spring reading list

spring reading list

I haven’t been to this space in a while because for the past year or so I’ve lived much of my private life offline. There’s something strange that happens when people read your words for years and feel like they know you (in an edited way because they come to know you by what you share) but they don’t. Not really. They know a version of you. I struggled with that tension quite a bit. Combined with trying to sustain a consistent stream of work (freelancing is hard and I’m drowning in graduate loan debt), and thinking about my second book while I completed my third–I noticed that coming here I had little to offer. Simply put, I didn’t have it in me.

Today I woke early and decided what I did want to share–what I’ve been reading! Reading has been a tremendous stress reliever and I’ve been reading one, sometimes two, books a week. And no, they’re not the same ten books you see on every spring reading list because I often discover authors or books far past their launch buzz. I’m also frustrated that the same ten books give massive hype while the rest fall to the wayside. Perhaps I’m…biased. I’ll leave it at that.

On to the books!

Dear Friend, from My Life I write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: Someone recently asked me to describe Yiyun Li’s work and I said, she’s the Chinese Jhumpa Lahiri. I realize saying that is reductive and gives off the wrong impression, so I immediately explained that like Lahiri, Li feels caught between two languages and cultures. Lahiri spent years learning Italian, a language that liberated her or at least shifted her away from the Bengali/English tension. Yiyun Li made a conscious decision to abandon Chinese and not have her books translated into Chinese, but the pull of homeland is a constant and is at the core of her essay collection.

It’s strange to call this book a memoir because while the events are true (Li battled suicide depression and was hospitalized twice), there exists a semi-permeable wall between reader and author because Li doesn’t seek catharsis in the usual tell-all style, rather, she tries to make sense of it rationally and intellectually through conversations with dead authors who’ve shared her illness. This is the story of her literary life and how she uses it to cope with the constant pull to darkness. Is writing not my way of rehearsing death? Li writes. There are so many reasons I loved this book, mainly because it was a realistic portrayal of someone suffering from depression every day. The neat 3-arc narrative that presents a life where the illness or pain or grief is finite is so antithetical for how people with mental illness survive their day. For Li, it’s a continuum, an ongoing understanding, and conversation.

If you suffer from depression or just love literature, you will LOVE this book.

An Arrangement of Skin by Anna Journey: What starts as a recollection of a near suicide attempt to navigating the world of art, love, infidelity, and the many skins (or masks) we wear, An Arrangement of Skin deconstructs those masks in an effort to get puncture through oneself. From her mother’s macabre bedtime stories and a friendship with a tattoo artist who believes what you write on the body is an expression of that self to her fascination with taxidermy, Journey manages to usurp traditional images centering on dismemberment and metamorphosis. She makes the grotesque beautiful, and I’ve really encountered an essay collection that felt…new. This was a swift read and well worth your time. I’m baffled that it hasn’t been covered widely.

Outline by Rachel Cusk: To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Rachel Cusk until I read this recent profile. I’m drawn to complex women who may not necessarily be sympathetic or, more importantly, don’t want your sympathy. (Brief parenthetical: This Jill Abramson interview is spot-on and reinforces that women leaders are often judged by how “nice” they are.) Apparently, you either really love Cusk auto-fiction style or you think she’s the most selfish person on earth. I’m in the former camp and I purchased all of her books. Outline is a life told through conversation. We follow a novelist (and I dare say cipher), Faye, who’s teaching a creative class one summer in an oppressively hot Athens. The ten conversations she has with people she meets along the way (her seatmate on her flight to Athens–a man who’s lived much of his life in regret, a one-hit wonder novelist, an insecure nuevo-famous author who uses her celebrity as a means to mask her emptiness). Through each of these stories and the novelist’s interpretation and retelling of them, we know more a woman trying to find her identity through the filling out of an outline. The conversations she has gives her shape and depth.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez: Sure, this was published ages ago, but it’s new to me and damn near broke my heart. Reading this book now felt fortuitous as it invites you to be empathetic to the immigrant experience. I’m not going to start with all the fear and hate-mongering after Agent Orange was elected, but we are ALL immigrants–unless we’re Native American. But I digress. Henriquez’s remarkable debut, told from varying points of view, outlines the immigrant perspective in a small Delaware town. From cultural adjustment to learning English idioms and feeling homesick for the familiar, you have a sense of what people give up to come to the United States. What spins the plot into motion is a well-off Mexican family that moves to the states after their daughter, Maribel, sustained brain injury as a result of a slip and fall accident. Soon after they move, Maribel (who’s an outsider) connects with a local boy, Toro, who sees in her a kindred spirit. Their Romeo/Juliet-type love unravels all of the characters to devastating effect. I loved this book so much, not only because of the exceptional writing but because you see how “Americans” treat people of color who were born here and people who come from abroad. If you pick up any of the books from my list, I suggest you start with this one.

Liar by Rob Roberge: Okay, I promise this will be the last book about mental illness, but this is a GOOD ONE. After a lifetime of heavy drug abuse/alcohol abuse and frequent concussions, Roberge learns that he’s developed a progressive memory-eroding disease. The notion that he’ll one day start to lose memories, stories–the core of who he is–devastates him, and he makes a point of using writing as a means of documentation of a life but also a catharsis for the inevitable end. Selfishly, I also love books that are not told in a linear fashion (so you have to work harder and be committed to the narrative–must everything be handed to you? I often think), and I think the structure evokes the feeling of disassociation, abject terror, and the need to commit everything to paper. I read this after Cat Marnell’s addiction memoir and it was refreshing to read a book about an addict told from the vantage point of perspective and age.

