever fully satisfy that urge—to know our sameness. It is the ultimate comfort.

And, yet, as Ensler writes, it is also a horror: to see ourselves in the dark places. In the faces of the elderly or ill, in the struggles in other people’s relationships; to recognize our mortality, our smallness, our sameness, our relative insignificance.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to reconcile those two poles. But that one sentence from Ensler’s book was a reminder that I can’t. That our responses: to places, to each other, to the English gardens and strangers’ arguments around us, is often fluid and elusive and layered.

Our experience, I often need to remind myself (and, generous reader, sometimes you), is packed with contradiction; the sense we make of it must be as well.

On Closeness, Birthday Extravaganzas, and Infinite Instafriends

“So, how close are you with your family?”

My friend R and I were scrubbing various surfaces of her bathroom in preparation for that day’s move. (Hers.) Moments earlier, we’d become hysterical imagining a reality TV version of the scene, in which two Jewish American (relative) Princesses attempt to clean house. Some sqealed “oy!”s ensued.

But back to her question, which resonated on a couple of levels.

For one: as some may recall, Close happens to be the title of my (almost finished!) family memoir–suggesting that the inquiry is one I require approximately 50 thousand words and three-ish years to answer.

For another, R and I feel quite close: the kind of friends who help each other clean toilets and talk through major life choices–despite, as her question illustrated, having known each other only briefly and having, still, pretty major gaps in knowledge of each other’s families and pasts. (When did she start having sex? No clue. How many siblings? Pretty unsure.)

It was, in fact, R who–days earlier, during the last leg of the 3-day extravaganza that my grandmother termed my Polish Wedding of a birthday celebration–coined the term instafriend.

“I love it,” she said, recalling how she had so quickly clicked with a couple other of my new-ish pals at Saturday’s barbecue. (Leg number one.) “I haven’t felt so at home in years!”

Among these new-ish pals include one (met through friends) who drove me to the airport at 5 in the morning after hanging out only a handful of times, and wound up baking one of my birthday cakes and helping me fold about 200 dumplings for the party. Another (met at a barbecue) who insisted on contributing a tablescape, and who had dispatched her father to drive me from New Haven to Middletown, Connecticut the second time we met. One (met at the gym) who brought with her small succulents, a bottle of Knob Creek and a visiting sister, who the next day invited me to join her family’s barbecue.

As I told H en rainy route to pick up burritos last night, I’ve been pondering how to blog about this spate of fast-formed friendships without sounding like an ass hole/full-on bragging. (Look at me, I have so many friends!)

I got nothing. You’ll just have to forgive me: as I am prone to reminding you, I have two skills in this life. One is writing speedy sentences that tend not to suck, and the other is making friends. (Need someone to sew a button, help a 5th grader with math, or ever have any clue what direction is west? Everyone Else is more your gal.) Also, it’s still my birthday week.

So, yeah: it’s not a totally new phenomenon. But forging new friendships has not always been something I’ve felt open to. At other points, in other places, I’ve felt like a new host of friends was the last thing I needed. A couple of years ago, for instance, when I was working four jobs and struggling to figure out a post-MFA life in New York, I felt like I barely had enough time for the girlfriends I had–making space for others was not even low priority, it didn’t at all appeal.

Flash forward to the last couple of months: my appetite for new friends has been insatiable. And frankly, it’s felt uncanny: the rate at which I’ve been meeting wonderful women and clicking quickly.

Deeply, too.

“I love you!” one said, casually, as she kissed me goodbye at the coffee shop where we’ve become pals–and outside of which, at that point, we’d yet to hang out.

The comment made me smile, and reflect, yet again, on what it means to love someone.

There are, of course, so many ways that it can mean. And lately, as I sort through the latest clues about what kind of love I want and need from a romantic partner, this flood of (mostly) female friendship can’t but feel some sort of significant signal: a reminder of how essential it is to open ourselves to all kinds of love. How connections can come in so many forms, with so many rich, diverse qualities. How the endless ways to love and be loved is something we discover all the time.

Malcolm Gladwell is right: the biggest predictor of friendship is proximity. There are infinite people in the world with whom we could connect, as friends or as lovers. For the latter, most people decide to settle on one. But when it comes to the former, we don’t.

Still, quality over quantity, I’ve heard said. Better to have fewer deeper friendships than more, thinner ones.

These days, I’m not sure I agree.

