On Selves and Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except that, of course, it isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Except when it is.

*

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

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

She is, in other words, human.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

 

On Processing, Grasping and Showing Up

Nine days had passed. 

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

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

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

“I have to call you back,” I said.

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

“Tell me what happened,” I told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever that means.

*

I felt like he was speaking directly to me.

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

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

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

I thought: shit. 

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

And then: and yet.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

 

 

On Beginning Again

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

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

It was 11:30 pm, Saturday.

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

My flight to Minnesota was 7 am, Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

Back in Minneapolis, things continued in familiar form.

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

*

“This is definitely a success.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what,” I sniffled.

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

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

*

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

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

“Me neither,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Allow me to grasp:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Notes on Justin Bieber, AWP, Confusion and Drifting

“It’s just like the Justin Bieber song!”

“Wait, what song?”

“Wait, I need to find the lyrics.”

I was lying on my back in the sun of a Culver City backyard, describing to A over the phone the neuroses I’d stirred up in the days prior—days spent at AWP, the giant, annual writers conference that Minneapolis hosted last year and for which, last week, I (along with 14,000 other poets and writers) sojourned to LA.

One reason I’ve been on a deliberate hiatus from dating is because of the way it tends to provoke tornado-force anxieties and emotions–things that would be a major (if not undesired) distraction from the intense self-work with which I’m now engrossed.

This hiatus goes most smoothly when I am home: in the quiet company of some poems and plants, a girlfriend or two, snacks and Spotify and a Manhattan or wine.

Things complicate when I leave the house.

Outside, more dynamic variables emerge. And at this particular conference, such variables included an overwhelming incidence of intellects, hormones, feelings and alcohol such that it would have been hard for the most resilient, rooted of creatures to avoid a poor choice or two. (As one friend put it, “AWP is all about bad decisions.”)

Still, I might have made bad decisions (too many books at the bookfair! a lackluster panel!) with consequences more emotionally benign.

Also, after four consecutive nights of very slim sleep (sharing a hotel room with three beloved girlfriends is dreamy, but not conducive to a whole lot of rest), I felt roughly as though I were being continuously struck by a truck.

Which brings me back to the Culver City backyard, where I was lucky to find a welcoming batch of longtime family friends from Brooklyn–along with their shaggy-eared pup, Biscuit, who quickly and blessedly sensed my tender-heartedness and swiftly replied with an aggressive course of licking and snuggles.

And, to my emergency phone call with A–who responded, for the first time in the history of our friendship, with Justin Bieber lyrics. 

“How do you not know this song?”

I rolled an arm over my forehead. “I don’t know how to answer that.”

“Oh here it is, I found them.” She got through a few verses of his (apparently quite popular!) ditty (if I’m going to sound ancient I may as well sound ancient) What Do You Mean, before declaring that she felt “ridiculous” and that I should just look it up.

The gist, lest, like me, you are not up on Bieber’s latest, is this: women are confusing.

A thought of it because I had been describing my own behavior–in relation (in the days/weeks prior) to both men and my mother, as, in a word, confused.

Apparently, (thanks, Justin!) I’m not alone.

*

A central set piece of AWP is the hotel bar: once the masses pass through some daily parade of panels, readings, and the florescent vortex of the giant Bookfair, a good number gather in the Hilton/Marriott/Radisson lobby to drink, preen, network and gawk.

The Marriott in downtown LA is adjacent to the Staples Center, which resulted in a late-night scene featuring a mix of poets and Laker/Knight fans equal parts amusing and bizarre.

For the first few nights, in addition to whatever crew of grad school friends and Minneapolis writers were around, I felt rooted in that chaotic mix by the happy company of a well-known poet with whom I struck up an unexpected friendship at last year’s AWP. (You guys are kind of like Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, N whispered to me as we sat together in the back of a panel on Intuition vs. Intention; I giggled, then hesitated, turned to her. Wait, am I Piglet? She tilted her head in a sympathetic nod. Yeah, she said. I think so.) 

But by Saturday night, he had left–as had N. My other roommates went to bed early. I linked up with a Minneapolis friend, then lost her in the shuffle.

I found myself alone.

