On Patience, and Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

My muscles stiffed.

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

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

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

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

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

It isn’t pretty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

And in others, of course, I despair.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

What My Gut Does and Doesn’t Know

“I’m just going with my gut!”

Either I am surrounded by yes-men, or everyone to whom I have casually explained my haphazard approach to revision honestly thought this was as sound an idea as me.

“What’s your strategy?” They’d ask, all earnest, having heard that my project for the summer is work on a book manuscript.

I’d mumble something incoherent about the necessity of starting over completely, make ample use of the words “craft” and “process,” and then state, with an attempted air of what my stockbroker brother likes to call Supreme Confidence, “You know, I just think it makes sense to go with my gut.

Right,” they’d say, narrowing their eyes and nodding vigorously. “That totally makes sense.”

I’m beginning to have doubts.

Said doubt was sparked, yesterday, by a conversation that had nothing to do with writing. It had to do, instead, with my love life: you know, that thing I’m trying to neglect for the sake of writing about how desperately I want one.

I’m not doing all so well. Yesterday, on one of our regular walks around Prospect Park, I told my brother about my latest interest.

“It’s just that, you know, it’s really rare for me to meet someone I even like.”

He didn’t miss a beat: “No it’s not.”

“What are you talking about?” I snapped back, incredulous. “I, like, never meet guys I’m that into.”

“I could name seven guys from the past two years,” he said, trying his best not to laugh.

I paused. “Maybe! But it didn’t work out with any of them!”

Finally, he cracked up. “That isn’t the point!”

Mildly enraged, I turned my head down to watch my Birkenstocks pound the pavement and ponder that, fuck, my brother was right.

It seemed impossible: my gut feeling, whenever I get smote, is to convince myself of how precious the connection is, how extraordinary and rare, how practically impossible to find.

But, as my brother pointed out, that conviction is, to be straight-forward about things, false: hard won through a tangle of amplified longings, projected emotions and adolescent patterns.

Which, twenty-four hours later, as I pieced together an outline of the manuscript I’ve spent the last few weeks taking painstaking effort to completely rewrite–fistfuls of problems becoming quickly apparent–seemed totally, abundantly clear.

Just as I delude myself about whoever it is I’m dating, I’m also pretty good, turns out, at convincing myself that whatever approach to writing feels right is the best way to go.

With artistic pursuits, that kind of BS is expected: for all I’ve been indoctrinated the past three years about how creative success is more about hard work and discipline and those ten thousand hours, no one can dispute that artists’ work is shrouded in some degree of mystique, an ingredient that can’t be shaped or named. But my instinct, I’m realizing, isn’t so much a matter of sacred creative instinct: it’s about what’s familiar.

The problem, unfortunately, is that what’s familiar isn’t, often, the best idea.

I haven’t, actually, written a book before: perhaps it’s necessary to train-wreck your way through the gambit at least once. Perhaps it’s a learning experience. You know, like getting disappointed by flakey-but-creative men very many times.

But a lot of people have advised me on the process. A lot of people suggested I write an outline: one of my dearest professors in grad school spoke frequently about getting your writing “off the page”–making charts and summaries and lists. Over a year ago, a dear and very accomplished writer lectured me, repeatedly, on the value of making maps.

Organization, though, does not come naturally to me. I make lists and lose them. I buy folders and then collect papers in distinctly uncomposed piles. Still, I didn’t think of my approach as a negative decision, to avoid the tools offered: I thought of it–”it” being rewriting a 300 page manuscript without any clue how the thing should be shaped–
as doing what felt right.

Which might be how an alcoholic feels about an occasional pint, or a sex addict about getting laid a lot of times.

My tendencies–disorganization and dating habits–aren’t quite so toxic. But the same principle applies. Sure, maybe I need to make mistakes for myself, learn the hard way. But at a certain point, too, I have to remember that there are often better alternatives: ones my gut can’t necessarily see.

(Not) Fucked In Park Slope

This morning, fighting my way through a crowd of dogs, toddlers and overpriced cherries at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers Market, I turned to my new guy (gay) friend G and said: “I’m not sure I can leave my house in this neighborhood on the weekends.”

He looked back me sympathetically. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s intense.”

And then, after we’d parted ways few blocks later–swamped in a similar mob on 7th Avenue–I thought to myself: “Maybe I should rename my blog ‘Single in Park Slope’!”

And then: “No, cause if I have ‘single’ in the title, people might expect me to write about ‘single’ things like meeting men and going on dates.”

Next: “Well, there is ‘dating’ in the title now, and there ain’t much of that going on…”

And then I stopped thinking critically and resumed my reflexive, irrational hatred toward the variously faded canvas grocery bags obstructing my path.

So, Park Slope. You’ve likely heard the stereotype: streets saturated with straight young families, grouchy lesbians and eccentric co-op members. The place is such an infamous punchline, one hesitates to go anywhere near the same tired tropes. (Besides: there are others, with bigger audiences, who do it better.)

