On Grasping, Contentedness, Whiteness and Being (Forever) “Half-Woke”

“What about you? Are you content?”

My friend E and I were taking a walk, catching up at the end of summer–most of which she had spent away.

E is one of my closest friends, and though we aren’t great at keeping up regular contact while apart, her question took me aback: shouldn’t she know whether I’m content?

Also: shouldn’t I know?

Am I content?

Do I–should I want to be?

“Um, I guess so,” I think I said, then. I mumbled something about how I was feeling overwhelmed, per usual; unstable, per usual; uncertain in assorted ways about teaching and writing and community–but also happy, in many moments, finding nourishment in relationships and art and work, whatever that all means.

*

For the last six Saturday mornings, and for four more to come, I have and will sit in a circle with a group of adults in a room at a church in north Minneapolis.

We gather there to discuss texts, watch videos, share personal stories: to work toward a deepened knowledge of this country’s racist history, and toward unlearning the racist conditioning we’ve all–all of us–received.

I’ve been appreciating that space. And feeling drained by it. Sometimes frustrated. Always thankful and humbled, often overwhelmed.

Our reflections and learnings often lead me to a similar dilemma: how to hold, at once, the vast magnitude of the problem (what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”) alongside a belief that much of the most important work must take place on a small, intimate scale: settings like that church room.

(Yes, the change we need is systemic, but in order for folks–white folks, mainly–to work toward that change meaningfully, we’ve got a lot of internal work to do, too. I think.)

How, in other words, to know that no amount of resistance will ever feel like “enough,” while maintaining a commitment to resist as much as we can? Or: how to see that we are unlikely to witness the transformative, systemic change we believe necessary while continuing to take part in the work? 

Oh, right, and what is the work? Is it introducing my composition students to anti-racist concepts and texts that many of them won’t hear? Emailing my parents movie reviews that critique Hollywood’s romance with colonialism, then drinking bloody marys instead of attending an organizing meeting? Teaching poetry classes in prisons I’m not sure should exist, nodding while a guard tells me he respects the incarcerated men who he’ll deny water or bathroom privileges during class? Catching myself as I make racist assumptions about a young, Asian-American woman beside me in the sauna while I smugly read a chapter from The White Racial Frame? Talking about writing poems that address whiteness while finding every excuse to not actually write them?

*

Like most writers who teach (personal) essays, I often introduce my students to the roots of the word–from the French essayer: to tryAn essay, we’re told, is an attempt, an effort, a try at answering some question: what does it mean to feel joy? How to be a black man in America without getting swallowed by rage? What does it feel like to witness a bombing and manhunt on television while incarcerated? 

That they begin with questions doesn’t mean good essays arrive at clear answers; those aren’t really a thing in the world, and nor (us omniscient teachers say) should they be in print.

What we look for in essays, then, and what–I might assure myself–we look for in life, is the grasping: purposeful, thoughtful, reflective seeking.

This takes some pressure off: who needs to worry about clear answers (like what the hell “the work” means) when it’s the questions that matter?

The problem with this framework, as Leslie Jamison eloquently puts it in her introduction to this year’s Best American Essays, is that it lets us off the hook: “If anything counts as attempt,” she asks, “what could possibly count as failure?”

And of course, as she goes on to explain: “essays aren’t immune to failure. They can fail in a thousand ways–by failing to offer insight, by offering insights that feel too easy, too tidy, too shopworn. They can fail to enchant….They can fail to render their subjects with sufficient complexity. They can declare themselves done too soon.”

Similarly: if we know we won’t see something like “success” when it comes to the work of liberation and justice, then how will we know when we’ve failed?

In some ways, we won’t: it’s often (if not always) impossible to fully know the true, short or long term impacts of any kind of social justice work.

But it is certainly possible to fail by not doing what we can. Too easily, if I extend Jamison’s metaphor, I can applaud myself for asking hard questions while failing to take the pursuit–of insight, of knowledge, of the work itself–as far as I have capacity to do.

It is always easy, after all, to slip back into complacency: to shrug and shroud myself with the comfort that there isn’t any “right” way to resist or any measure of “enough” work. To slip back, in other words, into a notion of success (or of “content”) that isn’t mine.

