On Isolation, Identity and Alice Miller

“When do you feel most like yourself?”

My new, dear writer friend S was sitting opposite me on the brown futon in my office/living room.

(Sidenote: I’ve moved! From one South Minneapolis house with a couple who are old friends, to another South Minneapolis house with a different couple, also friends. This time I’ve got two rooms-with the help of pals, I’ve painted my south-facing, corner-room office a gray blue, trekked to Home Depot for a batch of hanging plants, and managed to russle up enough shelves to display almost all my books. It’s, in a word, divine.)

S had just returned from a trip abroad, and we were catching one another up: her telling me about the stark, stunning beauty of Iceland, me telling her about the space I’ve lately needed to take from some family.

Related to that is a recent (therapy-driven) recognition with which S can relate: lifelong shape-shifters, we’ve been conditioned since childhood (like a lot of women, like a lot of artists) to attend to other people’s emotional needs–allowing us, too frequently, to lose sight of our own. And when your interactions with others are governed by a, to use S’s term, vigilant attention to the energies around you (sometimes, as we noted, anticipating others’ emotions before they’ve even surfaced) it can be difficult to grasp not just what you need, but who the hell you are.

So, I’ve been trying to figure that out. You know, resolving your identity at age 32–no big deal! Easy, right?

Well, no–but I don’t think I’m alone.

There’s the friend who I recently took an impulse-trip to visit in Portland, whose eyes began to bulge as I talked–”I’m glad you’re saying this,” she said. “I thought I was the only one working out my mother issues in my 30s!”

And the acquaintance who I recently bumped into at a coffee shop; she and I had only met once, but nevertheless wound up in conversation about our personal lives–specifically, how much work we’re both doing, in therapy, to sort out the childhood issues we know we’ve come up against in dating. “Gosh,” she exclaimed, caving her chest backward as she clutched a latte and looked out at Lyndale. “I swear to God, I keep having this same conversation–therapists’ offices must be flooded with women in their 30s!” (At which point, of course, we bemoaned that they are not more flooded by men…)

Also, the writer friend who I’ve been meeting for group meditation on Sunday mornings. After last Sunday’s session,  I asked her how she thinks one goes about truly, finally, seeing ourselves.

“When you find out,” she muttered as we slipped into a cafe for brunch. “Let me know.”

But back to S’s question. Because, while  I’ve considered self-discovery from different angles over the last few months (the mindfulness practice, the whole dating break thing, etc.) I hadn’t posed that simple, seemingly obvious question. And when I took a moment to consider it, what surfaced surprised me:

“When I’m writing, I guess…” I said, a little reluctantly. And then, “and when I’m in my body…really, when I’m alone.”

*

The day before, I’d caught up briefly, over the phone, with another friend who’s been out of town–my friend R, who I met in Brooklyn but reconnected with here. I shared with her what I’d shared with S.

“I want you to know that I’m here for you,” she said. “I don’t want you to feel isolated.”

A couple hours later, following a yoga class and en route to go thrifting with my friend K, I’d experience one of those rare moments of pure contentment and calm that feel, these days, like existential gold. The prior afternoon, I’d had to pull over my minivan in a north Minneapolis suburb to let out a sequence of three howls–the urgent expression of a fierce sadness and rage.

And in that moment, hearing R use the word isolated, I started to cry. In part I was touched by her caring. But I was also struck by how much that word, isolated, hit home.

I think of myself, as others probably do too, as highly social. Connected. Surrounded by many networks of peers and friends.

But there’s a difference between having friends, and having one person for whom who are top priority, a person you consistently check in with, whose job it is to know where you are–when your flight’s landed or if your doctor’s visit went okay.

And for all the vast gratitude I have for the friends who support me with generosity and tenderness, for all the ways in which I do feel good, and genuinely myself, when I’m alone, it’s true–though I hadn’t quite let myself admit it–that (choosing, for now) to be without that person, and (choosing, for now) to loosen those family ties, can feel not just sad and hard, but deeply lonely–yes, isolating

There’s no great fix for this, except to move through the moments as they come. I think there is comfort, though, in the hopeful promise that the work of discovery and healing will lead, long-term, to more moments of calm, and fewer of desperate dark.

*

Last week, in what couldn’t help but feel like glaring metaphor, three large boxes arrived on the porch of my new house–the last of my belongings from the childhood home that my parents recently sold.

As I steadied myself to open them (having zero clue what they might contain), the first thing I saw was a book–one that’s come up in conversation lately. It was first recommended to me by a beloved professor in graduate school, and recently suggested again by the writing/meditatation buddy I mentioned above.

The book is Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, and it’s one of those that should probably be required reading for most humans. I’m tempted to quote the entire first page, but I’ll restrain myself to this, which says, pretty much, everything:

“In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom.”

