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.

 

it’s amazing what changes in a single week

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Wouldn’t it be adorable if this photo accurately reflected my life? All the LOLs.

Last week I traded emails with a stranger, a man, whose life mirrors mine. We’ve arrived in the middle of our lives, and although we know, logically, what we’ve achieved, we still feel like failures. This feeling of helplessness is further amplified by our mutual chemical imbalances. I’ll be honest–I’ve become good at building and maintaining a fortress around me. Rarely, if ever, do I share the details of my personal life (and trust me, I only share the broad strokes here) with strangers not for any reason other than my own inability to be vulnerable around people. Also, I’ve spent half my life parenting others that I’m always fearful of being put in that role again. Perhaps this is why I never yearned to have children of my own. But this man’s story put me on pause and he confessed his fear of taking meds, that they would transform him into some kind of somnambulant, and this was my worry too (would I lose my ability to write–crazy shit like that). I told him what my psychiatrist told me–the journey back is about the right meds (and dosage), talk therapy, a decent diet/exercise routine and social stimuli. Meaning, I had to see him consistently, take my meds, and leave my house. At first, the idea of all of this seemed unimaginable since four-block walks to the grocery store literally left me exhausted and pained, but honestly, the alternative wasn’t better.

I also wrote that what works for one person (in terms of medication) might not work for others. My body doesn’t respond well to SSRIs after a rather frightening reaction I had to a Celexa/Trazadone cocktail in my early 20s, so my doc put me on Wellbutrin, and although I had some minor side effects (tremors, dizziness, dry mouth), they went away after a few days. Within a week, I experienced an 180 in terms of mood and energy level, which is kind of unheard of (most drugs take at least 4 weeks to experience full impact). When I asked my doc about this, he mentioned that my body chemistry reacted favorably to the drug + dosage, and it might be the addition of a placebo effect (my desire to get better coupled with drugs that help me get there) that caused the precipitous change.

He reminded me not to get high off the honeymoon, that there’s still work to be done.

I work best with a routine, so I schedule and map out each day so to ensure that I leave the house (because drugs aren’t a cure-all). I’ve been spending time with people who are “on my bus” and avoiding scenarios that pile additional anxiety on top of that which already exists. Food’s tricky because the healthy stuff is expensive so I balance what I can and make all my meals at home. I take long walks every day, and some of my friends have been kind enough to send me gift cards for spin classes and yoga.

Let me be clear–my situation hasn’t changed. I’m drowning in a mountain of debt and maxed out cards and only have enough money for one additional month of rent and things get…precarious, however, what’s changed is how I’m managing the situation. I still have anxiety, but it’s manageable, and I don’t feel as helpless and hopeless as I did only a few weeks ago. My world feels less cloudy, and I wake with clarity and calm. Friends whom I least suspected have swathed me with their kindness and virtual fist-pumps. And if I lose my home and have to deal with the financial burden of what follows–I’ll deal with it.

Yesterday I joked with my therapist in the middle of a particularly tough session, asking if it was okay to get a little high off the honeymoon, because, my god, this is the best I’ve felt in the past six months.

We laugh and nods. A little.

Onward.


Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

what the market will bear: the long game of female friendships

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Hedge Fund (n): a limited partnership of investors that uses high-risk methods, such as investing with borrowed money, in hopes of realizing large capital gains.

How much risk are you willing to bear? Are you able to lay your hand on the table fully aware of the gamble you’re taking, cognizant of the fact that it is possible to leave with less than with what you started? Are you willing to engage in arbitrage — exploit your opponents when they’re at their weakest? Will your investors provide shelter through the most ferocious of storms, or will they find safe harbor, taking comfort in their abandonment while bearing witness to your public ruin? Are you comfortable in identifying that which is worthless and using that “junk” to yield financial gain? Can you build a life trading security? Can you weather what the market will bear? Are you comfortable calculating your worth based on what you’ve acquired and own? Will your partners stand beside you until the inevitable end?

When I was in college I became enamored with finance and its gameplay. The idea that a whole industry was devoted to partnership and risk appealed to me because the fundamental elements of finance reflected innate behaviors in human nature. We “short” friendships; we invest in that which is profitable and we fervently need to believe that we will come up solvent and prosperous in the end. We tether ourselves to the notion that if we make sound investments and take calculated risks, we’ll enjoy the inevitable returns. However, what happens when the market takes a fall that you hadn’t expected? What happens when your partner doesn’t hold up their end of the deal (think pyramid schemes, sociopathic traders and hedge fund charlatans), and you’re left in shambles, forced out of retirement or struggling to make ends meet? What happens when you play your boldest hand to then lose everything?

What happens when you arrive in the middle of your life with so much less than what you started with?

Lately, I find myself drawing correlations between playing the market and the ways in which we cleave to, and disconnect from, people. I find myself frustrated in friendship investments that consistently yield disappointing returns, friends who haven’t performed, risks that don’t fall in my favor.When it comes to relationships, I’ve placed equal, if not more, weight on my female friendships, echoing Rebecca Traister’s sentiment:

For many women, friends are our primary partners through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses. Even for women who do marry, this is true at the beginning of our adult lives, and at the end — after divorce or the death of a spouse. — “What Women Find in Friends They May Not Get From Love”

In my twenties, I was thick in the business of accumulation — I wanted to know all of the people, all of the time. I had no strategy; I just wanted the masses. Most of my college friends left New York so I found myself cozying up to coworkers, neighbors, and fellow graduate students. I operated a high-volume business, ushering in a revolving door of female friends and acquaintances while trying to figure out my identity as an independent adult woman. I figured that I’d winnow down over time; I thought I would slowly build my tribe. I didn’t count on feeling depleted and stretched too thin as a result of investing in too many people instead of creating a thoughtful portfolio. I ended up with a phonebook filled with people who were willing to uncork the champagne when times were flush but couldn’t be counted on during the moments when I wallowed my way down a bottle of red wine. I woke at 30 feeling as if I knew a lot of people but didn’t really know anyone.

