odds & ends

I’ve taken a hiatus from political news and election coverage, because even though I voted early I’m experiencing fatigue. Apparently, we’re all stressed and our connection to the truth is precarious, at best. We’re overwhelmed by the rage, anger and blind hate in this country. We’re tired of turning on our televisions to wonder what will shock us today. What new horror does the day bring? I’m also admittedly tired of being called a cunt on Twitter because I’m a feminist, because I’ve exercised my right to vote, and my choice (Clinton) makes strangers upset enough to spew vitriol in my mentions. As someone who rabidly consumes both liberal and conservative media (one of my oldest friends is a Republican, will likely vote for Trump much to my chagrin, but she did impress upon me the importance of understanding the other side because one can’t make an argument for one’s beliefs in their own bias vacuum), it’s been hard not to react to the headlines on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s been hard to switch away from MSNBC, BBC America, Al Jazeera, and all the other news outlets I consume on a daily basis. But I’m doing it because I want to preserve my sanity as much as possible. We’ll see what happens when we wake the morning of the 9th. I only hope, regardless of the outcome, that our country will move in a direction of healing. I try to have hope.

So, instead, I’m:

Watching: If you loved Stranger Things and Black Mirror, you will love Glitch. Filmed in Australia, the first season centers on six people who have miraculously risen from the dead and the practical and philosophical consequences that ensue. No, this isn’t zombie fare and it’s free of horror, which makes the show that much more powerful. What happens when your wife’s body, ravaged with cancer, gives up to then return two years later to find your husband married to your pregnant best friend? What happens when you were murdered at 19, and the man who everyone thought killed you, didn’t? What happens when someone has to explain television because you never made it to the 20th century. After the disappointing third season of The Fall (Jamie Dornan makes for an excellent serial killer), The Glitch satisfied my escapist craving.

I’m endlessly fascinated by cults. I once read over 30 books on them (and mind control), and it’s hard to find a nuanced cult film without it being camp. The Invitation is that film. It’s so quiet and deeply sinister that I was gripped the entire time–rare these days.

Reading: A few years ago, I asked friends if they knew of great stories told solely from a child’s point-of-view (one of the most difficult things a writer can do, really), and many pointed me to Emma Donoghue’s Room, which I finished in one day.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder, transports us to a different time (19th century, rural Ireland), but the slow-burn horror, as experienced by an eleven-year-old girl, is equally as remarkable. A practical English nurse, trained by the famed Florence Nightengale, travels to a small village to bear witness to a girl who hasn’t eaten in four months yet remains alive. Is the child a miracle? Or is there something more nefarious at play? I can usually spot a plot twist early on, but this ending I didn’t anticipate and it truly satisfies. I also devoured my friend Liza Monroy’s hilarious, sardonic essay collection, Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon to Be on Fire. Liza has such a gift for storytelling and while I normally shy away from essays that take readers on a relationship-related journey, Liza writes with such honesty and humility, that the essays always rise above the din. If you want a little levity in the darkness, I recommend Liza’s book, wholly.

Speaking of writing, a practical and excellent guide by Benjamin Franklin. And while I normally eschew the ubiquitous “what I’ve learned” lists, Brain Picking’s 10 learnings from 10 years is so on point and remarkable. If you read anything this week, let it be that. This was an elegant, potent read on body, size, and mind. And when a man writes a book with the word girl in the title, you can probably assume she’s dead or close to it. Grace Paley’s “Wants” is one of my all-time favorite stories, and I stumbled upon it again last week while I was packing boxes and it chills me twenty years after I first read it. It also occurred to me that my favorite song is “Gimme Shelter” for reasons I won’t describe.

Finally, Mila Kunis: bad-ass. And speaking of awesome women, my friend Hitha is doing great things. Support.

And yes, this is currently my life. Exhibit A:

moving

 

book buff

odds & ends

This Saturday it’ll be a year since I moved to California. I’ve lived in New York my whole life, never needed a car, failed the road test three times because I couldn’t parallel park and then my license expired because why bother? Now I think about all the places I can go if I got a car. I think about geography, a terrain not yet navigated and a year is nothing, a blip because there’s so much about being here left to explore.

I first thought of California when I considered transferring to USC for film/writing during my sophomore year, and for the next fifteen years, I flirted with the idea of moving here. I never did it until I did and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

I don’t think I could’ve gone through the necessary introspection and work had I still lived in Brooklyn because I grew uncomfortably comfortable. I don’t know if I would’ve written a book that finally ends with hope if I still lived in NY. I don’t know if I would’ve been a calmer, quieter, chill person if I still lived in NY. Who knows, right? This journey is far from over and it’s private, strange, wonderful and it requires constant work. There is no taking a day off or sleeping in because nothing frightens me more than going back to that dark country that occupied me in February.

