running from ambition toward grace: the year I stopped wanting all the wrong things

pineapple in the ocean

There goes that pineapple again.

Let me tell you what I thought I wanted. I wanted to write a New Yorker story and get a blurb from the Michael Cunningham of 2002. And then I read the magazine and didn’t particularly like the stories or their formulas and Michael Cunningham started writing books that drew a chasm between author and reader and it had become an ocean I was too tired to cross. I wanted blue glitter heels that gave me the advantage of a few inches because height, the ability to stand over someone and stare down at them, got you places. Or so I thought. But the pretty tall shoes pinched my feet and one day I tripped and fell and nearly twisted my ankle. I donated the shoes and hoped they wouldn’t pinch another woman’s feet. Now, I mostly wear flats and have lost interest in staring. I thought I wanted an expansive brownstone apartment outfitted with a blue velvet couch, and when I had the home I lamented over the largeness of it and when I finally bought the couch I felt it was a thing you would admire in a magazine but an item in your home that you’d dust and preserve but wouldn’t dare touch. Everyone complimented my blue couch while I sat on the floor repelled by it. I spent over two thousand dollars on a piece of furniture and when I moved to Los Angeles I sold it for $50 and begged a young woman to take it away as quickly as you can. The thing I’d coveted had become an eyesore–a reminder of all I hadn’t wanted. I thought I wanted a job with a fancy title and a check with a sizeable number of zeros because I thought that represented respect and intelligence, but the job became my slow burn ruin and the paycheck only served to buy things that self-medicated (see: blue glitter shoes, blue velvet couch). I didn’t need a title to tell me I was smart and a title doesn’t actually hand you respect–you earn it. I thought I wanted what Tony Montana wanted: the world, chico, and everything in it because I spent my childhood playing the role of parent, of an adult. Because I thought I deserved it. But who deserves anything? Who says that with a straight face? And I came to realize that the words that found themselves replayed in rap songs and printed on posters and t-shirts weren’t two arms wrapped around a globe, rather they were a black ocean intent on swallowing me whole. When you have all there is to have you have nothing. The ground gives way and the fall is bottomless as a result of your want, which is never really fulfilled because you dedicated your life to accumulation rather than cultivation.

Funny how time sorts things.

A while ago, one of my closest friends, Amber, asked if I’d seen the Nora Ephron documentary, “Everything is Copy”. I said no in that dismissive way I can sometimes be, and told her I’d add it to my Netflix queue. She posed that question while I was surveying my home with the realization that I didn’t want this apartment. I didn’t want much of what was hanging in my closet. Pacing my very expensive apartment I kept saying I don’t want as if it were a sermon, a prayer.

Then I boarded a plane to New York for a work trip and when I landed in the maelstrom that was JFK I was exhausted. In Manhattan, I viewed the buildings and the people with their clipped tones and determined gait moving every which way with dread. My home, my place of origin, after eight months, had become a stranger. My solace were people: my client team who’s smart and passionate and funny, my mentor who told me I seemed changed but in a good way, and the few friends I was able to see whom I held close and made a point of smelling their hair and feeling my cheek against their shoulder or neck. I know that might sound strange or primal, but I wanted to remember them whole not in parts. I want to remember what it felt like holding them close rather than what they wore or how they colored their hair (all my friends have lightened their hair since I’ve last seen them, which is interesting. More so when one of them pointed out I’d lightened my hair too, to which I responded, laughing, L.A.). This was me taking a picture of them because I knew I wouldn’t see them for a while. And this want, this desire to have them close to me, in my home, broke my heart in places I never conceived could break.

While I was in New York, I stayed with Amber and we watched the documentary and all the while I imagined Joan Didion calling Nora Ephron a cool customer. In her dying days, all that ambition, all that want, morphed into a grace, a quiet and deliberate receding. She’d built a career on ambition and there’s nothing wrong with that–in some ways we should want and work for that want–and I consider the balance of ambition and grace. It seems to me that one tends to follow the other–maybe because of age or exhaustion, who’s to say–and I wonder if both of them, grace and ambition, can occupy the same space and live amicably. To want but not to be subsumed by it, to recognize that life is not a series of battles waged, wars conquered and spoils savored. To realize that one can want but one can also simply be.

In the cab headed to Kennedy, it occurred to me that New York is a repository of my history of wants, of so much history that it’s daunting–all of it is entirely too much to bear and carry. Perhaps this is why I was so anxious to abandon the only home I know because the memory of it was inextricably tied to the life I’d devoted to creating–a life I ended up never really wanting.

I’ll tell you what I do want. I want to stop wanting because desire can sometimes be exhausting and often confused with need. I want a small house I can afford with a yard because I’ve never lived in a house, only apartments. I want this space because it affords me quiet and it would be nice to watch my Felix roll around in the grass. It would be nice to consider adopting a dog. I want to write without caring where my work would be published or if it achieves any level of acclaim–and I’m nearly there, but not quite. I want to live within my means and not feel the pang of desire simply because someone else has more things. I want to be calmer, quieter, less reactive and more forgiving and pensive, and I’m almost there but not quite. I want my ambition to be graceful and filled with grace. I want to remember this is how her skin felt when I left her. This was the crush of our embrace and it feels good to love and be loved.

I want to be and remember this moment as it happens as it’s happened as it has happened and as it will happen.

I would also like a pineapple.

 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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finally!

fucking finally

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.

 

the masks we wear, the lies we tell, and the secrets we keep

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

I spent the past year a walking wound, but you’d never know it. Maybe you read a handful of sad stories I’d written or scrolled through a few Facebook status updates, but if you saw me in person you’d see someone who was assembled, stitched neatly together. Nevermind the gashes beneath the surface, the cuts that failed to heal. I was fine, just fine, but let’s not talk about me. Tell me about you. I’d arrange my face in different shapes; I’d smile and nod and stare intently, and everyone would leave with the comfort that I was going to be okay. In forty years I’d survived so much, surely I would endure this. Surely the girl was going to be just fine.

The girl slouches home. The girl unravels. The girl is far from fine.

