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 price of being able to see

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On the side of a hill a sprinkling of leaves./Washes the grave with silvery tears./A soldier cleans and polishes a gun./Sleeps unaware of the clarion call. –Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”

When I was five my mother took me to the theater to see The Shining. All I could remember was the blood that was a river and a child screaming REDRUM. When I was eight I pumped on the swings with a girl called Tangerine, and later that night I asked my mother about something I’d seen. Earlier in the day the police cleared the park because of a woman on the ground. Men covered her body with a sheet and took her away. I wanted to know about the woman, about the cold body that lie on the ground. She was probably a junkie, my mother said through a faceful of smoke. When I was ten I crept at the foot of my mother’s door because I’d heard her wailing; I’d heard her head bang against a wall. I thought it was Danny all over again–another man beating a woman because he could–but when I opened the door to her bedroom a crack, a hair, I could see her and my stepfather curled up in a cocoon. Later I asked about what she’d done and she snapped, did I want to get pregnant like all the other degenerates up and down the block? Sex was a death sentence–it would ruin all that she had planned for me. And she had plans. I wasn’t like the others, she’d said. I wouldn’t grow into a woman drinking out of brown paper bags, a woman who said ain’t instead of aren’t.

For as long as I could remember I was able to write and read. I suppose I owe her that–her knowledge that books were a way in and writing was a way out. Even now, even after all this time, I need prose in order to see.

When I was small my mother would tell me stories about knives and black magic. She’d play her records, a mix of rock and roll and soul, and I’d lay down next to her, curl up close. I remember burying my face into the thicket that was her hair. My mother was a forest I wanted to get lost in. She told me she grew up in a home and she had to protect herself. However, as I grew older, I realized that my mother had an abusive relationship with the truth–you never knew which stories were true and which were of her own invention. A born revisionist, she recounted stories altered with each retelling, and all the stories came with some sort of truth. Never cry, never be vulnerable, always hurt before you are wounded–her axioms lingered, and I would spend much of my adult life unlearning what I had been taught. Even now I struggle with being vulnerable. When I relapsed last year, I didn’t call my closest friend–I sent her a g-chat because the thought of getting on the phone with her seemed like a line I couldn’t yet cross. The idea of breaking down into tears was unimaginable. I’m getting better at letting people all the way in, but it’s been a tough journey.

One of my mother’s favorite songs was “Scarborough Fair,” a song whose origins were rooted in the belief that love is impossible, that one had to go through extreme lengths to prove their devotion. She’d play the song, lifting the needle of the record player and setting it down again, and I’d close my eyes, drift into sleep as my mother told me that all of this was important. That it was imperative that I see the world for what it is. You can’t afford to be blind, she said once. I couldn’t afford to be a child.

By the time I was twelve I’d seen people die, overdose, fuck, pummel, beat, drink, smoke joints, shoot up. I saw countless films about the cruelty of men and bore witness to the cold revenge my mother inflicted when you crossed her. I stood guard while she stole money from a delicatessen safe, right after they let her go. I watched her jealousy of me. When I bought Lisa Frank stickers with my allowance money, she’d buy bigger books and stickers for her own collection. They were always perfectly arranged, and I’d spend weekends trying to mimic her precision. I watched her envy my youth, education (she never set foot on my college campus), and my writing. She told me that she was a writer too, but I never saw anything she’d written. But I saw her steal my journals and handwritten stories and read them. I saw her quietly watch me win awards and accolades for stories I wrote about the life we’d lived, stories that sometimes made her look like a monster.

Over a telephone line, a few years after my book had been published, I told my mother she’d stolen my childhood from me. She spent the better part of every conversation asking if she could see me, if I would meet her teenaged daughter. She spoke of our mutual drug addictions as if they were badges of honor instead of crosses to bear, and she didn’t understand why I didn’t love her because the past was past, and couldn’t I simply forgive her? You stole my childhood from me.

I have to tell you that I had hope. I did. I’d hope that all the years had changed her, that I could undo everything I’d felt about her in my first book, but she only became a barnacle from which I wanted to be excised. I spent so many years doing the work, repairing the damage I had done to myself and those whom I loved, and she remained changeless. She had a man and a new daughter and she sometimes worked in a local school. She will forever be my first and only true hurt.

Sometimes I wonder what all of this sight cost me. I read an article once that relayed that some of the finest writers (not all, but most) are broken people trying to knit themselves back together again. Childhood trauma, loss, pain occurs before they’re able to put words to it, logically process it, and this damage alters them somehow. This damage, which may have been resolved by faith, therapy, love or medication, imbues their work with a sight just beyond their reach. And the work is writing our way to, around, above, under and through that place.

I turn 39 this week and I have this gift and this loss, and they weigh on my hands. So I find myself staring from one to the other. One to the other. Always, one to the other.

The photo above is one of the last ones I took of my mother. It occurs to me now that I somehow predicted her leaving by photographing it, because some time after this photo was taken she would later leave my father and I in this car, wearing this jacket. Her face, always obscured. A figure just beyond my reach.