I felt adrift–a sensation that surfaced as panic. Was I not attractive or important or accomplished enough to be significant? What would people think, seeing me by myself?

I beelined to the bathroom. Redid my lipstick and hair. Stared in the mirror. Eavesdropped on a conversation about battling body odor during twelve hour stretches in the convention center. Breathed. Remembered that most people are concerned, primarily, with themselves.

I went back out into the lobby, where i found a seat at a near empty table and talked to a series of two poets from the Pacific Northwest–one who looked as though he’d stepped out of an accounting office, and another from a Portlandia episode. I went to the bar to get a drink, which led to behaving confusingly toward someone I’d (likely) confused earlier in the Conference, which led to feeling more confused myself, and (inordinately) irritated. I found some friends on a couch and joined them.

“You’re staring in to the middle distance,” one observed. “And looking kind of sad.”

She was right. I went to bed. 

*

On Monday, it was overcast and cool in Minneapolis. I wandered around Powderhorn in a daze: I’d taken a redeye and barely slept at all before having to teach. I didn’t have anything to do that night, but didn’t want to go to sleep before dark, and couldn’t focus enough to read or write.

I tried calling a few friends; none answered. Thought about calling my parents. Remembered I didn’t want to. Texted with a couple pals about meeting up, but schedules didn’t align.

I crossed the bridge over I-35 and looked down at the steady streams of traffic and felt an echo of the Marriott lobby on Saturday night–the sensation of being adrift, unsteady, acutely alone.

I decided on a destination: the co-op (I was starving) and brought a salad to the coffee shop, where, I’d figured out, a friend was working. Another friend stopped by on her way home for a quick update on my trip.

“I’ve never seen you look so tired,” she said, and demanded that I immediately sleep.

*

By Tuesday, I felt a lot like the bookshelf I recently bought at a Salvation Army that, despite looking pretty together in the store, once in the parking lot, collapsed entirely.

I fell onto my therapist’s couch like that particleboard on the asphalt as I began to narrate the encounters still stirring me, the sensation of feeling adrift that kept echoing. 

“I don’t think you’re drifting,” she said. “I think you’re rooted in yourself.”

I told her about my guilt for sending conflicting messages to my mother, and to men.

“Of course you are,” she said. “You’re conflicted.”

“Right,” I said.

It’s cliche to remark the gulf between what we want and what we need. But that gulf is rooted in a very deep truth.

Rationally, I know what I need: to disconnect from certain relationships, and abstain from (emotional, romantic) intimacy.

But, emotionally, I am a person. And as a person, I desire  (emotional, romantic) intimacy. Due to the issues I’m trying to sort through, though, I am prone to desire the wrong kind.

Knowing what we need, unfortunately, does not–immediately, and maybe not ever–alter what we desire. 

Put another way (by my therapist to whom I should probably outsource my blog/all future writing): You can’t control who you’re attracted to.

This is, in a word, confusing. 

And can feel, in moments, like a bummer. But in others, even in this last week when I have felt buried under layers of emotion like I haven’t in a while, it can feel–oddly–empowering.

I may feel conflicted, but at least I’m aware that I do. And, at least, I’m working toward uncovering some deeper place that can hold those conflicts with less neuroses, and a little more calm.

 

 

A Post-Valentine’s Day Dispatch: on Desire, Anne Carson, and Stepping Back

Generally speaking, I’m not big on restricting myself.

It’s February in Minnesota, for Christ’s sake. Since 2016 started, I’ve been encountering more virtuous people on various “fasts” and “detoxes,” barring themselves from ingesting anything likely to induce bloating or joy.

My response: perhaps I’d join them, were it not for the fact that I’m exerting every ounce of discipline I posses to simply wake up (in two-ish degrees), dress myself (in clothing that is warm/comfortable/masking of Winter Weight) and leave the house (aka scrape the frost/snow/ice from my oversized windshield and freeway to the suburbs, or don the numerous, ridiculous, identity-concealing accessories required to mount my bike and ride to the gym or coffee shop).

Life, in other words, is hard enough.

Which, in part, explains my initial reaction to my therapist’s suggestion (one I’ve since embraced) to take a pause from dating.

For six months.

