On Transitions, Cuddles, and The Swings of Self-Care

“You need to hold yourself like a baby.”

My friend J and I were sitting on the side of a hiking trail on the eastern edge of Taos, eating cheese wrapped in red wax and examining white wildflowers and talking about what will happen when we leave.

She has some flux in her life as well, but more certainty than I. During my three months in Taos I’ve managed to upend just about everything that was stable when I arrived: my apartment, my relationship. Even my connections with family feel shifted—hurled into a different light by the (abrupt) process of change.

J turned to look at me as she held her arms out in the shape of a cradle. “Just imagine that you’re holding yourself like a child. Just imagine you need to give yourself that kind of care.”

Self-care is one of those wiggly terms whose meaning never seems to cease sliding. What does it mean to be good to yourself? It depends on what it is you need—and knowing that, it turns out, is the hard part. More and more I’m realizing how deeply, frighteningly difficult it is to know what we want: in relationships, in people, in place, in nurture. It’s easy to mistake proximity for understanding; learning our own needs takes as much work as learning those of others’. Maybe even more.

Eventually, the work I’ll be returning to is figuring out my needs in the long term. But right now, as one transition glides into another, I’ve got to focus on the immediate ones: the urgent care that I can give myself.

Which has meant, mostly, a lot of touch.

“I kind of can’t be alone,” I told A over the phone, explaining how I had spent the last couple of weeks bouncing between friends and visiting family, heaving myself into their arms, emotionally and physically. “Do you think that’s strange?”

“Are you kidding?” she laughed. “Of course you can’t be alone. Don’t.”

I’m not. I’ve spent a lot of time lying prone on friends’ floors. Draping my legs across laps. Going for hikes and walks with my arms stitched through another’s. Cuddling in a king size hotel bed with my ten-year old niece (who managed to take up a shocking amount of it). The little time I’ve found myself without company I’ve filled with baths and melancholy folk songs: Bob Dylan and Gillian Welch. Some writing. A lot of herbal tea.

“Your pulse feels homeless.”

I also spent a few hours with a woman who does Ayurvedic healing: tall and regal with a heavy French accent and penetrating green eyes, she recoiled when she saw my tongue (“It could be the poster child for anxiety!”) and paused when she held onto my wrist.

“Homeless?”

She nodded: empathic, but not exactly alarmed.

She left me with a Ziploc bag of an unpleasant-tasting wheat-colored powder. A list of foods to favor and others to avoid. Shockingly accurate insights into my restless soul.

Also, a few pieces of rather significant wisdom.

“You need to be your own mother,” she said. “You will become a mother later. But you can begin now by becoming a mother to yourself.”

In her opinion, this would mean feeding myself with more regularity and better nutrition. Taking the time to sit still each day. Learning to quiet the deep, fiery panic that resides within me and trust that regardless of where or with whom I end up, I will be alright.

In other words: cradling myself like a child.

I’m going to try it out. I’m going to keep seeking what kind of self-care will serve me best in the future. And for the moment, before I leave Taos and pack boxes and resolve loose ends and begin to make yet another round of Big Decisions, I’m going to give myself permission to lie on the floor and hold on tight to all the warm people in my path.

 

 

On Being Cold, and the Mythology of Finding The One

“No, that’s too cold.”

I was having coffee with a friend of a friend at my local hipster hangout, and we were talking about relationships, and he was pausing to reconsider his language.

I wasn’t immediately sure what he was referring to, but suspected (correctly, it emerged) it might be the way he’d described his relationship as a “project.”

“Right,” I said, once it was clear. “A little cold.”

But then, later, he used the same word to describe this blog–which, considering its’ totally inadvertent origins and haphazard (whimsical? better) operational strategy, seems even more absurd.

But back to the idea of thinking about one’s relationship as a project. Because while, verbally, in casual conversation over fairly traded coffee, this may seem a bit, yes, cold really is the word, there’s a way in which it doesn’t totally not fit.

As in: you date enough people in your twenties, by the end of them, you’re thinking of relationships with less of that blurry, bullshit gaze of Hollywood and fantasy and magazines and television and Everything Everyone Ever Told You About Love, and more with eyes that are clear and pragmatic. Cold? Maybe. But also: real.

There is something really giddy about being in a relationship after spending a lot of time single. Cuddling! Sharing meals! Taking Walks! Reading, side by side! I take none of it–not a second–for granted. I feel totally, thrillingly lucky–blissed out–to be sharing my life with this person.

But instead of waiting around for a bright, light-centered object–bulb? strike?–to intervene, prophetic, and assure me that this is It, the One, the Only, the Meant To Be Forever and Ever, I am enjoying this time, fully conscious of the fact that being with this person forever is a choice that I–that both of us–may make.