I’d trade nothing for the friends I’ve known for decades, who throw around my middle initial and know not only each of my brothers’ names but their particular quirks. There are so many moments when I turn to them.

But in this rich, complicated life, I love having so many different people to turn to in all kinds of scenarios: the older women who dispense wisdom about past husbands; the younger girlfriends who remind me to go to rock shows; the Jewish gals who know what I mean when I saw mamelah; the athletic ones, always game for a bike ride or a jog; the writer pals who meet me to drink beer and submit poetry.

I’m making my set of friends sound like a girl band.

I don’t want to. What I want to say is this: that the older I get the more I appreciate how much we move through in our lives; how different phases call for different sorts of focus and moods and care; how while some might prefer to deepen a few friendships or diminish the value of those quickly made, I feel nothing but exuberantly, massively thankful for the fast, fierce friends I’ve had the fortune, lately, to make.

Because to me, right now, they are everything.

Slipping Up, Serials, and Self-care

“But you don’t want anything serious either, right?”

It was the early stages of one of a couple episodes this summer (in the blurred-genre serial that is my peripatetic life) in which I attempted to engage with a man on terms, either explicit or implicit, best characterized as casual. These episodes were mostly comic, but not without small tragic turns; needless to say, they did not progress beyond brief.

The speaker was a good friend. But–clearly-one who hasn’t known me very long.

I looked at this friend as if she’d presumed I hate barbecued pork chops, or joy.

“Are you joking?” I said. “I always want something serious.”

She frowned. “But aren’t you, like, not sure where you’ll be living in a few months?”

I shrugged.

“And, like, trying to focus on three different books?”

I shrugged again.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a thing.”

I wish it were not a thing. I wish it were not a thing in the same way I wish the idea of being settled in a routine and zip code with a partner and dog doesn’t fill me with panic in the way that it does. I wish it were not a thing in the same way I wish, sometimes, that I was more inclined to work more and play less and on occasion resist the urge to spill the details of my dating life with every passing gym buddy or charming barista.

I wish, in other words, (and as we all, at times, do) that I was someone different than I am.

We lie to ourselves all the time.

In relationships, on our own. We spin stories that suit a whole web of longings and comforts that shift as we do. I think we’re more aware of this as we age, and perhaps better at bridging gaps between who we’d like to be and how we envision ourselves. But I’m not sure that process arcs straight: we gain ground and then lose it, the way we do with most things–relationships, body image, reading and responsible bedtimes.

All to say: I’m trying not to be too harsh with myself for the fact that, despite the look of horror with which I replied to my innocent, well-meaning pal, I managed to convince myself, at certain, likely humid and sun-spotted moments, that I am someone capable of dating casually. That I’m fine with not establishing clear terms. Totally cool with not having a single freaking clue when I’m going to see someone next. Just chill about a spurt of intense intimacy followed with days of radio silence.

Blame it on the moisture; it can make things hazy.

I’d like to tell you I’ve learned my lesson.

I’d like to tell you I’ve taken a solemn vow to only pursue people whose intentions and emotional capacaties are as serious as mine.

I’d also like to tell you that I will meditate for ten minutes every morning forever after reading a difficult Ginsberg poem, and that by the end of 2014 I’ll have completed drafts of all three book projects now in the works.

Instead, what I’ll tell you is this: I’ll try.

I’ll make lists. I’ll cry on the shoulders of gym buddies and baristas and blessed single gal girlfriends who think nothing of meeting me for drinks evenings on end until I feel a little bit more okay about the abrupt end of summer. I’ll try and treat myself to the occasional massage and remember to do yoga. I’ll sit in silence as many mornings as I can. I’ll read Ginsberg and O’Hara and Kasischke and Howe. I’ll work at balancing friends and teaching with getting shit done. I’ll stay on my bike as long as weather permits. I’ll try to be honest with myself about what I need from my mother and men.

Cause we can’t always so easily harness these pesky patterns at odds with our essential natures–no matter how many times we notice (or: reader, forgive me! blog about) them.

But, more easily, we can learn how to nourish ourselves when we slip up.

And slip up, friends, we always will.

 

Some Notes on Birthdays, Fall, and (Extremely Early!) Thirties Angst

“I think you’re accomplished!”

