On Being Bread for Each Other

“Who are you going to take care of when you get home?”

My grandmother leaned forward as I tucked a thin white hospital blanket around her exposed shoulders.

Her voice was thin, her breath short; she’d been at New York Presbytarian for about a week by then, with symptoms of bronchitis tied to a host of other, more serious concerns. Four days earlier, I’d gotten on a plane from Seattle—where I’d been visiting friends—after a phone call from my mother suggested things were dire.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, collapsed back down into a square leather chair. “Myself?”

A week before I flew to New York, Rob had moved to Duluth—in pursuit of a lifelong dream. (Calm down: not the city itself, but one the city happens to contain.) He may stay, may not. We may stay coupled, may not.

Either way: for the next few months, I will be mostly in Minneapolis, mostly alone.

For those few days in Manhattan, I was not. I was, primarily, by my grandmother’s bedside: spooning her applesauce, holding paper cups of ice water and ginger ale to her (lipsticked) mouth, fetching her the daily Times and tracking down displaced reading material. (“How is she doing?” My mother texted after my grandmother, who I have always called Susie, emerged from a relatively minor procedure. “Well,” I wrote back. “Her biggest concern is what happened to her New York magazine.”)  

I am no hero: it is my parents, mostly, and my mother, most of all, who have been her true caretakers throughout the course of these recent health struggles. My presence allowed them a brief respite, some capacity to attend to their respective work demands, but the afternoon I left, they were back by her side—as they still are.

Too, that I could get there in the first place was a product of privilege—my parents ability to subsidize a last-minute, cross-country airfare; my flexibility as a college teacher to easily cancel the first day of class.

And being with Susie, I must add, is no chore: among her many miraculous traits is the capacity, even with her body under multi-pronged attack, to maintain a dry humor; upon the departure from her room of a rather aggressively handsome cardiologist: “They know,” she deadpanned, “to send me the good-looking ones.”

All this aside: my presence, while appreciated, felt like a gift to myself as much as anyone else.

*

 “I think our deepest human desire is to give ourselves to each other as a source of physical, emotional and spiritual growth… Isn’t ‘tasting’ the best word to express the experience of intimacy? Don’t lovers in their ecstatic moments experience their love as a desire to eat and drink each other? As the Beloved ones, our greatest fulfillment lies in becoming bread for the world. That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.”

At a recent retreat where I spent two nights, one of them with Rob, we stumbled on books by the late Christian theologian Henri Nouwen.

Just days earlier, a friend had told me about Nouwen, a former professor of his at Yale Divinity, so the books appearance felt serendipitous—and Rob and I spent that evening reading passages together. What’s quoted above is one of many that stuck out.

One theme Nouwen touches on is the tension between solitude and community: how, while connection is what nourishes and sustains us, we must also seek to be comfortable in solitude—must avoid being driven, blindly, by the (very human) fear of being alone.

“The movement from loneliness to solitude,” Nouwen writes, “…is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.”

This theme has felt resonant lately: as I enter into a period of straddling isolation and partnership, as I contemplate shifting commitments to different communities and paths. 

I believe connection—our capacity to forge intimacy with others—is our primary purpose; and, that it is through seeking authentic intimacy with others that we can come closer to knowing our true selves.

Knowing ourselves isn’t the end goal in and of itself, of course—but self-knowledge is what allows us an understanding of what gifts we can offer each other; how, as Nouwen puts it, we can provide “bread for the world.” 

Bread that, as my time with my grandmother reminded me, feeds ourselves as much as it feeds those for whom we care.   

*

The day before Rob moved to Duluth, I read on the couch while he went through boxes of old papers and things.

At one point he tossed over a stack of print photographs: from a post-college summer he spent in New Jersey, doing a social justice-focused fellowship. I’d heard bits about it, but not much.

As I flipped through, I teared up: he looked so young and so innocent, so cute; the following day signaled not just a move for him but uncertainty for us; I was (it turned out) pre-menstrual.

Too, as I explained on the drive to dinner, there was (is, perhaps, always) something melancholy in the reminder that the person to whom you feel most connected, by whom you feel most seen and most known—that this person has lived many lives without you.

Rob met my observation playfully—with a look that translates, roughly, to: My god Elizabeth could you possibly perform more of a caricature of yourself than you are right now??

“She has to know everything!” he teased.

Indeed, one of my favorite quotes comes from a Tim O’Brien craft essay I’m sure I’ve mentioned before here: the simple statement that we will never know what it’s like inside another person’s head, how compelling it is to try, how tragic it can feel that we’ll always fail.

But the sadness those pictures triggered was accompanied by a sweetness and warmth: by the feeling that I am still beset with the same excitement I was initially: the feeling of omigod I want to know everything about this person!

And, regardless of that desire’s impossibility—or perhaps, because of it—the desire itself feels joyful, enlivening.

That desire, as it relates to Rob, and to others who I have, do and will encounter continuously—fellow spiritual seekers (folks who often take the form of activists and poets)—comforts me. Because while it may surface as a sort of grasping, a reaching out, it also contains its own nourishment—a gift that doesn’t require anything in return. 

*

It felt sad coming back from New York to a home where my partner is not. Where I didn’t have anyone, besides myself, to care for.

I won’t pretend there isn’t pain in the loneliness I feel now. There is.

But there is also relief: in taking a Thursday night after a rollercoaster week to lie on my couch and read a novel. To attend an organizing meeting early on a weekend morning without feeling pulled to stay snuggled in bed. To visit a Saturday night resistance singalong without the competing option of a date night. In taking a trip to the co-op with the express intention of spending $30 on rose-scented lotions (mission achieved) because aromas, I have discovered in advanced age, are a powerful mood-lifter and these days my moods could use some help.

There is warmth, in other words, and maybe even joy, in caring for myself—knowing that work equips me, down the road, to care more fully, more authentically, for those I have the privilege to love.

 

 

On Grasping, Contentedness, Whiteness and Being (Forever) “Half-Woke”

“What about you? Are you content?”

My friend E and I were taking a walk, catching up at the end of summer–most of which she had spent away.

E is one of my closest friends, and though we aren’t great at keeping up regular contact while apart, her question took me aback: shouldn’t she know whether I’m content?

Also: shouldn’t I know?

Am I content?

Do I–should I want to be?