“It’s kind of a radical idea,” my friend-of-friend said the other day, as our conversation came round to this notion. “That it’s a choice. It goes against everything we’ve ever been told.”

Indeed, it does. Which isn’t to say that there hasn’t been a saturation of persuasive argument on the other side: a persistent tapping on that cultural bubble that says, “Excuse me, but you know there’s no such thing as The One, right? You know there are lots of people you can be happy with, not just one person or even two people or even ten?”

“Yeah, yeah,” we say. “We know.”

And then we go back to watching romantic comedies with Jennifer Aniston and Amy Adams and relishing that warm, wistful feeling that goes along with believing our lives are fated.

In other words: intellectually, we get it. But practically, emotionally, the force of all that stuff, all that storybook nonsense with which we’ve been pummeled since cartoons and fairy tales, is tough to counteract. And to accept that it might be false, that we might have a decision to make instead of a fate to find, is not only hard but fucking scary.

Who wants to take responsibility for determining the balance of what one wants and needs in one’s most intimate and committed relationship? Yikers.

But then, like freedom is, it’s terrifying at the same that it’s liberating

We can use that clear, pragmatic vision to free ourselves from the pressure that The One idea can place on a relationship. (This isn’t what I expected, this isn’t perfect, it must be wrong!) We can act like grown-ups and take responsibility for making a conscious, purposeful decision that doesn’t have to do with what the culture or anyone else expects, but what we want for ourselves. What works for us.

Cold? Maybe. But, and I speak (write) this as the most romantic of hopeless romanticals, I’d rather be cold than blind.

 

On Compulsive Cooking, Little Free Libraries, and Getting Settled–For Reals This Time

We’ve been here before.

Well, at least, I’ve been here–and some of you, I suspect, have been here with me.

The afternoons absorbed with fish sauce. The sweatshirts coated with flour and nutritional yeast. The morning runs to Whole Foods and the co-op.

It’s back: I can’t get out of the kitchen.

First it was an innocent effort to make cookies from a book given as a birthday gift by dear friends. Then it was N’s visiting sibling, for whom I couldn’t help prepare a couple of complicated vegetarian dishes involving blended herbs. And then relatives of a friend were hosting us out of town before a wedding–and how could I not bake something for them? By Tuesday night we were sitting down to eat piles of frittered cauliflower no one around (with one, glaring exception) was especially hungry for.

I rationalized that it had been a year since I last had my own kitchen. What a thrill–to boil water or or saute a zuchini, without getting in anyone’s way! (Except the large boyfriend, whose slim but solid frame consumes about our half our kitchen space….or the large dog, whose length does the same…no matter–they don’t mind!)

And I assure you, this is no small achievement: this possession, after more than twelve months living with various family members and acquaintances, in various houses and apartments absent my privacy, belongings, and sound mental space, of a place that is mine. (And the boyfriend’s, and the dog’s, but also mine!) For the first week I walked around South Minneapolis in an ecstatic state: I made oatmeal for breakfast! Tonight I’m going to cook a curry! I felt, suddenly, invincible.

But it is something else, too: it is that, for me (as for many Americans who could stand to lose between five and three hundred pounds) cooking and food represent a haven. And in my life, I tend to seek that haven no more than when I am in transition.

Which, having slithered up this three-decade precipice with the grace of a disabled bassett hound, is pretty much All Of The Time.

Ah yes, friends, the Odyssey continues. This time: in the form of returning to a new place with a new boyfriend; only, the new place not being totally new because I lived here for four and a half years starting when I was still a teenager, and the boyfriend being pretty new but feeling not that new because our relationship began on the legal, romantic version of high-impact stimulants.

All to say, in many ways I am enjoying comforts that I have gone without for a while: regular cuddling, meals cooked myself (in my own kitchen! Have I mentioned my kind-of-own kitchen?), the privilege afforded paired up people by everyone in the world (more on this later), the sheer delight of living in a place with people who like books so much they actually give money to writers and build their own “little free libraries” on leafy street corners.

But in other ways, the awkward transition goes on. Yeah, I lived here, but with qualifications: a long time ago, in a different part of town, with friends who have mostly moved on to different places and people and lives.

That said: I could not be more excited about being back and reading library books and getting inspired by and involved with the local scene. In fact, I’m not even asking myself, as I did every single day of my twenties, where I want to live long-term: I’ve accepted the fact that I have no idea, that I’m ready to put roots down, that I want nothing more in the world at this moment (except, maybe, a litter of children–but that, too, is another post) than to feel part of a community and settled in a physical space–and that this is a great place to do it, and more importantly, where I am this particular second, so here goes.

Also, of course, that getting there–getting to the whole “settled in” feeling–will take some time. And that along the way, I am going to perfect some mean white chocolate chip and dried cranberry cookies.