When I was small I was taught the worst thing one could be was weak. Never cry, never be vulnerable, never let anyone all the way in. So my heart was a bolted door and I lived on the side with all the mothballs desperate to flutter out. Throughout college and during the first fifteen years of my career, I was repeatedly told that it was verboten to bring your full self to work. The office wasn’t the place for your sob stories or crumbled tissues in clammy hands. Leave that six-piece luggage set at home. No one wants or needs to know. Deal with your life privately, behind closed doors. Even as a child growing up in Brooklyn, everyone lived by the axiom: mind your own.

So we become editors of ourselves, preservationists of our suffering. We become architects of our masks; we reframe our true stories in work and in life. We become vague on the level of a CIA operative. We’re just going through a tough time. We use phrases like a rough patch, a temporary setback, and a minor blip. But we’re fine, really.

We consistently pass on that glass of wine because we’re not in the mood or we don’t particularly like drinking instead of saying I’m an alcoholic. We talk up our partner’s attributes or the memories you once shared that were photographs worth taking instead of saying I’m going through a divorce. We post terrific photographs of our best selves while we binge-watch “House of Cards”, refreshing our phones, waiting for the Likes. We live for that validation in the moments when we feel sonnet-small when the space between you and the photograph you’ve taken becomes a chasm that widens with the passing of each day. We wonder: how do I get that to person? When can I feel that expression? That face?

This week, I was formally diagnosed with severe depression, and my financial situation is dire to the point where I’ve had to borrow money from close friends to pay for my twice-weekly therapy visits. I tell my therapist how much this bothers me, how it annoys me that I’ve become a burden. I look weak. I’m a failure. And he interrupts and reminds me of something I’d said when we first met — it was an off-hand comment, something to the effect that if he saw me on the street I would be unrecognizable. What did I mean by that, he wanted to know. Had I been wearing a mask all this time? I said, yes, of course, because when you spend your whole life on guard, you can’t just fling open all the doors, throw open all the windows. It didn’t occur to me that I was laughing during the first half hour of my visit. I couldn’t stop laughing. I hate that I had to publicly ask people for money — ha! ha! ha! I hated how it felt when my friends read an essay I published and subsequently deleted because it caused them insurmountable fear and anguish to the point where I received frantic voicemails in the middle of the night— ha! ha! ha! I hate this feeling now, of being here, of telling you these things; I’ve always come back, I’ve always survived, and now I’m certain if I can get past this. He tells me that vulnerability isn’t a mark of failure; it’s the trait of someone who’s human.

Why are you laughing, he asks, to which I respond, it’s easier than crying.

I spent so much of my career not bringing any of my whole self to work that it must have appeared like I wasn’t human. I wasn’t capable of feeling, and this alienated me. This red pen that I took to myself, this scalpel I used to excise parts of my life that I could have shared with others, made it hard for me to form attachments, made me seem less real to the people who worked for me. I regret the mask I wore and wish I would have been a little more vulnerable, or at least, honest.

When I tell my friends that things are bad, really bad, that I’m seeing a psychiatrist twice a week and taking Wellbutrin, I receive dozens of emails from people whom I least suspect, people whom I’ve known for years who suffer from depression or another form of mental illness. They tell me they’ve been there and they know exactly what I’m going through and that it gets better. They assure me it does even on the days when I can’t see my hand in front of my face it’s that dark. And then I ask why they never told me this, what they’ve gone through, some replied that I seemed so put together, so stoic, warm but at a remove, that they didn’t want to ripple the surface. Others said that their depression (or mental illness) is not something they offer up for a variety of reasons, one of which is stigma and fear of how others would perceive them. They trust me with their secrets and I want to write back and say I wish we wouldn’t have to lie, or tell secrets, or spend our lives presenting our edited selves to the world.

I wish I would have made my wounds visible sooner because I know some would be there at the ready with bandages. Perhaps I would’ve healed sooner.


I originally published this post on Medium

when you can’t be the person the internet wants you to be

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

pecan stuffed chicken breast

pecan stuffed chicken breast

 

Enjoy!

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Daphne Brogdon, modified 
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus for drizzling
4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (6 to 7 ounces each), butterflied*
1 tablespoon molasses, mixed with 2 teaspoons hot water
1 teaspoon ground fennel
Salt and fresh ground pepper
1 medium shallot, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup pecans, toasted, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
3 tablespoons safflower or grape seed oil
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken broth
Half 15-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

*I asked my butcher (or the person at the meat counter at your market) to butterfly and even out the meat. It was way easier than doing this at home.

pecan stuffed chicken breast

DIRECTIONS
Lay out a 15-inch-long piece of plastic wrap on a cutting board and drizzle it with a little olive oil. Lay a butterflied chicken breast, cut side up, on the plastic wrap. Fold the plastic wrap over to cover. Using a meat pounder, pound out the thicker parts of the breast so that it’s uniformly thick. Fold the plastic wrap open and brush the chicken breast with the molasses; season with generous pinches of fennel, salt and pepper. (This will be the inside part of the breast that gets stuffed.) Fold the plastic wrap back over and flip the breast over. Fold plastic wrap open and season the other side of the breast with salt and pepper. (This is the outside that will later get seared in the pan.) Re-cover with the plastic wrap and place on a plate. Repeat this process with the remaining chicken breasts. Refrigerate for 1 hour or up to overnight.

pecan stuffed chicken breast

Heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, and saute until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and pecans, and cook another 2 minutes. Add the tarragon and cook another minute. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

pecan stuffed chicken breast

Remove a butterflied breast from the plastic wrap. Place it on a cutting board, molasses-side up. Place 1/4 cup of the filling on half of the chicken breast. Fold over the other half to enclose the filling. Using a bamboo skewer, close up the opening by threading the skewer through one end of the opening to the other to secure. Repeat with the remaining chicken breasts and filling.

pecan stuffed chicken breast
pecan stuffed chicken breast

Heat the canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the stuffed chicken breasts and cook for about 3 minutes per side, until nicely browned. Add the wine, chicken broth and crushed tomatoes. Turn down the heat to low, cover, and poach until the chicken is cooked through, another 8 minutes.

Pecan stuffed chicken breast.

