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the long, winding journey to the middle

Photo Credit: By Sébastien Marchand

Photo Credit: By Sébastien Marchand

There was a time when, if you wanted to see someone, you had to pick up a phone, write a letter, or ring a bell. That was the time, I say and my father nods in tacit agreement. We laugh because this is what happens when you arrive at the middle of your life–you look back on the life you never appreciated while you were living it, and you recast it in sepia. You become a revisionist, a tawdry romantic. You forever remember your life as simple, even when it was everything but, even when your days amounted to you taking cover from ferocious storms that passed swiftly. When victory meant climbing out from under gravel and rock, in-tact. Still, you’re tender with your memories because that which you once considered life-altering–the manufactured dramas, the heart that swelled and broke, the incalculable losses–no longer bears the weight you once ascribed. Their intensity diminishes with time, for the fact that have lived. What you once considered large becomes diminutive simply because these are days you’ve endured.

You think Natalie Merchant was right, these are days you remember.

Over lunch I tell a friend that I’m in the betweens. I feel the years, all of them, but I don’t. When you’re young, you consider 40 old (ask any child and they’re certain to make allusions to your imminent mummification), but a certain calm accompanies this perception because all that you don’t know will be resolved by the years. The empty will be made whole, you’re certain of it. Until you reach the middle of your life and realize that resolutions are only met with more questions. The simple becomes a cipher and you spend your days saddled with riddles.

I take a meal with a woman in her 20s who’s astonished over the fact that I still have questions, that I haven’t “figured it all out” when it comes to my career. How do I explain that in the same breath I have it all figured out but I’m not close to figuring it out? That I’m able to reconcile what matters to me but that knowledge doesn’t magically reveal what’s next. It took time to unload all the weight I’d been carrying–the weight of my generation and the expectations of meeting markers by specific age thresholds (married by 30, 2.5 children, house, career, the whole nine) and realizing that I didn’t want what had been prescribed for me–and how do I explain that I’ve merely traded in one bag for another, and the contents of each are demonstrably different?

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IMG_1670IMG1231A

So I looked up this Santa Monica on the Google, and you’ll be happy to know that there is a Starbucks and a Coffee Bean, my father says, satisfied. I worry that he’ll be worried. Somehow I won’t feel right about leaving if he doesn’t give me his blessing, even if I’m too old for it, even if I don’t technically need it. But I’ve come to realize that his assurance is something I need, and I laugh when he measures the weight of this decision by the proximity of coffee shops. (He doesn’t, really. My pop, like me, needs a non-threatening opener, something that won’t ripple the waters, as it were. We need to take it slow–there’s no other way.)

The coffee, I understand, is my dad’s way in.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”

We spend two hours in a car in front of the water, and I tell my pop I’m frightened. I’ll have to re-learn how to drive (so, you’ll learn); I’ll have to consider work (aren’t you already worried about that here? How is it any different there?); there will be times I will fly into New York and not have a home to go home to (home is in your heart, you know this, not where you lay your head down to rest). He says, of course you’re afraid.

In Spain, there are barnacles that are as expensive as caviar. This isn’t the sort of fish that’s affixed to rocks and certain ships, rather these crustaceans can only be found out in the deep, in the rolicking seas, and the princely sum we pay is insurance for the man who risks his life to harvest what we eat. I describe the way barnacles feed, their spindly legs and unhealthy attachments. We’re by the water now, and he inquires about the barnacles. Where are they? I point to rotten wood and the barnacles the blanket the surface.

What I don’t say is that I’ve been attaching myself to that which has only sustained. I’m taking what I can get.

My pop and I discuss probability, how he’ll likely board a plane to visit me in California than navigate a car to Brooklyn. Last night I walk along a street where I’ve walked over 25 ago, and I think about the girl then and the woman now and I’m trying to reconcile the two (a shadow behind you, a shadow rising up to greet you).

But it’s hard because the woman who grew up in Brooklyn is so foreign to the woman leaving it, and I can’t explain the sadness I feel being in between, over, under, around, beyond, the two.

This is what happens when you reach the middle of your life. You fold the terrific photographs of you from a former life, that young face washed in sepia, into a box. You preserve it. You care for it. You sometimes open the box and pore through its contents. You hold up your former self to the light. You practice nostalgia like sermon, like song. Then you realize that there are boxes left to fill. You realize that you are halfway toward the end of your life and you desire color. You need shadows under red rocks. You need new questions. You need new photographs. You need the life beyond the photo. You need to hold the still-beating heart in your hands. You need to breathe.

Update: I just listened to Isabel Allende’s talk on living passionately, regardless of age, and it was so fitting for this post and wholly illuminating.

the beauty + blindness that come with privilege

Photo Credit: Thomas Brault, Upslash

Photo Credit: Thomas Brault, Upslash

Years ago, a friend of mine, a lawyer working on a stop-and-frisk case, talked to me about privilege. He could be someone who walks the city streets carrying drugs, yet he’d never be stopped, never be given more than a passing glance, because he’s an attractive white male who doesn’t look the part. Doesn’t fit the profile. On paper he’s the poster boy of privilege–Swarthmore undergrad, Harvard Law, and skin as pale as parchment–until he holds his husband’s hand. Until they publicly embrace. Then he’s a fag, a homo, a queer, and it’s as if all the privilege he was able to enjoy before he touched another man’s hand vanished. On that day my friend reminded me to check my privilege and check it often. And while I have to endure the indignities that come with being a woman in America, I have to remember that I’m, by all appearances, a white, educated woman (even if I’m genetically nearly half black and Spanish), and I’m able to navigate spaces where many are denied trespass.

I think about this a lot, especially when I re-read old stories I’ve written where I talk about my hair as a “betrayal”, rather than a piece of my makeup worthy of pride and love. I think about this when I email friends listings of expensive apartments in Los Angeles of which I’m able to afford. Yes, I work hard for everything I have, but I have to remind myself, constantly, that it’s easier for me because for the whole of my adult life I’ve played the part of a white, Ivy-educated woman. I have to remember this when WOC speak cogently and brilliantly on the dangers of whitewashed feminism. And isn’t it tragic that we need a comic, albeit an eloquent one, to remind us of all that we take for granted–all the ways we need to make the world better for those who are unable to occupy our seats of privilege.

Over the past year I’ve been reading scores of articles that invite you to change your life. In this rarified life the word “impossible” is verboten because if they’ve achieved the unthinkable you can too. It’s smart marketing, really, the way in which these stories sell you on an idea, an alternative life you could be living if only you’d make the leap. If only you’d sell your possessions and hop on a plane. But that’s what marketing does–sells you something that’s actually not the thing you’re really buying.

What they’re selling, unbeknownst to them, is their privilege. Privilege has become the unspeakable, the ultimate taboo, because no one wants to hear that their journey to break ranks, regardless of how difficult it seemed to be, comes at lower cost than if someone else attempted the leap. No one wants to feel the guilt that comes with being born into a certain race or economic advantage because perhaps they think it reduces the brave choices they’ve made. It doesn’t, really, but the blindness that the currency built into these choices is a kind that can’t be bought by others, is dangerous.