It’s been a relief not documenting as much online as I used to, and although I know I have a book coming out and I have to market it, blah, blah, blah, I don’t believe in doing something unless it makes you bolt out of bed. The strained effort shows and people are smart and they know when you’re phoning it in. I used to be excited about sharing everything, but that edited version of your life comes with costs you hadn’t quite calculated.

What I will say is this. Things are good. Really good. I finally feel settled, at home in all the ways you can think of the word.

I’m on a tear lately when it comes to books, films, art and I’ve been voracious with media. I finally got a LACMA membership because I can’t wait to check out the Guillermo del Toro exhibit, which is so up my alley. After seeing a slew of terrible Netflix movies, I stumbled on a Norwegian tsunami film, The Wave, and it made me wonder why we can’t make films as equally smart and gripping. Why must everything be a remake? Formulaic? The story of a geologist, who aims to save his family from a 300-foot high tsunami that’s been triggered by a rockslide in the quiet village of Geiranger, is tender, smart, thrilling and I’m shocked that I felt transfixed for over 90 minutes without glancing at my phone. The film is that good. Watch it. In striking contrast, I watched the acclaimed documentary, We Come As Friends. Remember Darwin’s Nightmare? This is darker, a deft exploration of how colonialism, war, and business contribute to the exploitation of South Sudan. I also re-watched A Woman Under the Influence after catching a random interview with Gena Rowlands and remembering how much I love watching films about women coming undone.

When it comes to books & articles, I’m reading everything. This piece was an incisive take on the tie between vlogs & anxiety disorder. Speaking of bloggers, this might be the most egregious shill yet–vloggers roll up to a country with the most horrifying human rights violations and document their holiday in… North Korea. What’s next? A guided tour through Syrian refugee camps? It’s true that introverts get hangovers from too much socializing. There have been times when I’ve needed a whole day of solitude to recharge.

My third book features characters across age, race, gender identity and social class, and I’d be lying if I said it was easy to write. This terrific piece outlines the fundamentals of writing “the other”. The best quote was from Junot Diaz, whom I admire:

To write, we must listen. To listen, we must shut up. And this isn’t the simple kind of listening, where you’re waiting for them to finish what they can say so you can jump in real quick with your point. Really, have a seat, take a deep breath, and listen to what people around you are saying. Listen to yourself, your quiet self. To your doubts and fears, the things you don’t want to admit. Listen to the things folks say that make you uncomfortable. Sit with that discomfort.

Understand you suck. Then try to suck less and move forward.

And if we’re getting bookish, this author was a thrilling new find and T.S. Eliot was a total asshole. I read three great books in a row and you need to order them ASAP. Lara Vapnyar’s Still Here, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (not everyone will love this because it’s obtuse, but her writing is ferocious), and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. This, from Jansson’s book, remains with me:   

The worm probably knows that if it comes apart, both halves will start growing separately. Space. But we don’t know how much it hurts. And we don’t know, either, if the worm is afraid it’s going to hurt. But anyway, it does have a feeling that something sharp is getting closer and closer all the time. This is instinct. And I can tell you this much, it’s no fair to say it’s too little, or it only has a digestive canal, and so that’s why it doesn’t hurt. I am sure it does hurt, but maybe only for a second. Now take the smart worm that made itself long and came apart in the middle, that may have been like pulling a tooth, for example, except it didn’t hurt. When it had calmed its nerves, it could tell right away it was shorter, and then it saw the other half right beside it. Let me make this a little easier to understand by putting it this way: Both halves fell down to the ground, and the person with the hook went away. They couldn’t grow back together, because they were terribly upset, and then, of course, they didn’t stop to think, either. And they knew that by and by they’d grow out again, both of them. I think they looked at each other, and thought they looked awful, and then crawled away from each other as fast as they could. They they started to think. They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.

Finally, I won’t get into politics here because I rant on Twitter enough, but this week’s New Yorker profile on Jared & Ivanka Kushner was fascinating.
book buff

sky burial: a town, a life, a heart drowning in ashes

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On the way to the Masaya Volcano, Ricardo tells me a story about an eruption not too long along that covered a small town in ashes. Some foretold a tale of a death that rained, a harbinger of doom, while others clucked their tongues and spoke of the inconvenience, the cost of cleaning up a town covered in grey. Some look at a place drowning in ashes and think of endings, while others, like me, are hopeful–we are in constant want of rebirth, of beginnings.