Our culture–and most of our families–doesn’t teach us to prioritize working for radical change: most of us weren’t told to measure our success by how much we commit to uprooting toxic masculinity or abolishing the construct of whiteness. We were (mostly) taught, rather, to pursue our own passions, to create our own families, to seek fulfillment and comfort and happiness for ourselves.

That’s a teaching I’m trying to unlearn–but I’m not there yet.

Put another way: I still don’t know, for me, what it means to be “content”–so how can I claim something I don’t yet understand? 

*

At dinner with a pair of friends the other night, the term “woke” came up. I shared that I wasn’t sure it was okay (read: socially acceptable) to use the term as a white person, but struggled to put words around why.

Rob came to my aid: saying, in effect, that, as white folks, we’ll never really, fully, be “woke”; most of us have spent the bulk of our lives oblivious to the mere truth of our whiteness–the journey, as anti-racist folks often say, is lifelong, there will always be more learning, more unlearning to do.

Perhaps “half-woke,” he suggested, is a better term.

I thought of that the very next day–and how much it fits–when I found myself startled, naively surprised by some basic historical facts around American slavery presented in this podcast–one I’d just sent to some relatives, days earlier, because I thought it would be “accessible” for them (read: people I consider “less woke” then me).

*

There are multiple ways in which I could explain what prevented me from claiming the mantel of “content” that day: job insecurity (#adjunctlife), poetry rejections, relationship struggles (love is hard!), etc. And perhaps some combination of those was really what drove my response.

But maybe, too, it had to do with that idea of grasping: with the (relatively new) understanding of how half-conscious I am and always will be, with the awareness that I am trying to learn and internalize whole new understandings of what “success” and “work” and “content” really mean.

With the sense that, while I might be finding some insights along the way, I’ve got a very long way to go–and a destination that will always, in some ways, elude.

On Love and Work

“But don’t you think there’s a partner out there for you who might be more perfect?”

My brother was sitting across from my parents and me at an upper floor breakfast buffet in a Long Beach, California, hotel.

We’d been talking about a podcast, and–like most of my recent conversations–I’d managed to turn this one into a vehicle for gushing about my relationship. 

In this moment, I was gushing about how often we argue.

Rather: how good we are at communicating.

I had brought up the advice of Alain De Botton, recently interviewed on On Being about the New York Times article of his that, apparently, attracted more interest than anything else that happened in 2016. (Sit on that for a second.)

Specifically, his caution–one I find deeply compelling–that all relationships are very difficult. That people are difficult, in all our myriad, intricate ways, and that, therefore, any attempt at intimacy between them will require serious, delicate labor.

“Well,” my father had chimed, “of course that’s true in the long term. In the beginning, though, you should think the other person is perfect.”

At this, I bristled.

I’ve already said it publicly once, so, here goes again: I’m in love. I have found a partner who I deeply respect and admire. With whom I love to talk and listen and read and walk and be. Who inspires me with his compassion and commitment to working for racial and economic justice. Who makes me uncontrollably giggle and reads fucking poems. I have found someone, in other words, who I think is a really great fit for me–or at least, for the person I am now.

I have not found someone who I think is perfect.

And nor, as I told my brother and father and mother, do I think I ever will.

*

“Is he you?”

About six weeks after meeting Rob, I stood in the YMCA locker room on a Saturday morning across from a friend. As you might have guessed, things had already grown serious, and intense. Things, too, were/are not without conflict. While both he and I are skilled at talking through most things that arise, there is one particular issue–an ongoing friendship with his ex–where we struggle.

“We’ve actually talked about seeing a therapist,” I shared.

Thus, her remark: what other human would consider the idea of counseling less than two months into a relationship?

The one I’m dating, it turns out.

There are, in fact, many ways in which he and I overlap. (His mother, upon reading my blog: “She sounds like you, but in a female voice.”) Also: we both have small bladders, a tendency toward messiness and intellectual seeking, and a hyper attunement to the emotional energy of other humans; we can connect just as powerfully through physical intimacy as we can sitting on a couch, sharing passages from bell hooks or Grace Lee Boggs and reflecting on one another’s insights.

Before you throw up, let me assure you that there are, too, significant gaps: in our respective levels of interest in golf and backgammon, for example, or my desire to report on most waking moments of my day, even (on those rare occasions) when we’re apart, versus his inclination to keep some things to himself–along with other, related (and highly gendered) communication dynamics.