You may weep into your yoghurt when you read this, but not everyone can wake up one morning, quit their job (and life), and travel the world. Not everyone can drape their tawny body on a beach or sit perched in front of a laptop in Phuket. If that were the case, everyone would do it. We don’t exist in binary states, and those major leaps can’t be copied by all but perhaps they’ll cause a ripple in someone’s life. Maybe those dramatic changes will inspire small, meaningful choices in others.

Photo Credit: Pexels

Photo Credit: Pexels

Two years ago I contemplated a move to Europe (I know, line forms to the left). In retrospect, this was the dumbest idea in which I’ve ever conceived, but back then I was unsettled, unhappy, and I was grasping for something big that could fill the emptiness I’d been feeling. Yet, so many people told me to just do it! I’ll figure it out! Don’t think! At first I was exuberant–why not just put the cat on a plane with a passport? And then I woke to the reality: I’ve six-figure student loan debt that has to be paid or the corporations that hold my debt will sic the dogs on me, and I’ve no doubt they’ve global bloodhounds in their arsenal. I’d no savings. The only language I knew was Spanish and Spain’s tanking economy was out of the question. I had no partner with whom to share my expenses and fears, and I owned a pet that would require nearly six months of paperwork and anxiety attacks to transport to another country. While I wanted to pursue this fantasy, real life logistical questions and concerns put me on pause, yet the whole of social media was intent on admonishing me for thinking logically. Apparently logic erodes delusional thinking.

All this empty talk reminded me of a piece Mark Manson wrote on the steaming pile of bullshit that is The Secret. He writes,

Other studies show that people who engage in “self-affirmations” and are then presented with information that threatens their affirmation (even healthy criticism or feedback) actually engage in more faulty reasoning than people who don’t use self-affirmations.10 In fact, people who indulge in delusional positive thinking ironically become downright angry when someone tries to contradict their wall of airy-fairy thoughts. The truth about their situation just becomes that much more painful to them.

Delusional positive thinking ironically generates greater closed-mindedness in people. They must always be vigilant and block out potentially negative feedback or criticism of their beliefs, even if that negative feedback is life-or-death important to their health and well-being.

I don’t have the privilege of parents who could finance my adventures or give me shelter should I falter from pursuing them. I don’t have the privilege of a debt-free existence because how was I going to scrounge up the $40K/year that was the cost of my Columbia education? Do I regret graduate school? Do I regret that I’ll likely pay loans until I’m steeped in earth? Sometimes. But what am I going to do other than deal with the hand I’ve dealt myself and take responsibility for my choices.

But still. These articles, for a time, made me feel guilty. Made me feel as if my life were lacking, that I wasn’t brave enough to make the choices these women had made. Honestly, that was my own shit. That was me realizing that I’m not these other people living their lives with the privileges they have. I’m me. This is my life. And while I can’t teach snorkeling in Borneo, I can make the leaps that feel right for me. The leaps that my privilege + my hard work can afford.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: don’t let these stories make you feel small. Don’t let my story make you feel small. You are the author of your own story. Write it. Live it. Share it with others. Try to help others with their story if you see them struggling, or if they don’t have the equipment or the means like you do.

Or at least acknowledge and feel grateful for what you have.

on playing small

Photo Credit: Pexels

Photo Credit: Pexels

What we are is a set of walking contradictions. Our inner lives are not partitioned like day and night, with pure light on one side of us and total darkness on the other. Mostly, our souls are shadowed places; we live at the border where dark sides block our light and throw a shadow over our interior places…We cannot always tell where our light ends and our shadow begins or where our shadow ends and our darkness begins. –From Lewis Smedes’ Shame and Grace

We always want more–even if we don’t want it, even if we never needed it. When we are children our eyes rove over the things we see–the pink light that filters in through trees (dusk), machines that race down streets (cars), furry things that lick their paws (cats, dogs–this could get complicated). Everything’s a puzzle, mostly; images and words play Lego for the whole of our lives. We are forever in reconstruction, and we lean on others for definition, interpretation, and perspective. Over time we consider everything in the diminutive as an unfinished state, not yet realized and far from its potential. That cute wobbly puppy grows into a dog that can run. That infant who once smelled of clean cotton sheets grows into someone who builds houses, flies planes, cures diseases. Our memory of the miniature plays out in sepia, it’s hazy and often romanticized–we only fixate on what we become, leaving our previous states aside.

I’ve been thinking about children lately. Not having them, but observing them. I’ve also been thinking about death (although this article would try to convince me that thinking of these things will help alleviate my fear of them. Nice try), and I’m making connections between the two. In death, we return from that which we’ve come–our mode of transportation varies depending upon what you believe–but I wonder if the place to which we’ll go vaguely resembles the one from which we’ve come, and the space we’ve been occupying between the two, our holding pen, has been spent trying to make sense of our journey from one to the other.

Or maybe that’s my life.

We cry coming out and we weep slouching our way home. Because isn’t that what death is, really? Our final stop, a story, a home that cannot be torched or torn down? Our tears come from fear of the unknown, of what’s to come. I assume babies scream-cry because they consider everything an assault. What are these shapes, colors, and lights? Who are you? What is this, what am I, and so on. Over time, the answers are revealed in degrees, and for a brief while we are comforted by these certainties. Life becomes a slow conquering of sorts, a means to ferret out truth from the unknown, and our death is a surrender. We lay down our armaments because we’ve no idea which tools we’ll need for the next battle. In our twilight years I suppose we weep because we’ve left a life where most riddles have been resolved, loves have been felt, truths have been revealed–to what? To nothing? To a fugue state that morphs into the eternal black? To azure skies and golden gates or fiery bowels–as some books would have it? Or do feel sorrow because we spent our lives trying to know when there is so much we’ll never know. Have we wasted time in this single, temporary waking life?

I greatly fear my hidden parts–From Augustine’s Confessions

It occurs to me that these moments, life and death, are monumental, yet we’re small when confronting them. We’re small in the beginning (literally), and in the end we become small in ways that are more complicated. In both states we don’t consider the notion of wanting more; we can’t even comprehend acquisition, and isn’t it funny that we face our two greatest moments being valiant and great in our smallness, in our need for nothing?

Lately I’ve been feeling, for lack of a better term, colonized. Colonized in terms of defining a home, colonized in reference to how I live my life. We all have a reference point. I came from a home that had nothing and spent the great deal of my 20s and early 30s in the business of hyper-accumulation in hopes that it would satiate a need that could never be truly filled by the things bought in tender. I hailed from a generation that believed in the beauty of size. We measured our self worth in width, height, and weight, and our homes made us feel like dwarves, our Italian leather handbags threatened to swallow us whole. We became bound to this title, to those letters after our name, as if ascension equated to human greatness.

