On Groups, Needs, Elena Ferrante and Balance

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

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

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

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

“Right,” I said. “I know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On 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.

On Dwelling

“Just, dwell in it.”

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

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

I keep returning to those words.

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

“Use the pain,” she advised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Panic vs. Control, Minivans, Wise Women and REM

One thing that’s problematic about being a woman who wants children and is thirty and single is that (it can sometimes seem as though) the most vivid thing on the horizon is being a woman who wants children and is thirty-one and single.

My birthday, as many of you know, isn’t until September. But I did have a moment. One of those early-waking, half-conscious moments, a few weeks ago, when it randomly, jarringly occurred to me that I will turn thirty-one, and that I will turn thirty-one in less than half of a year, and that I am now, pretty much irreversibly, in my thirties.

It is impossible to write (or, I presume, read) this without a fistful of tired cultural references springing to mind. For me (in addition to every Sex and the City episode ever) it’s that scene from When Harry Met Sally: the one when Meg Ryan’s Sally finds out her ex is getting married and calls up Billy Crystal’s Harry in a hysterical, breathless panic over the fact that she will, someday, turn forty.

In other words, I feel, culturally, as though I should be panicked about this. Or at least, preparing to panic, thinking about panicking, somehow, loosely or narrowly contemplating the idea of panic.

I’m not.

I would tell you that I’m not trying to gloat about this, but it wouldn’t, completely, be true. When you manage, even for a few moments, to avoid a trap that seems set by an entire hemisphere of culture, I think you’re entitled to a little boasting. So there.

I could also offer you a varied list of reasons, some more sincere than others, to explain why I am not panicking. But they are irrelevant.

Except for one: it isn’t useful.

“There are a lot of things that people want in life.”

I was having lunch with my friend K, one of the beloved Wise Older Women I have been feeling, lately, so thankful to know, at a new cafe by the Macalester campus. Between bites of couscous and chicken salad I tossed out fond, nostalgic glances toward the flannels-and-glasses-wearing-boys and girls in cardigans and layered bangs. (I know you!)

K went on: “But not all of them are things we can control.”

(You see why I am so thankful for women like her.)

I began, immediately to make lists. Mostly, because they are less bewildering and anxiety-inducing, of the things that are within my power. A sampling:

The length of my hair (At this time: long!).
My commitment to writing. (Present.)
The ferocity with which I cling to the Beautiful Wise Women in my life. (Extreme.)
Where I want to live. (Freedom is daunting!)
How often I do yoga. (As much as possible.)

You get the idea.

These aims, K reminded me, these are the ones that I, that all of us, need to cling to.

It’s hard, of course, not to let the other kind of goals fill up a lot of mental and emotional space: achieving a certain level of recognition, for example, or finding a particular version of family. Desires that are valid, desires that run deep. But not desires that we can reasonably expect to fulfill.

“You have to think of those things as gifts,” K said. “That may or may not come.”

Driving home (in, ps, the minivan I am buying from her — because, why yes, at a moment in which I could not be less close to the suburban ideal of motherhood and children, I am buying the ultimate symbol of such things: a minivan. discuss.), I turned on the radio just as REM’s cover of I Am Superman came on; and, as traffic began to slow by that wretched 11th Street/Lyndale exit into uptown. I began to feel that tide of anxiety that surges every time I wind up in highway traffic. And I thought of K’s advice: to focus on the things I can control.

And I thought of the fact that rush hour traffic is distinctly not among those things, while listening to loud music in a minivan, now, is.

And instead of anxious, or panicked, I felt, suddenly, flush with gratitude: for the oversized (perfect for moving!) vehicle soon to be mine, for K and the other smart and generous women I am making it my life’s work to collect, for the handful of goals (hair! books!) I felt newly motivated to pursue.

And, as always, most importantly, for Michael Stipe.

On Men and Women and Words; Storytelling, Journaling, and Re-Entering Singledom

“Sorry, I’ve used up all my words for the day.”

It was edging on one in the morning, and a couple of women in my teaching group and I were in bunk beds, holding a fiery debate over categories of creative nonfiction. (“It’s the difference between Eula Biss and Jo Ann Beard.” “I just feel really defiant about genre labels right now.”) No matter that they had to get up in not that many hours to teach. And, at the sight of the lone male colleague with us for the weekend, getting ready for bed, we invited him in. To talk.

“No thanks,” he said, holding up his palm — no more words.

Bless him, he’d held his own for the four hours prior, as the group of us sat on stools in the downstairs kitchen with pretzels and hummus and beer and wine, talking about teaching and writing and attitudes on communal living. But by this point, he had little interest in matching the extreme level of chattiness the rest of us couldn’t resist keeping up.