Transfer the chicken to a plate, remove the skewers, cover the chicken with foil and let rest for 5 minutes. While chicken is resting, turn up the heat on the poaching liquid to medium, add the crushed red pepper, and let simmer until thickened and reduced by a third, about 5 minutes (I did it for 15 because I wanted it really thick). Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Strain the sauce into a small pot and keep warm over low heat until ready to serve. Instead of the liquid, I used the tomato mixture as my dressing and it was glorious.

To serve: Slice the chicken, if desired, and arrange on a serving platter. Pour some sauce over the top. Serve immediately, with extra sauce on the side.

pecan stuffed chicken breast
pecan stuffed chicken breast

there’s beauty in the attempt (and honesty)

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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.

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my favorite posts of 2015

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Photo Credit: Annie Spratt

 My favorite writing comes from a place of compulsion. Writers tend to exorcise their obsessions through prose, and every time I’m finished with a project I feel done. I’m in-between writing projects at the moment, awaiting notes from my editor on my second book, and I’m finding it hard to start my new project even though I know what it’ll be (a fictional retelling of Genie: The Feral Child) because I don’t feel what my friend Kira calls “the hot poker pressed up against your back”. Right now I don’t feel much, honestly, so I’m hoping to revisit the words I wrote here that came from a place of verve in order to get some of that verve back.

 1. Some Thoughts on Professional Etiquette Because Some Of You Need It: This morning, I came across an article about how coffee dates kill productivity. Recently, I was duped into a “pick your brain” meeting in the guise of a new business opportunity, and I left the hour drained having given a stranger several ideas and strategies for how they could start their new business venture. As an introvert I rarely get energy from spending time from people, rather the opposite. Often, I leave these coffee dates depleted, energy resources spilled into the person who conveniently forgot to pay for the cappuccino. I remember writing the above post after spending the bulk of my time giving free advice to others. Granted, I think it’s important to be an advisor or mentor to others, however, I also believe in reciprocity and paying my rent and $1,000 monthly student loan bills. In an age when people think it perfectly normal to cancel plans via text message at the last minute, I still believe in etiquette.

2. On Perception and the Delicate Dance of Masks: Scrolling through Instagram last night I paused in front of an image of fingers making air quotes with the words “I’m Fine” in between. I had a conversation with someone recently where I said that how I represent myself is markedly different from my actual self. Curious, he asked how I was different, and I said that I appear mostly put together even when it’s clear I’m falling apart. I say I’m fine so much it’s become a comical refrain, a prayer, and mantra, and this post was one of a few I wrote that attempted to navigate the many masks we sometimes have to bear.

3. Can We Just Be Still for a Moment?: I wrote this post in Nicaragua as I was bearing the weight of a significant loss while deciding whether or not I wanted to leave New York. Often we’re painfully reminded of our need to move, catch up, don’t pause because we need to be at a certain place. Personal velocity is a lauded virtue in an age where idleness is synonymous with laziness, and I wondered aloud about the benefits of simply standing still.

4. New Fiction: Women in Salt: It takes me a long time to write anything that pleases me. And I spent years not writing anything at all. However, in the past three years (specifically, the past three months), I’ve written more than I have in decades. I finished a story collection about various women in and out of peril, and while it sits with my agent I keep returning to this particular story, which is my favorite. When I write I don’t care about plot, rather, I get off on interesting people and seeing where they go. I loved writing in Ava’s voice (I also adored Alice), and I was humbled that so many of you liked this piece too.

5. There’s a Difference Between Feedback + Vitriol: I wrote this piece (and this one in 2014) because I think the word hate is being abused so much it’s starting to lose its meaning. This is hate. Women who face abuse and threats to their person and their family deal with hate. People who are bullied because of their race, sexual orientation, appearance, weight, age deal with hate. However, readers who offer constructive criticism about the way one runs a blog or a business is not a hater. I’m honestly baffled by people who only want to surround themselves with people who hurl praise at them to an unhealthy degree. From teachers, I would hear how I was this gifted writer. From bosses, I would hear about my talents as a leader. I would nod and thank them but then immediately counter with, how could I do better? How could I grow? How could I improve? Feedback is hard to hear, at first, it stings, but it’s knowledge that you could choose or choose not to use. Constructive criticism is different than hate, and I’ve grown increasingly annoyed at how the terms have been conflated, and how bloggers wither and recoil if they’re not told they’re special, perfect snowflakes.

23560415289_b8b86ca48f_z6. The Obligatory Mid-Life Posts: I turned 40 last week and I’ve had a lot of feelings over the year about it. I feel and don’t feel my years if that makes any sense. I am riding the fresh-out-of-fucks tourI made some crazy decisions regarding my career and the importance of a side-hustle learned some stuff, meditated on regret, felt (and still feel) afraid, and realized I’m still learning.

7. Women Who Inspire Me: My friend Arlene awes me with her second and third acts. And meet two women who are really changing the world and breaking ranks.

8. Some Thoughts on Losing Your Best Friend: As you get older, you lose people. Over the past ten years, I’ve lost two very close friends and those losses were devastating. I wrote a bit about losing a best friend.

9. On Publishing + Writing an Experimental Novel: By the time my second book will be published, it’ll be nearly a decade since my first, and my god, so much has changed. I wrote about taking big breaks, finding your voice, and the process of selling a dark novel about a difficult woman.

10. On Marriage, Children + Wearing a Blue Dress: When I graduated college, I thought I would work in investment banking, retire at 30, get married, have children and have a little house in Westchester. Um…things didn’t turn out as planned.

the whole stretch ahead of you (deliberate randomness)

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Who shows a child just as it stands? Who places him within his constellation, with the measuring-rod of distance in his hand. Who makes his death from gray bread that grows hard, -or leaves it there inside his rounded mouth, jagged as the core of a sweet apple? The minds of murderers are easily comprehended. But this: to contain death, the whole of death, even before life has begun, to hold it all so gently within oneself, and not be angry: that is indescribable. –From Rilke’s Duino Elegies, 4th

I read a moving piece that intertwines fiction and life, a move to another state and the stories we carry to get us through the shifts we feel between A and B. Part of me lies a cheek against her cool words and then I remember she’s still young, still starting out, and this loneliness, this wide-eyed affection for New York will be replaced by other affections, other loneliness, possible company. When I read her piece I still see the possibility, hope and desire, but if I were to write something similar you would feel the amphibian chill of a loneliness that sustains. The days repeat themselves with minor variations. My words might feel like flesh wounds. So I don’t write them. I just draft a list of books I’ve read and a few words that remind me why I read them. I finished Fates & Furies yesterday, and I wish it was the sort of book I could write had I had the knowledge of a marriage–the in of it. They smell that blood in the water, they’re going to hunt the bleeder down. Not their fault. They can’t help it. What kind of shark is a shark that doesn’t attack?

