I must write: when a woman finally finds her vision

Illustration Credit: Summer Pierre

Illustration Credit: Summer Pierre


Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world. –Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

When I was small I used to watch my mother knit; her thin fingers mastered the tango between two needles as they warred to create a scarf, shawl or blanket. For years I took up mimicry like a kind of cross-stitch, but I failed because the complexity of patterns and needlework subsumed me; the chink of cool metal forever eluded me. Here I was, a child composing haikus likening my mother’s voice to thunder, yet I couldn’t thread a needle. My thread always grazed the eye but never dared plunge through it. And I worried about this. A lot. If I couldn’t conjoin cheap yarn how could I possibly tell stories? How could I step into a world and inhabit it so completely? Words belong to one another, and a writer’s job is to sit amongst spools of thread and weave. Their work lies in creating tapestry, silent symphonies.

I think about the movie, Heat, specifically the “face-to-face” scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

These are two men who are what they go after. Two men who don’t know any other work than the work in which they do; their life is their work, no going back. And although the work is risky–it’s like risk versus reward, baby–the action is the juice. The work, the life, is the reward. Even in moments that feel like plague, when the ground gives way and the fall seems infinite, bottomless, we press on. We carry the weight of the dark on our backs in the journey into the light because all of it, the depth of it, the darkness of it, is worth the stretch.

We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees. —Anne Dillard

A WRITER? Why do you want to be a writer? Writers don’t make any money, said a woman to me once. I remember the way she said writer, as if it were tinged, sullied, a word not worthy of the letters that comprise it. Maybe she thought herself as someone who could wash the stink off me, scrape away at the plaque that had begun to harvest its way into my heart. Because finance will make you clean again. This woman was a managing director at Morgan Stanley and I sat in her office discussing my resignation. I’d just been awarded admission to a fancy writing program and I was jubilant. My work until then had become a blanket intent on smothering me, and all I wanted to do was fucking breathe. For a time I relegated writing to a hobby state while I managed the serious work, my vocation, off to the side. Because I was an adult now. I had student loans now. I had an apartment now. I had a bone-crushing subway commute now. I had my mid-day Starbucks run now. I had happy hour now where everyone was on the road to ruin, night drinking until they saw black, now. I had to wake up now. I had to Monday moan now. I had to do this all over again now. I had to measure my own grave now.

The days had become repeats of themselves with minor variations.

I go through this a lot–trying to deny writing as something serious and true in favor of the work over there. And I always, invariably, come up short. I always end up working myself into a place of despair because while I’m good at what I do–marketing, projections, budgets, brand positioning and planning–it’s not the only thing I’m meant to do.

What I’m meant to do is write. Plain and simple. Although, in reality, not so plain and definitely not so simple, but give me a minute with this.

Illustration Credit: Elle Luna

Illustration Credit: Elle Luna

Over the weekend I read a book in one sitting, an exposition off of a widely-read essay, “The Crossroads of Should and Must”. I remember reading the essay with a considerable amount of interest and passing it along to my friends. I remember being inspired by Elle Luna’s words but untouched. Perhaps I wasn’t primed for confrontation because I was still sorting out the nuances of this freelance life, but now, right now, I’m ready to drive my car off the road.

I’m good at compartmentalizing things, brilliant even. When I resigned from my last job I talked a lot about having room for all my children to play in the proverbial sandbox, that none of them would be considered changelings. That I could practice my writing in one space, my affection for food in another, and finally, the marketing–the bill-paying stuff–in another silo, far over there. Never once did I consider how I could merge the three. How I could seamlessly move from one state of play to another and even imbue my life with play! IMAGINE THAT! Never did I think that three simple children could morph into one complex child.

Never did I realize that I’m now in the midst of my own needlework.

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about my life. That might sound dramatic and it probably is, but when you’re inching your way toward 40 and you’re still in student loan and credit card debt maybe it’s a good idea to take a step back and take stock. I did the 8,760 hour mind map. I read a slew of books. I got angry all over again about shit blogger books getting published while I’m told my strange, beautiful writing will never find a large home (fuck this and the horse you rode in on). I thought about my move to California and the role a foreign place would have in the grand scheme of things (more alone time, more space and less distractions). And after all this noise and mess and thinking (all that yarn!) I asked myself a really simple question:

What brings me joy?

I started to look at everything I did over the course of the day and I realized that my joy lies in writing. Whether I’m working on a brand voice guide or a blog post or a short story, the art of weaving words together challenges and excites me. The art of reading and constantly absorbing information so that I can keep the knife sharp as it were, feels like home.

Writing is home to me.

It’s taken me 39 years of denial to admit that I have to put writing front and center. I have to design a career, a life, around my ability to take up wordsmithing like cross stitch. And I’ve finally landed on an idea that I’ve been sharing with friends over the past few weeks–a consultancy focused on storytelling.

Now, this isn’t about creating content or some other bullshit reductive term that looks fancy on LinkedIN or gets you penning articles for trade publications–as you know I don’t care about exposure or popularity. By default, I’m unpopular and far from mass market. What I’m talking about is the ability to hire me (and down the road, others) to help you create a world or tell stories. From product naming to brand architecture to helping you write your book, I want to be able to practice what I love, what I must do, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Will I fail? Probably. Will I get to connect with talented artists? Absolutely. Will I get better at what I do? You better believe it. Will it take the sting and weight off of having difficulty publishing my own experimental fiction? For the love of god, yes. Will I freak out? Probably once a day, on a good day.

But it’s like risk versus reward, baby.

Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigues, I have had my vision. ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I’ll unveil the official name + all the fireworks in the coming weeks, but for now know that I’ve set down my brush, as Lily Briscoe once did.

Know that I’ve found my vision.

currently reading: new books on the shelf

new books on my bookshelf

Sometimes I read the books I’m unable to write because they inspire the kind of stories and books I can. The other night my friend tells me that she wants to write a book. She looks at me, pauses, and says, Well, not like you. Not the kind of book you’re able to write. We tell stories in order to live, Didion once said, and I remind my friend that this would be a dull world if we all had the capacity to tell our stories in the same way. Years ago I sat in a Columbia writing workshop and someone regarded one of my short stories with disdain, spat out, Family stories are over, Felicia. After I cried into my sleeve in the hallway, I realized her comment was ridiculous.