My friend K and I were sitting on the edge of a Kingfield tennis court, drenched and tomato-colored from fifteen minutes of volleys due to tropical evening humidity. She wanted to talk celebration plans for my upcoming birthday. I, for reasons I couldn’t summon, wanted to avoid the subject entirely.

“That’s not it,” I said.

I was grasping to explain why it is that (the anticipation of) this year’s birthday has felt especially rough.

Maybe, I said, it’s the fact that, despite feeling fairly settled here in Minneapolis, I’m still not completely sure to which state I ought to have mail sent come November.

Or maybe it’s the the fact of spending time with a boy who is a millennial and communicates in acronyms I am too old to comprehend.

Or, yeah, some spin on the “accomplishment” idea: that inevitable gap between what I hoped I’d have done by now (read: publish a book) and what I have.

Or, I said, grudgingly, it could be nothing more complicated than the whole, irritable, biological clock thing. (Can we delete that phrase from English now? Kthanksbye.)

We even discussed the impact of fall: the way it can prompt all of us to revisit “back to school” mode and consider what space in which we’re entering a new, annual cycle.

None of these ideas satisfied.

K wanted to talk backyard grilling. Fancy dinners. Cocktails. Official viewings of my favorite movies. (If you love me and you live here, get pumped for The Big Chill. It’s on.)

I wanted to sulk.

This is not normal.

Despite a breakdown on the actual day of my thirtieth birthday triggered by such non-threatening objects as an IKEA lamp, Lake Calhoun and a certain ex-boyfriend’s excitable mutt, I managed to slide through that, more major transition without a whole lot of drama. I’ve always been on the younger end of my grade and friend groups: by the time I turn whatever age, most people around me already have. It tends not to shock.

But something about this year feels different.

I’ve even joked about re-doing my thirtieth–as though I’m some middle-aged divorcee with bleached hair who shops for designer dresses and plastic surgeons and refuses to admit her actual age.

I mean, It’s silly.

As K put it, 31 does not represent a substantial or physical difference. As the millennial teased, fifty is the new thirty. (Making me, as he put it, about ten, and him about five — an extended analogy that may or may not have helped.) And as various older friends have repeatedly reminded, the thirties are often–emotionally, mentally–a vast improvement.

“Thirty one was better than thirty,” K said. “And thirty-two was even better. We’re moving up!”

I know this. I know that I feel as healthy and secure as I ever have, and plan to get stronger and smarter as years pass. I know there is nothing remotely useful or interesting about agonizing over something as intractable as age. I know that not one of the worries K and I discussed is solely responsible for activating a whole set of broader anxieties.

Rather, I know that birthdays are mere markers: moments that, whether we wish them to or not, inevitably trigger reflection. Self-evaluation. Sometimes, stress.

After tennis, a group of us went to dinner at a local, sustainable sushi restaurant. The owner, a coffee shop pal, brought us some new sake to try and a plate of steaming, crispy gyoza. We giggled about random family connections and favorite summer memories (topping the list: that time we all PONTOONED TO THE BAR) and ambitious meals we’d all like to cook. I paused for a moment to reflect that this is what matters: these precious, joyful moments of being with people I adore, enjoying food and each other.

I remembered another recent moment: sitting on my porch after reading and writing some poems, feeling, suddenly (and fleetingly) as though I don’t really care whether I publish or prosper from writing–that nothing external could be as meaningful as this, the concrete, internal pleasure of doing what I love.

Fuck birthdays.

It’s still frustrating that there’s nothing more tangible about what’s causing my burst of age-related angst–and that I doubt there’s anything more solid to remove the edge.

But it’s nothing from which I’m not willing to be distracted. So, today, I’m looking (still a month!) ahead to a night (or three! I mean, birthday is on a Monday…) of cocktail(s) and dinner(s) and movie(s) with dear ones. To all the fun afternoons and evenings and boat rides that may come after and before. To aggressively enjoying birthdays now and thirty years from now–because, what else is there?

On Age, Sailboats, and (Still) Being Reckless

It wasn’t what I wanted him to say.

We were on a blanket–a sarong, to be precise–and wrapping up what I’d venture to categorize as among the Most Idyllic First Dates in the History of Summer: a bike ride, white wine on a patio, a walk, lying next to Lake of the Isles before sunset and scandalizing some significant section of southern Minneapolis as they jogged/biked/dog-walked past in neon droves. (It’s the Midwest: scandalizing doesn’t take much.)