I read this and think that I need to learn to be a shark, but I tried that once and the graft didn’t stick. Instead, I became the thing that was circled, consumed. George Saunders says that a “real writer makes you feel uncomfortable.” Maybe I’m doing something right?

Today I arrive a half-hour early for my follow-up, post-surgery appointment. I’m forever early because I fear being late, so I stop at a Le Pain Quotidian and decide on a jam scone because I haven’t had a scone in over a year and why not a scone? Behind me, a woman taps her feet, impatient, because the line is moving slower than she’d like it to, and she looks at my scone with such disgust and inquiries in a loud voice if there’s anything in the store that’s low-fat. The man behind the counter shakes his head and says these are organic pastries. There’s not much by way of low-fat. Ten minutes later I sit in a dermatologist office, eating my pastry while a woman who is perhaps too thin for her frame is prepping for her latest procedure. And I wonder what’s left after fat? Marrow burrowed within bone? Why does this fucking scone bear more weight than it should? I think about this as I walk the seven miles home to Santa Monica.

On the way, I read an essay on my phone. Who we become physically moves faster than how our minds perceive us. We play a game of catch up between the world in front of us and the story of ourselves that plays out in our head. Manson writes:

People who were bullied growing up and go on to become the smartest, nicest, and most interesting dude at the company Christmas party, yet they still harbor this overwhelming sense that nobody really likes them, that it’s all fake and unreal and unearned and undeserved, and that in the end, everybody’s going to wind up hurting them. So they don’t let anyone get close to them. No matter how loved they are, they can’t ever let anybody get too close.

I think about that a lot, and what Manson writes rings true. I harbor massive steamships and I move like glaciers. This week I told someone that one of my greatest fears is being average, mediocre, second-rate. That all this work has been for naught. That I’ll write books that mean nothing, posts that don’t translate, take on jobs that do nothing but encourage people to consume. That I’ll let the noise drown out my need to find wonder and purpose. So I write down all the things I’ve done, everything I’ve created and I try not to judge it. I try not to say oh, that book wasn’t that good. I try not to say, oh, that person who used to work for me is more successful professionally–even though she’s earned it, deserves it. I try not to give what I’ve created context because I start thinking about competition. I start reducing what I’ve done to its parts–phantom limbs–and I tell myself to keep writing down what I’ve accomplished. Read this list out loud whenever you’re blue–regardless of how fatuous you feel in doing so.

After viewing Sylvia Plath’s childhood manuscripts, I’m sad that so much of what I created in childhood is gone or scattered in Long Island or hidden in stacks of paper in my closet. And if I drew a line through my work, chartered that life, I would see a girl in various stages of undress.

If I want to create maybe I should get off the internet? I’ve already made a conscious choice to dial down my rage blackouts on twitter because I’m learning that it’s getting me nowhere. Even when I read stories like these and brilliant articles like this, I collect and learn instead of spew. I’m thinking my energies could best be channeled into creating things that matter.

Years ago my friend Nicolette gave me a copy of Rilke’s Elegies for my birthday. The inscription was from 2001, I had just turned 25. Perhaps she sensed my despair and how I started to drift away from God–returning to a belief that this life is all that we really have. And therein lies the tension of living a life, filling your days with words, knowledge, and beauty instead of simply allowing them to pass. I’m in this space that feels paused (but not really, because time inexorably passes) and I know I could be doing more. I could be moving to B. I could be creating.

Tomorrow I’m turning 40 and I’ll be offline for most of the day. This is all strange and weird, and it’s okay to feel this while listening to this.

 


Image Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

double chocolate cherry hazelnut layer cake

double chocolate cherry hazelnut layer cake

I’m turning 40 this week (Friday, to be specific), and for some reason, it’s all I can think about. I’ve been waxing nostalgic lately–listening to bands I loved in college (Nirvana, Pearl Jam–yes, I was into grunge and wore flannels and Docs) and watching movies from the 90s–a time when everyone considered the internet as this cute little fad that no one took seriously. We had brick phones and we worried that Y2K signified the end of days. We worshiped at the alter of Olestra and fat-free, and we started to realize that it was possible to drink for taste as opposed to pre-gaming to get wasted. [We still got wasted.]

I also think of that time as when I felt possibility. After graduating from college, I was frightened, excited yet filled with wonder. Anything was possible even if we were the generation jutting up against the boomers thinking we were different until we encountered the generation that followed, which proved to be really different (and remarkable). Two decades later I think about that time and how much I’ve learned, accomplished, endured and experienced in between and I feel like multitudes. Already, I feel the weight of my years, and this is a good thing because I’m okay with the fact that I’m no longer young. I come to this age with, what I’m realizing is, a different kind of wonder. Twenty years ago I wanted to be accomplished, achieved. I wanted escalating zeroes at the end of my paycheck; I wanted a title; I wanted degrees and other signifiers of success. Now, I see all of that for what it is–lacking. Accumulating things, ticking off items on a list doesn’t mean that I wake to purpose. An Ivy league education doesn’t necessarily guarantee fulfillment. I did what I thought I needed to do and I wake, quite literally, in the middle of my life and realize that I need something other.

I think about mortality in a way that’s less chilling but achingly real. And I keep returning to Oliver Sack’s essays because he was a man who felt his years. He was a man that lived his life with purpose, a man who went out seeking wonder, even as he lay dying. In “Sabbath”, Sacks wrote:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself.

