Posted on April 14, 2016
This week I was reminded of a woman, a close friend, who broke my heart.
Ten years ago, I worked in book publishing and I met a woman who was, up until then, the smartest person I’d ever met. To this day, much of how I think and work is a result of our friendship. I worked hard because I thought I was never as smart or as capable as she was, and it was only until a few years ago she told me she’d felt the same about me, which, frankly, was astonishing. Professionally, she was always this bright light that shone perhaps too brightly and I felt as if I was forever regulated to the role of her shadow. She’s probably one of the most achieved and brilliant brand marketers I’ve ever met, and we spent 2013 giving each other the equivalent of an MBA (she already has one, but whatever). This friend taught me everything I know about brand marketing and I taught her everything about digital. I shadowed her on a brand project and the reason I’m able to now build brands from the ground up was because of her and that year we spent working closely together.
We even talked about forming a partnership because together there wasn’t nothing we couldn’t do. I loved her, I really did. Even if she didn’t know it, even if I didn’t always show it. She was the friend who picked me off up from the couch when Sophie died and drove me, hung over, thick in relapse, to Bark where I found Felix. A mother of two with a c-suite job she drove me around all day while I spoke in non-sequiturs and told her that I view love and loss as two sides of the same coin.
She was the friend who told me that my friendship with S was unhealthy; she worried about the codependency nature of our friendship. My friend was rational, pragmatic, and we never fought because when either of us had an issue with the other, we talked it out, calmly.
This person was also one of my closest friends, and when I told her I was moving to Los Angeles, she stopped speaking to me. I was devastated. I called her, wrote her–nothing. Never would I have expected this to happen, and when I told people who knew her about what had happened, they were incredulous. They said, [INSERT NAME]? That’s not like her. And I’d nod, tearfully, feeling bitterness and hurt creep into my voice when I talked about the irony of when [INSERT NAME] said S was a coward for not giving me the dignity of a proper friend breakup. Friends shared their opinions on why she did it, none of which I won’t say here because I’ve no right to share the intimate details of her life.
It’s a funny thing, though, I remember she said once: I would never do what S did to anyone. Until she did.
It’s been a year since she excised me from her life after ten years of close friendship and symbiotic mentorship, and the hurt still feels new and raw. I’ve come to realize that this loss was far more painful that the others because I didn’t expect it. Because this friend was one of the few people with whom I could truly let down my guard.
I was reminded of her this week when I met a founder of a well-funded start-up. The product is extraordinary, and the whole time I was brainstorming with the founder and the woman who introduced us, I was thinking, this is an [INSERT NAME] kind of project. This is the sort of thing my friend would have knocked out of the park–the very thing she taught me how to do. For a moment I felt curtained, I felt her presence like a specter at that breakfast. This is the kind of project where I would’ve called her, shared my proposed approach, and asked, what do you think, muffin? And I would’ve considered her voice as a blanket, her agreement a validation of my intelligence and competency. I know all of these things aren’t healthy or right, but I feel them anyway.
I think about this friend often, and I’m still not over the hurt, but I guess I’m grateful for the time I did have with her and the fact that I’m able to build brands as a result of that friendship.
So here I am, with a tiny space in the day to think and cook. I made myself a quick lunch from Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook. I’m not a fan of the actress or her energy, but I do admire her cookbooks, even if this one doesn’t feel like it’s right for the busy mom–maybe the busy affluent mom? Anyway, the book is filled with what appears to be quick and tasty meals, and if the recipes are as tasty as this salad (which is shown as a wrap in the book), I’m going to ignore the obvious slight blanket of pretension.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Easy
2 cups shredded cooked chicken (about 1 1/2 chicken breasts)
1 celery stalk, finely diced
2 scallions, chopped
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground coriander
6 tbsp Vegenaise, or more to taste (more seems like a crazy idea, to be honest)
1 tbsp of freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1/2 a lemon)
1 tsp agave nectar or honey
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and stir wall. Season with salt and pepper to taste. I like this a bit cold so I put this in the fridge for a half and hour before chowing down.
Posted on February 29, 2016
Hedge Fund (n): a limited partnership of investors that uses high-risk methods, such as investing with borrowed money, in hopes of realizing large capital gains.
How much risk are you willing to bear? Are you able to lay your hand on the table fully aware of the gamble you’re taking, cognizant of the fact that it is possible to leave with less than with what you started? Are you willing to engage in arbitrage — exploit your opponents when they’re at their weakest? Will your investors provide shelter through the most ferocious of storms, or will they find safe harbor, taking comfort in their abandonment while bearing witness to your public ruin? Are you comfortable in identifying that which is worthless and using that “junk” to yield financial gain? Can you build a life trading security? Can you weather what the market will bear? Are you comfortable calculating your worth based on what you’ve acquired and own? Will your partners stand beside you until the inevitable end?
When I was in college I became enamored with finance and its gameplay. The idea that a whole industry was devoted to partnership and risk appealed to me because the fundamental elements of finance reflected innate behaviors in human nature. We “short” friendships; we invest in that which is profitable and we fervently need to believe that we will come up solvent and prosperous in the end. We tether ourselves to the notion that if we make sound investments and take calculated risks, we’ll enjoy the inevitable returns. However, what happens when the market takes a fall that you hadn’t expected? What happens when your partner doesn’t hold up their end of the deal (think pyramid schemes, sociopathic traders and hedge fund charlatans), and you’re left in shambles, forced out of retirement or struggling to make ends meet? What happens when you play your boldest hand to then lose everything?
What happens when you arrive in the middle of your life with so much less than what you started with?
Lately, I find myself drawing correlations between playing the market and the ways in which we cleave to, and disconnect from, people. I find myself frustrated in friendship investments that consistently yield disappointing returns, friends who haven’t performed, risks that don’t fall in my favor.When it comes to relationships, I’ve placed equal, if not more, weight on my female friendships, echoing Rebecca Traister’s sentiment:
For many women, friends are our primary partners through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses. Even for women who do marry, this is true at the beginning of our adult lives, and at the end — after divorce or the death of a spouse. — “What Women Find in Friends They May Not Get From Love”
In my twenties, I was thick in the business of accumulation — I wanted to know all of the people, all of the time. I had no strategy; I just wanted the masses. Most of my college friends left New York so I found myself cozying up to coworkers, neighbors, and fellow graduate students. I operated a high-volume business, ushering in a revolving door of female friends and acquaintances while trying to figure out my identity as an independent adult woman. I figured that I’d winnow down over time; I thought I would slowly build my tribe. I didn’t count on feeling depleted and stretched too thin as a result of investing in too many people instead of creating a thoughtful portfolio. I ended up with a phonebook filled with people who were willing to uncork the champagne when times were flush but couldn’t be counted on during the moments when I wallowed my way down a bottle of red wine. I woke at 30 feeling as if I knew a lot of people but didn’t really know anyone.