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

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

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

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

No, no children for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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on writing, mediocrity, and feeling blue

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When I was small, I remember taking a series of tests. I remember sitting next to my mother as the results were read aloud. My math scores were unparalleled; I exhibited deftness in understanding numbers and how to manipulate them. As a child, I’d managed to ferret out the logic within stories that depicted scenarios involving distance and time. On the other hand, my reading comprehension and writing scores were unremarkable. This baffled us because I’d been reading and writing for as long as I’d been alive, and if you asked me now to calculate the tip on a bill divided three ways, I’d reach for my calculator. No one considered the binary nature of these exams, tests that were designed to measure one’s aptitude and predicted the sort of career for which a child might be suited. For years I endured advanced math classes and much of my days amounted to playing with protractors and scientific calculators, while the spaces in between were dominated by books and short stories I’d written on loose-leaf paper.

No one thought to understand that my relationship to words was mathematical. No one imagined that I’d solved these riddles not because I had an affinity for math, but because I was so drawn into the narrative. Out of all the things I could do in this world, writing is the one thing that gives me assurance. I know I’m good at it, and the question is always one of maths. How do I get better? How do I manage the distance between this word here and the better word over there? Because the mark of a good writer is in how they navigate the subtleties, how one could find the combination of words that make others see. How can I make this sentence leaner (subtraction)? How can I make this dialogue operate like a nesting doll, working on multiple levels (multiplication). How can I write about loss in a way that puts your heart on pause (division). And how do I get to all of this in the most efficient way possible (Pythagorean theorem, a2 + b2 = c2, Euclidean geometry).

Writing, for me, has always existed as a combination of exhausting surgery and constant maths. Often I think of an image of a nesting doll because whatever I intend is never what is, and a story of mine always operates on a multitude of planes (multiplication). There exists a difference between writing simply and being simple, and the work, for me, is about how to achieve the cleanest line possible while maintaining this whole textbook of equations.

Last week I read a post on Twitter where someone wrote that there is no good or bad when it comes to writing–there is only the best you can do.

I call bullshit on that.

Not everyone can be a writer, nor should they be. And I’m not talking about the person who pens posts about their outfits or their day, rather I’m speaking about those who don’t have it but fake it and call themselves a writer because it’s the vogue thing to do. Ironically enough, writers have never felt trendy because we’re always the fringe, we’re always told that nothing we ever write sells. People don’t want dark. People don’t want complicated. People spend their whole days dicking around on the internet to avoid thinking at work and when they come home the last thing they want to do is…think. People read cereal boxes and lists and they want their words fed to them. People don’t want advanced maths (hmm, this is middle/high school math of which I’ve written), they want their reconciliations–they want what they are missing.

Hmm, so they want addition?

I don’t care if people call my writing remarkable, incredible, amazing, or any such adjective. Ego strokes and pats on the head don’t interest me. I’m 38. I know I’m good–the question is how do I get to that next place, that next line, that new story. You’re good but you’re too smart, too dark, too obtuse. You make people do all this work.

Fuck you and your dumbed-down version of a life.

Maybe I’m feeling blue because I see so many people who call themselves writers rewarded for mediocrity. The motley lot laud these “writers” for their “brand-building” (look at all her Instagram followers! Imagine all the books she’ll sell!) as opposed to observing the architecture of what’s on their page (or screen, if you’ll have it). I see people who run a blog where they prattle on about just! how! hard! it! is! to photograph their outfits every day and suddenly they put on the hat of marketer, consulting “big brands” on how they can build their brand. I read a post on Facebook where a friend of mine bemoans the fact that her not-so-smart but ambitious assistant is now a Vice President of a company. I scroll Twitter and land on a full-time role as a Director of a Health + Wellness Brand, the first in two years that piques my interest, and then I read the requirements and apparently to be a director you only need four years of experience.

People say, ignore all that! You do you! Keep pushing along! Keep smiling, keep shining, to which I want to respond, Please. Shut. Up. I’m exhausted by all the mediocrity being rewarded when the necessary failures are what have pushed me to achieve. If I was always told that I was great, would have I ever read more, tried harder, revised more? Or would have I been complacent for having achieved a first draft?

I turn 39 this month and I look around and wonder what I’ve really achieved, and whether all of it matters. Does it matter that I’ve written the greatest book I can write to date when people who can’t string together a sentence get multiple book deals? Does it matter that I am offered projects to clean up rookie mistakes made by those who call themselves marketers but don’t have the experience? Does excelling matter when the great lights and applause shine brightest on the feeblest of attempts.

I don’t know. The only solace I have this week are books written by women from whom I can still learn. Women who are artisans with the English language. The blacksmiths of literature, a dying breed.

great friends, great life, but should I be busier?

my friends are kind of awesome.
my friends are kind of awesome.

Sometimes I think about my life and wonder if I’m doing it all wrong. I read articles about how people are so busy!, how their email is a specter that haunts their waking hours. Many wonder if they have can keep up and sustain this hamster wheel of a life. But still they lament over the frantic state that is their calendar (I’m so booked!), and they move through their days much like a somnambulant. Keep moving, keep going, live life in hour increments. Sometimes they check their pulse, look for signs of life, but mostly they’re programmed to say yes; they read articles about how they should network, how their circle should be as wide and deep as an ocean, and I wonder if they ever get lost in all of it, the lack of quiet they’ve been taught to cultivate.

Even though I once played the role of an extrovert in an introvert’s body, even though I used to wince whenever I opened my email at a job that took me four years to hate, sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me for not being so busy (Should I be? Am I not popular, wonders the thirty-eight-year-old), for not being one of the legions who pray for this mythical world where inbox zero exists. I know this world and even when you’re in it you wonder if you should be on the other side.