In one of my favorite essays, “My Own Life”, he wrote:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

There exists so much bitterness, complacency, false idolatry, and fear in the world that it can smother you if you allow it. So I’m making a resolve from now until the end to wake every day and consider how I can create something meaningful without the desire for recognition or the remunerative rewards one seeks for what one makes. I plan to explore how I can continually find wonder, be surprised and surprise others, and how I can be as kind to myself and the ones I love as I can be.

For now, I’m making myself a pre-game birthday cake. Though, I forgot the 40 candles. Haha.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen, with modifications. If you live outside of the U.S., here is a metric version of the original recipe.
for the ganache
2 13.5 oz cans unsweetened full-fat coconut milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
5 tablespoons agar flakes (or 5 teaspoons of gelatin powder, if you’re not vegan or you’re like me, and couldn’t find agar flakes at my supermarket)
pinch sea salt
3 1/2 oz dark chocolate (70% cacao content), broken into pieces
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
4 teaspoons vanilla extract

for the cake
2 cups toasted hazelnuts, divided
2 cups whole spelt flour – divided
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup ground flax seeds (also known as flaxmeal)
1/2 cup melted extra virgin coconut oil, plus more for oiling the pan
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 cup honey
1 teaspoon unpasteurized apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
4oz chopped semi-sweet chocolate (addition to original recipe)

for the filling (a simplified version of the original recipe)
3/4 cup cherry preserves
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

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DIRECTIONS
to make the ganache
1. Whisk together coconut milk, maple syrup, agar flakes and salt in a medium pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, whisk often. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, covered, whisking every 5 minutes.
2. Remove from heat, add chocolate and let it melt for 2 minutes in the covered pot. Whisk until smooth. Pour into a shallow bowl and allow to cool until it stops steaming. Put in the refrigerator for about 2 hours, or until cold and completely hard.
3. Roughly cut ganache into 1-inch pieces and add to a food processor with orange juice and vanilla. Blend until smooth, scraping down sides as necessary. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until cake is ready for frosting.

to make the cake
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Oil two 8-inch cake pans and line bottom of each with a parchment paper. Timing wise, I started the cake as soon as I cooled the ganache. After the cake cools for an hour, the ganache is ready and prime for spreading.
2. Add 2/3 cup of hazelnuts and 1/4 cup of spelt flour into a food processor and grind finely (takes about 30-45 seconds). Transfer into a medium bowl and sift in remaining 1 3/4 cups spelt flour, baking powder and baking soda. Stir to completely combine, set aside.
3. Whisk cocoa powder and boiling water until smooth in a large bowl. Add ground flax seeds, coconut oil, maple syrup, apple vinegar, vanilla and salt, whisk until thoroughly combined.
4. Add flour mixture to liquid ingredients and whisk to make a smooth batter. Fold in chopped chocolate. Divide the batter between prepared pans and bake for 35-40 minutes until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

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to assemble the cake
1. Spread remaining 1 1/3 cups of toasted hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Using a rolling pin (or jar) crush with nuts slightly. Set aside.
2. Invert first layer on a cake stand or a plate. Remove parchment paper. Spread 1 cup of the ganache, leaving 1/2 inch untouched at the edges to avoid spillage when you layer the cakes. Add the preserves on top of the ganache and pomegranate kernels.
3. Invert second layer on top, and remove parchment paper. Frost top and sides and press the remaining hazelnuts along the top + sides. Keep in the fridge for at least 1-2 hours. The cake is actually best served the next day to allow for all the flavors to meld and set.

double chocolate cherry hazelnut layer cake

a woman in her own private Idaho

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

Male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. Too many women are humiliated every day and not just on a symbolic level. And, in the real world, too many are punished, even with death, for their insubordination. —Elena Ferrante

As  a woman, I’ve been told to not kick up a fuss, not make a scene, not be so aggressive because it looks unseemly on you. I’ve been told to be collaborative, warm, kind, supportive, and a team player. I’ve been told to smile and play nice. Dial down the emotion–you care too much! I’ve been told that I won’t be successful with that attitude. I’ve been told to listen and smile when men pay you a compliment. I’ve been told that I’m pretty when I’m thin. You look so good–have you lost weight? I’ve been told, in a voice I’ve grown to hate, you really have opinions. I’ve been told to play the game, to not make waves. Don’t make such a big deal….Felicia. I’ve been told, you’re nearly 40 and you have considered getting a little work done? Not, a lot, mind you, but enough to look like you’re freshened up like a new bottle of milk in the fridge before its expiration date. I’ve been told I think a lot, I drink a lot, I’m a lot. I’ve been told, I like you because you’re pretty, but you sure do talk a lot. I’ve been told that I’m intimidating. I’ve been told to be quiet, shhh. I’ve been told you’re not this, you’re not that, in response to when I tell someone something about myself. I’ve been told that I’m angry when I tweet about rape, black men getting killed simply for the color of their skin, or that we live in a country filled with frightened, angry people who will do anything to hold onto their privilege. Why do you have to be so angry? What’s the point of getting angry because anger doesn’t change things. You tweeting doesn’t change things. You’re a feminazi, an SJW, or some other newfangled noun that seeks to put you in your rightful place.

Sometimes I think they’re right. Sometimes I wonder what’s the point in kicking up a fuss, but then I think of the alternative–doing nothing at all. Keeping mute and silent in all the ways many in this world, for one reason or another, want me to be.

Yesterday, I spent the day away from the internet and its opinions about women, and I felt happy. I deleted my Facebook profile because I couldn’t get it up for people anymore and I didn’t necessarily want to see them getting it up for me, and I missed being an active participant in my friend’s lives. Scrolling and collecting information about the goings-on of people I know felt false, it felt as if I was taking the easy way out in a friendship. That I didn’t necessarily have to put in the work to be present. And akin to this incisive post, the constant feed wasn’t doing much for my well-being. Ironically, people keep asking me if everything’s okay because I’m not on Facebook, and how do I explain that I got off the social network to get okay?