But then, one moves here. And realizes one cannot sit by one’s window between the hours of two and four lest one become deaf from all the labored cries of “Come to mommy!“; regularly finds oneself the only human not breast-feeding in one’s favorite coffee shop; checking not to see whether an attractive man has a wedding ring–he does–but whether his wife is as good-looking as him because if no, maybe they’ll divorce sooner than later. (Not that one is petty or jealous or, you know, cares.)

And: one realizes, sometimes, the reality is worse than the cliche.

Last week, my friend A–also single, and living in Manhattan–came to join me for a writing/work date at my local spot. We’d been there no more than ten minutes when an extremely attractive guy walked in: tall, dark and handsome–tousled brown hair, light eyes, worn black t-shirt and jeans. Heads turned.

“Hey!” The cute blonde barista cried out as the customer slid off his sunglasses and approached the counter, oozing appeal. “Congratulations! How’s the new baby doing?”

A and I locked eyes. “I can never come back here again,” she sighed, burying her head in her hands.

It can be, to put it mildly, a little much.

But there are plusses to my current living situation: I’m right next to Prospect Park. About eight blocks between two of my brothers and their families. Fifteen minutes from my parents. And, you know, the whole living rent-free (temporarily, don’t kill me) thing in an area that, if a bit frustrating in certain ways, is also extremely beautiful–with tree-lined streets, gorgeous brick brownstones, and extensive, international take-out options. I got it pretty friggin’ good: to complain, in my situation, would not be very cute.

But hey, who’s trying to look cute these days? (A lot of people around here–let me tell you. The other day I saw a group of moms in a circle in the park, doing synchronized squats beside their strollers and push-ups on picnic tables, and wondered sincerely whether they had been planted there for the sole purpose of making me vomit in my mouth.)

Anyhow. I’m not complaining. I feel like I’m giving Michelle Williams a serious run for her money in the Most Charmed Girl in Kings County department. (I say that only, by the way, because she’s dating Jason Segal–word on the Brownstone Brooklyn street is that she’s not very nice.)

Besides, I’m not even trying to date right now. What do I care if all the hot guys are taken? And kids? I don’t have anything against them. Sometimes they pet my dog and say unexpectedly comic things. And that’s cute. Someday, probably, I’ll want a couple of my own.

Just not, unfortunately, any time soon. Though, as the local mothers will tell you, it’s never too early to start scheming them into P.S. 321!

Okay. I may have to move.

On Letting Your Silly Out

So as you may have gathered from my last post, I have a potential, possible, very new, fresh, fragile, name-your-qualifier non-committed-but-obviously-I’m-excited-and-therefore-terrified Thing going on. (Or maybe you didn’t gather; as one friend curtly commented to me in response to that post: “Very vague.”)

I’m keeping it that way. But, baby steps, there is one (more) thing I want to share.

This: on New Years Eve, he and I took the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan wearing matching sunglasses. Why’d we do that? No good reason. Cause we wanted to, and, mostly, cause it made us laugh.

A couple days later, I took an afternoon walk with my brother J and sister-in-law D around Prospect Park. “We wrote a song this morning!” they announced, going onto sing, on 15th Street, in two-person round, made-up lyrics about vegetables (“Winter cabbage, winter cabbage…Only in the winter! Only in the winter!”), to the tune of Frere Jacques.

Before I could even register–much less vocalize–shock at my normally sober-faced brother’s suddenly brazen childish side (did I mention he’s in he’s late thirties?) they burst into another original tune: “This one’s about how Kanye West stole our dreams,” D proclaimed. “We’re going to send it to him!”

By that point, I’d resolved to restrain myself from making one of the roughly eighteen snarky comments that had sprung instantly to mind. After all, I’d just had occasion to sympathize: to remember that, sometimes, the best part of being with someone is letting–in full, childlike force–your silly out.

I know: you’ve patiently read along as I’ve preached, in post after post, that the more I date, the less I know about what I require in a partner; the more people I’m with, I’ve taken to crowing, the more I realize there are all sorts of ways to find happiness with someone: type, shmype.

I’m still standing on that soapbox. Mostly. Maybe I’m slumping a little bit, though (sorry, awkward metaphor) with the realization of how awesome–and, perhaps, essential–is is to be with a guy who brings out my inner goofball.

You see, I have one: an inner goof. But she doesn’t come out all that much. Sure, I joke around; I make variously successful efforts to pepper my conversations with intelligent wit. But it’s not often that I spend an afternoon giggling until my stomach hurts. Or dance around a living room to James Brown before breakfast. Or, you know, wear sunglasses on the subway.

“Why is it so important to be silly with someone?” I asked my best friend friend R over afternoon beers. (In case you missed it, winter break = lots of afternoon drinking. God bless grad school.)