“This has been extremely pleasant,” he smirked, shifting onto an elbow and holding his head in one hand. “We should definitely do it again.”

I agreed. And then: the bomb drop.

“I need to give a disclaimer,” he announced, clearing his throat and qualifying that it may or may not be the appropriate time.

A small cube of nerves began to gather in that bottom space of my belly. I propped myself up to meet his gaze as he told me, as (considering his age: young, and career/life path: uncertain) I could easily have expected he would, that he didn’t feel ready for anything serious–romantically or otherwise.

It was disappointing to hear. But not what stung.

That would be what came later: after I explained that a part of me did want to keep hanging out with him–due not only to the magic of the evening but, also, to the disarming ease that characterized our interaction from when we began chatting in the coffee shop (“You don’t need Tinder,” one friend recently ribbed. “You have your coffee shop!”); but that another, more sensible part of me feared that would be a bad choice.

“I have a hard time keeping things casual,” I explained. (An admission that, remarkably, did not seem to shock.)

Too, I said, while I’d like to think I’m in a place for carefree fun and that I’ve got all the time in the world, it happens to be a fact that in a little over a month I will turn 31–and that, in fact, I don’t.

“I hate to make decisions based on that, though…” I said. I was grasping my elbows around my knees and looking out to the middle-distant sailboats spotting the lake.

He nodded in sympathy. “But it’s the truth,” he said.

That, friends, is what’s stuck.

Because what I wanted him to say was, “No, it’s not!” or “You’re still so young!” or “Come on, you have lots of time!” (To be fair: sentiments that, a couple of days later, with some slight manipulation, he did express.)

Before that, though, I turned, as I do, to the women of my bi-weekly Boot Camp class.

“Wait, are you turning 31 or 39?” One of the regular moms I chat with and I were side-shuffling the perimeter of the gym during warm-up.

“31!”

“Oh! Please. I didn’t have kids til 35!”

“So you think I still have time to have fun!?”

Of course!”

Bless her — she made it sound so simple.

But I know it’s not.

I no longer inhabit that panicked, Find Me A Husband Scramble that took hold in my late 20s. I’ve realized I’m not capable of committing to someone without the fiery passion I deserve–and that I’ll wait for it as long as I need, whether that’s two months or twenty years.

I also know that I’d like a family–and that the longer I wait to commit, the more biologically difficult that may be.

And while it doesn’t feel healthy or useful (and certainly not fun) to freak out about finding the RIGHT PERSON RIGHT NOW, I’m not sure how I ought to feel about consciously choosing to spend time in something I’m pretty sure isn’t heading where I’d like.

“You never know what can happen,” another gym friend advised. It was Thursday’s class, and we were doing squat-jumps over a step. “Things can change!”

I shook my head. “Yeah,” I said. “But I can’t go into it expecting they will.”

With my (pesky/fortunate) capacity for quick connection, it’s a mind game, and it’s also a catch: I’m not interested in having fun with someone I don’t feel a chemistry with–and if I do, chances are good that it will start to feel like more than only that.

Who knows where, if anywhere, this particular connection will lead; it may fizzle before I get the chance to set myself up for another bout of vulnerability and likely loss.

And if it doesn’t, I’ve decided, that’s okay: when I look back on the previous occasions (there may have been a couple…) when I’ve let a compelling connection enable some reckless decision-making, for all the soreness and hurt that’s generally come later on, there’s not a one I’d give back.

Few things, after all, are more thrilling (more fun!) than rare, romantic chemistry–and for now, at least, those thrills aren’t ones I’m willing to pass up.

Summer, Solitude and the Highs and Lows of Loneliness

I’m good at being alone.

This is something I tell myself. It’s something I’m told.

Lately, I’m wondering what it means–and whether it’s true.

“It just seems like you’re having the most idyllic summer!” my dear, Taos friend J said the other day when we spoke on the phone. She was driving in Oakland, and I was squatting on a curb of Nicollet Avenue–outside the coffee shop I have taken to going for au laits, work and inevitable banter on a daily basis.

That coffee shop, with its warm baristas and airy environs, is one of several ways that my summer (as I’ve told you) does, in fact, feel idyllic: the house, the biking, the teaching, the walking around lakes with new friends and lazing on porches with old ones. The other night, after dinner in St. Paul and some loitering around our college campus (not a regular occurrence, promise–a visiting friend wanted to show her wife and child), P and H dropped me off at a rock show downtown: they left me with cash (I had none), a bus pass (same), clear directions home (I’m hopeless), and keys (I’d forgotten).

