Posted on March 30, 2016
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.
Posted on February 19, 2016
Photo Credit: Jacqui Miller
I hate the word “trainwreck”. People take comfort in their own moral compass, and in doing so find themselves passing judgment. They think: I’m definitely not like that; I would never do that; How could she be dumb enough to put herself in that situation because I would never. And if you should find yourself in said situation, you might say, I handled it this way, so, in fact, it’s the right way–and why doesn’t she just do that? It’s easy to judge a situation without context, without actually standing in someone else’s life. It’s easy to deliver sideline commentary without actually being in the game. Watching others in varying states of undress gives people a convenient remove, an emotional distance because what they’re viewing is a performance delivered by a stranger, someone they know only slightly, because they’ve been admitted entry into a particular aspect of a someone’s life not realizing that the whole of that life lies behind a curtain. Some of those performances are done for effect (think reality television) and some of them are real and uncomfortable to watch. Instead of practicing empathy, we grab our popcorn; we mouse click, prod, poke fun and shame people into silence. We admonish them for the mess they’ve made and their inability to quietly (and quickly) clean it up.
Nearly a year ago an old coworker of mine sent me a text about a mutual friend. This coworker and I weren’t friends, per se, but we cared enough about this mutual friend to get on the phone and deal with the uncomfortable conversation we were about to have. This former coworker asked if I had noticed our mutual friend’s disturbing rants on social media. I admitted that I hadn’t because I was commuting nearly five hours a day to Princeton, New Jersey for a work project, and by the time I got home I was ready to collapse into bed. While on the phone, I scrolled through our mutual friend’s social feeds and winced. The words were painful to read and I remembered another friend making an offhand joke about this person, about how dramatic this person was–that this person was always kind of a trainwreck. I thought about that flippant comment while on the phone with my former coworker, who wondered aloud what we should do. Would it be okay to ask our mutual friend if something was wrong? Was it our place? Should we say aloud the two words we were thinking: mental illness? And why is it that those two words are ones that are routinely whispered?
Fifteen minutes later I chatted with the mutual friend and asked this person if everything was okay. I could be off-base but I’m concerned about what you’re writing online and I’m here to listen or help, I remember saying. Or not, if that’s what you want too. I ended up connecting the mutual friend to a psychiatrist, and in that moment, I felt ashamed for not standing up to that flippant comment. For saying, maybe instead of rolling your eyes maybe be a friend. Even with the people we think we know, we don’t know the whole of their life–only what they choose to share with us. When I was young I remember kids laughing at someone when they tripped and fell. I never really saw the humor in someone falling as my first inclination was to ask if the person was hurt. Are you okay? But as the years moved on, I programmed myself to laugh, albeit uncomfortably, when someone stumbled. Because I guess it’s easier to ridicule instead of making yourself vulnerable.
It can sometimes feel like everyone on the internet is obsessed with positivity and inspiration and motivation. There are so many graphics and Instagram posts and listacles about how positive energy will change your life, and you have to ignore the haters. The advice claims that you have to believe you’re going to win, you can’t worry about your problems, you need to stop stressing. As though a positive mind set really will make every aspect of your life better and solve your crushing problems. –From Jon Westenberg’s “Blind Positivity Sucks”
Online, you can’t be a trainwreck but you can’t project perfection either–lest you be deemed inauthentic, a “fake”. You can’t be too sad or too happy. You can reveal a little about your personal life but not too much, and know that people like the comeback story rather than watching you wade helplessly through the dark. They want your dark in past tense because no one wants to deal with your present or future tense sadness. They want that storyline to be played out behind the scenes, but they’ll stick around for the post-mortem. Over the past few months, a few friends have reached out to me privately to acknowledge that their sadness has also been shamed into silence–that the internet doesn’t have the patience for unhappiness. This puts me to thinking about what the poet Jenny Zhang wrote:
Darkness is acceptable and even attractive so long as there is a threshold that is not crossed. But most people I know who suffer, suffer relentlessly and unendingly no matter what sort of future is proposed (“it’ll get better/it won’t always be this like/you will start to heal/ I know it’s such a cliché but you really will come out of this stronger in the end”). –From “How It Feels”
I’m having the worst year of my life. There, I said it. My mother died, and there was a lot of private drama that circled that event. I made a huge move across the country and although I love Los Angeles and it feels like home, I’m lonely. My father and I fight often–via text, as that’s his preferred method of communication–and the people with whom I used to feel close now seem like strangers. I relapsed, again. I started seeing a psychiatrist after feeling some harrowing feelings of depression and suicide and I had to stop seeing him because I can no longer afford it. I spend six hours a day looking for work and I haven’t landed anything substantial yet. I spend most of my time at home, alone, because sometimes daylight feels unbearable. Every day I worry about losing my home (even though my best friend has generously and kindly offered hers as a temporary salve), and I live on a clock. I have literally enough money to last me until April 1, and then I default on all my debt and lose my apartment, and this reality is one I deal with daily. It’s one I deal with when I go on job interviews and present my best self. When I text friends, who are so amazing and beautiful and kind and they tell me they feel helpless about my situation and ask what they can do and I tell them, in response, you’re doing it. Keep sending me those cat pictures because sometimes it’s nice to take a break from all this sadness. I ask about their day because I care and because it’s a needed and desired distraction. My best friend calls me on her drive home from work and asks me how I’m doing, really doing, and I tell her, and then I ask about her kids, her brother who just got married, and I cry a little when I tell her that I remember when he was a sixteen-year-old kid drinking beers with us when my best friend and I were freshmen in college.