On Big Birthdays, Reflections, and Extraneous Pillows

Like most days, on the first day of my thirties, I did some things. These include (but are not limited to):

  • consuming: an almond croissant the size of Rhode Island; Kir Royals at home and a three-course fancy dinner out with pals
  • my first FaceTime with family in Philadelphia
  • a lakeside meltdown, catalyzed by an argument over a lamp smaller than my tricep (+ a week of insomnia + turning thirty)
  • a resulting bout of retail therapy (producing: one CB2 accent pillow and a used collection of Alice Munro. hello, aging!)
  • a copious amount of vaguely prompted tears

Also, between hysterics, some (inevitable) reflection.

I know that the numerical aspect of aging is not worth considering—thirty means something quite different to me than it does to various others my same age, just as seventy is a whole different set of experiences for most men than it is my fit, youthful father.

(To say nothing of what a hundred and three looks like on my grandmother, who, though lacking the dinner routine of this guy, lives alone and has better vision, probably, than you.)

And yet, it’s hard to escape that birthdays–particularly those with zeroes placed at the end–provoke introspection. They are markers. And whether we like it or not, they prompt us to compare ourselves: with who we’ve been, with those around us, with the expectations we harbored earlier of how things would be. (Also, for me at least, evidently, to lose my shit.)

Perhaps it is moving back to a place where I lived as a far different (read: younger) version of myself. (A subject, indeed for another story.) Perhaps it’s just been anticipating the tail end of my Extremely Late Twenties. Whatever the reason, my head has been there a lot lately–in that place of comparing who I thought I’d be with who I’ve become.

In memory, as a college student just a few miles from where I sit now, my friends and I did not just expect Big Things of ourselves–we assumed them. We were vessels of curiosity and desire, thrilling about our radically left campus, our minds blown daily by one or two joints and the breathless deconstruction of Western teachings most of us had never actually absorbed.

We were going to change the world. Make a difference. Be exceptional. We held ourselves above such cliches, of course, but the ambitions they contain were in the ether: as ever-present as greasy cafeteria food and caffeinated all-nighters.

We graduated. We got jobs, went to grad school, dispersed around the country–to the cities we’d fled or new ones we’d found. We realized, in some gradual but penetrating way, that aspiring to happiness was challenge enough.

We got jaded? Gave up? Sold out?

The night before my birthday, crumpled in bed, I moaned that I wasn’t sure what had happened; that I have yet to fully abandon these idealistic ambitions–that I still do aspire to fame, to changing lives, of being, to being, somehow, exceptional. And still, or perhaps more, now that I’ve learned how complicated everything is, I don’t even know what these ambitions mean.

Is it enough, say, to have a positive influence on a few aspiring writers? Is it enough to have a few dozen, or hundred, or (not that I would know) thousands of people reading your work? Is it enough to be loved? By how many? What will make me, make one, feel fulfilled? Where do we accept compromise between our youthful ambitions and adult limits?

A writing teacher once told me an anecdote (one I’ve probably recounted before) about a Nobel-prize winning author confiding her reaction to a book critic who had commended her recent novel as her “best in years.” (“What,” the author bemoaned, “Was my last book no good?”)

In other words, it is never enough. And to the extent that it doesn’t make us bitter, that’s okay: we should always strive and reach and seek. We will always question and crumple and crave and wrestle and soothe.

I’m okay with that. Even if, every so often, it results in extraneous pillows and tears.

I guess the only thing I can ask of aging is that along with the doubts comes gratitude–for making tea in the mornings and phone calls with loved ones in the afternoon and the mental/physical health that allows me the privilege to probe as I, as so many of us, can’t help but do.

 

 

Counting Down to Thirty: On Getting Over (the Hump)

“Oh. Well that’s cause you live over the hump.”

N and I were paying a brief visit to his ninety-year-old Great Aunt Violet en route to Denver after an early August week in the remote Rocky Mountain wilderness.

It had been a while since N had come to this small, mountain town–a lapse Violet was quick to explain as we walked in. (By ‘hump’ did she mean ‘Rockies’? I asked after we left. Yep, N nodded. It’s pretty much all the same to her.)

“I was just working on this quilt,” Violet nodded toward the craft project laid out on the dining room table as she led us in the house–a ranch residence at which she’s evidently outlived three husbands. “One of our families at the church just had a baby! Now come in where it’s comfortable.”

We followed her through wood-paneled rooms to sit on furniture hailing from the Wilson administration: she sat straight-backed on a chair and motioned us toward a printed fabric couch. She’d cropped her gray hair close to the scalp; covered her ankles with dark boots laced up for work.

