brunch at sarabeth’s + cultivating a kula

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Today I had one of those days where nothing happened, yet everything happened. Forever petrified of “new” people, I spent the morning with a friend and her best friend, working out and eating all there was to eat at Sarabeth’s. When I left, I found myself staring at a woman at the crosswalk, and when I shouted, K? Is that you?, she glanced up and beamed and we embraced in the middle of the street. K and I have been friends since we met at the Columbia writing program in 2001, and she’s since moved to New Orleans to be with her boy and her writing, and she occasionally visits the office of the fancy magazine of which she’s employed. She’s also the only person with whom I’ve entrusted my novel in all its messiness and broken pieces.

After we hugged and gushed over the randomness of our encounter in Union Square, we made our way to the sidewalk where we shivered and caught up and spoke of the children we were harvesting — mine in the form of a novel, and hers in the form of a little girl who will see sky come August. When Sophie died, K told me that she cried in a hotel room in Sweden. She wept because she knows how I grieve, how I can so easily fall into a kind of private dark. I know how you love, but I also know how you grieve. Nodding, I confessed that I’d had a tough summer, the worst I’d known. I’d fallen down the stairs and come autumn I’d started to climb them again. I’m forever climbing.

Before we departed, before I promised K a home-cooked meal and proper nuzzling with Felix (so regal! she said) in February, she held me close and stared at my face in a way that would make most feel uncomfortable, but from her it was home, and she said, You’ve looked the best since I’ve known you. How do I get that glow? How do I get what you got?

I laughed, still rotten at taking compliments, still, and said, This is what happens when you go off the sauce and work out five days a week.

On the subway ride home, I thought of K, of a lesser version of myself all those years ago, and I felt humbled by my life now. While I’m still paying off thousands of dollars in graduate loan debt, while I’m still uncertain how I will be employed past May, while I don’t know where the day will take me, I know this: I’m the strongest I’ve ever been and I finally have a close group of friends on whom I can lean. No longer do I care about collecting acquaintances and strategic connections, about the people who are good to know, I care more the quality of the people I’m cultivating in my life and the time I’m committed in sustaining these friendships, knowing that there’s beauty in watching them bloom.

In yoga, there is a term kula, which loosely translates to community. In this community, there is balance and harmony and beauty and age, and right now I feel all of these things. I hear the sound of forks chinking at Sarabeth’s as we dive into one another’s plates and I squeal that the English muffins look like the ones in her cookbook! I feel the tight hug of a friend who doesn’t want to let go, a friend who tells me that I need to keep at this book, that it’s good, really good, and in return I tell her that I can’t wait wait wait until I lay eyes on her beautiful little girl.

It’s good to be on speaking terms with the people you used to be, but it’s even better to fall in love with the woman you’re becoming.

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the gathering kind: getting surgical {part 3}

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She didn’t finish her sentence because Isabel was running through the cypress trees so fast and with such force the trees were shaking for minutes afterwards. Laura watched the momentary chaos of the trees. It was as if they had been pushed off balance and did not quite know how to find their former shape. — Swimming Home, Deborah Levy

This year we will be surgical. I tell you there’s no other way. Our greatest tool is the scalpel and we’ll need to it excise the unnecessary appendages because we live in a world of barnacles. People who will cleave to you in shallow waters, wrap themselves around you so tight that it becomes difficult to breathe. And by the time you open your eyes and do the maths, they’ve multiplied; they’ve got you boxed in and there’s no way out. The barnacles are tricky, sessile, set on feeding on anything in motion. Determined to drain every bit of you out of you. So there’s you trying to make a life for yourself and there’s them, trying to leech it away. Survival is now predicated on discipline — how we notice the drift, the cleave, the attachment and how we’re able to cut it off and push it away. Because if you don’t you will become lost in the forest that is them, and you’ll never find your former shape.

You may think this bit is about coming apart — antithetical to gathering! — but I promise you there’s more in play. Make no mistake, we live in a kingdom of animals and it’s Darwinian.

Lately I’ve been preaching this conceit of the barnacle and the scalpel to everyone who will listen. Especially those who, like myself, fall prey to unnecessary attachments. People consider us the court jester, prone to performances the peanut-crunching crowd always love (we’re such a sight to see!), or perhaps we’re the kind, compassionate creative who has something — a life, a mind, a heart — of which the barnacles secretly covet. And we book our calendars full of lunches and dinners. We participate in their endless interrogations, listen intently to their latest drama (which is always on the level of the Greek), and dole out advice like dolls. They come away in a fever while we lean against buildings for support. How is it so possible to feel so weak after a single meal? How is it possible that all you now want to do is curl under your covers and sleep?

If your friendships are such that you are consistently and relentlessly carving out pieces of yourself to give to others, then break out the scalpel because this barnacle|host relationship will end up killing you. Imagine yourself weighted down by attachments, unable to flee through the trees, unable to recognize the shape that is yourself because you’re always seeing the others. This clutter, this noise, this feverish motley lot prevent you from gathering with the ones who truly deserve your affection. {Haven’t you found yourself canceling plans with the ones you love because you’re exhausted from so many unnecessary engagements?}

I’m not a “popular” person; I’ve never been part of the “in crowd” {do we even use these terms anymore?}, and I never want to be. I used to be invited to dozens of parties and my calendar was always booked out for weeks, but now I have longer meals with the ones I love and the invitations are more about quality than quantity. From a mean girl where my every exhale was akin to walking on proverbial eggshells, to the married friend for whom my single status was her constant project, to the friend who was always telling the great story that was her life, a life where no one could get a word in edgewise in the midst of a two-hour dinner, to the other friend who grew frightened whenever I was quiet and measured, and only seemed to calm when I was my most boisterous “on” self — these are but a few of the extremities I excised.