Every story has been told. The beauty is in its retelling. The magic lies in all the ways in which artists can interpret love, loss, heartbreak, joy, anger, rage, despair. Therein lies the art.

I don’t know how a lot of writers do it. I don’t know how they have the ability to consistently conjure new characters, architect new worlds, so swiftly. Before I sat down to write my latest novel (you know, the brilliant, dark thing that publishers love but are frightened of publishing), I’d already been thinking about these characters for years. While they didn’t have the same names, shapes or features, I was slowly coming to know them much like how I’d know real people, so when the time came to write about them (Kate, Jonah, Gillian, etc), their world came at me like a torrent, fully-realized. I love these characters because they feel like old friends, and I’m struggling to fashion a new world so quickly as all these articles on writing would have me do.

While we try to sell that dark thing over there, my agent tells me to write something new. I thought I had something but it’s nothing substantial, nothing worth occupying my time, so I read and write these small things here wondering if and when something will spark.

I read the spectrum. From Sarah Manguso’s thin but potent meditation on the art of journaling to Katherine Heiney’s razor-sharp and fully-drawn stories about young women tangeled up in love and betrayal, I oscillate between extremes in form and style. I read Bardur Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit (a children’s book that tackles death so beautifully) because I want to remember that the power of a good story lies in the and then what. It also reminds of economy, how writers need to be deliberate, downright surgical with the words they choose. When I was working on my novel I would spend DAYS on a single page, reworking sentences, because every scene, every line, had to be like a koan; everything I write has to be a container filled with multiple meanings.

“I don’t know anything.” It might seem counterintuitive but I try to tell myself this every day when I wake up. It’s quickly becoming my daily mantra. Now, this isn’t some exercise in self deprecation. I simply want to remind myself as soon as I wake up to see the world with clear eyes. —Jory MacKay

And I read Elle Luna’s magical book because I have to remember that I must write, always. I must gather experiences up in my hands so I’m able to write about them because I’m only able to make sense of this life through writing about it. There’s no other way.

And the rest? They’re meant to awaken, inspire me to what’s next. What’s down the road, just beyond my reach.

chocolate banana mousse (vegan)

chocolate banana mousse (vegan)

Yesterday I had lunch with my marvelous agent, Matthew Carnicelli, and I left inspired, invigorated and ready to start another novel. We spoke at lengths about my first book (he’s still making the rounds) and the tremendous feedback it’s received balanced with the fear of publishing my book because it wouldn’t break through, it wouldn’t be big because it’s largely so dark. My book is this beautiful, risky thing, was the constant refrain from book editors, and Matthew and I brainstormed possibilities while he tries to sell this dark little thing I’ve created.

We spent two hours talking about what I write on this space and we decided that what I write here (personal stories connected to food, career advice, issues of race and identity, how I’m redefining success for myself on my own terms) should be kept here. The writing on this space is honest, good, and brings me joy in writing it and sharing it with you. So it’ll stay here and I’m privileged that you’ll bear witness to its inevitable bloom.

I talk about a new project that’s been stirring. The problem with how I write is that I never, ever think of plot, a story fully realized. I start with characters and a few scenes. I figure that if I know the people they’ll do some interesting things and the plot will follow. So I’ve a rather ambitious idea, one that will yank me out of my comfort zone, and it centers around a neighborhood in Brooklyn and a prominent (and potent) Puerto Rican crime family. Naturally, me being me, I have a few fully-realized scenes toward the end of the book, when I laugh and tell my agent this, he rolls his eyes because he’s been down this road with the last book. I always start in the middle of things and give him a 100 pages and inquire whether what I’ve written is any good. It’s always good, he assures me, and I can tell he’s relieved that this story is manageably dark, rather than relentlessly so.

I pause in the middle of our lunch, stir food around on my plate, and ask, timidly, the novel isn’t that dark, is it? He laughs because what I’ve asked states the obvious, because the title of my book is Follow Me Into the Dark, and he says, Felicia, it’s dark. But it’s also beautiful and good and we’ll find it a home.

I left reminded of the singular rule I was always taught in graduate school. Don’t just lean your hopes on this one great thing. Write new books, tell new stories, scatter them like confetti all over the place. So this is me, investing more time here, more time away from here. Writing. Creating something new. Every day.

INGREDIENTS
2 medium ripe bananas
½ ripe avocado (3/4 cup)
¼ cup cacao powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp maple syrup (or honey)
½ tbsp water

DIRECTIONS
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and blend for 30 seconds or until smooth and well combined. I added cacao nibs and pistachios to my mousse, however, I can imagine this would be AMAZING with some whipped coconut cream. I let this chill in the fridge for an hour before serving.

chocolate banana mousse (vegan)

climbing out of the dark + living the questions

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Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms, or books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. –Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” (via)

I’ve been having a dark time. Even as I type that I laugh because it’s silly to think that time is something you can hold in your hands; that it’s something you’re able to possess, own. I’ve been thinking about time a lot–I suppose this is the sort of thing one does when they’ve reached the midway point in their life. We think about the moment and all the ones that eclipsed it, and we wonder not about what we’ve gained, but rather what it is we’ve lost. Time takes it all, it’s true, but I wonder if it’s possible that it seized more because I feel like the decision I made to join, and subsequently become part owner of an agency, veered me radically off course. While I know that the woman who sits here typing this is changed, is resolute and centered, I mourn the before. The woman who had so much velocity, wonder and ambition. The woman who launched a dot.com luxury resale business when none existed simply because she was told that there would be no other kind of work than the kind she’d been doing. Banking and the like–creating nothing, owning nothing–merely a chess player of paper. The woman who published a literary journal because she never quite fit in with the smart set who hailed from learned homes and prestigious east coast schools (even though she attended two of them)–the set who mainly published their own. She created this online home, this book of paper, because she wanted to surround herself with misfits, the people who didn’t get internships at The New Yorker, the people who didn’t have ICM agents by the time they were 25. The woman who nearly launched a nonprofit to help disadvantaged women in Brooklyn because she wanted to give back. The woman who wrote and published a book. The woman who…

You have to understand that sometimes I need third person. So bear with me.