“Um, I guess so,” I think I said, then. I mumbled something about how I was feeling overwhelmed, per usual; unstable, per usual; uncertain in assorted ways about teaching and writing and community–but also happy, in many moments, finding nourishment in relationships and art and work, whatever that all means.

*

For the last six Saturday mornings, and for four more to come, I have and will sit in a circle with a group of adults in a room at a church in north Minneapolis.

We gather there to discuss texts, watch videos, share personal stories: to work toward a deepened knowledge of this country’s racist history, and toward unlearning the racist conditioning we’ve all–all of us–received.

I’ve been appreciating that space. And feeling drained by it. Sometimes frustrated. Always thankful and humbled, often overwhelmed.

Our reflections and learnings often lead me to a similar dilemma: how to hold, at once, the vast magnitude of the problem (what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”) alongside a belief that much of the most important work must take place on a small, intimate scale: settings like that church room.

(Yes, the change we need is systemic, but in order for folks–white folks, mainly–to work toward that change meaningfully, we’ve got a lot of internal work to do, too. I think.)

How, in other words, to know that no amount of resistance will ever feel like “enough,” while maintaining a commitment to resist as much as we can? Or: how to see that we are unlikely to witness the transformative, systemic change we believe necessary while continuing to take part in the work? 

Oh, right, and what is the work? Is it introducing my composition students to anti-racist concepts and texts that many of them won’t hear? Emailing my parents movie reviews that critique Hollywood’s romance with colonialism, then drinking bloody marys instead of attending an organizing meeting? Teaching poetry classes in prisons I’m not sure should exist, nodding while a guard tells me he respects the incarcerated men who he’ll deny water or bathroom privileges during class? Catching myself as I make racist assumptions about a young, Asian-American woman beside me in the sauna while I smugly read a chapter from The White Racial Frame? Talking about writing poems that address whiteness while finding every excuse to not actually write them?

*

Like most writers who teach (personal) essays, I often introduce my students to the roots of the word–from the French essayer: to tryAn essay, we’re told, is an attempt, an effort, a try at answering some question: what does it mean to feel joy? How to be a black man in America without getting swallowed by rage? What does it feel like to witness a bombing and manhunt on television while incarcerated? 

That they begin with questions doesn’t mean good essays arrive at clear answers; those aren’t really a thing in the world, and nor (us omniscient teachers say) should they be in print.

What we look for in essays, then, and what–I might assure myself–we look for in life, is the grasping: purposeful, thoughtful, reflective seeking.

This takes some pressure off: who needs to worry about clear answers (like what the hell “the work” means) when it’s the questions that matter?

The problem with this framework, as Leslie Jamison eloquently puts it in her introduction to this year’s Best American Essays, is that it lets us off the hook: “If anything counts as attempt,” she asks, “what could possibly count as failure?”

And of course, as she goes on to explain: “essays aren’t immune to failure. They can fail in a thousand ways–by failing to offer insight, by offering insights that feel too easy, too tidy, too shopworn. They can fail to enchant….They can fail to render their subjects with sufficient complexity. They can declare themselves done too soon.”

Similarly: if we know we won’t see something like “success” when it comes to the work of liberation and justice, then how will we know when we’ve failed?

In some ways, we won’t: it’s often (if not always) impossible to fully know the true, short or long term impacts of any kind of social justice work.

But it is certainly possible to fail by not doing what we can. Too easily, if I extend Jamison’s metaphor, I can applaud myself for asking hard questions while failing to take the pursuit–of insight, of knowledge, of the work itself–as far as I have capacity to do.

It is always easy, after all, to slip back into complacency: to shrug and shroud myself with the comfort that there isn’t any “right” way to resist or any measure of “enough” work. To slip back, in other words, into a notion of success (or of “content”) that isn’t mine.

Our culture–and most of our families–doesn’t teach us to prioritize working for radical change: most of us weren’t told to measure our success by how much we commit to uprooting toxic masculinity or abolishing the construct of whiteness. We were (mostly) taught, rather, to pursue our own passions, to create our own families, to seek fulfillment and comfort and happiness for ourselves.

That’s a teaching I’m trying to unlearn–but I’m not there yet.

Put another way: I still don’t know, for me, what it means to be “content”–so how can I claim something I don’t yet understand? 

*

At dinner with a pair of friends the other night, the term “woke” came up. I shared that I wasn’t sure it was okay (read: socially acceptable) to use the term as a white person, but struggled to put words around why.

Rob came to my aid: saying, in effect, that, as white folks, we’ll never really, fully, be “woke”; most of us have spent the bulk of our lives oblivious to the mere truth of our whiteness–the journey, as anti-racist folks often say, is lifelong, there will always be more learning, more unlearning to do.

Perhaps “half-woke,” he suggested, is a better term.

I thought of that the very next day–and how much it fits–when I found myself startled, naively surprised by some basic historical facts around American slavery presented in this podcast–one I’d just sent to some relatives, days earlier, because I thought it would be “accessible” for them (read: people I consider “less woke” then me).

*

There are multiple ways in which I could explain what prevented me from claiming the mantel of “content” that day: job insecurity (#adjunctlife), poetry rejections, relationship struggles (love is hard!), etc. And perhaps some combination of those was really what drove my response.

But maybe, too, it had to do with that idea of grasping: with the (relatively new) understanding of how half-conscious I am and always will be, with the awareness that I am trying to learn and internalize whole new understandings of what “success” and “work” and “content” really mean.

With the sense that, while I might be finding some insights along the way, I’ve got a very long way to go–and a destination that will always, in some ways, elude.

On Community, Colonization, and Shifting Connections

The elder poet swiveled her head around the room: an assembly of ten women, at various stages of our writing careers, gathered for a second annual weeklong poetry retreat on an enchanted island in northern Minnesota. 

That evening we were supposed to be reading one another’s tarot, but she and I had (somewhat quickly) arrived at the edges of our interest in said endeavor, so returned instead to the subject of writing: I sought her advice on how to put together my first poetry manuscript–or rather, for whom: should I be thinking of the potential judges whose reign over first-book prizes is my most likely path to publication? Or (that hypothetical handful of) readers who might, eventually, hopefully, one day enjoy it?

