the obligatory holy shit, I’m almost 40 post (another long post)

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I haven’t been 39 for a day and already I’m realizing that next year I’ll turn 40. And before you lay into me about 40 being the new 30, you’re only as young as you feel, and all that jazz, I ask that you please slow your roll because 40 is a big fucking deal. Although I spent much of my childhood wearing the mask of an adult, I remember reacting to the thought of being thirty. That’s old, I said. When you’re small you can’t imagine counting an age beyond your ten fingers. And then something in you changes, the shift is nearly imperceptible, and you suddenly find yourself attaching fractions to your age. You pine for sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one. Perhaps you think the world will reveal itself to you in degrees, because why else would you be so desperate to shed being one of the innocent?

I spent the day alone with my best friend’s daughter once. There was an emergency one Christmas morning–my friend’s son woke vomiting blood, the walls were a massacre of red–and I played with a small girl who was baffled over the fact that I abhor pink (god, what a heinous color!). While I wasn’t a girly girl, I was creative, and I made for a suitable playmate when she wanted to build imaginary sets for the plays we’d co-write. I marveled over her curiosity, and while we watched episodes of Strawberry Shortcake in what felt like an endless loop, I remember smoothing her hair, wanting for her to be young for as long as she possibly could, because children architect these magical worlds that adults find ways to ruin.

Everything for children is a first, whereas adults know too much. We’ve seen things that make us want to press our eyes shut and rewind the tape. Take us back before 21, 18, 16. We want it all back. We want our world small, simple, with only our friends and family in it. I had to write a scene last night about a woman who’s taken up permanent residence in a dark country and she struggles to remember what pure, unadulterated happiness was like. That first spring. The rain of leaves. The light that broke through the trees. Bare feet swaying on a car dashboard. Witnessing a stranger kneel down and pray for the first time. I had a really hard time writing this scene because those moments felt too simplistic, ridiculous and I’ve tainted them with everything that comes after. I can’t only keep the beauty in the frame without ushering in the ugliness, the cruelty, hate, violence and fear that we’ve come to know, in degrees, as the years stumble over one another. Feeling like a sophist I let the page cool, and I hope I can return to the story with something different. Who knows. Maybe I’ll play Strawberry Shortcake episodes to get me in the mood.

From where I sit now, the world is different. I read an article about how little one can change after they’ve turned 30, and contrary to what the author posits, I can’t even conceive how much I’ve changed in a span of 10 years. Or perhaps I’ve shed layers of skin to reveal what was always there–I can’t decide which. In ten years, I got sober, fell out of faith with a god I once worshipped (I’m spiritual, but no longer believe in a god or the binary confines of heaven and hell), discarded the need for materialistic trappings and unguided ambition, fell in love with body after struggling with it since childhood (and realizing, much like many women my age, that I was beautiful then–why couldn’t I have seen me then as I see me now?), focused on quality over quantity in all aspects of my life, took comfort in the fact that while I don’t want to be a mother in the traditional sense of the word, I find I can be maternal in other ways, softened my view of my mother, which went from a deep, voracious hate to a sorrow, a certain kind of sadness. A few other things I’ve learned (ack! I’m entering the list terrority, something I’ve long admonished, but whatever, I’m riding on a sugar high from eating copious amounts of homemade fruit bars):

1. You start to remember everything you’ve read: When I was at Columbia getting my Master’s, I took a class, “Poets on Poets,” and I can’t tell you how intimidating it was to hear professors and guest lecturers quote other writers and their works as if it were nothing, as if the knowledge were simply stored in this imaginary memory bank set loose onto the world when deemed necessary. My feelings of awe soon shifted to annoyance over what I thought to be pretension. Rolling my eyes I thought, if someone quotes Susan Sontag one more fucking time, until I became the person who reads and quotes from Susan Sontag and Joan Didion. I’ve read countless books, but as I grow older I realize that some of them have lingered, left their indelible mark, and I find myself quietly returning to them to ferret out new meaning. It’s sort of like going back to the familiar and taking comfort that this is a place you’ve navigated before. And I’ve got just the Susan Sontag quote for this, people!!!

In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.

2. Not everyone will love or like you, and this is okay: Years back, a slew of catty book bloggers wrote some very unkind words about me online and I was DEVASTATED. This was before the advent of GOMI and other forums where people talk smack about other people–this was 2006 and I remember my face getting hot and how I cried about people who were so fucking mean. I wanted so desperately to be popular, to be liked, and the fact that there are people in this world who think I’m shit was hard to deal with. Now I don’t care. Admittedly, I’m a hard person to know and I’m flawed, but what matters to me are how I, and those whom I respect and love, feel about me. Everything else is superfluous, peripheral noise that I tune out.

That’s not to say that I don’t listen to criticism or constructive feedback. One has to in order to grow as a person and artist, and if someone cares enough to give me feedback in a way that’s meant to take me to a better place, I think, why not listen? It’s always worth listening to, and identifying what part (s) of, feedback that resonate. I had a mentor, whom I adore, who would always pull me into his office to give me feedback on how I was managing staff. He once told me that I wore my emotions on my sleeve entirely too much, and a good leader has to be like a parent–almost always calm, always in solutions mode–and this shit was hard to hear. I was defensive and kind of bitchy, but then I realized that this person didn’t have to take the time out of his day to make me a better leader. And when I refined certain aspects of my character did I find that he was right. Sometimes you need to hear hard truths in order to become better, smarter, stronger.

3. I don’t have FOMO because I’d almost always rather be at home: This coming from someone who was once known as the “mayor”! I threw grand parties, attended them, was always double-booked, and grew miserable as a result. I didn’t realize I was an introvert living an extrovert lifestyle, and I’d often get wasted just to get through making the rounds at a party or I existed in a perpetual state of exhaustion. As I grew older I realized I didn’t need to be everywhere and do everything. I needed to have quality moments with people I admire, respect and love. Which leads me to…

4. I have a circle of ten and that’s about it: Chalk it up to unpopularity all throughout high school, but I used to be consumed with having SO.MANY.FRIENDS. Now I don’t have the time or energy for volume. I have a solid crew of less than ten friends for whom I’d lay down my life. These are a mix of women I’ve known for the greater part of my adult life–friends who saw me through addiction and relapse and knew me when I was a lesser person but stuck around because they saw the potential for me to change–and women with whom I’ve gotten incredibly close in the past few years. And while I may not see most of them as often as I’d like (some are mothers, one lives in Connecticut), when I do see them it’s as if we’ve picked up the conversation exactly where we’d left off.

My friends are strong, brilliant, beautiful, remarkable, tough, and don’t necessarily hold my social, economic and political views. Over the years I’ve learned about the importance of being taught by others. I’ve a close friend who’s a staunch Republican, and while it’s challenging to know that we don’t share the same opinions on how we want this country run, I’ve learned a great deal from her: how it’s important to understand your opponent and not simply ignore them, how we have to find some common ground if we want change. That there is some truth to what we both believe in, and it’s about how we can meld those truths into the greater good.

What I’ve also learned? I’ve become suspicious of women who don’t have long-term close girlfriends. I’ve also learned that it’s okay to have quarterly friends–people whom I like and admire, but I don’t have to see them every day.

5. I’ve been more socially active than I’ve ever been in my life: In college, we were told that we were the apathetic generation. Gen X didn’t care about anything. We were a-political, fatalistic. And for many years I didn’t care about geopolitics and didn’t advocate as loudly as I could have for the things I believe in. Now, all of it matters more than it ever did. Now, I can’t shut up about feminism, gay rights, racism, the fact that the U.S. isn’t morally superior because we apparently have no qualms about raping and murdering our own citizens. Now, I can’t stop reading about the politics in other countries. I can’t stop finding new sources to read. After Ferguson, I realized how “white” my news was, and I made it a point to find different sources. I made a point to be uncomfortably comfortable, which leads me to…

6. Travel is a huge part of my life: There are people who have the means to travel but don’t even have a passport and I don’t understand it. It’s as if the U.S. is enough. And it’s not, at all. It was only through traveling the world did I begin to see it differently. I’d been exposed to cultures I read about through the veil of an Anglo-Saxon or Americanized point of view. I’ve traveled to countries that aren’t necessarily “safe.” I’ve stood in streets watching anti-American rallies. You learn through context, and I feel as if I have a more complex view of America from having traveled outside of it. This year I went to Korea, Thailand, India, Spain, Ireland, and I have so much to see, so many places to go.

7. I let shit go: This is hard for a type-A control freak, but there are just some people, situations and events I’ll never be able to change and I have to accept that. I have to make a certain kind of peace with so much that exists beyond my reach. But this has taken an extraordinary amount of time and self-reflection. It’s only until recently that I’ve let go of the fact that I spent nearly four years of my life working for a man I didn’t like much less respect. Now, I try to learn from the things I can’t control. That, I think, is the greatest change I’ve seen in my life–that it’s imperative that I not stop learning. That I not be complacent. That I not simply exist to be constantly comfortable. That I not be changeless. That I not be open to change. That I not be receptive to criticism.

It never is what you want it to be, and that’s okay. It can be something else entirely.