Me & My Pop at My Book Party

I think about my dad. For a time I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t want more from life–why he didn’t demand the world and everything in it just I had. His home and closets are spare — he has only what he needs. He cleaves to his rituals: coffee in the morning, coffee as a means to connect, and long drives to clear his head. He holds few photographs. Luckily, I’m in one of them. He doesn’t speak about the past often, but what he remembers are the moments I sometimes struggle to recall: they’re small, but we explode into laughter when he recounts them. The day he drove down a one-way street. The day we made a point to eat one meal from every fast food joint in a five-mile radius (I don’t recommend this). He has the ability to say one string of words and we’re immediately transported back and I can feel everything. He has a way of making the world simple, clean and neat–even when he’s engulfed in sadness, loss, heartbreak.

I admire him this, his quiet nobility. I admire a man who’s lived a great, small life–who loves every minute of it. You feel everything so hard, he once joked.

Recently I ask, are you afraid of death? To which he responds swiftly, fearless, no. I ask him how that’s possible. I ask all the questions. And he shrugs and says that it’s silly to waste your life thinking about something you’ll never understand or could explain. He has an acceptance, a calm reserve that at this moment I find unimaginable, although I hope that will change as time passes.

Yet when I look at him, when I think of children, I’m reminded of the beauty in playing small. Of not needing to puff up your chest, resume, byline or biography. Life is still worth loving even if I don’t win prizes, or reach financial, professional heights. Yesterday I finished reading David Brooks’ magnificent book, The Road to Character, and the final chapter closed on the dangers of a society solely focused on meritocracy, on the accumulation of desires and the constant cult of me. He writes,

The meritocratic system wants you to be big about yourself–to puff yourself, to be completely sure of yourself, to believe that you deserve a lot and to get what you think you deserve (so long as it’s good). The meritocracy wants you to assert and advertise yourself. It wants you to display and exaggerate your achievements. The achievement machine rewards you if you can demonstrate superiority–if with a thousand gestures, conversational types, and styles of dress you can demonstrate that you are a bit smarter, hipper, more accomplished, sophisticated, famous, plugged-in, and fashion-forward that the people around you. It encourages narrowing. It encourages you to become a shrewd animal.

By coveting the largess of life, we end up being silly and small. But what if we revered the reverse? What if we came from a place of curiosity, humility, self-acceptance, honesty. What if we formed our character based on how we loved, what we built as an extension of that love versus what we boast, promote and share. I think about this tension a lot, especially when I read that I have to make a ruckus in order to break ranks. What if I ceased wanting all the things (I’m close, not completely there, to be honest)? What if I burned the measuring tape and scales, and stopped equating large and more with joy and greatness? Fewer, better. Quality reigns over quantity. I’ve done this in nearly all aspects of my life, but not my life in its entirety. But then I wonder if that’s even possible. I’m not sure that it is, so perhaps that’s part of the journey, too.

What if I spent my life playing small? Because I’ll need that nobility, that calm and reserve, for the next home, the final place to which I’ll be traveling.

+++++++++++++++

Currently listening to this.
Currently reading this, because, you know, smart, dead people.

finding the edge of your ocean

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Usually I make it a point not to see people on Thursdays because this day is devoted to being free of people–I need time alone, in unadulterated quiet. I can’t function otherwise. However, I acquiesced to meet old colleague whom I admire and hadn’t seen in years. What he probably doesn’t know is how I remember him. He was one of the first who interviewed me for a job that I once loved and slowly, over time, began to hate, and much of the interview centered around The Shining. I realize it’s odd to talk about a movie so horrific so comfortably, but we laughed over the twins, dissected Kubrick, and I revealed a predilection for horror movies.

People who are frightened of flying are often put in mock planes so that they could overcome their fear by confronting it, by breathing through it. One is never comforted by statistics because we always think that our flight could be that one in a million. We ignore silence so wholly and completely because our heart wonders how is it possible that a giant machine can be suspended in midair? We think ours will be an inevitable ruin, a tumbling and fall, and no amount of comparing plane crashes to car accidents will help. But if you put us on a plane and make us go through it, again and again, the hope is that we’ll find a way to cope with maths, probability. We’re never really cured, but we can sometimes go on planes without believing we’ll die. I like to think of this as being at the end of our private ocean–a life spent on the shoreline and then we’re propelled to take out a boat and move it as far as it will go until we’re at the edge. We never go over the edge but we know it exists, we’ve seen it, and we take comfort that we’re closer to it than a life lived on dry land.

This is probably why horror and darkness comfort me. They are my edge of the ocean.

So in that small space of time spent with a stranger who will become a coworker and now a friend, how could he know that on that particular day I started to work through why it is that I’m able to sit so comfortably still in the dark.

Time passes.

Yesterday we spend a few hours in a restaurant that serves good eggs and has a tree planted in the middle of the dining area. We talk about a lot of things–work created and owned on our own terms, the place where we used to work, and more importantly, what’s next.

I told him about my decision to move to Santa Monica, how I didn’t want advice (please don’t, please don’t). When he asked about Santa Monica I told him it was about being in the midpoint between the familiar and the foreign, and he wondered aloud if I was prolonging that which I desired for the sake of being comfortable. Was I losing time by settling in a place that in my heart I suspect won’t be home. So why not risk it and plant roots to prove my gut right or wrong, to know that I made a choice without regret, that certainty will invariably reveal itself.

Why not go to the edge of the ocean instead of paddling halfway?

He said all of this without judgment, without talking about the pros and cons of north vs. south (I’m sure you’ve already worked that out), but he suggested I make a choice based on time and gut and heart–the rest will sort itself out. And then I came across a typewriter on my way to the bathroom in this restaurant, reminding me of my presence in prose.

I left exhilarated, confused, feeling as if I walked in a metronome and walked out oscillating wildly. I have so much to think about in the coming months, so much to consider.

Then I came home and fell into a world of work and watching The Fall. I felt sick because the character so closely resembles Kate in my novel and I realize that I’m not quite done with examining the masks people wear in my work. I’m still paddling–not quite at my edge yet.

A small note: For the next few months I won’t have comments activated on this space. It’s not out of disrespect, but more from a place of self-preservation, and a need to filter out distractions as much as possible. There will come a time when I’ll reopen them, I promise.

on marriage, children and wearing a blue dress

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo


I will send you a note later about the specific difference between those writers who possess the natural confidence that is their birthright, and those fewer writers who are driven by the unnatural courage that comes from no alternative. It is something like this–some walk on a tightrope, and some continue on the tightrope, or continue to walk, even after they find out it is not there. — Maeve Brennan, in a letter to William Maxwell (via).

A few weeks ago my best friend’s nine-year-old daughter and I were playing. Our play consists of her sometimes weaving pink ribbons through my hair or me helping her assemble an imaginary set for a show she’s intent on producing (she’s creative, this one). That day, after I affixed one of the many glittery crowns she owned on her head, she asked, Are you ever going to have children, Felicia? I admired her moxie, the way in which she’s able to navigate terrain that one could consider a minefield. Adults exercise politeness and discretion in a way that can sometimes be numbing, and it was such an odd relief to hear a child ask something so plainly–just because I’m the only woman she knows who doesn’t have a child of her own. My best friend and I exchanged a look, and I replied, No, C. I don’t plan on having children. She appeared pensive, and after a few moments she nodded her head, said, okay, and we continued on with our play.