Her assessment was to favor the latter. “You really just have to be true to yourself,” she said. “I mean, odds are that none of us are going to make it to the pinnacle of success. This, though…” She turned towards the women, huddled in pairs on the floor of a dim-lit log-beam cabin with high ceilings and old books. This is what it’s really about.” 

This, as in, being together with one another. This, as in the singular kinship found among women writers. This, as in–for the week, at least–our community.

*

A couple months ago, I attended a racial justice conference on the theme, “Decolonizing our Minds.” It was magic. We spent the bulk of the day at round tables, sharing and listening.

First prompt: who are your people? 

The question has been reverberating since.

As I shared that day with my tablemates, I’ve always longed to have one intimate, cohesive, close community. Also, I’ve never had that.

“It kind of seems like you set it up that way,” my friend R once commented, on an evening walk around a Minneapolis lake. “Like you enjoy having a lot of different groups you shift between; like that’s what you want.”

In fact, as my tablemates and (and other conversation partners since) have affirmed, my experience is common, perhaps even typical: even for those who hang onto groups of friends from childhood or college, people tend to acquire additional groups through work or neighborhoods, hangouts or hobbies.

And of course, there are ways in which I do appreciate having different sets of people: my college crew, assorted groups of writer friends–people I teach in prison with, have one writing group with, another writing group with, teach college with, went through a mentor program or residency with, etc. etc. I wouldn’t want to part with any.

But I also find myself envious of those like my oldest brother, who has maintained the same friend group since growing up in Brooklyn in the 80s: now in their late 40s, they still gather for regular dinners and weekends and parties, share childcare. They have other friends, but there’s no question that the group is core to all their lives.

I find myself longing, in other words, for the firm, intimate connection of a single, secure, close-knit community–a single, secure source of belonging.

This longing–I was recently affirmed (as I often am) by a Tara Brach podcast–is extremely human.

“Humans are built to belong,” she says. While mindfulness and other self-help-ish dogma can counsel that the most important love is for and within ourselves, she reminds us that we’re programmed with the biological need to connect with others.

It makes sense, then, to desire that firm belonging in the form of a connection to a solid community.

It also makes sense that our cultural landscape, how we live now–often, apart from family, without the traditional rooting structures of village or faith–makes most of our connections increasingly diffuse. And that, as a result, we place more pressure on individual partnerships.

I’ve been thinking about this, lately, too.

When I answered the question, who are your people, I didn’t, at first, think of Rob. I named, vaguely, New York Jews and fellow writers and South Minneapolis neighborhood friends. But as I’ve reflected since, I’ve thought about how, more and more, my partner has become my people.

He is, after all, the person who drives me to the airport at 7 am. To whom I reach out when a class goes awry or meeting I’ve facilitated turns into painful satire. He’s who I think to share with when I encounter a noteworthy article, poem or person. He, without doubt, fills the most space in my life and thoughts.

This (mostly…no relationship is perfect) feels like a great gift.

Also: extremely terrifying.

I’ve made sure not to let go of friendships; it is among my greatest fears (others: dehydration, losing hunger) to get swallowed up by a relationship, and while this one has swallowed me perhaps more than others, I (think that least that I’ve) prevented it from swallowing me completely.

Still, Rob and I spend a lot of time with just each other. We enjoy that. We have our outside connections, and some that are shared. For the most part, though, our relationship exists on its own, without strong attachment to a group.

And while it must always feel scary to have so much of oneself invested in a single person, that fear grows especially acute when there isn’t the net of a strong community beneath us.

I’d guess we’re not alone in that predicament. And I’d guess I’m not alone in feeling that such pressure isn’t healthy–puts too much stress on a pair of busy, flawed, complex humans.

*

One of the who are your people conversations was among a group of educators; in response to one teacher sharing that they had worked at the same school for twenty-five years, I shared the frustration of my teaching work being–like my social network– spread out, in this case among different institutions.

“Oh that sounds fabulous!” the teacher exclaimed. “What an opportunity!”

In other words: while I might not have the security and rootedness that he has in a single place, I have the chance to learn with and from numerous different folks.

*

A big part of the discussion at that conference was around how the legacy of colonization represents its own obstacle to community: how it fractures us (via, among other things, racism) not only from one another, but from our own histories.

Our consumerist, capitalist, white supremacist dominant culture elevates the individual and the present over the collective and our future or past. (How differently would we behave, Rob and I recently pondered, if we felt more accountable to those who will come after us, or those who have come before? Answer: probably, quite.)

Why would we want to connect with the truth of our histories, after all, when those histories involve so much blood? And while we might strive for more than self-love, don’t we need an authentic connection with ourselves in order to make meaningful connections with others–how is that even possible when so many of us are so cut off from even our recent ancestral past?
I’m not sure what to do with these questions, or what it means for seeking meaning and community. (Baby attempt: “Maybe I should get in touch with my Jewish roots and become a rabbi! Wait, I haven’t even read the Bible..”)
What I do know: on the island retreat, colonization’s legacy felt especially vivid. I was there with a group that is almost entirely white; as was the man who owned it, whose foundation currently runs and operates programming there: it was gifted him by a company who had acquired it from someone who stole it from Native Americans. 

Being there, knowing that, didn’t feel right.

Of course, it isn’t right. For what it’s worth: the foundation that runs the island is making increasing efforts to empower Anishenabe people in their organization; my hope is that they will ultimately hand over full control.

But there I was; there we were. And like many white Americans, I am practiced at pushing aside the problematic sources of my privilege.

And it is with a good deal of shame and discomfort that I tell you I was able to set down those concerns for much of the week, and enjoy the island’s many gifts: the wild blueberries and clear lake and collection of books and nooks for reading them.

And, perhaps above all: the living in community. 

For those six days, we all had a simplified answer to that question: separated, both physically and digitally, from the rest of our lives–we were each other’s people.

Most of us hardly see one another during the year. But for this one week, we become family: cook and care for each other, make one another coffee, review one another’s work, play silly games and support one another when hard emotions or fears surface.

I do feel some sadness that we don’t see more of each other off the island. (We’re working on it.)

But it also occurs to me to use that teacher’s lens instead: to see our sometime community as something beautiful, as evidence of our natural human ability to forge–quickly and powerfully–intimate connection.
It occurs to me, in other words, to value the notion that, while those connections most valuable to us may not be consistent, they arise when and how they must. 
Like everything in life, connections are fluid, uncertain, often impermanent. What’s constant is our collective need.