We talk about that–the gendered piece. And, when stuff comes up, when one of us feels slighted or aggrieved or even a little bit distant, we acknowledge and talk about it: the assorted levels of conditioning, from our families and cultural backgrounds, that, in many ways, still determine how and what we speak and behave. (Along with, ya know, lousy mornings, etc.)

As my brother was quick to point out, it can get a little exhausting.

But, for me at least, it’s also deeply rewarding. Recognizing and probing our moments of disconnection makes the moments of connection more powerful, and feel more full.

It can also make me walk around South Minneapolis, notice folks wearing wedding rings, and ask myself, Good god, how do people do this for years?

At this point (as the above might make you glean), I can imagine–or at least feel hopeful–that he and I could continue to make things work in the long term.

I also know enough to know that I don’t know anything–and that the way I (and he) feel right now may have little bearing on the way either of us feels in ten weeks or months or years.

But that, too, feels helpful: my most recent relationship felt burdened by my sense that it was somehow fated; sure, rationally, I knew there’s no such thing, but (for various reasons relating to the conditioning described above, plus the circumstances of that particular meeting and a set of shared physical features) emotionally, I let myself buy into the lie that we had to be together. And that belief, however small, fostered an anxiety that hurt much more than it helped–that coated me with a near-constant edginess, a low-lying panic: what if I fuck this up? 

I’m not immune to that now. I still have moments of terror about losing Rob. If and when it happens, I know it will suck. But I also feel somewhat lighter than I did then: right now, I think we’re great for each other, and push one another to be better people; I also know that could change. I think it does feel somewhat miraculous that we crossed paths when we did; I also don’t think there’s any providential guarantee that we should or will last.

A friend who’s been with her partner for many years recently shared an exchange they have when things between them grow hard: “Do you still want to make it work?” They ask one another. Both of them recognize that if the answer is yes, they can. And they do.

I’m not sure there’s any sounder theory of relationships than that: you both just have to want it badly enough to put up with the hardship–hardship that, no matter how long you’ve been together, will always arise.

 

On Bike Crashes, Compassion, and Other Kinds of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 Commiting, Amal and Calling In “The One”

“Two words,” she said. “Amal Clooney.”

In the form of my personal Christmas miracle, A had made an unexpected emergence from two days of bungled holiday travel, turning up home in New York twelve hours before my return flight to Minneapolis.

We sat by the window of a midtown pub.

A’s expression did not appear to include evidence that I’d shared with her the best compliment I’ve recently received: a suggestion, given around Halloween by a man with whom I’d gone on a few dates, that I might dress up as Amal Clooney–one that I opted to interpret as proof of a striking physical resemblance and with prompt, smug incredulity, shared with most people I’ve met. Somehow, I’d failed to include my closest friend.

“You didn’t tell me,” she said, shaking her head as she sipped her vodka martini and gave me a look that I understood to say, simultaneously, you look nothing like her, and, I’m exhausted, let me get on with my more important point.

Her point being: by the time she (Amal) met her husband (arguably, then, the world’s most desirable unmarried man) she had become (extremely) accomplished herself–as an international human rights lawyer who just happened to possess perfect hair and an exquisite couture wardrobe. She was so desirable because, not in spite, of her achievements.

I needed to hear this.

I needed to hear it for a few reasons.

The first, lesser reason, relates to an exchange I had this Fall with a new-ish writer friend. We were mounting our bikes en route to a literary festival in St, Paul, volleying, as new friends are wont to do, first date-ish sort of questions. I asked whether the bulk of her friends were coupled or single; she replied that nearly all of them were paired off.

“I guess my only single friends are you and…” She ticked off a few other names. “…I guess all my smart writer girlfriends…”

We proceeded to trade eyerolls and a series of stories about men we’d tried and failed to date because they don’t read books; men we’d tried and failed to date because they do read books, but prefer to be the person in the relationship that (euphamistically speaking, kind of) reads more. I told her about the (book-reading) guy who’d once told me about his friend’s observation that I was “too smart for him”–how at the time I’d heard it in flirtatious jest, and now understand it to be a sad statement of fact.

This–the tendency of some men to feel threatened by women who might intellectually outdo, or even match them–is a real (and sad) problem; unfortunately, it is one I can do nothing about.

So, on to the second reason, about which (theoretically) I can.

Let me back up.