Years ago I practiced extrovertism as if it were a religion. I published a prestigious literary magazine, I had an enviable job, and my days were filled with get-togethers, where people introduced me to other people who were “good to know.” People who are good to know apparently have the ability to get you to that next place, even if you don’t know what that place is or have its address. But it was important to have those drinks, and all the meals were a blur–so much so that I wanted to bring a pre-recorded tape to dinner and press play for the first twenty minutes until the appetizers arrived. Dinners became LinkedIn excavations with cocktails, where both parties sniffed one another out in an effort to determine the usefulness of the connection. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would make a joke about walking down Sutphin Boulevard in Queens because everyone would scan every inch of you, dissect you with their eyes, in hopes that you had something they wanted, something they could steal. These meals were no different. Always I’d come home drained, yet I’d wake to paste another smile on my face, email more people, and hope that someone, anyone, would invariably get me to that next place. Is that next place on a map? I often wonder.

Back then, drinking was a terrific anaesthetic. It made living a full/empty life easier to bear. I was there, but not really, and you know how it is.

I remember being upset once, about what I can’t quite recall, and I scanned the hundreds of numbers in my phone–all the people whom I was told were good to know–but I couldn’t call any of them. In my darkest hours, I was the owner of a pregnant inbox, was known as a mayor, a connector, but I had no one whom I could call for a good cry. I had everyone but I had no one, and this realization hurt more than you know. I had designed a life focused on the accumulation of the right people, yet I neglected to examine what I had defined as right. Because in the end most of my “friends” couldn’t be bothered to shoulder my hurt–they had their own lives, their own hurt, and more than likely their own friends with whom they could share said hurt. I remember thinking that I had so much pain and I didn’t know where to put it. Where do you put it? In a box? In a container? What size? What happens when the pain spills over? Another box, another container, more tears, more scanning through hundreds of numbers you can’t imagine calling? What then?

It might have been that time, all those years ago, when I took off my mask (I’m not perfect! I have a drinking problem! I hurt too!) and winnowed down my life. I took a scalpel, excised the barnacles and got lean. I sought out the kind of people with whom I could share an uncomfortable silence. I stopped seeing people who made me feel as if I’d undergone surgery for a temporal lobotomy. I removed those who wheedled, were catty and cruel (nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, Felicia). No one would make me feel small. You are what you accept, I’d come to realize, and if I wanted a life that was honest and true, I’d have to make that objective my harvest.

I was reminded of this recently when my dear friend Amber shared this post with me while we were on holiday talking about friendship:

Remember, it’s your job to look for something cool in everyone you meet; it’s not their job to show you. This is life, not a fucking sales convention. Learning to appreciate people you meet is a skill you cultivate. So get on it. This doesn’t mean you have to fall in love with everyone who breathes in your direction. It just means you need to take responsibility for your ability to connect with the people you are meeting.

My world is small, deliberately so. For over a decade, I’ve made it my practice to cultivate a kula (“community” in Sanskrit) of people who nourish and challenge me. These are the people with whom I can be my most unkempt self. These are people who check in on me when I write about being blue. These are people who will sit on my living room floor and talk about everything or nothing. These are the people I’ve come to define as good to know because they’re good for me, my soul. And in that work and devotion, I started to have less time for the superfluous. I no longer tolerated people who reduced me to a link to someone else, who wanted mentoring without giving anything in return, who didn’t value my friendship as something they wished to nurture and cultivate. I was just another obligation, someone good to know, a coffee date ticked off their laundry list, and I began to bow out of anything that exhausted me. If I left a coffee or meal depleted rather than energized I never made plans with that particular person again. If I can’t pass a meal with you, I don’t want to know you. If we don’t walk away mutually inspired, I want no part of the deal. My threshold for bullshit emails is low.

So here I am. I have this rich life, these great group of friends that I’d worked so diligently to cultivate and why do I bemoan an inbox the size of a sonnet? Why do I feel that I should network even if I don’t want to? Part of it is a selfish, base need to be liked–I guess we all have this flaw even when we realize that being universally liked is an impossible, if not strange, pursuit–but part of me feels like an other–a space I’ve occupied for most of my life, someone who skirts the edges of things–but for some reason the quality of my life feels at odds with the velocity of quantity that subsumes me. And while I know it’s okay to not do anything, sometimes I wonder, should I be doing something? Should I schedule that lunch? Should I be out there more? Should I be busy? Should I have more email? Would having more make projects easier to acquire and a book everyone wants to buy? Logically, I know the answer to all of this is no, of course not, but then there’s this quietly beating heart, this small, sometimes insecure, voice, that wonders if what I have is enough?

Why is it that we insist on picking at a wound just as it’s about to heal?

to be back there again.
to be back there again.

changing the channel: I’m a bit done with this “curated life” bullshit

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I’m an addict. If I fall in love with something or someone long enough, I tend to become obsessive to the point where the object of my affection becomes my inevitable ruin. That avocado once craved rots, and the passion I once had for someone becomes a tick, a drone, a dull sustained murmur I’m desperate to snuff out. Over the years I’ve gotten remarkably better at being present and self-aware, in spotting a burgeoning addiction as it starts to harvest and breed, and finding ways to lay my pitchfork down, stop, and change course. It sometimes feels like stopping a hurricane with a paperweight, but it’s in this diligence, this constant observance, that allows me to enjoy small things like chickpeas without becoming fixated on them. (I had to issue a chickpea fatwa, and get off the stuff for two weeks to re-learn how to consume it in moderation, and on it goes).