There they were, my glowing posts from Istanbul, Tokyo, and New York City, my tales of adventures in the West Bank and the Baltic Sea, the stories I’d written and magazines I’d edited, my clever commentary on current affairs, all rounded off by likes and comments from people I’d met (or not) at some point in my life — irrevocable proof that I’d once been successful, popular, joyful, happy even. —Kati Krause

I get most of my news and commentary from Twitter (I have a television and cable, but I mostly use my TV to stream movies since TV is exhausting), but I’ve started to notice that it’s making me enraged to a point beyond productivity. I became consumed with the James Deen rape allegations and a world seemingly filled with rape apologists and misogynists. That women have to be a certain kind of woman to be a victim. That a woman has to follow a specific kind of binary protocol in the event that she’s pillaged. A woman always has to be something acceptable while men are forever given free passes and pats on the head. A woman is forever at work to please, conform, and self-correct while a man kicks back in his incredulity. I read about my country, one built on the rape and pillage of others for white gain (because let’s be serious), humiliating itself with its hysteria and phobia against anyone not white and male, on a global magnitude. I watch white men consistently mass-murder children, women and innocent people…but let’s not rush to judgment and call them terrorists because they were misunderstood, lone wolves, and they were never held as a child. I watch people practice their fatalism and talk about judgments and afterlives while I fume because we’re in the here and now and money and power hold greater value than the lives of the innocents.

I read about my country, one built on the rape and pillage of others for white gain (because let’s be honest), humiliating itself with its hysteria and phobia against anyone not white and male, on a global magnitude. I watch white men consistently mass-murder children, women and innocent people…but let’s not rush to judgment and call them terrorists because they are misunderstood, lone wolves, and they were never held as children. I watch people practice their fatalism and talk about judgments and afterlives while I fume because we’re in the here and now and money and power hold greater value than the lives of the innocents.

In short, I want to be informed and participate in the world but the world is exhausting me to a point where I log on to the internet and wonder what kind of bullshit I’ll encounter on any particular day.

Not necessarily a healthy or balanced way to live–don’t think I haven’t recognized this.

On the flipside I see (and sometimes participate in) posturing. The refrain of this is my fabulous life! The thing from which I escaped on Facebook follows me on the blogs I read (where everyone tells me that I need to buy this and that because doing so will enable them to buy this and that), to what I experience on a daily basis (wouldn’t it be nice to Instagram that doughnut just to show everyone that I’m! So! Happy! because being blue is so passé and violently uncomfortable). I guess part of my anger comes from my obsession with consumption (and all its good and ills) and resentment that I sometimes play into it.

I’m trying to learn how to get information and opinions while practicing a degree of detachment toward it. Right now, I’m too sensitive and attached. I’m slowly learning to spend less time online and more time being present in the lives of people I know and love. Spending more time reading books that awaken me and films that make me laugh out loud. Spending more time eating donuts and trying to refrain from documenting it. Spending more time being in the world rather than scrolling through it. Spending more time realizing my anger won’t change the world. Spending less time thinking about what people wish for me to be. Work in progress. Work in progress.

new fiction*: this is our playground

Sad, depressed black man in a empty room, low light

 

Nobody told Marlon that he would grow up hustling rock. He was thirty years old when he died, but he had the face of a boy fresh out of the crib leaping onto the playground. Kicking sand out of sandboxes and twisting the iron chains that held up tire swings. Yet underneath his skin you’d find scales webbing from his hands to the small of his back and cartons of cigarettes smoked down to the filter. Meaning, he came out of the womb all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? even though he was far from the aging actress whose star had managed to darken an already black sky. You know how the story ends and how it wasn’t supposed to be what it was, but if you’re game and have the time lean in for a listen. Because nobody did suffering like Marlon—he reached for the dark far more than he stood in the sun.

 

Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp, but you could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.

 

People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.

 

What kind of lie are you living, said Eve’s friend when she learned that Eve was pregnant again. There you go thinking that another kid will increase your monthly check. Eve was carrying a boy and the father was who knows because it was 1974 and there was a party every night, and Eve sang the Chi-Lites on volume ten to all the boys in the room even though she didn’t have a movie star voice. Instead, Eve had the kind of body you wanted to wind around bed sheets. Eve swore this was the last one and what she was going to do—kill the boy in her body? Girl, please. Pause your nonsense. Marlon wasn’t about a paycheck; he’s going to be good to his mama. He’s going to be the one man who stays.

 

The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?

 

Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing. Two months later Eve brought him home and the girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered how five pounds of hostility could cause so much ruin. Behind his back, the girls called Marlon the leftover child because he was what remained when your mother got passed around one too many times. Even Eve knew that her child would be like all the other men in her life, a body that slept on top of sheets, never between them. One foot poised at the edge of the bed, ready to run. Six months in the womb, and already the boy was making a break for it—Eve had all the evidence she needed.

 

Notice how no one’s claiming him, said one daughter whose father came by once a month with Starburst and coloring books. Someone beat him hard with the ugly stick, the other two laughed while Marlon crawled around the linoleum. They kept the shades drawn; they lived a house where the light couldn’t get in. The girls sidestepped his groping hands while Eve worked the night shift. Rarely was he kissed. Rarely was he held.

 

Bitch, what did I tell you about touching me, said Marlon riding a girl called Lenny. He was thirteen and spent his days bussing to a magnet school in Park Slope and hitting up any girl who had grass on the field come evening. Marlon preferred girls who looked like “before” photos because they were grateful for the crumbs while the “afters” were throwing attitude in every direction. Marlon pushed Lenny off the bed to work on his exponents. Why did everyone need to get physical? You can at least help me with my homework, she grumbled pulling on her clothes. Peering over his shoulder, Marlon laughed. Are you wearing Care Bear underwear? Shit. You need to take your ass back to remedial because the only way you’re going to learn math is by lying on the bed issuing numbers to the homeboys outside the door. Now go on and get the fuck out of my house.