“Oh,” she said, offering a vague extension of her arm, when I replied to this idea with an expression similar to the one college freshmen habitually give me upon being asked to read or write more than five consecutive pages. “I didn’t mean to suggest that it wouldn’t be hard.”

“Right,” I said, my eyes fixed on the floor.

At the time, I was two weeks into what I’d then labeled a one month hiatus. I’d shown up at her office all smug, content that I’d made it (mostly) so far; feeling slightly anxious, even, about the prospect of getting back on Tinder! 

But
six months: the concept sunk my ribs. I stuttered a series of opposing arguments:  I’m not that young. I want a familyI’ve been alone so much.

She nodded, patient and compassionate as ever.

“I know,” she said–reiterating that it wasn’t a requirement, just a suggestion. “But it’s something different to choose being alone.”

Here’s the thing: I’ve spent many winters by myself–as in, outside of a relationship. (Essentially, with a handful of interruptions, all of them between 1983 and now.) 

Rarely, though, have I made it very long, through any season, without the prospect or promise of another person.

So while I’ve become accustomed to living my life independently, I’ve also become accustomed to that life including some form of longing. 

And, as said therapist likes to point out, that longing is chronically misdirected–hence, the pause. (For more on said misdirection, I refer you to the preceding six years of this blog/most 30-somethings who are still single.)

*

If you are going to be alone on Valentine’s Day, you would be fortunate to spend it as I did: at a cabin-like house in deep St. Paul with the company of a sweet, shaggy dog, two angora rabbits, some coconut red lentil soup and a copy of Anne Carson’s Eros, the Bittersweet. 

I’m only a quarter of the way through the book (“forgot” to mention another V-Day companion: an embarassing number of New Girl episodes) but already, it is proving itself the kind of text that challenges you not to underline every phrase. The book’s premise is that Eros contains a paradox: a perennial tension between love and hate; through an examination of philosophy and literature, Carson explores why. 

She writes that eros is “an issue of boundaries”–that desiring another “alerts a person to the boundaries of himself, of other people, of things in general.”

“If we follow the trajectory of eros,” she writes, “we consistently find it tracing out this same route: it moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the lover himself and the hole in him, unnoticed before. Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole.”

When we experience desire, wherever (or however mis-) directed, we carve out a part of ourselves–we recognize our incompleteness.

Longing for someone can consume, excite, intoxicate–and distract from ways in which we feel less than whole. It can take us away from ourselves. 

Ourselves can be a hard place to spend time.

But, as the woman said, hard isn’t the same as not worthwhile.

And so, here I am, rather contentedly, now (the sunny porch and cuddly dog, temporary gifts, do help): shacking up.

You can’t, of course, turn off the very human tendency to seek love.

And I don’t expect that I will. (Also, I tend not to believe in radical denials–see above.) Already, I’m interpreting this hiatus loosely: I’ve gone on a couple dates, I’m open to being available were the right person to come after me. (It feels rather dramatic, in the end, with or without the accompanying forehand-to-forehead sweeping gesture, to declare myself unavailable until June.) 

But I’m not making it a priority. I’m not allowing fantasies of a particular person to take up the parts of me they so often do. I’m hoping to spend some time getting to know those parts, instead.

It might be, in some moments, difficult. But it in others (such as, say: a dance party with countless attractive women and fewer desirable men, or whilst choosing to stay home for 48 hours and eat a not insignificant amount of Extreme-flavored goldfish), it can be liberating, a relief.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a talk about sex delivered by a celibate Buddhist nun who says she’s learned more about desire while abstaining from sex than she did while having it. (I could, and probably should, write a whole nother post on this; but first, all of us should listen several, or several more times.)

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll discover about desire or love or the dimmest depths of my spirit and soul.

But for now, at least, I am settling into the promise that I might gain something: some new awareness, some shards of clarity that might equip me to begin again.

 

On Aging, Coping, Self-Pity and Moving Through

How are you?

Everything is a mess. I mean, I’m awful. I’m fabulous. Everything’s fabulous! How are you?

I had called A on my way home from a work event. That night I’d planned to stop by a party, but in the end, couldn’t bring myself to do it.