Compartment 6 by Rosa Liksom: It’s possible that a book can be relentlessly dark and laugh-out-loud funny. An unnamed Finnish woman leaves Moscow for Mongolia by train after having suffered heartbreak. However, there exists little time for grief when Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov is your compartment mate. A former soldier, Vadim is rude, vulgar, violent (he attempts to force himself on the woman several times and only stops when she beats him with her boot), drunk, and the woman’s unlikely companion. There is no startling plot revelation, but the journey, what’s revealed about the Soviet Union in a specific point of time, and how one copes with loss, is the real draw.

Also recommended: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees–I’m half-way through the collection and it is stellar.

when you’re the shiny new thing for sale

kyoto japan“The only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell.”
Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

There she goes in her threadbare Willy Loman suit, hocking her life like it’s a vacuum cleaner she’s desperate to unload. The clock ticks, tick tock, tick tock, and she’s got quotas to fill. So she tells one story after another, cuts herself open so her insides match her outsides, exposed, barbed, until someone writes and says, how do you take yourself so seriously, so publicly? Another writes: your book would’ve been better had you loved your mother. Still another: He’s your father. Just call him already. She could hear them heave their collective sigh when they type their comments because isn’t the solution obvious? Before, there was only the one life she had to bear, now it’s the multitudes, the peanut-crunching motley lot, who give her instructions on how to live her life. Kind of like the housewife tearing through the appliance manual, reading aloud the instructions for use, word for word, to the saleswoman who came knocking at her door. This is how you hold the vacuum cleaner. This is how you turn it on.

Since when does lying yourself out to bear become an invitation to parent, fix, and solve? It seems as if everyone’s become Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip, erecting their “The Doctor Is In” lemonade stands, solving problems for a nickel.

Last year, she torches the suits and hurls appliances out of three-story windows. I’m done with all that, she says with an ample hand rub, confident, semi-confident, not confident, perhaps catatonic. Instead, she spends her days living her life in perpetual rewind, thinking about a time when it wasn’t as horrible as it is now. Make no mistake, it was always horrible, but back then it was sufficiently tolerable. Her life is a colossal mess of pain. Instead of offering compassion, asking what they can do, the peanut crunchers are relentless with their desire to repair. Their collective voice overpowers hers. Spouting platitudes neatly arranged on Pinterest boards, they shout: Be positive! Be strong! Don’t be so negative! Get over it!

She wonders if it’s possible to throw strangers off third-story virtual windows. Someone writes: When will she stop writing about her mother? Like, get over it. Because there’s a limit to how much of her sadness and grief others are willing to bear. There goes that clock again, tick tock, tick tock. The time allotted for her depression is running out. Time for a new state, a new emotion. Time to be someone other than what she is or how she feels. But don’t worry — they’ll be there for her when her sadness is in the past tense. When she’s the comeback kid, all toothy smiles and donning new suits. Their collective sigh is palpable. The thank god she’s normal again.

She wrote to make sense of the world. She wrote because the act of writing, and sharing what she had written, made her feel less alone. There’s something powerful about the company of strangers in the moments when you need it most. She read poems and blog posts on the Internet and nodded through tears because someone else felt exactly as she had. Never did she dare interrupt the private, primal aspect of that space because publishing isn’t synonymous with intimacy. It isn’t an invitation to come into someone’s house and rearrange all the furniture. So, for a time, she didn’t write or wrote things that only a few people read. She receded. And in that withdrawal, she discovered a different kind of catharsis, the feeling that aspects of her life were hers and hers alone, not some kind of Sizzler buffet where everyone felt entitled to their piece, where it was a given that you’d take your tray, share, and shuffle along.

This year, people remind her that she has a book coming out so…start dusting off those suits because people don’t buy a book, not really, not completely, they’re also buying the author and the story they’re pitching. Not everyone can be Elena Ferrante. Not everyone has the luxury of saying, read my book if you want and deal with it on your own terms, but I don’t come with proof of purchase. She scrolls through her blog, which has gathered a considerable amount of dust and shakes her head no. She looks at her Instagram because she likes sharing pictures and smaller aspects of her life, but people write that they miss the kind of person she used to be, one who gave of themselves so often, so publicly. Soon she develops an allergy to living part of her life online because that’s what’s required of her if people want to read her book. If her agent wants to sell another one.

Lately, she’s got a heavy case of nostalgia. She longs for the days when the Internet was a black void of Geocitiess pages, where you wrote and the audience was smaller and the comments a less pithy. When people didn’t expect that in exchange for them giving you their attention, they had the right to walk into your home and rummage through the cupboards. I don’t like these cookies, why don’t you buy these instead, they offer. But don’t eat too many of them (suggestive wink!). She considers this age of attention and ownership, and thinks that if this is what’s required (one barter for another), she’s reticent to share at all.

Instead, she thinks about dead bolting all the doors.

the flaw of love

driving in carsLast year, I sent my father a text: I think, I just might, end my life. I sent another: I’m sad. All the time. I can’t go outside because the sun hurts my eyes. The winter sun was an assault, I longed for New York and its palette of stormy greys, because the act of moving, crawling, from one room to another had become something of a victory. The days repeated themselves with minor variations. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think. I watched torture films and considered them comedies. I wondered why everyone made such a fuss over Pasolini’s Salò because I’d seen worse play out online. My body was a house and it was in the throes of a four-alarm fire, yet I slept through the sirens and the flames. I played normal when a friend from New York visited, and when she left I spiraled downward. I wrote a story about ending my life, published it here and immediately deleted it, but I woke the next morning to a text message from my friend that if I didn’t call her right this second she would call the police. Another friend called me from work whispering through tears that she was scared. I was scaring her. Could I please…get help? I could hear the hurt in her throat and I said I was fine, just fine, because weren’t we built this way? Wear the happy mask until it smothers us, yet still we smile all the way to the grave? Our practice of fake glee is our own private torment. This was a time when I ordered razor blades off Amazon because I was nothing if not efficient.