We’re old, we joke constantly–but the joke is not out of regret, it comes from a place of comfort for having endured what we have. Our years.
I spend most of my days oscillating between two faces–the presentable, together one, and the one behind who lives in abject terror. Patiently I wait for the next project or job offer so I can pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with my doctor because I want to get better. I want to get back to this place. I want to stop thinking and start doing.
Why is that in a maelstrom of kindness we fall prey to that one cruel remark? How is it that we’re so easily wounded by an off-hand comment or swipe? A stranger writes and tells me not to talk about anything that’s happened to me this year because future employers will consider me “unstable”. I don’t know how to respond so I don’t. I spent the better part of my life behind a mask, suffocating from it, and if someone can’t respect a person trying to get through a tough time, that someone is human, this is probably not a person with whom I want to work. Friends with whom I thought I was close maintain a safe distance, and part of me wonders if they think this is what I want, perhaps they’re trying to be respectful, but then I think of my other friends who text, Facetime, and come by my home and drag me to the beach and pay for my lunch or donuts because I can’t really eat out anymore. These friends don’t act like a therapist and I don’t expect them to. Sometimes I just want a donut or a cat photo or a friend like my dear Amber who will Facetime me and ask me, no, really, how the fuck are you? And she’ll sit there and listen while I talk about really uncomfortable things and Amber does exactly what I need a friend to do–listen without making me feel ashamed for not snapping out of my sadness.
There are people who don’t like me, who are reveling in the fact that I’m having the worst year of my life, and while I’d like to say that this doesn’t bother me I’d be lying. Because we innately want to be liked by everyone even if this isn’t a reality. I think about a few random comments and I think about others–strangers and friends and casual acquaintances who cloak me with their compassion and kindness, and both disparate experiences made me realize the weight we place on what we hear and experience in the world. I can’t change who I am or what I’ve done, only the way I come to and manage my experiences, moving forward. What’s important for me right now is to surround myself with people who care and give me honest feedback when I need and deserve it simply because they want me to get better, do better, feel better. What matters right now is that I do whatever I can to get better. That I keep moving forward. That I sit in my sadness when I need to and lean on others when the sadness becomes entirely too palpable to bear.
I don’t know how often I will come back to this space, honestly. I don’t have recipes to share and I’m reading books at a slower pace, and I’m not entirely too comfortable documenting, in detail, my journey back because there’s much to be said for doing a lot of work offline. However, I’m really fucking tired of feeling ashamed for going through tragedy, of feeling depressed. I’m tired of managing everyone’s discomfort, their uncomfortable silence and unsolicited feedback. Friends put in the work. If I’m putting in the work to get better and be better, put in the work of learning how to deal with someone going through a tenuous time. Practice empathy and compassion. Don’t laugh when someone falls down because it’s gossip, because it’s what you’ve been conditioned to do. It’s easy to be an asshole. It’s hard to be patient and kind.
You’re either on or off my bus.
On an unrelated note, I’m proud to share a new short story published in QuarterlyWest.
Posted on January 1, 2016
I have a friend coming over for brunch today and I’m pulling out all the stops: homemade blueberry waffles topped with fresh compote, maple bacon, fruit salad and brewed coffee. It’s been a while since I’ve had someone over–possibly because my home is my refuge, and I couldn’t imagine anyone in it because I viewed the slightest intrusion as a pillage on my sanctuary. Although I’ve been in California only a brief time (five months), it feels like home because it’s not yet blemished by all the history. Even though I moved apartments in the Brooklyn brownstone I once lived, I felt haunted by Sophie’s passing (among other things), and I could feel the weight of having grown up in Brooklyn and seeing it changed. And while the city has been remodeled to the point where it’s barely recognizable, I still have the memory of it. I still remember being a teenager, riding the subway, my feet on the seats.