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This is the thing I hate about lists–they never fully encapsulate the whole of everything, or any one thing. However, if I look at the woman I was at 16, 18, 21, and now, I can say that I’m calmer, quieter, kinder, and less insecure. The threadline through all of the years, I realized yesterday, is my writing. I’ve spent the greater part of this year wondering what it is I plan on doing with my life, and then it occurred to me that I only want to write. The writing can take different shape and form, but it’s the only thing that gives me shelter. It’s the one thing to which I can return and it never fails to challenge or excite me.

So maybe that’s what I’ve learned at 39, the year before I turn 40? I want to write, always.

on turning 39 next week, on loss, love and all of it

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What cracks had he left in their hearts? Did they love less now and settle for less in return, as they held onto parts of themselves they did not want to give and lose again? Or–and he wished this–did they love more fully because they had survived pain, so no longer feared it? ― Andre Dubus, Dancing After Hours

There was a moment last week when I looked away from my reflection in the mirror and wondered if I should get Botox. Me, an anti-botulism crusader, getting garbage injected into my face? Suffice it to say, it was a low moment and one that passed as swiftly as it arrived.

our last day I stroke a child’s hair. The blondness of it, the fineness of it, the mess of it, disturbs me, and I ask myself as I’ve asked myself countless times before, do I want this? Would it be possible to go at it alone? The child’s head is small, fragile in my hands, and I tacitly acknowledge that this isn’t what I want. I can’t imagine a life other than my own taking shelter inside this body. And I think about the time when I lost Sophie, when my grief was as large as an ocean, and everyone not understanding the depth of my loss and how I nearly drowned from the undertow. They said, I’m so sorry for your loss in the same breath as asking me for a favor. Can I connect them with someone in my network? Could they pick my brain with their scalpel and surgical tools? Imagine if you lost your seven-year-old child? Imagine if your child died in your hands? Their last breath lumbering out as you wondered whether you had been kind, whether you had done everything that there was to do. You think this is why you can’t have children because you’d find ways to kill them. You can’t remember a time when you were a child, when your job wasn’t to parent, to mother, to carry a woman down six flights of stairs to an awaiting taxi, to recite the address of Maimonides Hospital because you knew it by heart, because you made this trip countless times before. You completed the forms because your mother’s hands couldn’t stop shaking and watched The Late Show on the television that hung overhead while people bled, slept and moaned in the waiting room. You wondered if they’d ever get around to painting the walls. You wondered how long this time. Could she do this for you? Would she? You calculated the time from now until you’d have to carry her again, and as an adult you’d read about The Ouroboros and wondered if this myth was simply a retelling of your childhood with a serpent thrown in for good measure. Replace the snake with a child and you’ll see what happens when a child is forced to an extreme–to feed itself, care for itself, endure itself, waste itself, consume itself in order to inch through another day.

No, no children for me.

Let’s talk about a cat who was breathing and a cat who stopped breathing, and how you now exist in the silences after that loss? You now exist in the space after the body has been wrapped like a little package and delivered to an incinerator. Your father, not your real one, once tells you that when he dies he wants to be burned. None of this below the ground business with worms in his eyes. Spread me out in the water, he urges, and you nod and take note of a time when you’ll have to endure another burning. Let me ask you this: wouldn’t you take me by the neck–just so that I can feel what it’s like to watch a final rise and fall of a small chest–if I mapped out an appropriate timetable for your grief? I spend time and money on weddings and baby showers I’ve no interest in attending, and not one of these people helped shoulder my grief or sent a card or a gift when a new cat, my child, entered my home.

When you get older, you start to see people as they really are and this sometimes breaks your heart.

Parsnips, beets, zucchini, kale, greens, cabbage, carrots–I write these words down in the middle of a day that rains to remind myself of what I’ve eaten because I tend to forget things if they aren’t written down. But I never forget cat food, toys or vet visits. I tell myself that this time with Felix I’ll be good. I won’t slip. I’ll do everything I can to avoid a sky burial. I’ll do everything I can to not sit in another hospital where I have to deliberate my options, where I have to sign here, here and also, there.

Can I pause and tell you that having lost Sophie still breaks my fucking heart? Makes me cry on cue even now, even after all this time?

motherOccasionally someone will inquire, with a mixture of fear and curiosity, whether I want children. I’ve still got time, they think. I respond that I wasn’t built for bearing. I’ve already raised a child who gave birth to another child, a half-sister, and I never received a card or a word of thanks for sacrificing my childhood for her adulthood. Funny how time sorts things.

In December it rains constantly and I fear that I’ve become the kind of writer who’s good at blog posts and corporate narratives and little else. I worry that what I’ll leave behind is a book about The Ouroboros that was my life, a story I can’t even read without wincing. A story, I realize now, I wrote too young. Had I written that story now, it would have been a landscape painted grey, solemn and quiet. I would’ve been careful with my words; I would’ve laid down a blanket over my rage.

You had a friend once and she drank as much as you did and then some. She wrote beautiful, dark stories–the kind you always wish you could write, stories published in The New Yorker and then by Knopf. The stories are delicate and breakable, and this puts you to thinking that you’re only able to write about people who do the breaking, people who are broken. You can never write about that space between the two–not yet broken but not whole, complete–when the characters are simple, tragic and beautiful.

But when you were both drunk, going one for one until you both saw black, you don’t think about the stories you could or could not write. You’re the story and you’re tragic and simple and perhaps beautiful, but you’ll never know this. You’ll only realize it when someone else writes about it, and you read a story with a hint of nostalgia, the this person sounds familiar, until you realize that person is you and you’re a character in a story rather than a real person who didn’t have a beautiful life. This is your life. You’re some drunk girl in someone else’s story. They didn’t even get your lines right. And then it occurs to you that the someone who wrote this story was you and you wish that the story hadn’t been written in the first place. But that’s your book, your story, and you deal with it.

Years later, that friend who writes The New Yorker stories will accept your Facebook invitation for friendship even though you were once friends, but this relationship is different, safe, relegated to computer screens instead of bars and men flickering the lights shouting last call. You don’t dare see one another because you can’t bear to be with someone who reminds you that you were the kind of person you want to forget. Remember that time when we were supposed to go to that reading in that famous bar downtown? We met for a bite close to the bar and we ended up splitting two bottles of wine. We left our food cold. Remember when we walked into the bar and it was quiet and we giggled and guffawed and spoke in octaves? Remember when your best friend at the time practically pressed her hand over your mouth because that famous writer was reading, the room was attentive, silent, and couldn’t you see that? No, not really. We left and talked about how the famous writer’s stories weren’t as good as they used to be.

When she accepts your invitation for friendship you’re both sober. She’s on the verge of marriage. You’re not. She’s on the verge of publishing her collection of stories with Knopf. You’re not. Even though her work is good, really good, you wonder this: why didn’t this happen to me? The marriage, the stories, the Knopf, all of it.

When you get older, you sometimes wonder whether this is your life. All of it. You realize it’s nearly impossible to reconcile the woman you used to be and her wants with the person you are with her needs. You selfishly wonder if what you have, who you are, is ever enough.

I read a lot of lists. Apparently it’s the vogue thing to do to compile lists of things you’ve learned in your 20s once you turn 30. As if a number has the propensity to shift your life beyond measure. As if a number has that much power. I try not to be an asshole about it and realize that people need lists to sort out where they are in their lives–they need a demarcation of then and now and what’s happened in the space in between. Their lists are binary in nature, and I can’t argue this too much because I wrote a book that colored in the lines, a story that worshipped at the altar of black and white, and it’s not until I’ve had a few more years did I realize that there’s all this grey I’d been missing. That the delineations are no longer finite. There is no cutoff of what I’ve learned from 30 to 39, rather there’s what I’ve learned from being a kid until now. I need the kid to stay in the picture to understand the adult typing this now.

The lessons in these lists people write, share and nod along with, are no longer definitive and finite, instead they become somewhat obtuse: the loses are palpable; the relationships richer and smaller; the love is deeper and beautiful and dark and all of that; the hellos and goodbyes aren’t what they used to be; the work isn’t what we thought it would be, and sometimes we can’t define what it is that we want but we know exactly what it is that we don’t want; we’re urgent about the things we never considered and calmer about the things that used to make us rage; sometimes we listen to songs we used to love because they temporarily take us back to a place (remember that place!), and then we don’t listen to those songs for long stretches of time because they remind of us of that same place (remember that place…); we scan the updates and holiday cards from people we know or who we’ve come to know and realize that the people we once knew are so different they’re nearly unrecognizable while others continue to surprise us.

at the zoo barTwenty years ago I sat in a cold dorm room and played REM, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I wore flannels over tight black shirts, and baseball hats. I’d only just started drinking and I liked it. A lot. Maybe too much, but not yet, not yet, give it a decade in time. My mother waitressed in a diner and she was what I came home to for the holidays. I considered iceberg lettuce a vegetable. I ate a lot of pasta. I told everyone who would listen that I wanted to be an investment banker like Gordon Gekko without the prison record. I read American Psycho for the first time and said, I want to write books like that. My best friend and I wandered into the cafeteria drunk during the day while everyone was sober and watching and curious and we didn’t care. We wore flannels and baseball hats and talked about the guys who were in crew. We stirred white spaghetti around on our plates. We dumped the trays on the floor. We didn’t pick them up. I started to create a life that I found in a J.Crew catalog. I left Brooklyn behind. I came home drunk one night and scrawled in black marker on a metal door a note to a girl who left me in a bar in the city. I wrote over and over, how could you leave? I wrote a story that I secretly submitted to the college literary journal and the editor stopped me on the way to the cafeteria and asked me if I’d written this. He had my story folded in his hands. He said, I know you. You take finance classes. The story was about my mother. The magazine was called Ampersand, I think. I wrote it, every word, is it any good? It’s good. He held the paper tight in his hands and shook it, as if the words on the page could possibly explain to him the space between the girl who wanted to be a banker and drank five dollars worth of fifty-cent drafts and the girl who had no idea how to be a woman. He looked at me and then down at the paper trying to reconcile the two, and I remember saying, they’re both me. Back then I didn’t know what I was saying but I do now.