At the same time, something else shifted — we grew up. Everyone was getting married and busied themselves in the business of procreation. Suddenly, we couldn’t roll into work hungover because we couldn’t hide in our cubicles. We had accountability and responsibility. Our devices multiplied while our attention dwindled. We were everywhere but not present. Friend dates turned into CIA logistical operations with multiple calendars being juggled and people prioritized. No longer was I a player in the open market — I had to go private. I was forced to be surgical and strategic in focusing on the quality of my friendships and how/to whom I would allocate my time, which seemed to be dwindling with the passing of each day.
There is no time, became everyone’s anthem, always.
In my 30s, I was myopic when it came to female friendships. I devoted myself wholly to a small group of women who were brilliant, funny, ambitious, and kind. Most were married, few were single, and I tacitly accepted the fact that casual connections gave way to scheduled friend time.People became comfortable announcing that they could see me because their significant other had other plans for the evening, i.e. you’re my backup plan since my husband isn’t available. I accepted that the word “I” would be replaced with the word “we”, and that affinities, hobbies, and passions became a collective, coupled sport. I accepted that the only people with whom I could talk about being single were other single friends because most of my married friends had developed amnesia about what it was like to be uncoupled. I accepted, with chagrin, the emergence of the “single girl dinner” as a cute trope when it’s my everyday reality. I accepted that I’d been deprioritized — that I was the hobby, “fun-time” for my coupled friends. Briallen Hopper eloquently writes:
“Because single women often put friendship at the center of our lives, it can be hard for us to be friends with people who see friendship as peripheral, as many partnered people do. A close friend once told me that her priorities were her kid, her partner, her work, her friends, in that order, like suits in a deck of cards. In her life, a kid thing would always trump a partner thing; a work thing would always trump a friend thing. This was the best way she knew of trying to impose some order on life’s complexity, but to me it seemed like a terribly reductive way to think about human relationships — plus, it was no fun to know that I would always be the lowest priority in her life. Our friendship didn’t last.” — “Relying on a Friendship in World Made for Couples”
I accepted that I’d see some of my close friends less and less because they opted to befriend other mothers — complements to the lives and the struggles they endured, others who “understood” where they were at a specific time in their lives. Still, I invested heavily. I nurtured a married friend through her bought with depression and her desire to divorce the man she’d just married. I took the late-night calls and the last-minute lunches from friends who needed me. I was the wall that would never crumble; I was the friend everyone could count on.
Until I could count on no one. This became the moment when it registered that my decade-long fund — replete with the strategy and risks I was willing to bear — was underperforming.
This year is the worst I’ve ever known. I’m enduring immeasurable loss and intense sadness. My financial security remains uncertain, at best. And the people I believed I could count on became demonstrably silent. They were “busy”. They didn’t know “how to handle it”. They swooped in for a series of caring texts to then disappear for months at a time. Even when I made it clear that I didn’t need a therapist, that my expectations were minimal, the years I spent being patient and devoted haven’t been reciprocated. Everyone is quick to “like” my minor triumphs and “heart” my Instagram photos — passive interaction has become the default setting, the status quo. When I announced to one of my closest friends I was moving to Los Angeles, she ceased all communication. We’d been friends for nearly a decade and suddenly I was speaking to a ghost. I sent pleas via email, text and post and silence. When I sent an email to another close friend pleading for work because I was frightened of losing my apartment and defaulting on my loans, two weeks later I received the equivalent of a form letter response. I never expected to be saved or delivered a kingdom. I never anticipated that my friends would swoop in and solve my life because I’m an adult and that responsibility rests solely on my shoulders, but it would’ve been nice to have my friends shoulder me through the dark places I once carried them through. It would’ve been comforting to feel that the risks I so assiduously born would have been shared by others — even for a little while. It would have been wonderful to feel less alone.
Here I was, spending a decade avoiding risk, leveraging my heart in my portfolio, and laying all of my cards on the table only to come out empty. Only to feel that my years of investing wasn’t worth it at all. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those years spent being a good friend without expecting anything in return to find I never received anything in return was a hand folded, a return I should’ve accepted. Maybe laying my heart on the table wasn’t the wisest hand I could’ve played, but I can’t help but think that I spent my adult life constructing the safest portfolio to discover that not everyone lingers for the long game, that as you grow older your world becomes too small for anyone to fit. And who expected this when you believed that friendship was the one partnership that didn’t need regulating? That those moments spent in the dark with the friends you loved would be forgotten, discarded, left for a savored, sweet memory? I spent years studying derivatives, all of the ways in which one could mitigate risk, and here I was, at 40, and completely alone. Bankrupt. A slew of bad investments lay before me.
When does it happen? How does one regard the love between two friends as a garment worth shedding? How do you tell someone that you love them but that love has been deprioritized? How do you handle learning that you’re a junk bond? A short-term investment folded for the long family game? How do you gracefully accept that no one will follow you gallantly into the dark when you were happy to serve as everyone’s usher?
I thought I was wise. I spent a decade building a tribe to find that tribe never existed. What happens then? What happens when you’re 40 and alone and all of your friends are toasting their own lives, shouldering their own sorrows? What becomes of you then? How do you move on?
What happens when you wake one morning and find the market shifting below your feet? How do you rebuild after the market you spent your life investing in collapses?
Photo Credit: Helen Sotiriadis
Posted on February 24, 2016
Photo Credit: Jovana Rikalo
First, there was Paula in second grade, picture books and games of hide and seek. Then came Cindy, who waged a constant, violent war with her mother for leaving her father; Jennifer, the most popular girl in grade school, who would end up in five years time stalking Madonna in front of her apartment in Manhattan, addicted to crack cocaine; Judy, who cut class, danced to Taylor Dane, smoked loosies, and once choked herself until she passed out. There was Sarah, who was twelve but could pass for sixteen, bumping “The Low End Theory” on a subway platform in Queens. We were two girls desperate for fiction; we dreamed of having a different family, so eager we were to annihilate our past riddled with bounced checks, dead mice in closets, and dollar-store sweaters. Sarah and I left the ramshackle homes in which we lived, our masks firmly affixed on our faces. There was Z, my freshman year partner in crime, who took me to a bar in Manhattan—a single, cramped room fashioned after a zoo. Once, I remember walking into her room as she compulsively brushed her hair, nude, and I turned away, embarrassed by her body, the shape of it, how she was blithely unaware of the fact that her shades weren’t drawn, her door wasn’t closed and the danger that occupied the spaces in between the two. Then there was Elizabeth Katherine and Katherine Elizabeth—two beautiful, affluent blonds with whom I shared a familial intimacy, and someone joked: Are you starting a doll collection?
That comment hurt me then for reasons that are different now. I went from a quiet, soft-spoken child who clung to another chosen girl like a blanket whose pattern would rub off all too quickly from the intensity of my possessiveness to wanting multitudes.