My father never responded to my texts. That was February 2016. But this isn’t a story of getting better, it’s about the heartbreak that comes as a result of it.

My father is not my biological father. I learned last year, via a Facebook message from a relative, that my real father was black and kind and excised from my mother’s life. But this isn’t a story about biology, rather it’s one about the people for whom you were once grateful that they didn’t share your chemistry. The people you loved who did the unthinkable — break your fucking heart.

I met the man whom I’ve come to call my father when I was twelve and my first memories were of him hunched over a stove, making me braciole steaks and boxed macaroni and cheese. He worked at Belmont with the horses and met my mother, who waitressed in the diner across the street. Theirs was an affair of love letters, his giant script falling out of the lines as he professed his love to her. He called her “Brooke” after Brooke Shields, and sometimes I laugh because I will always be known to him as Lisa, a nickname given to me by my mother because her first husband found Felicia too difficult to pronounce. But this story isn’t about names given and taken back, erased, crossed out or written over. This is the story about a man who stuck around for longer than he should, and everyone thought he did it for me.

War binds you. Once more into the breach, and like that. Tim O’Brien wrote: They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

There was no platoon or armaments of battle. The war we endured was a private one, on a quiet block in Valley Stream, New York, and my father and I clung to one another, desperately, because the woman we loved had morphed into a terrifying, violent stranger. She was no longer Brooke or mom, she had become something…else. But this isn’t a story about my mother — I wrote about that, and was stalked and called a liar by my mother’s second child, as a result of it — for she is a dark country to which I never want to return. No, this is about me and my father, barnacles, unhealthy attachments, and to this day I’m not sure which one of us is the barnacle and the host. Is it possible for two clingers to affix themselves to one another? Is it conceivable to be tethered to that which you soon seek to escape? I think about that now. Often.

Our memories were built on minor escapes. I’d close my eyes while he drove a Jeep, a Cadillac, another Jeep. We left our home when things got too dark. We were children making a break for it! We were running away! We stayed late at Wendy’s and picked over the salad bar. I ordered two double cheeseburgers, plain, and a biggie fry at McDonald’s. We shared packs of chicken nuggets from Roy Rogers on Sunrise Highway. Isn’t it strange when one’s fondest memories are of fleeing? I think about that too. Sometimes. Not as much.

He grew older and I grew into a role I assumed for much of my adult life — a difficult woman who never fully recovered from her first and only true hurt. I drank hard in my 20s. Always with the wine lips, he said, shaking his head, worried I’d be a repeat of the woman who had come before because hadn’t I learned? No, not really. You repeat that which you love, even if that love makes you believe that love and loss are the flipside of the same coin.

There was a time we didn’t speak for five years. My father and I had cultivated a way of conflict avoidance. We knew bad things happened, we just didn’t talk about them. We never really talked about my mother, we talked around her, obsessed over her as if she was at a remove, like a painting you would occasionally visit in a museum but weren’t permitted to touch. We would abide by our way of coping for the greater part of three decades.

When I told my father I was moving to Los Angeles, he was displeased. I joked: I’ll probably see you more than I do now. But still, he was unnerved. He didn’t believe I would move until I did. Until we spent a winter morning in Cold Spring Harbor where we passed the hours watching men bait and catch fish. Did he think proximity protected us?

Five years ago, my best friend of nearly a decade excised me from her life. No emails, no phone calls — it was as if I had ceased to exist to her. We spent nearly every waking hour in each other’s company, so much so that our mutual friends talked about how unhealthy our relationship had become. Two broken women cleaving to one another in hopes of finding a whole. It occurred to me, years later, that she likely ended our friendship because we had run our course. Our friendship was based on what we didn’t have rather than a becoming. How do you tell someone that the foundation of your decade-long friendship was built on co-dependence, a fear of being alone with ourselves and our most disquieting thoughts? That we sustained on nostalgia because we were getting better and realized we didn’t have much in common and little to say? Ending a friendship because you realized you lacked one is infinitely more painful than breaking a love that was real and persistent.

I think about this because what if my relationship with my father — three decades in the making — was based on dressing our mutual wounds? What happens when the wounds finally heal? What then?

With my mother, I expected everything. There were no surprises. When she resurfaced in my life after a fourteen year absence, I was hopeful and cautious but not surprised to discover that she was a dressed-up version of the woman I used to know. But this silence from my father was shocking, deafening. I told my therapist: I didn’t see that coming. Acquaintances, strangers on the fucking internet, showed more compassion, I said. How do I forgive him this? Would I consider calling him, my therapist asked. Replaying our history even the question exhausted me. I can’t always be the adult in the relationship, I said. I did all this work and he’s never met me halfway, and I don’t want to talk around, above or below this. I need to say I wanted to die and you weren’t there for me when I needed you most without him changing the subject. Because that’s what we always did — changed the subject, drove around in cars, ate fast food — we had grown masterful in escaping, except this time I wanted us to stay put because I had endured the hurt and lived through it. He read that I wanted to die but he never read how I desperately want to live. Every moment of every day until my heart gives out.

What happens when the fortress we so assiduously built to protect us comes crashing down? What happens when the fortress is gone and there’s no pain to bind us, no lines to draw in the sand, no us against them? What happens if we learn that our relationship was built on fear, fear of being alone, fear of being vulnerable, fear of getting hurt, fear of being lesser than, instead of love? What becomes of us then?

simple coconut cake

coconut cake

It’s been a while since I’ve made a cake.