At the same time, something else shifted — we grew up. Everyone was getting married and busied themselves in the business of procreation. Suddenly, we couldn’t roll into work hungover because we couldn’t hide in our cubicles. We had accountability and responsibility. Our devices multiplied while our attention dwindled. We were everywhere but not present. Friend dates turned into CIA logistical operations with multiple calendars being juggled and people prioritized. No longer was I a player in the open market — I had to go private. I was forced to be surgical and strategic in focusing on the quality of my friendships and how/to whom I would allocate my time, which seemed to be dwindling with the passing of each day.

There is no time, became everyone’s anthem, always.

In my 30s, I was myopic when it came to female friendships. I devoted myself wholly to a small group of women who were brilliant, funny, ambitious, and kind. Most were married, few were single, and I tacitly accepted the fact that casual connections gave way to scheduled friend time.People became comfortable announcing that they could see me because their significant other had other plans for the evening, i.e. you’re my backup plan since my husband isn’t available. I accepted that the word “I” would be replaced with the word “we”, and that affinities, hobbies, and passions became a collective, coupled sport. I accepted that the only people with whom I could talk about being single were other single friends because most of my married friends had developed amnesia about what it was like to be uncoupled. I accepted, with chagrin, the emergence of the “single girl dinner” as a cute trope when it’s my everyday reality. I accepted that I’d been deprioritized — that I was the hobby, “fun-time” for my coupled friends. Briallen Hopper eloquently writes:

“Because single women often put friendship at the center of our lives, it can be hard for us to be friends with people who see friendship as peripheral, as many partnered people do. A close friend once told me that her priorities were her kid, her partner, her work, her friends, in that order, like suits in a deck of cards. In her life, a kid thing would always trump a partner thing; a work thing would always trump a friend thing. This was the best way she knew of trying to impose some order on life’s complexity, but to me it seemed like a terribly reductive way to think about human relationships — plus, it was no fun to know that I would always be the lowest priority in her life. Our friendship didn’t last.” — “Relying on a Friendship in World Made for Couples”

I accepted that I’d see some of my close friends less and less because they opted to befriend other mothers — complements to the lives and the struggles they endured, others who “understood” where they were at a specific time in their lives. Still, I invested heavily. I nurtured a married friend through her bought with depression and her desire to divorce the man she’d just married. I took the late-night calls and the last-minute lunches from friends who needed me. I was the wall that would never crumble; I was the friend everyone could count on.

Until I could count on no one. This became the moment when it registered that my decade-long fund — replete with the strategy and risks I was willing to bear — was underperforming.

This year is the worst I’ve ever known. I’m enduring immeasurable loss and intense sadness. My financial security remains uncertain, at best. And the people I believed I could count on became demonstrably silent. They were “busy”. They didn’t know “how to handle it”. They swooped in for a series of caring texts to then disappear for months at a time. Even when I made it clear that I didn’t need a therapist, that my expectations were minimal, the years I spent being patient and devoted haven’t been reciprocated. Everyone is quick to “like” my minor triumphs and “heart” my Instagram photos — passive interaction has become the default setting, the status quo. When I announced to one of my closest friends I was moving to Los Angeles, she ceased all communication. We’d been friends for nearly a decade and suddenly I was speaking to a ghost. I sent pleas via email, text and post and silence. When I sent an email to another close friend pleading for work because I was frightened of losing my apartment and defaulting on my loans, two weeks later I received the equivalent of a form letter response. I never expected to be saved or delivered a kingdom. I never anticipated that my friends would swoop in and solve my life because I’m an adult and that responsibility rests solely on my shoulders, but it would’ve been nice to have my friends shoulder me through the dark places I once carried them through. It would’ve been comforting to feel that the risks I so assiduously born would have been shared by others — even for a little while. It would have been wonderful to feel less alone.

Here I was, spending a decade avoiding risk, leveraging my heart in my portfolio, and laying all of my cards on the table only to come out empty. Only to feel that my years of investing wasn’t worth it at all. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those years spent being a good friend without expecting anything in return to find I never received anything in return was a hand folded, a return I should’ve accepted. Maybe laying my heart on the table wasn’t the wisest hand I could’ve played, but I can’t help but think that I spent my adult life constructing the safest portfolio to discover that not everyone lingers for the long game, that as you grow older your world becomes too small for anyone to fit. And who expected this when you believed that friendship was the one partnership that didn’t need regulating? That those moments spent in the dark with the friends you loved would be forgotten, discarded, left for a savored, sweet memory? I spent years studying derivatives, all of the ways in which one could mitigate risk, and here I was, at 40, and completely alone. Bankrupt. A slew of bad investments lay before me.

When does it happen? How does one regard the love between two friends as a garment worth shedding? How do you tell someone that you love them but that love has been deprioritized? How do you handle learning that you’re a junk bond? A short-term investment folded for the long family game? How do you gracefully accept that no one will follow you gallantly into the dark when you were happy to serve as everyone’s usher?

