***Check me out over at The Washington Post. I wrote an essay about a day when I was a super grown-up.***
I was once told that I was the reason that stepmothers get such a bad rap in Disney movies. My crime? I’d written an essay about my complicated relationship with a divorced father of three, and in it I’d admitted to the occasional bout of jealousy in the beginning of our relationship. I wrote that sometimes, I couldn’t help but feel a little left out of the things I wasn’t allowed to participate in yet: vacations, the kids’ sports games, birthday dinners.
In the comments section, one reader said that if jealousy was a problem for me, then I was responsible for all the bad PR stepmothers get. Then she used some very colorful language to tell me to grow up.
I was just trying to be honest: As someone in her mid-30s who never planned on having kids, being the girlfriend of an older man with three teenagers is a challenging place to be. And in the beginning, it could be a lonely place.
Then last month — three years into our relationship — my boyfriend Kevin received a text from his ex-wife: I’d like to have coffee with Dani.
Oh what I wouldn’t give for the days when I felt left out.
*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.
My relationship with a divorced father of three has been one of the most grueling, maddening, fulfilling, self-revealing things I’ve ever done, and it has taken me a ton of wrong moves and bad fights to find my way. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
It’s not personal. Despite wanting to smack someone whenever this is said to me, the fact is that it’s true. His kids dislike you only as a concept, not as a person — they’re just looking for that same safety and stability we all are, and you just happen to be the embodiment of all that threatens that.
It’s not personal except when it is. While it’s true that his kids wouldn’t like anyone with their father, it isn’t anyone — it’s you. You’re the one who’s there, feeling resented, in the way, and often pushed to the margins of his life. You’re entitled to your feelings about that, and you get some space to make it about you too. Because some of it is.
I’ve been working on this one for 25 years, and finally I was able to find the words for it. Here’s the first part of it, make sure to click the link at the bottom to read the whole thing.
My father has never made it easy to love him, mostly because it was never easy for him to love the life he fell into. Marriage, children, a medical career—all things he was told to want, and so he tried to believe that he did. And you could almost see the weight of all that responsibility bearing down on him, pressing him into shapes that were so unnatural to him that even when he wasn’t fighting against them, you could see how much effort it took for him to stay in them.
Whether the soft spot that he had for me was a cause or an effect of the love we shared for the New York Knicks, I can’t really say. What I can say is that my relationship with my Dad was never more right than when we were watching or discussing Pat Riley’s rugged Knicks of the mid-90s. Those were the teams I grew up on. Ewing, Starks, Oakley, Mason—those were my heroes, the first great sports loves of mine. And those assholes were constantly toying with me.
They were always dangling a championship in front of my face like meat in front of a cub, dragging it closer and closer until it was inches from my face and I was in a trance, watching its juices drip to the ground, absolutely certain that the next drop was mine. And then Reggie Miller would happen, or John Starks, or a missed finger roll, or a playoff brawl, or a head-butt, or Michael Jordan or any of the thousand other things that snatched that meat right back. I grew accustomed to starving.
This, some people say, was deserved. The wider world saw those Knicks as a pack of thugs muddying up a beautiful sport, either of their own volition or Riley’s. Maybe they were. Truth is, my father and I wouldn’t have loved them as much as we did if everyone else hadn’t hated them so much–how else would they have shown us what not giving a shit looked like? He rooted for them because they did what he never could; they became something other than what they were told to be. Rooting for Starks and Oakley and Mason was, for my father, a chance to fight back against the inevitability of the life he was living. It was a strange search for redemption by proxy, but because it was also his way of reaching for me, it brought him even closer to the life he was trying to escape.
Sometimes, the only way out is back in.
To read the rest and find out how the Knicks taught me to love my father, check out the full piece at The Classical.
The true mystery of life was not that we are all going to die, but that we were all born, that we were all once little babies like this, unknowing and slowly reeling in the world, gathering it loop by loop like a ball of string. The true terror was that we once didn’t exist, and then, through no fault of our own, we had to.
-Dan Chaon, You Remind Me of Me
A few things have recently conspired to get me thinking about beginnings:
Two people who are very special to me had a baby last week, and while they did not deliver on my request for a dramatic, blog-worthy water-break when we went out to dinner a few weeks ago, it hasn’t been a complete waste. I’ve been hanging with the new little nugget quite a bit and she’s melting my badass right off me. I’m smitten. That newborn-head smell. Those tiny frogger legs. Her wobbly little head, and eyes that speak of equal parts confusion, intrigue, and suspicion. So this is all pretty interesting, but please tell me that soon I’m headed back to that dark, warm place I used to live in—hey c’mon!—put that blanket back on me!…wait, where are you going with that boob?…oh you’re not really about to dunk me in any water, are you?That’s the vibe I get from her.
I’ve also been struggling with a piece I’m writing about my relationship with my mother, specifically how decisions that were made long before I was born came to shape the person I became. How my parents’ expectations about who I’d be—about what they needed me to be—affected the person I actually became.
At a certain point we all try to re-write our past by re-writing our future. We change jobs, we move, we end relationships— and sometimes the new narrative comes in the form of a baby. I was not able to do X,parents sometimes say, so I want my child to.My parents didn’t do Y for me, so I will do Y in outrageous measures for my child.If only they’d done it the way I will do it, things would have been better for me.
I’ve been doing more thinking about what I’d tell my younger, dumber selves, I suppose because my present self needs the help too. It’s funny how I can learn something–sometimes over and over again–and still need reminding about it. I guess knowledge and acceptance often run on very different tracks. (See Part I of my sage wisdom here.)