“It’s exactly the kind of party I should go to,” I told her: hosted by friends who I like a lot but am not super close with, a party where I knew I’d see a lot of people that, under other circumstances, I would be inclined to talk with and meet.

But I couldn’t.

“I just don’t have the energy for small talk right now,” I said. “Also, how am I supposed to answer when people say, how are you?”

As you know if you are reading this, I am an intensely open person: incapable of lying, hopelessly transparent. I can’t pretend to be okay when I’m not okay.

I (like, apparently, the co-worker of A’s who delivered the candid, cocktail party response quoted above) was not okay.

It’s been a month. A month in which I’ve gone through an (unexpected, unpleasant) breakup. Navigated pretty heavy conflict relating to family relationships. Reconnected with an old, unavailable flame–flaring up that familiar cycle of intense connection and disconnection that does not, despite past efforts to convince myself the contrary, get any easier with (relentless) repetition.

I’m inclined to write that “on top of all of that” I’m still acclimating to the new and rigorous responsibilities of college teaching, editing the journal of our prison group’s work, and balancing a handful of freelance jobs.

But the truth is that work has been a welcome escape.

It is also true that there have been days when I’ve felt so overwhelmed by emotion that I’ve had to cover up tears while teaching. It’s also true that I’ve lost many potentially productive hours to feeling sorry for myself and staring vaguely at the maple trees outside my pleasant porch windows.

Mostly, though, I have felt thankful for the direction(s) in which to focus my energies.

As A put it, in the wake of a hectic professional time of her own: “It’s so socially acceptable.”

As in, it is much easier to say, as I did to the small group of close friends assembled in my kitchen last Saturday night, that I had to go do transcription work, for example, than it is to say, I’d love to hang out with you guys but I’m feeling too sad and self-pitying to socially interact.

It is vaguely less depressing, in other words, to have one’s work to immerse oneself in–especially when that work feels meaningful–than it is to not have that.

Still, small talk is hard to avoid. Even amidst this anti-social spell, I still have to go outside. (And to the coffee shop, and the gym, and, you know, the campus where I teach.)

And it is a struggle to put on a simple, Midwestern grin and act as though I’m alright when (barely) beneath the surface I feel like I am falling apart. And so, to the extent that I can, I am avoiding situations that require me to do it.

Be choosy, my therapist advised.

As in: be careful and cautious about who you open up to.

This (see above) is hard.

There is a large part of me that yearns to open up to every other co-op shopper about the hardship of mother-daughter relationships. (That would be the part that writes this blog; the part that falls in love once every Thursday.)

But there is a sensible part of me, too: a part that understands that not everyone has the interest or the capacity to “go there”–at all, or when it comes to someone else’s or my particular problems. That all our energies are limited.

And that one of the gifts we must give ourselves during difficult times is the gift of space, and of being selective about who we bring in close and how much.

I can never write about hardship without nodding to my many good fortunes, so indulge me (in this other way) a moment: besides the basic privileges of being healthy and here,  I have so many strong, wise people from which to choose. I have generous girlfriends who feed me and then dispatch me home with bread and wine and framed art; who check in and check in and check in, who listen and listen and listen more. I have an older pseudo-mom who makes me vegan cookies and cloaks me with deep care. I have a brother and sister-in-law who are (if geographically distant) relentlessly present and funny and kind. I have books and money to buy them.

Another thing that happened in the last month is that I turned thirty-two.

Birthdays don’t feel cute anymore: they are beginning to feel, rather, like markers of mortality and stress.

But for this moment, at least, my age feels like something to a little bit celebrate: because as tough as things may feel in certain moments, I’ve lived enough, now, to trust that things will get better. That I will move through this as I’ve moved through things in the past, that things will shift, that there will be other parties that I will feel like going to, and that, yeah, everything is fucked up and a mess but also, everything is fabulous, and it’s going to be fine.

Transitions, Therapy, Yoga and Giving In

“My therapist told me to be kind to myself.”

It was 9 pm, and I was driving home from the downtown Whole Foods, where—as I was telling A over the phone—I had made a post-therapy pit stop to impulse purchase a pair of expensive probiotic beverages along with an eighteen dollar, copper-colored tube of organic mascara.

A paused. “Do you even wear mascara?”