I thought I was wise. I spent a decade building a tribe to find that tribe never existed. What happens then? What happens when you’re 40 and alone and all of your friends are toasting their own lives, shouldering their own sorrows? What becomes of you then? How do you move on?

What happens when you wake one morning and find the market shifting below your feet? How do you rebuild after the market you spent your life investing in collapses?

Photo Credit: Helen Sotiriadis

where did the girls go? (on female friendships)

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Photo Credit: Jovana Rikalo

First, there was Paula in second grade, picture books and games of hide and seek. Then came Cindy, who waged a constant, violent war with her mother for leaving her father; Jennifer, the most popular girl in grade school, who would end up in five years time stalking Madonna in front of her apartment in Manhattan, addicted to crack cocaine; Judy, who cut class, danced to Taylor Dane, smoked loosies, and once choked herself until she passed out. There was Sarah, who was twelve but could pass for sixteen, bumping “The Low End Theory” on a subway platform in Queens. We were two girls desperate for fiction; we dreamed of having a different family, so eager we were to annihilate our past riddled with bounced checks, dead mice in closets, and dollar-store sweaters. Sarah and I left the ramshackle homes in which we lived, our masks firmly affixed on our faces. There was Z, my freshman year partner in crime, who took me to a bar in Manhattan—a single, cramped room fashioned after a zoo. Once, I remember walking into her room as she compulsively brushed her hair, nude, and I turned away, embarrassed by her body, the shape of it, how she was blithely unaware of the fact that her shades weren’t drawn, her door wasn’t closed and the danger that occupied the spaces in between the two. Then there was Elizabeth Katherine and Katherine Elizabeth—two beautiful, affluent blonds with whom I shared a familial intimacy, and someone joked: Are you starting a doll collection?

That comment hurt me then for reasons that are different now. I went from a quiet, soft-spoken child who clung to another chosen girl like a blanket whose pattern would rub off all too quickly from the intensity of my possessiveness to wanting multitudes.

A teacher pulled me aside once and said, it’s not healthy to have just one friend. In response I thought, who cares about health when there was the promise of love and consistent companionship? I didn’t realize then that I used the words “best” and “only” interchangeably. I wasn’t able to disentangle my obsession with these singular friends from my tragic awareness that I will always pursue someone’s affection, always be on the precipice of loss. This is perhaps why I safeguarded them and the fiction I was intent on living so obsessively because I knew, invariably, the friendships would come to their crashing conclusion. I think of Judy and her sitting on the carpeted steps of her duplex apartment, pressing her hands against her throat and my urgent desire to flee, to run. When you hold onto something so tightly, it always escapes but never quite resumes its former shape.

Then there was S, and soon after the realization that it was unhealthy to excise parts of myself, hoping that the graft of affection would take.

I met S in a writing program in Russia. She wore strappy sandals that scraped along the sidewalk as she walked, the buckles had come undone, and the way she chewed gum unnerved me. I remember her being volcanic; she moved swiftly from one train of thought to another, speaking in Tourettic spurts about nerve endings, poetry, white nights, and neurology. Her voice made me think of jazz with all the disjointed rhythms and erupting syncopations, and in the brief walk from our class to our dorm, she exhausted me. I remember sitting in my room, in silence, thinking, what just happened?

For the rest of our time in Russia, I’d hear stories about the strange girl who lived in an apartment off-campus. The girl who got arrested in The Summer Gardens for scaling the gates after hours and being invited out for vodka after she and her friends bribed the officers with 300 rubles. I saw her at parties and we exchanged pleasantries, but mostly I watched her weave in and out of rooms; she was in a constant state of unraveling and I was in awe of her. Compared to my shackled life, she seemed free. This was at a time when I thought I had a great love, and before I left for Russia he had convinced me to try to stop drinking. It would be my first of many failed attempts, but I wanted him and the promise of a life he offered. While I roamed the Nevsky Prospekt in a virtual straightjacket, S was ready for flight.

When we came home, S and I casually met up over drinks with the other New Yorkers who were in the program. We exchanged stories about our teachers, our work, and memories of the Museum of Oddities–an experience that elicited a collective shudder. S and I coupled off, and we spoke about our history of broken people and our mutual drug addictions. We talked a lot about our parents (she wrestled with a cruel father and I a sociopathic, narcissistic mother). How do I explain now that we were strong, educated, outspoken women, yet we were frightened, fragile, undone? Looking back at our friendship, it occurs to me that we desperately clung to each other to make ourselves whole, and it’s only after our fissure that I suspect we both realized the unhealthy nature of our mutually agreed-upon attachment.

For years, the world was reduced to us. We spent every day together, dissected the food we ate and books we read. The men in our lives were periphery, because who could understand Felicia and S other than Felicia and S? I remember a mutual friend approaching me with trepidation. She wondered aloud if perhaps S and I were too close because it was possible to be close to the point of suffocation, where one suffers at the expense of another. I shook my head, impossible, and my friend receded, folded into quiet.

Over seven years, we endured love, breakups, trips to Los Angeles and Taiwan. I finally got sober and stayed sober. I never had a sister, and we loved as viciously as we fought. Our rows were violent storms that resembled undertow. Screaming matches in the street followed by long periods of uncomfortable silence. Maybe she was the first to notice cracks in the fault? Because when I took a new job at a then-cool agency, our friendship became two wires detangling. I became consumed with work, and she with a new boyfriend, who would eventually become her husband. Our once excited conversations became a string of rehashed memories of the friendship we used to have. We had very little in common except for our history and I think we both knew it but didn’t dare say it out loud.

