Picture this: a sprawling college campus with big, brick Gothic buildings. An ornate bell tower that sits atop the library, a kind of academic church. A small lake glistening underneath the April sun and a pedestrian bridge crossing over it. Seventy degrees, a cloudless sky. Fraternity row overflows with young, enthusiastic college students—all taut skin and big plans—gathered at the school’s annual pig roast, laughter and loud music and the smell of booze wafting through the air.
That was the scene that greeted me and my boyfriend a few weeks ago, when we went down to visit his son at the University of Richmond. And it made me want to be young again. To go back to a time when everything seemed to be ahead of me–to the night of my 18th birthday party, as I drove down a windy country road in a tight, hot-pink, spaghetti-strapped dress: a best friend driving, a Big Gulp full of Diet Coke and rum, and all that freedom rushing through the car with the warm July air.
As my boyfriend and I walked down Richmond’s fraternity row, all kinds of memories moved through me and made me long to go back.
*So I’m going to stop promising to post on any kind of fixed schedule. Clearly, I can’t keep those promises. But I will try to do better than I have been—I’m aiming for a post every two weeks. Not that anyone asked.
It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things. -Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid
A few weeks ago, my mother’s maternal aunt—my 98 year-old great-Aunt Sara—came down with pneumonia, became disoriented, and was admitted to the hospital. And I saw what dying looks like.
When I walked into the hospital room the first time, Aunt Sara—frail and bone-thin—was moaning in pain while her children and grandkids sat all around her and tried to make her comfortable. And I was immediately struck by how both ugly and intimate death seemed to be. Her sallow face and bony chest and missing teeth. Different hands taking turns holding onto her. The shrill, bird-like noises that came out of her as she asked repeatedly for something to drink, only to push it away whenever anyone brought one to her mouth. The not quite knowing what she wanted—thinking something would help only to realize that it didn’t.
That disorientation that life is full of, death is full of too.
Growing up, whenever my sisters or I would have an overly dramatic reaction to something—a loud gasp or high-octane oh my god—we’d say to each other: “whoa, you just Aunt Sara-ed that one.” Of course, my sisters and I were just engaging in adolescent drama— spilled milk and all. But for Aunt Sara, those audible reactions—sometimes heart-attack-level sounds for skinned-knee situations—came from a primal place of genuine concern. She just loved everyone around her too damn much, and didn’t like to hear about bad things happening to them. And so, in my family, Aunt Sara became a verb.
And I don’t think Sara worried about anyone more than she did my grandmother—her younger sister Molly. Sara helped raise Grandma when their mother died when they were both very young, and the two sisters lived together for over 50 years, raising their children on different floors of the same two-family house in Elizabeth, N.J. And Aunt Sara was so concerned about her sister that she fought her kids for years on moving out of Elizabeth—how could she abandon her little 90 year-old sister like that?
And even when Aunt Sara was finally convinced that it was time to leave, and her kids helped her sell her portion of the house and made arrangements for her to move, she gave it one last shot: she told her son and daughter that she’d “reconsidered” and wouldn’t be leaving her sister after all. (Her children promptly told her that the time for “reconsideration” ended when she sold her part of the house.)
She just loved everyone too damn much.
I’m smart enough to know that I don’t have anything original to say about death. It just is, waiting for every one of us. And seeing Aunt Sara’s whole life crowded into that small, hospital room with blank walls and padded chairs and LCD screens displaying all the information her body was giving away—I didn’t know what to think. I wanted it to have this immediate, revelatory effect on me. Wanted it to teach me something profound about life. But the truth is, I walked away from all of it with just a few “simple, unprofound scraps of truth,” as Tim O’Brien said in If I Die in a Combat Zone: Life is short. Family is important. Seize the day. Nothing is permanent.
I often forget how impermanent it all is. Well, not so much forget as much as allow all the things in my life to crowd out that knowledge: Deciding whether or not to keep the kick-ass pair of winter boots that I just spent too much money on. My machinations to get to someplace warm next month for a few days. Ideas about decorating my study. Questions about when I’m due for my next oil change and how long it’s been since I published a blog post, and has my boyfriend remembered to exchange that velvet blazer I got him for Christmas.
All kinds of noises, some more stupid than others.
And it occurs to me, especially at this time of year when we’re all so busy making enormous resolutions to be better and thinner and healthier, that the hardest part of things is often the middle—when you’re right in the thick of it and it’s so easy to get lost.