A teacher pulled me aside once and said, it’s not healthy to have just one friend. In response I thought, who cares about health when there was the promise of love and consistent companionship? I didn’t realize then that I used the words “best” and “only” interchangeably. I wasn’t able to disentangle my obsession with these singular friends from my tragic awareness that I will always pursue someone’s affection, always be on the precipice of loss. This is perhaps why I safeguarded them and the fiction I was intent on living so obsessively because I knew, invariably, the friendships would come to their crashing conclusion. I think of Judy and her sitting on the carpeted steps of her duplex apartment, pressing her hands against her throat and my urgent desire to flee, to run. When you hold onto something so tightly, it always escapes but never quite resumes its former shape.
Then there was S, and soon after the realization that it was unhealthy to excise parts of myself, hoping that the graft of affection would take.
I met S in a writing program in Russia. She wore strappy sandals that scraped along the sidewalk as she walked, the buckles had come undone, and the way she chewed gum unnerved me. I remember her being volcanic; she moved swiftly from one train of thought to another, speaking in Tourettic spurts about nerve endings, poetry, white nights, and neurology. Her voice made me think of jazz with all the disjointed rhythms and erupting syncopations, and in the brief walk from our class to our dorm, she exhausted me. I remember sitting in my room, in silence, thinking, what just happened?
For the rest of our time in Russia, I’d hear stories about the strange girl who lived in an apartment off-campus. The girl who got arrested in The Summer Gardens for scaling the gates after hours and being invited out for vodka after she and her friends bribed the officers with 300 rubles. I saw her at parties and we exchanged pleasantries, but mostly I watched her weave in and out of rooms; she was in a constant state of unraveling and I was in awe of her. Compared to my shackled life, she seemed free. This was at a time when I thought I had a great love, and before I left for Russia he had convinced me to try to stop drinking. It would be my first of many failed attempts, but I wanted him and the promise of a life he offered. While I roamed the Nevsky Prospekt in a virtual straightjacket, S was ready for flight.
When we came home, S and I casually met up over drinks with the other New Yorkers who were in the program. We exchanged stories about our teachers, our work, and memories of the Museum of Oddities–an experience that elicited a collective shudder. S and I coupled off, and we spoke about our history of broken people and our mutual drug addictions. We talked a lot about our parents (she wrestled with a cruel father and I a sociopathic, narcissistic mother). How do I explain now that we were strong, educated, outspoken women, yet we were frightened, fragile, undone? Looking back at our friendship, it occurs to me that we desperately clung to each other to make ourselves whole, and it’s only after our fissure that I suspect we both realized the unhealthy nature of our mutually agreed-upon attachment.
For years, the world was reduced to us. We spent every day together, dissected the food we ate and books we read. The men in our lives were periphery, because who could understand Felicia and S other than Felicia and S? I remember a mutual friend approaching me with trepidation. She wondered aloud if perhaps S and I were too close because it was possible to be close to the point of suffocation, where one suffers at the expense of another. I shook my head, impossible, and my friend receded, folded into quiet.
Over seven years, we endured love, breakups, trips to Los Angeles and Taiwan. I finally got sober and stayed sober. I never had a sister, and we loved as viciously as we fought. Our rows were violent storms that resembled undertow. Screaming matches in the street followed by long periods of uncomfortable silence. Maybe she was the first to notice cracks in the fault? Because when I took a new job at a then-cool agency, our friendship became two wires detangling. I became consumed with work, and she with a new boyfriend, who would eventually become her husband. Our once excited conversations became a string of rehashed memories of the friendship we used to have. We had very little in common except for our history and I think we both knew it but didn’t dare say it out loud.
It’s easy to end a friendship over an action or a series of betrayals, but it’s heartbreaking to end because of a drift, of a friendship that ran its course. How, and to what standard, do you measure a friendship that once throbbed yet now slumbers, becomes a house where all the lights flicker and inevitably burn out? One day I was supposed to be S’s maid of honor in her wedding and the next she stopped returning my calls. It was as if we never existed, and I was devastated that she excised me so neatly and completely. I saw photographs of her nuptials on Facebook and I wept for days. I unfriended her—seven years ended with a click of a mouse. Our history wiped clean.
I spent the next decade avoiding my habit of putting a single person on the top shelf. It’s taken me that long to open the door and let everyone else in, and more importantly, to make myself whole instead of being a barnacle–cleaving life and energy away from others. But in that time, I noticed a gradual shift in how we form bonds with others and maintain them. I grew up before the Internet, before a time when people broke plans or evaded tough talks through text. A time when you had to physically show up in your friendships and do the work. With the advent of technology, many relationships have devolved into a scrolling, passive affair where people don’t need to call or write because they’ve been keeping up with you via social media.
Most of my friends are married, have children, or have moved across the globe. Where we once had days to laze, we now spend time organizing and obsessing over time–to whom we allocate it, how to maximize it, where to spend it.I’m at the age when coordinating a lunch is the equivalent of a CIA operative. There are multiple texts, chats, calendar consultations because now we have to consider children, work, AA meetings, therapy, after-work engagements, and all the other weight we carry as the years advance. We architect connections based on the lives we have now and self-segregate accordingly. A few friends, new mothers, tell me they now spend their time with other mothers because of a real bond, a new sense of understanding they now share, and how could I fault them this, a Darwinian need to surround themselves with people who will ensure their survival. And we’re all getting older–our world no longer feels infinite, scattered. Now it’s purposeful and focused, and I’m starting to think of growing older as achieving a certain kind of quiet. We once measured our worth in direct correlation to our personal velocity, of how fast and far we managed to hurtle ourselves to as many shores as we could navigate. We achieved all that our parents had designed for us, we made all the friends and lost them and gathered new ones along the way, and then what? What then?
Growing up involves opening outward. We search out new experiences, wider social connections, and ways of putting our stamp on the world. When people reach the latter half of adult hood, however, their priorities change markedly. Most reduce the amount of time and effort they spend pursuing achievement and social networks…They focus on being rather than doing and on the present more than the future…If we shift as we age toward appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than toward achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we’re old? The common viw was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time.— From Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal
We scroll through Facebook photo albums, filtered Instagram images and blog posts comforted by the fact that this passive consumption is an adequate and worthy substitute for dinners when our phones are safely out of reach. Studies tell us that we discard people as easily as objects. I’ve endured one of the worst years I’ve known and people with whom I thought were close think it’s sufficient that they know of my representation of sadness as opposed to witnessing it first-hand. People accept that they have the whole story of someone’s life because they read a tweet or status update. While social media has been invaluable in the way that it allows you to connect with people, true friendships require one to still physically show up. Technology isn’t a replacement for a meaningful connection it should be a vehicle to further it. It used to be that if you wanted to contact someone, you had to phone them, write them or show up at the doorstep. Technology should create more doors, not replace existing ones. Friends who show up Facetime, text, Skype, message, visit, phone, write–they’re not satisfied with the Cliff Note’s version of your life.
True friends remain long after last call, when the lights have gone out and you’re forced to stumble home. They toast your success and walk alongside you in that dark, and they call, text, or message the next day and ask, are you okay?