But what do I know? I know more about some things and less about others. I know what it’s like to live a life without anesthesia, without plotting from one drink to the next and I try to share that with others who privately struggle. I know what it’s like to fall in love with your body at 38 and wish you’d had that affection at 24. I know what it’s like to be risky in your life and your writing and how it sometimes hurts to see the words you put down on the page. Yet, there’s so much I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like to love someone beyond measure. I don’t know if what I’m doing is good enough or just good for right now. I’m not as fluent in Spanish as I used to be. I still play oldsongs but stop them midway. I write blog posts like these that are complete in some ways and incomplete in others.

Maybe this is what I’ve learned: once I think I have the answers, I start asking new questions.

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why I will never shop at j.crew again (or a lesson in brand loyalty) — a rant

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Let me tell you a story about a lifelong love affair…with a brand. We met in the most unlikely of places–a college mailroom, where the object of my affection was shoved into hundreds of mailboxes, eager to find me amidst the lunchtime rush. This was a time when people still wrote letters, affixed stamps onto envelopes (there was no fancy adhesive so we just did the thing that others who had come before us did, we licked), and pored over catalogs. We’d been dating for over a year, and much like a faithful, long-distance girlfriend, I wore his barn coat ($98), wool rollneck sweater in oatmeal ($48; this was before the advent of more fanciful colors like puce and heather river) and wool henleys in an act of devotion. I’d fallen in love with someone who possibly lived in the Ozarks or Colorado or somewhere in the bucolic U.S.. During lunch, I scanned the pages, painted scenery of weather-beaten rocks and cabin homes lodged beyond a great, vast forest.

This was a time when people began to use summer and winter as verbs. One could arguably say that these were the best of times and the worst, because how could we know the future that lay ahead of us with our gadgets that serve as extensions of our limbs and a small box of a machine that would become our Wonderland. Just call us Alice and watch us tumble into the deep. But not yet, not yet. Right now few people used email (DOS, anyone?) much less understood it, and we purchased our clothing from department stores, boutiques or mail-order catalogs.

Can I tell you that the object of my affection was different from the rest? Sure, I had affairs with L.L. Bean (their snow/rain boots are! the! best!) and Victoria’s Secret (back when we thought it cool to order bras from catalogs, the irony of which you’ll read about soon enough), but I was committed to J.Crew. J.Crew, know that Sinead O’Connor crooned “Nothing Compares to You” after she slipped on your barn coat in burgundy and wool sweater in charcoal grey.

I don’t talk about my work on this space simply because I don’t want to. I spend much of my days playing the role of a professional, and there are some spaces where the introduction of this costume would serve as a cruel intrusion–namely, this space. However, last week I found myself so enraged, so disappointed, that I have to talk about it. The intersection of how I think and what I love came to bear. For the past 17 years, I’ve been working in one capacity or another in marketing. For most of my career, I worked in consumer marketing–a role that required me to know how to sell products or ideas to consumers, how to tell stories. However, in the past two years, I’ve focused on brand marketing. The brand side has become challenging in a way that consumer marketing, and its social and digital antecedents, have begun to bore me. How do you architect a brand? What are its pillars? How do you position it? How do you craft benefit language for the consumer in a way that’s compelling? What’s their “Reason to Believe”? For the past two years, I’ve been taking the discipline of branding and brand definition and using it in brand building and transformation projects. How do you change perception? How do establish yourself and your identity in a sea of competitors who clamour for consumer dollars? The work is heady, more strategic than the consumer marketing tactics I’d deployed previously, but it felt like how an advanced yoga student would return to a basics class to relearn the poses and become reaquainted with the foundation.

Before I could market products to customers, I had to deeply understand, for each of my projects, why a consumer would love a particular brand’s product and how they, in turn, would fall in love with the brand. I’m not going to get into the details of this because I can tell you that I’m already bored writing about it, but I was reminded of my 18+ year commitment to J.Crew, and how, in one year, the brand fucked it all up.

First, let’s talk about the quality of the goods, shall we? If you think J.Crew has exceptional cashmere, you have never owned exceptional cashmere. I’m going to pull a “remember when” and you’re just going to have to deal with it. REMEMBER WHEN J. Crew sold thick, double-ply cashmere that didn’t pill after a single use and get ratty after a year, making you regret the MILLION DOLLARS YOU SPENT ON THAT VIOLET SWEATER THAT WASN’T CALLED VIOLET, BUT LABELED SOME OBSCURE HUE? Remember when J. Crew sold wool that wasn’t cut with cheap acrylic? Remember when they didn’t hock acrylic sweaters for $118 a pop? I DO. You can give me the song and dance marketing story, replete with elevated fonts and pictures of Italian factories and fields, but nothing can replace sense memory. My clothes used to last longer, feel better, and no amount of bullshit marketing tactics, gleeful Jenna-loving bloggers and resplendent photoshoots are going to change that.

J.Crew, your clothes have gone to the crazies, and I know, deep in your heart, you know this. And don’t even get me started on Madewell, your insouciant younger sister, because the acrylic sweaters I once purchased on sale? I wear them AROUND THE HOUSE.

As a result of the poor quality, and some questionable designs, I haven’t shopped at J.Crew for nearly two years (save the Minnie pant and the Tippi sweater, both purchases put me to thinking that I’ve been trapped in some 1960s film where everything has shrunk and every woman’s name ends in an “i”). I turned to Madewell, to only realize that their clothes are the antithesis of their name (a cruel tease when expensive clothes fall apart after a single season).

Can I interrupt here? Can I tell you that I loved (and patroned) J. Crew for three reasons:
1. I hate shopping. I hate stores. I hate fitting rooms. I hate people. And J. Crew made my life simple. They sold quality classics online and in catalogs, both from which I could order from the privacy of my own home.

2. I aspired to their simplified, whitewashed version of a life. For years, before the fashionable Jenna-inspired “edits” and cool girls looking drunk in catalogs, the J.Crew lifestyle was simple, cozy, aspirational, yet accessible, and all I wanted to do come winter was swathe myself in one of their sweater-blankets, light a faux-fire and sip cocoa with organic, non-GMO puffed marshmallows. While my life, and racial identity, was this constant specter that hovered, J. Crew offered escapism and free shipping.

3. I naively thought that J.Crew was a brand that loved their customers. Oh friends, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Setting aside the questionable quality for the insane prices (I was patient though; I would wait for Crew’s triumphant autumn return), let’s dive a little into brand love, which sent this whole rage blackout on its course.

You should know that I don’t share my personal identifiable information with just anyone. I have Inbox Zero. I don’t subscribe to many newsletters. I’ve gone to great lengths to have my name and address removed from scores of mailing lists. I had a rage blackout when the TREE THAT WAS THE RESTORATION HARDWARE CATALOG landed on my doorstep. You’ll often find me on the phone with some customer service representative telling them that no, I do not want their catalog, and no, I would never shop at Fingerhut. I don’t want a complicated life, and because of this, I buy clothes from a handful of brands I trust.

AND THEN I RECEIVED THE VICTORIA’S SECRET CATALOG. I have a long, contentious history with VS, which I won’t document here, but suffice it to say I am not their customer. I do not want to be on any of their lists, etc, etc. So when I received their catalog for the third time, I decided to deploy a friendly inquisition. After speaking with multiple customer service representatives and two supervisors, I learned that Victoria’s Secret purchased my information from J.Crew.

You may think my reaction was dramatic, but who cares? I felt BETRAYED. I immediately called J.Crew and launched into a tirade about how I was “disappointed,” how I checked off that I never wanted my information to be shared, sold or communicated to any other company–I don’t even give my email at checkout! I was assured by my rather flummoxed and just-as-shocked-as-you representative that it’s against J.Crew’s policy to share/sell customer information. The representative promised to look into the matter and call me back.

No one ever called me back.

Perhaps because she was made aware of the fact that J.Crew does share customer information. I learned this because after speaking to a few more ill-informed representatives (did anyone get a CSR manual from J. Crew on their policies and procedures, because the clue phone has been ringing off the hook and no one is picking up on their end) and sending emails to their 24/7 email line, I received this note as part of a longer email thread:

While we do occasionally share addresses with third party companies, those companies are only allowed to send one piece of mail and are unable to add the customer to their mailing list. We are able to turn this sharing “off” upon request which the associate you spoke with should have been aware of and offered to you.