I did love, once. Yet it was love that was easily altered, one that had slowly come apart at the seams. But for a time we lived a terrific photograph, and spoke of glinting diamonds, me swanning about in a white dress and children winding around my calves. This life, while part of a defined plan I had for myself, felt distant, foreign–an uninhabited country for which I needed a visa and complicated paperwork for entry. I never took to the idea of being owned by someone else; I never considered changing my name. I never imagined myself in a white dress (I prefer blue), and I’ve never truly felt the maternal ache and tug as many of my dear friends who are mothers, describe. Back then I viewed marriage as less of a partnership and more of a prison, but I imagine that had much to do with the man in my life. Back then I slept on top sheets rather than between them, and I was forever poised for flight. Back then I didn’t want children because I was certain I wouldn’t be any good at it considering my history.

After a couple of years of playing house, this great love and I experienced a drift and while he went on to marry and have a family of his own, I never once thought I’d missed out on my chance, rather, I was relieved. I treasure my solitude, my freedom. I didn’t want to be harvested. Back then I had so much work ahead of me, work on my self, my character, that I knew I wouldn’t be much good to anyone else. I knew I had to make myself whole and complete before I gave even a sliver of myself to someone else.

“I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self.” —Edith Wharton

Kate Bolick's SpinsterI came across Kate Bolick’s Spinster not from her widely-read Atlantic essay (I miss out on everything), but serendipitously through a Times book review. I nodded along with Bolick, and found her to be an “awakener” (a riff off Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), much like the ones she describes in her book. Over the past few years I’ve been so consumed with cultivating a good life, in living through the questions, in being a sponge when it comes to knowledge and culture, that I hadn’t stopped, not even for a moment, to consider the fact that I’m in my late 30s and am still not married. I’ve witnessed scores of my friends fall in love, marry, bear children, and I feel joy for them, rather than envy. And I’m also privy to the unseemly side of coupling–of people who talk about being incomplete without having a partner, people who feel like a failure because they haven’t fulfilled a role ascribed to them, and my heart breaks because no one person will ever complete you. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to come into the game, whole; you’ve got to hold your own cards, be willing to play your own hand.

It doesn’t make sense to come to the table with a few cards rather than a deck.

Nearly all my friends my age are married–most, happily so. Acquaintances congratulate engagements and pregnancy announcements with a welcome to the club message, as if these points in time gain you access to some sort of privileged society, which rings odd and exclusionary, at best. I don’t view marriage, or the decision to have children, as checks in a box or private clubs where one is finally granted trespass, rather I think of them as individual choices we make. We meet a great love and decide to marry, or not. We meet a great love and decide to have children, or not. We never meet a great love and the world as we know has yet to collapse. Or, perhaps, we don’t make love a vocation. Maybe we just live our best lives and play out the hand.

She was the only one of the lot of them who hadn’t gone off and got married. She had never wanted to assert herself like that, never needed to. —Maeve Brennan

It occurs to me that I’m not certain I’ll ever get married, and I’m okay with that. While I like the idea of a partner, a companion, someone with whom I’m besotted, somehow the vision of me in a dress surrounded by people applauding me down an aisle makes me cringe. The idea of me trading one man’s name for another feels false (I’ll keep Sullivan, thank you). And I’ve come to realize that I’m a better friend, sister, and lover because I choose not to have children.

All I want to do right now is create, to see everything that hasn’t been seen. To know what I don’t know. And if in that journey I meet someone, cool. However, if I don’t, that’s cool too.

the cult of awesome: we! must! always! be! happy!

always! be! happy!

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo


I wish I were happy all the time – I just don’t think it’s a very realistic possibility. The daily parade of disaster on the news is sobering enough. The fact of my own mortality is a downer. Old age and sickness frighten me. The difficulties of human communication produce as much isolation as connection. The corruption and venality of the powerful are daily reminders of the ubiquitous nature of injustice. The lot of most people in this country who simply work and work harder and harder in order to spend, or simply survive, strikes me as profoundly un-jolly. –From Tim Lott’s “The secret of happiness? Stop feeling bad about being unhappy”

Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light. Even in the beginning, there is a moment we’re hurtled out of the dark and into the light. That first cry uttered, our bodies–a miniature version of ourselves, the smallest we’ll ever be–cave inward; we’re frightened because for so long we had enjoyed being swathed in the cool, calm dark and here we are, our eyes pressed shut because we’re being assaulted by the very thing which we’ll be taught the rest of our lives to cleave: the light. A tower of matches set aflame. In that small slice of time we’ll be blinded, frightened, and we’ll want to crawl our way back into the tomb from which we’ve come. Yet from those flames. No light, but rather darkness visible. This might be the only time when we invite the darkness in, welcome it with fragile arms.

“All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.” ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (my absolute favorite of her novels!)

Everyone’s always telling me to look on the bright side. They say, don’t be sad! They speak in sing-song or emoji; they send me “cheery” photographs: a kitten hanging from a tree (hang in there!), a baby owl being groomed by its mother, a woman on a beach in sepia. Friends rhapsodize over the perception of liquid in a glass and how its meaning oscillates between optimism or pessimism, depending on how you view a situation. Often, they remind me of an auctioneer who hocks joy to the highest bidder. The auctioneer’s voice is a torrent and you’re drowning in the velocity of words, how quickly they flood out of his or her mouth; we never never consider the meaning of what is being said, we only know more, more. Joy, joy. Happy, happy. Every day I read articles lobbying for a happy life. Daily, I’m reminded of all the health benefits of a joyful life. My social media feeds and readers are cluttered with images of joy–toes scrunched under sand, a pristine glossy workspace complete with a monogrammed mug–you can even see the plume of heat from the coffee rising up. Everything rising, rising.

Everything that rises must converge, Flannery O’Connor wrote. I would also add, combust.

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Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

I knew a woman once. She was prideful, perhaps too much, of the fact that she’d never seen a “dark” movie, that she resolved to not absorb anything “gruesome” depicted on the news. Instead, she erected a prison of her own making, and in this prison there existed only glitter, hot pink, saccharine sweet pop music, and movies with happy endings. Can I tell you her life frightened me more than any horror movie? That I realize I sometimes live amongst people for whom their waking lives are consumed (consciously or unconsciously) with the relentless pursuit of the scorching light (from which our initial human instinct was to recoil) at the expense of the annihilation of any sort of sadness. Never did we consider the extremes of light–bodies burst aflame, and the fear and greed solely reserved for those who live in a perpetual fear of sadness.

People crave the pleasure of your happiness, not the burden of your sadness.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not advocating for a life shrouded in darkness, rather I’m desperate for balance. At this moment, as I type this, I’ve so much happiness and joy in my life, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to feel all of this if I didn’t, for a time, settle into my own sadness. And settling, my friends, is different than a full-on immersion, a gasping for air underwater. All too often people I know want to instantly jolt me out of any dark moment. I say jolt because that’s what it feels like: a shock. I tell them that dumping happy emojis on my status update or sending me “happy” missives isn’t helping. That this sadness is temporary, a storm that will pass swiftly, and can’t you just chill the fuck out and ride it through? Your words aren’t a salve, they’re wounds. Wounds that remind me we’re desperate to cleave to only one emotion, joy, and to forsake anything that would grant even a modicum of discomfort.