Over the past year, I’ve made some very clear and definitive choices about my life and the friends who inhabit it. I will only surround myself with people who challenge and comfort me. Our relationships are symbiotic, reciprocal, and I never leave a dinner drained–I’m always invigorated. I always want to create, build, be. I will only take on projects with people whom I respect, people who have integrity and challenge me. I don’t create “content”, I tell stories, and I’ll never write simply for the sake of churning out something that “bolsters my brand”. I will only cleave to that which nurtures me. I used to love the words “best friend”, now I’ve stripped those words of their power, given them less weight, and in that way, my friendships no longer have unhealthy expectations. I consider Elizabeth Katherine one of my best friends possibly because she’s put up with my nonsense the longest with a kindness and compassion that borders on saintly. I consider Amber one of my best friends because, during one of the worst years of my life, she’s been a constant. She’s been one of the few people who doesn’t make me feel ashamed that I haven’t snapped out of my sadness.
Frankly, I don’t want piles of new friends nor do I want singular, suffocating ones–I’ve lived in the extremes and now I’m edging toward a healthy middle. I’m not at the place in my life where I need to hoard and accumulate rather it’s about a winnowing down. I want to spend my time nurturing existing relationships, rekindling old ones, and adding a few new faces to the mix. I want to focus on mentoring the extraordinary women who used to work for me. Now, I only seek to cultivate friendships with people where we both walk away inspired and excited. No longer do I expect a single person to complete me or fill a void.
I guess this is what happens when you grow older, perhaps Atul Gawande is right. Because all I want is to focus on what’s in my life, right now, and the circle of people who inhabit my strange world and make it brighter even on my darkest days. I no longer believe that one person can be my sun.
Posted on July 5, 2015
Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving. There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see. ― James Salter, Light Years
There’s a woman I recognize in Chinatown. She’s seated a few tables in front of me on the thoroughfare of Smith Street and I wonder if the day has gotten the better of me, if the heat has ushered in a mirage of a face from my past–a face at first slightly familiar (it’s been a while), and then it reveals itself in degrees. Then the full of her, our history coming into focus. She fills the frame and I lift my camera and pause; I want to take her picture. We look at each other and look away, doing that thing we’ve all instinctively learned to do–we pretend we don’t exist, that the moment of awkward familiarity rewound and erased itself, and I’m left facing her, refusing to move because this is the only place in the restaurant in which I’m seated where I can get good light.
I know you. We were friends for years until someone I loved excised me from her life and you followed suit. My calls were unreturned, emails unanswered. It was as if you’d vanished although I’d see photographs in you in Sunset Park. You in Berlin. A woman cloaked in shadow followed by a poem from an obscure Chinese poet–I remember you liked your photographs marred, imperfect and your verse vague and neat.
I know you.
Part of me now wishes I would’ve done what I wanted to do: get up from my table and walk over to yours and say hello. It would’ve been a polite hello, a salutation that would’ve been mature, although for a moment I imagine tensions would reverberate. I didn’t want to be that woman who stared at you in the middle of Chinatown, in the middle of Singapore (what are the odds, really?!?!) and pretend I didn’t know you. But that’s exactly what I did, what we did, and I remember asking for my dumplings to go because inhabiting this shared space was unbearable.
The exertions have taken their toll. We feel the surface trembling. Or are we underwater, knocking at the waves overhead, asking for trespass to breathe?
It’s dawn now and I feel the burn in the mouth from my impatience, for feasting on xiao long bao, soup dumplings with a lightly flavored pork broth, from Jing Hua Xiao Chi and pan-fried potstickers at Lan Zhou La Mian. But at the same time I feel the coldness of you. How you glanced at me while talking to your friends who seemed oblivious to our transaction. And I think: this is who you are? Still?
It’s strange to see a place before it unfurls and then be in the middle of its frenzy. I’ve been waking early (if the jetlag won’t be the end of me, these mosquito bites surely will be), and I spent the better part of yesterday morning exploring Singapore by foot. I made my way to Chinatown, which is a direct, 30 minute walk from my hotel, to see tarp-covered stalls, plates piled high and tourists assembling for bad coffee. I took a second breakfast at Tak Po HK, ordering scores of tiny plates ranging in price from $1-$4, and inadvertantly ingesting seafood. I loathe seafood nearly as much as The Vile and Wretched Mushroom, however, the char siew pies were flaky and fresh, and the yam tart tender and spicy. Later, I had durian out of plastic bag, and remembered the delicious fruit and its unpalatable stench.
I began my day with a Chinatown markedly different from how I left it come evening. Funny how time sorts things.
In Little India I was transported back to the markets of Delhi and Jaipur and feeling outnumbered. Always wondering: where are the women? Why are the streets crowded with hulking, chain-smoking men? While my camera captured the few women weaving through the food stalls as they bargained for herbs and purchased jasmine wreaths, but the feeling of being surrounded by men was palpable. Men passing a smoke over a meal in the open eating area. Men forming a line for Western Union that snaked around the block. Men sitting on crates in front of the plentiful jewelry shops that lined the streets. Men saying pardon as they bumped into me. Men politely starring. While I’m speaking not in the pejorative, I should say that I felt my gender. I felt very much a woman amongst men.
I remember feeling faint from only having eaten a bag of almonds for lunch because I wanted to prepare myself for the dumpling binge that would ensue. This was an hour before Chinatown, before a saw you, and I wondered how my day would have played out if I spent another night shocked to get a $12 bill for a small bottle of Perrier (are you kidding me?) at my hotel. But in that moment I was exhausted from walking 12 miles in heat that felt in excess of 100 degrees, and all I wanted were the dumplings.
You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl. / —Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
I want to tell you about your face. How hollow it is. How it assumes the shape of laughter but you are neither laughing or a contortionist. You are miming life. I want to tell you about your eyes. How cold they are in this heat–the heat that smokes the insides of rubber bins and cut fish. I want to tell you about the chill I felt when you looked into my eyes, look through them, as if you were desperate to grasp all that lie behind me. In that moment I saw you vacant, a robber-baron (barren) of fertile land.
There was an orchid in The National Orchid Garden that was practically translucent. After photographing it, I had to do a double-take because the flower was luminescent, it glowed cool under the midday sun.
Do you know in Hinduism there are 33 million gods. Straight face. Google it (I did). There is a god for everything, my guide says outside of Thian Hock Keng, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple. It’s strange, you know, being in a kind of Utopia. Over five million people (60% are indigenous) live in a city where there crime scarcely exists (I’ve yet to see a police officer), a place, where, after three years you are guaranteed affordable and princely government housing. Where the wait time in a government hospital is 45 minutes and you are guaranteed healthcare. Where Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and 95 other faiths cohabit peacefully. Where a mosque is constructed every 3K out of respect for Muslims who need to pray five times a day. Where people only need to worry about providing food for their family because shelter is a non-issue. Where a 4% supercedes the American 1% (36 billionaires and 174K millionaires reside in Singapore). Where everyone is kind and hospitable even if navigating the streets resembles a game of Tetris.