It’s easy to end a friendship over an action or a series of betrayals, but it’s heartbreaking to end because of a drift, of a friendship that ran its course. How, and to what standard, do you measure a friendship that once throbbed yet now slumbers, becomes a house where all the lights flicker and inevitably burn out? One day I was supposed to be S’s maid of honor in her wedding and the next she stopped returning my calls. It was as if we never existed, and I was devastated that she excised me so neatly and completely. I saw photographs of her nuptials on Facebook and I wept for days. I unfriended her—seven years ended with a click of a mouse. Our history wiped clean.

I spent the next decade avoiding my habit of putting a single person on the top shelf. It’s taken me that long to open the door and let everyone else in, and more importantly, to make myself whole instead of being a barnacle–cleaving life and energy away from others. But in that time, I noticed a gradual shift in how we form bonds with others and maintain them. I grew up before the Internet, before a time when people broke plans or evaded tough talks through text. A time when you had to physically show up in your friendships and do the work. With the advent of technology, many relationships have devolved into a scrolling, passive affair where people don’t need to call or write because they’ve been keeping up with you via social media.

Most of my friends are married, have children, or have moved across the globe. Where we once had days to laze, we now spend time organizing and obsessing over time–to whom we allocate it, how to maximize it, where to spend it.I’m at the age when coordinating a lunch is the equivalent of a CIA operative. There are multiple texts, chats, calendar consultations because now we have to consider children, work, AA meetings, therapy, after-work engagements, and all the other weight we carry as the years advance. We architect connections based on the lives we have now and self-segregate accordingly. A few friends, new mothers, tell me they now spend their time with other mothers because of a real bond, a new sense of understanding they now share, and how could I fault them this, a Darwinian need to surround themselves with people who will ensure their survival. And we’re all getting older–our world no longer feels infinite, scattered. Now it’s purposeful and focused, and I’m starting to think of growing older as achieving a certain kind of quiet. We once measured our worth in direct correlation to our personal velocity, of how fast and far we managed to hurtle ourselves to as many shores as we could navigate. We achieved all that our parents had designed for us, we made all the friends and lost them and gathered new ones along the way, and then what? What then?

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

We scroll through Facebook photo albums, filtered Instagram images and blog posts comforted by the fact that this passive consumption is an adequate and worthy substitute for dinners when our phones are safely out of reach. Studies tell us that we discard people as easily as objects. I’ve endured one of the worst years I’ve known and people with whom I thought were close think it’s sufficient that they know of my representation of sadness as opposed to witnessing it first-hand. People accept that they have the whole story of someone’s life because they read a tweet or status update. While social media has been invaluable in the way that it allows you to connect with people, true friendships require one to still physically show up. Technology isn’t a replacement for a meaningful connection it should be a vehicle to further it. It used to be that if you wanted to contact someone, you had to phone them, write them or show up at the doorstep. Technology should create more doors, not replace existing ones. Friends who show up Facetime, text, Skype, message, visit, phone, write–they’re not satisfied with the Cliff Note’s version of your life.

True friends remain long after last call, when the lights have gone out and you’re forced to stumble home. They toast your success and walk alongside you in that dark, and they call, text, or message the next day and ask, are you okay?

Over the past year, I’ve made some very clear and definitive choices about my life and the friends who inhabit it. I will only surround myself with people who challenge and comfort me. Our relationships are symbiotic, reciprocal, and I never leave a dinner drained–I’m always invigorated. I always want to create, build, be. I will only take on projects with people whom I respect, people who have integrity and challenge me. I don’t create “content”, I tell stories, and I’ll never write simply for the sake of churning out something that “bolsters my brand”. I will only cleave to that which nurtures me. I used to love the words “best friend”, now I’ve stripped those words of their power, given them less weight, and in that way, my friendships no longer have unhealthy expectations. I consider Elizabeth Katherine one of my best friends possibly because she’s put up with my nonsense the longest with a kindness and compassion that borders on saintly. I consider Amber one of my best friends because, during one of the worst years of my life, she’s been a constant. She’s been one of the few people who doesn’t make me feel ashamed that I haven’t snapped out of my sadness.

Frankly, I don’t want piles of new friends nor do I want singular, suffocating ones–I’ve lived in the extremes and now I’m edging toward a healthy middle. I’m not at the place in my life where I need to hoard and accumulate rather it’s about a winnowing down. I want to spend my time nurturing existing relationships, rekindling old ones, and adding a few new faces to the mix. I want to focus on mentoring the extraordinary women who used to work for me. Now, I only seek to cultivate friendships with people where we both walk away inspired and excited. No longer do I expect a single person to complete me or fill a void.

I guess this is what happens when you grow older, perhaps Atul Gawande is right. Because all I want is to focus on what’s in my life, right now, and the circle of people who inhabit my strange world and make it brighter even on my darkest days. I no longer believe that one person can be my sun.

roasted strawberry raspberry tart with toasted almond crust

roasted strawberry raspberry tart with toasted almond crust
It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. ―W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

You feel what follows you. Lately I’ve been thinking about an old friend. Let’s call her K. We met at Columbia, at one of those forced gatherings where everyone was fresh-faced and feckless. Where everyone traded stories about their high hours at Bowdoin and Swarthmore, or talked about the new Rick Moody and the old Joan Didion. They were mostly white and hailed from New England or some other tony town they were intent on fleeing. Towns that would forever haunt their fiction, even though they didn’t know it, even though they were equally desperate not to show it. I thought I had this game racked having graduated from Fordham, where affluence was ubiquitous, where my friends rowed crew or played lacrosse. College was the first place I learned that people could summer and winter. But this was a whole other level of wealth–my classmates had the kind of money that afforded them the ease of worrying about how to fill the hours, while I was calculating the time from now until I had to return to work so I could afford all the books and supplies necessary to learn how to write.

