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.

 

 

 

 

The Single Gal Sprint

You do not need to sprint.

It was Friday of a very hectic week (think two jobs, three subways apart) and I was racing down Lexington Avenue for the umpteenth time, and I may or may not have said the above words aloud—in Manhattan, the noise of so much other peoples’ crazy is sometimes wont to muffle your own.

I had reason to rush: it was already seven, and I was meeting friends downtown for drinks at eight and a dinner date at nine and I still had to stop home and change.

But for a second, I tried to assure myself that my arrival (as it turned out: fifteen minutes late to drinks, ten to dinner) would have little to do with the precise pace of my footing at that moment. (It would, as it often does, have everything to do with a delayed six train. You know, Mistakes Were Made.)

I took a breath. I slowed down. As I did, I caught sight of a hustling pedestrian to my right, typing on his blackberry as he overtook me approaching 86th. It was, I realized, the first time that anyone had passed me all week.

For a second I was surprised, and then I was pissed: how dare anyone go faster than me?

“Just keep your head down, and don’t stop running.”

Whenever I complain to Alison about having too much on my plate, feeling over-stimulated or overwhelmed, this is what she tells me. Sometimes adding, “And try not to cry.”

It’s Manhattan, she says, and all of us—all us single, young-ish, minorly ambitious types—don’t have a choice.

It takes a toll.

This week, one of my close friends fainted at work. Another had to visit the dermatologist because stress was wreaking havoc on her skin. I wore myself out so intensely that by Saturday night I was sick and had to skip out on good a friend’s 30th birthday.

So, why do we do this to ourselves? And, more importantly, do we have to?

Well, a little bit, yes. As every New Yorker knows, each time you step outside a minimum of twenty dollars vanishes from your wallet. In a city where a movie and glass of wine edge on fifteen bucks, working a lot isn’t optional.

And then there are girlfriends to keep up with, readings and dinners and openings to attend: things that fall somewhere between frivolous and obligatory, and tend, as a single person in Manhattan, to feel more urgently like the latter.

When you’re married or in a relationship, any given tiring Tuesday has a default plan: going home to someone you (hopefully) want to relax with.

But when you aren’t, you don’t have that: the alternative to running around and keeping busy is being home, alone. Which is fine and necessary and who doesn’t love an occasional date with Maggie Smith, but it’s a love that can feel hard to indulge when you’re surrounded by the shrill sensation that everyone else has bigger plans.

Plus, maybe your husband is at that reading! Just waiting for you at the grimy bar, drinking cheap scotch and ready to set aside his Ashbery as soon as you step in!

Which is always, of course, a little bit, in the back of your mind.

And even if he’s not, better that you should go and be distracted than at home, waiting for some or other prospect to send or respond to a bloody text.

“Keep busy!” is the only cure, it often seems, for the chronic over-thinking that is our persistent female burden.

(Me: “I just don’t want to be thinking about {guy} so much!” My therapist, poker-faced: “Um, I think it’s totally normal.” Me: “Fuck.”)

So you go to the reading. You listen to important contemporary poets and talk to your friend, which are the better reasons you wanted to go. You go the bar. You say yes when a pair of cute boys invite you out for pancakes. And you sleep as much as you have time, which is barely at all, until, suddenly, you don’t have a choice.

And you try, once in a while, to tell yourself that—even if you want to—you don’t have to run.

When a Woman “Finally” Gets Married

Like any good, compulsive iPhone owner, I sometimes check my email during my morning run. You know, Cee-lo and Kanye and various NPR podcasts can only hold a girl’s attention for so long. Even while jogging. Even while jogging with a highly excitable mutt who has been known to throw said girl on her back via enthusiasm for a passing terrier. But I digress.

The problem is that the place where I run–a trail around the campus golf course–doesn’t have very good network reception. And so when, one morning this week, I looked at my email and saw a message from my father, I could only see two things: one, that the subject was “news alert.” And two, that he’d sent it to me along with all of my immediate family members–brothers, mom, sisters-in-law.

I have a grandmother who is about to turn a hundred. I have a sister-in-law who recently pulled out her back and a niece who has had a chronic fever for the past three weeks. Also, I’m Jewish. In other words, I spent the  next five minutes, until the full content of the message finally downloaded, in a state of panic.

Then, I saw what it said: “We just heard over the weekend,” my dad wrote,”that Ilene and Allen got engaged.”

Then, I felt a little ridiculous. (Actually, I felt a little angry too: immediately upon returning home I typed a ‘reply-all’ asking that everyone refrain from sending emails with such ominous subject lines in future; two of my siblings quickly seconded the request.)

But back to the message. Ilene, you see, is my paternal cousin. She is about to turn fifty. She is a very successful, very well-paid corporate lawyer with a condo on the Upper East Side. This is her first marriage.

The “news” my father sent wasn’t exactly breaking. My mother had, rather breathlessly, delivered the information via phone the night before.

The thing is that no one in my family is particularly close with Ilene. None of us are that close to the entire side of the family, I should say: they’re lovely people, but they’re a bit, well, different. You know, they have bigger hair and bigger belt buckles and the political persuasion that such things often imply. Even when I lived in the same city, I’m sure I went years without seeing her–or, certainly, any of her Florida-residing relatives.

The news, then, was not so significant because of our relationship. It was so significant because of the particulars. Specifically, the fact that, at almost-fifty, no one expected her to tie the knot.

Most notably, Grandma Edith–the one who is a hundred.

“Did you hear about Ilene?” she asked when I called to check in on her this morning. (You’ll have to imagine my vocal impression here: full-on Brooklyn, Yiddish accent applies. “Here” is more like “heah.”)

“Yes,” I said, patiently. “I heard.”

“Could you believe it?” she asked. “It’s about time. She’s no spring chicken, you know.”

I will chalk up the fact that she repeated that last phrase, or some version of it (“she isn’t exactly young“) about half a dozen times throughout our ten-minute conversation to age: I’m of the opinion that, if nothing else, surviving a century earns you the right to say whatever the hell you want.

But what about my parents? As I alluded above, they’re pretty progressive types. If my father had his way New York City would be its’ own country and all Fox news anchors would be lined up and shot. They’re supposed to be liberated, feminist, enlightened.

So why were they so brazenly glib with the news that this “old maid” was finally getting hitched?

I don’t really want to call my parents sexist–they’re not. (They are, also, wonderfully tolerant and well-humored, relatively private people who put up admirably with an aggressively oversharing daughter–for which I am ever-grateful.) That is, they’re not sexist any more than the rest of us are. And the reaction to Ilene’s announcement reminds me that “the rest of us” still have a ways to go.

Talk about news that isn’t quite breaking, but it still unsettles to realize that, even in our post-”Sex and the City,” women-getting-more-educated-than-men era, the notion that a woman is only worth her marriage persists. To be a single man is a choice; to be a single woman is pathetic.

I’m glad my cousin is getting married. But not because there’s anything significant about a ring or a ceremony. I’m glad because Allen seems like a really good, honest guy who has a good chance of making her happy. Which, no matter how old or successful we are, is all any of us can hope for.