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

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

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

“Why?” he asked.

“Cause there isn’t a trace of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Bike Crashes, Compassion, and Other Kinds of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Praise of Being Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded, patted my shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

It takes a village for me to date safely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “Of course.”

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

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

 

 

On Groups, Needs, Elena Ferrante and Balance

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

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

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

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

“Right,” I said. “I know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday Letters, Desert Hot Springs, Weddings and Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

So.

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

You might reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t want to accept this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

“I think you’re accomplished!”

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

“That’s not it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of these ideas satisfied.

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

I wanted to sulk.

This is not normal.

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

But something about this year feels different.

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

I mean, It’s silly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck birthdays.

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

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

On Dwelling

“Just, dwell in it.”

I was sitting at a kitchen counter with a friend, and it was late, and I was sharing some poems inspired by a recent heartache.

“Keep writing,” she encouraged. “And just, you know. Dwell.”

I keep returning to those words.

A few days ago, another writer friend echoed them. She told me about her recent discovery of pages that she’d written during a low period of her own, how struck she’d been by the clarity of that prose; how she is just now realizing the fullness of inspiration that time provoked.

“Use the pain,” she advised.

Writing aside, this is a spirit that has felt resonant lately: the spirit of sitting in the sadness, soaking yourself in the aches that come, when they do.

Not to mislead: I have zero pity for myself, which is exactly how much you ought to have. My life is still wildly charmed–living with a pair of my (and half of Minneapolis’) favorites, back in the balmy, bike-able bosom of Minnesota summer. I have plentiful time to write. I get to teach some of the most engaged students around. I have a standing, weekly date for a lakeside picnic. Things are good.

But I am still me: a gal with an uncanny knack for hurling my heart around several North American regions (the Southwest, Northeast and Midwest, mostly; but I’m not exclusive), caution and experience be damned. It is bound to get some scrapes. Also, I still lack a permanent address and can’t subscribe to magazines like a real person.

So, you know. Sometimes that fragile feeling sets in.

There have been times (times like a couple of months ago) when feeling fragile meant something completely different; times that, accordingly, called for a completely different kind of self-care. Then, I needed to keep moving. I needed to avoid being alone for more than an afternoon. I needed to release myself of any pressure to read, much less write. The last thing I wanted to do was reflect. I gave myself that. I didn’t have a choice.

Now, though, I do. And, I could choose to stick with that philosophy of momentum and speed. It’s tempting.

But more and more, I’m realizing that what I need now is something else: what I need is to bask in it. To spend as much time as I can bear reflecting. Writing. Dwelling in the nuances of feeling. Exploring these scales of solitude as I slide, with varying measures of sentience, along through them.

In a recent Louis episode, (the best/only current TV show I sometimes remember to watch), Louis talks with his ex-wife about his current relationship. Among the several significant obstacles to its’ success, he reveals, is the fact that she, the woman he loves, is soon to leave the country. For good.

The ex promptly gets furious: he’s introduced this woman to their young daughters! How could he do that? Aren’t they going to feel crushed when she up and leaves? Aren’t they going to feel sad?

They’re talking on a midtown sidewalk. Louis shrugs.

Yeah, he says. They’ll be sad. So what?

The tendency is to call this bad parenting; to agree that we should protect children from any semblance of hurt.

It’s a tendency that extends past childhood: to each other. And, to ourselves. To care for people, we think, is to protect them from sadness and hurt. To care for ourselves, we’re taught, means to avoid these sensations as well.

At the risk of stating something obvious: we can’t.

And still, that impulse, to shirk away from hard emotions, runs deep. Such that we, or at least I, can need reminding: that there is value in dwelling. That it is sometimes worth combatting the urge to distract and to avoid.

That the hardest feelings tend not to saturate us for long. That when they do, exploring them is often what leads to discovery. (And, too–conflict!–good art.)

In other words: some time soon, it is likely that other, more overtly pleasant feelings will begin to take hold. And they will be far less interesting.

On Social Media and Stepping Back

“I just have to tell you, you look amazing on Instagram!”

It was the start of a coffee date with a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, and, sitting outside a cafe with herbal iced teas, these were (approximately) her first words.

I wasn’t sure how to receive them. Thanks? But what about here, in three whole dimensions? Or, Doesn’t everyone? Isn’t that the whole point?

In a pretty pure sense, those nifty photo filters are designed to make us all look better: a shade more sexy and glam. Less purely, or simply, one function of social media is to make ourselves look great. The various digital platforms on which so many of us spend so much time have the upside of enabling us all to curate our best selves. The downside, perhaps, is that they enable everyone else to do the same.

It can be a problem.

The day before that coffee date I’d met a different friend for an afternoon beer. (Welcome to the chaos of visiting home–next time, I swear, I shall tell no one I’m here). As she and I caught up, I told her how one aspect of my experience in Taos that had helped me commit to writing was being a part of an artistic community in which we so intimately shared the relentless rollercoaster that makes up a creative life: no matter anyone’s pretty website or impressive CV, everyone there experienced a cyclical tumult of good and bad news–an editor interested, and then not. A residency offered, another declined. A job prospect come and gone. Days in which we felt strong and fearless, and others in which we felt fragile and weak.