I remember sitting on the grass eyeing the exits, wondering if it would be rude to run. What was I doing here–a failed banker turned dot-comer–with my stack of sloppy, overwrought stories about my mother? I’d spent much of life writing my way to her as if she were an undertow from which I wanted escape and absolution. While these strangers had their two-floor homes and childhood rebellions, I had a specter with hair that was a forest I’d spent my childhood wanting to get lost in and the feeling that I would never fit in. These strangers would soon read my stories (and butcher them) and I was frightened of being second rate, of being found out.

I thought again about running. There was still time to withdraw. I could cancel the loans, get back my deposit and go on with my life. I wonder now how my life would have been different if I left. I think about that a lot sometimes, although I try hard not to because there’s no sense in revisiting a past that’s impossible to rewrite.

Then someone suggested an icebreaker: let’s all name our favorite authors. I thought I was well-read until I heard my classmates speak. When it came my turn I talked about Salinger, Cheever and Bret Easton Ellis. I’d read American Psycho in college and I was obsessed with Pat Bateman’s pathology and the nihilism in Ellis’ work. This guy was dark and I was having all of it. And although it was a dark that was foreign to me–wealth, beauty, privilege–Ellis’ rage, anger and rawness was palpable. These were pretty people doing ugly things and not giving a fuck about it, and when I was 24 that was all I wanted to talk about.

Judging from the uncomfortable silence I was the only one in the group who wanted to talk about Bret Eason Ellis. Until K. Until a beautiful blond from California–specifically, Newport Beach–leaned into me and confessed that she loved Bret Easton Ellis. We became fast friends because I suppose we felt like outcasts. She took a workshop with Ben Marcus and everyone skewered her stories set in Los Angeles and Vegas. They judged her striking beauty and her predilection for tight clothes. And I, well, I was strange, insecure.

Back then I was the kind of woman who’d already be drowning before I set foot in the water. You’ll drown before the water lets you in. The trick, what I’d mastered, was how to breathe while treading water.

K had a sister, and their story played out like Less Than Zero. K was the good daughter, although her family thought it silly that she’d fought hard to go graduate school (To write? On the East Coast?) because she’d only come home to marry a real estate developer and bear his children in their McMansion. But they allowed her this diversion, this temporary $100,000 vacation while her sister liked her party favors more than she should.

Looking back, I think K and I became close because we were alone, lonely.

After my first semester I dropped out of the writing program because I too liked my party favors more than I should, while K pressed on, writing her stories. We were friends for the two years she remained in New York, and I remember following her out to Los Angeles for a week-long vacation. It was the second time since I’d been to California (the first was a Greyhound I took to meet a pen pal when I was 17), and I climbed into her SUV at LAX and she laughed at my-all black outfit and told me I had to change. We spent that week drinking in yacht clubs and doing far too many drugs. And for a long time that’s how I regarded Los Angeles–a city where one could so easily drown. A prettified place where one comes undone. I boarded a plane back to New York and I felt strange. I felt a clock ticking, our friendship expiring. It would be another year until she’d tell me that she wanted to go back home, she had to because California was home.

Where does everyone go when they say they have to go?

This would be a year before we sat on the shoreline in a beach in Miami watching the sky paint the waves black. This would be a year before she’d order ceviche and we’d sneak out of our cheap motel with scratchy blankets for dinner at the Delano. This would be a year before she’d tell me that we’d always be friends. This would be two years before I learned that we wouldn’t always be friends.

You feel what follows you.

It’s been over a decade since K and I have spoken. She’s married with a beautiful child, living in a home with a man I never liked. And it occurs to me that this is the coda to the two stories of friends I’ve lost (I’ll meet S a few years later after K), the refrain of look at her get married, look at her have children, look at her go… It occurs to me that S and K are from Los Angeles. We share a broken familial lineage, a history of drugs, and intense loneliness.

It’s only until this week did I take responsibility for two great loves falling out of my life. Granted, they’re not without fault, but while they climbed their way out of the dark I was still content on burrowing my way in. I wore my sorrow proud, and felt defined by my history. For years I hated Los Angeles–I used all the storied stereotypes, talked about how I was team Biggee, went on about how could one live in a city filled with so many cars–because the place of their origin was a reminder of their limits. Maybe there came a point when they decided it wasn’t worth it to follow me into the dark. Perhaps they realized before me that pain wasn’t beautiful, cathartic or romantic–it was just pain and they were tired of feeling it. It would take me years to climb out and I did it mostly alone.

I’m this close to signing the lease on my new home in Los Angeles. Come September I’ll be in a new home, and I’m relieved that I no longer conflate an entire state with my broken friendships.

This weekend I found myself cleaning, sorting, packing, and I came across photographs of me and K from that weekend we took in Miami. I think about her now, I wonder about the terrific stories she wrote that she never published, and I hope she’s happy. I hope they’re both happy.