Violet crossed her denim-clad knees as she updated us on her latest: the old schoolhouse she had fought (finally, with success),to designate a National Landmark; the custodial job she’d lost at the town library, but swiftly replaced with work at a DNR office across the street. (I used to walk, she explained, But I really need to bring my own Shopvac.) Before we got back on the road she gave us a tour of her garden: lengthy, manicured rows of colorful collards, beets, tomatoes, broccoli.

Later that night we visited with another of N’s relatives, a charismatic cousin who does construction in Alaska. He told us about driving through that town a few years back and pulling over, enraged, when he saw Violet atop a ladder, cleaning second story windows.

I asked how he thought she got her youthful strength; he took a bite of a sub sandwich and  leaned back in his deck chair.

“She has no idea,” he said, “what’s going on in the world.”

I have been processing this insight ever since: questioning why it is that we keep up with news, national and international (I want to understand Syria, but do I need to?); whether ignorance is the key to longevity (information is exhausting); whether being active in one’s own community should trump a broader awareness that falls short of action (what’s that line about everything being local?).

And if not those things, than what? A ninety year old woman with the physical fortitude to scale buildings and the mental will to conquer a federal bureaucracy–she must contain some lesson, some certain and splendid wisdom. Right?

*

This weekend I saw a few friends and family during a brief visit home. I stayed with A on the Lower East Side, which (in addition to the daily workout of her six-story walkup) enabled a lot of walking: I blasted Pavement and Otis Redding in my earbuds as I hustled up and down the east side between doctor visits and coffee dates.

I made plans, I changed plans, I cancelled plans; friends did the same.

I felt myself, in a few moments, begin to get agitated by small stuff–money and family and mismatched expectations, all obscured by texting. (I know it’s convenient, but please, can we stop!?) Malkmus crooned about Zurich, and I decided to shrug it off.

Maybe it was that uniquely intoxicating energy of moving along New York streets. Maybe it was my increasing understanding of the care we must provide ourselves before giving to anyone else: how I am a completely useless friend and sister and girlfriend and daughter unless I’ve done whatever’s necessary to get myself straight (or as one friend put it in a recent essay, “get clear”)–whether it’s running or writing or listening to favorite albums from college whilst racing up Broadway.

Maybe it was Violet.

Regardless of where she directed her energies, there was no question that she was remarkably intentional about it: she possessed a clear set of priorities–the schoolhouse, her community, her garden–and to those, she dedicated herself unflinchingly.

Too often, I thought, I let energy seep out of me with careless misdirection: toward envy and trivial interactions and endless, preposterous layers of insecurity. Too often I find myself, at the end of the day, drained–mystified by what, exactly, has sapped me so dry.

Let’s be honest: I’m sure that the compact matter of Violet’s body and brain contain no small depths of wisdom from which a strung out city girl like me could gain. But wisdom doesn’t get passed down in an afternoon, or even a lifetime–we choose what we want to learn from people. We figure things out when we’re ready.

And in this moment, in the oddly calm countdown to my thirtieth birthday,what I need to learn from Violet isn’t to read less news or grow more kale (though neither, it’s true, is a terrible idea), but to be more mindful of my pursuits. To be more conscious of the fact that my capacities are finite, but that I can control what fills them.

 

 

 

The Precipice: On Wanting, and Not Wanting, to Know Why

Here are a few of the books I have begun reading in the last six weeks:

A biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. A new novel set between contemporary Nigeria and the US. Assorted editions of Best American Essays. A friends’ recent, acclaimed memoir about his mothers murder. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. A sardonic memoir about searching for D.H. Lawrence. A book about goats.

Let us not discuss how many I have I’ve completed. But, well, on second thought, lets–because that’s precisely the point: lately, my attention span has rescinded to that of a teenage Labrador. (In other words, technically, one.)

The urge to write most often strikes when my mind is least clear; so it is that I come to you in the middle of things. Among them: a seven (formerly known as ten)-day juice fast. A new relationship. A recent, cross-country move. A grueling apartment search whose tone I hope to soon turn.

I want to say that I come to you because I miss you. But to be honest, it isn’t exactly “you” I miss–”you” being an anonymous and widely dispersed cluster whose visible gestures (to me, at least) are few.

What I miss is the space to make sense of things.

Even though, at the same time, I don’t.

At the end of August, my family gathered in Vermont to celebrate a confluence of significant birthdays: this month my brother Jon will turn forty, I will (yep) turn thirty, and Pops will be seventy. We don’t often manage to get all of us (thirteen, at last count) together for meals or holidays, much less several days in the country. It was special.

One of the memories I’m currently cherishing is a walk with my nine-year-old niece. Her two cousins had departed the day prior, which meant that she had stopped running, and now had time to indulge contemplative conversation with Aunt Lizzie.