This helps in terms of my partnership: I know that if and when I lose Rob I will feel a great absence in my life; I also know that I don’t (can’t!) know what web of connections will help fill that space, and that I can pretty comfortably trust that some will.

It also helps in thinking about my place in community: both real and imagined. How, just as my relationships with those around me may shift and change their place in my life and impact on my thinking, so may my connection to my ancestors and descendents–be they religious, literary or familial; I may not be quite ready for rabbinical school, but perhaps exploring different aspects of my heritage will lead to a kind of growth I can’t yet know.

I may never arrive at a concise answer to the question of who my people are. But maybe I can move toward seeing that less as a problem, and more as a gift.

On Selves and Space

So, we did it–therapy, that is. It wasn’t great.

We are, for now at least, okay. Probably–and mostly due to the (brusque, cold) personality of the therapist–we aren’t going back.

But the session did spark some good conversations, which have led to some efforts to adapt our relationship.

For one thing: trying to create a little distance. Aka: not see each other every day.

In our early (rather, earlier) stages, enabled by both our excess of unstructured time, living a half mile apart, and extreme infatuation, we slipped into a pattern in which we’d meet for dinner on Thursday, blink a few times, and then discover it was somehow Sunday and we’d seemingly done nothing besides stare at each other and fry up a couple of eggs.

“It’s kind of socially acceptable, right?” I remember asking Rob one afternoon in which I’d, again, made a last minute decision to blow off some professional or social obligation in favor of being with him. “You know, to be sort of recklessly irresponsible when you’re falling in love?”

“Of course,” he replied, looking down at me and some snow-dusted sidewalk edging Powderhorn Park. “Always.”

Except that, of course, it isn’t.

Not just acceptable, but desirable: in theory, at least, I am opposed to co-dependent relationships; I am in favor of maintaining independence and a full, dynamic life outside of a partnership, of spending solid chunks of time apart.

In practice, it turns out, I’m more complicated.

Among the traits that Rob and I share is a sort of unwillful transparency: it is very difficult to be around either of us and not know, immediately, what we’re thinking or feeling. As a result, when we’re together, I have the comfort of knowing where’s he’s at. Even when “where he’s at” is somewhat distant, I (because of who we are) can call him out on it, talk it through, get closer–and repeat. (The vice versa applies, too.) When we’re apart, I can’t. I don’t know what’s on his mind. And, due to an attachment style apparently developed as a toddler, this leads to speculation that can be, well, a bit irrational.

When I don’t hear from him for a few hours, for example, rather than picturing him absorbed in a book, sending emails or taking a walk, I am likely to leap directly to an image of him suddenly realizing me to be an anxious, unlovable narcissist with untamable hair, incurable insomnia and (eventually!) yellowing teeth.

Compounding the anxiety of such moments is the attendant shame: the feeling that I don’t want to be an insecure person–the kind of person who needs breathing techniques to survive three consecutive days apart. That’s not me! I want to tell myself. That can’t be the same woman, same self, who hasn’t just endured but thrived during long, intentional stretches of time alone, as someone who is (or, maybe, presents as?) confident, capable, strong! 

Except when it is.

*

I recently had the privilege of teaching a Personal Essay class at The Loft. Teaching this topic is among my favorite things to do in life, for a few reasons: for one, I spent three years studying them with a phenemonal professor; for another, the discussion of personal essays almost always boils down to a discussion of the search for some coherent sense of self–and what’s more compelling, and universal, than that?

Among the essays my class read was a favorite oldie of mine (introduced, of course, by that professor): Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive. It’s about the author, an accomplished feminist writer, recently spurned by a lover whom she “met in Marxist heaven,” taking driving lessons at middle age–the humiliation that occurs, in other words, when the vision of herself she’d like to have (a self-sufficient, independent, powerful woman!) is disrupted by divergent realities–not only does she need (significant) help in becoming a capable driver, she is also completely devastated by the breakup–and by her own complicity in the relationship’s painful end.

She is, in other words, human.

I thought of that essay in recent weeks. I thought of the ways in which how we’d like to see ourselves can collide with undesirable truths: how experiencing grief around a relationship’s end, or needing help learning a skill, or feeling some anxiety around a new relationship’s shifting shape, shouldn’t signal any sort of deficiency, shouldn’t represent a deviance from an identity as someone who is capable and strong–how these experiences are all part of the inconsistent, fluctuating, complex experience of being alive.

Put another way: our ideas about who we want or ought to be often come from a culture that elevates the secure, confident, independent person/woman in the same breaths as it diminishes us all for failing to meet standards that aren’t just unrealistic, but are often inhuman, that often don’t align with our messy, honest truth.

*

One day last week, after an early teaching morning, I came home and crossed a bunch of items from my to do list. Rob has recently started a new job, which means he’s not around during the day; it was nice out, and I had the thought that, if he were home, we might be walking his roommate’s dog through the park. I felt a tinge of sadness, but then, some satisfaction–a recognition that spending so much time with him had meant a neglect of my own stuff that didn’t feel great. And isn’t, ultimately, viable.

All to say: in the end, I don’t want a relationship that’s co-dependent. I’m too attached to too many things–friendships, communities, unfinished poem drafts–to let one person saturate my life completely.

But I’m also an unsteady, sometimes insecure person, for whom transitioning from a relationship’s intense, all-in beginning to something that can better accommodate normal, busy lives is not, and will not, feel easy.

What’s harder to remember: that doesn’t make me weak or lesser. It makes me who I am.

 

On Love and Work

“But don’t you think there’s a partner out there for you who might be more perfect?”

My brother was sitting across from my parents and me at an upper floor breakfast buffet in a Long Beach, California, hotel.

We’d been talking about a podcast, and–like most of my recent conversations–I’d managed to turn this one into a vehicle for gushing about my relationship. 

In this moment, I was gushing about how often we argue.

Rather: how good we are at communicating.

I had brought up the advice of Alain De Botton, recently interviewed on On Being about the New York Times article of his that, apparently, attracted more interest than anything else that happened in 2016. (Sit on that for a second.)

Specifically, his caution–one I find deeply compelling–that all relationships are very difficult. That people are difficult, in all our myriad, intricate ways, and that, therefore, any attempt at intimacy between them will require serious, delicate labor.