I try to avoid generalizations, and I know there are men out there who really love to talk and plenty of women who really don’t. But, in my experience, the reverse tends to be true: that men are more often the ones who run out of words.

It isn’t only, or necessarily, that women talk more. It’s that, often, we are fundamentally more interested in sharing. Reporting. Telling tales about our days. Our ideas. Our families. Our relationships. You know. The mundane shit of our lives.

*

“The problem is that it’s really easy for me to be single.”

I was sitting with a friend who also recently left a relationship. And he was telling me why it isn’t difficult for him to end up alone for long stretches of time.

I agreed. (Sidenote: I worry the whole dating blog thing gives me a rep as someone who’s always in, or always wants to be in, a relationship. Untrue.) I like spending time alone. I like being independent and having control over my travel and my time. I like meeting new people as a single person, not having to worry about developing relationships in couple form.

But here’s the part about being coupled that I miss: the part at the end of the day, when there is someone to hold you in their arms and say, “Tell me everything.”

I still don’t have a solid list of qualities I require in a partner. But if I did, Good Listener would be at the top. And I’ve been lucky to find men who have been. Who have indulged my desire to lie down and share all: about the phone conversation I had with my brother or the walk I took with a friend, the yoga teacher whose style I loved or the interview with a nurse who made me cry or the bearded guy at the grocery store who gave everyone the creeps.

All that banal stuff that, I suspect, men don’t always feel as inclined to share. And, perhaps, a lot of women don’t either. Maybe it’s the Writer Brain combined with the Female Brain combined with the Journalist Background, or maybe it’s just my DNA: I’ve always, automatically chronicled the moments of my day. It’s a running narrative in my head, and one that I’ve never been particularly interested in recording as a journal, or for myself. Instead, it’s always one I want to share. Either as art, or as conversation with those I love.

And now that I am re-entering the single life, I am looking for new ways to satisfy that need.

The blog, obviously, helps. (Thanks, team!) And time on the phone with girlfriends. And, lately, writing hopelessly lame poems about rainbows over Minnesota lakes and pairs of brightly colored underwear.

I’ve even begun to open up the occasional  Word document and write out my “reports” in the form of a letter — to a partner who doesn’t exist. I’m thinking of it as a transition to the genre of journaling, toward which I have long had a mysteriously epic aversion.

And I’m thinking of it, too, as another way I can practice self-care. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with wanting to share thoughts and stories with others, but there has got to be something worthwhile, too, in holding, even crafting that stuff just for myself.

 

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.

 

 

On Other Dimensions, Old Friends, Greta and Me

My two oldest friends looked at each other from across the wooden table.

They turned to look at me.

I looked at the restaurant floor. Shrugged. Finally, stammered: “Can you ask more specific questions?”

The three of us were eating dinner at a spacious Greek restaurant on University, sharing plates of hummus and cucumber salad and celebrating their upcoming birthdays and my recent return from Minnesota, where, I had told them, but just barely, that I had met someone, and that, despite my initial certainty that they wouldn’t, things had gotten serious–serious enough for me to be considering, again, a cross-country move.

They wanted to know more.

A moment earlier, I had tried to dodge their inquiry.

“I kind of don’t feel like talking about it,” I said–the comment that had prompted their stunned stares, and all our collective bafflement.

“Never in your life have you not wanted to talk about a boy,” S said. “What’s going on?”

I wasn’t sure. Cooperative, they asked particular questions (“Um, what’s he like?”); apologetic, I did my best.

By the end of the meal, of course, I was eagerly slipping anecdotes into conversation: the time he sweetly over-hyped my love of bacon, how gamely he had come along for brunch with my ex.

And after dinner and gelato and dispatching R to the subway at West 4th, S and I hugged goodbye in Union Square Park.

“Do you think it’s a good or bad thing?” I asked. “That I don’t want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But it’s definitely different.”

The best rationale I could summon was that I feel, rather terminally, like the “girl who cried boy”: so many times have I come to friends bearing certain, over-exuberant, and, often, fast-fleeting affections–how could I expect them to trust me now?

*

There’s a scene in the new movie Frances Ha where Greta Gerwig‘s character, drunk and disoriented at a dinner party far more adult than she feels, delivers a monologue on what she’s looking for in life, or love, she isn’t sure, but, you know: it’s that moment, she says, when you and your partner are out at a party and both of you are engaging with other people and all of a sudden you catch one another’s eye and exchange a knowing glance–not driven by jealousy, or lust, but the simple knowledge that you are there together, and that between you there is a fierce but invisible bond; a “secret world,” she calls it, like one of those dimensions we know exist but can’t percieve.

I share this for a couple of reasons. First, as a vehicle to announce that I am undergoing a period of Greta Gerwig Envy presently exhibiting as a delusion that she and I are essentially the same. Discuss.

And, less narcissistically, second, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the utter, impenetrable mystery of what goes on between two people.