Yesterday, I spoke with my agent about a new book I’ve been working on. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a suicidal teenager and travels across the country to witness the girl take her own life. But that wasn’t always the story. I gave my agent a collection of stories about women in various states of unraveling–women in cults, women who have been raped, and women who have the arcane ability to speak from the grave. I started the book last year when I first moved to California and I was surprised how quickly I finished a draft. I sent it to my agent and I could practically feel the trepidation in his response. Unbeknownst to me, I was rapidly unraveling and documenting that decent in a new book. I’d soon fall into a depression–a dark country to which I’m frightened to ever return–and my agent told me to take a break, think about the book and come back to him with something other.

It took nearly nine months for me to look at my work and cringe. What I’d been writing was relentlessly dark, I couldn’t bear to read it. I actually had to physically put the manuscript away and breathe. For years, it was easy for me to access that place, to sit in pain and discomfort, to know there would likely be an escape from it. How do you write about light? How do you write happy endings when darkness is the one thing you know. The only thing that’s never abandoned you.

Yesterday my agent wondered aloud about me as a writer before meds and after meds. Am I different, he wondered. Is it harder to write? I said meds gave me perspective, that not being on them made it dangerously easy to access the darker recesses of myself. But reading all of that now, I’m not sure I even want that imbued in my work. I told Matthew that I wanted to write a book that ended with hope. He laughed. Well, that’s a switch.

I’ve got a gut renovation ahead of me, but I’m excited to write my first book with a clearer head.

But back to the cake.

If you’ve been following me along on Instagram, you’ve seen that I moved apartments this week. I left the beach and the apartment that felt like the in-betweens, a place that held some of my most painful memories, and I’m in a home that finally feels like home. I’ve never lived in a space this big. I’ve never had a home office (I’m typing this in my new office!). Counter space was always precarious, something of which I had to artfully negotiate.

I have a new friend coming over tonight and I’m making her a 4-hour bolognese sauce. But this morning I woke and had the urge to bake a cake. I don’t know if it’s the desire for meditation because this week has been painful and stressful beyond measure. I won’t bother talking about the election on this space because I’m too angry to articulate how and what I feel. Baking worked. I pulled together this simple cake and it is INSANELY moist. I will say that since I don’t have a lot of sugar in my diet the frosting was A LOT. I had to scrape it all off to enjoy the cake. But if you love your sugar rush, this piece of heaven will not disappoint.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Molly on the Range
For the cake
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour (I used gluten-free)
1/2 cup cake flour
3/4 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 large egg
1 cup full-fat coconut milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract (I used almond as that’s what I had on hand)
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted but not hot

For the frosting
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup powdered sugar
1 pinch of kosher salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp full-fat coconut milk

For assembly
4 oz unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut
fresh berries, for garnish

DIRECTIONS
This cake is insanely simple. Pre-heat the oven to 350 and grease/line an 8-inch cake pan. Add the first 6 dry ingredients to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. In a medium bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Add the wet to the dry with the mix speed on medium. Add the batter to the pan and bake for 25-28 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Turn the cake onto a rack and cool completely.

Now on to the frosting. Clean out that stand mixer and beat the butter on medium until creamy (you’re using the paddle attachment, fyi). Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the sugar and beat until combined. Slowly, because you don’t want to get sugar all over your face. Beat in the salt, vanilla, and coconut milk. Frost the cake like a rock star and add that shredded coconut like it’s the last time you’ll ever eat a coconut.

hello, home

There was a time when I believed that home was simply a place where my mail was forwarded, and the only thing I loved about a house was leaving it. It’s depressing when you think about it–the feeling of not belonging to any one place, of closing a door and still not feeling relief, safe. I used to take pictures of the front doors of my apartment buildings and I’d rattle off a seemingly endless list of addresses. Sometimes I’d confuse the zip codes. Other times I strained to remember what the insides looked like. Did we have carpet? Was there a window in my room? What was the view? In some spaces, I didn’t have a bedroom door, while in others, I didn’t have a bedroom at all. And although I knew being rootless and uncommitted to a zip code was odd, the discomfort I experienced, the feeling of being displaced, is what felt normal. What kept me going was hope, the possibility that this new place could be a home. That I could erase all that had come before.

Yesterday, I asked my leasing agent: Are there trust-funders in this building? People who haven’t worked for what they have?

For most of my twenties, I moved. I lived in Riverdale, the Upper West Side, Little Italy, Battery Park, Chelsea, and two apartments in Park Slope. I shared a one-bedroom apartment with an actor turned psychologist and lived briefly with a man whom I once thought I’d marry. One of my movers was drunk and missing two fingers from his left hand and another broke my bed in four places. A move of 20 blocks in Brooklyn cost me nearly a thousand dollars, to which I responded, are you fucking kidding me? 

Rarely do I host housewarming parties because my homes have always felt so cold, where the possibility of warmth existed if they were torched and burned to the ground.

In earnest, I tried to make a home. I committed to a building in Park Slope for the better part of five years. In this building, I rented an apartment with a spacious deck I rarely used and endured a winter where I wore a coat indoors and used space heaters because the boiler kept breaking. Through all of this, I joked that you’d have to carry me out in a body bag I’d never leave. Who knew I’d swallow my words when a kind doctor swathed my Sophie in two towels and carried her lifeless body down three flights of stairs. The emptiness I felt in what I thought was my home was palpable. I felt the specter of her death and how I contributed to it in every room. I wrapped myself in blankets one night in August and slept on my deck with a bottle of wine because I couldn’t bear the insides. That winter I moved to another apartment one flight down with a new cat and the hope of a new life.