“Well,” my father had chimed, “of course that’s true in the long term. In the beginning, though, you should think the other person is perfect.”

At this, I bristled.

I’ve already said it publicly once, so, here goes again: I’m in love. I have found a partner who I deeply respect and admire. With whom I love to talk and listen and read and walk and be. Who inspires me with his compassion and commitment to working for racial and economic justice. Who makes me uncontrollably giggle and reads fucking poems. I have found someone, in other words, who I think is a really great fit for me–or at least, for the person I am now.

I have not found someone who I think is perfect.

And nor, as I told my brother and father and mother, do I think I ever will.

*

“Is he you?”

About six weeks after meeting Rob, I stood in the YMCA locker room on a Saturday morning across from a friend. As you might have guessed, things had already grown serious, and intense. Things, too, were/are not without conflict. While both he and I are skilled at talking through most things that arise, there is one particular issue–an ongoing friendship with his ex–where we struggle.

“We’ve actually talked about seeing a therapist,” I shared.

Thus, her remark: what other human would consider the idea of counseling less than two months into a relationship?

The one I’m dating, it turns out.

There are, in fact, many ways in which he and I overlap. (His mother, upon reading my blog: “She sounds like you, but in a female voice.”) Also: we both have small bladders, a tendency toward messiness and intellectual seeking, and a hyper attunement to the emotional energy of other humans; we can connect just as powerfully through physical intimacy as we can sitting on a couch, sharing passages from bell hooks or Grace Lee Boggs and reflecting on one another’s insights.

Before you throw up, let me assure you that there are, too, significant gaps: in our respective levels of interest in golf and backgammon, for example, or my desire to report on most waking moments of my day, even (on those rare occasions) when we’re apart, versus his inclination to keep some things to himself–along with other, related (and highly gendered) communication dynamics.

We talk about that–the gendered piece. And, when stuff comes up, when one of us feels slighted or aggrieved or even a little bit distant, we acknowledge and talk about it: the assorted levels of conditioning, from our families and cultural backgrounds, that, in many ways, still determine how and what we speak and behave. (Along with, ya know, lousy mornings, etc.)

As my brother was quick to point out, it can get a little exhausting.

But, for me at least, it’s also deeply rewarding. Recognizing and probing our moments of disconnection makes the moments of connection more powerful, and feel more full.

It can also make me walk around South Minneapolis, notice folks wearing wedding rings, and ask myself, Good god, how do people do this for years?

At this point (as the above might make you glean), I can imagine–or at least feel hopeful–that he and I could continue to make things work in the long term.

I also know enough to know that I don’t know anything–and that the way I (and he) feel right now may have little bearing on the way either of us feels in ten weeks or months or years.

But that, too, feels helpful: my most recent relationship felt burdened by my sense that it was somehow fated; sure, rationally, I knew there’s no such thing, but (for various reasons relating to the conditioning described above, plus the circumstances of that particular meeting and a set of shared physical features) emotionally, I let myself buy into the lie that we had to be together. And that belief, however small, fostered an anxiety that hurt much more than it helped–that coated me with a near-constant edginess, a low-lying panic: what if I fuck this up? 

I’m not immune to that now. I still have moments of terror about losing Rob. If and when it happens, I know it will suck. But I also feel somewhat lighter than I did then: right now, I think we’re great for each other, and push one another to be better people; I also know that could change. I think it does feel somewhat miraculous that we crossed paths when we did; I also don’t think there’s any providential guarantee that we should or will last.

A friend who’s been with her partner for many years recently shared an exchange they have when things between them grow hard: “Do you still want to make it work?” They ask one another. Both of them recognize that if the answer is yes, they can. And they do.

I’m not sure there’s any sounder theory of relationships than that: you both just have to want it badly enough to put up with the hardship–hardship that, no matter how long you’ve been together, will always arise.

 

On Processing, Grasping and Showing Up

Nine days had passed. 

When A first called, I was at a coffee shop with a writer friend–both of us attempting to work, both of us too consumed with post-election anxiety to summon much focus.

That morning’s news cycle had been dominated by reactions to Mike Pence’s appearance at Hamilton, and when A called my friend and I were commiserating our shared rage. I stood up to answer.

“I have to process my date last night,” she said, and I felt myself clench–how could I, how could anyone, spare a moment of attention toward our trivial, personal lives while our President-elect Tweeted as the fascist autocrat we feared him to be?

“I have to call you back,” I said.

I was at home on my futon a few hours later when I did.

“Tell me what happened,” I told her.

But I didn’t mean it. As she spoke, a layer of resistance assembled inside me–some rigid buffer.

“Did you see Trump’s tweets this morning?” I asked, increasingly agitated.

“No,” she said. And then, “You don’t really want to hear about this, do you.”

I sighed. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just can’t right now.”

After we got off, I thought of my hyper-political grandmother, who (bless her) has long upheld a conversational fortress of Republican-bashing around my phone calls; I pictured myself driving in Minneapolis or walking in Brooklyn, rolling my eyes through her ten-minute prologue of Did you see Giuliani on Morning Joe this morning? Ugh, the schmuck! as I waited for her to ask about teaching or men.

The association made me cringe, but I tempered it with a measure of smug righteousness: Things were (are) different now. I’m not ready yet to act ‘normal.’

Whatever that means.

*

I felt like he was speaking directly to me.

The morning after I talked to A was Sunday, when I go with my friend R to the meditation center.

I had been struggling to sit still on my own, and the enforced pause from a vigorous saturation of election-related news–and its attendant anxiety–was a welcome relief. 

“It’s actually arrogant,” the teacher said, after we sat, to think that the fate of the country rests on you being in a constant state of worry.” He went on: in order to have the wisdom and strength to act meaningfully, you can’t deplete yourself with steady panic; you have, he said, to sometimes set it down.

I thought: shit. 

And then: of my conversation with A. How, while I’d rationalized my response to her, it had actually felt terrible; how I don’t want being a more engaged citizen to mean being a less engaged friend; how each of us must inhabit any number of shifting roles and identities in a given day, and how our success within any of them hinges on our capacity to be present and real and compassionate within each; how, in the most fundamental sense, what I wish for all of us is to be there for each other, in whatever way that means.

And then: and yet.