The difference between youth and maturity, Andrew Solomon writes in an award speech, is patience. We’re hungry when we’re young, ravenous even–we wanted things to have happened yesterday, whereas the mature has slowed down a bit, is content with the right now; they plan for what’s to come. Solomon writes:

Youth is notoriously impatient, even though there is no need for impatience early on, when people have the time to be patient. In middle age, the wisdom of patience seems more straightforward, but there aren’t so many days left. But Rilke is correct that we must all write as though eternity lay before us. Enjoy the flexibility that span of eternity offers. The discourse between the young and the nostalgic retains some of its inherent poetry in the form of a longing intimacy. The freshness of younger people awakens memories in older ones—because though you, young writers, are yourselves at the brink of your own future, you evoke the past for those who came before you.

I think about the woman who kept moving and the woman who has been put on pause, and I wonder about reconciling the two. Because right now I feel stuck in the in-betweens. I don’t have the speed I once possessed, but part of me doesn’t want all of it, just a little of it. I think about children, how, for a time, everything is a first. There is no sense of risk or loss–they are reckless, they weave down streets like spools of thread let loose upon the pavement, while adults walk a fixed line. We sometimes get frustrated when we have to walk around children because they’ve deviated off course. Or perhaps we’re just a little too fixed in our purpose; maybe we’ve drawn a line that’s too rigid.

Solomon writes: As you ripen, you’ll notice that time is the weirdest thing in the world, that these surprises are relentless, and that getting older is not a stroll but an ambush.

I feel ambushed, confused. I was on a clear course, a road that lie ahead of me, and now I’m all over the place. Nearly 40, I’m rootless, directionless. I read a post about an itinerant writer who’s fond of books. Frankie doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of the New York literary success story (and trust me, I’m paying Frankie the greatest of compliments writing this) but she writes and writes and doesn’t care if it’s published in the way we’ve traditionally conceived of publishing. She must know that others exist, others who publish with Knopf, those who are celebrated by a small circle of like-minded people who believe that there are so many small dark books getting published because they’re the representative sample! Their small, dark books are getting published! Yet, they fail to see the world at scale because it’s blissful to be amongst the familiar.

I’m sure Frankie knows all of this, yet she doesn’t seem to care. And I admire her that–her lack of ego, her volition to write simply to create. Because, frankly, I do feel bruised. I wrote an extraordinary book, one whose prose and themes far surpass those of my first book, and while so many editors penned long paragraphs remarking on my skill, poise and prowess, my novel’s just too risky, too small, too difficult. Too many unrelatable characters (because, you know, great literature is filled with relatable people. /sarcasm). And this hurt for a time, especially when I’m surrounded by so many wonderful writers succeeding. While I want nothing more than their success, it doesn’t take the sting out of my rejection. I was almost willing to give up until my agent wrote me this extraordinary note telling me that no way in hell are we giving up on this book. That I should never judge my talent and worth by whether or not some editor chooses to publish what I write. The two, he’s often told me, are mutually exclusive.

That we can create something new beyond traditional publishing. That there’s a way to share my work in the world. Because fuck Knopf. Fuck the smart set. Part of me needs to reach back to that woman who didn’t care about any of it and created anyway.

I also thought about my career and part of me feels stalled because I haven’t yet undone 20 years of believing that one had to work a certain way. I admire millennials, I do, because they have this arcane way of seeing the world, rejecting it, and building anew. They shirked traditional office environment and launched start-ups and collaboratives. They redefined work while my generation scrambled to throw glitter on shit office environments and label what they’ve done as innovative. Millennials said fuck you and your definition of success. We’ll define it for ourselves, thank you very much. We have a watch; we know what time it is.

I read an article today about the importance of playing small. Tad writes,

Who’s to say that those reaching hundreds of thousands will have a bigger impact than those who only ever reach 100 but very deeply? No one. That’s who. Niching, the finding of our role in the community, will always and forever be the dance between width and depth. And they’re both equal and needed. We need people working broad and shallow. And we need people working narrow and deep. And everywhere in between. The only question worthy of being asked is, ‘What is it that you see missing that you want to give? And how do you want to give it?’ That’s it. There’s no right answer. And then how do you make it financially sustainable?

For so long I’ve espoused this minimal life, owning only what you need and love, and never did I consider that ideology could flow into my creative and professional life. We’re taught to produce, to produce, to produce more, faster, better, smarter, and it just occurred to me that I actually don’t want a big life. I nearly had an anxiety attack when 30,000 people came to my site in a span of a few days. I can count on my two hands the number of close people in my life. I only survived hosting readings and attending fancy book parties because I was drunk 75% of the time. While I was a partner in an agency responsible for client acquisition, I often brought a hungry and savvy coworker who was all too happy to work the room on my behalf.

It occurs to me that I’m not built for a big life so why do I think I need it? Why do I think I need the book deal, the big job, the everything?

I don’t. I just realized that today and, after a few months of subsisting on my own sadness, did I finally see a small flicker of light. A flame, really, but light nonetheless.

My friends have been telling me that I’m going to be all right. Out of everyone they know, I’m the one they never have to worry about. I guess that’s flattering, but I’m not sure I believe that I have this strange ability to always know when to flee a house just as it sparks, glows aflame. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m moving and I’m exhilarated and terrified, and I really wish people would stop asking me questions and insist I perform only the excited dance. What I do know is that I live to write and I have to keep doing it regardless if it finds a traditional home. What I do know is that parts of my life were big and I fled it with abandon, in favor of the small, and now I want something that lingers in between.

We’ll see.

Note: I’ve removed comments from this post because this is one of the hardest I’ve written and I need to get it out without advice, or people remarking that this goddess bowl looks delicious or the photography is pretty or that I’m going to make it. While I do love and respect all of that, right now I need quiet. I need to sort out my thoughts and find my way back to the light, and I need to do that without the sound of anyone’s voice or words written below this post. I hope you understand.