Some addictions can’t be controlled, and I’ve learned to live a life without certain things (alcohol, drugs), but what I’ve witnessed is this: what I’ve gained from leaving those two afflictions behind is so much greater than the cold comfort I experienced in succumbing to them. Perhaps it’s the difference in understanding that it’s okay to rip off the bandaid and feel that tear, that very immediate hurt, versus inching off the tape. We take a sip of this or a snort of that to ease the pain of the ripping, but it’s only a delay, because in the end there will always be the hurt. It’s just a matter of understanding our timeline of when we’re ready to experience it. Do you want to face or prolong it? These days I take my pain as it comes and breathe through it to get beyond it. I’m ripping all the bandaids off, even on the days when I really, really don’t want to deal with the pain.

There’s a point to all of this, I promise.

Lately, I’ve been feeling adrift in all aspects of my life. I’ve completed a creative project that’s out in the world and I haven’t started something new. I move from business project to business project, and then go through the motions of pitching again. I find recipes to post on this space and then glance at the blog a week later and cringe at it. I feel stuck in a lot of ways, and it occurred to me the other night that this space isn’t exactly what I want it to be. Because, for a while, I became addicted to a thing called traffic. I don’t even know where this came from, but I remember being in Spain, spending hours taking and editing these beautiful photos, finding a way to marry image and type that was purposeful to me, to have people unfollow me on Instagram and scores of people not knocking on this virtual door as often. I was puzzled. I gave so much of myself into something I created and 1. I was basing that worth and art on how many people read it–no bueno 2. Some people really just care more about recipes, and that’s cool.

So much as I’d read articles on growing your reader base and followers (part of my other life is to read such articles), I couldn’t help but feel the advice was pat, mechanical, cold. Someone I clearly wasn’t or couldn’t be. If I see one more carefully composed image of a suggestion of a life (requisite sunglasses, macbook air and monogrammed mug–honestly, is this how you live because my living room table right now is a fucking mess. Exhibit A, below)–I might just torch the joint (kidding).

Yes, I like floss (new addiction in the works). Yes, those are birth control pills (how else am I going to remember to take them if they’re not in front of me?). And yes, that was my morning smoothie. That is my real life, and I’ve come to realize I want to share more of this rather than something cultivated.

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I don’t want to optimize my blog post titles for search. I don’t want to leave comments on other people’s sites simply for the sake that they’ll come to my space; I leave comments because I have something thoughtful to say, although most times I’ll tweet out a post I like or share it on Facebook. I asked myself this: If I never plan on making this space commercial, if I’ll never accept ads or sponsored posts or any of that jazz, why do I care about how many people come to this space? Right? I should care that what I create will resonate with a certain kind of reader and the rest will find other sites to suit their tastes and needs. All of this happened this morning (as that’s when I tend to do a lot of my thinking, or obsessing) after reading this piece. Completely unrelated to the topic at hand, but this remained with me:

But Carol doesn’t dig much for money anymore. Now she is an organizer at the community development institute she helped establish in an old schoolhouse down the road, working to reconnect people in her community, especially young ones, with their place. It’s what she calls the task of “merging people and landscape back together.” She says that central Appalachia has suffered “erosion—the slow leakage of its people,” and wants to find ways for people to reinhabit the mountains. Root digging is one of them. “Where people are trying to live with the land, there’s always a need of interaction with it. Root digging’s a way to train and educate people to quest, ask questions, be aware of their environment, find empowerment.”

I realize my writing doesn’t only color outside of the lines, it’s a whole other fucking coloring book. I’ve never really been popular. I prefer a small, quiet life instead of a large one. I get anxious over compliments, but I’m getting better at accepting them. It took me years to publish my email address on my site, and I still think about deleting it. I guess what I’m saying is that I write and think about the things people sometimes don’t want to talk about, out loud. I wrote a book that can be construed as too dark, which makes me shake my head because my book is about children desperately trying to climb out of the darkness, but the need for us to skirt the dark remains. I write long, sometimes dramatic, posts here because the only way I’m able to make sense of anything in my life is to write about it, sometimes here, mostly privately. There is a need for me to get things down, commit things to paper as it were, and I’m finding that we live in world of TL;DR.

People don’t have time, nor do they often care about reading something long or winded. They don’t want to excavate the mess of a middle; they prefer their posts neat and packaged and pretty.

Well, I’m not pretty. Maybe not in the conventional sense of the word and much like how I had to quit the chickpea nonsense, I’ve stopped being consumed with this need for traffic, of weighing the value of what I create against the volume of people who choose to read it.

Going forward, I’m going to try my best to be Carol, that root-digger, to find ways in which I can merge my life, what I love, and art in a more complicated and interesting way. Practically, this means that I won’t have a recipe and pretty photograph every day — I plan to dial the recipes down to 2 times a week and make them SPECIAL. Other times, you’ll find longer posts here. A merger of type, photographs, and handwritten words related to what’s going on in my life right now. In this way, I’m trying to be braver, bolder, more honest with myself, while challenging myself in my work.

