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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Slipping Up, Serials, and Self-care

“But you don’t want anything serious either, right?”

It was the early stages of one of a couple episodes this summer (in the blurred-genre serial that is my peripatetic life) in which I attempted to engage with a man on terms, either explicit or implicit, best characterized as casual. These episodes were mostly comic, but not without small tragic turns; needless to say, they did not progress beyond brief.

The speaker was a good friend. But–clearly-one who hasn’t known me very long.

I looked at this friend as if she’d presumed I hate barbecued pork chops, or joy.

“Are you joking?” I said. “I always want something serious.”

She frowned. “But aren’t you, like, not sure where you’ll be living in a few months?”

I shrugged.

“And, like, trying to focus on three different books?”

I shrugged again.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a thing.”

I wish it were not a thing. I wish it were not a thing in the same way I wish the idea of being settled in a routine and zip code with a partner and dog doesn’t fill me with panic in the way that it does. I wish it were not a thing in the same way I wish, sometimes, that I was more inclined to work more and play less and on occasion resist the urge to spill the details of my dating life with every passing gym buddy or charming barista.

I wish, in other words, (and as we all, at times, do) that I was someone different than I am.

We lie to ourselves all the time.

In relationships, on our own. We spin stories that suit a whole web of longings and comforts that shift as we do. I think we’re more aware of this as we age, and perhaps better at bridging gaps between who we’d like to be and how we envision ourselves. But I’m not sure that process arcs straight: we gain ground and then lose it, the way we do with most things–relationships, body image, reading and responsible bedtimes.

All to say: I’m trying not to be too harsh with myself for the fact that, despite the look of horror with which I replied to my innocent, well-meaning pal, I managed to convince myself, at certain, likely humid and sun-spotted moments, that I am someone capable of dating casually. That I’m fine with not establishing clear terms. Totally cool with not having a single freaking clue when I’m going to see someone next. Just chill about a spurt of intense intimacy followed with days of radio silence.

Blame it on the moisture; it can make things hazy.

I’d like to tell you I’ve learned my lesson.

I’d like to tell you I’ve taken a solemn vow to only pursue people whose intentions and emotional capacaties are as serious as mine.

I’d also like to tell you that I will meditate for ten minutes every morning forever after reading a difficult Ginsberg poem, and that by the end of 2014 I’ll have completed drafts of all three book projects now in the works.

Instead, what I’ll tell you is this: I’ll try.

I’ll make lists. I’ll cry on the shoulders of gym buddies and baristas and blessed single gal girlfriends who think nothing of meeting me for drinks evenings on end until I feel a little bit more okay about the abrupt end of summer. I’ll try and treat myself to the occasional massage and remember to do yoga. I’ll sit in silence as many mornings as I can. I’ll read Ginsberg and O’Hara and Kasischke and Howe. I’ll work at balancing friends and teaching with getting shit done. I’ll stay on my bike as long as weather permits. I’ll try to be honest with myself about what I need from my mother and men.

Cause we can’t always so easily harness these pesky patterns at odds with our essential natures–no matter how many times we notice (or: reader, forgive me! blog about) them.

But, more easily, we can learn how to nourish ourselves when we slip up.

And slip up, friends, we always will.

 

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

“I think you’re accomplished!”

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

“That’s not it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of these ideas satisfied.

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

I wanted to sulk.

This is not normal.

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

But something about this year feels different.

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

I mean, It’s silly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck birthdays.

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

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

On Age, Sailboats, and (Still) Being Reckless

It wasn’t what I wanted him to say.

We were on a blanket–a sarong, to be precise–and wrapping up what I’d venture to categorize as among the Most Idyllic First Dates in the History of Summer: a bike ride, white wine on a patio, a walk, lying next to Lake of the Isles before sunset and scandalizing some significant section of southern Minneapolis as they jogged/biked/dog-walked past in neon droves. (It’s the Midwest: scandalizing doesn’t take much.)