***I’ve been thinking back to where it all started for me and this little blog. Y’know, all the way back to October (when I was still doing the e.e. cummings thing). Thanks to everyone who has read and supported me, especially those who’ve reached out to tell me when something resonated with them. For a writer just starting out, you can’t know how much it helps to know that my words are landing somewhere. Happy New Year everyone.***
the other day, my blonde-haired blue-eyed 7 year-old charge looked at me and said, “what do you wanna be when you…” and there he stopped, an impish grin forming across his sun-splashed summer face. he knew i was already a grown-up, but he also understood that being a nanny isn’t a response to the question of what you want to be when you grow up. babysitting is something you do, not something you are. and though he didn’t want to offend me, he did want an answer to his question. he thought about it for a moment and then said, “well, besides this, what do you want to be when you grow up? i wanna be an engineer—so i can make roller coasters.”
“It is not all bad, but it is not all good, it is not all ugly, but it is not all beautiful, it is life, life, life—the only thing that matters. It is savage, cruel, kind, noble, passionate, selfish, generous, stupid, ugly, beautiful, painful, joyous—it is all these, and more, and it’s all these I want to know and, by God, I shall, though they crucify me for it.”
-Thomas Wolfe’s Letters To His Mother
We all do it. We can’t help it really, it’s been so deeply ingrained in us—we must take stock. We must mark time and divide it up—plot it along the length of our lives. We’re told that time is linear and inflexible, and there are milestones that need to be reached at particular points along the way:
I am in my 20s so I should have a college degree and a job with a future. I am allowed to be this much lost.
I am in my 30s so I should be mating and procreating. I am allowed to feel much less lost.
I am middle-aged so that must mean it is exactly halfway gone for me and I should have most of the things I’ve planned for myself by now. I am allowed no more lostness.
Numbers and plans plotted on a graph, dots connected. Alarms set to remind me when I’ve missed one of those plotted points. Continue reading →
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 said no and dragged me from the store, 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 fucking 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, as I’ve been going through one of those cliched “hard times” over the past few months. It’s made me realize 2 things: 1) My inclination towards madness once I decide I want something 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.
I didn’t want those gloves to impress anyone—shit, I didn’t even care if anyone ever saw me in them. I wanted them because for whatever childish reason, they tapped into some part of me that felt true. I wasn’t looking to post them or like them, I didn’t want to pin or poke or tweet or twat them, nor was I trying to further a career or fill some gaping emotional void. I just wanted them for the sake of having them—to feel the satin over my forearms and touch the sink through the fabric and complement all those fancy sounds that my shoes were making. Whatever that experience amounted to—feeling like a princess, feeling important and sophisticated and charming—it was both a means and an end.
And it makes me sad that I don’t think that way anymore.
As an adult, things are different. I’m tethered to responsibilities that I didn’t have as a kid. Not just physical and financial demands (though those are certainly substantial), but ones of personhood and meaning-making—the questions that no one can answer but me. Am i living the life I want to live? What does that even look like? Am i running out of time? Could I be doing more? What terrifies me and excites me and holds me back and lets me go? Which things do I find beautiful? Terrible? Necessary? Irrelevant?
If youth is about having the space for those questions to marinate unarticulated, growing up is something a lot less passive. It’s an active pursuit, and it takes muscle and persistence and the willingness to reach for answers despite knowing that even if you find them, they’ll only lead to more questions.
The problem is that when I stop reaching for answers—when I become complacent or lazy or paralyzed by fear—that’s when I am the furthest away from that little girl in the bathroom. Because then instead of questions, all I can hear is one resounding, demented answer: RESULTS! Results are what will make meaning for me, and the pursuit of those results will take the place of seeking answers to those important questions.
If I get published, I will feel worthy. If this post reaches X amount of people, then what I’ve written matters. If I have a man who loves me then I’m ok. If I make X amount of money, then I have X amount of value. If I achieve X, then the fear that I am not enough will go away. If I can fix that relationship, then I am lovable. If this person likes me, then I’m obviously the shit.
It’s not always as conscious and idiotic as some of those, but you get the point.
And the point is basically this: once I’ve decided what the results of something should look like before that something has even started, I’m screwed. Because what inevitably happens is that I start clinging to that pre-ordained image of what it will all look like—and I grip that motherfucker until my knuckles are white and my palms ache and I can barely breathe. And then I’ve placed myself in a world consumed with fear and guaranteed to disappoint. Because here’s the truth of it: clinging will always fail me in the end. The tighter I clutch something, the less hold I have on it. That’s the great paradox, right? It’s only when you stop caring about what comes next does what comes next end up being so beautiful.
So I’ve decided that I’m going to try to be more like that little insane-asylum escapee—the girl marching in place to the beat of her own clicking heels as she adjusts the satin gloves that she’s pulled up over her Scooby Doo pajamas.
i’ll be honest–my creative juices weren’t really flowing this week. i started and abandoned several pieces that i thought might make good blog posts. as the week wore on and i was becoming more and more frustrated, i was also being inundated with more and more displays of gratitude on social media. it’s that time of year.
it’s not that i don’t think gratitude is important or that i’m not grateful for a lot of things. i do and i am. i suppose ultimately i think of gratitude the same way i think of humility and coolness—if you’re talking about it, you ain’t got it. look’it me, look’it me! look at how grateful i am? aren’t you grateful you know such a grateful person??Continue reading →