INGREDIENTS: Protein Power Goddess Bowl recipe from the Oh She Glows Cookbook, with minor modifications
For the dressing
1/4 cup tahini
2 garlic cloves minced.
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast or a bit more, to taste (I nixed this)
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, to taste
1 tsp kosher salt + freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

For the protein bowl
1/2 cup black beluga lentils
1/2 cup green lentils
1 15oz can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil, for sautéing
1 small shallot, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large yellow tomato, chopped
3 cups lacinato kale, roughly chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
kosher salt + black pepper, to taste

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DIRECTIONS
For the tahini dressing: Add all of the ingredients to a food processor (or blender). Blitz and set aside.

For the protein bowl: Cook lentils according to package directions. Typically, lentils are 3:1, so I add 3 cups of water for every cup of lentils. After 25 minutes of simmering, I drained the lentils and set aside.

In a large skillet over low-medium heat, add the olive oil and sauté the chopped onion and minced garlic for a few minutes, being careful not to burn. Turn the heat up to medium and add in the chopped red pepper and tomato and sauté for another 7-8 minutes, or until all of the water evaporates from the tomatoes. The last thing anyone wants is a watery protein bowl. No bueno.

Stir in the chopped kale and sauté for another few minutes, just until tender. Stir in the full batch of tahini-Lemon dressing, the cooked & drained grains and lentils, the chickpeas, and simmer on low for another few minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the minced parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with lemon wedges and zest. Makes 6 cups.

protein power bowl

grain-free dark chocolate chip peanut butter banana bread

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Today I spent the morning with one of my closest friends. Angie’s one of the few people with whom I can completely be myself. We’re quiet when we speak, there’s no artifice, and I often show up to her house in leggings, hair undone, face scrubbed clean. She has two beautiful and brilliant children, and some of her time is spent tending to them, swapping out the books they read and giving them seaweed and rice when they’re hungry. I admire her tenderness, the incredible way in which she’s able to remember the details. Although I don’t harbor any desire for children of my own, I love watching the love that binds her family. It’s this love that she brings to our friendship, one that has lasted for over a decade. I’ll walk through her door and remind her that I’m 4% Asian, to which she responds that’s nowhere near Asian (she’s Korean), and after we laugh over our private, long-running joke, we talk about our day.

I tell Angie I love her as often as I can.

What I don’t tell her enough is how much I enjoy how we pass our time. She’s busy, an ambitious executive who’s also a devoted mother and wife. I know her time is scarce so I tell her that I don’t care how we spend it, as long as it’s us, talking. And I know this may sound strange, but she has a car and nothing pleases me more than to be in it while she drives. It reminds me of childhood, how I’d spend hours in a car with my pop and we’d talk about everything and nothing all at once. Angie’s like this, and I realize most of our time is spent in her car or in her dining room (I’m sitting; she’s in the kitchen), and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Today, I came for breakfast and I brought her this bread and it shocked her that something that’s gluten and dairy free could be so light, so moist, so holy-shit good. I spend time with her husband because he and I are so similar, and we always have something to talk about–our shared love of books (I envy their library), food and films. Today I told him that Angie saved my life. Did you know that? Your wife saved my life? That I was determined to drink and ruin, and she got me straight again? She drove me to Felix? Did I tell you about your incredible wife?

But then, the drive! As soon as she told me that she needed to make a run to Whole Foods for a dinner she was preparing for tonight, I was JUBILANT. She apologized for inviting me along for an errand with her son, and I told her that she’s crazy. Food, a car, my closest friend and a little boy who loves books–this is how I wanted to spend my morning.

I’m starting to realize that as I grow older I become conscious of time. I become conscious of getting lean. I don’t need a fancy dinner out or something to do, rather sometimes it’s really nice to spend the morning with your closest friend, eating banana bread. Sometimes the world is as simple and beautiful as that.

INGREDIENTS: Adapted from The Paleo Kitchen Cookbook
3 large bananas
4 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
2/3 cup organic cane sugar
1/2 cup coconut flour (you may think this is not a lot, trust me, coconut flour needs a ton of liquid to absorb)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup dark chocolate chips
Pinch of fine-grain sea salt

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-by-5-inch metal loaf pan and line it with parchment paper.

Combine the bananas, eggs, coconut oil, sugar, and peanut butter in a food processor or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix until the ingredients are well blended. Add the coconut flour, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, and salt and continue to mix until all the ingredients are well combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the middle. Circulate half-way through. If the bread becomes too dark (somewhere around the 30 minute mark), tent with tin foil. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan on a cooling rack for 15 minutes before serving.

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you might not fall in love with me, but you might think me less strange (or maybe not?)

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Last weekend, like Hallie, I read a piece in the Times about falling in love. I found the article fascinating and strange, simply for the fact that love is elusive. While I love my friends and my father (and cat!) deeply, I’ve only fallen in love once, and, in retrospect, I didn’t love him in the way I see how others love. I let him in, but not all the way, and I wonder about my ability to take a hammer and chisel and break all that I’ve built. If anything, I’m in the best place for it, so we’ll see what happens.

I know this may sound strange, but I never participate in online group activities, memes, etc, not because I have any aversion toward it, I just find it hard to be part of a group activity with strangers/online acquaintances. I get vertigo leaving blog comments; I read online spaces I like to visit privately, because there’s something about this anonymity that comforts me, however, I was so intrigued by Hallie’s ingenious take on the Times article (turning it into a dialogue between people who set up shop with their online spaces and those who read them) I decided to take inspiration from her post and post answers to some of the questions here.

Hope you enjoy, and feel free to ask me any of the other questions from the article, which I haven’t answered. :)

Also, I’m recovering from food poisoning (don’t even ask), so I’m a little ravaged and delirious.

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Would you like to be famous? In what way? Absolutely not. Fame doesn’t interest me because fame is really about tending to an inflamed ego. While I do want people to read and care about what I create, I take pleasure in the fact that I will never be mass market; I will never have to wade through thousands of comments on this space. I get anxiety if I’ve more than 10 emails in my inbox, so I’d rather skirt the edges of things and find my tribe as it happens.

Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why? No. I just play it as it lays.

When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else? I sang R.E.M.’s “King of Birds” while I was writing a blog post this week (I had the video playing on loop as I type–I tend to write to music). I don’t sing in front of other people, and I think this might be the greatest gift I could give any of my friends.

If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want? My body because I didn’t know, at 30, nearly as much as I do now. I’d rather have the perspective of age. However, the notion of running up a flight of stairs at 90 is thrilling. I want my body as a means to move, rather as a figment of vanity.

Name three things you and your readers appear to have in common. It’s hard because I know many folks don’t comment on some of the more personal aspects of my work, however, I will say that those who do also are on a journey of self-exploration. We’re all at different stages of it, but we’re all examining our lives and asking ourselves if we’re really living it. Which is awesome. In that way, writing these posts makes me feel less alone.

For what in your life do you feel most grateful? My friends who are my family. I don’t have any lineage to speak of–I am the last of my kind, so it feels good to be surrounded by people who truly feel that I’m their kin.

If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? To always see life through the eyes of a child, to never lose the sense of wonder, even as adults we’re busy chipping it away. I want to feel firsts; I want surprise; I want wide-eyes and cackling laughter.

If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know? When will I die, and how.

Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it? I’ve always wanted to pick up and travel the world for a year. Truthfully, I make excuses for why I can’t do this (finances and debt burdens) and I also have a cat, and I’d be sad to leave him behind.

What is the greatest accomplishment of your life? Giving the greatest gift I could give to myself: my life back to myself, i.e., my sobriety.

What do you value most in a friendship? Loyalty, integrity, kindness, compassion.

What is your most treasured memory? Let me get back to you on this. This question actually stumped me because I don’t have one that stands apart from the rest. Oh wait, I’m answering these questions from the bottom up and it occurs to me that my sobriety stands out as a moment worth treasuring.

If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why? I’d probably leave New York the next day (sooner than my intended departure) because I want to feel what it’s like to uproot and planet anew.

What roles do love and affection play in your life? I often talk about one’s body as their home, house and refuge. I’m finally at place where I want to build and preserve this home rather than burn it to the ground. And I think, in that self-love, I’m at a place to love someone else. Candidly, my love life is one aspect of my life I’ll never share online. Maybe to let you know if I got married, but that’s pretty much it. Even my close friends consider me CIA when it comes to my love life, so there’s that.

Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your readers. Share a total of five items. You are so fucking smart, it blows my mind.

motherHow do you feel about your relationship with your mother? She was my first and only hurt. I don’t love her. I wrote about our life in my first book, and I have no interest in returning to that dark country.

If you were going to become a close friend with your readers, please share what would be important for him or her to know. I need my space and quiet. Sometimes I prefer that we not occupy every moment with chatter.

Tell your readers what you like about them; be very honest, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met. I love how many of you have brought your personal souls to bear on this space. You’ve shared intimate parts of yourself, and I know that isn’t easy and I truly am humbled by it. And while some just come here for the pictures and the recipes (and that’s fine), I love how others truly read and connect with some of the longer pieces I’ve written.

Share with your readers an embarrassing moment in your life. I was an alcoholic for the bulk of my 20s and early 30s so every weekend was pretty much an embarrassment.

When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself? I cried after I first saw my father struggling to shift in his bed after his double hip replacement surgery. I stood outside North Shore Hospital, waiting for my taxi, weeping. I don’t really cry in front of people that often, but I remember breaking down in front of my best friend when I relapsed after being sober for nearly seven years. That was a 18 months ago.

If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet? I wish I would’ve told my mother that I loved her once, but it breaks my heart that she’ll never be the mother or woman I want her to be. I’ve no interest in re-opening that door, so I’ll live with that regret and I’m fine with it.

Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? My computer. It holds all of my writing. I was initially going to say my passport, but all papers can be created anew.

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some thoughts on the art of writing, because there’s a lot of garbage out there

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Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer…Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page. –Zadie Smith

I’m going to say something that’s a bit controversial: there’s a deluge of terrible writing on the internet. What I love about the online space and the advent of digital technology–the democratization of voices and the ease in which unknown greats can rise above the din and find shelter with a receptive audience–has also given way to the sense that everyone who has a piece of virtual real estate can call themselves a writer and live this carefully curated “writer’s life,” replete with a gleaming laptop, unsullied notebooks, and a weathered coffee mug. I never quite understood this notion of a romanticized writer’s life because when I attempted such a life it was rife with financial anxiety and the paralyzing fear that I wasn’t any good–I always thought I was second-rate. While there are so many resources devoted to the art of making one a better writer by refining some of the technical aspects of the craft, for me the art of writing is simple: you’re either an artisan of language or you’re not.

There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character tries to explain his enormous gift:

Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.

Writers can dissect the process of how they architect and develop characters, scene and story, but ask them how they’re able to create music with a strange combination of words and they go mute. How do you explain that you’re able to see the world and translate it in a way that moves people? That there’s beauty in the arrangement of words, how a writer’s able to describe an object or emotion that puts someone else’s heart on pause. Writers are downright surgical about how and what they write, and every one of them will tell you that they write from a compulsive place, from a desire to tell a particular story. They don’t write because they want to, it’s because they have to. And while a writer can study craft and technique, at the end of the day you either can play or you can’t.

Last year I was in a slump. I witnessed mediocrity get rewarded with microfame and book deals. I watched brilliantly-crafted novels go unnoticed in favor of poor fiction with its grating, overwritten prose and characters void of complexity. I read a lot of lists and scrolled through what seemed like a labyrinth of quizzes, wondering, does anyone feel anything? Are we simply a character in a sitcom? Are we reduced to a top-ten list that’s meant to define the whole of us? Are we happy with this? Are we content with art that is compressed, regurgitated and made to go “viral” with a string of keywords and a nonsensical image? (I harbor a desire to torch anyone who doesn’t use this word sardonically). I read scores of blogs written by people who care only to publish a book because it would bolster their “brand,” as opposed to having a fervent desire to create art, to tell a story that will leave its indelible mark.

