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 Transitions, Cuddles, and The Swings of Self-Care

“You need to hold yourself like a baby.”

My friend J and I were sitting on the side of a hiking trail on the eastern edge of Taos, eating cheese wrapped in red wax and examining white wildflowers and talking about what will happen when we leave.

She has some flux in her life as well, but more certainty than I. During my three months in Taos I’ve managed to upend just about everything that was stable when I arrived: my apartment, my relationship. Even my connections with family feel shifted—hurled into a different light by the (abrupt) process of change.

J turned to look at me as she held her arms out in the shape of a cradle. “Just imagine that you’re holding yourself like a child. Just imagine you need to give yourself that kind of care.”

Self-care is one of those wiggly terms whose meaning never seems to cease sliding. What does it mean to be good to yourself? It depends on what it is you need—and knowing that, it turns out, is the hard part. More and more I’m realizing how deeply, frighteningly difficult it is to know what we want: in relationships, in people, in place, in nurture. It’s easy to mistake proximity for understanding; learning our own needs takes as much work as learning those of others’. Maybe even more.

Eventually, the work I’ll be returning to is figuring out my needs in the long term. But right now, as one transition glides into another, I’ve got to focus on the immediate ones: the urgent care that I can give myself.

Which has meant, mostly, a lot of touch.

“I kind of can’t be alone,” I told A over the phone, explaining how I had spent the last couple of weeks bouncing between friends and visiting family, heaving myself into their arms, emotionally and physically. “Do you think that’s strange?”

“Are you kidding?” she laughed. “Of course you can’t be alone. Don’t.”

I’m not. I’ve spent a lot of time lying prone on friends’ floors. Draping my legs across laps. Going for hikes and walks with my arms stitched through another’s. Cuddling in a king size hotel bed with my ten-year old niece (who managed to take up a shocking amount of it). The little time I’ve found myself without company I’ve filled with baths and melancholy folk songs: Bob Dylan and Gillian Welch. Some writing. A lot of herbal tea.

“Your pulse feels homeless.”

I also spent a few hours with a woman who does Ayurvedic healing: tall and regal with a heavy French accent and penetrating green eyes, she recoiled when she saw my tongue (“It could be the poster child for anxiety!”) and paused when she held onto my wrist.

“Homeless?”

She nodded: empathic, but not exactly alarmed.

She left me with a Ziploc bag of an unpleasant-tasting wheat-colored powder. A list of foods to favor and others to avoid. Shockingly accurate insights into my restless soul.

Also, a few pieces of rather significant wisdom.

“You need to be your own mother,” she said. “You will become a mother later. But you can begin now by becoming a mother to yourself.”

In her opinion, this would mean feeding myself with more regularity and better nutrition. Taking the time to sit still each day. Learning to quiet the deep, fiery panic that resides within me and trust that regardless of where or with whom I end up, I will be alright.

In other words: cradling myself like a child.

I’m going to try it out. I’m going to keep seeking what kind of self-care will serve me best in the future. And for the moment, before I leave Taos and pack boxes and resolve loose ends and begin to make yet another round of Big Decisions, I’m going to give myself permission to lie on the floor and hold on tight to all the warm people in my path.

 

 

On Re-Orienting, Taos, And the Hardship of Heading Home

“I can’t believe we’re leaving so soon.”

A couple of my fellow Wurlitzer residents and I were having dinner together at a Middle Eastern restaurant in town. A chalkboard on the wall described its’ vision as promoting peace “through evolving people’s consciousness and taste buds.”

We slunk down towards our pita, homemade in the name of harmony, and commiserated about the fact that being in Taos is not unlike being on a different planet.

“Three months seemed so long,” someone said. It had been about two since we arrived. Then, departure seemed a remote, un-envisionable destination. Now it feels like a brick wall toward which we’re being driven, unwittingly.

I was reminded of this conversation a few days later, in a yoga class at the airy, light-filled studio with wood-beamed ceilings where I have been spending much time. As he guided the class through a series of physically demanding postures, the teacher reminded us to re-situate our bodies at every opportunity—to take each chance, whether bent in a soft forward fold or standing in a fierce warrior pose, to take stock, soften the breath. The usual yoga stuff. Except he used a particular phrase that struck me: continuous re-orientation.

That’s what we have to keep doing, always, he said.

Not only in our bodies, of course, but in our minds, our selves. We’re constantly re-orienting, in terms of our internal state, but, probably more often, based on our external context: where we are, and with whom. It’s unconscious, how we gently rotate our manners and personas depending on what surrounds us. It’s also exhausting.

Taos, somehow, demands less of that action.

The space is so open, so generous, the community so eclectic and spiritual, one can almost feel the mountain holding out it’s arms: inviting you to relax, stay a while, be whoever it is you’re meant to be, at this very particular moment in time! It’s the opposite invitation of a hectic urban environment, with its message of Keep up! Get someplace! Keep busy! Do something!