It occurs to me that I’m a tourist in a city that is unusually pristine and oddly near-perfect. And this puts me to thinking about faith and the impossibility of perfection (of which I learned acutely in Spain while admiring the imperfect perfection of Muslim architecture). A trembling always exist, even below a seemingly calm and idyllic surface, and if someone would’ve walked by me in that restaurant in Chinatown, they would’ve thought, Now there’s a woman enjoying her dumplings. There’s a woman smiling. There’s a woman photographing her dumplings. There’s a woman about to take a picture. There’s a woman staring (reverberation). There’s a woman in thought. There’s another woman laughing, all tra la la less. There’s the first woman’s face, falling.
The shift might very well be imperceptible to you had you walked by because what it had occurred took place in a span of five or ten minutes. Yet it marred a seemingly perfect day, albeit for a little while. I couldn’t get her, and my inability (or fear) to walk over to her table, out of my mind until this morning when I realized that feeling that discomfort, that ache and pain for someone I once loved, is me breaking in all the right places.
She didn’t break; she was impenetrable. I broke; I was a river.
Women don’t break. Women break.
Posted on June 28, 2015
It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. ―W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
You feel what follows you. Lately I’ve been thinking about an old friend. Let’s call her K. We met at Columbia, at one of those forced gatherings where everyone was fresh-faced and feckless. Where everyone traded stories about their high hours at Bowdoin and Swarthmore, or talked about the new Rick Moody and the old Joan Didion. They were mostly white and hailed from New England or some other tony town they were intent on fleeing. Towns that would forever haunt their fiction, even though they didn’t know it, even though they were equally desperate not to show it. I thought I had this game racked having graduated from Fordham, where affluence was ubiquitous, where my friends rowed crew or played lacrosse. College was the first place I learned that people could summer and winter. But this was a whole other level of wealth–my classmates had the kind of money that afforded them the ease of worrying about how to fill the hours, while I was calculating the time from now until I had to return to work so I could afford all the books and supplies necessary to learn how to write.
I remember sitting on the grass eyeing the exits, wondering if it would be rude to run. What was I doing here–a failed banker turned dot-comer–with my stack of sloppy, overwrought stories about my mother? I’d spent much of life writing my way to her as if she were an undertow from which I wanted escape and absolution. While these strangers had their two-floor homes and childhood rebellions, I had a specter with hair that was a forest I’d spent my childhood wanting to get lost in and the feeling that I would never fit in. These strangers would soon read my stories (and butcher them) and I was frightened of being second rate, of being found out.
I thought again about running. There was still time to withdraw. I could cancel the loans, get back my deposit and go on with my life. I wonder now how my life would have been different if I left. I think about that a lot sometimes, although I try hard not to because there’s no sense in revisiting a past that’s impossible to rewrite.
Then someone suggested an icebreaker: let’s all name our favorite authors. I thought I was well-read until I heard my classmates speak. When it came my turn I talked about Salinger, Cheever and Bret Easton Ellis. I’d read American Psycho in college and I was obsessed with Pat Bateman’s pathology and the nihilism in Ellis’ work. This guy was dark and I was having all of it. And although it was a dark that was foreign to me–wealth, beauty, privilege–Ellis’ rage, anger and rawness was palpable. These were pretty people doing ugly things and not giving a fuck about it, and when I was 24 that was all I wanted to talk about.
Judging from the uncomfortable silence I was the only one in the group who wanted to talk about Bret Eason Ellis. Until K. Until a beautiful blond from California–specifically, Newport Beach–leaned into me and confessed that she loved Bret Easton Ellis. We became fast friends because I suppose we felt like outcasts. She took a workshop with Ben Marcus and everyone skewered her stories set in Los Angeles and Vegas. They judged her striking beauty and her predilection for tight clothes. And I, well, I was strange, insecure.
Back then I was the kind of woman who’d already be drowning before I set foot in the water. You’ll drown before the water lets you in. The trick, what I’d mastered, was how to breathe while treading water.
K had a sister, and their story played out like Less Than Zero. K was the good daughter, although her family thought it silly that she’d fought hard to go graduate school (To write? On the East Coast?) because she’d only come home to marry a real estate developer and bear his children in their McMansion. But they allowed her this diversion, this temporary $100,000 vacation while her sister liked her party favors more than she should.
Looking back, I think K and I became close because we were alone, lonely.
After my first semester I dropped out of the writing program because I too liked my party favors more than I should, while K pressed on, writing her stories. We were friends for the two years she remained in New York, and I remember following her out to Los Angeles for a week-long vacation. It was the second time since I’d been to California (the first was a Greyhound I took to meet a pen pal when I was 17), and I climbed into her SUV at LAX and she laughed at my-all black outfit and told me I had to change. We spent that week drinking in yacht clubs and doing far too many drugs. And for a long time that’s how I regarded Los Angeles–a city where one could so easily drown. A prettified place where one comes undone. I boarded a plane back to New York and I felt strange. I felt a clock ticking, our friendship expiring. It would be another year until she’d tell me that she wanted to go back home, she had to because California was home.
Where does everyone go when they say they have to go?
This would be a year before we sat on the shoreline in a beach in Miami watching the sky paint the waves black. This would be a year before she’d order ceviche and we’d sneak out of our cheap motel with scratchy blankets for dinner at the Delano. This would be a year before she’d tell me that we’d always be friends. This would be two years before I learned that we wouldn’t always be friends.
You feel what follows you.
It’s been over a decade since K and I have spoken. She’s married with a beautiful child, living in a home with a man I never liked. And it occurs to me that this is the coda to the two stories of friends I’ve lost (I’ll meet S a few years later after K), the refrain of look at her get married, look at her have children, look at her go… It occurs to me that S and K are from Los Angeles. We share a broken familial lineage, a history of drugs, and intense loneliness.
It’s only until this week did I take responsibility for two great loves falling out of my life. Granted, they’re not without fault, but while they climbed their way out of the dark I was still content on burrowing my way in. I wore my sorrow proud, and felt defined by my history. For years I hated Los Angeles–I used all the storied stereotypes, talked about how I was team Biggee, went on about how could one live in a city filled with so many cars–because the place of their origin was a reminder of their limits. Maybe there came a point when they decided it wasn’t worth it to follow me into the dark. Perhaps they realized before me that pain wasn’t beautiful, cathartic or romantic–it was just pain and they were tired of feeling it. It would take me years to climb out and I did it mostly alone.
I’m this close to signing the lease on my new home in Los Angeles. Come September I’ll be in a new home, and I’m relieved that I no longer conflate an entire state with my broken friendships.
This weekend I found myself cleaning, sorting, packing, and I came across photographs of me and K from that weekend we took in Miami. I think about her now, I wonder about the terrific stories she wrote that she never published, and I hope she’s happy. I hope they’re both happy.