“This has been extremely pleasant,” he smirked, shifting onto an elbow and holding his head in one hand. “We should definitely do it again.”

I agreed. And then: the bomb drop.

“I need to give a disclaimer,” he announced, clearing his throat and qualifying that it may or may not be the appropriate time.

A small cube of nerves began to gather in that bottom space of my belly. I propped myself up to meet his gaze as he told me, as (considering his age: young, and career/life path: uncertain) I could easily have expected he would, that he didn’t feel ready for anything serious–romantically or otherwise.

It was disappointing to hear. But not what stung.

That would be what came later: after I explained that a part of me did want to keep hanging out with him–due not only to the magic of the evening but, also, to the disarming ease that characterized our interaction from when we began chatting in the coffee shop (“You don’t need Tinder,” one friend recently ribbed. “You have your coffee shop!”); but that another, more sensible part of me feared that would be a bad choice.

“I have a hard time keeping things casual,” I explained. (An admission that, remarkably, did not seem to shock.)

Too, I said, while I’d like to think I’m in a place for carefree fun and that I’ve got all the time in the world, it happens to be a fact that in a little over a month I will turn 31–and that, in fact, I don’t.

“I hate to make decisions based on that, though…” I said. I was grasping my elbows around my knees and looking out to the middle-distant sailboats spotting the lake.

He nodded in sympathy. “But it’s the truth,” he said.

That, friends, is what’s stuck.

Because what I wanted him to say was, “No, it’s not!” or “You’re still so young!” or “Come on, you have lots of time!” (To be fair: sentiments that, a couple of days later, with some slight manipulation, he did express.)

Before that, though, I turned, as I do, to the women of my bi-weekly Boot Camp class.

“Wait, are you turning 31 or 39?” One of the regular moms I chat with and I were side-shuffling the perimeter of the gym during warm-up.

“31!”

“Oh! Please. I didn’t have kids til 35!”

“So you think I still have time to have fun!?”

Of course!”

Bless her — she made it sound so simple.

But I know it’s not.

I no longer inhabit that panicked, Find Me A Husband Scramble that took hold in my late 20s. I’ve realized I’m not capable of committing to someone without the fiery passion I deserve–and that I’ll wait for it as long as I need, whether that’s two months or twenty years.

I also know that I’d like a family–and that the longer I wait to commit, the more biologically difficult that may be.

And while it doesn’t feel healthy or useful (and certainly not fun) to freak out about finding the RIGHT PERSON RIGHT NOW, I’m not sure how I ought to feel about consciously choosing to spend time in something I’m pretty sure isn’t heading where I’d like.

“You never know what can happen,” another gym friend advised. It was Thursday’s class, and we were doing squat-jumps over a step. “Things can change!”

I shook my head. “Yeah,” I said. “But I can’t go into it expecting they will.”

With my (pesky/fortunate) capacity for quick connection, it’s a mind game, and it’s also a catch: I’m not interested in having fun with someone I don’t feel a chemistry with–and if I do, chances are good that it will start to feel like more than only that.

Who knows where, if anywhere, this particular connection will lead; it may fizzle before I get the chance to set myself up for another bout of vulnerability and likely loss.

And if it doesn’t, I’ve decided, that’s okay: when I look back on the previous occasions (there may have been a couple…) when I’ve let a compelling connection enable some reckless decision-making, for all the soreness and hurt that’s generally come later on, there’s not a one I’d give back.

Few things, after all, are more thrilling (more fun!) than rare, romantic chemistry–and for now, at least, those thrills aren’t ones I’m willing to pass up.

More on Mobility, Minivans and Minneapolis Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *

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

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

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

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

But then, who am I kidding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes on Normal, and Special Times

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

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

We laughed, and then resumed ignoring him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

On Being Cold, and the Mythology of Finding The One

“No, that’s too cold.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, yeah,” we say. “We know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Big Birthdays, Reflections, and Extraneous Pillows

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

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

Also, between hysterics, some (inevitable) reflection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We got jaded? Gave up? Sold out?

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

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

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

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

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

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