Basically, I read a lot of shit on the internet. A towering inferno of it.

And yes, mediocrity has always existed and has always been rewarded (I would argue not as handsomely). And yes, life is cruel and unfair. And yes, great writing will always, inevitably, find its place in the world. But it’s hard, as someone who writes tough, dark books and reads them as passionately as I write them, to know that this democratization has also opened the floodgates of shit, and it’s upon the reader to sift through the rubble to find what’s meaningful. To see that which is good. Also, I wonder whether we’ve been exposed to so much shit that what we think is good is no longer? I don’t know how to answer any of this–I just wonder.

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Illustration Credit: John Alcorn, via

Last year I purchased and read a lot of books. Many of which were remarkable. Many of which were shit. I’d nearly given up hope (call it end-of-year dramatics, and I acknowledge my proclivity toward it) and then I started the year off reading a succession of good fucking books that made me feel the way books should–they gave me hope.

Likeable characters bore the fuck out of me. If I want a shiny, happy life I only need to scroll through popular Instagram feeds rather than spend 300 pages cuddled up next to it. I read to get uncomfortable, to learn, to gain perspective and be transformed in some way. And reading has made me a better writer, not simply for the techniques learned from authors I admire, but for how good books drive me to go deeper with my scalpel until there’s nowhere else to go. If given the chance to write from the perspective of a nice girl who gets her heart broken and perseveres or from one of a sociopath, know that I would choose the latter. I’m fascinated by people who harbor a degree of darkness, characters who are flawed and complex. These are people who have been through war and are still dressing their wounds. I sometimes like novels that are unresolved or bleak because sometimes this is life, and the reading of this gives one wisdom, makes them see the world differently.

After I read Sonya Hartnett’s What the Birds See, I joked to a friend that I should move to Australia because they would be receptive to the kinds of books I want to write. I’m fascinated by children, how they’re untouched and innocent, and I’m even more fascinated when I see them interact with adults, because adults always find ways to ruin the worlds children have built, brick by brick, intentional or unintentional. There is no Santa Claus, that overheard argument, the parents who fall out of love as quickly as they took up lovemaking like cross stitch–Hartnett writes about the vulnerability and breakability of children. I set down her book and nodded my head and said, these are the kind of books I always seek to write: dark, elegant, fragile and visceral.

I followed Harnett’s novel with My Brilliant Friend–the first in a tetralogy of Neopolitan novels about a lifelong friendship–and consumed it so voraciously that I immediately ordered the second two books. Next up is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women–more tales about eccentric, beguiling and flawed, yet beautiful, women (notice a pattern?).

Terrible writing will always frustrate me, but I’m trying to train myself to sift through and discover the voices that seek to shout above the din of listicles and storytelling that solely serves as a traffic-driving authenticity device. But this is often my flaw–I’ll fixate on the shit at the expense of what’s really good and pure.

Work in progress, people. Work in progress.

on this imminent nomad life: you can roam if you want to

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If it’s darkness we’re having, let it be extravagant. –from Jane Kenyon’s “Taking Down the Tree”

Remember “Roam”? If I go back to 1989, I’ll find a girl obsessed with Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, Winona Ryder and Nine Stories. I prefered books written by alcoholics (Hemingway, Cheever), social deviants (Dostoevsky) and the compulsively mad (Sexton, Plath). Routinely, I was summoned to the guidance counselor’s office because I penned stories about small girls hanging from ropes tied to trees–is there something wrong at home? the counselor timidly inquired, to which I’d respond, no, there’s nothing wrong and think, of course there’s something wrong. Why else would I spend a childhood, a life, living in my own head? A girl called Jody use to steal lines from poems I’d written and claimed them as her own, even though she didn’t understand what she’d copied. Back then nobody wanted to know. We lived for the pinprick of anesthesia. Blindness was a constant state.

My worldview was pessimistic, bleak–why else would R.E.M. foretell our doom? It’s the end of the world as we know of it, and the like. I remember assembling a presentation (it was probably for English class, where I practiced most of my teenage dramatics) and blasting the close to “King of Birds”: Everybody hit the ground, everybody hit the ground, because everything around me teetered on ruin.

Naturally, I was sent to the guidance counselor’s office. Again.

I was forever in the guidance counselor’s office. The same woman who cajoled me would later encourage me to only apply to local colleges and state schools, and was visibly shocked when I received scholarships from U Penn, NYU, and Boston University. I hated my high school so much that when I received my ten year reunion notice (a meetup at a fucking pancake house?!), I wanted to torch the computer where the email resided.

In 1989, I cowered in corners, mute, scribbling into notebooks or in the margins of the novels I read. While girls rode in cars with their glossed lips and Liz Claiborne bags during the day, and snuck beers and drove drunk around Grant Park in the evening, I consulted maps and real estate listings. I was in the business of migration. For as long as I could remember, our family was itinerant. Home was a place where mail was simply forwarded. Whether we were dodging loan sharks, eviction notices or months of unpaid rent, we’d pack the whole of our lives in cardboard boxes and had hope that this new town, this new home, would deliver us a better life. We staked our hearts on that deliverance. Sometimes, hope can be a fever, a sickness, because we’d invariably unpack the same old darkness. Hang the same sadness in our freshly-painted closets. After school, my pop and I would drive all over Long Island just to pass the time, just to drive. And if there is one memory from my teenage years worth preserving, worth pulling out of a fire, it’s me and my pop in a car, driving.

Even now, he’ll pick me up from the train station and ask if I want to go for a drive.

In 1989 I was 14, and I regarded the B-52s with their hallucinogenic outfits and towering bouffants with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. Who had money to roam around the world when Con Edison routinely pinched the gas and shuttered all the lights? How does one roam the world without wings (planes?) without wheels (cars)? Were we supposed to pull on our Reeboks and hoof it? And why was everyone in the video happy and clapping? How could anyone be happy in 1989, I thought.