As the years press on I find myself endlessly excising. Whittling down to my beloveds — those whose relationships are reciprocal in energy, where both of us leave inspired, refreshed and focused. Granted, this isn’t a call to cut the cord when friendships get difficult by any means — this is more of an examination of how much you’re bloodletting and how much you’re giving of yourself at the expense of yourself. Examining all that is superfluous to refine and carve and hone to all who are essential.

I thought of all this, actually composed this post in my head as I was taking a much-needed respite at Bottega Falai. Yesterday it was cold in the city and I was entirely too early for a date, which is another sort of gathering, I suppose, and I slipped into this small cafe cum retail concept and watched Italian men with their sons, teaching them manners. I watched tourists slip in and fawn over the crepe cakes and pastries and I listened intently to two friends engaging in that barnacle|host exchange. The host’s eyes glazed over and part of me wanted to lean in and tell her about scalpels, but it wasn’t the time and it wasn’t my place so I just listened and composed and thought about sharing this with the ones I love.

Prosciutto sandwich
Crepe cakes
Crepe cakes
bomboloni (donut)
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the gathering kind, part 2

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What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

You were once our own private storm. Lone black wave on the beach curling in on itself, folding all the darkness within until it became too much to bear, and then you crested and collapsed onto the shore, devastating everyone in our wake. You didn’t know it then, but you combed the beach determined to ruin. Felt the crunch of shells and bottles underfoot. But you never winced, bled and certainly never cried, as that was against the rules. Over the years the ocean had become something of a house and you were its tired, listless tenant wanting to break the lease, wade your way out, but everyone seemed to love the storm that was you. Boys called you their miniature hurricane, wrestled their fingers through the thicket that was our hair. Miming fear on their inevitable drowning. Girls barnacled themselves to you because back then being a sideshow act in the hurt circus was the height of literary sophistication, and you with your storied childhood gave everyone a part to play.

You were an ocean and a telenovella all at once, and everyone lived for next week’s episode. But you were tired and had so much pain. Where do you put all this pain? Can you store it in the house and swim away? Or do you become the one who becomes engulfed in it, so much so that the undertow brings you further away from the light.

But one day, seemingly out of nowhere, the wave changed shape and form and then it was the past and there you were in a room miles away from the ocean.

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In Russia, you couldn’t sleep. You wandered the city with strangers watching the sky, wondering when it would ever fall to darkness. Come twilight you passed the time with a girl from L.A. who smacked gum loudly and talked about a heroin addiction that made her come undone. Like soldiers out of battle, you traded your drug war stories and joked about scoring pills in TJ until everyone stared — forcing the two of you into a corner. Her constant gum-smacking, her sing-song voice and erratic way of speaking unnerved you. She was irritating in the worst way but you wanted to be around her. Amongst the thieving gypsies and men hawking pirated DVDs on the Nevsky Prospekt, you kept finding your way to her. Bumped into her in the Summer Gardens, passed her between classes, and you joked and laughed because the two of you, a friendship?, made absolutely no sense. What was this acerbic New Yorker, with her clipped walk and obsession with order, doing with a girl, wearing shorts way too short, from East L.A.?

And so it goes. As the years marched onward, she would become a great, enduring love. You often talked about how you were two halves made whole. Apart you were puzzle but together you were terrific symmetry, finishing each other’s sentences, practicing our respective mimicries. You determined that your friendship would endure because you were so different. You shone so bright, always, and she was content in her quiet. Bound by familial hurt and a history of self-medication, we often mused over the story that was us and we each scurried home to write our respective books. You held her head in your hands during a heartbreak and she was the one you called when you decided to quit drinking, for good. Back then you thought this: there was never a friendship such as ours. We were impenetrable. Nothing could break us.

Never did we think that we would be responsible for our ruin. We were our own wreckage. Did we know it at the time, or only know when remembering all of it?

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Lately I’ve been reminded, albeit in a roundabout way, about friendship and love, and how the two are inexplicably bound to one another. There are those friendships where you only glide across the surface of one another. You have your cozy dinners and kiss-kiss on the cheek and then you fade into the recesses of night, only to do it all over again in six months. And there are other friendships that swell and crest — you friend and love furiously and recklessly — but in time inevitably fall because of the weight of itself. Who knew that gravity could undo so many? And then there are those quiet friendships that ebb and flow and we sometimes take them for granted because they aren’t of the telenovella kind, but these are the ones that endure. Those are the friendships that do not alter.

Today I spent a three-hour lunch with an old friend at The Fat Radish, and we spoke of the great love I’d lost, the ones I never really had, and the one who remains a constant. While I’ll never really know why my friendship with S faded, I’m honored to have gathered with her for the time that we had, and our fissure and break allowed me trespass to a whole host of beautiful friendships worth cultivating.

And all this time was the constant harvest. The one friend who has shared eighteen years of my life and we endure. We gather in her home and on the phone and any way that we can come together. Sometimes I like to think of us as two waves in the light, glinting, magical, coming together and pulling away when we need to.

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