In Los Angeles, there are no subways, and the streets are clean and expansive. People drive and I walk, and sometimes I’ll walk the eight miles from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica simply to feel space.
Last week, WordPress emailed my end-of-year report, which is kind of like an annual report for your blog, and I normally try not to look at these things, to concern myself with the business of numbers because numbers have a way of doing things to you, altering what and how your create. And it’s no surprise that this space had demonstrably more traffic when I was happy, and people seemed to fall out of the frame when I got sad. And then this put me to thinking about social media and how it can be brutally suffocating with everyone demanding that you be positive, happy and in a constant state of growth and repair. People want to read about your dark times only in the past tense, only when you’ve made it out to the other side and you are gleaming and dressing your wounds. There is so much talk, so much desire for that which is real and authentic, yet we see time and time again how people are rewarded for their artful representation of a coveted life. People want their darkness in manageable doses (that one book everyone reads/movie everyone sees) because possibly they have so much (or little) going on in their lives that they don’t want the burden of someone else’s grief. Rather, they reach out to light so religiously they don’t realize when they’ve been burned and blinded by it.
When I was a teenager, I kept losing PTA-sponsored writing contests because people always died in my stories. Parents can’t reward something that disturbing, a teacher once confided to me. Later, when I was at Columbia, a teacher asked me in my first year why people in my stories died and I was confused and said because that’s what happens. My father once told me that I hold on to darkness too hard. In response, I said no, it was more like I didn’t like letting it go. There’s a difference, even though at the time I didn’t know what that difference was.
I’m going to ignore what’s popular and inherently desired because I think that our work allows us to weed out that which does not serve us. I’m in this kind of purgatory where I’m not as low as I was a few months ago, but I’m not out of the woods yet and I feel this tension between the need to get better and the ache of giving up. Being in Los Angeles has given me so many things already–a new book, space, and the want of rebuilding a tribe when the old one didn’t serve me well. It’s hard, really fucking hard, to see the constant stream of posts that speak to how everyone’s life is so! fucking! awesome! when my life is anything but, but their life isn’t my life and there’s no joy in comparing myself to others and what they chose to edit and project out into the world, so all I can do is keep attempting, keep doing, keep working, and keep being my most honest self–even if it’s not as attractive as the world would want it to be.
I woke this morning and thought: well, at least it’s no longer 2015.
Posted on October 19, 2015
In the 90s, I was obsessed with Gregg Araki’s teen apocalypse trilogy. Back then there was no internet or reality television shows, and the biggest scandal was Brenda Walsh having to deal with a teenage pregnancy on national television. This was an age where teens were fresh-faced, feckless, and optimistic. But here was Araki and his dark ingénue, Rose McGowan, ushering out a bleak reality that made Bret Easton Ellis’ nihilistic vision of California downright precious. In Araki’s eyes, the world was falling to its knees and the goth in me was having all of it.
Fast forward nearly twenty years and I happened upon his atmospheric and magical, White Bird in a Blizzard, adapted from Laura Kasischke’s novel. Araki treads familiar ground–familial discord, sexual awakening and internal disquiet–but his work is quiet and all the rage simmers just below the surface. It’s sort of the difference between witnessing an outright war versus the one that plays out inside of us every day. I loved the movie so much that I ordered all of Laura Kasischke’s books, and I promise you that she does not disappoint.
Writers are always looking for others who share their strange view of the world. Most of us make sense of the world by writing about it. Writing, for us, is discovery, meditation and mystery, and we’re content to spend our lives playing detective and surgeon–all in an effort to ferret out life’s meaning. When I was small I would purchase maps and I started to write stories about the places I’d never been. Back then I’d never traveled beyond the gilded cage that was New York, and I imagined landscapes that I’d found in books, people who revealed themselves to me. The maps were initially about places and how I’d imagine them to be because I was a child who was often alone, lonely. But then the maps morphed into something different, they became a journey. Would it be possible from me to travel from A (alcoholic) to B (recovering), and how long would that trip take? What would I need to pack? Who would I meet along the week? And soon the maps became something that was interior.
Writers are always looking for beacons to shine light in the dark. I’ve private relationships with the writers whom I admire, living and dead, and I honestly fear meeting them because I don’t want the person who created the work to somehow cloud my relationship to their work. My affection is private, sacrosanct–this is mostly why I don’t attend many readings but I will purchase books and shout about them from the rafters.