And yet I do fear (that vague, amorphous notion of) “normalizing.” I do fear that my numerous privileges (being white, straight, educated, not an immigrant, attached to a family and community with tools to support me if and when resources fail) may soon buffer me from a regime that has already put more vulnerable people in immediate danger. I know that over-stressing myself helps no one, and yet: how to ensure that releasing an unhelpful sort of worry doesn’t lead to indifference? 

*

The day after Thanksgiving I, like a good chunk of Minneapolis, visited the MIA. I’d heard about a timely new exhibit of photographs there, documenting protest movements.

Like many, these last weeks have had me grasping in various ways–some more skillful (dharma talks, calling Congress, strategizing and full-body-hug sessions with friends) than others (alcohol, sugar, Facebook)–to cope with the trauma of the election. The grasping, of course, is inherently problematic: because the things many of us actually want–a satisfying explanation of what happened, a concrete instruction manual to make things not be as they are--aren’t, actually, within grasp.

Still, while such efforts may compromise sanity, they’ve also turned up some worthwhile shards.

Before I found those photographs, I wandered into a different exhibit: one of exquisite black and white paintings by the contemporary Chinese artist, Liu Dan. 

I have approximately zero knowledge when it comes to visual art, and had taken only a little time to educate myself about the painter and his work. But standing before one of his large scale ink paintings, a re-imagination of an ancient Greek scene, I began to cry: the painting was beautiful, but what moved me wasn’t that–it was it’s vast, palpable ambition; how deeply the artist had tried to engage his country, his history, the medium, the world.

*

A few months ago, on a whim, I picked up an unconventional, hybrid sort of book with a radically long title by the late poet C.D. Wright. I got partway through its playful, provocative mediations, exploring forms and purposes of poetry, before getting distracted by other, less peculiar texts.

But in recent days, I’ve picked it back up. Among the questions I’ve been rattling around lately has been what it means to be a writer during difficult times–and that question threads through Wright’s words. One section describes the reaction of a Chinese poet to Tiananmen Square; he wasn’t present for the massacre, but he lost several poet friends, and for years he found himself unable to write at all.

“The old way of writing ‘would not fulfill’ his aim,” Wright explains.

Those words resonate: while in some ways the election did as much to expose existing troubles in our political and social systems as it did to generate them, from my point of view the prospect of our incoming President is deeply chilling–and represents a new era. Nothing feels the same about the world, and nothing feels the same about our roles within it.

I’ve long felt intimidated to make art that is overtly political–that is to say, I’ve been afraid to make art that would fail.

Wright didn’t share that fear; or if she did, she pushed past it.

Which might help to explain why these words, from another of her meditations, spoke to me as powerfully, lately, as anything has:

“Mostly,” she writes, “poets will fail. The structures will fail. Words will fumble and fall. But in so failing and fumbling poets refuse to be accomplices. We continue to articulate the possibility of solidarity.” 

*

What moved me so much about Liu Dan’s painting is the same thing that moves me in all the post-election conversations I’ve had with friends who are as shaken as I am, the same thing that moves me to keep grasping–hopefully more skillfully than not–toward how I might keep writing, keep participating, keep being a teacher and friend while still being on alert.

It’s, essentially, the same thing that the meditation teacher said at the opening of last week’s talk: that we never know, in the moment, if or that we’re showing up in the right ways.

It’s that we can’t fully know what the eventual impacts will be of our social or creative work–whether they’ll be positive or negative or, most likely, some combination of both.

It’s that the only thing we can know, now and maybe ever, is how beautiful–and how essential–it is to try.

 

 

On Beginning Again

“This is the most Elizabeth Tannen night of all time.”

Prone on her bed, A snatched the green shirt she’d been using to shield her eyes and flopped it back over her face.

It was 11:30 pm, Saturday.

Moments prior, I’d hurtled into her Brooklyn Heights studio from Atlantic Terminal–where a train had delivered me from two days at my brother’s house in Sag Harbor.

My flight to Minnesota was 7 am, Sunday.

I raised my forehead from the pillow beside hers and enumerated the moment’s conundrums:

“Let’s see. I kissed a stranger on the Long Island Railroad. I have no idea what I did with my Driver’s License. I’m supposed to fly home in less than eight hours. And I’m pining for a man in another state who’s probably, at this moment, unavailable.” I cleared my throat. “It’s true. I’ve never felt so myself!

The Comedy of (Elizabethan, sorry) Errors continued: after a few hours of (rather wretched) sleep, I got in an Uber to JFK—only to realize that I’d been dropped at the wrong Terminal; in hopes of being a (slightly) less distracted writer, but at the risk of becoming an (even) less resourceful human, I’ve removed Safari from my phone–which meant I had to stagger around Terminal Two in search of someone kind enough to navigate me toward Terminal Four. A twenty-minute Airtrain and a wait in what must have been the longest ticket line in the history of Sun Country Airlines later, I entered the (equally profound) security line; with less than 45 minutes to spare before my flight, I managed to talk my way through two unsmiling TSA agents with the (extremely fortunate) use of my (highly expired) New Mexico ID.

“I made it!” I texted A from the other side.

“Of course you did,” she wrote back. “Classic Elizabeth.”

Back in Minneapolis, things continued in familiar form.

Not to be dramatic (but to be dramatic), they did so in a less comic, more tragic manner: in the time-honored tradition of assorted predecessors, the dude, following our month-long pause, announced a newfound clarity that he needs to work through his intimacy-related issues on his own–and not with me.

*

“This is definitely a success.”

Days later, crumpled across from my therapist in a limp pile of sadness and rage, “successful” was not the concept with which I felt most, um, connected.

“But I’ve never been in a relationship,” I objected, “with someone with whom I’ve felt so compatible.”

“Exactly!” she said. “That means you’re making progress.”

This was only vaguely more comforting than the response of my dear friend K, who, upon arriving at my house in the breakup’s immediate aftermath, assured me that my time with him had been a rich learning experience:

“We know so much, now, about the kind of person you need!” she said, embracing me from across the living room piano bench.

“Like what,” I sniffled.

She tilted her chin toward the ceiling. “Well, like…someone who looks very Jewish!”

(For the record, my attraction to Jewish men isn’t new information. Nor is it one that, generally speaking, has served me well. Also, I live in a state that is 95% blond, meaning that this observation was neither hopeful nor of much use. I never said it was easy being my friend.)