But…I felt unease, a disquiet that loomed larger than the space I’d been occupying. I grew irritated on the subway. I felt smothered in midtown. My home of 39 years had increasingly become a stranger. I no longer felt New York was home. But…keep moving.

It took another mammoth loss to make me realize I wanted something demonstrably different and new. Although I knew it was false comfort, I became tethered to the idea of a new place as a salve–much like what I believed in my childhood. It took moving across the country and away from my comfortable discomfort for me to wake up. The silence was deafening. The noise and maelstrom of New York were no longer a convenient distraction. And after 39 years of perpetual velocity, I collapsed in that quiet. I dealt with old losses and new. I confronted aspects of my character that made me wince. I took a lot of my life offline, reclaiming it. I did the daily work that was sometimes hard and more often rewarding.

I live in a place where I once contemplated taking my own life. I live in a place where my furniture took nearly two months to arrive. I live in a place where I never felt rooted. Ever since I moved in I felt in the betweens. It took me 40 years to realize that I have to be at home with myself before I stretch outward.

But I wanted to move, still. My apartment is highway robbery and it’s not conducive to a home office environment (I sometimes work for seven hours straight and typing on my couch is becoming a problem). Also, there’s too much memory. I wanted a place that reflected where I’m at in my life, not a constant reminder of that which I’ve endured. So I started looking at apartments. I toured a building where it became apparent that someone was shooting an adult film (the Yelp reviews confirmed this). I visited another where it felt I’d have to send out proof of life photos I was so far from life.

Then I found my home in an area of which I’m not familiar–Hancock Park. I looked at four apartments, and while the property was GORGEOUS and perfect, I felt meh about the spaces I’d seen. But before I left, my leasing agent became aware of an available space he hadn’t shown me. We rode the elevator to the top floor and we walked into the space that next month will be my new home.

I fell in love. The apartment is perfect for a true home office. It’s at the corner end of the building so it’s extremely quiet (a necessity for me since I’ve lived in buildings where people mistook an apartment complex for a drug-fueled rave). There are spaces I can use as a defacto office or lounge, and the location was walking distance (1/4 mile) to supermarkets, drug stores, dry cleaners and all the necessities.

I went through a lot this year, more than I wanted to bear. This wasn’t what I expected from turning 40. This wasn’t what I expected when I moved to Los Angeles. But for the first time in a long time, I feel at home with myself, flaws and all. Someone asked me recently what being on anti-depressants was like, and I said, it’s the difference between waking up and thinking this is all too much to waking up and thinking, okay, this is tough but it’s manageable. It’s the difference between succumbing and conquering. Most importantly, it’s the difference between hopelessness and hope, the feeling that your body is no longer a home you want to torch and burn to the ground.

People use the phrase of wanting to match their insides to their outsides, and I understand this now to an extent. I look at myself and that new space and realize both need work, but at least we’re starting from common, hopeful ground.

grain-free sweet potato waffles

sweet potato waffles//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Yesterday, I hit the pause button. I woke to see many of my friends arguing in a private online group about an article that had circulated overnight. I’m pretty desensitized (I mean, the first film I ever saw was The Shining at age 5), but when I clicked over to xojane to see what the kerfuffle was all about, I felt ill. I felt as if someone kicked me in the stomach and kept on kicking. A woman penned an essay (which has since been taken down, but I’ve heard a cached version still exists) essentially calling her “friend’s” (and I use that term loosely since they were clearly not friends) suicide a blessing. The woman continued to kick dirt over her friend’s face by slut-shaming her, airing unnecessary dirty laundry, and in the end, the woman is better off as a result of taking her own life. 

You let that sink a little. 

I messaged one of my friends with, this is a joke, right? Because what kind of heinous sociopath would so callously capitalize on a woman’s suicide? Imagine if the victim’s mother read this. Imagine if her friends read this. Imagine if people, who already believed their life would be better if it were snuffed out, read this as an affirmation of what they already believed. That their loved ones would be better off if they were no longer here even though decent human beings know that this is a cruel fiction. 

I read horrible things every day. Yesterday morning I read a man’s response to Oklahoma’s desire to make doctors who practice abortions illegal. Rape ’em, I say. Send them to Mexico and rape ’em because they deserve it for killing a baby. I read posts from people who eviscerate strangers. I read Adam Gopnik’s Trump piece and I close my eyes. I scroll through hundreds of Facebook posts where women practice a form of feminism that disturbs me–applaud women regardless of their actions. Ignore culpability and basic human decency because our role is one we must always assume. Smile and play nice. I thought: are you fucking kidding me? Feminism and sociopathy are mutually exclusive conversations.

The ugliness is ubiquitous and pungent, and it’s easy to feel as if you could so easily suffocate from it. 

But this essay put me on pause. It altered my day. I talked about it with a friend during lunch. I talked it about with a friend from NY on Facetime. I chatted with friends on Facebook messenger. I cried. A lot. And then I read this and this and thought thank goodness the world isn’t a complete and utter ruin. 

There were many times in my life when I contemplated taking my own life. I was very well near it months ago until the compassion of those whom I love was enough to make me get my life back on track. And I’m grateful every day for that. I’m grateful for being here. I’m grateful for psychiatry and Wellbutrin and people who don’t carry a stigma against mental illness.

The cruelest thing you could say to someone is: You’re not necessary. You don’t need to exist. You take up too much space.  

I could go about is this Trump’s America rising up and waving their bleached-white flag, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell everyone I know and love, regardless if they have a form of mental illness, that they deserve to exist. That it’s a gift that they’re here. I’ll remind myself that every single day is a gift, and that might sound trite or fatuous, but it is. 

