Saturday was my fourth soberversary. I went into the archives looking for my third anniversary post, thinking I’d write something about what’s changed since then. Turns out I didn’t write an anniversary post last year. But I did write one starting like this about a month before my third:
“My heart: I’ve been working hard to keep it on lockdown. To use it tactically, like Aleppo pepper or some other wonderful spice that will take over a dish if you let it. And only on the page. Because I’m on the march, with no time for surprise feelings. I have goals. I have things to prove to people who were mean to me in 1978 and 1990 and also this April. I have losses we can’t talk about. I have chips on my shoulder like you wouldn’t believe. I’m sculptural with them.”
People: do you know what this means? It means NOTHING HAS CHANGED.
I mean, come on. Can’t a girl evolve a little in a year?
Okay, it’s true that a lot of stuff has happened in the meantime. For instance, those goals I mentioned? The big one was to find a publisher for my book, and as you might already know, I did. (And not just a publisher, but my dream publisher.) The final manuscript is due at the end of the month, which, yes, I KNOW IS VERY SOON, THANK YOU. I’m on it.
My other goal was to take some time away from my job, and I did that too: a four-month sabbatical, to work exclusively on the book once I’d sold it. I’ve always had a job: vacations aside, this was the first time in 20 years I haven’t gone to an office five days a week. I was afraid all that free time might drive me crazy, but it didn’t. I loved it. I loved having the book to devote myself to, and the empty space around the book for letting it breathe, and letting myself breathe, too. I could go all in on the writing–to where it really hurt–knowing I had the luxury of recovery time. It felt absolutely right. (I’m back at work now, and that’s fine too.)
And of course a few months after I wrote the post above, I published “Enjoli” because I felt invisible as a writer and had, also per the above, a chip on my shoulder (one of many) about it. And “Enjoli” turned my whole life upside down. That was weird, right? Sometimes I think oh come on, get a grip, essays go viral all the time. And maybe they do, but still. To go from anonymity to the BBC to German translation to being trashed in the New York Post and so on in the space of a week was weird. Almost a year later, I see that the great blessing of the “Enjoli” experience is that the range of reaction was SO vast that it was a crash course in learning that I truly can’t control how my work is received by readers. Which feels a little horrifying, but mostly liberating. I think it means I can just keep doing my own peculiar thing in the best way I know how and trust that someone will care, and that they’ll care a lot more than if they were getting a watered-down, please-everyone version of me. And that’s convenient because honestly, my interest in being America’s Sweetheart is at an all-time low ebb, and that’s saying something.
Finally, God knows (and if you’ve read my last post, you know) I’ve had some loss, too. Loss doesn’t feel any easier than it did a year ago–harder, actually. But last year’s losses were ones I couldn’t talk about. Not so for the new ones. I insisted on talking about these. With my husband because I didn’t want to hang out in the shadows anymore, pretending to be the perfect wife instead of an authentic one. With my friend because continuing to talk around the feelings between us had come to seem as dangerous to our friendship as acknowledging them. These were risky, hard talks and also really good ones. I feel in some ways like a new and more textured woman, a new and realer wife. (With time, I hope maybe a new and deeper friend.) Like something has permanently shifted and made more space to move around in.
And of course, that only happened because despite what I said last year, I failed in pretty spectacular fashion to keep my heart on lockdown. I tried. But man, I just fucking blew it. I let surprise feelings in, the kind I said I had no time for. At key crossroads I stopped and took a deep breath and consciously allowed myself to be vulnerable and really enjoy the happiness in the moment, knowing I might regret it. Which I don’t, exactly. Sure, some days it just hurts and I have to slip out of the office for five minutes to sit in my car in the parking garage and regroup. Some days I just wish I were a little tougher, or at minimum a little smarter. But other days I’m walking downtown with “Sympathy for the Devil” on my headphones, and I feel as self-contained and sinuous as a snake and the irresistible future uncoils in front of me, and I wouldn’t change a thing that’s happened.
But where’s the balance between those states? Is there a safe-ish, gentler way to manage an expanding heart? Because I won’t lie: a year since I announced mine was on lockdown, that’s been sounding pretty good again. Well, I guess lockdown is a failed strategy. But what’s to stop me from assembling a team of the most brilliant scientists on earth to create a special lacquer that will make my heart as glossy as a candy apple, and just as hard to crack? As I start year five, that’s the question that haunts me: whether I can resist the lure of contraction and find a way to live with curiosity and grace in this new openness, this wider self and life, even when I feel lost and alone inside it. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.