You feel what follows you.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen, slightly modified.
For the crust
3 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup toasted almonds, divided
1/4 cup gluten-free rolled oats
1/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup gluten-free all-purpose flour
3 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
For the filling
1 pound strawberries, stemmed and cut in half
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp maple syrup, divided
3/4 cup + 1 tbsp apple juice, divided
3/4 tsp powdered gelatin (the original recipe called for agar flakes, but I couldn’t even find these in the specialty store)
1 tsp arrowroot (you can also use cornstarch)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups fresh raspberries
Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Line the bottom of a 9inch springform pan with parchment paper, and lightly oil the sides.
Grind 1/3 cup almonds, oats and salt in a food processor until coarsely ground, about twenty seconds. Transfer to a medium bowl and stir in the flour. Hand chop the remaining 1/3 cup of almonds and add to the mixture. Drizzle in the olive oil, and mix with a fork until all the flour is moistened. Add maple syrup, vanilla, and almond extract. Mix well until evenly incorporated. Wash and dry your hands and then press crust evenly into the prepared pan until you’re a 1/2 inch up on the sides. Prick bottom several times with a fork and bake for 18 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
Raise the oven temperature to 400F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Add strawberries and drizzle with olive oil and 1 tbsp of maple syrup. Toss until coated and roast for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
Combine 3/4 cup apple juice and gelatin in a small heavy-bottomed pot and bring to boil over a high heat. Whisk, cover the coat, bring the temp down to low and allow it to simmer for five minutes. In a small bowl dissolve the arrowroot in 1 tbsp of apple juice and slowly drizzle into the hot gelatin mixture, whisking vigorously. Remove from the heat and whisk in the remaining tablespoon of maple syrup and vanilla. Set aside, uncovered, for 5 minutes.
Place roasted strawberries in a bowl and pour in the warm gelatin mixture. Stir gently with a rubber spatula. Add raspberries, and toss until evenly distributed. Working quickly, transfer the mixture to the baked tart shell and carefully spread out the filling in an even layer. Refrigerate for 25-30 minutes until filling is completely set.
Posted on February 12, 2015
Time takes it all whether you want it to or not, time takes it all. Time bares it away, and in the end there is only darkness. Sometimes we find others in that darkness, and sometimes we lose them there again. –Stephen King
For seven years there was only S. I met her in a writing program in Russia. She wore strappy sandals that scraped along the sidewalk as she walked, the buckles had come undone, and the way she chewed gum unnerved me. It was if she knew she chewed loudly, brazenly, but asked her if she cared because she didn’t. I remember her being volcanic; she moved swiftly from one train of thought to another, speaking in tourettic spurts about nerve endings, poetry, white nights, and synapses firing. Her voice made me think of jazz with all the disjointed rhythms and erupting syncopations, and in the brief walk from our class to our dorm she exhausted me. I remember sitting in my room, in silence, thinking, what just happened?
For the rest of our time in Russia I’d hear stories about the strange girl who lived in an apartment off-campus. The girl who got arrested in The Summer Gardens for scaling the gates after hours and being invited out for vodka after she and her friends bribed the officers with 300 rubles. I saw her at parties and we exchanged pleasantries, but mostly I watched her weave in and out of rooms. Watching S was akin to live wires unwinding. She was in a constant state of unraveling. I was in awe of her. Compared to my shackled life, she seemed…free. This was a time when I thought I had a great love, and before I left for Russia he had convinced me to try to stop drinking. It would be my first of many failed attempts, but I wanted him (or the thought of him) and the promise of a life he offered. So I lived in a perpetual state of fear and burial–I could practically crack the gravel with my teeth–and seeing S move was thrilling. While I roamed the Nevsky Prospekt in a virtual straightjacket, S was ready for flight.
When we came home, we casually met up over drinks with the other New Yorkers who were in the program. We exchanged stories about our teachers, our work, and memories of the Museum of Oddities–an experience that brought on a collective silence and shudder. Over time, S and I would couple off (I guess there’s no other way to put it) and we spoke obsessively about our history of broken people and our mutual drug addictions, which had us continue the cycle of breaking our parents had started. We talked a lot about our parents (she wrestled with a cruel father and I a sociopathic, narcissistic mother). How do I explain now that we were strong, educated, outspoken women, yet we were frightened, fragile, undone? Looking back at our friendship, it occurs to me that we desperately clung to each other to make ourselves whole, and it’s only after our fissure that I suspect we both realized the unhealthy nature of our mutually agreed-upon attachment.
For years, the world was only us. We spent every day together. We obsessed over the food we ate, the workouts we did, the books we read. The men in our lives were periphery, noise, because who could understand Felicia and S other than Felicia and S? I remember my friend Angie, years ago, approaching me with trepidation. She wondered aloud if perhaps S and I were too close, because it was possible to be close to the point of suffocation, where one suffers at the expense of another. I shook my head, impossible, and Angie receded, folded into quiet. But I remember the concern that washed across her face, and when we talk about it now, Angie reminds me that it’s a good thing S and I broke up.
Over seven years, we endured love, breakups, trips to Los Angeles and Taiwan. I finally got sober and stayed sober. We wrote books, ascended, and obsessively maintained our lean frame to an increasingly disturbing degree. But there was so much love! I never had a sister, and we loved as viciously as we fought. Our rows were violent storms that resembled undertow. Screaming matches in the street followed by long periods of uncomfortable silence. Maybe she was the first to notice cracks in the fault? Because when I took a fancy job at a then-cool agency, our friendship became two wires detangling. I became consumed with work and she with a new boyfriend, who would eventually become her husband. Our once excited conversations became a string of rehashed memories of the friendship we used to have. We had very little in common except for our history and I think we both knew it but didn’t dare say it out loud.
It’s easy to end a friendship over an action or a series of betrayals, but it’s heartbreaking to end because of a drift. One day I was supposed to be S’s maid of honor in her wedding and the next she stopped returning my calls. It was is if we never existed, and I was devastated that she excised me so neatly. I saw photographs of her nuptials on Facebook and I wept for days. I then unfriended her. Just like that. Seven years ended with a click of a mouse. A shift from friend to unfriend.
Our history had been wiped clean.
It took me two years to recover from her loss and we haven’t spoken a word in six. I’ll never know why we broke up, although I suspect it was for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above. How do you tell someone that you don’t want to be their friend anymore because you just don’t? Because you weren’t the people you used to be? That needing another half to make you whole isn’t how you get complete–the numbers just don’t foot. Truth be told I probably wouldn’t have understood it back then the way I do now. I’ve reconciled my hurt and have found closure in losing her.
I often think that our breaking was the best thing for both of us because I lived a stunted version of myself, and I was forced to live a life independent of her, regardless of how dysfunctional that life might have been. I don’t want a reconciliation with S; I have my closure and people in my life who have grown in step with me.