*

“I don’t know what’s up with us man-boys.”

Before things ended officially, I had a brief exchange with the (ex)-dude’s and my mutual pal–one who once ended things with me on not completely dissimilar terms.

“Me neither,” I said.

And, truly, I don’t. I tend to stick to examining my own dysfunction in this space, and others; I can speculate, but ultimately, I can’t earnestly reveal much about what goes on in the hearts and minds of those 30-something men who can’t or won’t settle down.

I’ve got enough work to do, besides, with my own mess.

And when the universe puts you on a train beside a flirty male model on a night that you’re yearning for someone you sense has checked out while realizing you’ve left your ID (along with some negligable arm-strength-related pride and Ira Glass running on a treadmill) at the Crunch gym in Chelsea, you have to wonder.

Of course, the universe tends not to communicate very directly. And, as such, I have no idea what the hell it wants to say.

Allow me to grasp:

I’m still my spacey, messy, impossibly open-hearted and mildly peripatetic self: the self that is drawn to those my therapist likes to call “risky bets.”

I’m still prone, in other words, to make bad calls.

But I’m also, with each one, a little more aware, and–in their aftermath–a little less fragile.

On Sunday, I woke up feeling strong: I went for a run, did some writing, biked to the meditation center–where a guest teacher was leading practice.

She spoke about time with monks in New Zealand, the persistent difficulty of quieting her mind during a long stretch of being on retreat.

She spoke, also (as Buddhist teachers do) about the need to be kind with ourselves as we continue to struggle–as we continue, with ever-increasing clarity, to watch ourselves repeat those (extremely engrained) patterns we know cause harm.

It is our (slow, slow) work to grow more skillful.

But it s also our work to recognize and acknowledge our slips of progress–however small, however challenging, however faint.

 

 

On Poetry, Mallard Island, Mindfulness and (Attempted) Calm

“How are we going to talk about this?”

It was the last night of a retreat with ten women poets on a (tiny) island in (very) northern Minnesota, and one of our two caretakers—volunteers for this foundation, which hosts small groups of artists for one week at a time during summer—had taken us out for a “pleasure cruise” on the pontoon. We were coming up on the Canadian border.

I sat across from one of the more established poets–a woman with close-cropped gray hair and an aura of fierceness, wisdom and warmth; her question seemed part rhetorical, part not.

“I guess we won’t,” one woman joked. “We’ll hold it close.”

“I’ll just say, It was great,” another said, flashing a sly smile.

“It’s kind of like any vacation, or study abroad,” I offered. “No one will really get it or care.”

Later, I recognized the absurdity: that we, women united by a commitment to exploring our surroundings for the sake of love and zero American (or Canadian) cash, wouldn’t seek to etch meaning from this experience—one that, we all agreed, was among the more extraordinary we’ve had.

Of course we would.

In a sense, it was the same question we’d been asking ourselves all week: both on our own, as we spent time secluded in various cabins and cozy outdoor spots—each crammed with some of the island’s collection of 15,000 books—and as we convened for an hour or more each day to talk about craft (the poetry of Rae Armantrout, revision strategies, the role of shame in form—conversations that often bled into shared dinners, evening swims, canoe trips around Rainy Lake): how do we express the ineffable?

 *

Most mornings I situated myself (along with my notebook, books and coffee) in a sunny Adirondack chair at the eastern edge of the island.

Occasionally a motorboat or pontoon would blow past and slap a series of waves against the bedrock shore, but mostly, I looked out on stillness and quiet.

It was not a sensation that I, at first, could mirror.

On Monday morning, the first one we woke on the island, I felt like the lake’s glassy surface was staring me down, challenging me: I have nothing to tell you, it seemed to say. I’m just here. Look around. For God’s sake: relax!

There were probably a few obstacles that halted me from being able to genuinely, immediately relax into the experience of being there—disconnected from phone and email, in a small space with women I hardly knew.

But among the particular anxieties I recognized was simply this: the anticipation of leaving. How, I wrote in my notebook, to enjoy the pleasure of a moment without simultaneously grieving its inevitable loss?

*

In many ways, I’ve enjoyed tremendous privileges and good fortune in the last two years: I’ve been physically healthy, made strong connections, done meaningful work. (Also, spent a glorious week on a spectacular island in the Boundary Waters …) But, largely due to my own choices and (efforts at) growth—you know, abandoning a book manuscript to reinvent myself as a poet, disconnecting from family and dating, etc.—they’ve also been challenging.

In this time, two preoccupations have lent me great solace: poetry and Buddhism.

Like most poets (and maybe most Buddhists), I am loathe to use the word moral, but if pressed to boil down both practices to an essential idea, it might be this: pay attention.

Pay attention outside yourself—to what you smell and hear and feel and see and taste; pay attention inside yourself—to what arises in your body, in your thoughts, in your physical sensations.

In the last months, especially, that I’ve been pushing myself to pay attention as feelings arise, one thing I’ve recognized is how difficult it can be (#firstworldproblems alert) to relax into positive experiences.

That’s what I was noticing that morning, in that surreally fortunate setting—that as much as I wanted to settle into the place and the moment, a stubborn part of me remained agitated by life (and Buddhism)’s most basic principle: that everything is impermanent, every moment passes away.

 *

“You couldn’t have written about when things were really good?”

Over dinner with the dude before we both set off on travels a couple of weeks ago, I described to him my last post.

“No,” I said. “Who wants to read about happiness?”

“I do!” he shot back, grinning as he stabbed at my salad and chicken.

“Nope,” I insisted. “It’s boring.”

I stand by that, of course—happiness, generally, is less interesting than conflict.

Still, even when things feel good, we (or I, at least) am not necessarily at ease.

When things first began with him, for example, they felt a bit magical. This was partially due to the circumstances of our meeting: through an ex of mine who’s a friend of his, both of us on “breaks”; the night after we met and I turned him down, we ran into each other at a coffee shop where I was visiting with an old friend—one who immediately observed, I think he’s your person. Adding to the allure was that, due to my initial resistance, we abided some unusual parameters to keep things (I hoped) in check.

Of course, that didn’t stop us from quickly forging a strong connection; one of our early dates was a one-night camping trip. In the morning, we sat beside a fire; he played his banjo while I read Alice Notley and wrote; periodically, we’d exchange one of those glances, charged with mutual infatuation.