 

Marlon rode the bus to Bed Sty to hang with Eric, who was putting together the money to make a record. Marlon amused Eric because of the way he could do complicated math in his head. You threw numbers at the young brother and he gave you an answer on the exhale, and Eric thought some kid speed-balling multiplication tables in the chorus might make a rhyme worth repeating. Why Marlon wanted to mess around with the corner boys mystified Eric, but he never mentioned it and always slipped Marlon a twenty just for stopping by. Eric knew it took two trains and a bus for Marlon to stand on the corner shuffling his feet and eating Dipsy Doodles while all the base heads on the block lifted their shirts for a piece of the rock, thinking their skin was going to help the cause. You’re going to catch the fade, the boys hollered back, shielding their eyes with their hands because they all knew the story of Medusa and they didn’t want to turn to stone. One day Eric leaned in and said, I heard about your mom, and Marlon shrugged his shoulders because, so what, he hardly knew the woman. You don’t miss what you don’t have, even when the woman’s body whittled down to a mess of scraggly limbs and bone and flashing going out of business signs. You don’t love what you don’t know, even when the lesions told the story of a woman who’d been passed around one time too many. When Eve died no one rented the apartment she lived in, even after the super bleached the place and repainted the walls because no one wanted to live in the same place where a disease you couldn’t cure had festered and bred.

 

When Eve’s body was laid into a casket, Marlon ate stolen hog dogs in the park, crying his own quiet, miracle baby tears. That summer there was no shade, only sun, and it was gold and blinding. That summer Marlon slept naked on a bed stripped of sheets because even the fabric hurt. Cotton threatened his skin. Everyone was watching reruns of Good Times, talking about when times were good. Girls were discussing their tag names—Coco, Sugar, or Queen Lethal—because no one wanted to sit in their skin.

 

The year Eve died we found out our pastor got the sickness too and was on his knees praying for forgiveness. The Lord ain’t got time for that bullshit, said everyone on the block, passing around cups of Folgers from Ginny’s pot. Some cowboys from the Bronx shot Eric at point-blank range because everyone was having greed for dinner. Nobody made a record that year. The corner boys filed into Eric’s house for potato salad and pork cutlets, and Marlon was so tense he couldn’t speak except to whisper the times table in front of Eric’s high school graduation photo taped to his mom’s fridge.

 

Marlon was a black boy born blue, but he kept on breathing.

 

The black and white television cast the room in blue and Marlon leaned over the edge of the bed to where Felicia watched a late night movie about a man who killed a woman and got away with it, and said, I could be your daddy if you want me to. Felicia stared at the television screen, unblinking when she said, that’s not what I’m looking for. She was eight and he could tell she appreciated the sentiment. You’re a little young to be watching a movie about girls getting killed. Felicia shrugged her shoulders, smiled and pointed to the screen covered in snow. What’s on there is no different than what’s out there. They sat alone in the dark like a Hopper painting, and Marlon had to agree. You had to give it to the girl—she had a point. Marlon heard her mother spray the perfume that smelled like real flowers instead of the fake ones everyone had in their homes, and Felicia said in a small voice, how long are you going to stay, Marlon—longer than the rest? I don’t know, he said. Maybe I’ll hang a while.

 

Earlier that day: you remember my boy, Eric? Oh, you don’t? But you know your son, right? Little T? Here’s a picture I took of him—I like to think of this as the before because the after snap you don’t want to see. It’ll be one the coroner takes once they fish your boy out of the river. I wish you were there to watch Little T beg for his life, but don’t worry, I made you a tape and I’m going to play it for you twice. Marlon lived for the unexpected plot twist.

 

Marlon’s home became a revolving door of need. You’re crazy for selling crack where you rest at, said his boy Jamal. There was his eldest sister who was already burning a hole through the door after cashing her check. Maria was angling for a family discount, and if that didn’t work they could negotiate a friendlier rate. Put your clothes back on, Marlon said, shutting his eyes. Maria wrapped a blanket around her and cried playground tears at the kitchen table. They’re coming for me because my baby girl died in her sleep. I can hear them, she said, knocking on the wall. They’re in here, in the walls, listening. We have to be quiet; you have to give me a little taste so they go away. So I can to sleep. Remember mama and how she used to sing us to sleep? Marlon shrugged his shoulders because the only songs he remembered where the ones she sang on the other side of his wall, never in his room.

 

Marlon held his sister’s trembling hand over a bowl of spaghetti. Maria begged for darkness and unmolested sleep. Felicia turned nine and from the other room she said: just give her what she wants. Maria passed out on the couch. Marlon held his head in his hands while Felicia drew tears under Maria’s eyes with a ballpoint pen. In a year’s time, Felicia will lie in a morgue with a hangtag tied around her wrist and Maria will lie unconscious, a price tag swinging from her bedpost like a pendulum. But now, right now, Felicia was crying the tears she drew on Maria’s face. Sometimes your sadness scares me, Marlon said. Sometimes it scares me too.

 

Sad wasn’t a good enough word for what Felicia was—Marlon would sooner or later learn this.

 

Marlon didn’t like pools because they reminded him of oversized coffins. But he liked to swim so he took a pretty girl named Luz to Brighton Beach. Luz was the kind of girl you got when you were big enough to sell rock on consignment. What was she going to do in Brighton? There were no fun house mirrors, cyclones, and Nathan’s Famous—at Brighton Russian grandmas, overcharging for the air you breathed, surrounded you. Marlon and Luz split a knish when Marlon asked if she ever considered that a single haircut could ruin a whole doll’s life? When he was small his sister passed down a life-sized doll called Big Michelle whose eyes had fallen out. He carried Big Michelle everywhere until some B-boys hanging out behind the A&P knocked out his front teeth because boys don’t play with dolls and you should happy we’re teaching you a lesson. Marlon dragged Big Michelle along the pavement and when he got home he set fire to her hair and cut where the flames didn’t go.

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When you’re small your mother tells you to be careful when you cross the street. Look both ways. But sometimes your mother isn’t there or she looks away when you cross or doesn’t say anything at all. Boys who broke out from the womb were bound to find their way, right?

 

You’re creeping me out, Luz said while perfecting her hair flip. Tell me about Felicia. I heard you were the one who found her body. I heard they found pieces of her skull in the alleyway. Marlon punched Luz in the middle of the street, and everyone looked the other way. When she got home she told everyone who would listen about what Marlon did, and then she called a brother in the Bronx and told him a story about a boy named Little T. A month later neighbors reported a smell and the police found Marlon in the bathtub with a knife in his head.