A and I have been getting together (in bars and living rooms and lately, mostly, over iPhones) to discuss dating (and all else) for most of our adult lives. Throughout, we’ve coached one another through our opposite, equally unproductive patterns: for all my exuberance to be vulnerable and careen my heart around assorted urban enclaves, A is cautious, wary, reluctant to approach intimacy.

(A snippet of dialogue from last night: Me, ”I need to take a break from dating in January. I’m going to need so much support.” A: “I really need to date in January. I’m going to need so much support.”)

Lately, however, our conversations have taken a more formal turn.

To be specific, we are, together, reading a book. I’d tell you the title, but then you’d judge me. Okay fine, it’s called Calling in the One, and, despite the rather tacky cover illustration, it’s brilliant. “The one” is in quotes, and it actually has nothing to do with going out and meeting people, but everything to do with the kind of holistic, mindfulness-oriented self-reflection on which both A and I depend.

We have a Google doc.

Also, weekly debriefs in which we go over the lessons and exercises (sometimes meditations, sometimes journal entries) contained in each chapter.

Among the recent subjects: making commitments.

Which includes: recognizing what your purpose(s) are in life, and committing to their pursuit–with or without the romantic partner that you (if you are reading this book), are, also, committed to seeking.

I’m fortunate to feel clear about my purpose: to write. I also want to teach and build community and attend regular boot camp classes at the Blaisdell Y (and, oh yeah, find a husband), but these endeavors are secondary. I know they must remain fluid in order to enable what’s primary.

This doesn’t mean that I need to sell a lot of books before I meet my husband. (Or, hopefully, even publish one…or, you know, resolve some Thai-Cambodian border dispute…) What it does mean is that I mustn’t, in any way, temper my ambitions or goals–essentially, my life–because I haven’t yet partnered.

At the moment, I do. 

I feel more committed to staying in Minneapolis than I have to anywhere else; which is to say, not committed enough to sign a lease, buy a decent car or refrain from discussing, each time I visit NY, whether I should move back.

I feel more committed to teaching than any other path; which is to say that each time I walk in to a coffee shop a part of me wonders whether I’d be better off working as a barista.

And over the course of the (admittedly, extremely overwhelming) fall semester, one thing that felt abundantly clear is that, on those days when I stopped from hurling myself along a mental bungee cord, I felt better. I probably did a better job.

It makes sense: to invest in your life as it is enables you to be present within it.

I want to be present within my life.

I don’t want to carry around a constant, low-lying hesitation to commit myself–to a place, to a career, to a half-healthy Subaru or pricey winter sport–as though I am waiting for someone else.

Yeah, I do want that person: I want that deep, soulful connection, that partner with whom to share stories of my students and days.

I am human; and of course, I want that very much.

But I need to teach myself to know, to really, deeply in my bones know that there’s nothing I can’t do without it.

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.

 

Some Notes On Prospects, Feelings, Being Boring and Being Real

“I think he sounds like your best prospect in a while.”

My friend S took a bite of her oversized burger.

I cradled my spoon beneath a bowl of sun-colored soup.

I said, “You know he lives in a different time zone?”

S nodded, flashed the hint of a smug smile. “Yeah,” she said. “I do.”

I recalled the last time someone made such a comment. It was last summer, whilst having a drink with my grad school friend D. We were on a South Minneapolis patio, and had just run into a local bartender in whom I was then interested. Not long after that, said bartender and I went on a date. He didn’t ask me out again, but did, one afternoon two weeks later when he, evidently, had about thirty minutes to spare, attempt to lure me to his house. (“Is this an afternoon booty call?” “Yes.” Truly.)

I don’t offer these exchanges to discredit D or S, both of whom, I wholely trust, hold the interests of my heart deeply in theirs. To them, a good prospect is someone who (to the best of their knowledge) genuinely likes me.

Nor do I want to diminish the (many) merits of the prospect of whom S spoke.

I report them, rather, to highlight some recent, redundant chapters in the ongoing saga that is my love life, working title, Predictable Pursuits in Pointedly Unavailable Men. (Forgive me: when it comes to alliteration and men whose creative/professional ambitions preclude paying me much mind, I am weak.)

Some days after lunch with S, I flew to New York and was between turbo visits with friends and family when I walked the length of Park Slope and called my grandmother.

S and my grandmother belong to the same generation. S, however, is not my grandmother. And in the ten years since I stopped seriously dating her son, she’s grown comfortable asking, rather directly, about my sex life.

