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 :-)

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 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.

Summer, Solitude and the Highs and Lows of Loneliness

I’m good at being alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Kamikazes, Fireworks and Fun

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

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

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

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

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

“You know,” I said. “All of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes, Continued, On Not Living In New York

It often happens, and is thus often remarked, that the wisdom people give you doesn’t resonate until long after it’s given.

So it happened that yesterday, I walked the streets in Park Slope, felt fond feelings toward the brownstone and tree-lined streets (quiet, as they blessedly, rarely were), and remembered something a colleague once said to me about five years ago, as she and I strolled the University of New Mexico campus.

“New York,” she said, “is a great place to visit.”

I (and likely, you) know that my attitudes toward this city have swung and swung like a cheap amusement park ride for the duration of the thirteen (golly!) years since I left for college: consistently, quickly, and not rarely inducing nausea.

So that when she said that to me, my gut reaction was something along the lines of: sure, that’s fine for you, you being a person who did not grow up in New York and therefore can feel adequate without living there. Or, to put it another way, that’s fine for you, you being an inferior person.

Flash forward: today, and all of the last days that I have spent in this city (outside those moments when I have been cursing crowds or humidity and clutching my niece like the world depended on it) I have thought to myself—that woman was right.

Friends, feel free to feel proud. Because I am pretty sure this trip marks the very first time that I have come to New York with zero desire to move back, and zero guilt about that feeling.

Okay. Obviously that’s not totally true. If it were totally true, than I wouldn’t feel compelled to qualify. Which, of course, I do.

So: I still would like to think that there will come a time in the relatively near future when New York will feel, both financially and emotionally, like a plausible and appealing option.

But, among the levels of clarity that have recently, thankfully emerged, one is this: New York is not the place for me right now.

This clarity, honestly, has emerged over time. Driving it along have been a couple of other pearls from writerly types: the editor who, over lunch in the West Village, hurriedly advised that she tells all young writers to get out of the city—until, she said, they become Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. (Moments, I’m sure.) Too much going on, she said, and too easy for the competition to psych you out. And the grad school professor who, over coffee in Albuquerque, nodded his head and cautiously observed that I might have a choice: between being a writer and living in New York.

At the time I let his words sink in about as much as a suntan. I was having fun in New York. Also, I didn’t know where else to go.

*

“I don’t know how people do it.”

I was chatting with an acquaintance this past weekend at a Greenpoint wedding (one that managed to be equal parts rustic, Jewish and awesome): a woman who grew up in Chicago, and as of recently, resides, happily, in Brooklyn.

We were commiserating about the hardship of living in the place you’re from: how you can’t seem to escape the weight of those adolescent insecurities, those unshakeable family roles. She shared how she always makes a point of keeping a bit of cash on her at all times, but when she goes home, it somehow disappears.

I told her how despite being the most reliably punctual person I know, I managed to be late the last time I was dispatched to pick up my niece from school (imagine me + 5th Avenue in Park Slope + running like an escaped wildcat): for both of us, just as we were trying to prove to our relatives that we are not the flakey, incapable youngest children we know they think we are, we managed to mess up.

“Maybe someday we’ll be able to handle it,” I said to her as we took a pause from the dance party and leaned against a wood pillar.

“No,” she shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

It doesn’t matter how our families see us, or the people we went to high school with, or anyone else we associate with these sites of our upbringing. What matters is how yoked we are to the way we think they do—and how deeply it penetrates the way we see ourselves.

It’s a handicap that may, someday, be worth working against. But for now, I am content to accept it. And to enjoy coming to New York, as that grad school colleague suggested, as a great place to visit.

Which, in case you didn’t know, is awesome! (Probably it would be more awesome if I didn’t have to cram in time with twelve close relatives and about as many close friends…) But anyway. Still! There are reasons  reasons I probably don’t need to tell you (Just in case: The energy! The art! The brilliant, ambitious, attractive people!), why people put up with the crowds and the lines and the walkups and the astronomical rents.

Things, I must tell you, that I find much easier to enjoy these days in small doses that I have no (present) intention of making big.