But discomfort is part of life!

I think about the factors that sometimes contribute to my sadness: loss, failure, heartbreak, fear. For me, sadness is a quiet meditation, it’s the in-between place between two moments, and I’ve come through stronger, resilient, smarter, on the other side. Some periods of sadness last longer than others, and the only thing I’ve to worry about these moments is to not dwell on them for too long. To not become a martyr to my own heartbreak or failure. In these moments I don’t need people to erase a very necessary and base emotion. I don’t need people to rub it away, make me feel better–I need people to say, how can I help? How can I love? What do you need?

Because if you only entomb yourself in one extreme (light conversation, happy music, joyful books, happy endings, sweet songs), your inevitable fall will feel bottomless, infinite. Nothing is visible in this kind of darkness because you’d spent your whole life artfully dodging it. It’s shape and form are so unfamiliar, the first taste of it makes you wretch–all of it is worse than you ever imagined. Had you allow for it, even in minor degrees, you’d allow yourself to settle in this place, breathe through it because you always know there’s another side.

There’s magic in the oscillation, in movement from light to dark and back again. A body pulsing between the two. A heart surviving the two. A life enduring and having real joy because of the two.

points of entry: when the map unfurls + all signs point to california

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I don’t say there isn’t much work to do, for there is. And some tracks lead to excruciating darkness, where a person can tumble from the sky on a clear September morning. Yet is the world not whole? Is it not beautiful? For now, let’s consider well-being a choice, something you can try on and wear. When we put on the hat and coat of well-being we incline towards joy without special occasion. –Jean-Pierre Weill’s The Well of Being (via)

The past week I’ve been thinking about living with immediacy. Even writing the word immediacy puts me to thinking of some of its negative connotations, the sense of urgency or the feeling that one might rush through our waking life. However, after watching Atul Gawande’s extraordinary PBS documentary (an adaptation of his book, Being Mortal), I’m reminded of this: we may never have as much time as we think, so why not live life as fully and richly as we possibly can? Instead of sleeping through our waking days or collecting five (It’s Friday!) in anticipation of the remaining two (Oh no, it’s Sunday!), why not treat every moment as one worth savoring, one worth living.

As you know I’ve been struggling with some pretty heady questions, and I’ve accepted that I’m temporarily living in the in-betweens, a home painted grey, with air thick and weighted by clouds, and it’s sometimes hard to see what’s in front of you. There are roads ahead, cartographers have made the appropriate measurements and maps, and your life has become a game of maths, a calculation of probability and weighted risk. Probably the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from being an addict is this: you don’t erase pain by numbing your way around it, rather you have to rip off the bandaids, one by one, and breathe through it. True, you’ll spend some part of your life dressing and re-dressing your wounds but the drug to which you’re tethered to only delays the inevitable.

At some point the bandaids will have to be removed. It’s just a matter of how much time you’re willing to squander to the point where you’re ready to start ripping. Yesterday, I came across this quote from Elliot Roberts while reading an oral history of Laurel Canyon in the 60s and 70s:

The scene broke up because you became adults. We were all in our early 20s when there was that scene—all kids in their early 20s have a scene. All of a sudden you have a girlfriend or you’re getting married. By 30, 35, the scene is gone. You have families, kids, jobs. You buy a house. You want to get guitar lessons for your kid and a Bar Mitzvah. When you’re 20, it’s O.K. for eight people to crash in a living room, six on a floor. At 35 you’re not crashing anymore—your back hurts.

Reading Roberts’ words didn’t feel somber or nostalgic, it felt honest. At one point you have to accept what your life has become. Last night I spent hours with a couple from California and I told them stories from my 20s, a drug-induced time where California was simply a place where you got good coke and you could sleep while someone drove. Some of the stories are a bit colorful and wild and for people who have known me for less than a week they can see the sharp contrast of the woman I spoke of then and the woman telling them stories now. I tell them stories about a time and a woman I don’t miss because I’m so infatuated with the life I have now.

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At one point the husband, in response to my talking about my moving dilemma, says, Five seconds. Don’t think. If you could move to any state now, where would it be? No, really. Don’t think. I laugh and say, California. If you asked me this question a year ago I would’ve laughed, I would’ve made some allusion to Biggie and Tupac and how born and raised New Yorkers don’t just move to the least coast. But then I realize that California is not Los Angeles or San Francisco, two cities that aren’t my vibe, that it’s a whole landscape of beauty and warmth–a place worth exploring.

I tell them, however, that I’m not ready for California just yet. What does your gut tell you? Are you listening to it? Genevieve asks. I tell her that I want to spend a month in Portugal or a Spanish-speaking country, but the…cat, I say. Felix, I say. I realize I’m speaking to two cat-lovers, a couple who bought a cat hammock for their lovely home in Santa Barbara, and both of them say, quite plainly, that a month isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of my life. If Felix can come, great. However, if he could stay with my father or a trusted friend, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I would return.

Because do I want to live with regret? I’ve already chosen not to have children because I’m not built for it; I don’t want roadblocks. I need personal freedom. I need myself whole. And I feel part of the journey this year, part of the story I want to tell, is this: the leaving and the return.

We organize our circumstances into stories, stories we pick up along the way and carry with us. Stories that declare, I’m lacking. Why me? stories. I’m alone, stories. What will I amount to? stories. Stories about who we should be. Or think we are. They are interior maps whose familiar roads we travel. Over and over. Yet when we apprehend these maps, these stories, these patterns … we awaken and rise, as it were, to a new perspective, to new possibilities. –Jean-Pierre Weill

We’ll see. Here’s me inching out of the house, making my last payments, packing my bags. Closer.

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the business of leaving

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Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

I don’t know how to tell my father I’m leaving. Up until this week I didn’t know how to tell myself. But wait, let me back up.

The week was a blur of meetings, minor politicking and emails left unanswered. I met my friend and mentor for Korean, and we talk about the things we always talk about: we trade updates on our respective careers and people we used to work with and know. This person took this job at this place, did you hear? This person landed here and she seems really happy, last we spoke. We talk about heady things–data and marketing attribution models–and the personal. He tells me about his novia and plans to move out west. He asks about this trip I’m taking, the one he’s been reading about on Facebook. It’s a normal, perfunctory conversation, the kind of which I’ve grown accustomed. I have the speech prepared where I talk about the three states, my jubilation, and how nothing pleases me more than living in a town with a population of 6,000. Our food arrives and we tuck in, and he jokes about the fact that I like my beef well done. Shoe leather, we laugh.

My mentor is a kind of father, but not completely, yet enough where I let my guard down as I’m a watchman when it comes to my heart.

