A Requiem for Aunt Sara

*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.

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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 godwe’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?

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The Yutman sisters.

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.

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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, surprising life 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.

No Mistake By the Lake

girlfriends

When I was 23, I left my hometown in upstate New York and never looked back. I was terrified of life and unhappy with who I was, and I figured the best way to become different was to run. And so I ran. I spent most of my 20s putting in substantial and dangerous efforts to forget what I didn’t want to remember.

Which meant that anyone I’d once been close to had to go as well—those were the people who were most capable of reminding me who I’d once been, and more importantly, who were most likely to believe in me. I wasn’t interested in anyone’s faith. It was a slow and gradual purge of anyone who had meant anything to me.

Then recently, I made some changes—I began to let my past breathe again. I began to miss some of the people I pushed away. Continue reading

A Few of My Favorite Things

25618679925_818626d5aeAs you may or, more likely, may not have noticed, I’ve stepped away from my blog for the last few weeks. Life can just be so damn time-consuming sometimes. And the more wrapped up in my life I get, the less I seem to be able to appreciate what’s good about it–even if I’m busy with great big wonderful things (which is not always the case), I don’t leave myself time to enjoy it.

Generally speaking I’m not one for gratitude lists. I find them hokey and a little self-deceptive–in my mind, gratitude is like modesty or being cool: once you’re talking about it, you probably ain’t got it. Having said that, for someone like me who tends to fall on the darker side of things, a gratitude list every now and then is not a bad thing. As writer I needed a blog post and as a human I needed to shift my focus. Two birds and all that. I’ve tried to keep the hokeyness to a minimum. Please to enjoy my gratitude list:

  • Grandma pizza from Coppola’s in New Providence, N.J. (Truly one of the joys in my life.)
  • The Mr. Miyagi-like calm that I feel while painting the walls in my apartment.
  • My little watercolor painting that I bought for $5 in Vietnam, for which I chose the perfect frame.
  • My 2 nieces and nephew who took me to school for “Special Person’s Day.”
  • The timing of that day: when I was beside myself with fear and sadness, and absolutely needed an auditorium full of grade-schoolers who were given access to microphones and instruments, to drown out the noise in my head.
  • A meeting with a journalist last week that gave new direction to my writing.
  • Soft serve vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles. (Some say boring, I say classic.)
  • The knowledge that there’s a difference between being needy and letting yourself need someone.
  • That I don’t try to write poetry anymore.
  • A best friend who makes me laugh until I literally can’t breathe, while creating the perfect collage of all my artwork over the couch in my living room.
  • My new perfect pixie cut.
  • Walking into my quiet apartment after a long, loud day of life, knowing that everything is just as I left it.
  • That Jon Snow rises from the dead naked.
  • The fact that as of right now, I am not permanently responsible for any children.
  • My Sally.
  • That sometimes I do know when to walk away.
  • The faith that surrendering to that which is stronger than me is not the same thing as being defeated.
  • That I got to swim in the Gulf of Thailand and see this:

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    Sunset as seen from Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam.
  • The editor at The Classical who helped shape the essay about my father and the Knicks that I had wanted to write for 20 years.
  • That there was no social media when I was in high school.
  • 2nd chances.
  • 3rd chances.
  • Bob Odenkirk
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  • The pain it takes to grow.
  • Don’t be ridiculous–that last one was just to see if you were paying attention.
  • White lilies.
  • That in between all the regret and grief, I can come back to the truth: that I’m better and more and further because of all the things that have broken me.
  • That moment just before you drift off into a late afternoon nap after a draining holiday dinner, and you see the cold fall sun through sheer white drapes, and everything is dim and blurry and quiet, and you catch yourself thinking, “maybe everything’s gonna be ok.”
  • Changes that I never could have seen coming.
  • Sarcasm.
  • Eye rolling.
  • Pop Tarts.
  • My great thaw: the process by which I am becoming willing to be vulnerable and bear discomfort and accept my own humanity.
  • My freckles.
  • Costco frozen yogurt.
  • A day a few years ago: walking to my sister’s house from the train station just after it had rained, and noticing how beautiful it was–the metallic trees, the smell of fresh earth and mint and change. It was a time when I was desperately trying to change, but it was hard and grueling and I wasn’t sure if I could, and I certainly wasn’t in the habit of noticing beauty around me. But that day I did. I noticed it and then it occurred to me later that night that the noticing meant that I was, in fact, changing.

 

photo credit: Claudia via photopin (license)

photo credit: Bob Odenkirk via photopin (license)

Head Over Heels: How Love Kicked My Ass and Forced Me to Change

This past fall had its way with me. I struggled with a lot of questions on a very primal level about who I am. How do I adjust to the unexpected? Where do I turn when my legs are taken out from under me? Am I really capable of taking care of myself? In the face of profound hurt, do I harden and close off or do I find the courage to remain vulnerable? What does it take to change? When it comes down to it, how do I define my sense of self?

I sought answers to those questions by writing this, and I could not be happier to have made my Huffington Post debut with it.

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Here’s how change typically works in my life: It’s like I’m standing at the top of a mountain and I begin to realize that it’s time to climb down. Maybe the weather’s turning or I see a lion charging up. Maybe it’s just the vaguest of realizations that fear has accumulated all around me, and it’s making me uncomfortable. So I get out my telescope and my tape measure, and I try to calculate whatever I can: the angle of the slopes, the height of the mountain, the rate at which I think I can climb down. I think about the imminent trek downward constantly, and I massage those thoughts obsessively like silly putty—molding and re-molding—sculpting my thoughts into all kinds of scary shapes. I peer down and contemplate all the work I’ll have to do and how much it might hurt and how scared I am—and I wait. I want to get down but I’m too afraid of the trip.