We were walking along a dirt path, flanked alternately by stands of maple and grassy fields where the Brown Swiss graze, and she bounced a small blue rubber ball on the ground, and told me that she hated not knowing things.

I asked her what she meant; she explained that she just hated not being able to figure things out, things like opening a door (what I knew had been a recent issue in the hotel).

“And I hate not knowing why things,” she said. “Like, why I like to ride horses but I hate riding a bycicle.”

I could feel my insides leap at the chance to Preach Writing: this niece has shown a fondness for the written word, and a compulsion to read thousand page books dozens of times. This was it, I thought, the chance to set her to follow my writerly footsteps!

“Well, that’s the really neat thing about writing,” I said. “It helps you figure out how you feel.”

“How?”

“Well, like if you were to describe how you felt on a horse…”

She played along for a moment—maybe she felt excited, maybe a little bit scared, there was one feeling brought up by jumping, another in that moment right before the jump—but we didn’t get far before her patience ran out.

“Actually, I’m not sure that I want to know after all,” she said, forcing a shrug and a smile, not wanting to let me down too hard.

“That’s okay,” I told her. “You’re only nine.”

But, even at my (rapidly-escalating) age, I know exactly what she means. I sometimes feel as though I live on a precipice: between an urgent compulsion to understand myself, and terror to do just that.

And in these few months away from blogging, that precipice has come into uncommonly clear relief: the urge to write, to connect, alongside that sense of relief–the recognition that I don’t have to connect the dots, don’t have to question everything, don’t have to pull back and ask why things are the way they are.

And I have wanted both.

I have wanted to ask myself: Why this person? Why this place? Why this path and this kind of writing? The kinds of questions that surface for all of us–propelled by shades of doubt or discomfort or those very elusive things whose murky nature compels us to go deeper.

Too, I have wanted to put my head down and just keep moving. To seek shelter from that mode of self-reflection and just be.

I know that I will walk that precipice for the rest of my life. Because it can be terrifying to know what drives us, and it can also be the most compelling thing in the world.

 

Airplanes And Place And Falling In and Out of Love

Is there any contrast greater than that between New York as seen from street-level, and from the air?

Peering down over Manhattan during descent on my recent flight from MSP to LGA, I thought nothing so profound. I thought, instead: how funny does that single yellow taxi look, crawling down a midtown street? And, I wonder what my parents are making for dinner? And, is this where I want to live?

A few years ago I attended a cocktail party on U Street in Washington; it was the first time I remember so directly confronting people far younger than me with far more power. But that smart paled next to the blithe comment of a male acquaintance with whom I stood in the cramped kitchen, sipping craft beer: “Oh yeah, I used to read your blog,” he said. “But then, it gets kind of repetitive: you know, single girl in the city, blah blah.” He appeared to expect my sympathetic agreement: Oh yeah, my writing bores the heck out of me, too!

As I write this I’m realizing that anecdote itself may be a repetition. Which means I’ll have to  now beg your forgiveness on three counts:

1) For Being Repetitive.

2) For Repeating Myself Whilst Apologizing for Being Repetitive.

3) For Using Said Repetitive Apology to Excuse Yet Another Blog Post About My New York Angst.

Speaking of repeating myself, you have by now now likely gleaned that I spent the five weeks prior to that flight in a small town in Minnesota.

And maybe you suspected that I found myself wondering, as I, indeed, did: is this what I’m cut out for, after all? Small town life?

Probably you know that I have spent the last ten years toggling back and forth on the question of whether to live in New York City. And maybe you didn’t realize–I certainly had not–that this particular option, a small town, hadn’t occurred to me.

Before I left, I had been loving my hyper-social New York life. And I imagined that my retreat in New York Mills would be just that: I pictured myself cloistered in some remote and musky garret, hunched over my laptop, typing away the days in a manic fugue.

This was not to be. Instead, by the end of my first week I had found a handful of friendships I was sure could, if circumstances agreed, become lifelong. I’d been charmed by the Lions Club auction and the donut shop and the peculiar, misplaced use of first person plural (“We’ll see ya!”); by the Thursday Town meeting and wide country roads and the Upper Midwest’s stark, minimal awe.

Among that handful of friendships was the woman I mentioned in my last post, who I referred to as my Doppelganger: also from New York, also a writer, also dark-haired and loosely Semitic. One night she invited me to her spacious farmhouse for a lesson in canning–she and her husband had tapped their trees.

“How did you learn to do this?” I asked.

She pointed to a book splayed open on the dining room table: Canning for Dummies.

A moment later we heard the whooshing sound of hot liquid: the maple syrup had boiled over. Flames rose up from the stove, syrup oozed quick from the saucepan in thick peels.