We pass vegetables between our plates and I talk about snow boots. How I’ve ignored the need to purchase them. How I’ve lasted the previous winter without them. And then, this week, I broke down and bought a pair and already I feel regret. Why, he asks. Boots are pragmatic, something I need, and I’ve always been the practical kind. Because this is my last year in New York, I say, flippantly. He pauses, allows the words to settle because he’s ahead of me. What I’ve said doesn’t register on my face just yet. I’m still moving food about my plate, talking about kimchi and kale. And then it happens–the words catch up and linger. Something in me seizes, quietly, and he says that I’ll always need boots because he knows I’ll temporarily return. How could I not return to the place I’ve called home? I think about Odysseus, nymphs, and an awaiting shore, but I don’t tell him any of this because it’s kind of strange to be bringing up the Greeks over barbequed beef–you know what I mean?

I want to tell him that this conversations reminds me of the one we had two years prior. I was in his office, head in my hands, talking about fear. He’d asked me if I was happy. Are you happy? I said, no. I already knew I had to resign from a job that had slowly begun to kill me; I had to stop working for a man I didn’t respect or trust. I had to stop becoming the woman I never wanted to be–bitter, stressed, angry, someone who practiced moral relativism like breathing. But what if I quit? What then? This life isn’t the one I want, but I know it. I can navigate it with eyes open. And if my friend (then colleague) hadn’t made me imagine what was on the other side of fear, I wouldn’t be writing this post. So I think about that conversation and how we don’t need to have it again, and that’s the silence that passes between us–the tacit understanding that this decision is familiar, and all I need to do is see out onto the horizon.

You’ll visit, he says. I nod. I’ll visit. What if I don’t secure freelance work? I’ll visit. What if I’m lonely? I’ll visit. What if I lose my apartment? I’ll visit. You know you’re giving up your apartment for good, right? What if New York is it? I’ll visit.

Now to only tell my father I’ll visit.

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.

    no new friends, as drake so sagely rhymes: on age and keeping your circle tight

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    Growing up involves opening outward. We search out new experiences, wider social connections, and ways of putting our stamp on the world. When people reach the latter half of adult hood, however, their priorities change markedly. Most reduce the amount of time and effort they spend pursuing achievement and social networks…They focus on being rather than doing and on the present more than the future…If we shift as we age toward appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than toward achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we’re old? The common view was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time.Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal

    It’s funny how a book about death can teach one so much about life–how to hold it close to your heart, how to take its pulse and how to quicken it. We start out by wrapping our arms around the world and everything in it simply because we want to feel, know and taste everything. We are nothing if not an accumulation of our senses with the volume turned up, and when we’re young we measure our life in terms of the things we hold in our hands, progress we can see. We become box-tickers, ladder climbers, deft players of checkers and chess. Because what if we miss it? What if we refused to open ourselves up to all the possibilities? What then? When we’re young, I can’t think of a more frightening word than limits.

    Because why shouldn’t we desire the world and want everything in it? Believe me when I say the natural order of things is to oscillate wildly. There is beauty in the unknown, of feeling your way around the dark, of scraping your knees and feeling the sting of rubbing alcohol and the rip and tear of bandages. Much of youth orbits around uncertainty, and it’s perfectly normal to feel as if you are a bridge on the verge of collapse, that one errant footfall could turn you into driftwood.

    I’m starting to think of growing older as a certain kind of quiet. We once measured our worth in direct correlation to our personal velocity, of how fast and far we managed to hurtle ourselves to as many shores as we could navigate. We achieved all that our parents had designed for us, and then what? What then?

    Last year I took a meal with a woman in her twenties. Perhaps I was someone whose career she admired, or possibly I could offer her some knowledge she’d yet to acquire, but over the course of our meal I could tell that she was uncomfortable that I didn’t have all the answers. That at 38 my career was still elusive, I’d yet to marry or bear children. I wanted to tell her that the difference between us was that I was calm in the midst of the unknown. I had the armor and tools she’d yet to acquire. Although I didn’t know precisely what I wanted to do with the rest of the year, much less my life, I knew what I didn’t want, and I knew that if I kept moving toward the projects and people that make me want to bolt out of bed in the morning, I was headed in the right direction. How do you explain that age hones your GPS, or perhaps it allows you to manage the sharp turns and how to find your way back after you’ve been lost all this time?

    I left the meal exhausted, and I suppose she left flummoxed over the fact that I hadn’t “figured it all out.”

    FullSizeRenderI’ve written at length about cultivating real relationships and my violent aversion toward networking and how I’ve managed to block the barnacles. When given the choice between working a room or working my couch, clearly my heart is with the latter. Because I’ve spent the better part of fifteen years accumulating the people who matter in my life. I’ve defined for myself the traits and values that my friends should embody, and I never, ever, befriend anyone simply because they’re a connector, they’re good to know. Frankly, if I can’t share a meal with you, I don’t want to know you. In this way, I’m polarizing. I’m 39, not 25. I don’t need new people; I have my people.

    And my people are busy. I’m at the age when coordinating a lunch is the equivalent of a CIA operative. There are multiple texts, chats, calendar consultations because now we have to consider children, work, AA meetings, therapy, after-work engagements, and all the other weight we carry as the years advance. Time with my close friends, my beloveds, is so precious that when I’m with them, I’m completely present. We don’t use our phones (unless there’s an emergency) and we spend our time close, connected, because as we grow older the distance between this meal and our next grows wider. Even with my closest friends. Even with the people whom are my family.

    Over the past few years I’ve made some very clear and definitive choices about my life. I will only surround myself with people who challenge and comfort me. Our relationships are symbiotic, reciprocal, and I never leave a dinner drained–I’m always invigorated. I always want to create, build, be. I will only take on projects with people whom I respect, people who have integrity and challenge me. I don’t create “content”, I tell stories, and I’ll never write simply for the sake of churning out something for screen or paper. I will only cleave to that which nurtures me. And with all of that decisiveness comes difficult choices and awkward conversations.

    After a recent stressful holiday, my friend Amber said, in the sage words of Drake, no new friends. And I have to agree. Frankly, I don’t want piles of new friends. I’m not at the place in my life where I need to hoard and accumulate, rather it’s about a winnowing down. I want to spend my time nurturing existing relationships and rekindling old ones. I want to focus on mentoring the extraordinary women who used to work for me. That’s not to say that I haven’t met some wonderful people in the past two years (my friends Grace and Joanna immediately come to mind), however, I only seek to cultivate friendships with people where we both walk away inspired and excited. In short, while I have acquaintances and professional relationships, I make very few friends.

    Because I can’t give all of me to everyone.

    The online space is extraordinary and strange. This virtual home allows me to connect and share aspects of my life, and how I think, in a truly personal way. Writing has always helped me make sense of the world, and writers would have to be mad to not want their work to affect others. You want people to read. You want them to feel something based on what you’ve written. You want them to not only be inspired, but you hope they act, move, live their best life. Yet the flipside to that coin is that people feel as if they know the innards of you. They’ve knocked on your door and you’ve allowed them trespass to your home and somehow this makes you kin. I struggle with this, honestly. I read a lot of blogs and I rarely comment because my relationship with the blogger is one-dimensional. They serve a very selfish purpose and I’m okay with a relationship that is confined to a screen. I’m satisfied with my Twitter relationships because most are about the exchange of ideas and information. I don’t desire to meet everyone I follow because I’ve come to know a representation of that life and that’s all I need.