 

Marlon was a black boy born blue, and one day he stopped breathing. The police found a notebook he kept, and inside was a torn piece of paper and the words: you stayed longer than most. Know that you did the best you could do. –Felicia

 


*It’s been challenging to write in this space over the past month because I’ve become so absorbed in this story collection. Right now I’ve 140 pages of stories about women in and out of peril, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The stories span decades, class and racial boundaries, and it’s been a joy to move in and out of voices. I’m living off meager savings, but I believe in this project so much that I’m commissioning custom illustrations and photography to take these pieces to another level–for you to feel something deeper about what’s written on the page. Right now I’m using images from Unsplash.com as place-holders but I’ve got exciting plans for this. I’ve published a complementary story, “Broke Land”, on Medium and There Was No Shade, Only Sun. And while most might think this endeavor to be silly or not financially sound (because story collection), I’m enjoying this. I’m enjoying this regardless if people read it, regardless if it’s published in book form. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I love writing them. If you love this, why not share it with someone else? –FS

on regret and losing time

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For a man can lose neither the past nor the future; for how can one take from him that which is not his? So remember these two points: first, that each thing is of like form from everlasting and comes round again in its cycle, and that it signifies not whether a man shall look upon the same things for a hundred years or two hundred, or for an infinity of time; second, that the longest lived and the shortest lived man, when they come to die, lose one and the same thing…As for life, it is a battle and a sojourning in a strange land; but the fame that comes after is oblivion. –Marcus Aurelius

I’ve had the most extraordinary few days in Seattle. I spent time with old friends and bought a tower of new books written by new-to-me authors. I wore bulky sweaters; I feasted on sandwiches that had both bacon and prosciutto, and I cuddled with all the animals. Yet…I feel really sad. And old.

I came to Seattle to see Sarah Hepola read. Reading her book put my heart on pause because I felt as if she had described my life-long love affair with booze. Like Sarah, I thought it was perfectly normal to pre-game (economics!), drink hard and fast (I can keep up with the boys!), and lose time (because everyone has blackouts when they drink, right?) Drinking was fun until it was no longer fun and by then you’re finding excuses to remain in a committed abusive relationship rather than make plans for escape. I’ve spent nine years sober with one really bad two-month relapse, and not drinking has been the best gift I’ve given to myself. And although it doesn’t do me any good to think about regrets, to talk about what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel as if I lost so much time, and I’m now racing to fill the gaps the drink edged away. I have to write because there were so many years I didn’t write. I have to create, produce. I have to…I have to…

And then I sit in a chair, by myself, before Sarah’s reading and a woman next to me makes small talk. She’s new to Seattle, new to books, and talks about all the people she needs to meet, all the people who are good to know. I nod and don’t say much, only that I live in Los Angeles and I was moved by Sarah’s story of addiction and recovery. The woman smiles and it occurs to me that she’s young, nearly half my age, and I spend most of the evening talking to friends, enjoying readings and parties, but all the while thinking–you are not young.

You’ve lost so much time.

Trust me, I know all of the antecedents. All the ways in which I could respond to those words: you’ve lost so much time. While others are frightened of aging, so much so they’ll slather cream on their faces and inject botulism in their body, I don’t mind my age–I only regret the time I lost. All the years I simply do not remember. All the mistakes I’ve made, people I’ve hurt, words and time I can’t get back.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day in my friend’s co-working space, working on a new story. I met a recent transplant from New York, and as it turns out we both worked at HarperCollins and we know many of the same people in book publishing. We talked about the business of books, but mostly books, rattling off authors we haven’t read and the many we’ve yet to read. Our refrain: There’s not enough time! In that room of three, I felt the most at home. I felt like when I was 24, right before I started the Columbia program, and I read books for the simple pleasure of enjoying them. I didn’t read them to social climb, to know the sometimes unseemly details behind the books–I read books because I felt less alone. So for a brief moment I tried to forget the fifteen years that span not knowing and knowing and it felt good to be suspended, trapped, in a kind of guileless wonder.

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And while I spent an evening with really lovely people, heard a host of talented writers read–I felt…small. And alone. I listened to a young spoken word poet and I envied his fresh face and verve. His was a world filled with so much possibility, while I felt like the old woman in the back smoking a cigarette, coughing that deep guttural cough, telling the kids there’s no Santa Claus. No fairy comes down and swoops under your pillow. It’s your mother exchanging your teeth for spare change. New doesn’t exist anymore, and if it does it’s hard to find. New is what you need to create for yourself not what you so casually encounter. Because, by now, people have their opinions of me and my work, and much of that is hard to change or undo and depending on the person I don’t have the energy to do the work. To say, yeah, this was me ten years ago but I’m not that person now. I’m this person, who writes these things, and lives this life. And even though I met extraordinary people, part of me just wanted to crawl home and under the covers, clutching my pile of books.

And this image, my want for it, made me so fucking sad.

I read an article last week, about a man who died alone. A whole life reduced to mystery. I read the piece, heartbroken, and the first thing I said after was, ha, that’ll probably be me. There will exist a time when everything I write here will be erased, my small books will be out of print, the stories I write which few people read will be replaced by some other social network, and I will have no children because I’ve made a conscious decision to not have children. Because you don’t have children because you’re frightened that your life didn’t have meaning or won’t be remembered and passed on. You have children because you want to shepherd a new life into the world and hold their hand along the way.

My friends in their 50s and 60s still call me a kid even though I’m in the nascent stages of talking about purpose. Even though I lament about what I lost and how little time I have left to do what I need to do.

Do I wish I could be that young spoken word poet who has the privilege of having the world unfurl in front of him anew? You better fucking believe it. Do I wish I could have done so much over? Yes. Do I know the antecedent story of all! the! things! you! can! do! now! Yes, yes, yes. Of course. But it doesn’t make this sadness, this loss, any easier to bear.

I stayed up late last night curled up next to my friend’s cat (below–isn’t he ADORB) and felt a kind of peace.

And yes, I realize this post is self-absorbed, emo, and kind of sad, but that’s how I feel right now. Sad.

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