Because I want to be 80 and seeing something new every single day. I want to create until the clock stops ticking. I don’t want to post a pretty picture just for the sake of posting. I want this space to be a record of another kind of art I want to create.

And I hope you’ll stick around for the journey along the way…

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knowledge talks, wisdom listens

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Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. – Samuel Beckett

Yesterday, I fell. On the way to the train station I was fixated on reading an article on my phone and then suddenly I could see it–the trip, tumble and collapse–but I could do nothing to stop it. I tumbled a few feet and landed on the ground in the rain. I skinned my palms, my knee ached from the impact and a man helped me up and asked me if I was okay. I laughed and said, that hurt more than I thought it would.

Later on that day I read an article calling food sensitivities a myth, a product of our own psychosomatic invention, and I was angry not because the opinion was blatantly wrong, it was the fact that pretty, popular girls can publish un-researched, un-informed fiction under the guise of journalism and the masses will swarm at their manicured feet. I was angry, still, when a comment I’d posted–something I rarely do, comment on websites–calling into question the lack of research from both sides of the argument, the lack of interviews with trained medical professionals and those who actually struggle with food issues (because should we assume that since our food has been chemically and genetically modified more so in the past 40 years than the past 400 that our bodies would have a reaction of which science has yet to understand, much less concretely diagnose?), was deleted. I was angered over the ignorance and then the silencing. But the world presses on and they sell more branded gloss.

That night during my yoga class, in the dark, I kept thinking about night driving in California. How I hated being in cars at night because you couldn’t see the road ahead of you. But in California I didn’t mind not knowing, instead allowing the road to unravel ahead of me in degrees. I thought about a trip I took to Tacoma, Washington and being in car with a man who’d been drinking, and then drinking wine coolers in Manhasset, and I’m mixing it all up. All the memories are shards I can’t piece together and I’m angry that I can’t remember everything. That part of my life is gone and I won’t again feel what it’s like to be 24 in a car, sleeping while someone drives.

We tell stories in order to live, Joan Didion writes. What if the stories are all mixed up, silenced, deleted, not read, not told?

I met with my nutritionist yesterday and the weight loss slowed because I’d been, knowingly, adding more fat back into my diet. Bacon and candied pecans on salads, extra slices of sausage. I was worried, I said. About time. And I knew Dana wouldn’t understand what I was talking about, I didn’t, because I was acting like every meal was my last when another was three hours away. We tell stories in order to live, but what if time runs out? How could I explain that I worried about the time between now and then? How do I tell that story?

I met with an old friend and we talk about the business of books and I tell him I’m done with all of those people, all of that, and he shakes his head. Those people don’t matter. That history doesn’t matter. This thing about your introversion, he starts, and I talk over him, a thing I now rarely do, about how I was telling real stories on this space, on all the spaces I occupy, and he alluded to the fact that my letting people in isn’t a singular event. I have to to continue to leave the door open, even if it’s a crack. I have to keep telling stories, honest ones. I added my email to my About page, and you may think it’s not much but it’s huge, HUGE, for me. That’s the door opening, a little.

There are a lot of stories and I want to tell them but I don’t know. About how I don’t know what’s next and that’s okay but not okay. About how I have this book that I love this much but what if no one buys it, and I know I’m not supposed to wrap up my worth in the business of books but knowing something and feeling something are two different things. About how hard it is to be present because when you’re not present you fall on the ground. About letting my anger go when I see silly articles written or just how many men hate women in this world for no reason. About being young and not loving it then when I was in it and making it all pretty and romantic now when I’ve traveled oceans away from it. About hearing people who are 30 complain about being old when all I want to do is stop the clocks and go back and get a do-over because maybe I would have done things differently.

We tell stories in order to live, and I realize I write and eat and sometimes live like time is running out.

I take this picture of me in yoga class and I immediately dissect everything that is wrong anatomically with the pose. I think about the ten pounds I’ve left to lose. I show this photograph to my yoga teacher and he smiles and doesn’t see everything I do. He says, you look strong.

I think about being awake in the car. I think about driving it.

massive moment of pride: my new novel (we’re getting ready for submission!)

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This is how I write. I write in my home on my couch with feet up on this table, with the doors locked and a single song on repeat. The song is deliberately chosen–it gets me in a headspace to move (right now, I’m listening to this as I type this post). I read dialogue out loud as I write because I need to hear the words to see if they’re right. The cadence of the prose needs to follow the rhythm and logic I’ve defined for it. I need to know my characters, bury myself all the way in. If I’m skipping paragraphs that means I need to delete them. Every line has to work on multiple levels.

Someone asked me the other day about the kind of man I’m looking for, to which I responded, I want someone who’s been through war, still has some of the bruises, but isn’t still changing the bandages. Dressing the wound. And then I thought about my work, and this logic fits there, too. I write about broken people dressing their own wounds and people who pretend the wounds that are blistering and raw, pain the rest of us can so easily see, don’t exist. I’m best in the dark.

After I published my first book, I was exhausted. Writers tend to write out their obsessions, the things that seize them when they wake, and for years my mother was my singular subject. So after the book was published I knew I couldn’t go back to that dark country. I’d made sense of our history (or so I thought), and I needed something new in which to fixate.