    I guess this is what happens when you grow older, perhaps Atul Gawande is right. Because all I want is to focus on what’s in my life, right now. And if I happen to come across someone new and extraordinary, awesome, but I’m not running toward it. There is no hurtling, there is instead a settling.

    roasted cauliflower with dates + pistachios and a meditation on resolving vs. doing

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    I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it. –Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

    He was the kind of man who had been through war but dressed his wounds years after the fact. He was a heart worth beating for, a man who buried his face in my hair and let it rest there. We were in a restaurant in Utah and I rushed to the table and whispered, Britney Spears is in the bathroom! Back then, I wore a red wool hat the size of a small child. I don’t know what your plans are, but mine don’t include children. On our first date we took a good meal in a bad restaurant. When he asked, do you always drink like this?, gesturing to a wine glass that was never empty, I laughed and said, do you know of any other way? That night we fell asleep to the sound of a woman singing Chinese arias in the courtyard. Back then I lived in an apartment above a restaurant where tourists paid Italian men of a certain age and breed to play The Godfather on a weathered violin. When the halls smelled of bleach and the carousel of lights flickered and faded to dark, a woman would sing, always, as if her sad song could eclipse all the ones that had come before. You have to know that it was tragic to fall asleep to The Godfather night after night. Because there’s heartbreak in repetition, in a heart that never quickens, but only slumbers its way home. Part of me wondered about a man who fell in love with a woman who was intent to remain at war with herself, who felt shelter only by picking at healing wounds. Just to see if she could still bleed. Just because she could. Just because she knew of no other way.

    We spent the holidays in Boston with a family that measured your self-worth by the accumulation of degrees. I’d pass muster because, you know, Columbia. I’d never lived in a house with two floors, much less a mudroom (What’s a mud room? I whispered as we removed our coats. A room before the others, he said), so when we arrived that night I crept up and down the stairs. Up and down. Up and down, again. I did find it strange that one needed a room to ready oneself for the rest of the house.

    Over the next two days there was a fire, a brawl, a father who thought it funny to call me felatio, a battle waged against a sister who got rhinoplasty and changed her name because she was so tired of being Jewish, thickened mashed potatoes and tears (mostly his, some of my own), and I understood that a mudroom was a way out. Back then I slept on top of the sheets, never between them, with one leg off the bed, ready to run. Who knew that a room would be a leg, an escape clause, a get out of dodge kind of plan? I never thought I’d say this but your family is more fucked up than mine, I said. Let’s just leave, he said. He had this habit of removing his glasses and cleaning them, even after they were clean. He’d remove, wipe, wear, and remove, wipe and wear all over again. They’re clean, I snapped once, to which he replied, that’s not the point.

    I realized then that I was dating a man whose last name meant screamer in German.

    Who gives away their slow-beating heart? Who does this? Who lets someone in, all the way? I was nothing if not a collection of bones broken in all the wrong places, and as one year eclipsed another, as people stood beneath a storm of snow-mixed confetti–reports warned of thundersnow–as couples hastily and sloppily kissed, as children wore cone-shaped hats and raised valiant fists in the air, I removed my lips from his and said, this year I don’t want this. I couldn’t love another version of me. Back then I was impenetrable, incapable of love because I’d equated it to bloodletting, and who knew then that he knew this all along. That he made a game of seeing if he could break me because he was the gambling kind.

    A month later I discovered that although my heart wasn’t capable of complete love, it was completely breaking. Men took me and my things to a small apartment in Chelsea where a man blasted jazz into the gloaming.

    I thought about of this when I spent New Year’s Eve with a dear friend, and we talked about how we started each year, if we had been alone, if that meant something. Four years of thirty-nine I’d spent it with a significant other, and it occurred to me, a day later, that those others weren’t significant, I was alone, and all of it did mean something. Until now I hadn’t been the gambling kind. I hadn’t flung open the doors to the light just beyond the dark (had you been there, all this time? Just beyond my reach? Or had I been busy dressing all those open wounds?); I hadn’t run all the way out and in. I was running in circles, exhausted from chasing all the wrong things, and I was tired. So tired.

    Because I don’t want to live in a house with a mudroom. Because I’m finally able to rest between the sheets. Because I’d rather be alone for the right reasons than with someone for the wrong ones. Because being anesthetized isn’t a way to live, rather it’s a way to affix bandages over a dam about to break, it’s a way to slowly and cowardly die. Because writing one-line axioms in a book isn’t really the same thing as living a life. Because there is a difference between being uncomfortably comfortable in the familiar versus feeling disquiet in the unknown. Because I’m 39, and I no longer want to feel the tic of a list but rather the rush of a life.

    I don’t believe in resolutions. I don’t believe in resolving to do something instead of actually doing it. I don’t believe in being inspired by someone and letting that light, that whisper to do, fall to blight. Every year until now has felt like a photocopy of a bland original, but I woke yesterday thinking about all the possibility. I’m going to write without fear of not being published. I’m going to move to four states. I’m going to stop hiding behind my graduate loan debt, using that as an excuse to live in a house of no. I’m going to create. I’m going to break ranks. I’m going to sit in discomfort and disquiet because I know there’s a better place. And I’ve already booked my first AirBNB for my move to New Mexico.

    And I know all of this will lead me back to a greater self, a self made whole, and then, possibly then, I will find something that resembles love.

    Because this year I don’t want this.

    Recipe for Balsamic Roasted Cauliflower and Dates, because this is what you eat after three slices of vegan coffee cake on New Year’s Eve.

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    live the questions now (long read)

    Untitled

    Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. ― Rainer Maria Rilke

    It was a Saturday night, which had become a blurred photocopy of every other evening, and a taxi barrelled down the FDR Drive. Back then we liked it fast. We preferred to live dangerously; we were on the road to ruin–and the knowledge of this, of all it, comforted us. I took a leave from a writing program, and found myself holding a bottle of wine, a cigarette half-smoked because I wasn’t the smoking kind, and a Nokia phone, as I shouted for my friend to get in already. It was rare to catch a taxi uptown back then. I remember the car and us bending our heads as if we were supplicants called to prayer; we stole quick bumps, thinking we were all slick and discrete when we were, in fact, the opposite. The driver didn’t care about any of it, except for the fear that we might spill wine in his cab. Hunched over we did blow and then we blew smoke out of windows.

    By the time we reached the Lower East Side, I couldn’t breathe. Over the past few months a habit that had once been a weekend thing, soon morphed into a weeknight thing (because there was always a dinner, a reading, a reason for party favors), and soon I fell asleep and woke to cocaine. No one really knew the depths of my fall because I was functioning, sort of. I was all broken capillaries, nosebleeds at my desk, and eyes that regarded daylight as a form of barbaric, medieval torture. But I white-knuckled my way through meetings, typed all my emails and didn’t care that my body felt like a costume I’d worn too many times. Back then I told myself I had this under control, that I would never be like her, my mother, my aunt, all junk-sick and spinning out of control, but then go the lines. Sometimes my heart would beat so fast I couldn’t stop it, so I’d drink some wine, have a little smoke, or swallow pills. I was in pursuit of the middle of nothing.

