On Groups, Needs, Elena Ferrante and Balance

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

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

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

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

“Right,” I said. “I know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Christmas, Ecstatic Dance and Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this, J and I traded looks of awe.

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

I thought: Life is long.

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

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

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

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

What am I getting at?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 2015 :-)

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

“Hallelujah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think that’s untrue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s 2015. I’m thirty-one. Why not?

 

 

Courtship, Crushes, and Being A Basketcase

“You’re a basketcase.”

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

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

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

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

It had been a minute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, probably: you don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Art, Ferguson and Fear

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

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

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

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

And then.

And then last week.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Birthday Letters, Desert Hot Springs, Weddings and Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

So.

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

You might reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t want to accept this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or: is it both at once?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t be reminded enough.

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

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

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

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

On Closeness, Birthday Extravaganzas, and Infinite Instafriends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deeply, too.

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

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

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

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

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

These days, I’m not sure I agree.

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

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

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

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

Because to me, right now, they are everything.

Slipping Up, Serials, and Self-care

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged.

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

I shrugged again.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a thing.”

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

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

We lie to ourselves all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And slip up, friends, we always will.

 

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

“I think you’re accomplished!”

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

“That’s not it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of these ideas satisfied.

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

I wanted to sulk.

This is not normal.

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

But something about this year feels different.

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

I mean, It’s silly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck birthdays.

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

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