You feel what follows you.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen, slightly modified.
For the crust
3 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup toasted almonds, divided
1/4 cup gluten-free rolled oats
1/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour

3 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract

For the filling
1 pound strawberries, stemmed and cut in half
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp maple syrup, divided
3/4 cup + 1 tbsp apple juice, divided
3/4 tsp powdered gelatin (the original recipe called for agar flakes, but I couldn’t even find these in the specialty store)
1 tsp arrowroot (you can also use cornstarch)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups fresh raspberries

DIRECTIONS
Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Line the bottom of a 9inch springform pan with parchment paper, and lightly oil the sides.

Grind 1/3 cup almonds, oats and salt in a food processor until coarsely ground, about twenty seconds. Transfer to a medium bowl and stir in the flour. Hand chop the remaining 1/3 cup of almonds and add to the mixture. Drizzle in the olive oil, and mix with a fork until all the flour is moistened. Add maple syrup, vanilla, and almond extract. Mix well until evenly incorporated. Wash and dry your hands and then press crust evenly into the prepared pan until you’re a 1/2 inch up on the sides. Prick bottom several times with a fork and bake for 18 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Raise the oven temperature to 400F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Add strawberries and drizzle with olive oil and 1 tbsp of maple syrup. Toss until coated and roast for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Combine 3/4 cup apple juice and gelatin in a small heavy-bottomed pot and bring to boil over a high heat. Whisk, cover the coat, bring the temp down to low and allow it to simmer for five minutes. In a small bowl dissolve the arrowroot in 1 tbsp of apple juice and slowly drizzle into the hot gelatin mixture, whisking vigorously. Remove from the heat and whisk in the remaining tablespoon of maple syrup and vanilla. Set aside, uncovered, for 5 minutes.

Place roasted strawberries in a bowl and pour in the warm gelatin mixture. Stir gently with a rubber spatula. Add raspberries, and toss until evenly distributed. Working quickly, transfer the mixture to the baked tart shell and carefully spread out the filling in an even layer. Refrigerate for 25-30 minutes until filling is completely set.

roasted strawberry raspberry tart with toasted almond crust

roasted strawberry raspberry tart with toasted almond crust

gluten-free blueberry cheesecake + a meditation on forgiveness

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Her father had killed her cat and buried it in the carrot patch, then laughed gleefully when the horrified child uncovered her dead pet…We live on a planet where harm happens all the time; to think that you should escape that is a mammoth overstatement of your own importance.Amy Westervelt’s “Letting Go”

When I got sober, I had to accept the possibility that people no longer wanted me in their life. Many of my friends had grown tired of playing parent, of shuttling me from bar to bed because they couldn’t bear the idea that I’d wouldn’t make it home or wouldn’t make it at all. In college, I would collapse into bed and feel the whole of the room orbit around me and I’d cry out to anyone who was listening, Stay with me a while, just until I fall asleep. Sometimes I’d yell that they didn’t know what it was like to be a child woken from sleep, to have to reach for the phone and call the taxi to the hospital and complete all the forms because my mother couldn’t breathe. Because maybe, this time, the coke would do her in. Do you know what it’s like to bear the weight of your mother in your arms, and realize, at ten, that your only hope was you? Sometimes I think my mother taught me how to read and write at such a young age because she needed an admin, someone who would tacitly accept her lies as fact and commit those lies to paper. My friends used to whinge about their parents because it was fashionable, and I’d snap, Did you ever have to mother them? Father them? No, so please shut the fuck up. Because you had a childhood. You had the privilege of having someone tuck the covers under your cold feet come nightfall.

This is a luxury, I think. Bare toes tucked under blankets.

All the years I swore I’d never become her, I became exactly her, thinking myself entitled to constant care. Unbeknownst to my friends, they were to assume the role of The Care and Feeding of Felicia Sullivan. I was the friend they loved so much but were desperate to let go. They were always checking in, always concerned, tip-lipped and tired. I was forever breaking someone’s heart. But when your body is an abbatoir, you don’t think of the carnage right in front of you; you never consider the damage you’ve done was greater than your own. It was only when I got sober was I able to see, and I can’t tell you how hard it was to sit across from so many friends, who clutched their coffee close to their chest, and beg for their forgiveness.

You’ve been saying you’re done for as long as I’ve known you, many said. Even though I was a year off the drink, few believed. Few thought I was biding time until the next great fall or loss, and then I’d find myself breathing underwater. A lone bottle of wine, my driftwood. Others believed but I had gone too far, done too much, and there was no going back. There were many well wishes, but please don’t call me again.

I had to accept that they may have forgiven me, they may have had closure with all the grief I’d cause them, but forgiveness and friendship were mutually exclusive. It’s an I love you, but I can’t know you. I can’t bear this again; I’m not physically built to endure it. It’s an I have children now. And then I think we’ve never been children, until I realize that was my weight. That’s my forgiveness.

There are only a handful of people in my life who have done damage past repair. There is no friendship, no love in my heart, but whether they know it or not, I’ve chosen to forgive them. While we may rage, storm, trick, and deceive, our forgiveness is always quiet, private. It may exist as words exchanged between two people, or mouthed alone in the confines of an apartment. I forgive you for all that you’ve done. But I have to believe that the mere existence of forgiveness relieves one of the burden of it, and we’re now able to replace that anger with equal measures of love and joy. Time takes it all, rubs it out, and brings you somewhere new. I’ve hope that the ones whom I’ve hurt, deeply hurt, have said those words aloud and that I can somehow feel it.