My grandmother, on the other hand, prefers a less forward approach.

We spent the first ten minutes of our conversation dancing around the topic, covering items like Donald Trump and the varying health of family dogs. Then, How’s your social life?

Also because she is my grandmother (her initial, as some may recall from the time when we were roommates, also happens to be S), I tend to give her a hard time.

“If by social life you mean, literally, social life, than it’s great. But I have a feeling that isn’t what you mean. I have a feeling what you mean is men.”

“Well, they might be included in your social life…”

“Yeah,” I said. “They are. And it’s terrible.”

“Oh, dear. Why is that?”

I was walking alongside the Prospect Expressway, and the traffic was loud, and so was the wind.

“Ugh,” I said. “It’s the same as always. I fall for men who aren’t available and can’t get excited about the ones that are.”

Grandmother S may hold back on the interrogation side of things, but, bless her Manhattan-raised soul, this is not the case when it comes to judgment.

“Well,” she said. “That isn’t exactly original.”

“I know,” I replied. “Tell me about it.”

Equally cliché is the attendant question: But, would you be more into him if he were less into you? Or, Would you be as into him if he were more into you?

The short answer to both questions is, of course, always, I have no idea.

But then there are the other short answers, which are, respectively, Probably, and Probably not.

To elaborate: when the touring musician who literally can’t find time to launder his towels doesn’t text me for several days/months, I’m left with a surplus of hours in which to question his level of interest. But the available guy? The one who visits when he says he will and says all the things I theoretically wanna hear? I don’t have to waste a minute worrying about his affections, and can instead go straight to exploring all the ways in which he may or may not diverge from the Imaginary Man Who I Still, Stubbornly, Think Should Be My Husband.

The problem with this extended answer is that, while interesting, it ultimately leaves one exactly where one began: with short answer number one. One, still, has no idea.

*

“Haven’t seen a blog post in a while…”  Available Prospect recently commented.

“Yeah…” I said. I didn’t explain. I couldn’t.

Here’s a thing:

It’s bad enough feeling bad because you have a strong, mutual connection with someone who is unable to date you.

It’s worse to feel like there’s something wrong with you because this has been a pattern throughout your adult (okay fine, and adolescent) life.

Add to that the guilt of boring your readers because, as Grandmother S succinctly phrased it, your love life is so unoriginal.

And, oh yeah, the fear of hurting people you care about. (A: “You tend to spend a lot of time thinking about your broken heart, but man, you’ve broken a lot of them, too.” Me: “But it’s so much easier to dwell in sadness than hurting others!”)

You know, it’s enough to keep a girl blogger quiet for roughly six weeks.

Here’s another thing: as I discussed with some budding creative writers the other night, no one wants a victim narrative. In literature, as in life, we’re interested in characters who act, who take accountability for their choices, who make choices. We’re less interested in what terrible circumstances befell people than how they chose to respond.

And, sweet readers, I am making no choices. I am sitting here in a quiet, sunny, south-facing room north of downtown Minneapolis, hiding from choices. (Also, my novel draft. Which, quietly existing, as it does, as a nonverbal file on my hard drive, is a terribly easy task.)

Instead, I am thinking about my conversation with A over drinks at a quiet French bar in Greenwich Village last week. I’m thinking about the different words she and I used to describe a shared feeling: for her it was grief, for me it was a tossup between anxiety and sadness. It’s something we both recognize as a constantly present sensation. A low-lying layer of, well, Name Your Own Feeling, that we deal with daily.

Sometimes ‘dealing with it’ means trying to ignore it, or cover it up with things like popcorn and reality TV. Other times it means tending to it, with yoga or friendship or writing or inordinate-seeming tears.

It’s the product of not having something you deeply want, compounded by being at a stage in life where not having this thing sets you apart from the bulk of your peers (have I mentioned how many weddings I’m going to this summer?) and subjects you to a vicious stigma that suggests inherent flaws with your body/brain/capacity to be loved.

I know, people. It’s uninteresting and unoriginal as hell.

But damn, is it real.

 

On Patience, and Letting Go

When you are three months out of graduate school, at the end of a summer spent walking around Prospect Park and writing wretched revisions of your MFA thesis, a Big Deal Writer whose work you admire and with whom you have a very loose connection might, generously, offer to meet you for a glass of wine.