Last weekend, I take slow steps with my pop. I visit him a few times a week at his rehab center in Long Island, and I bring him food, make him laugh and applaud his progress in physical therapy. I tell him that every step forward without pain is a victory. He holds my hand, squeezes it, and tells me that he loves me so much. Sometimes it scares me how much I love him. I tell him about Montana, New Mexico, California and Washington. I tell him about my plan to move four points west, and he laughs at the idea of me surrounded by ranchers. He can picture it but he can’t. He tells me I need to do this, I need to go.

I make him promise me that we’ll run as fast as our legs can carry us before I leave. I want to see you run, I say. He laughs and tells me that he wants to see me run too.

I’ve decided that my first stop will be Montana, late summer. Part of me is thrilled, part of me is frightened, and I know whenever I’m scared I take comfort in reading. Over the past few weeks, I’ve read dozens of articles, essays and short stories about the business of leaving. About roaming. About yanking up roots and re-planting. About the beauty in the harvest. A few of my favorites are below–I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

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  • Chelsea of Frolic! on her year-long European odyssey: “Seeing the world enlightens me. This trip was about facing the nagging wanderlust that had been bugging me for years and getting back to gardening, hence the farm stays. I have a blurry picture of what it is I want to do at the end of this and am figuring it out along the way. I’ve told myself it’s ok not to be overly ambitious right now. I keep busy with work, creative projects, and soaking up my environment but it’s definitely a slower pace than I lived at home and I think that’s ok for me right now.”
  • Laura Jane of Superlatively Rude on picking up and moving to Bali: “The best thing that happened to me in 2014 was being let go from my job. That job held so many excuses for me. I couldn’t work on my book, because where was the time? I couldn’t travel, because I only got three weeks a year. Hell! I couldn’t even take a sick day without my pay being docked. I spent ten hours a week commuting on the central line – FORTY HOURS A MONTH! A WHOLE WEEK’S WORTH OF WORK! – spending my cash on £8.95 salads at lunch because “I deserved it”. It was inferred daily that my work had limited value. To not have an opinion. To not make a fuss.”
  • The esteemed Pico Iyer (I just love his essays) on foreignness: “This is the point of the foreign. We don’t travel halfway across the world to find the same things we could have seen at home. Those who undertake long and dangerous journeys have every incentive in stressing their discovery of a world far better than the one they left behind.”
  • Russell V. J. Ward on how living abroad changes everything: “Things that were once important no longer matter. Things that didn’t seem important before now matter more. The value of friendship is paramount. Familiarity is a forgotten concept and you don’t take anything for granted. The act of moving abroad made you realize that “things” don’t equal happiness. In fact, you start to redefine your original idea of success.”
  • Clemantine Wamariya on traveling to 10 countries in 1 year: “I began this nine-month journey with an open mind and a grand hunger to learn. What I came to realize is that the world is a very small town. We are all neighbors. Be kind. Be gentle. And — always — eat.”
  • Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo, text graphic my own.

    books worth reading: a year-end compilation

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    Years ago, I used to keep a running list of books I’d read over the course of a year. The habit started in 2002 when I resolved to read 52 books in one year (I ended up reading 60), and it continued through the greater part of this decade, except the past few years when I was too busy trying to fix my life instead of tracking it. And while I loathe year-end round-ups of any variety, I do see the value in keeping a list of books I’ve read. In the same breath I can provide a smart book recommendation while seeing where my head was at over the course of the year. Looking back at all of these stories, it occurs to me that I was drawn to people who were lost and broken but set out on the road to self-repair.

    Candidly, I purchased many more books than the 25 I read this year. Some were epic disappointments (I might be the only person on this planet who couldn’t get into Ben Lerner’s latest), some still remain on my to-read stack (Lydia Millet, Darcey Steinke–I’m coming for you come January), and others I couldn’t read because the prose style or story was too close to that of my own novel.

    Paul H. Connolly’s On Essays: A Reader for Writers | Marilynne Robinson’s Lila | Peter Chapman’s Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World
    Jessie Hartland’s Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child | Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn | Katie Crouch’s Abroad | Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man | Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park | Molly Wizenberg’s Delancey | Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen | Celebrating You (and the beautiful person you are) | It’s Gonna Be Okay | Lydia Millet’s Magnificence | Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure | Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch | Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude | Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable | Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply | Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls | Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business | Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal | Alejandro Junger’s Clean Gut: The Breakthrough Plan for Eliminating the Root Cause of Disease and Revolutionizing Your Health | April Peveteaux’s Gluten is My Bitch | Nadya Andreeva’s Happy Belly

    literary gems: paul h. connolly’s essay collection: on essays

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    Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup. And quite naturally we laughed at her, laughed the way we did at the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary. And we kinda hated her too, hated the way we did the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn’t halfway play hide-and-seek without a goddamn gas mask. Miss Moore was her name. –From Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson”

    Sometimes a piece of writing will seize you, will put your heart on pause and make you come down to your knees because you feel just like that. Because the arrangement of words–and that’s what good writing is really, the delicate dance between rhythm and type–made you see the world for what it is, or perhaps it made you see something about yourself, or others, differently. For me, the power of prose is in the author’s ability to give me second sight. There’s a tree in the middle of a forest, but it’s not really a tree because it reminds you of a moment in your childhood when the forest was your house and the tree was your mother’s hair and all you wanted to do was climb up and in. A good writer arranges words in such a way that you just don’t see the tree, you see above, beyond, under, over and through it to something else, something other.

    You are, if nothing else, a fakir.

    I’ve been in a funk lately. I’ve dozens of books that I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t. And after completing an exhausting round of necessary revisions on my manuscript, the idea of committing to a whole new world felt unbearable. I’ve just returned from battle, and now you’re asking me to jump once more unto the breach, dear friends? COME NOW. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, I’m still waiting on finalized contracts for two projects and who knows if I’ll ever sell this dark novel. So I set aside all the novels in favor of an essay collection I picked up on the street a few weeks back. A man was moving out of his home and he put out, quite literally, hundreds of books onto the street. I’m talking first editions. I’m talking Cynthia Ozick, Amy Hempel, Janet Malcolm, and Philip Roth. I nearly had a seizure and I took as many books as I could carry (40) and rushed on home to pore over my loot.