    That taxi ride was the second time I felt death creep under my skin and make a home. The first time I was in Mexico and nearly drowned in an ocean. When we reached shore my body was volcanic. I couldn’t breathe; I needed my mother. I was 20, saying her name as if incanting it would conjure a version of her back to me, before the cocaine and her undoing, when it was just two girls, holding hands. Laughing. The second time all I could think about was my mother, my first hurt, and how I’d do anything to smother all the love I’d given her and how much of my childhood she’d stolen in return. I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all, Elliot wrote.

    Back then I would do anything to feel nothing. In this body there is a heart that refuses to beat. Darkness becomes a homecoming–it pulls up a chair in your own home, offers you a drink, and asks, are you happy? Are you comfortable? How long do you want me to stay? Should I unpack? Should I forward the mail? And for a time, I let the dark into my heart because although I knew so many people I’d never felt so lonely. Cocaine was there all along, holding my hand, whispering into my hair that it would never leave. You have to know where’s comfort in that–a constant companion, a tender lover–and then you realize the object of your affection has grown tired of your devotion and wants more. Isn’t it always this way? The thing that you consume craves more than what you’re willing to give, and then you wake and realize the darkness wants to be all of you. It won’t just settle for a drawer in your bedroom.

    That night in the cab was a preview of what would happen if I became all that I consumed. Addicts trade war stories–they talk about shame, humiliation, regret and anger, that one night, that every night–but many of us agree that there was a brief time when it was wonderful…until it wasn’t. And we’d spend so much time crawling our way back to the wonder, that first feeling of you being here but not really, and you know how it is. While the story of the day I stopped doing coke twelve years ago isn’t remotely memorable, losing the wonder continues to haunt me, still.

    My dad was the first to pick up on the bigger problem–alcohol. The drink is like setting fire to a house after you’ve dead bolted the doors and locked yourself in it. The dark is always in your periphery yet you cease to care because the idea of feeling the weight of loss, sorrow and hurt is entirely too much to bear. When you have all this pain, you wonder, where do you put it? Is there a container? Will I need to request a certain size (small, medium, large? tall, grande, venti?)? What if all the pain doesn’t fit? What then? What of my heart then?

    I managed to shield him from cocaine, managed to make it a story like every other story I told, and he never worried because the woman before him was the woman he’d always known–funny, strange, a picky eater, who sometimes drank too much. It’s rare that I let anyone into the depth of dark I’m able to endure, but my father knew. I suppose he’d always known. He was confused that night I fell asleep drunk on a train, somehow ending up in Ronkonkoma with my wallet missing. I woke him in the dead of night for cab fare, and I remember him asking why I wasn’t able to stand straight. I was 23, I think. I suppose he knew when he told me that if I could do him one favor, one small thing, which was for me to shield him from my drunkenness, and then I came home, weeks later, black-out drunk, knocking over things. Always with the hangover. Always with the damn wine lips, he said. I suspected he feared that I would become a version of my mother, a difficult woman. You make it impossible for me to love you, I told her twice. Even last year, even after my relapse, I mentioned my two-month binge to my father in passing. Another story. Another, I’m fine now so you don’t need to worry. Because this is what happens when you lose people–you drink until you black. You drink until you can no longer see. I’m forever shielding my father from worry. In his eyes, I’m always strong, impenetrable.

    My pop asked me once about the blow and the drink. Setting aside the obvious, you saw what that shit did to your mother, there was the very clear question in front of him, which was: you’re so frightened of death, why would you do this to yourself? How to explain. Where to begin. Do you end? My father has always accepted death, understood that you one day returned to the place from which you’d come. That valiant, small fist punching its way out of the womb becomes a shuddering breath, a hand that feels like cashmere, feeling its way back home. That small, balled fist. That weathered, frail hand. We exist for most of our lives in the space between the two, and while I can accept that, I’m so frightened of the after. I no longer believe in a heaven with its blinding lights and touch of gold, or a hell that engulfs you in flames. Rather, I believe in a body settling into the earth, allowing for new life to eclipse it. We pass so others can live–this is the order of things. And the only way you continue to exist is in memory. I accept all of this as fact, but it doesn’t make it easier to bear.

    In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande writes, the story of aging is the story of our parts.

    But in truth no single disease leads to the end; the culprit is just the accumulated crumbling of one’s bodily systems while medicine carries out its maintenance measures and patch jobs.

    Our life, as we know it, becomes a slow fade. Death is all the lights in the house, lights that once burned brightly now flicker and fade out. I’m reading a book about the science of mortality and what matters in the end because there was a time in my life when the one final act I’m trying desperately to evade was in my home, eating my food, lying beside me in my bed. People never understand when I talk about getting older, of the terror that exists in counting the years. They think it’s about vanity–you don’t even look 39–and it takes everything in me to smother rage, because age isn’t about skin and hair pigments and body size, it’s about the clocks. Every inch forward cannot be reclaimed. There is no going back. There is only the slow, steady march into the dark. But what happens when no one follows you? What happens when there is only you?

    I read another article about our hunger for fame and how it’s bound to the notion of immortality. In memory, life is constant. You continue to exist when someone speaks your name. The author writes,

    A fundamental belief of the Greeks: that acts of heroism or epic poems are not only nobler than mere sprogs, but also considerably more durable. Where living things fall like leaves in autumn, our cultural objects can endure. Kingdoms, titles and honour survive to be passed from one generation to the next; stories persist to be told by new generations of bards; bronze statues do not fall sick. Unlike human children, cultural offspring promise to be ‘everlasting’.

    On our way to Ireland

    On our way to Ireland

    I think about all of this because I have no real family. Yes, I have a host of friends whom I love but they are tethered to their kin. They have families of their own, and I am not part of their legacy. This isn’t me being woeful, it’s me being honest. In an act of self-preservation, I refuse to have a relationship with my mother and her new family. And my pop, who isn’t my biological father, but has served as a father figure since I was 12, well, I don’t know sometimes. Over the past five years our relationship has shifted, and although there’s still memory and love and nostalgia, we no longer cleave to each other like we used to. When we were in Ireland, I felt the love that comes with familial history, of being bound to a name. But my last name’s Sullivan, and I’m not even Irish. I feel rootless. I feel part of a family by invitation. I’m a third African but how do I claim it? I do not want children. I am the last of my kind. There is only the dark and you alone in it.

    I think about this a lot. Perhaps this is why I’m compelled to write more now that I’ve ever wanted to before. Perhaps I need to get this down, on paper, so people will know that I was once here. That long after my body has settled into the earth with gravel and rock, a part of how I loved, thought, lived, might endure. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion once wrote. I wonder if they serve to preserve us after our final breath shudders out. Our stories deliver us onward, maybe they tell us we mean something. That we don’t solely exist to breed and sustain new life.

    Buddha says, The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live, and that is the present moment. And in that moment there are questions. I do wonder if living in punctuation will give me freedom. Will allow me to see.

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