She might, unexpectedly, talk with you about the structure of your memoir, which she hasn’t read, but, based solely on your conversation, is able to grasp and talk through so expertly that you use her name in the subject line of subsequent drafts.

And then, three years and countless revisions later, when you are on the verge of sending out said memoir (drafting a query letter, making final line edits, setting yourself a hard June deadline), you might run into said writer at a conference and take her up on her offer to meet again, when she visits Minneapolis the following month.

You might giggle at the neon hotel bar with the techno soundtrack and the drunk, overdressed couple behind you, wrapping each other in slinky dance moves.

And you might sit there as she, again, without having read a word, and with no motive besides a disarmingly generous, empathic spirit and seemingly supernatural quality of wisdom, says the painful words that are also the exact ones you need to hear: You know it isn’t ready. 

*

One spring day a couple of years ago, A and I walked down a side street in the West Village. This was during a brief section of time we then recognized as charmed: both of us living in New York and working from coffee shops, coaching one another through tough, transitional times. (As, we’ve since learned, most of them are…)

I was feeling better about the manuscript at that point, but still not great. And I’d spent that afternoon struggling. I told her.

“I just listened to this really great podcast,” A said. We were crossing Mercer, side-stepping NYU kids with earbuds and denim coats. “It was about failure.”

My muscles stiffed.

“It was just about how, it’s such an important skill, as an artist. You know, to recognize when something isn’t working, and to let it go.”

I don’t remember what I said. I remember that I listened the way you listen to someone giving someone else driving directions, or the way you listen to something you’re not ready to hear.

It isn’t, now, that I am accepting failure.

I still hope, and believe, that a time may come when I will be able to finish this book.

But in this moment, I am accepting that that time isn’t now, or, likely, anytime soon. I am letting go of the way I thought things would go; accepting that my writerly life will unfold not how I wish it would, but as it must.

It isn’t pretty.

On Friday night, after talking with Dani, I biked home in tears. I’d forgotten my lights, again, and the mix of danger and disruption had me rush through downtown in a dizzy, slightly drunken cocktail of panic: I might get hit, I might have lost the primary purpose that had come to organize my mornings and afternoons.

When I got home, I let rip. I let my body heave with emotion, with shock, with loss. In the days since, I’ve felt something like grief.

But along with it, and perhaps even more strongly, I’ve felt relief.

I knew, I know, that the urge I felt to rush that book into the world didn’t come from certainty that it was ready. It came, instead, from impatience. From the desire to get on with it, to be done. Also, ego. (“But Dani, it makes such a difference to have a book in the world!” I moaned. She didn’t miss a beat. “No,” she said. “It doesn’t.”)

I had tried to convince myself of it’s doneness, I’ve realized, in much the same way I’ve tried to convince myself that I was in the right relationship. I have to assume that, when a book project does feel complete, and when the right (or, a right) person appears, I will feel some tendril of doubt: I don’t think we find total certainty when it comes to art, or to love.

And it is easy, when you’ve never finished a book or found a right person, to assure yourself that the grave, deep doubt at the bottom of your belly that you know should be troubling you, perhaps halting you, is simply normal. That this might be as close to complete, as close to right, as you’ll get.

It’s easy, in other words, when you want something deeply, to tell yourself stories and convince yourself it’s yours.

*

The morning before meeting Dani for a drink I got the good news that a wonderful journal will publish a new, weird poem of mine. I also got an email from an old friend, writing to tell me she’d connected with a recent blog.

It seemed to be some small gesture of foreshadowing, and of comfort: a reminder that in fact, my writing energies are driving me elsewhere. That even if I’m letting go, for now, of one project, it is worthwhile to pursue others.

In moments, I remember that. That things are right as they are, where I am.

And in others, of course, I despair.

“I just try to touch it once a day,” A said. Last night, I stood in my kitchen and talked to her on the phone; she was in her Lower East Side apartment, listening. “That feeling that everything’s perfect.”

And that, I replied, is the thing that we truly must remember.

Not just to be patient, but that it will always be hard. That those moments when we find patience, when we touch the reassuring idea that what is is what’s right, will so often elude us.

That no matter how much we meditate or trust ourselves or practice mindulness and intention, there will (if we’re lucky) be parts of the day when we feel strong, and others when we crumple with impatience and doubt.

*

You know how it goes: when a subject is on your mind, the universe has a way of surfacing all that relates.