Cheers, friends, to that.

 

 

On What Our 30s Do and Don’t Bring, and a Birthday Message to My Dearest R

On Tuesday morning, word leaked around the gym that my friend R was about to turn 30.

The surrounding women struck up a familiar chorus, one that echoed all the reasons why this is such a great thing:  Your thirties are so much better! You’re so much more confident. More together! More yourself. You know who you are. I was so glad to be finished with my twenties.

A barbell awkwardly draped across my back, I took a moment to reflect on how the (small!) fraction of my adult life that I’ve spent in the 30-something section compares with the rest. It was very humid in the gym and I was anticipating that the clip on the right end of my barbell would fall off, again, so the moment was brief: reflexively, internally, I concurred with the crowd. Yeah, sure, I thought, in these last twenty-two months I have felt stronger and more self-aware, happier and more confident than I did before.

And then, later, post-shower and teaching and less encumbered by iron, I remembered Friday.

The thing about Friday was that, in the end, it wound up being a good day. A great day! A great night, even. But in the morning, I came close to losing my mind.

For reasons that I am currently seeking a therapist to explore, the mere prospect of having to make photocopies and a (three column!) spreadsheet, paired with some vague (and, ultimately, irrational) anxiety relating to communication with the man I have been (sort of suddenly, somewhat seriously) dating, compounded by (not unrelated) extreme exhaustion, combined to set me on edge of what I was sure resembled a panic attack.

Oh, I thought. Maybe my thirties are not so together after all…

And then I reflected on what I did next:

I went to FedEx and made the aforementioned copies.

Intermittently, remembered to take deep breaths.

Resolved, that evening, to go to yoga.

Called a dear friend: one who, I was sure, would understand.

She understood. Talked me down. (On love: “I know, you think you’re cursed. I think that sometimes, too. You just need to let go a little bit and give it time.” More importantly, on spreadsheets: “We’re creative people. Microsoft Excel makes me want to throw up, too.”)

Taught my class, which, reliably, vanishes other problems.

Afterwards, visited with a St. Paul friend who toured me around her community garden and plied me with pineapple rings and white wine before dispatching me, purse full of tomatoes, to yoga and later drinks with aforementioned fellow.

By Saturday morning I felt, if a tad sleepy, like a normal, happy human being. I issued a missive to the small cohort of women with whom I’d been in touch during Friday’s meltdown: Thanks for listening, I wrote. Feeling much better and more secure.

To one of them, I added: …at least for today.

In fact, my run of strength lasted a solid few days. But by Thursday, I had resumed life resembling a certain, red-haired character from that infamous children’s book: leaving a bottle of almond oil unsealed in a gym bag next to clean clothes and my computer, such that said bottle exploded all over the surrounding items, causing me to ruin some shorts, be late to teach, and (indirectly, sure) trip going upstairs at The Loft, stub my big toe, and spill a not super small amount of coffee.

After, miraculously, making it through my class without incident, rather than attempting a productive afternoon, I rode my bike to the movie theatre across the river: I saw Trainwreck, spent eight dollars on soda and popcorn without a blink, and felt only a flicker of shame when I cried at the movie’s absurd climax, in which two low grade guilty pleasures (the Knicks City Dancers and certain Billy Joel songs) happily, ridiculously, collide.

Thanks for listening.

I hope you’re feeling better about your Thursday morning, and perhaps your organizational skill set.

But, too, I hope you appreciate the thing at which I am, rather slowly and perhaps vaguely, trying to get: that, even in one’s thirties, and likely forever, we fuck up. We freak out for ridiculous reasons. We spill expensive organic products that we have just bought. We stub our fucking toes.

But, hopefully, as the years accrue, we get a little bit better at how we respond: we collect wise women friends to remind us of important truths. We indulge in cheesy movies and overpriced snacks when the afternoon calls. We remember that exercise always, always helps.

We get, in short, a bit better at being compassionate with ourselves.

So today, on the day after one of my dearest friends officially crossed the thirty-mark, I want to tell her that not terribly much is going to change. She will continue to sometimes suffer anxiety and sadness and difficult mornings and frustrating weekends. But she will also become more and more able to make those things mean less. And, for whatever it’s worth, I’m happy to hang around, and maybe even be of some small help, whilst she does.

Happy thirty, R: let’s fuck up, freak out (slightly less), and fill ourselves with all varieties of pizza and love, this decade and beyond.

 

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 Mantras, Mondays, Gym Friends and Feelings

The problem with Monday morning spin class is that it’s difficult to talk.

Lest you’re unclear, what motivates my regular gym habit (as much as the need to offset particular passions for almond croissants and malty beer, and the happy accident that I genuinely like exercise) is, in a word: gossip.