I was reminded of one friend’s reaction when I told him about breaking up with N: his face curdled.

“It was the right thing!” I assured him. “I have a lot of support.”

“I know,” he’d said. “But I want you to be cared for, not just supported.”

In case it needs clarifying, I felt, on Saturday (in addition to adolescent, and amused) as I have felt this entire summer–as well cared for as I ever have.

So I told J that In some ways she’s right: my summer is sweet and idyllic and lucky and great–especially from the outside. But internally, things are more complex.

“It’s a lot of highs and lows,” I told her.

To be a little less cryptic: it’s felt especially hard, lately, to be alone.

Not in the practical, everyday sense: there are plenty of pals to see (both in and out of the house where I live). Plenty of fun things (pizza farm! art openings! barbecues!)  to do. Endless poems (about loneliness and longing, of course) to write.

But in the physical, emotional sense–the particular, penetrating sensation that ripples from guts to skin and can feel all kinds of heavy and sad.

What (besides, thank heavens and literature, poetry) does one do with this feeling?

One natural, if irrational response is to feel bad about it. Specifically, to feel shame.

Being “good” at being alone, in our culture, has currency. It’s valued. Especially for women: we’re supposed to be independent. Self-sufficient. Definitely not needy. Being needy isn’t cute. It’s not attractive. (Not that we care, of course!)

And there are people who truly cherish their independence: a (male) friend recently gushed to me about how much he treasures those stretches when he’s outside of a relationship–how inspired and comfortable and joyful that time can be.

Sometimes I agree. In moments, I find the small thrills of single life intoxicating: making my own days, stretching out in bed, going alone to rock shows and letting a few too many Grain Belts enable some reckless flirtation. (Pretty sure I told a boy I barely know that I tried to stalk him online; his response nailed it: “Why do you need to stalk me on the internet? I see you at the coffee shop every day?” Hi, I’m thirty.)

But it is a natural, biological human impulse to crave intimacy and companionship. It isn’t our fault–it’s evolution. It’s how we’re made. And for all of the moments when I feel happy and giddy, riding my bike alone after dark on the greenway or lazing on damp grass, laughing about younger men with single pals–there are also those when the weight of solitude feels almost impossible to bear.

It isn’t. I can live with it. It’s a burden I respect and understand.

What I don’t want to live with, and shouldn’t, is the attendant shame: the feeling bad about feeling bad. The reflexive self-flagellation that nags and tells me I should be fine, I shouldn’t crave connection, that this particular sadness isn’t deserved.

It is. And I’ll find various ways to live with it, some glorious and some dark, as long as I need.

On Kamikazes, Fireworks and Fun

“What do you mean you don’t like dating?”

I was chatting with a new acquaintance, and that gap had come up, as it sometimes does: the one between the fact that I write about dating and that I not only am terrible at it but really, really dislike everything it entails.

We were walking back from watching fireworks in Northeast Minneapolis: the city a scatter of bikes and barbecues and punch drunk kids.

“But what about it don’t you like?” He kept insisting.

I reached for specifics: the uncertainty, the awkwardness, the extended periods of feeling unsure.

“You know,” I said. “All of it.”

A few days earlier I’d Skyped with a friend. Our chat had been set up urgently once she’d emailed that morning: she’d met someone. She needed to talk.

The story turned out to be far more elaborate and romantic than I could have thought: an immediate, fierce connection—complicated by distance. But the obstacles didn’t faze her.

Instead, she was elated. She hadn’t been so productive in years. Art was pouring out of her. Paintings and sculptures and poetry and ideas. She wasn’t sleeping. Her skin glowed through the 2D screen—barely able to contain this newfound inspiration and joy.

“But when are you going to see each other?” I asked, gently. “How are you going to make it work?”

She shrugged. “I’m not sure,” she said, glancing to the side. “We’ll have to see what happens when we meet, and go from there.”

Sure enough, things have already grown more complex. Uncertainty looms. She’s struggling to keep her head on straight.

But even more, she’s told me, she’s struggling to keep up with the flood of creative energy the encounter is still generating.

After our call that day, I got up from the porch couch (no small achievement these blissful, breezy summer days, I must tell you) and biked around. I needed to process. I was excited for her: not just because she’d met someone, but because of the way in which she could so overtly, ecstatically enjoy the place of excitement that it had spurred.