I had plans this weekend but I cancelled them to stay in, read, work, lay low and quiet, and make food that gives me pleasure. Do the things that give me joy, and cooking is one of them. 

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Juli Bauer’s Paleo Cookbook, with slight modifications for my taste
1 small white sweet potato or 1 cup mashed sweet potato
3 large eggs, room temperature, whisked
4 tbsp maple syrup, plus more for drizzling
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp coconut oil, melted
1 cup almond flour
1/3 tapioca flour/starch
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

sweet potato waffles

DIRECTIONS
You can be crazy and roast your sweet potato for 30-40 minutes at 425F. I mean, it’s your life, you can be all laissez-faire, however, if you crave sanity, put this bad boy in a bowl in a microwave for four minutes. Let the sweet potato cool to the touch. Peel off the skin, put it in a small bowl and with a fork, mash until smooth.

In a large bowl, mix in the eggs, maple syrup, vanilla extract, and coconut oil, and whisk until smooth.

Add the flours, baking soda/powder, and cinnamon and mix well. You might have lumps. It’s not that serious.

Heat up a waffle iron and add about 1/3 cup of the batter (I did not because I like big waffles and I cannot lie…) into the iron. Cook until crispy and golden brown on the outside. Set aside and repeat with the remaining batter. You’re supposed to get 6 waffles out of this recipe, but I got 3 and I have no regrets.

Serve with maple syrup. If you have leftovers, these waffles freeze really well.

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the gift that distance (and life) brings

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Image Credit

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I sat in a coffee shop and wrote a story collection in two months. I remember arranging printed pages on my floor, growing increasingly disturbed by how swiftly the stories came. Writing for me always felt a bit like surgery–although ultimately rewarding, the creation process existed as a series of stops and starts, and the editing process always proved far more unrelenting. There were days when I’d read through a manuscript and press delete on whole chunks of it. First readers of my new novel were shocked to see hundreds of pages excised in subsequent drafts. I was merciless on what needed to be cut for the sake of telling a good story.

But these new stories were different–they were dark, acerbic, and they excited me in ways I couldn’t understand at first.The voices were clear and puncturing, bordering on a violent tone I hadn’t explored previously or perhaps felt too frightened to. The story collection, Women in Salt, was a loose re-telling of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a group of friends meditating on their friend’s suicide. I felt Salt was better than my second book, a novel that took me years to write and re-write. A novel that will be published nearly a decade after my first book–that’s how long it took me to find new characters on which to fixate.

When I write, I think about the characters for a long time before I even sit down in front of a computer. I originally conceived of the principle characters in my new novel, James and Gillian, when I attended Columbia’s graduate writing program. Fifteen years ago. I’m methodic when it comes to my characters and they’re nearly realized when I set out to write a story.

Not this time. Half the time I wrote these stories without thinking. The characters arrived, fully-formed, and they were filled with rage. And when I first sent this book to my agent his response was measured–I think perhaps he was surprised that I managed to write a story darker than what I had just written.

I set the book aside for months and yesterday I spent the day re-reading the stories. To say I was disturbed would be an understatement. Although I loved what I composed on the page, I had to put the book down at times because it was just so fucking bleak. And it occurred to me that what I had written was a mirror of my depression, a lifetime coping with a condition that had only recently been diagnosed and treated. For years, I never understood when people told me what I write is sometimes difficult to read. My characters, while interesting to read, were helpless, hopeless. I’d laugh, confused, because it wasn’t as dark as it could be. Actually, the fact that my main character in my novel could be described as Ted Bundy with a whisk was kind of funny.

What started as a 230-page manuscript is now down to 120 pages. And I sat on my couch, I sit in this cafe, wondering where to take this. I have a 120 good pages but what do I do with this? How do I dig them out from the graves I’d dug with corners pristine and neat?

When I started taking anti-depressents I had the worry that most people have–would I change? When people ask me how now is different than before, the only way I can explain it is that there’s this door that never opens. I can feel sad, I can cry, I can hurt, but I don’t spiral. I’m not able to return to that dark country I’d once considered home. It’s like standing in front of a door while you’re crying, knocking, and someone on the other side telling you there’s no vacancy. There’s no room for you here. Go back to where you’ve come. And without drink, with therapy, I’m able to deal with all the things that I’d spent a lifetime avoiding. I uncovered aspects of my character that made me wince. There’s a reason for me being difficult but I can’t go on using it as an excuse. That’s the work I do, every day, and it’s hard.

And it’s hard to explain that while I’m in a much better place that I sometimes miss access to that place. I can write those 120 pages over but it would be different. I would be writing from beyond the place not in it. It would be seeing the dark from a distance rather than having it rise up all around you.

I don’t know how to write about the space I occupy–a place that temporarily exists between before and later on. It’s unfamiliar and requires a whole new vocabulary. Being here feels like a new language I have to learn and here’s me stuttering, messing up the verb tenses and conjunctions. Here’s me feeling my way around new words and being surrounded by kind people who help me with its pronounciation. That’s what three months back on track feels like.

So I wait, I guess. I wait until I can stop staring at a blank page, not knowing what to say and how to say it. I focus on getting better.

finally!

fucking finally

You better believe I’ve posted a picture of a pineapple perched on top of an ocean rock. It’s been that kind of week.