Do you know I made these pancakes for breakfast for this morning and thought of her? I remember a day trip we took to Woodbury Commons and she was in my apartment and I made her this grand breakfast. Freshly-squeezed orange juice, strips of bacon coated in maple syrup and pancakes. I don’t recall if she was the pancake type, but she loved mine and she devoured the contents of her plate. I remember feeling satisfied, happy.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from The Paleo Kitchen Cookbook
3 large eggs
1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons almond or full-fat coconut milk
1 tablespoon organic honey
1/2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup coconut flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of fine-grain sea salt
coconut oil, for greasing the skillet
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Add the almond milk, honey, lemon juice, and vanilla and whisk until well blended. In a separate bowl, mix together the coconut flour and tapioca flour, then add to the wet ingredients 1/4 cup at a time, while continuously whisking. Then mix in the baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Grease a large skillet and place over medium heat. Once the skillet is warm use a ladle to pour 3-inch pancakes into the skillet. Once bubbles begin to appear in the surface of a pancake, drop a small handful of blueberries into it and flip. The pancake should cook on each side 3-4 minutes. Repeat with the remaining batter.
Posted on February 7, 2015
Today I spent the morning with one of my closest friends. Angie’s one of the few people with whom I can completely be myself. We’re quiet when we speak, there’s no artifice, and I often show up to her house in leggings, hair undone, face scrubbed clean. She has two beautiful and brilliant children, and some of her time is spent tending to them, swapping out the books they read and giving them seaweed and rice when they’re hungry. I admire her tenderness, the incredible way in which she’s able to remember the details. Although I don’t harbor any desire for children of my own, I love watching the love that binds her family. It’s this love that she brings to our friendship, one that has lasted for over a decade. I’ll walk through her door and remind her that I’m 4% Asian, to which she responds that’s nowhere near Asian (she’s Korean), and after we laugh over our private, long-running joke, we talk about our day.
I tell Angie I love her as often as I can.
What I don’t tell her enough is how much I enjoy how we pass our time. She’s busy, an ambitious executive who’s also a devoted mother and wife. I know her time is scarce so I tell her that I don’t care how we spend it, as long as it’s us, talking. And I know this may sound strange, but she has a car and nothing pleases me more than to be in it while she drives. It reminds me of childhood, how I’d spend hours in a car with my pop and we’d talk about everything and nothing all at once. Angie’s like this, and I realize most of our time is spent in her car or in her dining room (I’m sitting; she’s in the kitchen), and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Today, I came for breakfast and I brought her this bread and it shocked her that something that’s gluten and dairy free could be so light, so moist, so holy-shit good. I spend time with her husband because he and I are so similar, and we always have something to talk about–our shared love of books (I envy their library), food and films. Today I told him that Angie saved my life. Did you know that? Your wife saved my life? That I was determined to drink and ruin, and she got me straight again? She drove me to Felix? Did I tell you about your incredible wife?
But then, the drive! As soon as she told me that she needed to make a run to Whole Foods for a dinner she was preparing for tonight, I was JUBILANT. She apologized for inviting me along for an errand with her son, and I told her that she’s crazy. Food, a car, my closest friend and a little boy who loves books–this is how I wanted to spend my morning.
I’m starting to realize that as I grow older I become conscious of time. I become conscious of getting lean. I don’t need a fancy dinner out or something to do, rather sometimes it’s really nice to spend the morning with your closest friend, eating banana bread. Sometimes the world is as simple and beautiful as that.
INGREDIENTS: Adapted from The Paleo Kitchen Cookbook
3 large bananas
4 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
2/3 cup organic cane sugar
1/2 cup coconut flour (you may think this is not a lot, trust me, coconut flour needs a ton of liquid to absorb)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup dark chocolate chips
Pinch of fine-grain sea salt
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-by-5-inch metal loaf pan and line it with parchment paper.
Combine the bananas, eggs, coconut oil, sugar, and peanut butter in a food processor or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix until the ingredients are well blended. Add the coconut flour, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, and salt and continue to mix until all the ingredients are well combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the middle. Circulate half-way through. If the bread becomes too dark (somewhere around the 30 minute mark), tent with tin foil. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan on a cooling rack for 15 minutes before serving.
Posted on December 18, 2014
I haven’t been 39 for a day and already I’m realizing that next year I’ll turn 40. And before you lay into me about 40 being the new 30, you’re only as young as you feel, and all that jazz, I ask that you please slow your roll because 40 is a big fucking deal. Although I spent much of my childhood wearing the mask of an adult, I remember reacting to the thought of being thirty. That’s old, I said. When you’re small you can’t imagine counting an age beyond your ten fingers. And then something in you changes, the shift is nearly imperceptible, and you suddenly find yourself attaching fractions to your age. You pine for sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one. Perhaps you think the world will reveal itself to you in degrees, because why else would you be so desperate to shed being one of the innocent?
I spent the day alone with my best friend’s daughter once. There was an emergency one Christmas morning–my friend’s son woke vomiting blood, the walls were a massacre of red–and I played with a small girl who was baffled over the fact that I abhor pink (god, what a heinous color!). While I wasn’t a girly girl, I was creative, and I made for a suitable playmate when she wanted to build imaginary sets for the plays we’d co-written. I marveled over her curiosity, and while we watched episodes of Strawberry Shortcake in what felt like an endless loop, I remember smoothing her hair, wanting for her to be young for as long as she possibly could, because children architect these magical worlds that adults find ways to ruin.
Everything for children is a first, whereas adults know too much. We’ve seen things that make us want to press our eyes shut and rewind the tape. Take us back before 21, 18, 16. We want it all back. We want our world small, simple, with only our friends and family in it. I had to write a scene last night about a woman who’s taken up permanent residence in a dark country and she struggles to remember what pure, unadulterated happiness was like. That first spring. The rain of leaves. The light that broke through the trees. Bare feet swaying on a car dashboard. Witnessing a stranger kneel down and pray for the first time. I had a really hard time writing this scene because those moments felt too simplistic, ridiculous and I’ve tainted them with everything that comes after. I can’t only keep the beauty in the frame without ushering in the ugliness, the cruelty, hate, violence and fear that we’ve come to know, in degrees, as the years stumble over one another. Feeling like a sophist I let the page cool, and I hope I can return to the story with something different. Who knows. Maybe I’ll play Strawberry Shortcake episodes to get me in the mood.