“Oh shit,” she said. I entertained her with gossip as she folded over the stovetop and scrubbed.

“This is why the two Jewish girls from New York should not can unsupervised!” I said.

It was a joke. In fact, despite the mishap, she seemed utterly at home here: in this sunny rural house with animals and a back deck and an office that gave her room to write. It was more of a stretch for me to picture her navigating the crowded streets of downtown Brooklyn or SoHo on a bright Saturday in spring–what I knew to be her native habitat. I met her in this context, and in it, she seemed to fit.

It struck me, watching her tangle with the stained kitchen surfaces, that people can adapt to anything.

Anyone can learn to can, or ride the subway; all of us learn language, and codes of culture, and sciences and recipes; some of us learn to drive on ice or how to fly planes or tie knots or knit sweaters or bake muffins or climb tall things. People are magnificently capable. We learn to live wherever we do.

“There’s no such thing as the one,” my new friend told me that night—once we’d given up on canning and began discussing our love lives over bars of orange-flavored dark chocolate. “You know what Dan Savage says: it’s the .67 that you round up.”

It’s true, I later thought, for place as well as people: despite her evident comfort in her new rural home, there have been plenty of moments in which my friend feels displaced, out of her element. As with partners, there’s always compromise.

Flying into New York, Manhattan’s neat geometry felt like a cosmic joke: the orderly perfection of it, the illusion of calm, as though the universe were trying to assure me, from many thousand feet, that the city could match the country serenity for which I’d fallen.

You are trying to trick me again, I wanted to plead with someone omniscient; How many times can I fall in and out of love with New York? 

Evidently, a lot of times. That’s one thing I’ve begun to grasp. Another is that the city doesn’t go away, it pulses always, and the challenge of finding my place in it will be there, always, too–If I want it.

 

An Ode to List Making, Mood Swinging, and Ladies Who Lit

On Tuesday afternoon, I pranced around Manhattan like an actress who had aced an audition.

I felt, literally, elated–charmed by elements of the New York landscape that, on normal days, turn me enraged: the hordes of over-layered NYU students peeling past on West 4th; the aggressively chatty man in the excruciatingly slow elevator; even my wildly overpriced tea latte, I paid for with a grin.

It was hard to imagine, I told A–meeting her to work at a crowded coffee shop on Mercer (“This place is so claustrophobic!” I beamed)–that less than twenty-four hours earlier, I had been, to not overstate things at all, in despair.

So extensive had my list of grievances been during my Monday therapy appointment that Therapist and I made the simultaneous (silly, but seasonally appropriate) suggestion that we burst into a chorus of “Dayenu:” if only one of these things had been going on, it would have been enough:

  • Leaving town, in four days, for five weeks.
  • Putting pressure on myself, during that time, to write an entire book.
  • Having had a total meltdown the previous night with my parents, in which I had, fourteen-year-old-style, run up a flight of stairs, slammed a door, crumpled, bawling, into a pile of dirty clothes.
  • Not having heard back from Ari in a full day. (Therapist and I narrowed the possibilities down to three: Hit By a Bus, Commitment Freakout, or, as turned out to be the case, Working.)
  • Not sleeping.
  • Having, that morning, as I, apparently, do, when feeling vulnerable, made myself feel more so. (Me: “I do that!” Therapist: “I noticed.” Me: “Why!?” “Therapist: “We need a few more sessions.”)

I tried to recall this list on Tuesday, while also mentally collecting another one–the reasons, I supposed, that, so soon after, I felt Fucking Fabulous.

Some attempts:

  • It was sunny.
  • Therapy had actually (imagine!) helped.
  • Ari was not dead.
  • I had spent much of the day listening to this beautiful thing.
  • I’d been unusually productive, work-wise.
  • For breakfast, I’d eaten a large, spicy coconut curry that tasted as rich and satisfying as any breakfast ever has.
“We have extreme highs and lows,” A said, nodding in recognition after I giddily crammed my body, laptop and assorted tote bags into the tiny space beside her. (“I’m schlepping workout clothes all over New York City that I don’t even have time to use!” I crowed. “And I don’t care!”)
So extreme,” I said.

I was trying to turn the exercise–my mental list-making–into a (self-) Teachable Moment.

“I feel like I’m good at reminding myself to enumerate what’s making me sad when  I feel down,” I explained. “But I don’t always do that when I feel good!”

A nodded. “Right,” she said. “I just try not to give it too much energy.”

A few hours later I careened into an airy Ditmas Park apartment for book club (yes, we call ourselves Ladies Who Lit)–the eager anticipation of which surely factored into my swinging spirits.