“No one ever talks about that!” my friend said. “All we tell each other are the good parts.”

It’s often true. Increasingly, we do rely on social media networks for knowledge of other people’s lives. And those lives, as we see them, are not whole. They exclude the downswings: the feelings of loneliness and rejection, the near-misses and self-doubt. We don’t post pictures of ourselves from bad angles or sour moods. Even those moments of vulnerability we do share tend to be crafted, the rawness given a glossy sheen.

It’s understandable. One of the most confusing parts about Facebook etc. is the breadth of audience. Normally, we decide how to communicate based on who we’re communicating with. These networks complicate that–we aren’t ever sure who’s paying attention. The former colleague? The ex-boyfriend? The ex-boyfriend’s aunt? The current crush? The current crush’s ex?

There are probably some in that mix with whom we’d be willing to share our lesser selves. But with others we’re inclined to be more cautious. It’s a lowest common denominator effect: the audience toward whom we are most wary tends to determine all that we’re willing to publicly share.

“I need a social media diet,” I announced to a pair of writer pals the other day in Wiliamsburg, one new friend and one old. We had been talking about inane google searches, how people turn to the web for the oddest insights, and I had self-servingly announced that I was going to turn to two smart women instead.

“You can do it,” they assured. “It’s just about self-control!”

“I know,” I said. “I don’t have that.”

I’m trying to get some. I can’t abandon the stuff completely–if I did, there is a very good chance you wouldn’t be here. But I can take a few steps back. Moderate. Try and prevent the kind of Instagram Black Holes like the one into which I fell the other night, after a middling evening out found me home, scanning pictures of Other People’s More Fun Lives.

The next day, on a neighborhood run, I told my brother R what I’d done–how crappy I’d let stupid filtered photos make me feel.

“That’s stupid,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. “I agree.”

More on Mobility, Minivans and Minneapolis Summer

“Now this sounds more like the Elizabeth Tannen I know and love!”

I was sitting across from a guy friend at a bar on Lake Street. It was raining outside and we were catching up and he was leaning his elbows on the table as he smirked.

He and I met my first year of grad school. You know, when I was twenty-five and single and behaving with men, essentially, the same way I do now–except with smaller stores of confidence and self-awareness and fewer boxes of books.

He observed as much: “You seem so much more secure now,” he said.

This has been a widespread reaction lately, as I’ve made the rounds and, one by one, over coffee or pilsner or lunch, friends have evaluated my psychic state, post break-up.

And as I have observed them, observing me, one thing that’s struck is the degree to which everyone, it would seem, feels more comfortable with me single.

“You’re just meant to be on your own,” one said, flashing a naughty grin as she rocked back and forth in her chair and made me mint tea.

“I’m just glad to know you, so that I can live through your adventures!” said another, over burgers in Park Slope.

My immediate reaction to this is defensive. So, I rationalize:

Maybe it’s that people who are coupled like to have some singles around, through whom (from the safe vantage of their regular cuddling and sex) they can get a vicarious kick.

Maybe, as a few have bluntly put it, it’s that folks think I write better (and probably more) when I’m alone. Related: the fact that my identity—both private and public—feels more tied to being solo, and, while it may not be the noblest trait (how many human ones are?), we all tend to feel more comfortable when our loved ones—usually for better but sometimes for worse—stay as they are.

To give people, or at least my friends, a bit more credit: they have also been unfailingly supportive because they know I made a good decision. Not to say that they didn’t love who I was with (to a person, rather, they did) but because they can see I made a tough choice I knew was right—something that, generally, ultimately, boosts all of our self-worth.

 *

I have to tell you I laughed a little when I read that.

The that my friend R was referring to in her email was my gripe about the fact that I was leaving Minneapolis for three weeks in New York (greetings from Brooklyn!), and that, already, after perhaps the Most Melodramatic Monthlong Exit in the history of Taos, I had grown so attached to my new(ish) home that I didn’t want to leave there, either.

One thing you have to understand about this, on background, is that summer in Minneapolis is pretty special. What with everyone having been stuck indoors for nine months, when the warm weather strikes—especially in that (granted, brief) moment before the heat and humidity and musquitoes amp up—the place turns into a giant party. Everyone wants to hang out, barbecue, make out, bike, etc.

This, needless to say, would be enough of a reason for me to resist leaving. Another is that I’ve spent the last few weeks setting myself up for the summer and the season: you know, running and yoga routines, minivan, bike. To say nothing of the coziest roommate sitch west of Rhode Island–about which I’ve probably gloated enough. And, for all of the ways in which I crave change, I sometimes, just for a second, would like a moment to feel settled.

But then, who am I kidding?