I’m sitting here in my living room in the middle of January—when mild temperatures have long since disappeared, and they are nowhere on the horizon. I’m 35, which is on its way to being some kind of midpoint. I’ve been writing a book for two and a half years now, and, though approaching the skeleton of a rough draft, I’m still many many cycles of revisions and rewrites away from a finished product. I’m a few years into the best relationship I’ve ever had. I’m in it, all of it—right in the middle of this big, messy, brilliant, baffling, surprisinglife of mine. And that’s a hard place to be, I think.
It’s a place where there are no enormous resolutions for me to make—where all there is to do is keep going. Keep doing what I’m doing, keep showing up to my life. Keep writing and editing and re-writing. Keep caring about the kind of person I am and how I choose to treat other people. Keep being honest and flawed and spoiled and selfish and scared—and keep trying to do it all with a little more grace than yesterday.
How do you keep pushing yourself when there’s no big payoff right around the corner? When the end is (probably, hopefully) too far out to be either the carrot or the stick?
I find it all quite difficult, especially right after seeing a life shrunken down to its bare essentials: a woman in the middle of a hospital room with all that florescent sadness and love and fear—just asking for a drink and a little comfort on the way out. It makes me want to change everything, Right Now: get closer to everyone so that my hospital room will be filled with people one day; finish my manuscript tomorrow, see the world, run for days, spoil my nieces and nephew. And while those are all admirable goals—and there’s nothing wrong with reaching to be better—I think the real heroics are in the grit and muscle of the daily grind. I think trying to conquer the world all at once is naive and self-defeating.
I think that if I want to honor Aunt Sara’s memory, I just have to keep showing up, keep caring about people—and keep gasping wildly and dramatically with them when the need arises.
When I was 8, I saw a pair of white gloves in a toy store that sang to my soul. They were long and satin and gorgeous, and I knew immediately that my life would never be complete without them. So when my mother wouldn’t buy them for me, my mission was clear: make her life a living hell. I begged and I whined and I sulked, and it soon became clear to my mom that she could either buy me the damn gloves or live the rest of her life being tortured by a freckled pain in her ass. She chose wisely.
Every night I’d put the gloves on very carefully—pulling them slowly up past my elbows—and I’d slip into my black mary janes that made the most satisfying clicking sound on the tiles of my bathroom floor. I’d spend long swaths of time click-clacking around that bathroom with those beautiful satin gloves on, and I felt positively regal. The fact that the bathroom was so small that I could only take a step or two in any direction, and that I was in my pajamas so I looked like I’d just fled the “special” ward of a hospital, stepping back and forth in place and gesturing wildly with my gloved hands—well that never occurred to me. It all just felt so right.
That memory has been hovering over me lately, and it’s made me realize 2 things: 1) My inclination towards madness is nothing new. And 2) What if I was willing to be a bit more like that little idiot, tapping back and forth in front of a bathroom mirror for no other reason than the fact that it made me happy? Ok the second one isn’t so much a realization as a question, but whatever. Continue reading →
God, let me think clearly and brightly; let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences. -Sylvia Plath
I’ve recently found myself pining for my misspent youth—dreaming about those carefree days that were wide open, when everything was still possible. When my skin was smooth and not puckered. When i was just an innocent little flower about to bloom.
And then I remembered what a total moron I was, and it made me feel a lot better about being old. It also made me think of all the things I wish I’d known back then, the things that can really only be learned the hard way.
So here are the things I’d say to all of my younger selves—the things that I will probably be learning and re-learning for the rest of my life:
There is very little that can’t be made better by a freshly made bed with sheets just out of the dryer.
You have so much time. Don’t rush to choose a job or a man or any final destination. You don’t have to have it all figured out yet.
There’s so little time. Stop wasting it trying to be perfect and just try to be better. Perfectionism is just a search for reasons to hate yourself. Being better is so much more possible—and interesting.
When social media first came around, I did not jump to join the masses. I preferred to be invisible. My life, as the cliche goes, had taken some bad turns and there was nothing about it that I wanted memorialized in photographs, much less posted for the world to see. I didn’t believe I had anything worth showing and so, I stayed as far off the grid as I possibly could.
When I was 23 I left my hometown, and in 12 years went back once, for half a day. I kept in touch with one person, who would occasionally tell me that someone had messaged her on Facebook to find me. Another friend reached out to my sister to ask her where I was. I would get the messages and let them go unanswered.