(These gals, I must take the chance to say, are as bright, delightful, and easygoing as they come–and it struck me last night that our collective appreciation is not unrelated to the clarity and smallness of our collective expectation: that once, every 4-6 weeks, we will spend a decadent evening drinking, eating, and catching up–and a few minutes discussing some, alternately gendered, work of contemporary fiction. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to enjoy people when all you ask of them is a few occasional hours of fun.)

“I have got to tell you guys,” I gushed, tossing my things on the floor as I unloaded beer and grapes. “Yesterday I was so down, and today I feel so awesome!”

“Ugh,” one replied, shaking her head. “I feel like that happens to me from hour to hour!”

“I know,” another chimed in. “I think most people have really erratic moods.”

“Oh,” I said, tossing my coat into the bedroom. “I guess just not everyone needs to burst into apartments and tell everyone about it.”

(What can I say–some people love math and hockey, I love basketball and dogs and telling everyone everything, all the time.)

But back to my lists: because I do like the idea that–regardless of how common those dramatic internal shifts– I can arm myself with tools, that I can walk around with a set of strategies for turning myself around: listen to Kurt Vile! Be productive! Eat Thai curry!

But I also know that A is right: that largely, our moods are outside our control. Had I run into that guy in the elevator or been swarmed by students on Monday, they would have only soured me further. Too, had I not indulged a complete adolescent meltdown, I probably wouldn’t have been able to feel good later on.

It’s basically the same idea I wrote about earlier this week, and last week too: things shift. We can’t control our emotional tides, we can only sit with them, surrender to them, know they will, soon, pass.

But it’s nice to remember, too, that small things–curry, music, perspective–can be a big help.

 

On Feeling Funky, Giving Up Control, Talking and Not

“This is not an okay time to be in a funk.”

A was right: there had never been a less acceptable moment for malaise. It was a sunny, warmish Saturday in New York, we had just emerged from the most joyously sweaty reggae dance class that is my new obsession, I was soon headed to dinner and celebration with eight of my best college gals; Obama was still President and the Knicks had won six straight; I had no business being down.

A swung her arm around my shoulder. “Let’s just sort this out.”

I took a couple of the deep breaths that are my trademark, paternally inherited Stress Tic, and started to talk.

The day before I’d spent a lovely, equally sunny afternoon with Ari, and we’d had something of A Talk; at first it left me feeling positive about things, about myself, about him–until, suddenly, I didn’t. Suddenly, I realized, I wasn’t sure where we stood or how I or he felt. Suddenly, I realized, I wasn’t sure whether we should keep talking during my imminent five weeks out of town; whether we’d keep trying when I got back.

“But it isn’t what I’m feeling about him,” I explained to A. “It’s that I’m letting myself feel anything at all.”

*

“If you can not trip out about it, sure.”

A few weeks ago, when I talked on the phone with that astrologist, I beseeched her for practical advice: what I should be when I grow up, where I should live, whether I should keep seeing Ari or not.

“If you can spend time with him and just enjoy it, great,” she instructed. “But if it’s gonna cause you more stress than fun, forget it. So, can you not trip out?”

Pause.

“Um…” I I stared at the rug on the living room floor, considering paisley and the gap between what I wanted to say and truth.

“Well, not really…” I said. “But I can try!”

She chuckled, and went back to forbidding me from pursuing Social Work.

A few days later Ari and I stood on the subway platform at Union Square, following an art film and Chinese dinner. (Between such dates with a Jewish guy and runs along the East River, I basically live in 1970s Woody Allen.)

“I just…” He was starting to Talk–I could feel it.

“How about we don’t?” I said.

What I was telling him was that I didn’t want to talk about “us,” but what I was telling myself was that I didn’t want to worry about it: I had determined to take those words to heart–to not “trip out,” to just enjoy my time with him and not spend energy contemplating our status or our future. I’d determined to chill out.

And for a few weeks, I did. I stopped (mostly) narrating every development to my girlfriends. I stopped reading about our astrological compatability online. I stopped obsessing about how much he liked me–besides, how much did I even like him?

I set aside the questions.

But with a week until my (temporary) departure, I  no longer could.

And at first, I felt like talking about things was the right choice. Until, the next day, walking with A after dance class, I wasn’t. I had done so well, I told her, at “not tripping out.” I had done so well at pulling back, feeling detached, withholding energy.

“I should be thinking about my book right now,” I whined. (A sentence, by the way, that grips me with a whole other cliched brand of anxiety–really, I’m someone who has to aggressively claim mental space for ‘my art’? Ugh.)  ”And instead I’m using up energy feeling angsty about this?”

“You’re beating yourself up,” A chided.

“I know,” I replied. “That’s the point.”

She shook her head. “You’re not allowed to do that. It’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling.”