Interesting. So when I opted to not have my information shared, my information was shared anyway. In marketing, we like to call this erosion of brand trust. Or, a violation of CAN-SPAM if you want to get legal about it. Another call to their customer service line, a request to have my information removed from their database, was met with this terse reply: If you can’t tell me your phone number or email, how can I possibly remove you from our database? To which I calmly responded, I don’t know. My address? My catalog ID #? She put me on hold for ten minutes and then I got disconnected. Classy.

This post has gotten so long that I’m not going to even go into J.Crew’s lack of floor service in their Flatiron and Soho locations. When I’m routinely asked, Did someone assist you with your purchase today? I’m often left to respond, no, no one helped me with my purchase today.

A lot of rookie marketers will conceive of grand campaigns to lure customers from one consideration set to another. They will transform their site and social channels into “content machines” where your feed is flooded with “information you can use” delivered by a “human voice.” Self-appointed gurus will prattle on about how content is king, but let me break it down real slow:

CONSUMERS DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOUR CONTENT IF YOU’RE FAILING THEM AS A BRAND.

Do I give a shit about J.Crew’s newsletters and 24/7 stylists when half their customer service staff doesn’t even understand their policies on how a customer’s information can be shared/marketed? Do I give a shit about their Cyber Monday sale when I’m spending more money than I used to for a subpar product? Marketers, me being one of them, are used to dousing glitter over shit and calling it glitter, but customers aren’t stupid. If a brand can’t get the basics right: product, product value and proposition, and service, they will never care about the glitter. Stupid people care about glitter. Informed, discerning customers, who value their money and service, care about a good product and a brand that’s honest.

When I wrote J.Crew a long, heartfelt letter telling them why they lost me as a customer, much of their response was: “We’ll forward your information to the appropriate department.”

Yeah. I think it’s about time we see other people. Cuyuna, Everlane, Banana Republic with your comeback cashmere and sweaters, Rag & Bone–meet your new customer.

In case you’re wondering, I’m wearing a few new favorites: Banana Republic lovely cashmere open cardi, wool crew sweater and the softest wool coat.
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what happened to the years, all of them?

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What happened to the years? All of them? You go to sleep one evening at 29 and wake, restless, a decade later. You wonder about time, how you managed to lose it as if it were some loose change that escaped through a hole in your pocket. When you were 29 you prayed to a god you now no longer believe in. You drank red wine until the curtain call, until the room, and everyone in it, faded to black. You never noticed the barnacles but now they’re everywhere. You had a great love once. You remember that one trip to Utah and the red wool hat you wore–a hat, a piece of fabric that you now find difficult to throw away–and how the two of you were this terrific photograph until the film got developed and you drank to drown out the sound of the other’s voice. Right now, as I type this, I can’t recall where I’ve kept the red hat or whether I still have it. Did I throw it out last year when I was thick in the business of minimalism?

I’ll look later.

Now you wonder about that kind of love, whether it’s possible. A love so great it threatens to complete. And we read our love stories and wonder what came first: the real or the fiction. Talk instead of a love that sustains. But first let me tell you story, about a man who held a woman’s quaking hands and promised her that there would be no ocean he would not swim through. He traced the lines of her palms with his fingers, which put her heart on pause, and told her he would follow her into the dark because he knew she had built a home, a life, there. He promised her new homes, new lives, and she was 29 and believed this. She wanted to believe in the maths not the history. In a few months time, they would abandon their love because they were selfish people (they admitted this truth, albeit in voices that crept above a whisper). He chose a false sun and she chose the real dark, and they stood in their respective corners, safe.

At 38, I wrote a whole book about love. Through a cast of characters I tried to find the ones who would climb into the heart of someone else’s darkness, and it turns out that I couldn’t reconcile the maths and I was writing textbook history. That’s not really true, though. I made the mentally ill the brave. A baker, who hears voices and plays the role of marionette with her play puppets, is ultimately the one who bears sacrifice. She is the one who loves but it’s not the love the peanut-crunching masses like. I used to read those fairy tales and love stories when I was small and I didn’t believe them then. And if I couldn’t believe when I was one of the innocent, how can you expect me to believe now?

Last year, a friend drove me around in her car. I was broken, exhausted, hungover. Rarely, if ever, do I ask anyone for help, but that morning I called her and said I needed her. That I was breaking, broken, the pieces are all over the damn house–can you come over with a broom and sweep me up? She came and we got in her car and she drove around Brooklyn, and it reminded me of when I was a teenager and my pop would drive us around Long Island whenever my mother decided to go to the crazies. We didn’t have any specific location in mind, we just drove until the gas ran out. I told my friend this. And then we got to talking about love, and she heard me for a time, going on about how love was always a mopping down, a sweeping up, and in a small voice she told me that I was wrong. That love actually wasn’t hard. Everything after it was. Love isn’t the same thing as loss, she said, to which I was responded that I didn’t know of any other way. Because I always lost the people I loved. I could tell she wanted to be delicate with her words because I was fragile, in a state of disrepair (basement flooded, wood rotting, bulbs sizzling in the dark, and the like), so she spoke about the inevitability of loss, how people come in and out of our lives, and that’s simply life, rather than the byproduct of love. I’d gotten the equations all mixed up because I cleaved to the history.

I read sincere blog posts written by women on the verge of turning 30. They write about being “old,” “not feeling their age,” “how things change,” and I wonder if we ever really feel our years. Do we wake up one day and think, I feel 38 today! Why do we ascribe so much weight to two digits, because they’ll inevitably bend and fold from our summations, our constant leaning? When I was 29 I was an alcoholic who couldn’t bear the weight of that label. So I kept drinking. When I was 29 I was in love with someone who was incapable of love. When I was 29 I was writing a book about my mother that at 38 I wish I could have rewritten. When I was 29 I had no idea what I wanted from the rest of my life but I know it wasn’t this. Looking around, I said back then, let it not be this.

At 38, on the verge of 39 (!!!), all I can say is that I know more but I’m hopelessly nostalgic and somewhat romantic (where did this come from? The chart shows no history of the romantics), and when I read this bit from Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable, I found myself nodding along,

Now that I’m almost never the youngest person in any room I realize what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly know what to do because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.

She continues to write what I think–that knowing more isn’t the true prize for having endured the years. Often we’ll stand in between our former and present selves and watch as the chasm between the two widens. We can’t bear the loss of time, the years, all of it, because the very thought of it puts our hearts on pause just as the anticipation for what was to come quickens it. So our heart beats for what will and what was, but all the while I wonder am I beating for what is.

I try to think of this in simple terms. At 29, I was too frightened of the world alcoholic and couldn’t imagine a world without wine in it. At 38, I miss being 29 but no longer feel the weight of the sum of those fears because alcoholic is one of the hundreds of words that compose me. I am not defined by one noun. As you can see there’s a lot that occupies the space between those 9 years and 11 months, but what I think about, right now, at 38, is that I’ve quietly helped dozens of friends who struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. I’m able to be present for them and share not wisdom, but experience. I don’t give them knowledge, but rather compassion and empathy. At 29, I hated my mother. At 38 I wish I could go back and paint a canvas of a life that has the perspective that comes from deciphering the grey from all the black, however, right now I’m sometimes sad that I don’t have what others take for granted even if my life is richer, saner and healthier without her in it.

Next month I turn 39, and while I don’t feel 39, I don’t fears the years either. Instead, I want my heart to quicken again. I want it to suddenly pause and stop. Not just for love, but for life, for the here and the now. I want the what was, what will be to be what is. Imagine a heart beating so fast it threatens to complete.

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mediocrity is the new black

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When I was small, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote and rewrote a single word fifteen times. I wrote the word, crossed it out and wrote it again. I was eight, and the assignment was to write a haiku about our family, someone we loved. I had one of those black notebooks where the cover was stiff and the pages inside were lined, thick. I had the word voice, because when I was small my mother’s voice was the loudest sound. It was the only sound. But it wasn’t enough to simply say that it was loud, no, there was something else. Something nefarious, ominous. It took me some time but I ended up writing a haiku–three lines, 5/7/5–that likened my mother’s voice to thunder. That was the word I’d been looking for. Thunder.

I was 8.

My grade school published an annual, which amounted to stapled sheets of colored paper filled with our poems, stories and meager hand-drawings. The cover was pale yellow and the interior blue, and the teachers had published all of my poems. When my mother thumbed through it I remember her saying the word thunder out loud and smiling. I’m not sure if she was proud of the word I’d chosen or if she was happy to have been written about. She was pleased with the attention, and that, for much of my life she would be my singular subject. I suspect, in one way or another, she’ll always find her way into my work.

In the movie Wall Street, financier Gordon Gekko tells a young Bud Fox, The most valuable commodity I know of is information. While Gekko was referring to insider information, the innards of a company not published in an annual report but rather strung up in the insides of gleaming offices, that quote, among others, remained with me. I always believed the most valuable asset one could have was knowledge. The journey was in its acquisition, so I spent much of my childhood and life in constant study. I read voraciously, I listened assiduously, and I saw worlds unfamiliar to me–India, the assault of color and shape–all in an effort to see, to know. I translate that world, or at the very least, make sense of it, through prose. I work it out on paper, on screen, and in the end what I’ve learned changes shape and form and becomes something new altogether. This is high art to me, and I hadn’t known of any other world where knowledge, information, was then used and transformed into art. The beauty of it was individuality. The way a child hears the timbre of her mother’s voice and how she may think of wind chimes (you can practically feel the softness, the lyrical quality of it, right?), while another writes, emphatically, thunder (the dark, the sharp, the edge of night like knives cutting into things).