Truman Capote wrote of grief in In Cold Blood—he said that it draws a circle around you which separates you from anything outside of it. That’s what fear did to me in my 20s, and I disappeared into that circle. I didn’t want to be seen and so, I made sure I wasn’t. Continue reading →
Need need need: it’s a siren that directs my movement, pushing me this way and that, sending me running after horizons and mirages. But it sends me after real things too.
My needs map out my days: I need the fulfillment I get from writing, and so I take workshops and read books about craft and make time to write. I need love and intimacy and longing, so I work (hard) on my relationships. I need a place to live, so I have a job and pay my bills. Need need need.
The problem isn’t about my needs, and it isn’t even always about the places and lengths I’ll go to in order to fill them. Sometimes the problem is just about my expectations of what their fulfillment will mean for me. Continue reading →
Monday was the summer solstice—the longest day of the year. When all of summer is right there opening up in front of you.
Time has been on my mind.
My boyfriend and I went to a Mumford & Sons concert last week and it was a great night. I took the day off from work, we went out to Queens early and had dinner at Shake Shack (my world will never again be the same).
Actually, when I think about it, the night was kind of perfect.
Critics have been pretty brutal to Mumford, claiming that their music is filled with too much earnestness, too much yearning. And I can appreciate that point. But even still, I say screw the critics—I love them, yearning and all–and I love their collaboration with Senegalese star Baaba Maal “There Will Be Time.” I heard it for the first time at the concert, and I’ve played it over and over again since then (an unfortunate habit that I have).
But I started noticing something–a sadness I felt every time I heard the song, which was understandably confusing given what a great night it was. (The question of why I’d continue to play a song that was making me sad is for another day. More issues than Newsweek—that’s me.) It took me all weekend and through Monday to figure it out. I was driving home from work listening to the song and as I approached my street, I found myself not yet ready to make the turn home, so I just kept driving.
Longest day of the year. Soft yellow light and warm air. An early summer evening that might have felt vast and limitless years ago, but didn’t on Monday. It felt small and already gone.
And then I remembered this feeling from the night of the concert—this almost not-even-there feeling, like water splashed on my face: I could feel it all slipping away even as it was happening. I was aware of how long I’d been looking forward to the concert and how short each song was and how soon the night would be over, and I wanted to be there—really be there and nowhere else. I wanted to crawl inside the music and never come out.
Or maybe this. Maybe it wasn’t an attempt at being present but a wish that it would last forever. Maybe I was just getting greedy. Maybe it all felt like it was slipping away because I was trying to hold onto something in flight, because I wanted more than my fair share of pleasure. Maybe I was just so scared of the night ending that that’s all it did from the start.
Or maybe the concert served as a marker for me–a measurement of time. It was at a Mumford concert in Coney Island almost exactly a year ago that I realized that for the first time in my life, I’d actually fallen for someone. He was meeting us there, and I kept turning back to look for him, and when I finally saw him pushing his way through the crowd to get to me–as soon as I saw him, I knew: I was totally screwed. “Oh for god’s sake,” I thought to myself. I’d worked so hard for so long not to let anyone in. “Well, I guess I’m in it now.” At the end of the night we immediately started talking about going to see them again when they came back to town.
And then, between the two concerts, we struggled. We have just been through a really rough time, and it nearly broke us, and the concert last weekend was one of the first fun things we’ve done since coming out of it. So I guess it makes sense that there’d be a residual sadness, even from a really great night. It was hard not to think about everything that had happened in the past year–everything we didn’t yet know as we made those plans–about the things that would happen that would mark us as different people. About the narrow margin by which we actually made it to the concert together. We made plans as if they were guarantees.
About halfway through the concert, Marcus Mumford jumped off the stage and started making his way through the fans (obviously looking for me). He walked through the crowd on the floor and went so far back into the stands that for a time he disappeared from view. And before we actually saw him again, a cloud of particularly fervent screams began approaching–he was coming back toward the stage. I still couldn’t see him so my boyfriend picked me up to get a better look–and, of course to get a picture. And I did. I got my picture.Oh I couldn’t actually see him–it was all a dark blur through the screen of my phone, so I just kept taking pictures in the general direction of the moving mass of particularly loud noise. I examined the pictures later and realized that in fact, there he’d been. But I was so busy trying to secure proof of the moment, that I had missed it. I didn’t want the experience as much as the memory of the thing–a copy of a copy rather than the original. And I felt that right away. It was a sadness that took 3 days for me to understand.
I’m not worried too much though–I’ve already decided to see them again next year. And what could possibly get in the way of those plans?