*

I have focused much of the past year on investigating a woman who died before I was born. I have searched for her in interviews and letters and transcripts and diaries, but the interviews have been what I’ve liked best. Some have led to new friendships; one in particular, this woman’s closest friend, I’ve grown, even, to love.

We’d known each other before. But in this process we’ve grown closer. A few months ago we sat together on her couch in the Ocean Beach section of San Diego drinking red wine and fumbling to operate an ill-designed slideviewer, and I felt a sudden awareness of the  lively, happy energy between us, the product of shared moments and space. It occurred to me that was something I’d never experience with the woman whose photographs we spent that weekend digging up. But in the moment, I didn’t feel that particular loss so much as a celebratory delight in what else I’d found: a new appreciation for the specialness of human connection.

*

What grows in the space between two people does seem another dimension: a force field of sidelong looks and kinds of touch and accumulated scraps of shared things. And it is impossible to explain. Even to understand it as a participant is challenging–but to express that field, that energy, all that stuff to another person?

I don’t know how.

And as I try to fathom my resistance to describing this new intimacy I’ve found, this lovely, dynamic,  growing thing, I wonder if the answer is as simple as that.

Airplanes And Place And Falling In and Out of Love

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

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

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

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

1) For Being Repetitive.

2) For Repeating Myself Whilst Apologizing for Being Repetitive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NYC vs. NYM: A Comparative Glance

If I told you that there was a town in rural, Northwest Minnesota called New York Mills with a population of about 1,200, one liquor store (also a bar), one grocery (open til 8, 6 on weekends) and one diner (closes at 3), I suspect you’d assume that place to share nothing–besides half a name–with New York City.

You would be almost right.

Indeed, after two thirds a lifetime in New York City and five weeks in my new, second home of New York Mills (don’t worry, I’ve, for now, returned), I can attest to significant cultural differences–as well as some unexpected parallels.

Many of the general gaps are obvious–diversity, population, incidence of subways and snow-ploughs. And it is with great affection that I offer a few more specifics:

  1. Minnesota Nice. NYC-ers may or may not be familiar with this phrase: a catch-all for the manner most Minnesotans, especially rural ones, assume–particularly with one another, and, after staring at you as though you have dyed red hair, which you may or may not have, or as though they’ve never seen you before, which they probably haven’t, you as well. This often manifests as a folksy comment distributed while waddling out of a booth at Eagles Cafe, post Rib Special: “Oh ya, don’t study too hard!” (Arm pump). Or, say, if it’s May and blizzard-ing for the third time that week, “Hey, snow enough for ya?”
  2. Purpose of Exercise. After my first NYM Zumba class–taught in the “Facility Room” of the local Elementary School and focused on the study of choreography and town gossip, rather than the object of sweating, I explained to my dancemates how Zumba, and exercise classes in general, tend to be different in NYC: “You see,” I explained. “Unlike here, in New York you have to be skinny.” They nodded, a mix of interest and horror. ”Like, if you can breathe between songs, people get pissed.” We happily shimmied on. A few weeks (and, I must admit, several accumulated pounds of Donut Weight) later I went to another NYM class, this one in the lobby of a Lutheran Church: we did neck rolls and side planks to the faint sounds of piano music; between sets, an assortment of eighty-somethings discussed nominees for Church President. En route to the pews for some leisurely tricep dips, I overheard the instructor: “Geez, I think I’m sweatin,” she said. “I guess that’s a good thing.”
  3. Thoughts on Procreation. Growing up in NYC, I’m not sure I realized that women under thirty-five were biologically capable of bearing children. Still, it was a bit startling to discover that most femaled my age in New York Mills had already birthed at least three. In NYC, the family-size question one most often overhears is whether to have a second baby; in NYM, it’s whether to have a fourth. (The answer, it seems, is most often yes.)
  4. Types of Dudes who Drink PBR. In NYC, we tend to associate the iconic beer can with a certain breed of underfed hipster who rides a fixed gear and rarely bathes. In NYM, it’s more popular among beer-bellied, football-watching Dads who drive oversized trucks and consume a lot of processed meat. Sometimes I like to imagine the two groups convened; patronizing, alternately, a Lions Club meeting in Mills and warehouse band practice in Bushwick.
  5. People Who Speak Finnish. Probably, there’s some remote pocket of Queens with a population larger than all of NYM and its’ surrounding Otter Tail County. Honestly, I could never quite sort out what distinguishes Finns from  similarly blond and hard-drinking Midwestern types of Other Scandinavian descent; then again, perhaps they would feel similarly pressed to sort out the Jews from the Italians from the Otherwise Swarthy in Park Slope.