I started stories that I deleted. I read 23 books about Jim Jones and typed one chapter I hated. I took a job that would occupy me for nearly four years. And soon I stopped writing. However, my friend Sarah will tell me that just because you’re not typing doesn’t mean you’re not writing. Who knew that after those four years I will sit in a hotel room in Biarritz and write. The story felt like it had come from nowhere, but it came like a torrent. The story swiftly took shape with a command of language and structure that frankly surprised me. I’d always had the problem of filling a white page with type, now the issue was: what do I do with 80 pages of insanity? It was good madness, the stuff one keeps, but it was madness nonetheless.

I mean, my first chapter is about a woman who sets her father’s mistress’s hair on fire. That should tell you everything.

A year and a half later, multiple drafts, early and late readers, and my novel, FOLLOW ME INTO THE DARK, is finally ready for submission to publishers. In retrospect, I didn’t love my memoir. I wish I would have waited until I was older. While some of the chapters are quite good, I cringe at others. It’s weird being in the present tense and reading what you’ve written when you were another version of yourself. I guess it’s like re-reading your childhood diaries as an adult. CRINGE! MAKE IT STOP!

But I love this book. Every page of it. And I’ve also learned to love the version of myself (an extremely flawed woman waging her own private war against addiction) who wrote that first book.

My agent asked me to write a paragraph on what my book is about, and naturally, I’m struggling. I could say that the story is about two adults, step-siblings, who are bearing the weight of their families’ mental illness and cruelty, and how broken children keep breaking even when they desperately try to dress their wounds and stitch themselves up again. It’s about trying to understand the pathology of sociopaths, and finding the humanness in a person even after they’ve committed inhuman acts. I’ve three main characters: Kate, an obsessive-compulsive baker, who we think has a psychotic break after her mother dies and she seeks revenge against her step-father’s mistress by setting her hair on fire, although we’ll learn that her pathology is infinitely more savage. There’s Gillian, the oversexed, hyperintellectual woman who’s engaging in an affair with Kate’s father. Finally, there’s Jonah, Gillian’s sociopathic, yet loving, brother who is actually ‘The Doll Collector’, a hunted serial killer who’s committed gruesome acts against women across the country. Jonah is the key link between the two characters and how the story unfolds. We learn about these three characters by understanding their familial history–2 generations of emotional and sexual abuse–and how the weight of their history bears on the choices they make now.

In all candor, it was initially challenging to show that one’s actions don’t define one’s character. We have a tendency to ascribe mistakes people make, or, in this case, the horrific acts that one does, to one’s person. We’re binary in our reactions: The person who commits murder is pure evil! The person who attacks someone else is crazy! And I’m trying to detangle act from person, and somehow show the complexity of mental illness. There’s this wall we put up when we hear that someone is ill, an “otherness” is created, and do we ever make a true attempt to understand those who are ill. Do we see the complexity in them, their ability to love amidst their propensity to hate?

So, we’re ready for prime-time, I guess. And I’m glad that this time around I don’t have the same ego and ambition as I did with my first book. My novel need not be hardcover. I don’t need the fanfare and confetti and bananas advance, I just want to be able to share this story with people–regardless of form.

If you’re interested in checking out my first chapter, click here.

Wish us luck!

on reading as a writer + my towering babel stack of new books

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a lot of yellow here, right?

Since I was a child, I believed in the power of books; they had the propensity to save, to whisk me away from the world in which I lived and plant me temporarily somewhere else. Immersed in a stack of books, I could fall deliriously in, imagine myself in different lives, countries, and taking on the shape and voices of different people. While that sounds slightly schizophrenic, it was magical for a child who also found that she understood the world through writing about it. Through reading and living there was the writing. Always the writing. I grew up reading poems, Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew when I was a small, and then when I was 11/12, I started mixing those books with Salinger and Cheever, more sophisticated poems (Frost, Browning–even though I didn’t know what they meant, I loved the melodic rhythm of the words). When I was a teenager, I carried a bookbag of extra books to school–I wasn’t popular, at all–and I spent the days between classes and lonely lunches, reading. Often I was bored by my AP English reading lists because I’d read those books already, and sometimes didn’t agree with my teacher’s interpretation. I liked Cheever’s Bullet Park when everyone else called it a failure, and ever since then, I read only literary fiction.

All other books were like gnats, annoying distractions. I mean, I ran a very prestigious non-fiction series at KGB Bar years ago, and I struggled, even then, finding the books, save the memoirs, interesting.

Until a few years ago when I realized I’d been missing out on SO MUCH. My myopic view toward books started to work against me as a writer. I only exposed myself to the books I wanted to write, rather than challenging myself by reading authors who had stories to tell but didn’t always rely on language as a device to tell them. I started reading more non-fiction (I tend to like biographies, industry exposes, and anything with a story as opposed to books that center around the theoretical), YA fiction (OMG, YA HAS BEEN SO AMAZING OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS!), graphic novels (I tended to drift to ones relating to food), and food/travel essays. All of these books, styles and approaches started to infuse my fiction with a lot more light. The challenge with writers (as opposed to general readers) is that we’re covert sleuths. We look at books from two perspectives: the enjoyment we get from reading a good story, and then the vivisection, the how did he/she do this? We break apart, we dissect, we analyze. I actually ripped apart a book and started moving the pages around to understand how a non-fiction author structured her book in hopes that it could help my own experimental fiction novel. Crazy, right?