It’s not difficult to understand why so many permanent residents have come here as an escape from previous versions of themselves: post-divorce, post-mid-life crisis, post-professional reinvention or spiritual awakening. To say nothing of the breathtaking scenery, the perimeter of spacious sage fields and rolling peaks, Taos demands that you know what you want (the space will strangle you otherwise), but it allows that desire to take whatever shape.

And then there’s the fact that my co-residents and I don’t actually live here. (Yet.) Most of us have really lovely lives in the places we’re from: New York, San Francisco, England, Atlanta. Good partners and cozy apartments and supportive groups of friends. It’s no reflection of our home lives that we are so loathe to go back.

But going back means (in addition to leaving the majectic scenery and life-altering green chile breakfast burritos), going back to that normal pattern of constant re-orientation.

It’s difficult, and perhaps, for most people, undesirable to lead a purely creative life. Most of us who choose to make art a part of our lives must also wear additional hats to get by: in academia or advertising, journalism or graphic design. Even those who don’t have other relationships in which we play different roles—daughter, girlfriend, brother, uncle, friend. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it does require a constant re-situating of our identities and minds.

Being in Taos has given us the rare opportunity to focus, as exclusively one can, on the creative piece of ourselves.

And in that sense, it’s no surprise that the prospect of going home, of returning to the “real world” in which we must inhabit not just one but a whole series of selves, in which we must be constantly re-orienting to the people and places around us, sounds hard.

On The Noise, The Process, Listening to Others and Yourself

“Trust yourself.”

The woman with wavy red hair and painted lips stood in front of a life-size, watercolor John Wayne. She leaned her elbows on a case of vintage turquoise and baskets of silver.

“I learned the hard way,” she said, telling me how she’d quit three waitressing jobs to take a gamble on supporting her kids as a stunt double. How she’d tried to make it in Nashville and misunderstood the rules on her way to writing a Country Song of The Year. (Never know who you’ll meet in Taos!)

I’d just finished telling her how the anxiety of waiting for feedback on my first book was making it hard to focus on the new project I’d just begun.

She’d nodded, empathic, and smiled as she told me to “let go of my ego.” And repeated that phrase: Trust yourself.

The words seemed to strike at the heart of where my head’s been lately—or rather, where I’ve been trying to get it.

Here’s one suggestion: if you’re setting out for a day of novel-writing, try not to begin it by reading this article. And try not to take personally the endless stream of rejections, or the news of diminishing, risk-averse publishers, or the emails that talented friends receive in which editors lavishly praise their work before, mysteriously, taking a pass. In other words: shut your eyes and ears.

I’m trying. Switching over to a data-free flip phone, circa 2006. It’s a step—one I imagine will send me into something like heroin or sugar withdrawal before setting me, hopefully, a little more free.

But the noise won’t go away, since most of it is in my own head.

The endless, boring self-doubts: Is my story worth telling? Are these sentences any good? Will anyone ever read them? Should they?

It’s perhaps unsurprising that at an artist colony, (if that term eludes you, see this) the question arises: why do we make art? In a climate where the prospects of one’s work ever meeting the world feel so bleak, the query takes on a sharper edge. Without faith that our writing will ever be seen, what should motivate us to get up in the morning, put our heads down, silence the noise, and get to work?

“What if your writing wasn’t appreciated until after you’d died?” V, a British artist and filmmaker and my neighbor at the residency, serves as both collective muse and spiritual guide. She meditates for hours a day.

Across my kitchen table, another neurotic writer from New York and I exchanged a wary glance.

“Sure,” we both muttered.

“But I mean…” I hesitated. “It would kind of suck.”

V summoned us to think of everything in the world as connected, to detach our self-worth from our art, to fulfill ourselves with the process instead of it’s end.

The next morning I took a break from the novel and dashed off a comedic story, feeling smug that I’d actually found pleasure in the writing. And the day after that, I could hardly wait to share the piece and send it into the world. So much for process.

When I left the stuntwoman/country singer’s shop my eyes were wet with ambiguously derived tears: or maybe not so ambiguous. I’d managed to get through two days of writing that didn’t make me totally hate myself, and then ruined it with an abrupt panic over my first book’s word count. (iPhone: be gone!)

I walked to the indie bookstore and listened to an employee explain to a customer that, yes, it was easy to click the button on Amazon and writers could release work there, but they’d never get paid. I bought a book. Across the street I plopped myself down at a diner and ordered an oversized breakfast burrito. (Just, because.) Outside, small pebbles of hail fell from the gray clouds slipping west over from Taos Mountain.

I pulled out my notebook and pushed myself to answer that question: why?

All of my answers felt like tired clichés. For the fun of it. Because it helps me make sense of things. Because I like it! Because, as Alison put it the other night on the phone, I don’t really have a choice?

Flustered, I remembered those words—Trust Yourself—and decided to resolve that, for the moment at least, they serve as answer enough.