I realized (as I usually do with this particularly wise and soulful friend) how much she could help me learn.

I’ve learned some. I no longer (strictly) practice the kind of “kamikaze style” dating, as my friend D lately, brilliantly termed it, that was a habit in my early (and maybe mid…) twenties. (“Attack and destroy!” he recalled, shaking his head toward the bar over recent drinks. “You had so much going for you! I never got why you did that…”)

I’ve gotten better, at moderating myself: resisting the urge to catapult my heart at every passing prospect with undue (and undeserved) force.

But I can still find the whole process stressful—instead of exciting and energizing and inspiring and fun.

It’s a point that keeps arising along with the subject of finding love and how much of myself I should let drift to it: this question of is it still fun?

I always want the answer to be yes. But too often, it isn’t.

Too often, I let myself get consumed by the surrounding anxieties: where is this going? What if he doesn’t like me? What if I don’t really like him? When is he going to text/call/ask me on a godforsaken date? And then, the layers of guilt: why am I letting this take up so much space? I know: boring shit.

But, annoyingly, irresistable shit. We are biologically programmed to crave intimate connection. Also, some of us are Libras, which means we can’t help but obsess.

I know that it will always be hard for me to evade that sort of fretfulness. I will work at it, and it will be better, but it will never come quick.

Some days, though, it does feel easier to convince myself that there is a way to focus more on the fun: on the brief flirtatious encounters and bursts of excitement and attraction and feeling that, as my newly enamored friend put it, have that unique power to make us feel alive.

On Dwelling

“Just, dwell in it.”

I was sitting at a kitchen counter with a friend, and it was late, and I was sharing some poems inspired by a recent heartache.

“Keep writing,” she encouraged. “And just, you know. Dwell.”

I keep returning to those words.

A few days ago, another writer friend echoed them. She told me about her recent discovery of pages that she’d written during a low period of her own, how struck she’d been by the clarity of that prose; how she is just now realizing the fullness of inspiration that time provoked.

“Use the pain,” she advised.

Writing aside, this is a spirit that has felt resonant lately: the spirit of sitting in the sadness, soaking yourself in the aches that come, when they do.

Not to mislead: I have zero pity for myself, which is exactly how much you ought to have. My life is still wildly charmed–living with a pair of my (and half of Minneapolis’) favorites, back in the balmy, bike-able bosom of Minnesota summer. I have plentiful time to write. I get to teach some of the most engaged students around. I have a standing, weekly date for a lakeside picnic. Things are good.

But I am still me: a gal with an uncanny knack for hurling my heart around several North American regions (the Southwest, Northeast and Midwest, mostly; but I’m not exclusive), caution and experience be damned. It is bound to get some scrapes. Also, I still lack a permanent address and can’t subscribe to magazines like a real person.

So, you know. Sometimes that fragile feeling sets in.

There have been times (times like a couple of months ago) when feeling fragile meant something completely different; times that, accordingly, called for a completely different kind of self-care. Then, I needed to keep moving. I needed to avoid being alone for more than an afternoon. I needed to release myself of any pressure to read, much less write. The last thing I wanted to do was reflect. I gave myself that. I didn’t have a choice.

Now, though, I do. And, I could choose to stick with that philosophy of momentum and speed. It’s tempting.

But more and more, I’m realizing that what I need now is something else: what I need is to bask in it. To spend as much time as I can bear reflecting. Writing. Dwelling in the nuances of feeling. Exploring these scales of solitude as I slide, with varying measures of sentience, along through them.

In a recent Louis episode, (the best/only current TV show I sometimes remember to watch), Louis talks with his ex-wife about his current relationship. Among the several significant obstacles to its’ success, he reveals, is the fact that she, the woman he loves, is soon to leave the country. For good.

The ex promptly gets furious: he’s introduced this woman to their young daughters! How could he do that? Aren’t they going to feel crushed when she up and leaves? Aren’t they going to feel sad?

They’re talking on a midtown sidewalk. Louis shrugs.

Yeah, he says. They’ll be sad. So what?

The tendency is to call this bad parenting; to agree that we should protect children from any semblance of hurt.

It’s a tendency that extends past childhood: to each other. And, to ourselves. To care for people, we think, is to protect them from sadness and hurt. To care for ourselves, we’re taught, means to avoid these sensations as well.