When I went to Spain I carted four books with me, two of which I left behind because I didn’t enjoy them at all. Ironically, I left the literary/experimental fiction behind, and found myself comforted by reading Peter Chapman’s Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World. The book isn’t new, and I found it on someone’s stoop, but while I found the history of United Fruit, and its social, political and economic effects on Central America, and America, powerful. The company was often called “the octopus,” and that image was palpable as a writer. Thinking about how one entity can find its way into so many lives and change them, damage them. Oddly, reading this and going back to editing my novel felt natural, whereas picking up two of the lit books I brought felt distracting, annoying, filled with language tricks. If anything, it made me go back and see if I was annoying readers with too many tricks.

Other books I’m LOVING right now:

Darcey Steinke’s Sister Golden Hair (OMG. I have been waiting for a new novel from Steinke, author of Jesus Saves, for ages) | Eliza Robertson’s Wallflowers (Stories) | Janie Hoffman’s The Chia Cookbook (who knew?) | Hemsley + Hemsley’s The Art of Eating Well

Any great recos? Books you’ve loved? Let me know!

vanilla-cream filled doughnuts

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My writing was like a grown up child suddenly taking up residence in all sorts of strange places and sending back photos.Leslie Jamison

I’m sorry, I’m distracted. Correction, I’ve been distracted, occupied by the sort of paralysis that happens when you sent your book out into the world. Right now, my novel is in the hands of four different people around the country and they’re reading it, not reading it, picking it up or placing the manuscript gently down. Honestly, this is the part about writing I hate–taking the small, private thing you’ve harvested and setting it free. I imagine this is what a mother would feel when she nudges her child on to a school bus for the first time and watches the doors close behind her child. The thing that I once held so close has been temporarily taken from me and I worry (worry!) that people won’t be able to see what I’m trying to do, or simply, they won’t like it.

And yes, it’s so easy to say that I shouldn’t care what others think, however, this is precisely why an artist creates. The only way I can make sense of the world is through writing about it, and as a result of that process there’s a hope that others will feel something, anything, as a result of it. The hope is that they can hear the way my heart beat when I wrote about hurt, and they would somehow understand why I had to linger in that hurt. Set up shop, played house in it. I worry that the structure of my novel will turn hurt into a maze, forcing readers to work to find my beating heart in an age where people don’t want to put in the work when it comes to art. Some want art to explain and tell rather than probe and ask.

I guess I’m also worried because this book represents some of the most confessional writing I’ve ever committed to paper–more so than my first book. It’s easy to use fiction as a curtain, and as a result I was able to imbue a great deal of myself across a few of my characters; I was able to be vulnerable on the page when I have a hard time being vulnerable off it. A great deal of me is in this story–perhaps in ways you might not so easily identify–but not all of it. Perhaps the worry is the very frightening question the book poses, really, will you follow me into the dark? Are you brave enough to go there? Will you take the time to linger there? And I brave enough to have you occupy this space with me? From this solitary act comes an invitation, of which the author prays the reader accepts.

I know this all sounds a bit looney, but this is what it’s like for me right now. For four years in my head and one year in front of a computer or stray pieces of manuscript, this book was MINE. ONLY MINE. Now, in its rawest state, it’s less mine, and I just have to breathe and deal with that.

THANK GOD FOR VANILLA CREAM DOUGHNUTS, especially on those Friday nights when the novel is the ONLY thing I can think about. Will they get it? Will they like it? Will they understand how and why I built this world? Will the world and words linger? Will they hold up over the passage of time? Was me being this vulnerable in fiction truly worth the risk at all {emphatic yes}?

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Joanne Chang’s Flour
For the doughnuts
1 package (2 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast or 2/3 ounce (18 grams) fresh cake yeast
2/3 cup (160 grams) milk, at room temperature
3 1/2 cups (490 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups (270 grams) sugar
2 tsp kosher salt
3 eggs
7 tbsp (3/4 stick/100 grams) butter, at room temperature, cut into 6 to 8 pieces
Canola oil, for frying

For the vanilla cream filling
6 tablespoons (90 grams) heavy cream
Pastry Cream, chilled

DIRECTIONS
In a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the yeast and milk. Stir together briefly, then let sit for about 1 minute to dissolve the yeast. Add the flour, 1/3 cup (70 grams) of the sugar, the salt, and the eggs and mix on low speed for about 1 minute, or until the dough comes together. Then, still on low speed, mix for another 2 to 3 minutes to develop the dough further. Now, begin to add the butter, a few pieces at a time, and continue to mix for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the butter is fully incorporated and the dough is soft and cohesive.

Remove the dough from the bowl, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to 15 hours.

Lightly flour a baking sheet. On a well-floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 12-inch square about 1/2 inch thick. Using a 3 1/2- to 4-inch round biscuit cutter, cut out 9 doughnuts. Arrange them on the prepared baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and place in a warm spot to proof for 2 to 3 hours, or until they are about doubled in height and feel poufy and pillowy.