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a lot of pretty stories about angry people. The stories were long, filled with what word technicians would call exposition: a pile of pretty sentences that don’t amount to much. All of my life I hunted and gathered for words, but the problem now was I had too many of them. And I remember sitting in Nathan Englander’s office (he was my teacher for a time), and he printed out two copies of a short story I’d written and one page was filled, FILLED, with red (a bloodletting!) and the other was a clean copy where he’d written some notes on the margins. It took everything in me to not burst into the tears when I saw the butchery, but he taught me about the value of economy. That the most powerful way to show people the world was through the simplest of words. But those words had to work. They had to be a nesting doll, a possessor and deliverer of multiple meanings, and after, I spent years performing surgery on my work. I asked myself, how can I understand and then, how can I show? So that you can see. So that you can learn. So that you can create. And so that others can create. This mutation, it’s a site to see. And so on.

But now something’s changed. The most value commodity I know of is attention. I think about the movie Boogie Nights, where a young Mark Wahlberg loosely portrays the 70s porn king, John Holmes (Johnny Wad, if you must). In one scene, Wahlberg bounces up and down on the bed in his childhood room in his parent’s house. He’d just made love to a woman and he says, Everyone has one thing, you think? I mean, everyone’s given one special thing, right? That’s right. Everyone’s blessed with one special thing. I want you to know I plan on being a star. A big, bright shining star. That’s what I want.

It’s 2014 and everyone wants to be a big, bright shining star.

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I think about this in the car when I’m with two friends and we’re driving from the airport in Bangkok to the hotel from which I’m writing this now. I think about this when I’m in this car and I see a sign that reads, Service staff are not polite. My friend next to me points at the sign, we read it aloud and laugh, and then I pause because there’s something that threads between our hunger for attention, see me, see me, and the very cold honest nature of the words printed and displayed when one is welcomed into a new city. It’s there, I just can’t see it yet.

Later on that day we visit a mall where each floor is designed to represent a famous city: Rome, San Francisco, Paris, etc. We eat Thai food in a restaurant and nearly everyone is photographing something. Two girls fastidiously arrange their hair, their face, for a series of photos, selfies, they take in front of their food which has gone cold. There’s me taking a picture of the food on my plate. There’s a couple buried in the bowels of their phone. Everyone is participating in the world through a filter, a lens, and I set down my camera and realize how this bothers me. There’s art in that for sure, but if there is this omnipresent interruption, are we then not able to see? Not able to get this information, create this art? I’m not sure.

I go to bed early and wake at 4:30am to read this interview:

Into this culture of resistance that New York has always personified has come this incredible middle class thinking. Which is all about consensus. It isn’t diversity. The individual is not empowered anymore in our culture. The overriding value is to fit in—not make waves. You can’t network if you’re too individual, and there is an incredible taste for mediocrity in the world.

We all feel superior to bad work. Makes us feel good. But the truth is, that doesn’t give you anything. When you see really good work, when you experience excellence, it makes you question yourself in very harsh ways. But you’re uplifted by the excellence of good work. But we’re living in a time where mediocrity is the new black.

I close my laptop and try to sleep but I can’t. The interview puts me to thinking about a conversation I’d just had where I talked about being frightened of the whitewashing, the homogeneity of the work online and the composition of a superstar blogger. The Photocopy Culture. Certainly, there is individuality, democratized art, and those who break ranks. I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Essays and it makes me question my work. It makes me want to take a scalpel in order to get deeper, to see if there’s something else I could say. Excellence pushes me, challenges me, makes me work harder to learn, see, create and share, but the thing is I’m seeing a lot less excellence and a lot more mediocrity.

I realize this is a lot to unpack, and I don’t even know if I can do it justice in a single blog post, but there’s something that’s slowly burrowing under my skin and pricking it. A murmur, something just about to break the surface (the ticking is the bomb), and I found myself enraged when I see that the desire to be liked, favorited, shared, noticed, trafficked, coveted–those base emotions now override the desire for knowledge. Look at me versus let me look inside. Get under the hood, fiddle around, as it were. And that quest to be noticed, to have your voice rise above the din (as referenced by the hundreds of articles that give you tips on getting noticed!) somehow, for me, removes the beauty that once proliferated the online space. A time when people weren’t preened to dishabille perfection, didn’t arrange their totems of worship to then filter and photograph them, waiting for the inevitable “likes.” Perhaps this is why I challenge and question my own work and how I represent it on this space. Perhaps I started to feel this rage a year ago when I wrote a review of the Kinfolk cookbook, which was more of a lashing out on this kind of imperfect perfection culture and its inherent deceptiveness and danger to those who seek to emulate it. I wrote,

There is no real visceral connection between image and type. Rather, the cookbook tells us the story of people who project the lives you wish you could live, and the recipes are merely an antecedent to that lovely fiction.

Point blank, the book was a pile of fuck. Mediocrity at its finest. Sure, the artwork was beautiful, the images bucolic and austere, but there was something wrong with the book. Aside from fact that the writing was an assault to the English language and the recipes went untested, I was sickened to the core about the physicality of the book and its perceived meaning. This book was meant to suggest excellence in its marriage between design, type and image, but it was instead the Trojan horse of art. It was pretty but devoid of actual meaning. Simply put, it was mediocrity dressed up in Sunday-best finery.

That’s what I’m seeing these days and I think that’s what drove my rage when I was having lunch with friends yesterday. A lot of what I’ve been seeing online is really pretty but it’s soulless, lifeless–it’s a replica of a bland original. It makes you desire to covet and acquire rather than hunger to learn and create. And The Photocopy Culture, the peanut-crunching lot, are being rewarded handsomely for their terrific fiction. And so more people see this and say, I want that shiny thing too, and on it goes.

It used to be that the most valuable commodity was information, now it’s adulation, attention. Please, please let me get what I want, Morrissey pleads.

An artist friend tells me that this, what’s been happening, all of it, doesn’t relate to my art. She says, you do you. She says, you keep creating great work amidst the ruin. She says, you ignore and slog through. She says, it’s not about you. She says, keep sifting through the rubble. And I do just that for a time. I get my equipment. I excavate. I ferret out work that challenges and inspires me. I try to ignore the growing fervor (fever, really?). I try to say that the blogger who can barely string a sentence together has a two-book contract is not about me. I try to keep creating, but I wonder this: will I drown from the clamor above me? From the voices, the thunder, of those who want to be seen versus those who love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness, as D.H. Lawrence would have it.

Do I just love and produce when I see so many destroy! destroy!?

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on whiteness, on blackness, on sitting in the inbetweens

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When I was small my friends told me not to worry, that I could pass. Their assurances were accompanied by a dramatic fingering of my hair, which was a mess of coarse curls, the kind of hair my mother labored over in the bathroom, tried to tame it with baby oil and Vaseline. It made no difference that I grew up in Borough Park, steps away from the elevated train on New Utrecht. It didn’t matter that we purchased the same chicken legs wrapped in brown paper from the bodega or swam in the same pool in Sunset Park or pinched loosies (single cigarettes) when we could–what mattered was my hair. Because where I came from being white was a liability. Being white got you jumped. Being white made you an outsider. You were lesser than because if you had the privilege of that skin, and you lived where you lived, you were considered a joke. It was as if you had a lottery ticket you were too dumb to cash in. But my mother wore Pumas, was ferocious, waitressed at a diner, played her soul records and knew all the right people. So mostly, they left us alone.

Years later I would walk into a junior high school and be ridiculed for my hair, the very thing that had saved me in my childhood, because it betrayed an otherness. White people didn’t have this hair. White people didn’t speak with a Spanish lilt to their voice. White people didn’t grow up on soul when there was rock and roll (which, by the way, my mother listened to, too). And I remember a group of Spanish girls in my junior high school who took me in, asked where I was from, and the next day no one made comments about my hair. The cheerleaders in their green pleated skirts, the girls named Lea, Ryan and Michelle, didn’t say anything at all. They were frightened and in that fear came the silences. I shook my head, and wanted to say that my last name was Sullivan! That I was Italian and Irish! But while I thought all of these things were truths, I knew they were also somehow untrue. Because I didn’t see anything wrong with being black or Spanish, but that wasn’t the point. The point was I didn’t feel white but I didn’t feel black, either. How do you explain to thirteen-year-olds who live on binary terms that you are possibly grey? When you’re small you don’t understand the gradations of color, the in-betweens. When you are that young, you still believe you have to color in the lines. To the Leas and Ryans of my small world, black men were ball-players, rappers, men who robbed your house. Wait, what? I couldn’t see any of that. Sure, men in my old neighborhood tossed rhymes on stoops, drank 40s out of brown paper bags, but they were also kind, always had your back, and worked from dark to dark. Rhyming, drinking and dreaming were some of the things they did to pass the time, to make their lives easier to bear.

I have a memory, but it comes and goes in fragments, like swallows, and I just remember the glare of a television in a dark bedroom and I’m lying on the floor watching it. I am small and my mother is in bed with a man named Keith. He is black, striking in his beauty, his man-ness, and they are talking in the way that couples do after they’ve just been intimate. They exist in the space of the after, when conversations are easy, slow, and you talk about the things you wouldn’t normally discuss in the morning. That’s all I’m able to remember, and now I think: was that him? Was that man my biological father?