At the risk of stating something obvious: we can’t.

And still, that impulse, to shirk away from hard emotions, runs deep. Such that we, or at least I, can need reminding: that there is value in dwelling. That it is sometimes worth combatting the urge to distract and to avoid.

That the hardest feelings tend not to saturate us for long. That when they do, exploring them is often what leads to discovery. (And, too–conflict!–good art.)

In other words: some time soon, it is likely that other, more overtly pleasant feelings will begin to take hold. And they will be far less interesting.

On Conferences, Comparing, College Campuses and Aspiring Like Youth

“Which poet do you want to be when you grow up?”

My friend N and I were walking around a New England college campus.

She and I were there to attend a writers’ conference: four days of craft courses, critique, readings, and dark hour debauchery alternating with daytime discomfort, summer camp style.

Familiar liberal arts trappings surrounded us: sprawling grass fields, soulless, florescent dorms, red brick buildings, patio furniture bolted to cement. Together, they rejuvenated some spirit of youthful optimism: We can do anything! Be anyone! The world is ours!

This is an attitude that can collide with another one such gatherings are known to provoke: the prickly recognition that good fucking god there are SO MANY PEOPLE in the world who are writing things and how will any of us ever succeed and who in god’s name will ever read ANY of us?

That happened, too.

 *

On the train back to New York from New Haven, I sat across from an undergrad who was also in attendance, helping out: a young woman entering her senior year, she came across as effortlessly social, stylish and smart—the sort of person born to glide impressively through college life.

Still (or, perhaps, as a result), she told me, the various traumas the (idea of the) end of school engender aren’t far from her mind: the loss of close community, the loss of clear purpose. Even, she said, the pressure to accomplish the kind of Big Things that elite universities are apt to persuade their students lie, inevitably, in their path.

“You’re only twenty-one!” I reminded her as she described her angst.

“Yeah,” she shrugged, glancing out the window toward cement and tracks, the somber sidelines of Metro North. “But some people my age have already done so much!”

“Oh, stop it!” I rolled my eyes. “You’re so young. You have so much time.”

She wasn’t convinced. But of course, it wasn’t really her I was trying to sway.

I didn’t get serious about writing until my mid-twenties. Early compared with some, but more often it seems late compared with others—and at the Conference, it didn’t elude me how many folks not much older than me seemed to have accomplished so much more.

Overall, brief stints on college campuses notwithstanding, I’ve found the occasion to feel invincible about the future increasingly elusive. More and more, that toxic impulse to compare my accomplishments with those around me—particularly those close in age—beckons, gathering perilous heat.

It quickly becomes a losing game. One has to think hard to list accomplishments at which thirty-odds can’t arrive: A Nobel prize? (Actually, they can.) Meaningless awards of Lifetime Recognition? Grandchildren?

We’re told, over and over again, not to compare ourselves: that everyone has their own path. That it doesn’t matter. We know. I know.

And yet: we all do it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need to comfort ourselves with lists of well-known people who bloomed late. We wouldn’t hear every other writer make a self-deprecating reference comparing their productivity to Joyce Carol Oates’. We wouldn’t scan the wedding announcements making a certain kind of mental note.

We don’t know how not to compare ourselves, just as we don’t know how to detach from the way we’re perceived: we derive so much meaning in our lives derives from how we fit in with other peoples’. How can we avoid measuring ourselves the same way?

On the last day of the conference, N and I googled some of the other participants, comparing their publications with our own. We made fun of ourselves as we did it. (We’re in a dorm room! I assured. We’re supposed to act juvenile!)

In truth, she and I have become expert at jointly indulging this, the lamest part of ourselves: the part fueled by ego, that maddening, driving aspect. It works. We share a sense of humor about it, and a convenient commitment to (mostly) differing sections of the writing world.

A part of me feels shameful, wary of enabling each other. A larger part feels relieved: it’s a tough part in which to be alone.

And it did feel important, refreshing, to balance that reflexive, negative spin with that more youthful, college-inspired one. The one that recognizes, as I overheard one participant put it, that some people take until seventy to figure ot their purpose. That, with writing, as with so many things, there is no formula, no model anyone can proscribe that will lead anywhere assured.

That it isn’t now, and in fact, will never be, too late to aspire toward goals, selves, people, projects we may (or may not!) someday achieve.