The past six months have been nothing short of horrible, and I finally feel as if I’m climbing out from under the rubble. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had no idea that I’d have to confront all of my losses, which had been slowly mounting. I hadn’t realized that I was approaching the middle of my life and I needed a change, a new course of direction. Instead, I spent the past year myopic, driven toward a single goal: leave New York, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d arrive here and have to sit with my losses spread out in front me, alone, confused, in complete quiet. It’s kind of like sitting naked in a room surrounded by mirrors and you’re forced to confront your most raw, unattractive, and frightened self. And you look at the person rising up in front you and the one behind and beside you, and for the first time you look around and haven’t a clue as to what to do.

And then depression. And then the realization that some friendships can’t survive geography. And then the fear that I will always, in some way, define myself in the context of my mother.

Last week a friend warned me about what I choose to share online. He came from a kind and concerned place and said that some hands are worth holding close simply for the reason that people don’t know how to handle discomfort. They don’t want the burden of one’s sadness. And I considered what my friend said and told him that while it appears that I share a great deal online, I don’t. I’m surgical about what I share and do so because if words have the propensity to make someone feel less alone, then I’ll keep writing them until all the pens run out. I don’t care if people don’t like me or what I say, rather I care more about people who’ve been forced to suffer privately or feel the stigma that accompanies addiction or mental illness. Over the past six months, I’ve been a voyeur in other people’s lives–reading blog posts documenting their constant struggle or scrolling through their photos as they try to survive their day without screaming into pillows. I drew comfort from this because it reminded me that there are others. And while this is captain obvious, you’d be surprised how swiftly and often we forget. How we believe that our pain is an anomaly, that our suffering is singular and acute.

One night last month I wrote a post that I subsequently deleted–one where I shared that I no longer feared death, and wouldn’t it be easier if I took my own life? I then went to bed, oblivious to the panic I’d created amongst my closest friends, and I woke the next morning to a slew of messages. My oldest friend called me from work and I could hear the pain in her voice and the difficulty she had in assembling her words. Listening to her, I tried to arrange my face in the shape of fine but the shape wouldn’t take and my voice shook, and I promised to return to therapy because I loved her and it killed me that I was hurting her. When I hung up I wanted the love I had for her to eventually become a love I would reserve for myself.

Whenever you think life doesn’t get better, it does. Eventually. I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Last night I spent an evening with old and new friends and I was comforted by how freely we spoke about politics, mental illness, familial anguish and discord, and addiction. There was no shame, only laughter between people who had gone through war and sometimes knew they’d have to dress their wounds. We are the bandages that we wrap around our hurt selves. We are our urgent care.

Then I thought about my friend who told me to play my cards close and now I shake my head. No. Fuck no. If someone reads what I write here and judges me for being human, for trying to take my life back and live it–that’s not someone whom I want to know. I’m finally, slowly (snail’s pace, people) getting back on track. I’m in the contract phase for a new project, with a list of good leads coming in. I’m hosting my first dinner party next week for old and new friends in Los Angeles. I’m volunteering at Kitty Bungalow, helping feral kittens get adopted. I’m reading and writing. I’m more present for my new friends, and I’m doing everything I can to help those who are struggling since I’ve been humbled by those (strangers and close friends) who’ve extended me their heart, compassion, and care.

And when have I ever played a straight hand? I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I feel good. I have hope.

If your words have the capacity to shake someone, to comfort someone, use them. Keep writing, keep talking, keep texting, keep caring because we all walk quietly through this world bearing varying degrees of struggle. Why not be empathetic? Why not pause and care and not immediately judge or dismiss? Why not say: What can I do? How can I help?

Because I’ve been there. Or simply, because I care.

 

the bullshit “be positive” vs. the realistic “be hopeful” narrative

Santa Monica, Los Angeles

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. –from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable

 

Every morning I wake and clean my home. I spray and wipe down the counters and the stove burners. I sweep and vacuum the floors, load the dishwasher, and make my bed, freshen the sheets. Twice a day I shower and wear clothes that are clean and pressed. I spray perfume on my neck and rub moisturizer on my face. On good days, I wear red lipstick. On bad days, I carry Chapstick and apply and reapply until the possibility of gliding over my face becomes a reality. Admittedly, part of this desire to clean and be clean stems from growing up in a home that was unkempt, unclean. It comes from a compulsion based on control, the need to create order where none exists. Then I walk as far as I can go, to the point where a ticker-tape of cars separates me from the ocean, and I’m comforted by limits, a self-imposed pause, and confinement–there are still places I can’t reach yet the cars keep moving. Life goes on.

my fortune foretoldI walk the length of the boardwalk and spend a little money for a machine, featuring a fortune teller named Zoltar, to tell me my fortune. Despair not I say for your days of despair will soon be over. And then this: You have many friends, particularly in the armed forces. I carry this ticket, my fortune foretold, everywhere I go, as if it’s a fakir ready to ferret out the light in what feels like a constant darkness. As if I have a platoon at my disposal, ready to wage war against the past seven months I’ve lived in disquiet. Already, the stub is worn from my hope and handling.

Ours was a generation that was instructed to Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Amidst pestilence, war, economic uncertainty, cultural apathy, and a generation who wanted to pull the covers over our collective heads to escape all the bullshit we were burdened to bear, we were taught to “reframe the narrative”, to turn the beat around, to think happy thoughts and remain on an even keel. Sadness was greeted with the refrain: Be positive! So we wore our masks and whitewashed the story of ourselves that we presented to others. We refused to be a drag, to invite others to stand in our darkness. Being positive doesn’t allow for unsettling thoughts to creep and burrow in. Being positive excises anything that’s malignant in nature, but stand in the light long enough and you’ll end up burned by it. The benign becomes malignant by the sheer act of living a life in a single extreme; our happiness brings forth a kind of inoperable cancer. Breed happiness long enough and you’ll find yourself smothered by the mask you so readily affixed and tightened over your face. Be positive, you’re instructed, even if you can’t breathe. Even if you end up choking on your self-imposed glee and your face remains paralyzed in the shape of a teeth-baring smile.