So it was that, earlier this week, I opened Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I opened it in search of some morsel I might share with my Monday night class as we began our segment on poetry. Instead, I stumbled on the passage below, which says, I think, everything:

There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!

 

 

 

 

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. 

 

 

Postcard from An Online Dating Binge

“I think you should max it out!”

I was chatting online with N, and at first wasn’t sure whether she was referring to the poem I’d just sent her or my love life.

The poem definitely needed more (I tend to hold back), but I knew she was conferencing with undergraduates in Albuquerque, and therefore unlikely to be reading rough drafts–so guessed the latter.

I would like to take a moment here, if I may, for a public thanks to N: my trusty gchat, poetry and online dating wingwoman, who, despite being in a serious relationship, keeps up an OkCupid login so that she may help me scout prospects.

“The internet dates, you mean?”

“Yes!”

“Do it until I can do it no more??”

“Yes!”

This is a thing that I have done, sometimes do. And, currently (this is where if I knew how I’d include the anxious-face emoji my friends tease me for overuse of in texting) am doing.

(“Wait, which one are we talking about again?” That night I drove home from a concert in St. Paul with my roomie, H–a date that, obviously, beat the rest of em hands down. “There are too many for me to keep track.”)

As anyone who has ever dated online knows, discomforts, frustrations and bizarre moments accumulate quick: you assemble a carefully curated outfit, only to walk into the bar and realize your date is wearing a t-shirt he appears to have bought at a Mexican arcade; you discover that you not only know your date’s ex-girlfriend, but have been told that you look similar (you learn things: people have types!); you go to a block party and feel that you’ve stumbled into a parade of Tinder profiles; you, suddenly, have a Tinder profile.

It is trying work.

And due to the conniving algorithms of certain, profit-driven parties, the more you participate in these online antics, the more attention you tend to receive. And while much of it is easy to dismiss (the men who can’t spell, those posed beside dead deer or Barbie-esque ex-girlfriends), not all of it, thankfully, is: as one recent date observed, in a smaller city where there aren’t that many “people like us,” “people like us” have an easier time finding each other–even on the internet.

And to the man who sent me a message suggesting that I am “too cute” to need an internet profile, I graciously inform you that the last time a girlfriend and I went to a bar with vague intentions of meeting dudes, the only member of your species to approach us was an 80-year old fellow named Vern. (For the record, I danced with him, it was lovely and, I could tell, he once was a looker.)

Seriously, though: there have been long stretches when I have felt that I didn’t need to date online, that I was meeting enough people in person, or that I just wasn’t up for the work. Porch and bike season is upon is, which hopefully means such a stretch will soon resume.

And/or: it is probably a matter of minutes before, as N put it, I max out.

I’ve gotten better at “changing the narrative” around the whole enterprise. I no longer feel a crush of disappointment each time I discover that a first date has zero sex appeal/is not my husband. I try not to talk about dates with friends until there’s something substantive to ask or say. I fib that I’m not feeling well if I don’t have it in me to stick around for a second drink, and if it’s rough getting through even one, I remind myself of the old, writerly adage: it’s all material.

But it is, also, exhausting.

“Why are you so tired?”

At a St. Patrick’s dinner this week with friends, I could barely keep myself awake for a second helping of corned beef and cabbage. (Don’t worry, I pushed through.)

“I haven’t been sleeping well,” I said.

My friend R leaned over to insert her own explanation: She’s been dating a lot. 

It isn’t just dating: as one of my friends with the initial K recently pointed out, when one is busy, one tends to take on even more obligations. I’ve found myself under a heap of imminent deadlines and commitments at the same time that I’ve (inadvertently) launched this sudden burst of meeting men. If I try to sustain it, it won’t be long before you’ll find me hiding underneath that rock that Macalester students are always painting and re-painting on campus. Or, you know, being cranky and anti-social.

But limits and exhaustion and pileup of painful moments aside, here is what I want to tell you, friends: it hasn’t been that bad. I’ve met more men that I’d consider seeing again than men who I wouldn’t.

And whether or not any of em stick, it’s refreshing (and, actually, really important) to remember that there are interesting people around. That I may know more about what I want at 31 than I did at 25, but that I still feel open and unclear in a way that will likely never change. That I’m capable of giving and getting something a little bit like love, even if only for a few awkward hours.