Part of me was able to enjoy that moment, and others like it. But another part, I felt aware, prevented me from complete calm. I feared, as we (particularly those of us with spotty relationship histories, ahem) are wont to do, that things wouldn’t last. I feared, too, that even if they did—that they would change. That the marvelous sweetness of early excitement would, as it always, inevitably does, fade away.

*

At a meditation class the other day, I asked a teacher about this–how to manage this struggle to relax with pleasantness, to release from grasping for a certainty we know we’ll never have.

She looked at me (as Buddhists do…) with patience and compassion.

“I’m afraid,” she said, “that’s our condition.”

It’s our doom, in other words, as humans, to crave the certainty and security–the permanence–that we’ll never posses.

“You have to remember,” she went on, “that even if you can’t hold onto the present, you don’t know what will come next. It might be sad, there might be loss.” Her eye suddenly glimmered. “But it might, also, be better.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Cabins, Breaks, and Evolving (Overlapping?) Incarnations of Self

“Well,” I warned. “She’s going to be disappointed.”

I was driving back from a Wisconsin cabin, in the passenger seat beside the man who I’ve been with for the past couple months; he’d just shared his mother’s request for permission to read my blog.

“Why?” he asked.

“Cause there isn’t a trace of you.”

“Oh yeah?” He glanced toward a passing cornfield, then toward me. I knew he’d checked out the blog early on, and that he’d decided—like previous men in my life—that it made sense for him not to read it. “Why not?”

“Well,” I said. “The thing is, I’ve been in this new relationship…”

“Ohhh,” he nodded, playing along. “So you haven’t been able to process?”

“No!” I shot back. “I’ve been processing the hell outta this thing. I just haven’t felt like processing in public.”

That was Tuesday evening. It’s now Wednesday afternoon and—perhaps it’s worth noting that one way in which said Dude and I connect is a shared propensity for openness, contemplation and frequently changing our minds—I’ve changed my mind.

The circumstances, too, have changed. As of yesterday, we were in a relationship. Today, we decided to take a pause during the next month that he (and I, less so) will be traveling. At the cabin, and to some extent in weeks prior, he’d begun to express ambivalence about his ability to balance being with me whilst doing the personal work he’s set out to do. (For the record: when we met we were both “on hiatus,” and the first time he asked me out, thankyouverymuch, I said no). Today, after connecting with select members of—as he put it, encouraging me to check in with them on our drive home—my council, (also: a long run, a bike ride, and a yoga class) I told him that I don’t want to move forward while he sorts that out. Instead, I said, we should take the time apart as a chance to reflect. We’ll check in on the other end.

“Maybe we’ll decide to be friends, or maybe we’ll pick up romantically,” I said. “Or maybe we won’t want to see each other at all. I don’t know. Whatever happens, we’ll both be okay.”

This, as put by my dear friend (and council member) Robyn, who spirited herself to my porch within the hour after I texted last night in need of support, was the New Elizabeth speaking: the one who made it four months into a dating break, who distanced herself from her parents for over half of a year after recognizing them as the (well-meaning–have ya met a parent who hasn’t traumatized their kid?) root cause of her chronic pattern in relationships, the one able to occupy a state of relative calm while dating someone she genuinely likes, as opposed to she steady state of panic with which she’s so familiar. (Also, evidently,  the one with the confidence/folly to refer to herself in the third person for a few sentences.)

Of course, this is not to say that the Old Elizabeth has disappeared: we can never cure ourselves the effects of our damage, just learn to tolerate and respond to them more skillfully. In fact, she made a somewhat bothersome appearance just yesterday morning.

We’d been alone at the cabin since Sunday, and for two days modulated between solo activities (reading, writing, exercise) and what the Dude playfully termed interactive time (boat rides, meals, a singalong and a 1980s board game possibly manufactured for our relationship, titled Therapy). But by late morning Tuesday we’d each spent the day almost entirely on our own. I sprawled on the dock of the house (one lent to us by the very generous parents of a very generous friend, #blessed), reading the (difficult, stunning) Collected Stories of Clarice Lispector, absorbing an excess of sun, and wishing he would come check in. He was reading on the porch, or he was playing an instrument indoors, or he’d gone for a run—I wasn’t sure, and I was careful not to check.

(“Were you hoping I’d read your mind, again?” he asked, also playfully, over lunch a couple hours later–after I confessed how I’d felt. No, I replied. And then: Okaymaybeyes.)

The dock is a floating dock, which means that it sways along with the waves; the lake is smallish, so there aren’t so much waves as there is wake from assorted motorboats and pontoons. The morning was windy, though, and as each gust of air or force of water lurched the wood and my body in another cyclical motion, I thought, hopefully, is that him?

I felt reminded of a particularly old Elizabeth—the one who, while living with her college boyfriend, would run to the front windows on Saturday mornings in anticipation of his return home from work; who, with the sound of each passing car, would think, hopefully, is that him?

As in: am I going to be alright? As in: have I been left? As in: will this person please assure me that I’m not alone, that I am loved, that I will be okay?  

This may sound melodramatic, but for those of us whose childhoods gifted us the fear of abandonment, this kind of panic is something of our doom. For children, loneliness is worse than dying. For us, the threat of abandonment can feel like the threat of death.

I know I will never eliminate this impulse. The Old Elizabeth will always be my first response. (See above). But the work I am practicing is to recognize when she surfaces, and to treat her with more care. I’ve felt fortunate to practice these last (lovely) months with someone who has made me feel safe and secure enough to do that. He couldn’t relate—his own tendency, not totally unrelated to why we need this pause, is quite different—but he could listen to me, and hold me, and when you have spent your adulthood unable to recognize much less express your most ancient anxieties, these things are not small.

I fully expect Old Elizabeth to keep arising: in the days and weeks ahead, tinged as I know they’ll be with uncomfortable—though chosen, necessary, and healthy—uncertainty. I fully expect her to generate moments of mild panic beside lakes and roads and other assorted environs, for the duration of my life.

But today, she feels eclipsed by her newer, calmer sister: the one who has worked hard to (mostly) trust that, whatever happens in August, or with whatever partner or poem or parent or friend, she will be okay.

On Bike Crashes, Compassion, and Other Kinds of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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