So the Universe kicks me in the ass and sends me tumbling down the mountain, head over heels, ready or not. And when I finally reach the bottom I’ve got a mouthful of dirt, I’m bruised and bloodied and dehydrated, and I’m not sure where I am.

I am now in enough pain to make my way to the nearest triage.

A few months ago my boyfriend of two years came back from a weekend away with his kids, walked into our apartment, and told me that I distracted him from his responsibilities and that he was worried he was failing his kids by being with me. He was re-considering everything that had happened since his divorce (especially me) and was thinking about trying to put his family back together. He just wanted to go home, he said, but didn’t know where that was or if there was room for me there. And he couldn’t figure any of it out with me around.

And there was my kick down the mountain.

To find out how that trip went for me, click here.

photo credit: 165 via photopin (license)

Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad For Ditching Your New Year’s Resolutions

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“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 

February 17, 2016

I’ve been recovering from some pretty invasive oral surgery this week, so I’m re-publishing an old post that I think is particularly relevant this time of year, when many of us fall off our resolution-wagons. ‘Forget it,’ we say when the results aren’t what we thought they’d be. ‘I don’t know why I ever thought I could change in the first place.’  We set unreasonable goals, beat ourselves up when we fall short of them, and then use those shortcomings as proof that real change simply isn’t possible. And by believing that, we make it so.

So I’d like to reiterate my objection to the whole idea of new year’s resolutions.

Change is slow and subtle. It isn’t about grand gestures or sweeping declarations. It’s about the small decisions you get to make on a daily basis that eventually add up to something bigger. And the beautiful thing about “a daily basis” is that a new one starts every day–you get to decide to start the process of change right now, even if the scale is smaller than what you had in mind. Smaller scales are better anyway; sudden, sweeping change never ends up being real. It’s the painstaking, repetitive, meandering change–the kind that takes place in the grit and muscle of life’s grind–that’s what ends up sticking.

So here again are my thoughts about new year’s resolutions.  Continue reading

If I Knew Then, Part II

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Look’it this idiot. Clearly, she needs some help.

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.)

Here’s what I came up with. Continue reading

Cleansing My Body Image: Why I’ll Never Juice Again

 

 

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I’ve been aware of my body ever since I grew boobs and an ass: its measurements, its image, its power. I can’t help it. It’s been made abundantly clear to me that as a woman, it’s part of my net worth and will affect how successfully I make my way through the world. It should be lean but not without curves, sculpted but not too bulky. And thin. Above all else, it should be thin.

But now it seems that skinny is no longer enough—now you have to make it to those 00 jeans cleanly. You have to meditate on your third shakra in order to find your inner goddess while you honor your light by sitting in chair pose next to your composting machine while eating gluten-free gluten. Or something.

And guess what? Marketers are on to us. They realize that while the goal is essentially the same, the vehicle to get thin has gone green. So that despite the fact that I’m an absolute ogre and ridiculously dramatic when I’m hungry, last month I decided that a juice cleanse was the way to go for me. Because, well…cleanse! It’s right there in the title, dummy. This wouldn’t be the same thing as grapefruits or cabbage soup—this would purify me, rid me of all those nasty toxins that my “dirty” living has deposited in me. And obviously I’d spend enough money to ensure maximum health benefits, and upgrade to the package that includes wafer vitamins and vegetable pills. I mean, I’m not an animal.

What could possibly go wrong? Continue reading

13 Things I Learned From Facebook in 3 Months

11076788946_2ab83d617cIt’s been three months since I’ve kamikazied my way into the world of social media, and I have to say, I’m coming to understand it in a way that’s making it surprisingly enjoyable.

Nah, just fucking with you. It’s all still totally absurd and anxiety-producing, and it has me worried about the survival of mankind as a whole. But it hasn’t been all bad. Here’s what I’ve learned: Continue reading

Call an Ambulance: My Man Has the Sniffles

my boyfriend last weekend.
My sick boyfriend.

Last weekend my boyfriend came down with a wicked case of Ebola. Wait, that doesn’t seem right—I feel like I would’ve heard about a Jersey outbreak or I’d remember being forced into quarantine. But if it wasn’t Ebola, then what was it that made him too weak to move as he neared his end and repeatedly reminded me how very gravely ill he was?

Oh that’s right—I remember now. A cold. That’s what my boyfriend had. Case of the sniffles.

And it got me thinking, mainly about how men are usually such pussies when they’re sick, while women seem to able to power through. (Leave me alone about using that word in this context. I’m not a sexist. I think women are the shit. I’ve given up a lot of vices over the years, and I’m not giving up pussy too. Ok that came out wrong but you know what I mean.) Maybe it’s because women spend almost a quarter of their adult lives in a crampy, hormonal hell in which our bodies are hijacked (yeah, I’m playing the period card), or maybe evolutionarily women have had to be the stronger sex in order to give birth. Maybe it’s because throughout the centuries of male privilege, women have had no choice but to suck that shit up and make him his turkey pot-pie anyway. Continue reading

(in)gratitude

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make me good god, but not yet. -st. augustine

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.

gratitude. ugh.

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