Probably you are clear that I take pleasure in few things more than turning my personal problems into entertainment. For you, lofty readers, I attempt to deliver stuff that is polished, (sadly, sometimes tragically) censored, hopefully sense-making. The gals at the Blaisdell Y get the dirt: the raw play-by-plays and (occasionally) juicy bits.

And while the late-30 and early-40-something moms have a pretty hefty appetite for vicarious Single Gal Tales, it’s not a one-way street. Last week I found myself doing bicep curls next to a woman who I’ve seen outside a sports bra a grand total of one time (we ran into each other at the co-op), whilst getting the update on her marital counseling.

“I just had this big breakthrough about the way I approach intimacy!” she said.

I turned to her, breathlessly hoisting a purple pair of twelve-pound weights.

“You mean physical intimacy?”

She nodded.

I looked out at the gym, a blur of neon and blondish braids, and smiled. “I fucking love boot camp,” I said.

But back to Monday spin class, where, this week, I was on a bike beside my friend K. K is closer to my age, and for the year that we’ve known each other we’ve regularly floated the desire to meet for a drink. Maybe someday we will, but already she knows my life better than most close friends.

I had promised her a story, but the fetal-position nature of cycling was preventing much chat.

“I’m dying to hear the rest!” she said.

“I’ll tell you after,” I assured her. “If you want. But, you know, you can already guess how it ends.”

This is the part where I would recite my relentlessly reliable dating pattern, if not for that I’m pretty sure you know it too.

Okay fine, quick refresher: man pursues me. I take interest in said man because he’s (circle as many as may apply): stylish/intelligent/tall/builds things/reads poems/DJs/loves NPR/plays music/is bearded/writes absurdist horoscopes. 1.5-3.5 dates later, aforementioned man realizes that I am incapable of playing games/being casual, remembers whatever issue made him single in the first place (again, circle any): commitment-phobia/emotional scars/arrested emotional development/existential attachment to someone else. He panics. Flees. I am shocked, but also not. (Because: really?? And because: yup.)

I’ve been trying to come up with mantras–a genre in which, it turns out, I am pathetically unskilled. A sampling:

It’s his loss.
You know what you want.
If he doesn’t contact you he’s an idiot, and you hate idiots.
He’s not even your type.
(What is your type again?)
Stop comparing yourself. 

A contributed the standby: You dodged a bullet. 

A new Minneapolis friend, this gem: When boys blow, they really blow, hard. 

But, heavens. I need something, at this rate, to help me through these Dating Moments, as we may as well call them. (It fits, a bit too well..) Because no matter how many times they hit, they still really suck.
*
In response to this recent essay that I hopefully managed to get on your screen, a friend in California wrote to laud me for being so in touch with my feelings:
It’s impressive to me, she wrote. I don’t think most people can do that.
Thanks! I wrote back. It’s called Years of Revision :)
It’s true: one reason literary nonfiction takes me (and many others) so long to get any good is that it takes time, and discipline–basically, work–to sort out how the hell you feel/felt about an experience you want to render.Finding the right words can often feel like the easy part. It’s not that I’m any better at being in touch with my emotions than anyone else; I just happen to (be trying to) make it my career.
I thought of her words yesterday as I drove a South Minneapolis route that I used to take regularly, a little over a year ago, when I was living with N. He’d shown up in my dream the other night–after I went to sleep feeling sad and sour about my latest prospect’s exit.”It’s a signal,” my friend (a different) K said, when I told her the next day over lunch of soup and crepes. “A reminder that you know what you want, and being alone is better than settling.”Driving from my old library to the gym, I thought of my California friend’s comment. I thought of it because, I realized, when I was with N, I didn’t know what I wanted. More than that, I didn’t know what I felt. I was so afraid to find the truth, festering just barely beneath life’s daily layers, that I didn’t let myself look. The truth wasn’t that I was unhappy, or that N was anything but an extraordinarily good, loving, supportive partner. The truth was that I knew we weren’t right.

Few things are more painful for me to admit to myself than that: how much I was able to distance myself from how I truly felt.

And amidst the disappointment and frustration, that is one piece of comfort and calm: that, at least, I know how I feel. That I’m (most mornings) living honestly, and with the kind of (attempted) self-understanding I denied myself not many months ago.

It’s not a mantra, exactly, but it’s something. And I’m holding on.

On Groups, Needs, Elena Ferrante and Balance

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

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

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

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

“Right,” I said. “I know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Christmas, Ecstatic Dance and Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this, J and I traded looks of awe.

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

I thought: Life is long.

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

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

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

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

What am I getting at?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 2015 :-)

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

“Hallelujah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think that’s untrue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s 2015. I’m thirty-one. Why not?

 

 

Courtship, Crushes, and Being A Basketcase

“You’re a basketcase.”

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

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

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

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

It had been a minute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, probably: you don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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?