“Do you think I actually love to move around?”

A laughed over the phone. “Are you joking?” She said. “Of course you do.”

And, yet again (sorry, I feel most recent posts have led to this same spot) I must come to terms with the fact that (for one, my friends know me better than I know myself, and) the person I would like to be is not, always, exactly, who I am.

I would like to be the person who is monogamous: whose normal mode is coupled. I would like to be the person who is happy to stay in one place for more than a few months at a time without growing restless. I would like to be the person who buys a minivan because she anticipates having a litter of children to cart around town in it—not because it is a cheap car owned by a good friend that runs and will fit a lot of stuff for the next, (probably) inevitable move.

But this is not the case. For now at least, being single sounds pretty fun. As (usually) does being a bit of a nomad. And frankly, nothing could sound less appealing than hours spent chauffering a batch of kids. (Though this likely has more to do with the driving than the children; I may need to move to New York when I procreate, or else teach my kids to fly.)

This lifestyle (you know, the single, unstable one) can be exhausting. When A and I complain to each other about it, as we are wont, on occasion, to do, she is always quick with the rejoinder:

“Just wait,” she says. “In ten years we’ll be calling each other with children screaming and boring husbands in the background. And we will long for this time.”

 

Notes on Normal, and Special Times

“Oh yeah, all us normal people, we’re so boring.”

My Wurlitzer friend T’s boyfriend was in the next room of their East Village apartment, making dinner as she and I wound down our latest Skype session — and mocking us. More directly, mocking T’s observation of how hard it’s been re-entering normal (in her case, New York), post-residency life.

We laughed, and then resumed ignoring him.

“I know,” I said. “It was a really special time.”

For all of us in in the small sisterhood we formed in Taos, the post-residency adjustment has been hard. Hard not to have one another as neighbors. Hard not to live within the constant bosom of each other’s wisdom and laughter and intellect. Hard not to occupy the idyllic wonderland of northern New Mexico in which the demands on our time were nil–free from significant others and work obligations and nuanced ven diagrams of social circles. Hard to be back in the “normal” world in which we must prioritize more than simply each other and our art.

We knew how precious our time was. We talked about it. We talked, too, about the fact that things would have felt far different, and, certainly, far less special, were our time together infinite rather than finite.

It’s what sets “normal” apart from not: routines, (potentially) lifelong relationships, careers, permanent homes–what we have that is (or at least feels) stable.

Things, you may have observed, that I presently, notably (and with an oddly increasing inner calm) lack.

A solid freelance journalism gig and a commitment to my own writing (one rather perilously, suddenly spread between two books and a batch of prose poems) aside, in the process of leaving one precious, temporary situation I managed (if rather painfully) to insert myself into another.

As I write this I’m sitting on a living room couch belonging to two of my favorite people in the universe–probably the only couple alive in which I have equally close, long-standing friendships with both halves. In the next room H is reading on the porch. P is waking up slowly upstairs. This morning H and I made coffee and reported about our Friday nights out (me: awesome reading; her: pizza with pals). Each night this week one or some combination of us has made a dinner we’ve shared (fried rice, ravioli, veggie tacos, wings). One evening since my arrival P’s parents called up from St. Louis; when he answered, he told them that “the whole family was gathered together on the couch.”

Have I mentioned that this (too) is a special time?

“I love our lives,” H gushed the other day (as she, adorably, does) as we made ourselves a pair of pre-dinner Negronis.

“I know,” I said. “Maybe I should never leave!”

I was joking, of course. Of course, I know, that–without undermining the force of our deep (thirteen-year-old!) love–what makes this shared summer feel like a treasure is the fact that it will end. If I had no plan to vacate the guest room, if my co-habitation were infinite rather than temporary, I doubt things would be as cozy.

But since they are, since I am planning (most days) to leave this town come fall (and since it is summer in Minneapolis and warm enough to walk around lakes and toward libraries and barbecue every weekend night), it feels, well, pretty special.

I miss my Taos girls, of course. And breakfast burritos (some days, not kidding, so much it hurts). And the little light-filled casita with the big backyard that gave me so much.

And I have moments: driving the minivan in small bursts of traffic or staring at a page of gmail that stubbornly refuses to deliver the messages I wish it would (the life of a writer…) or reflecting on all the turmoil that’s gone on lately in which some vague but dismal emotion (loneliness? fear? hurt?) threatens to pang.

But for the most part, I feel more and more cognizant of how fortunate I am, in the absence of stability and certainty about what’s next, to take advantage of these special, temporary experiences–the kind that are so much easier to enjoy because we know they will pass.

The bigger challenge for us all is to appreciate the people and places and experiences that aren’t so overtly special, or finite–the stuff of “normal” life, the stuff that, as T’s love jokingly put it, can be mistaken for boring just because it is, or feels, lasting.

And what with all the choices I’ve got to make and self-reflection I know is in store, I can at least feel thankful that’s one challenge I don’t have to worry about–yet.