Nicaragua has 17 active volcanos that dot along the Pacific Coast. Some are massive leaving miles of scorched earth in its wake, while others are dormant, home to vegetation and minor life. Some are lakes that can erupt from below the surface while others spout rocks the size of boulders or small homes. Regardless, the Spanish call them bocadillos del infierno (mouths from hell), and Ricardo tells me about preachers who’ve affixed crucifixes near the crevices and Argentians who sacrificed children and women in hopes that the innocents will sate the evil within. But really they are natural wonders, massive in size and depth with lava the color of wine bearing temperatures upwards of 2200F. I’ve never seen a volcano before and as I stood next the crater, inhaling a cloud of fumes, I pointed above and asked if we’d climb to the volcano, to which Ricardo replied, laughing, you’re standing next to it!

The sky was clear, a wash of cotton white and deep blue, and Ricardo tells me that we are lucky as he hasn’t been able to see so far across and down since December. He tells me that Masaya is actually a volcano within a volcano, and do you see the parakeets dotting in and out of the crevices along the rocks? They lay their eggs there. They live there amidst the smoke and the noxious fumes. I watch the birds get lost in the smoke to then fly up into the sky. I can barely manage a few minutes next to the volcano as the fumes make me nauseous, dizzy, but the birds have adapted, thrived in what some would deem a ruin.

After, we visit another inactive volcano that’s home to greenery, a hole in an earth that in a few thousand years will be a river, like Apoyo, Ricardo tells me, filled with salt, minerals–a water so blue it’s nearly purple. Too bad, I say, we won’t be here to see it. In the car, in the dry heat, Ricardo tells me that he never tires of visiting the volcanos because it reminds him that we are insignificant, small. I nod because this is precisely the journey which I’ve embarked–a trip from the cynical and tired to the awake and wonder. In Spanish I tell him that I want to go back to the wonder and he nods and I think we understands me.

We spend much of the day talking. We talk about politics. He tells me about the government corruption, a president who changed the constitution and sold out his people to the Chinese who will build a canal that will be the country’s ecological ruin. The Chinese will bring their own workers and act as robber barons, scorching earth and sea for profit. All for money, Ricardo tells me. His face flushes and I can tell he’s angry. He points to signs all over Masaya, government propaganda. They throw parties for the young, give them t-shirts and free drinks–but it’s all brainwashing, Ricardo shakes his head. All to divert attention away from what greed continues to do to this country. Nicaraguans survive on tourism, many make $2000 a year while government officials make upwards of $70,000 at the expense of the people. I pluck a nerve when I try to compare this to the corruption in the United States. Ricardo tells me that this is nothing like the U.S. There is no constitution, the opposition works for the party in power, and the people only wait for the president’s death in hopes of change.

In this way, I agree and acknowledge my ignorance and privilege.

Over lunch, I tell him about an America that is deeply divided. I talk about states that might as well be another country and politicians who care more about self-preservation than basic human decency. And for what? To buy more things, build bigger houses, hold fistfulls of bills as if the act of acquisition is a mark of great character, human frailty? Give me honesty, vulnerability, compassion over the appearance of strength and unity any day of the week. I talk about an America that is, in some ways, a terrorist. How we kill black men on the streets and send our young into unnecessary wars. We have ashes covering our country and we’ve blinded ourselves so that we don’t see it. We medicate ourselves on social media, finery, food, drugs, alcohol, sex, our ego, petty entertainment–all so that do not have to see the ashes covering our homes, finding their way down our throats and into our hearts. I tell Ricardo that I live in a country where many people are quick to label anyone a terrorist but recoil in horror when we turn the mirror on our own. I tell Ricardo that I used to love my country so wholly and completely like a child who lays at the feet of its mother to then grow old and realize that our parents are fallible, human, prone to cruelty and violence. I still love my country but I question it, constantly.

We talk about September 11, and how I stood on the corner of 23rd Street and saw a sky covered in smoke. People had taken on the shape of somnambulants and it felt like a horror film being played out on the most serene of days. I had not thought death had undone so many, writes Eliot. I tell Ricardo that my walk to my apartment on Mulberry Street was something out of a dream. Ashes covered the streets. Police officers asked about passport. Passport? What passport? Who carries their passport to work? How I traveled uptown to Spanish Harlem and smoked a little, drank a lot, fiddled with a Nokia phone that didn’t work (busy, busy), and wondered, What the fuck just happened down at World Trade? Who flies planes into buildings? Who does this? Manhattan was a wasteland, the stuff of great fiction because until then I couldn’t have conceived of the magnitude of such a horror or the fact that people exist in constant terror every day. I didn’t realize how many people in the world have hate in their hearts.

Do we live in a kind of walking mortuary? Are we nothing other than an abattoir of ashes? A mausoleum of our own greed and undoing? How is that we’ve done more destruction that large holes in the center of the earth? How is our movement more violent than tectonic plates shifting? How is it that we’ve lost the wonder?

Here’s me, trying to crawl my way back. Inch by inch.

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nicaragua traveling girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the gathering kind