    Can I tell you that I spent the day with Paul H. Connolly’s On Essays: A Reader for Writers? This out-of-print collection is so obscure it was challenging to locate it online (Amazon doesn’t stock it, but your local library might). A pity, really, because the collection is so remarkable, and part me of me wanted to retitle the subtitle to: A Reader for Anyone Who Likes to Read. The 56 essays examine the symbiotic nature between character and style. The essays are relatively short, but potent, and what’s remarkable is that the essays are satisfying for any reader, however, for the writer, they provide an excellent blueprint for how many authors found their voice and style.

    Virginia Woolf, my hero, who brought modernist, experimental fiction to the fore (DYK that Mrs. Dalloway influenced Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude? Fun fact, right?) displayed her elliptical relationship between time and the interior/exterior world in “Gas.” Sure, the essay is about tripping out on gas during a perfunctory visit to the dentist, however, you start to see how the interior (the mind) is able to move through time and space and worlds while one is confined to a chair in a state of semi-consciousness. You can see how she plays with the juxtaposition of time (the dentist visit is short but your travel and imagination makes it feel as you’ve endured years)–both devices were the foundation for her later works, notably, The Waves (one of my favorite books!!!) and Mrs. Dalloway. I also chuckled reading her rage blackout confrontation with E.M. Forrester in “A Writer’s Diary,” over women being passed over for literary prizes.

    In Connolly’s collection, you’ll find essays from Joan Didion (her landmark essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” is an obvious must-read. Then again, anything of Didion’s should be required reading), Calvin Trillin, George Orwell, E.B. White, Susan Sontag (my god, “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-down or Power Source?“), and finally Toni Cade Bambara!

    There’s so much I love, and can learn from, Bambara. I’ve always been taught that if the style of what you’re trying to achieve subsumes the meaning, the style is a disservice. Writing shouldn’t call attention to itself, shouldn’t be hyper-stylized, rather the work should be speak as a whole, as a brilliant symphony of language, tone, depth and meaning. The brilliance is in the balance, and I love how Bambara’s style is visual, visceral and dramatic. Read “The Lesson,” and you’ll see what I mean. She’s telling you a story and you can hear and feel her on the page. Her language sometimes drifts from Standard English (Junot Diaz got this too, when he refused to translate from the Spanish in Drown). On a technical level, she’s a dream for me because I’m obsessed with cadence and rhythm. I read everything I write out loud, every time, just so I can hear if it’s right. It has to sound melodic, musical, potent, for me to commit to it. And like the accumulation of notes, every line has to work in conjunction with what preceded it and the line that’s about to be written. On a pure story level, her writing is smart, funny, sharp, honest, and it brings me back to old Brooklyn, when I was from around the way and boys would conversate.

    I haven’t been inspired in so long, and finding Bambara was a gift. I’ve ordered all of her books and I can’t wait to dive in.

    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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    gluten-free almond honey cake

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    It always amazes me how the smallest of lights can shine so brightly. While I spent the week moping, lamenting for a life that could have been but isn’t, I came across this article in Publisher’s Weekly, a trade mag for those who geek out on publishing stories. I’m not entirely sure how I discovered Anna Watson Carl, but I remembered admiring her photography and being enamored by her food philosophy–food being the thing that binds people, and how meals have this arcane way of cultivating lasting, rich relationships. Food is primal, and the fact that we share our basest of needs with someone else means something. Or at least it does to me. And Anna.

    I also admired Anna’s spirit, her desire to not be tethered to publishing schedules and editorial conformity. Rather, she would create the cookbook she wanted, on her own terms, on her own schedule. I supported her Kickstarter, and was jubilant to have received her book a month later.

    Friends, this book is worth owning. These are the kind of meals you make for gatherings, for your beloveds. You toast minor victories and major celebrations with the dishes in Watson’s cookbook. From rosemary biscuits with fig jam and prosciutto (alas, there is gluten in this book, but there are plenty of gf options) to spicy black bean soup and roasted winter squash with kale and pomegranate seeds–you will want to cook everything in this book. The photography is simple, clean and austere, yet the food is welcoming and warm, and this juxtaposition–the beauty of food and the warmth of it–always confounds me in the best of ways.

    Reading her journey to publication inspired me to think about my book (and subsequent projects) through a different lens. Why must a book be a piece of cardboard binding several hundred pages? A story can take on many forms–visual, audio, text, and the magic is how we make all of it cohere. The magic is in the ingredients, the assembly. Much like cooking, I guess.

    The beat is turning around, my friends, and I toasted the end to a rather long week with a fat slice of almond cake.

    INGREDIENTS: Recipe from The Yellow Table Cookbook
    4 eggs (room temperature), separated
    1/2 cup lavender honey (or wildflower/raw honey)
    1 tsp vanilla extract
    1/2 tsp baking soda
    1/2 tsp salt
    1 3/4 cups almond meal

    DIRECTIONS
    Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with coconut oil cooking spray. I either use the kind from Spectrum, or I use softened coconut oil. Even when I return to dairy, I’ll continue to use coconut oil for the mild flavor it imbues and it’s silk texture is TO DIE.

    In a medium bowl, combine the egg yolks, honey, vanilla, baking soda, and salt. Whisk until smooth. Add the almond meal and whisk until smooth. At first, you’ll likely freak out (as I did) that you have too much meal and not enough liquid, but don’t fret, whisk for a good minute and the goods will come together beautifully.

    In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high until they are foamy and white, with soft peaks (not stiff). This will take 1.5-2 minutes. Gently fold the egg whites into the almond mixture with a spatula. This will take some time as you have a lot of whites and a thick cake batter. Make sure you fold gently, yet incorporating all of the almond meal.

    Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown and a tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out smooth. Let cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then carefully run a knife around the edges of the cake and remove the outer ring. Let the cake cool completely before serving.

    Gently remove the cake from the bottom of the springform pan with a spatula. Serve with fresh berries, confectioner’s sugar, or pistachio ice cream. I had this on its own and it was DIVINE. Slightly sweet and crumbly.

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