From where I sit now, the world is different. I read an article about how little one can change after they’ve turned 30, and contrary to what the author posits, I can’t even conceive how much I’ve changed in a span of 10 years. Or perhaps I’ve shed layers of skin to reveal what was always there–I can’t decide which. In ten years, I got sober, fell out of faith with a god I once worshipped (I’m spiritual, but no longer believe in a god or the binary confines of heaven and hell), discarded the need for materialistic trappings and unguided ambition, fell in love with my body after struggling with it since childhood (and realizing, much like many women my age, that I was beautiful then–why couldn’t I have seen me then as I see me now?), focused on quality over quantity in all aspects of my life, took comfort in the fact that while I don’t want to be a mother in the traditional sense of the word, I find I can be maternal in other ways, softened my view of my mother, which went from a deep, voracious hate to a sorrow, a certain kind of sadness. A few other things I’ve learned (ack! I’m entering the list terrority, something I’ve long admonished, but whatever, I’m riding on a sugar high from eating copious amounts of homemade fruit bars):
1. You start to remember everything you’ve read: When I was at Columbia getting my Master’s, I took a class, “Poets on Poets,” and I can’t tell you how intimidating it was to hear professors and guest lecturers quote other writers and their works as if it were nothing, as if the knowledge were simply stored in this imaginary memory bank set loose onto the world when deemed necessary. My feelings of awe soon shifted to annoyance over what I thought to be pretension. Rolling my eyes I thought, if someone quotes Susan Sontag one more fucking time, until I became the person who reads and quotes from Susan Sontag and Joan Didion. I’ve read countless books, but as I grow older I realize that some of them have lingered, left their indelible mark, and I find myself quietly returning to them to ferret out new meaning. It’s sort of like going back to the familiar and taking comfort that this is a place you’ve navigated before. And I’ve got just the Susan Sontag quote for this, people!!!
In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.
2. Not everyone will love or like you, and this is okay: Years back, a slew of catty book bloggers wrote some very unkind words about me online and I was DEVASTATED. This was before the advent of GOMI and other forums where people talk smack about other people–this was 2006 and I remember my face getting hot and how I cried about people who were so fucking mean. I wanted so desperately to be popular, to be liked, and the fact that there were people in this world who think I’m shit was hard to deal with. Now I don’t care. Admittedly, I’m a hard person to know and I’m flawed, but what matters to me are how I, and those whom I respect and love, feel about me. Everything else is superfluous, peripheral noise that I tune out.
That’s not to say that I don’t listen to criticism or constructive feedback. One has to in order to grow as a person and artist, and if someone cares enough to give me feedback in a way that’s meant to take me to a better place, I think, why not listen? It’s always worth listening to, and identifying what part (s) of, feedback resonate. I had a mentor, whom I adore, who would always pull me into his office to give me feedback on how I was managing staff. He once told me that I wore my emotions on my sleeve entirely too much, and a good leader has to be like a parent–almost always calm, always in solutions mode–and this shit was hard to hear. I was defensive and kind of bitchy, but then I realized that this person didn’t have to take the time out of his day to make me a better leader. And when I refined certain aspects of my character did I find that he was right. Sometimes you need to hear hard truths in order to become better, smarter, stronger.
3. I don’t have FOMO because I’d almost always rather be at home: This coming from someone who was once known as the “mayor”! I threw grand parties, attended them, was always double-booked, and grew miserable as a result. I didn’t realize I was an introvert living an extrovert lifestyle, and I’d often get wasted just to get through making the rounds at a party or I existed in a perpetual state of exhaustion. As I grew older I realized I didn’t need to be everywhere and do everything. I needed to have quality moments with people I admire, respect and love. Which leads me to…
4. I have a circle of ten and that’s about it: Chalk it up to unpopularity all throughout high school, but I used to be consumed with having SO.MANY.FRIENDS. Now I don’t have the time or energy for volume. I have a solid crew of less than ten friends for whom I’d lay down my life. These are a mix of women I’ve known for the greater part of my adult life–friends who saw me through addiction and relapse and knew me when I was a lesser person but stuck around because they saw the potential for me to change–and women with whom I’ve gotten incredibly close in the past few years. And while I may not see most of them as often as I’d like (some are mothers, one lives in Connecticut), when I do see them it’s as if we’ve picked up the conversation exactly where we’d left off.
My friends are strong, brilliant, beautiful, remarkable, tough, and don’t necessarily hold my social, economic and political views. Over the years I’ve learned about the importance of being taught by others. I’ve a close friend who’s a staunch Republican, and while it’s challenging to know that we don’t share the same opinions on how we want this country run, I’ve learned a great deal from her: how it’s important to understand your opponent and not simply ignore them, how we have to find some common ground if we want change. That there is some truth to what we both believe in, and it’s about how we can meld those truths into the greater good.
What I’ve also learned? I’ve become suspicious of women who don’t have long-term close girlfriends. I’ve also learned that it’s okay to have quarterly friends–people whom I like and admire, but I don’t have to see them every day.
5. I’ve been more socially active than I’ve ever been in my life: In college, we were told that we were the apathetic generation. Gen X didn’t care about anything. We were a-political, fatalistic. And for many years I didn’t care about geopolitics and didn’t advocate as loudly as I could have for the things I believe in. Now, all of it matters more than it ever did. Now, I can’t shut up about feminism, gay rights, racism, the fact that the U.S. isn’t morally superior because we apparently have no qualms about raping and murdering our own citizens. Now, I can’t stop reading about the politics in other countries. I can’t stop finding new sources to read. After Ferguson, I realized how “white” my news was, and I made it a point to find different sources. I made a point to be uncomfortably comfortable, which leads me to…
6. Travel is a huge part of my life: There are people who have the means to travel but don’t even have a passport and I don’t understand it. It’s as if the U.S. is enough. And it’s not, at all. It was only through traveling the world did I begin to see it differently. I’d been exposed to cultures I read about through the veil of an Anglo-Saxon or Americanized point of view. I’ve traveled to countries that aren’t necessarily “safe.” I’ve stood in streets watching anti-American rallies. You learn through context, and I feel as if I have a more complex view of America from having traveled outside of it. This year I went to Korea, Thailand, India, Spain, Ireland, and I have so much to see, so many places to go.
7. I let shit go: This is hard for a type-A control freak, but there are just some people, situations and events I’ll never be able to change and I have to accept that. I have to make a certain kind of peace with so much that exists beyond my reach. But this has taken an extraordinary amount of time and self-reflection. It’s only until recently that I’ve let go of the fact that I spent nearly four years of my life working for a man I didn’t like much less respect. Now, I try to learn from the things I can’t control. That, I think, is the greatest change I’ve seen in my life–that it’s imperative that I not stop learning. That I not be complacent. That I not simply exist to be constantly comfortable. That I not be changeless. That I not be open to change. That I not be receptive to criticism.
It never is what you want it to be, and that’s okay. It can be something else entirely.
This is the thing I hate about lists–they never fully encapsulate the whole of everything, or any one thing. However, if I look at the woman I was at 16, 18, 21, and now, I can say that I’m calmer, quieter, kinder, and less insecure. The threadline through all of the years, I realized yesterday, is my writing. I’ve spent the greater part of this year wondering what it is I plan on doing with my life, and then it occurred to me that I only want to write. The writing can take different shape and form, but it’s the only thing that gives me shelter. It’s the one thing to which I can return and it never fails to challenge or excite me.
So maybe that’s what I’ve learned at 39, the year before I turn 40? I want to write, always.