When ready to fry, line a tray or baking sheet large enough to hold the doughnuts with paper towels. Pour oil to a depth of about 3 inches into a large, heavy saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until hot. To test the oil, throw in a pinch of flour. If it sizzles on contact, the oil is ready. (It should be 350 degrees if you are using a thermometer.) Working in batches, place the doughnuts in the hot oil, being careful not to crowd them. Fry on the first side for 2 to 3 minutes, or until brown. Then gently flip them and fry for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until brown on the second side. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the doughnuts to the prepared tray and let cool for a few minutes, or until cool enough to handle.

Place the remaining 1 cup (200 grams) sugar in a small bowl. One at a time, toss the warm doughnuts in the sugar to coat evenly. As each doughnut is coated, return it to the tray to cool completely. This will take 30 to 40 minutes.

To make the vanilla cream filling: While the doughnuts are cooking, whip the heavy cream until it holds stiff peaks. Using a rubber spatula, fold it into the pastry cream . You should have about 3 cups.

When doughnuts are completely cooled, poke a hole in the side of each doughnut, spacing it equidistant between the top and bottom. Fit a pastry bag with a small round tip and fill the bag with the filling. Squirt about 1/3 cup filling into each doughnut. Serve immediately.

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cinnamon buns + a novel update {so close!}

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Things have been quiet around here simply for the fact that except for workouts and the sole writing date, I’ve spent the past four days holed up in my apartment working on my novel. I’d been stuck on Part III, unsure of how to find closure with my characters and this story, which ended up being exactly what I never thought it would be. Suddenly, the story came like a torrent. So much so that I stayed up until two in the morning last night, writing.

Know that I normally go to bed at 10 and wake up at 5. Let’s just say that getting up this morning was ROUGH.

But I’m close, so close I can see the end in sight, and it’s terrifying and exciting. Last year, when I left my old life behind in pursuit of something other, I took a trip to Europe to get some quiet. And the week before I was schedule to fly home, I started writing. I hadn’t written anything in four years, and it came and I didn’t question it, think about or analyze it–I just wrote in front of the ocean. In sleepy Biarritz, I started writing a story about a woman who set another woman’s hair on fire. A year later and nearly 240 pages, I’ve fallen in love with these people–some of whom I’ve known since the story collection I was writing during my Columbia days–and I’m a little sad to see this story come to a close.

Yesterday, I took a much needed break and baked up these cinnamon rolls. I love baking yeast breads because it requires you to linger, to be conscious of time, and so I scheduled writing bursts between the multiple proofs, and come nightfall I savored a bun with some coffee, typing into the night.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of The Food Network.
For the dough:
1/2 cup whole milk
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (1/4-ounce package)
1/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the bowl
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 large egg yolk
2 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

For the filling:
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, very soft, plus more for coating the pan
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

For the glaze:
2/3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

DIRECTIONS
For the dough: Combine the milk and 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan and warm over low heat until it is about 100 degrees F (but no more than 110 degrees). Remove from the heat and sprinkle the yeast over the surface over the liquid. Sprinkle a pinch of the granulated sugar over the top and set aside without stirring, until foamy, about 5 minutes.

Whisk the butter, vanilla and egg yolk into the yeast mixture.

Whisk the flour, remaining granulated sugar, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and stir in the yeast mixture with a wooden spoon to make a thick and slightly sticky dough. Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead until soft and elastic, about 6 minutes. Shape into a ball.

Brush the inside of a large bowl with butter. Put the dough in the buttered bowl, turning to coat lightly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, trace a circle the size of the dough on the plastic and note the time. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 hour 30 minutes.

Turn the dough out of the bowl and knead briefly to release excess air; reform into a ball and return to the bowl. Lightly butter a large piece of plastic wrap and lay it on the dough. Cover the entire bowl tightly with the plastic and proof in the refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight.

To fill and form the rolls: Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Whisk the granulated sugar and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Turn the prepared dough onto a floured work surface and press flat. Then roll into a 10- by 18-inch rectangle, with a long edge facing you. Spread the softened butter evenly over the surface of the dough, leaving about an inch border on the side opposite you. Evenly scatter the cinnamon-sugar over the butter. Starting from the long side facing you, roll the dough up into a tight cylinder. Lightly brush the clean edge of the dough with water. Press the open long edge to the dough to seal the cylinder.

Slip a long taut piece of string or unflavored dental floss under the roll, about 1 1/2 inches from the end. Lift and cross the string ends over the roll, and then pull the ends tightly in opposite directions to cut a single roll. Repeat, cutting every 1 1/2 inches, to make 12 rolls. Place the rolls cut-side-down in the prepared pan, leaving 1 inch of space between them. Cover the rolls loosely with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place to rise until rolls double in size, about 1 hour 30 minutes.

Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F.

Bake the buns until golden brown and the tops of the buns spring back when pressed lightly, about 30 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes.

For the glaze: Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a medium bowl. Whisk in the condensed milk, butter and lemon juice to make a smooth, slightly loose icing. Add the vanilla and cinnamon. Drizzle the icing over the warm buns. Serve.

Note: These buns are best eaten on the day they’re baked, but they’ll keep, covered, for 1 day. For a make-ahead option, refrigerate or freeze the buns after forming. If refrigerated, allow the buns to come to room temperature for about 30 minutes, then let rise fully until doubled in size before baking, about 2 hours. If frozen, allow the buns to come to room temperature, about 1 hour, and let rise fully until doubled in size before baking, about 2 hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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