Another memory: Another man, another state. We are in Pennsylvania and my mother (a mistress now) travels with her abusive boyfriend to visit his ex-wife and children. I never understood why we traveled to a place where we were not welcome, but we made the trip and the children, sisters, made snide comments about from where we’d come, about how I wasn’t one of them, white. The mother’s name was Virginia and I never saw my mother so afraid when she was in that house.

Years later I receive a long message on Facebook. It’s from one of the sisters in Pennsylvania. She’d read my memoir, found god, and couldn’t I possibly forgive Father for all that he had done as she had? Reading the note I paled down to bone, and I remember being in an office and someone coming over to my desk and asking me about a plan we were supposed to write. And I glanced at the message on Facebook and nodded at my direct report, and felt paralyzed in the space between the two. Although I will do everything possible in my adult life to not be my mother’s daughter, some of her will always remain. Why I have a hard time letting people in, crying in front of others, or being vulnerable–these are aspects of her that have left their indelible mark on me, parts of me I’m desperate to lose.

I think back to those girls in junior high school, and my nearly all-white high school, and how everyone believed that black men were to be feared. But no. I shook my head no, because in my experience white men weren’t to be trusted. They hid behind the privilege of their skin. And then I got all confused because had I become one of those people coloring in the lines? Not understanding that the content of one’s character isn’t married to the pigment of their skin?

The summer before college, I worked at Pizza Hut and I started dating one of my coworkers who drove a nice car and lived in Queens. We bonded over our affection for A Tribe Called Quest, and I remember over the course of our date how he kept playing “The Low End Theory” in this car. He came to my door and met my family, and I remember how my father, Gus, shook his hand and smiled because Gus is the kind of man who will shake your hand and mean it, but my mother, my mother, cowered in the background and scowled. She took me aside and told me she hadn’t known that my date was black, and didn’t I know that his color would cause trouble? Because we were no longer in Brooklyn. And I shook away from her because I knew that I was going to college and college meant freedom, and who was she to talk to me about blackness when there was Keith and all the men who had come before? And, oh by the way, I didn’t choose my date because he was black, I chose to go out with him because he was cool. I said as much and walked out of the house. In the car my date made a comment about my mother being something and I said, she sure is. Something.

That was our only date. While we spent the rest of the summer making personal pan pizzas, something was off, wasn’t the same. We were still friends. We still joked but we were changed, and I can’t help but think it had to do with the fact that I was white (but not really) and he wasn’t, and I was angry because it didn’t matter when someone loves “The Low End Theory” just as much as you do. When someone can turn the task of dumping frozen pepperoni on a pizza into a game, into something fun.

I set out today to write something different, to make something and share it with you, but then I read this. At 6:30 in the morning I cried in my apartment. I’m 30% black and have I been hiding behind the privilege of my skin, technology that has the ability to make my hair smooth?

A few weeks ago I’m on the phone with my best friend of nearly 20 years, and she’s the only person with whom I’ve spoken about my DNA results. She asks me how I feel and I tell her I don’t know what I feel. No, that’s not true. I feel relief to have knowledge, facts, the maths, even if it is 38 years too late. I tell her that I’ve felt that all this time I’ve been passing…for white. I tell her that I don’t feel white or black but something in the middle, and I blurt out all the appropriate and inappropriate questions. Do I have the right to say I’m part black at 38 (yes, I do, logically, but…)? Can I own blackness? Do I have the right to? Do I keep on as I’ve been living? What changes? Does anything change? Do I owe a debt? To whom?

I don’t yet have answers to any of these questions, and I imagine it will take some time and introspection, but my friend told me that it’s okay to be in the in-betweens. That I should be proud of whatever I am, that I’m not defined by my chemistry.

my results from my ancestry.com DNA kit are in…and…whoa

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I realize I am the last of my kind. The last Sullivan to carry this name in this life, and over the years I’ve come to terms with this. I’ve no interest in having children–I prefer to fawn over my friend’s progeny–and I’m an only child, with the exception of a teenaged half-sister, and please don’t ask me to talk about it because I won’t, and I can’t imagine I ever will. But this girl doesn’t have my name or my history–we have only our mother in common, a mother whom, in some respects, is a better storyteller than me. Masterful, maybe.

The origins of my real father change depending upon her mood or appetite for melodrama; it was a scalpel she’d deliberately wield, and her words always felt like cuts inside my cheek. Incisions. When we spoke some years ago, the first time in 14 years, and she told me I could her ask her anything, nothing was off-limits, I said plainly, Tell me about my real father. And as I read these test results, I can’t help but laugh over her taste for fiction. I am indeed my mother’s daughter, except the stories I tell find their way into books, not used as ammunition to wound and maim.

So when my friend Amber told me about this DNA test, I was curious. I remember sitting in her kitchen and she talked about how the results confirmed what she already knew–she was a European Jew–but it told her things she didn’t. And all I had to do was spit in a cup, send it to a lab and wait for the email.

I woke today to the email and the results.

My last name is Sullivan, but I’m not even Irish. Not even close. I’m Italian, Greek, Spanish, Finnish (???) and African (specifically, Nigerian). I always knew I wasn’t completely white, I can’t explain it; it’s just something you feel. And while I have no issues with the results (they’re exciting in the sense that I’m this rich melange of beautiful continents), because it quietly confirmed what I already knew, however, part of me is just really angry that my lineage has been hidden from me for 38 years. All this time I’ve been part black, but do I even claim it? Can I? Do I have the right to step into these new shoes? Do I have the right to own blackness? Part me says, yes, of course, of course, this is who you are, but this isn’t what I’ve been for 38 years.

This is all raw and new and confusing, and I think I need to sit with this for a while. Privately. Offline. To see what I can do, what I do feel, what this new truth reveals, alters, creates.

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sophie + felix

sophie is so over me
Yesterday morning it occurred to me that this month marks the anniversary of my Sophie’s passing. It’s been a year since my relapse, since the whole of my world was shrouded in darkness. I don’t deal with loss well, and I didn’t anticipate just how devastated I’d be when she died. I couldn’t find the right words to describe the enormity of my grief. When I held her as she was being put to sleep, I didn’t feel the rush of heartbreak that I would inevitably feel weeks and months after. On that rainy day in late July, I was numb, sick and bewildered. I felt nothing. Hmm, that’s not true. I felt the heaviness of her departure, this unbearable disquiet.

I loved Sophie. Really loved her. She was prickly, prone to paw swats and over-excited hisses, but she was mine. She curled up next to me while I read, and slept beside me when I was sick. Even now, even as I type this, and page through images of her, I start to cry. Hers is a loss that I’ve come to learn how to bear. My god, she was so fluffy! So insouciant! So RUBENESQUE at her 14-pound height. I mean, look at that diamond belly! Nothing compares to you, as Sinead O’Connor so sagely crooned.

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Yesterday morning I ran errands, fixed up my apartment, and while I was taking dishes out of the dishwasher Felix meowed. It’s rare to find him on the shelf where a photo of Sophie and I, and her remains, lie, but he was there. Crying. I set the dishes down and turned around and watched him touch the tin that holds her remains, and I broke down and sobbed. I didn’t tell him to get down, I didn’t advance. Rather I stood there and watched and realized that there is a possibility that he could feel a whisper of my grief. A grief that has gone cold and quiet, yet lingers.

I can never thank my dearest friend Angie enough for driving me to the shelter to pick up Felix. I was hungover, grief-stricken, and probably incoherent, yet she was calm, comforting, and moved me from cage to cage until I spotted my little man. The sweet boy who would make me realize that there is indeed space in my heart for more love.

Sometimes I find myself comparing Felix to Sophie, which I suppose is inevitable, however, they are nothing alike. He prefers his belly rubbed, and he follows me from room to room. I joke that he’s a dog in a cat outfit. We play and I spoil him rotten. I love him beyond measure, but it’s a different love than what I felt for Sophie, not a lesser than, but different. Felix is easy and Sophie was well-earned.

I don’t know what to say about all this other than I’m grateful for my life and all the beautiful people in it. I’m grateful to have had Sophie for those seven years, and I’m grateful for having fallen madly in love with Felix, my special guy.

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on perception, and the delicate dance of masks

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I had dinner with a new friend the other night–someone whom I’ve admired for a while–and she told me that she was delighted that I turned out to be warm, funny and accessible in person, because while she loved reading my blog and found me intelligent, she’d gotten the impression that I was intimidating and aloof. What a wonderful surprise, she thought, because normally she’d encountered just the opposite; she’d fall in like with someone who possessed an effusive online persona to only discover, in real life, the person was a raging asshole. We laughed and traded stories about relationships we’ve cultivated by being online, and…

WAIT. HOLD THE PHONE. I’m ALOOF? {sniff}

Truth be told, I’ve heard this before. From former coworkers who’ve become close friends to acquaintances who appear relieved that I don’t quote sonnets over pasta {brief digression: I’m barely surviving my second week without pasta}, people have expressed their glee over the fact that I’m not as esoteric and intimidating in person. My response is normally one of a fierce twitching. On a scale of 1-10, my discomfort registers at about 40 {HOW AM I INTIMIDATING?}. But here’s the thing — if you immediately balk at constructive criticism or observations that give you discomfort, part of what you’re receiving is probably true, and getting defensive only serves as a mere distraction from that truth. On my way home from dinner, I gave my friend’s words serious thought. I thought about the masks we wear and how and when we switch them, as if we’re performing some sort of elaborate, delicate dance.