Laura Kasischke is one of those lights, and I consumed Mind of Winter in one sitting. Her work is incredibly quiet, wholly terrifying, and her meditations on mother/daughter relationships mirror themes to which I find myself constantly revisiting. The novel spans fifteen years, but much like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Cunningham’s The Hours, we observe the life of a woman, Holly, over the course of a single day, Christmas, as she prepares a feast. She wakes with the fear that something has followed them from Siberia–the place where she and her husband adopted their daughter thirteen years ago. Holly is a woman who can no longer write but wants to. Holly is a woman who comes from a lineage of women who are genetically disposed to an incurable cancer. Holly is a woman who is unusually fixated on her beautiful daughter, whose skin is so fair it’s nearly blue. We follow them over the course of a day that has everyone stranded by a blizzard, and as mother and daughter are trapped in a house, we begin to see Holly unravel.
I’ve been long fascinated by the line between the supernatural and one’s altered psychological state, and how confinement only serves to augment or amplify the tension skirting just beneath the surface. That, under the right circumstances, we can all go a little mad sometimes. I’ve been reading Daniel Olsen’s fascinating and microscopic examination of The Shining (Kubrick’s film adaption). A definitive tome filled with cast and crew interviews and fastidious research, the book makes Room 237 look like a compilation of crackpots who see Jesus in microwaved pot pies.
I fucking hated that poor excuse for a documentary. The only thing that prevented me from walking out of The Anjelika was the fact that I’d spent $ for this movie and I was seeing this shitshow through. Call me when the shuttle lands.
But I digress. Kubrick was notoriously known for deliberately excising parts of his script that would’ve given enormous clarity to his pictures (2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining are prime examples), and he often asked larger questions about the relationship between society and social structures and the recesses of one’s mind and personhood. People often wonder, was Jack Torrence crazy before he camped out at The Overlook, or did the shining bring out a side of him, which he fought so desperately to control. White-knuckle sobriety, teaching.
We all like to think we’re good, honest people, but what if? Do circumstance and society and history shine a light on who we are at the core. In On Kindness, Freud posits that we are kind to others out of selfishness rather than true altruism. Our kindness is a means of satisfying our desire to not deal with discomfort. In short, we are kind because we don’t want to deal with unkindness. While I’m not certain I agree with an argument so binary, I think people aren’t completely aware of certain aspects of their character until they’re placed in extreme or distant circumstances. We all have varying faces we present to the world, and my writing seeks to unpack that multiplicity. Recently, I came upon this excellent piece on authenticity, and it challenged a lot of what I’d previously believed about online perception vs. reality. And, ultimately, checked me on my perceptions of what should be considered authentic and my own bias. Deb Schulz writes:
But the real problem with valorizing authenticity is that, in the absence of actual information about the person in question, the perception of who they are is filled in by societal norms and biases. We see this is the gendered nature of authenticity described above—men are automatically more authentic than women…The failure mode is not just that we perceive a disconnect between the public persona and the individual; it’s that our perception of who they are is wrong. And it’s easy to see why this would disproportionately affect groups (women, visible minorities, LGBTQ people) that are less well-represented in the media, because our mental models of them are far more likely to be shaped by stereotypes than for cis straight white men.
A few weeks ago I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. Jason knew me as a heavy drinker, a woman who published a literary journal and cruised the book party circuit (I’m wincing as I type this), but time has passed and we spent a couple of hours together talking about our new lives here. Who we were, what we used to value, and who we are now. I visited his office and after I told him that when I’m blocked I often read poetry or children’s stories for two reasons: 1. economy of language 2. story pacing. I find both the hardest kinds of books to write because you have to sustain interest while being downright surgical with the words you use. Jason shared with me this wonderful book, which I’ve purchased and have read daily since it arrived. Buy this book, even if you don’t have children, because it’ll make you see all the small things in the world you’re missing but need to pay attention to. This book challenges what we think we know, see and believe, and I got excited because I’d never read anything this sophisticated as a child. The book reminded me of one of the first scenes in The Shining when Jack is lying in bed and Wendy comes in with breakfast. We think we’re seeing a wife bring her husband breakfast, but really we’re encountering an inverted Jack, a man observed through a looking glass. All is not what it seems.
I’ve also been reading a lot of traditional genre fiction lately, and I’m floored by how other writers are so deft at story pacing. Ever since I arrived in California, I feel open, awake. I used to want to write the BIG BOOKS, tell the BIG STORIES, but what’s a big book anyway when our perception of size and worth is wholly subjective and often biased. What I’ve been ignoring is this specter, this voice inviting me to merge forms and create something new and different. I’ve come to the reality that I really love writing dark, introspective, strange stories. Stories that are the equivalent of Kill List, a film that refuses to turn the camera away from scenes which would normally be cut from all other films. You see everything because this is what is.
I want you uncomfortable.
Last week I wrote the strangest story and I want to keep writing them, and keep reading beacons who shine lights along my yellow brick road.