Of course, that’s just scratching the surface. And while the differences may be vast, in my estimation Mills and NYC do share more than a couple of common traits; okay, three:

  1. Central Park. NYM’s is about the size of a standard East Village studio, which, considering the spatial surroundings is not without irony–but hey: it’s not a competition.
  2. Greenwood Cemetary. Both got em–kid you not.
  3. A Concentration of Dark-Haired, Under Forty Women Jewish Writers Who Wear Glasses and Write Memoir. Yes, during the five weeks that I was the Visiting Artist at the New York Mills Cutural Center, there were–to my great surprise–two of us. Among my many unexpected discoveries upon arriving in NYM was a voicemail from The Other, a talented singer songwriter named Elisa Korenne who, during her own Cultural Center residency several years ago, got set up (by the same woman who, I must tell you, also had someone for me–stay tuned) with the man who is now her husband. She is currently writing a (beautiful) memoir about the NYC-NYM transition, about which I am mostly thrilled, and minorly disappointed that she got to it first. Okay fine, NYC may lay claim to a few million more of our kind–but again, folks, we’re dealing with Minnesotans: learn from them for one fucking second and Be Nice.

Somebody, Please, Find Me a Home

Here are some sentences, in no particular order, that have come out of my mouth during the past, oh, two weeks:

  • “I’m pretty definitely moving back to DC.”
  • “St. Louis is really great and has a lot of stoops. I think I should move there.”
  • “Probably, I should just go back to Minneapolis. Will you guys have an extra room when you buy that house?”

And some things people have said to me:

  • “Actually, I’ve always pictured you in Philly.”
  • “Come on. You’re totally gonna end up in New York.”
  • “You know, everyone’s moving to Portland.”
  • “Didn’t you hate DC?”

Welcome to the late 20s: when absolutely nothing is certain, beginning with the time zone in which you’re supposed to live.

As of less than nine months from now (short of extending my MFA, which I reserve the right to do thankyouverymuch) I have no idea how I’m going to make a living. And, at almost-twenty-eight, about as many candidates for My Husband as I did when I was eighteen (you know, roughly half of none).

But for some reason, the fact that I still don’t know where I want to be seems like the most daunting decision that looms. Perhaps if I knew anything about those other two Big Things–what I want to do and who I want to be with–it would be less so. But, oh yeah, I don’t.

And of all the things in the world to be outraged about–nuclear weapons, the cost of a tooth cleaning, wheelie sneakers–this is what outrages me most: that so many people I love are spread out in so many godforsaken places.

I really, really, really appreciate having lived in three states plus a federal district in my life thus far. Each of those places–New York, St. Paul, DC and Albuquerque–feels so essential to my worldview. And I imagine, I hope, that each of them will always be a part of my life.

And were I so lucky that the friends I’ve made in those places had the courtesy to stay there. But of course, like me, they didn’t. Like me, they’ve felt the need to explore and make homes for themselves elsewhere. Leaving me with dear ones spread out in the above cities as well as everywhere from Seattle to Los Angeles to St. Louis to Chicago.

And, accordingly, completely confused.

I’ve been saying for a while that I’m done with going someplace completely new: it is exhausting, not to mention extremely time consuming, to put down roots and find community in a place. I’m just over it: I feel ready to be settled, and unwilling to start that process from scratch.

But as my friend E–who only has nine years on me but, rather absurdly, literally tens more states under her belt–put it when we talked about this last week, it’s hard to go back.

I know exactly what she means: my resistance to going back to New York is so bound up in the deep associations I have from growing up there. (Also, in the fact that the B train is perpetually out of service and it’s impossible to get concert tickets before they sell out.)

And my resistance to Minnesota and DC is, partially, that they seem so essentially connected to the periods of my life when I was there.

Not because those periods were toxic, or even bad. But because we tend to think of ourselves, especially at this stage of life, as on some sort of ascending path: to maturity, to being more settled, to finding our true occupation, our true passion, our true happiness.

And it’s hard not to fathom returning to a place you’ve already been without imagining that you will somehow slide backwards on that proverbial path: that you will revert to an older, lesser version of yourself–rather than continue growing into some future, more realized, thinner and prettier version.

I realize that whole, better future self thing is mostly false, and at the very least an idealization: I know that whenever I picture myself in the future, I am always about two inches taller and have much smoother hair–modifications I have still yet to achieve.

But there’s a lot to be said for the mindset with which you approach a place, and whether or not that mindset is logical, it’s bound to have an impact.Which means I might have as much reason to go back someplace as I’ve got to start someplace new.

And, thankfully, a lot can happen in nine months. Perhaps in March all my friends will band together and start a peach farm in New Jersey. Perhaps I’ll meet my future husband in January and he’ll tell me all about his inherited estate in Virginia. Stranger things have happened.

And, honestly, let’s hope something happens. Because right now, I haven’t got a clue.