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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I reflected on what I did next:

I went to FedEx and made the aforementioned copies.

Intermittently, remembered to take deep breaths.

Resolved, that evening, to go to yoga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

My friend S took a bite of her oversized burger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, dear. Why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Here’s a thing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But damn, is it real.

 

On Patience, and Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

My muscles stiffed.

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

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

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

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

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

It isn’t pretty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

And in others, of course, I despair.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Being Open

I had met the woman bagging my groceries a handful of times, so, naturally, I asked if she was in love.

In my defense, I did know, vaguely, of a new guy in her life–last I’d seen her, moving shopping carts in the co-op parking lot, we’d floated ideas for third date fun.

She giggled and flicked her right hand toward me. Her left palmed a lemon.

“Oh, no,” she said. “We’ve only hung out a few times!”

I shrugged. “So what?” I said. “Girl, I fell in love, like, three times last week.”

Granted, that particular week was the one of that writers’ conference—a week in which, as one friend put it, I did a lot of living.

But, generally speaking, you likely know that I tend to fall fast. And, sometimes, maybe, on occasion, something like often.

“Oh, has it been twenty minutes?” My friend C gave a mock-glance to his watch. We were driving from the coffee shop to get gyros for lunch, and I’d announced the arrival of a new crush.

“Jesus,” I shook my head. “Am I really that bad?”

He nodded, patted my shoulder.

“Yep,” he said. And then, because C holds firm to certain convictions, among them that men are seduced mainly by baked goods, “Have you made him cookies yet?” (Answer: not yet…but considering.)

This lifestyle is not without peril. Among the risks: (appropriately) skeptical friends.

A few encounters with said crush later, I walked to meet R for a drink while wrapping up a phone conversation with A–one, needless to say, dominated by my gushy update.

“I really wanna use hyperbole,” I said, sighing as I paced a mist-wet patch of Lyndale sidewalk. “But I realize I have zero credibility.”

On the other end of the phone, in Manhattan, A’s breaths were short as she speed-walked uptown. “Yeah,” she said, flat. “That is true.”

It takes a village for me to date safely.

When it comes to jumping into something express-style, because someone is moving or unavailable or matches my tendency for recklessness, I can pretty well operate on my own. Toss me some coffee, maybe some poems, and I can glide on through that high like an angsty twelve-year old with a brand new board. (Not true for the inevitable crash-like comedown, of course, but that is for another/12-30 previous posts…)

Give me, however, the combination of a man I desire and some scenario in which an Insta Relationship, for various sensible reasons (you know, most of them) isn’t an option, and my needs swell. To coach me through any given Tuesday, I suddenly require a small army of friends to assure me of various, boring truths. (He probably hasn’t texted you back because he’s busySeeing someone once a week is what dating meansYes, he’s a catch, but so are you…) Also, daily lake runs and some pounds of Tylenol PM.

Sidenote: it would be great if, in these stretches, I also had the luxury of a personal assistant to send my emails, complete my essays/manuscripts, and teach my classes–but somehow, mysteriously, I manage without. “When I have a husband,” I assured my friend B, after distracting both of us from our work by requiring her to talk me down via gchat from some irrational Moment of Panic, “I am going to be so fucking productive.”

Another problem, in other words, with being open, is being a basketcase. I’ve told you this, and I know, it’s not that interesting. Still, it prompts that conversation, again–the one I have with myself, and dearreaderforgiveme you, pretty often: whether to simply value and accept my penchant for vulnerability, or to battle against it.

Recently, as I’ve written, I’ve contemplated some resistance. But alas, these days, I’m back to leaning the other way.

In part, this mood was influenced by a chat with a fellow writer during one of my eighteen AWP lives. A conversation, as you might guess, fueled by critical quantities of booze and acknowledged mutual (if impossible and un-acted-upon) attraction.

“It’s part of being a writer,” he said. “We’re emotional and we’re complicated and we’re endlessly fascinated by people.” He took a slug of whiskey. “I fall in love every day.”

“It’s like that Hozier song!” I cried out, leading him to nod in unimpressed recognition. “No song lyric has ever felt more true…”

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “Of course.”

It’s a recurring theme of this whole process: life and aging, that is. That balance, that sorting out, as we get to know ourselves, between which tendencies we should push against, and which we simply embrace.

And with that question, as with most, I’m not sure we ever arrive anywhere final or anywhere clear. It is, I guess, an eternal process: a perpetual effort in which we watch ourselves sometimes flail, sometimes fierce, and sometimes facedown in messes of panic/shame/humiliation/sadness/disappointment/fear–at which times, the best we can hope is to surround ourselves with sympathetic (if sometimes skeptical) pals who say the right things: I hear you, I love you, your feelings are valid, and you’re going to be okay. 

 

 

Taos, AWP, Going Back and Paying Attention

My friend K likes to measure life experience with pizza.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And: no one cared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To pay attention, no matter who else is.

 

Postcard from An Online Dating Binge

“I think you should max it out!”

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

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

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

“The internet dates, you mean?”

“Yes!”

“Do it until I can do it no more??”

“Yes!”

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

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

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

It is trying work.

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

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

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

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

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

But it is, also, exhausting.

“Why are you so tired?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He sounds pathetic.”

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

“Well, that’s harsh,” I said, miffed.

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

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

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

And, of course, the obvious: a purpose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so…” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Mantras, Mondays, Gym Friends and Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean physical intimacy?”

She nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A contributed the standby: You dodged a bullet. 

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

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

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

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

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

On Dating, Not Dating, Pauses and Points

“Wait, can we define dating?”

“Wait, can we define sabotage?”

“Oy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some known things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not.

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

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

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

 

 

On Groups, Needs, Elena Ferrante and Balance

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

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

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

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

“Right,” I said. “I know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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