For most of my life I wore the just fine mask. The I’m okay, don’t worry, I can handle it mask. To an outsider, I was a successful, prolific overachiever–I was my finest photograph. Yet as soon as I came home and the door closed behind me, I fell into dark. The world behind me receded, and I felt crushed by the weight of having a double. All I wanted for people to know was that I was the complete opposite of not okay, but the risk of that vulnerability and the perception of weakness was unimaginable. Coupled with the fact that I published a memoir about very personal aspects of my life {some of which I regret writing, in retrospect}, I felt caught between tectonic plates. I was revealing the things that I didn’t want to share, but at the same time hiding the things that I wish would come to light. As a result, I spent the better part of a decade reconciling this, mostly in private, and when I resurfaced, I created rules for this space. Perhaps not realizing I’d created another mask. Oh, the irony.

I read somewhere that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

For me, this space is about art. I conduct minor experiments with language and merging image and type, and I’m also trying to find the art in talking about food in a different way. The dozens of drafts of posts {the rewriting and rethinking of lines and ideas}, and the hundreds of images I take, are examples of the mess in this art. Yet in the end what you see is the edited version of things. You see a representation of myself that is one aspect of who I am but not the whole of me, if that makes any sense.

For me, this isn’t artifice. Part of me constantly calls to references in art and literature because I’ve been reading and creating since I was a toddler. Words help me make sense of the world, and when I call to an artist it reminds me that I’m less alone. If I think about all of this in terms of geography, this blog is my living room while Twitter is me at the bar–acerbic, wry, passionate, outspoken. Instagram is my playground and bedroom, as I can show you photographs of things closest to my heart without actually talking about them. Pinterest is me dreaming. LinkedIn is me working and not sharing pictures of my cat. In real life I’m a mix of all of these rooms, and perhaps a bathroom thrown in for good measure because I’m not always on, sometimes I tire of the performance, and I just want to laze on my floor and reveal parts of myself that aren’t necessarily pretty or well-kempt. I feel privileged to have friends with whom I can share comfortable silences. These are people who love me even if my jokes fall flat or if I’ve stolen cookies off their plate.

Part of me is starting to wonder how I can bring all of these rooms into one house, because much like I’ve realized that fragmenting my career is ridiculous, fragmenting aspects of my character is exhausting and perhaps misleading. As this space evolves, I want to be conscious of sharing all of these rooms on all of the places I play online. I want people I care about to know that I’m not aloof; I’m tremendously shy, extremely bookish, and when I write these posts I’m in my prefered state: home, alone, settling into quiet. Because that’s when the magic happens. That’s when I’m able to be still enough to create. I want people to know that every post is the moment before the storm.

Obligatory shot of my FELIX. Isn’t he a MOVIE STAR?

this week.

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I don’t even know where to begin because every time I open my mouth to make a sound, nothing comes out. Years ago, I pounded away on a keyboard in an office on 53rd Street when a woman, a stranger, called me to say that my father was in the hospital. He’d taken a fall, and I remember leaving the office with only my wallet. I’d been in a middle of an email, about to make a phone call, and I abandoned everything to go to Penn Station. During the hour-long train ride I imagined the unimaginable, and when I finally saw my father, when he was finally home from getting stitches in his head, we had the biggest fight we’d ever had, and I left in tears. I remember shouting that he could’ve prevented this. I remembered saying the words, I’m done.

We didn’t speak for four years. Or three? I can’t really remember. Time is getting lost on me these days.

We made our way back to one another slowly: a few texts here and there, a phone call. During the time we didn’t speak, during the holidays we spent apart, I promised myself that I wouldn’t mother him again. I wouldn’t smother or suffocate; I wouldn’t solve. My father is an adult capable of making his own decisions and he’d need to bear the consequences of them. When we first saw one another for a casual lunch he talked about a pain in his leg and I fought the urge to tell him to go to a doctor. Everything in me stopped myself from dialing numbers and making appointments because it isn’t my job to fix everything.

Without going into too much detail, those words said in passing, I’ve got a pain in my leg, morphed into something tremendous. And here I am, years later, back to where I started. A conversation with my father’s boss sent me into a maelstrom of emails, texts, and phone calls, and I’m utterly depleted. I’ve started a new project this week and all I can think about is my father. The stress is all-consuming, and I don’t think he realizes how his actions affect those around him.

Why is he so fucking stubborn? Why can’t he just fix this?

We had a terrible fight this morning. I’m back here again. Didn’t I learn the first go-around? While I’m aware of the severity of the situation, I’m also acutely attuned to the fact that we may have an argument from which we won’t recover. But maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe I’m being presumptuous and should have more faith. Right now, all I know is that I’m tired.

I scrolled through my Flickr feed this morning and saw these books. And all I want right now is to get lost in this stack and remain there.

Thank you for your lovely comments and notes–I appreciate them more than you know. Please understand that I just don’t have it in me to respond to them right now.

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the road ahead was supposed to be clear + filled with light {long read}

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In the midway of this our mortal life,/I found me in a gloomy wood, astray/Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell,/It were no easy task, how savage wild/That forest, how robust and rough its growth,/Which to remember only, my dismay/Renews, in bitterness not far from death. ― Dante Alighieri, The Inferno

We find ourselves in a tangled, savage forest. The sky is obscured by a copse of trees, and the ground below is cold and damp, like a grave. We cry out for our Virgil because we’ve lost our way. We’ve traveled from uncertain shores and our eyes our heavy and our knees ache for the cold quiet and rest. We consider all that we’ve abandoned and all that lay before us, the weight of it, the mess of it, and we feel trapped in the space between the two. We are our indecision. And because of this, we are here, but we’re not here, and you know how it is.

We were children born out of the wreckage of war and subterfuge, the looming spectre of a great bomb hanging invisible over the dark night, and a belief that every moment was the eve before the end — I had not thought death had undone so many, wrote Eliot, said me — and we felt the aftershocks of this constant fear: the foiled-wrapped salisbury steaks, television shows where the husband and wife slept in twin beds, and a life spread out over the pages of photo albums. We were the children born to a generation who clung to their photographed youth.

We were told that we needed to be smarter, better than what had come before. Our parents played cards with the deeds to their houses in their hands. {It occurs to me now that actors in silent movies — a kind of like life — were called players.} The script we were handed was a repeat of an old theme with minor variations: go to college, work hard, marry, create a life, build a home, believe in a god, and die knowing you did everything you were supposed to. From the womb, we were preached from this guidebook, it left its indelible mark — and we took these words, this outline for a life, as sermon.

Until we grew up and realized that our mothers slipped coins under our beds in exchange for our rotting teeth, and we asked, out loud, How is it possible for Santa to visit every house, slip down every chimney? Until we regarded this outline for a life to be an incomplete story, a narrative in parts, designed by parents who tethered themselves to disquiet. How did we think they knew any better? Because they were older? Because they felt the horror of loss and the banality of life? Or did we, as dutiful children, want to play out their hand?

Once we begin to feel our years, once we get a glimpse of the next generation scratching at our feet, do we realize this: the road isn’t linear. A great life isn’t assured. The maps we were given were drawn by parents who were lost. And we watch this new generation {millennial, Y} subvert every rule we had been taught, and we spit out words such as: entitlement, lazy, impatient, and part of us envies their perceived sense of freedom. They’re writing their own story while we’re fleshing out the outline of our parent’s story. Of course they’re impatient! We only have this one life.

I have a friend who did everything by the script. He went to Harvard + Harvard Law. He worked his way up in a prestigious firm and made this great money, had this great partner, lived this great life, but there was an ache, an emptiness that needed filling for he craved purpose. He craved a life that intermingled his love of law and his passion for writing. I tell him that there is little difference between us since lawyers and writers are consumed by the dissection of a paragraph, a vivisection of the written word. Last year he made the very difficult decision to be a defender of human rights {less money, an uncertain career path}. Now he advocates on behalf of people who don’t have a voice, and he’s nearly done with a novel that was a five-year Odyssey. Now he has time. He wakes with purpose in his heart.

I have another friend, Summer, who’s a prolific artist. I met her twelve years ago when she was strumming a guitar and writing her own songs and bits of poetry. Over a decade I watched her oscillate from story writing, illustrating, painting, and singing — but still the one pure purpose hadn’t revealed itself to her until this past year. A confluence of events, starting with her incredible book being pulled out of print, allowed her to explore what it is she’s meant to do rather than what it is that she should be doing. Did I also mention she’s an incredible mother, devoted wife and extraordinary baker of pies?

It took me 38 years to realize that just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I’m meant to do that something. I refuse to inherit the previous generation’s disquiet. I refuse to make fear-based decisions that are only pragmatic and devoid of wonder.

Summer has combined two art forms to create comics filled with difficult stories. The visual nature of comics is accessible, and the fact that she can overlay painful prose is pretty brilliant. When I last saw Summer, I felt the glow of her and told her that she, as Woolf once wrote, has found her vision. Summer will be 41.