Just as I re-read my first book, painful as it was, and thought of my mother. Lover of cheesecakes (my god, she can eat cheesecake for days, and I made this thinking of her), cooker of chicken cutlets pounded paper thin, collector of soul records, wearer of coral, Noxzema and Chanel 5–a woman who had precise penmanship but rarely wrote outside the confines of a green waitress pad–and I felt a kind of forgiveness. While it forever breaks my heart that she’ll never be the woman or mother I want her to be, that I’ll never have a relationship with her while she’s alive, I do forgive her trespass, her thievery, her undying devotion of herself at the expense of myself. But still. I forgive. I don’t forget. I will not love or behold, but I forgive. And I have to believe that this is good. I have to believe that letting this anger go will make room for new love in my heart.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from The Paleo Kitchen Cookbook
For the crust
⅔ cup raw pecans
1 cup almond butter
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
¼ cup softened Coconut Butter (see below)
2 tablespoons organic honey
pinch fine-grain sea salt

For the filling
2 cups raw cashews, soaked in water for 2+ hours and drained
½ cup melted coconut oil
½ cup organic honey
¼ cup full-fat coconut milk
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon joice
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the topping (optional)
2 cups fresh blueberries plus ¼ cup for garnish
⅓ cup maple syrup

DIRECTIONS
Make the crust: Place the pecans in a food processor and mix until they begin to form pecan butter. Add the almond butter, shredded coconut, coconut butter, honey, and salt and pulse until well combined.

Place the crust mixture in a springform pan, then press down and smooth it out so that the surface is even all around the pan/ Put in the freezer to harden for 2 to 3 hours.

When the crust is hard, make the filling: Add the soaked cashews to a food processor and process until they fully break down into a chunky paste. Add the rest of the filling ingredients to the food processor and process until smooth (it should resemble a thin nut butter).

Pour the filling onto the hardened crust and smooth out the top. Place in the freezer and let settle and firm up for another 2 hours.

When the filling has firmed up, make the topping (optional): In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 2 cups of blueberries and the maple syrup and cook for 15 minutes, or until most of the blueberries have burst. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the mixture has thickened, about 5 minutes.

To serve, pour the warm blueberry topping on the top of the cheesecake and garnish individual slices with fresh blueberries. Serve immediately. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 2 weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

live the questions now (long read)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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mediocrity is the new black

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When I was small, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote and rewrote a single word fifteen times. I wrote the word, crossed it out and wrote it again. I was eight, and the assignment was to write a haiku about our family, someone we loved. I had one of those black notebooks where the cover was stiff and the pages inside were lined, thick. I had the word voice, because when I was small my mother’s voice was the loudest sound. It was the only sound. But it wasn’t enough to simply say that it was loud, no, there was something else. Something nefarious, ominous. It took me some time but I ended up writing a haiku–three lines, 5/7/5–that likened my mother’s voice to thunder. That was the word I’d been looking for. Thunder.

I was 8.

My grade school published an annual, which amounted to stapled sheets of colored paper filled with our poems, stories and meager hand-drawings. The cover was pale yellow and the interior blue, and the teachers had published all of my poems. When my mother thumbed through it I remember her saying the word thunder out loud and smiling. I’m not sure if she was proud of the word I’d chosen or if she was happy to have been written about. She was pleased with the attention, and that, for much of my life she would be my singular subject. I suspect, in one way or another, she’ll always find her way into my work.

In the movie Wall Street, financier Gordon Gekko tells a young Bud Fox, The most valuable commodity I know of is information. While Gekko was referring to insider information, the innards of a company not published in an annual report but rather strung up in the insides of gleaming offices, that quote, among others, remained with me. I always believed the most valuable asset one could have was knowledge. The journey was in its acquisition, so I spent much of my childhood and life in constant study. I read voraciously, I listened assiduously, and I saw worlds unfamiliar to me–India, the assault of color and shape–all in an effort to see, to know. I translate that world, or at the very least, make sense of it, through prose. I work it out on paper, on screen, and in the end what I’ve learned changes shape and form and becomes something new altogether. This is high art to me, and I hadn’t known of any other world where knowledge, information, was then used and transformed into art. The beauty of it was individuality. The way a child hears the timbre of her mother’s voice and how she may think of wind chimes (you can practically feel the softness, the lyrical quality of it, right?), while another writes, emphatically, thunder (the dark, the sharp, the edge of night like knives cutting into things).

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a lot of pretty stories about angry people. The stories were long, filled with what word technicians would call exposition: a pile of pretty sentences that don’t amount to much. All of my life I hunted and gathered for words, but the problem now was I had too many of them. And I remember sitting in Nathan Englander’s office (he was my teacher for a time), and he printed out two copies of a short story I’d written and one page was filled, FILLED, with red (a bloodletting!) and the other was a clean copy where he’d written some notes on the margins. It took everything in me to not burst into the tears when I saw the butchery, but he taught me about the value of economy. That the most powerful way to show people the world was through the simplest of words. But those words had to work. They had to be a nesting doll, a possessor and deliverer of multiple meanings, and after, I spent years performing surgery on my work. I asked myself, how can I understand and then, how can I show? So that you can see. So that you can learn. So that you can create. And so that others can create. This mutation, it’s a site to see. And so on.