“So funny you bring that up,” she replied, going on to tell me how her serious, live-in boyfriend had recently addressed that very thing: telling how much he valued how he could be more silly and playful with her than just about anyone else in his life.

“But why?” I asked again.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I guess we all need to lighten up?”

I think there’s truth in that: there’s a lot of serious shit in the world. And even, in a relationship: we have frequent occasion to be contemplative and thoughtful. We don’t always remember to acknowledge, outside of The Daily Show and Seth Rogen comedies, the necessity of cracking up.

The next day, over a pie of DiFara’s pizza (truly–in case you were waiting for me to weigh in–the best in New York), I asked her boyfriend what he thought. And his answer resonated even more: as he put it, when you can be silly with someone, it shows how comfortable you are with them. How much you can let your guard down. How little you care if they see you look ridiculous. In a way: how much you can be yourself.

I like that. There’s an essential vulnerability in being silly: just the act of laughing (and, especially, giggling), signals a loss of control–your body pulses, your muscles contract, you can’t stop or manage the movements. And there’s something really special about being able to do that, being able (and happy!) to relinquish the control we all cling to–in our lives, with others–in the company of the person with whom we’re intimate.

Did I just squeeze every ounce of funny out of the subject matter of humor? Yep, pretty sure I did. I guess that’s my cue.

And: scene. Happy silliness.

 

The End of the Twenties: An Ode

During one of the multiple family dinners out that I demanded during my extended visit home for Thanksgiving, one of my sisters-in-law, D, made an enthusiastic announcement: that, soon, she is going to turn thirty.

I’m not being smug with the word “enthusiastic.” It’s an accurate description of her tone: she said it with excitement, enthusiasm, eagerness. (Alll sorts of positive adjectives that begin with the letter E!)

This surprised some of those seated around the (awkwardly oversized) table where we were busy devouring mediocre plates of Italian food at a new place in Park Slope–my parents and two present brothers.

“Really?” They marveled. “You sound so unfazed!”

The two younger women, though–my other sister-in-law, F, and me–both nodded in (eager) agreement as D, gesturing wildly above her spinach-covered pizza, explained herself.

“I’m so done with my twenties!” she crowed. “They have been awful!”

F, now forty, is actually the only person to ever warn me about this–years ago, taking a jog around Prospect Park: “No one ever tells you,” she said, “but your twenties are actually really hard. You don’t know what you’re doing with your life, everything is complicated, ugh, it’s terrible. My thirties have been much better.”

This seems contrary to just about all of cultural lore. Growing up, the only thing I thought sexier than the teenagers on Beverly Hills 90210 were the twentysomethings on The Real World: being in your twenties seemed to be about being beautiful and glamorous, working minimally and drinking maximally, walking around big cities with a fashionable haircut, leather boots and the distinct stride of a person who is absolutely satisfied.

Now that I’m on the far, northern side of those years, I know just how much the reality differs from that fabulous image. Being in your twenties means figuring yourself out. Endlessly. Working a lot of the time. Getting increasingly bad hangovers. Still struggling on a daily basis to look presentable. Not knowing anything about your future, and realizing that as years pass you know even less.

Sure: I feel more confident, and certainly more certain about my passions than I did in college. But that’s pretty much where it ends.

After dinner that night, I snuggled with my seven year old niece as she fell asleep. (Sorry, this is too adorable for me to keep to myself: my niece requires two adults to put her to sleep, one to read stories and then one to spoon with her as she sucks the thumb of her left hand and reaches around with her right to tug on your earlobe. Not kidding.)

So yeah, that alone could have made me cry. But what really sparked it, I think, basically, was that I’m in my twenties.

Someone who I’ve talked to in recent days, I can’t remember who (it could have been my mother, but it also could have been the cute guy from Oklahoma I sat next to on the plane yesterday–you know me, I’m an equal opportunity sharer), tried to convince me that this point in my life is really so exciting! “There’s so much possibility!” Mom/plane guy assured.

I get that. I get that I’m still young, that I’m extremely privileged in many ways, that I’m lucky to have at least one project demanding a serious amount of focus and mental space. (You know, that book thing I said I wouldn’t talk about.) But I am also just exhausted from so many years of being uncertain about so much. That elusive troika: where I’m gonna be, what I’m gonna be doing (books don’t pay the gas bill, much less rent), and who I’m gonna be with.

Spooning with my niece in her bedroom the other night, I glanced around her room and marveled at the gorgeous stillness of her life: wooden horses, porcelain cats, stuffed pandas; peaceful cuddling with the nearest available earlobe. I don’t wish that I was still seven: free will is kind of nice. But I do long for a time when I will stop feeling so angsty, so searchy, so preoccupied with what’s next. For a time when I’ll find it easier to just sit still.

I doubt turning thirty will make all that, magically, stop. But might as well keep hope alive: I’ve got two years left, and I kind of like the idea that I won’t be terribly sad when they’re done.