Right now, many of us are in that black forest, that trembling wood, and we are lost. For most of our lives we followed that outline and realized that script allowed for only one path — no deviation, no veer in the wood — and much like our Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy, it took us this long to realize that what the script was missing was life. That we may wake one day and realize our jobs are killing us and we no longer want to be anesthetized. We may wake and look over at our lover and wonder: Could anyone else love me more? We may wake and realize that this life isn’t what we wanted.

What then? We’re in our 30s and suddenly we’re authors and architects, designing a life on the fly. But we don’t have the tools, and is there a store that we can go to buy this life? A book that will tell us what tools we need to use and how to use them? We were instructed to not deviate, but we’ve deviated and what then? Many of us talk about how we can’t fathom the idea of relaxing because we have to work. We were born to.

Over the past year I’ve been playing the hand as it lays — terrifying for someone who is methodical and lives her life so deliberately. I like knowing what’s behind Curtain #2. I prefer the familiar command of the stage and the circus that is the daily workplace performance. I’ve experienced heartache, and professional setbacks that left me confused and questioning my purpose {reading this and this gave me some solace} — until it struck me that I was playing out the very definition of insanity. I was searching for that one, linear path {because for 38 years that’s all I knew}, that constant, the ah! that’s the answer!, when what’s clearly in front of me is non-linear.

One of the many reasons I left my job last year was that I wanted a life where marketing, writing, and food were given equal time on the proverbial playing field — that none of them were to be relegated to the status of changeling. The portfolio career? Possibly. And for the past year I’ve pursued all of these in a very binary fashion. I have my marketing friends, my artist friends, my food friends, and it was only until I saw what Summer did with her life did it make me realize that maybe there is a fusion between these three roles I play that creates a title role, and the rest are merely supporting cast.

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Ask yourself? What is it that you really love? What do you want to spend your days doing? Don’t think about money {as that tends to change the answer into what we should be doing}. For me, it’s writing. It’s writing in different forms. I love novel writing, I love merging image and type in this space through the lens, for the most part, of food. I look at the marketing work I do very simply: How do I tell better stories?

And then I think about prioritization against pragmatic need because I’ve rent, monthly obligations, and credit card/student loan debt. I know that marketing pays my rent and allows me to write and travel, so that gets 40% of my time {I structure most of my major consulting projects where I work 25 hours/week, and take on smaller projects that ensure I don’t mess with this overall mix, but still pay my bills}. Novel writing is a passion (I’m nearly done with my second book) and that gets 30% of my time. And the remaining 30% goes to the ephemeral — all sorts of projects and experiments {travel, food, interviews with people like myself who’ve made a leap over a meal we cook together} that help me constantly hone in on my art but allowing me to be agile enough to keep refining my title role and supporting cast. Because maybe that remaining 30% will allow for something beautiful and magical and unforseen to emerge.

Amidst this forest, having strayed from the path to find my way into dark, I’ve created a structured, unstructured life that allows me to find my way out of the dark by creating my own light.

the things we carry: rape + late-life feminism

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But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

When I was college, I knew two women who had been raped. One Sunday morning we woke to news cameras on campus and tears. A girl I’d known only slightly had been followed home, brutally beaten and assaulted in the basement of the building in which she lived, while her passed out roommates and neighbors lie sleeping. She was coming from a night out with a friend, and her friend watched her walk home for as long as she could, for as long as she could see, and as soon as the woman disappeared a man approached her. He made small talk, and I remembered hearing this woman had been kind. Later, after the woman woke from her coma not realizing what had happened, couldn’t remember the rape, she did recall the man, being scared, and talking in the hope that he might walk away.

But he didn’t.

I remember hearing this story during the second semester of our senior year, and the first thing my roommates and I said — safe in the on-campus apartment complex, guarded by a lone man who often read the paper and waved by drunken college kids flashing their IDs — was thank god we didn’t go through with off-campus housing. The severity with which this woman had been attacked was unimaginable, so much so that we couldn’t say her name without lowering our voices to a whisper. Shuttering our eyes. Maybe thinking, Thank god it wasn’t me. But it could have been me. How many times have I… When the woman returned triumphantly to campus {my god, how did I not tell her then just how fucking brave she was}, the only thing I could say was that I was so sorry. Why is that I waited until this kind woman was raped to talk to her? And even then — a pithy I’m so sorry? Seriously, Felicia? The woman wanted to go with her life, drink with the rest of us during Spring Weekend and be sized for her cap and gown, and I remember a lot of us feeling horrible for what had happened but for some reason we couldn’t separate the woman from the rape. We held her at a remove, and sometimes I think about this — seventeen years later — and wish we weren’t cowards.

We’re told, for as long as we can remember, Don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t make a scene. Don’t make it a thing. Don’t attract attention. We’re told to travel in groups, to look out for one another, to call one another when we made it home to ensure we arrived in-tact, in one piece. We’re given rape whistles, emergency numbers to call, and in the 90s we purchased mace and pepper spray in record numbers. We’re told to hold our keys, look around, don’t walk down dark streets, take alternate routes, calculate the time from the subway to our home and also time the alternate routes. I thought of Tim O’Brien today because, in a way, it feels as if we are constantly strategizing; we are the victims of an endless, unseen and unspoken war, a war in which we know we’ll never be the victor. Instead, we cast our armor, we plot, we devise, we take self-defense classes and vary our routine — we live our lives in perpetual fear and constant defense.

You may shake your head as you’re reading this, you might even say that this is dramatic, that this is an extreme, but I ask you: How many times have you said, without thinking, Get home safe. It only occured to me last night that I say this all the time. It’s an accepted phrase, commonplace, and there’s nothing alarmist about the behavior until we pause for a moment and consider: Safe from what? From whom?

The second rape was tricky. During our freshman year my good friend told me about a rough night she’d had with her boyfriend. They’d be drinking and he forced himself on her. She told me she had said, stop. She told me she had said, No. And I remember shaking. I remember telling her that this was rape. There was no grey area {is there even a grey area? No.}. No confusion. No misunderstanding. She was raped by her boyfriend, and all our other friends told me to shut up.

Because this man was her boyfriend and boyfriends don’t rape their girlfriends.

I ignored them and became vigilant. I confronted him, drunk {not my finest hour}, in public, and called him a date rapist. He played the role of the victim beautifully, so much so that my friends {WOMEN} snapped at me, told me that I was making a fucking scene, and if my friend didn’t think it was an issue who was I, boyfriend-less, virgin Felicia, to “stir up the pot?”

How dare I?

Women shamed me into silence and I was a coward for caving. A semester later, my friend returned to the country from which she’d come, and the man found a girlfriend. It was as if nothing had happened. Looking back, I wish I would have been braver, said something, reported it, shouted louder.

Feminism came late for me. For three years I was one of the very few women working in an investment bank, and amidst the sea of boys and commonplace sexual harassment, women were relegated to two roles: whore and one of the boys. I was slated in the latter, subjected to their just kidding, wink, wink jokes and late nights at strip clubs and bosses who asked me whether I was a virgin, and if I was currently sleeping with anyone. I tacitly accepted this because I was the only woman. Why should I make a scene? How could I raise my voice? For years I worked for, and was mentored by, men {many of whom were great and brilliant and kind}, and I played into the misogyny, rolled my eyes and talked about crazy, dramatic women, and wouldn’t it be easier if I had worked with only men. So much less drama, you know.

I’m not going to talk about the confluence of events that attributed to my awakening, or subject matter with which I’ve found closure in my memoir, but here I am, 38, a loud and unapologetic feminist. A woman who has to endure an endless tirade of concerns after I booked a trip to India {You can’t go to India, they joked. You’ll get raped!}, to which I respond, quite plainly, Do you honestly believe I’m any safer here? A woman who knows a lot of insanely brilliant and beautiful women who DM me on Twitter because they’re afraid of being outspoken, they’re frightened {sadly, and rightly, so} of the consequences they’d face, personally and professionally, if they speak out against everyday sexism. If they talk about their everyday assaults. If they report their rapes. A woman who knows other women who won’t even touch these issues with a ten-foot pole because they have a fancy job in New York, they’re surrounded by great guys, and might even have an amazing, loving boyfriend, so how do these issues affect me again?

Make no mistake, we are not equal.

There’s that distance, that remove, that illusion of equality. I am a woman who actually told a bunch of appalled friends that a former boss who sometimes unbuttoned his shirt in front of me to tuck in his pants, didn’t mean anything by it. I am a woman amongst a sea of senior men who was forced to get a career coach because I had to “harden up,” and not be so emotional {read: compassionate and empathetic} in business. I am a woman who has to mentor other women because they need strong, feminist role models to believe in their self-worth, to speak out against injustice, to know that I’ve got their back. I am a woman who has to constantly think of escape routes, alternate routes, etc, when I walk home alone at night. That’s a lot, A LOT, to carry.

I don’t know what the end of the story is, or how I even arrived at this place, but I do know, and wish for for, this: a day when I can walk through this thicket, alone, without fear. It would be nice to go through it instead of photographing it.

Some recent, incredible reads: A Drop in the Ocean: #YesAllWomen Have Stories Like Mine, You Are Not Defined By Your Tragedy, and To Men Who Ask “What Can *I* Do to Fight Sexism and Misogyny?