But now something’s changed. The most value commodity I know of is attention. I think about the movie Boogie Nights, where a young Mark Wahlberg loosely portrays the 70s porn king, John Holmes (Johnny Wad, if you must). In one scene, Wahlberg bounces up and down on the bed in his childhood room in his parent’s house. He’d just made love to a woman and he says, Everyone has one thing, you think? I mean, everyone’s given one special thing, right? That’s right. Everyone’s blessed with one special thing. I want you to know I plan on being a star. A big, bright shining star. That’s what I want.

It’s 2014 and everyone wants to be a big, bright shining star.

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I think about this in the car when I’m with two friends and we’re driving from the airport in Bangkok to the hotel from which I’m writing this now. I think about this when I’m in this car and I see a sign that reads, Service staff are not polite. My friend next to me points at the sign, we read it aloud and laugh, and then I pause because there’s something that threads between our hunger for attention, see me, see me, and the very cold honest nature of the words printed and displayed when one is welcomed into a new city. It’s there, I just can’t see it yet.

Later on that day we visit a mall where each floor is designed to represent a famous city: Rome, San Francisco, Paris, etc. We eat Thai food in a restaurant and nearly everyone is photographing something. Two girls fastidiously arrange their hair, their face, for a series of photos, selfies, they take in front of their food which has gone cold. There’s me taking a picture of the food on my plate. There’s a couple buried in the bowels of their phone. Everyone is participating in the world through a filter, a lens, and I set down my camera and realize how this bothers me. There’s art in that for sure, but if there is this omnipresent interruption, are we then not able to see? Not able to get this information, create this art? I’m not sure.

I go to bed early and wake at 4:30am to read this interview:

Into this culture of resistance that New York has always personified has come this incredible middle class thinking. Which is all about consensus. It isn’t diversity. The individual is not empowered anymore in our culture. The overriding value is to fit in—not make waves. You can’t network if you’re too individual, and there is an incredible taste for mediocrity in the world.

We all feel superior to bad work. Makes us feel good. But the truth is, that doesn’t give you anything. When you see really good work, when you experience excellence, it makes you question yourself in very harsh ways. But you’re uplifted by the excellence of good work. But we’re living in a time where mediocrity is the new black.

I close my laptop and try to sleep but I can’t. The interview puts me to thinking about a conversation I’d just had where I talked about being frightened of the whitewashing, the homogeneity of the work online and the composition of a superstar blogger. The Photocopy Culture. Certainly, there is individuality, democratized art, and those who break ranks. I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Essays and it makes me question my work. It makes me want to take a scalpel in order to get deeper, to see if there’s something else I could say. Excellence pushes me, challenges me, makes me work harder to learn, see, create and share, but the thing is I’m seeing a lot less excellence and a lot more mediocrity.

I realize this is a lot to unpack, and I don’t even know if I can do it justice in a single blog post, but there’s something that’s slowly burrowing under my skin and pricking it. A murmur, something just about to break the surface (the ticking is the bomb), and I found myself enraged when I see that the desire to be liked, favorited, shared, noticed, trafficked, coveted–those base emotions now override the desire for knowledge. Look at me versus let me look inside. Get under the hood, fiddle around, as it were. And that quest to be noticed, to have your voice rise above the din (as referenced by the hundreds of articles that give you tips on getting noticed!) somehow, for me, removes the beauty that once proliferated the online space. A time when people weren’t preened to dishabille perfection, didn’t arrange their totems of worship to then filter and photograph them, waiting for the inevitable “likes.” Perhaps this is why I challenge and question my own work and how I represent it on this space. Perhaps I started to feel this rage a year ago when I wrote a review of the Kinfolk cookbook, which was more of a lashing out on this kind of imperfect perfection culture and its inherent deceptiveness and danger to those who seek to emulate it. I wrote,

There is no real visceral connection between image and type. Rather, the cookbook tells us the story of people who project the lives you wish you could live, and the recipes are merely an antecedent to that lovely fiction.

Point blank, the book was a pile of fuck. Mediocrity at its finest. Sure, the artwork was beautiful, the images bucolic and austere, but there was something wrong with the book. Aside from fact that the writing was an assault to the English language and the recipes went untested, I was sickened to the core about the physicality of the book and its perceived meaning. This book was meant to suggest excellence in its marriage between design, type and image, but it was instead the Trojan horse of art. It was pretty but devoid of actual meaning. Simply put, it was mediocrity dressed up in Sunday-best finery.

That’s what I’m seeing these days and I think that’s what drove my rage when I was having lunch with friends yesterday. A lot of what I’ve been seeing online is really pretty but it’s soulless, lifeless–it’s a replica of a bland original. It makes you desire to covet and acquire rather than hunger to learn and create. And The Photocopy Culture, the peanut-crunching lot, are being rewarded handsomely for their terrific fiction. And so more people see this and say, I want that shiny thing too, and on it goes.

It used to be that the most valuable commodity was information, now it’s adulation, attention. Please, please let me get what I want, Morrissey pleads.

An artist friend tells me that this, what’s been happening, all of it, doesn’t relate to my art. She says, you do you. She says, you keep creating great work amidst the ruin. She says, you ignore and slog through. She says, it’s not about you. She says, keep sifting through the rubble. And I do just that for a time. I get my equipment. I excavate. I ferret out work that challenges and inspires me. I try to ignore the growing fervor (fever, really?). I try to say that the blogger who can barely string a sentence together has a two-book contract is not about me. I try to keep creating, but I wonder this: will I drown from the clamor above me? From the voices, the thunder, of those who want to be seen versus those who love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness, as D.H. Lawrence would have it.

Do I just love and produce when I see so many destroy! destroy!?

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