I think about my simple routines: cleaning house and taking care, and wonder why I bother maintaining something I’ll likely lose. Why do I cart around a stub from a machine that spits out fortune-cookie predictions like it’s some sort of talisman?

Hope.

The very brilliant Rebecca Solnit views hope as a kind of opening in the context of uncertainty. It neither predicates a fairytale ending or doom, rather it allows for space to navigate between the two and move toward something other. Hope accounts for the totality of experience to arrive at a new reality. She writes,

It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.

I carry my fortune as I stare at an inbox willing projects to come in. I sweep and scrub the floors because hope isn’t about giving up, it’s a pressing on. It’s the will to get through something by going through it, acknowledging and settling into the fear, anger, sorrow, regret and despair that accompanies that journey through, out, and beyond.

For me, drinking has served as an anaesthetic, a way in which I can prolong the inevitable. My reality still exists it’s only my dealing with it that’s put on pause. So when I hear the words “be positive”, it feels like anaesthesia, albeit in a different form. “Be positive” invites you to be myopic, to set aside real emotion for an architected one. “Be positive” is an Icarus jetting up to the sun in wings fashioned from feather and wax. Daedalus, his father, warned him to fly neither too low or too high, so the sea’s dampness would not clog his wings or the sun’s heat melt them, but the pleas went ignored, and Icarus plummeted as precipitously as he ascended. There’s no nobility is oscillating between the extremes, but there is value in existing between them. And that value is hope.

I think about Beckett’s line, I can’t go, I’ll go on, and I see it as a carrion call for hope. When your current existence feels unmanageable, when you think that the possibility of going on is fatuous and futile, there exists a part of you (and its size may vary depending on the context of your darkness, among other things, but it does exist) that whispers: Keep moving. One day, that voice shouts: Go on. If I don’t close on a project in the next few weeks, I’ll lose my apartment. Keep cleaning. I’ll lose everything I’ve spent decades building. Get out of bed, take your pills, move through your day because even the possibility of getting better far exceeds the bottomless fall if you don’t try. If you don’t go on. Hope is straddling a dual interior narrative, a war between why bother and yes, you need to bother. Hope carries the burden of the two and it’s what moves you slowly out of the dark into the grey and cloudy and hopefully, into the light. The journey is long, hard, gradual and hardly linear, but it’s a trip worth taking. Hope promises you this. It promises that you’ll learn something from the journey that aids you, even if the destination is not one of myth and fairytales.


 

On a related note, I’ve been humbled and grateful for your support these past few weeks. I don’t write long emails and I’m not one for long comments, but please know that I’m finding your kindness to be a great salve. And to the few amazingly generous people who’ve contacted me to send me funds–it made me hope to be at a place where I can extend the same kindness to someone else. Thank you. xo

play it as it lays

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I’m tired. I’m tired of writing cheerful emails and chasing after projects with follow-up emails that are met with radio silence. I’m tired of Facebook status updates. I’m tired of looking around my home and imagining having to pack it up and put everything in storage as I board a plane to go to a place I don’t want to go. I’m tired of people thinking that everything will be fine, just fine, even after I tell them that I plan to file for bankruptcy, that I’m on the road to financial ruin. I’m tired of the burden I feel as if I always have to bear. I’m tired of getting it up for my friends who think that this period is not as dark as it is–possibly because I’m still editing, still positioning, still angling for that hopeful, magical ending. I’m tired of staring at my inbox willing that one email to come in. I’m tired of wondering why people won’t write back. I’m tired of waiting for Godot.

I’m exhausted. I love Los Angeles and I’m terrified of leaving.

I’m giving notice for my apartment come April 1, and I’ve no idea how I plan to pay the thousands of dollars required for breaking my lease. I’ve no idea how I’ll pay for storage or where I’ll live in New York or how I’ll afford a bankruptcy attorney. I don’t know about anything and the not knowing, the uncertainty, is eating away at me. Sometimes I sit at home and run through all the things I should’ve done (although I know that exercise is futile)–I could’ve moved into a cheaper apartment. I could’ve taken that project in the midst of my depression last November–money that would’ve sustained me for a few more months. I could’ve not taken that trip to Bali and Singapore this past summer and opted to save that money for the darkest days ahead. There are a million things I could’ve done, but what’s the point in playing the record on repeat if the song has already played itself out?

I’m calmer about this than I expected, which surprises me, but this calm is one of the few things that brings me comfort. And today I finally accepted that I’m doing and have done everything that I can possibly do. I humiliated myself by asking my friends for money on Facebook. I’ve applied to every job I possibly could, and took every meeting, sent and responded to emails. I signed up with temp agencies. I made a point of returning to therapy to take care of myself. I’ve done everything I can do and the fact that I can’t control my inbox or people’s decisions or the inevitability that I will lose my home and my credit and my pride, gives me a disquiet I’ve never felt before. I’ve always managed to survive, but this is the one time I haven’t boomeranged back and coping with this is harder than I could’ve ever imagined.

I’m tired, and I’ve decided to take a break and just roll with what happens. Play it as it lays. I’m not going to send the hundred follow-up emails or pen pleas on Facebook. I’m just going to go through my days and if I have to move back to New York with Felix and live on people’s couches, I guess this is something I will have to do.

I’m just sad, you know? I came here in August with so much excitement and possibility, and I could’ve never predicted this. Because how could you? Why would you?

So here’s me, seeing how this story will play out. Keep Felix and me in your thoughts 🙂