We do this. We decide how it is we’re “supposed” to feel–about a person, about a breakup, about a loss or a change–and we chide ourselves when what comes up doesn’t match.

The whole point of “not tripping out” was to relinquish control–and I’d managed to do just the opposite. I wanted to control how I felt about Ari, when, of course, there was no way I could. We don’t summon emotions; we manage them.

“What is going to get you out of this funk?” A asked. “Coffee? Kombucha? Walking?”

I pondered. “I could go for some Earl Gray with soy… and, yeah, a walk.”

“Done.”

We marched to the closest coffee shop. We strolled to Carroll Gardens. I felt better. But not totally.

It wasn’t the best moment to feel sad, I realized, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t .

On Loneliness, Lifelong Friends, and Letting Things Sit

There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either. — Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

The night before I read those lines, Sunday, I got home at half past midnight–the top of my right cheek still specked with crumbs from Saturday night’s mascara. I felt exhausted, high from a little whiskey and a little wine; I felt–as you might imagine–a few things, none of them lonely.

The next morning, Monday, I slept soundly and late, buzzed around the lower half of Manhattan for a few hours–a visit with out-of-town relatives; a lively Zumba class on Lafayette–before heading to a Passover seder in Brooklyn at the home of one of my oldest, dearest friends.

Sitting on the subway, I recognized a distinct, physical pleasure in the anticipation of being with her and her family.

In other words, I had spent the subsequent forty-eight hours surrounded by people–and still, I felt a rich excitement in going to do so again.

*

I have a vivid memory of sitting in the window seat of an airplane in my early twenties.

I’m not sure where the plane was taking me–between Minnesota and New York, perhaps, or Argentina to JFK. I only guess the latter because my other association with that memory is a college friend who lived there; and I remember telling her, in what context I can’t recall, that the worst kind of loneliness is the kind you feel when you’re with someone else.

I then considered this friend a serial monogamist, and delivered my wisdom, sermon-like, with superiority–a defense, of course, against my own insecurity with being serially single.

Maybe I was writing down that thought as I sat by the window on the plane, or maybe I was realizing, as I sat there, alone, that I wasn’t sure it was true.

*

On Sunday night I was coming, most immediately, from a dinner party with two couples. Both happened to be made up of handsome and fabulous gay men, which made me feel more Honored Guest than Fifth Wheel.

But at times, still, I felt conscious of my single status: talk of joint vacations, Sunday brunches, weeknight dinners–those stinging moments of recognition that, yes, it would be sweet to have a companion in this life: someone to come home to, with whom to unwind and share meals and minor daily surprises and frustrations–the things of urban life.

What to do in those moments?

In them, I didn’t even get to ask myself that: I let them pass, as they did, quickly pushed away by vibrant and inclusive dinner party talk–scuba diving, sneakers, YouTube sensations.

It was only later, after underlining those sentences in Robinson’s book on my way to the seder, that I returned to the question, and thought of something a former therapist in Albuquerque–a woman with fuzzy boots and blunt reddish bob–used to say: “Sit with the feeling,” she’d advise. “It might be uncomfortable, but that’s okay.”

*

Lifelong friends aren’t unlike spouses in that their families matter: in the friend with whose family I spent Seder, I could not have done better–generous is far too small a word.

“I consider them my second parents,” I explained to one of the fellow non-family members sitting across the table. “But I’m probably one of about forty people in New York City who would say that.”

“Yeah,” he nodded right away–explaining how he’d spent most recent holidays in their home. “I’m definitely one of them!”

As I reflected on the sheer joy–I use that word mindfully–in both anticipating and being a part of their holiday, I thought (besides, of course, of matzoh balls, charoset and chocolate-covered macaroons) of how so much our lives can consist of efforts to stave off loneliness. How glad everyone there was to be together. How all of us humans feed, so beautifully, off each other.

*

I take pride in my passion for being alone. But if I’m honest with myself, I realize that my happiest moments are being with people. It’s wonderful to connect through writing; it can be intoxicating to explore new places alone; but the thrill of discovering commonality–with a new lover or a fellow seder guest–is singular. It’s special. It’s everything.

And yet.

Being around others, I know, is no bulwark against loneliness. The pronouncement I made to that friend years ago may have been hyperbole, but I do believe there’s a particularly harsh pain in feeling lonely with someone you love–it’s the opposite feeling from finding fresh connection with a stranger; where there ought to be solace, there’s distance. It’s a loss of the most sacred expectation.

There are many ways to feel lonely. As with any emotion, to rank the varieties hierarchically serves nothing.

What does seem useful to me,though, are the twin pieces of wisdom from Marilynne Robinson and that therapist. Basically, this: loneliness is a large part of life. Whoever you are and whomever you are with, it will come. Sit with it. Let it hurt. And let it pass.