(Answer: aspirationally?)

An hour earlier, I had practically lunged between our couches as aforementioned (new) therapist asked whether my current load of responsibilities constitutes my normal.

“Do you do this often?” She asked, her expression curdled to one of grave concern. “Overcommit?”

“No!” I said, perhaps too loud. “No. I do not.”

It is a terrible thing to be misunderstood, and especially terrible in the context of therapy. So I hastily explained that, contrary to my current reality, in general my life is not this way.

In general, I told her, my life is rather leisurely: for the three years since earning a pretty low-impact graduate degree (let’s be honest: my “dissertation” was a story about my life), I have strung together just enough work to afford a (low-cost, Midwestern city-based) lifestyle—one that leaves a surfeit of time for my own (haphazardly disciplined) writing, very regular exercise, and a pretty active social life. Also in general, I am single.

Which is to say that all the things that are generally true for me are, presently, not so much.

My therapist replied with a skeptical nod. The gravely worried look remained.

Your face may have looked similar, had I listed off (as I had for her) all that’s been going on in the last two months: how I’ve begun a new, intense teaching job (one that involves regular grading of eighty composition papers, two thirty-minute daily commutes, and conflicts with my long-beloved exercise class routine) at the same time that I’ve entered a new relationship at the same time that duties with both my prison work and freelance writing have amped up, at the same time that I have had to travel across the country four times in eight weeks to the bachelorettes and subsequent weddings for my two oldest, best friends.

Like I said: not normal.

And you can probably guess at how my nervous system has responded—not well.

Hence: kombucha and expensive beauty products that I rarely remember to use.

Also, yoga.

Here’s the thing about me and yoga: since first taking up with it five years ago, I have not been faithful. I’ve dipped in and out, for some stretches going every day, for others neglecting the practice in favor of sweatier, less mindful things like boot camp and running.

When I have turned to it, it’s been for a range of reasons: at first it was a post-break-up respite; later, a haven from drama-frought grad school moments. Sometimes I’ve gone for the activity, sometimes for the quiet, often for the simple act of leaving my phone at home and being reminded to take long breaths.

Last Thursday, between bad rush hour traffic and a bike ride/movie date with the dude, I managed to squeeze in a class.

And as the gentle-voiced teacher warmed us up with instructions for moving our arms and fingers and ankles and toes, I thought: this. This is the reason that, in this moment, yoga feels so valuable.

This being one hour in which someone else tells me what to do.

I rarely think up certain words or ideas when yoga teachers invite you to conjure an intention for class. But on Thursday, as I filled with gratitude for having a stranger control some small chunk of time, I thought of the word surrender.

There are so many ways in which our culture encourages us to assert authority over our lives. Our relationships, too, and careers and creative achievements. We are founded on the idea, after all, of self-reliance—the perverse notion that we can achieve anything through our own work.

But in infinite ways, our control is limited: our efforts mitigated by stronger forces—other people often among them. And as valuable as it is to pursue our goals and be disciplined and persevere, it can be just as necessary to give in.

Especially right now, but pretty much always, I feel a low-lying anxiety about not doing enough—not working enough, not writing enough, not being a good enough aunt or daughter or teacher or friend. (Often, this is true.)

But this anxiety is rarely productive. I hear that people exist (such as, evidently, the kind philosophy professor down the hall who has taken to checking in with me while making copies, occasionally taking a staple or two and always leaving a nugget of teaching or life-related advice), who, respond to busyness with relentless and efficient efforts to manage their time.

My response, on the other hand, is to get so overwhelmed as to feel panicked, and then paralyzed—such that I do nothing but lean back in my windowless office chair, stalk strangers on Facebook, feel horribly guilty for all the things I should be doing but am not, and daydream about sex. (Oh, hello, Thirty-One-Year-Old Female Body, is there something you’re trying to say? Sheesh.)

Fortunately, I can most often summon the tools to override this tendency. I meet deadlines. Eventually, uncomfortably, I do get things done.

But in this transitional moment, with all those normals upended and my nervous system in a basic state of what the fuck, that yoga class seemed like a significant reminder that giving myself kindness can mean, in some moments, giving in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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 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 :-)