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.

***

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.

If I Knew Then.

{A rerun:}

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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.

Continue reading

The Green-Eyed Bitch

97353996_0aa308b47e_mI’ve never been a particularly jealous girlfriend but I am a very jealous writer. When I see someone promoting a piece on Facebook or Twitter, I feel something a little bitter and slithery churn in me: “Not fair,” I think in my whiniest adolescent voice. My better self might know that it has nothing to do with fair, but that better self doesn’t always get a say.

Now raise your hand if any of the following scenarios churn something ugly in you:

  • Someone else’s kid makes Varsity and yours doesn’t.
  • Your friend drives a BMW P series (or whatever) while you have a shitbox with a tape deck and half a bumper.
  • Some perfect-looking skinny bitch is…well, a perfect-looking skinny bitch.

Don’t lie—your hand is up by now.

  • A writer you know signs a book deal with a big-time publisher.

And now so is mine. 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

Ground Control to Major Tom: Must We Grieve So Publicly?

 

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David Bowie’s death a few weeks ago unsettled me—not the death itself, but the phenomenon that followed it. Initially, as my social media feeds filled with pictures and quotes and song links, I was uncomfortable and annoyed. Then I started to feel like a sociopath—the world was letting out this great, collective gasp in mournful unison.

Why wasn’t I?

It’s not like I didn’t try. I put up a few different elegiac Bowie pictures, but took them down soon after. It just felt icky. The fact was, I wasn’t grieving. Sad? Sure. But not grieving. And so it felt like I was trying to co-opt his death and make it mine in a way that it wasn’t. I was using this awful thing (though there are things way more tragic than the death of a 69 year-old man who lived an incredibly full and exciting life) to get…well what was I trying to get? Attention, I guess. Isn’t that always the point of a social media post? Whether it’s for personal or professional reasons, posting something on social media is us waving our arms back and forth, trying to signal to people that we need some attention. Look over here. This is where I am. This is what I’m doing. This is how I’m grieving. Continue reading

Polishing the Pearl: Why Can’t We Talk About Female Masturbation?

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“When I’m good, I’m very good, and when I’m bad, I’m better.” -Mae West

Jerking off. Whacking off. Whippin the bishop. Spanking the monkey, walking the dog, shucking the corn. Beating it, badgering the witness, jerkin the gherkin, bashing the candle, beating the meat, choking the chicken. And those are just the ones I could think of offhand—the lists I found on the internet are endless (and often disturbing, in case you’re wondering). One site boasted a list of 1,000 different ways to refer to a man playing 5 on 1.

But when I tried to come up with euphemisms for female masturbation—nothing but crickets. I literally could not come up with a single one on my own, and the longest list I could find was about 80 entries, 95% of which I’d never heard of. (My favorite one was “impeaching bush,” while the most offensive was “polishing a bald man in a canoe.” Why would I be polishing a bald man when I’m buffing by myself?)

So why the discrepancy? Why are we at such a loss for words when it comes to women touching themselves, but for men there are literally thousands of terms at their fingertips? (See what I did there?) Why is it that we’ve made it so easy for men to articulate themselves when it comes to sex, and so difficult for women? Continue reading

Trying To Be Present (Right After I Check Facebook & Twitter)

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Inside my head.
Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch. -James Baldwin

Here’s why I’m a lunatic. Last week I was writing in my journal—wrestling with questions about being present in my life, wondering if blogging was actually making me a worse writer by making me less here. And here’s what was going on in my head:

Actually this might make a good blog post, all about the tension between blogging and my “real” writing—wait, a post like that would never go viral, needs to be something sexier—maybe something political? Hillary’s a hot topic, maybe I should write about her—but am I smart enough to write about politics, informed enough? Maybe another vagina post, vaginas are really hot right now—maybe I’ll go get my vagina steamed and write about that…

When your search history includes “Where can I get my vagina steamed in New Jersey,” it’s time to step away from the computer and do some thinking.  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

Sum of My Pieces

***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.***

-charles bukowski
-charles bukowski

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.”

my answer is a little more complicated. i’m still not entirely sure. Continue reading

Why New Year’s Resolutions Are Bullshit

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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 

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