Day 1,466: Sympathy for the Devil

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 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.

Day 1,119 (+3): Talking with Belle

Belle from Tired of Thinking About Drinking changed my life, full stop. So when she asked me to be on her podcast, I had one of those Wayne-and-Garth “I’m not worthy!” moments. Like I should be asking her to be on my podcast, you know? Except I don’t have a podcast, of course. So the only real option was to kick my unworthiness to the curb and say “Yes, please!”

It was a blast. We were supposed to talk for 25 minutes and we went on for an hour. About writing, being anonymous vs. public, being jealous of other people’s blog titles (hi Jean!), , Moving Day in Quebec (so weird), and whether I am on a mission (Belle thinks maybe yes, and I don’t know what I think). The +3 in this post title gets explained, too.

You can listen here.

Enjoy!

 

Day 1,085: Twenty Questions

I saw spiked seltzer at Whole Foods last week: yes, water with booze in it. It reminded me for some reason of those online alcoholism self-assessments. Imagine if one of the questions were “Do you buy alcoholic water?” If you answered yes, you’d skip all the remaining questions and go straight to a page that said “YOU IN DANGER, GIRL.”

I don’t know about you, but I always found those quizzes pretty easy to game because they were so focused on big external consequences: jail, divorce, job loss. My drinking never led to those things–just, you know, a blunted heart and shrinking life, which in certain circles just look like adulthood. My own Cosmo Quiz for Progressive, Life-Ruining Addiction would have looked something more like this:

  1. Do you drink every day?  Y/N
  2. Do you frequently have more than 1 drink in a day? Y/N
  3. “One drink” is a) 5 liquid ounces; b) 5 liquid ounces plus unlimited top-ups made when no one else is looking; c) it depends on how victimized I feel that day; d) I drink to escape bourgeois concepts like ‘ounces’ and ‘measurement.’ God.
  4. Has your drinking led to anyone seeing you naked who maybe kind of shouldn’t have?
  5. When I say ‘the five a.m. fear’ do you know what I mean?
  6. Did you have the five a.m. fear today? Will you have it tomorrow?
  7. Are you overly proud of times you don’t drink? Before five, at business dinners, when you have the flu? Do you feel pretty special about having this one limit?
  8. How tired are you? Not in numbers. In words.
  9. Do you lie to your doctor about how much you drink? Your trainer? Your hairdresser?
  10. Select one: The sexual choices I make while drinking are more/less dubious than the already arguably dubious sexual choices I make while sober.
  11. Has anyone ever suggested you cut down on drinking? a) Yes; b) Yes but only assholes; c) No, because I’m lying to everyone; d) Why? What have you heard? Who is talking about me?
  12. T/F: I seek out cinemas with bar service to relieve the terrible stress of watching a movie in a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned room.
  13. T/F: I feel angry when people leave wine in their glasses.
  14. How scared are you? Not in words. In numbers.
  15. T/F: Drinking as much as I want whenever I want is the primary way I express my feminism.
  16. T/F: I tried to quit drinking once and failed.
  17. Did you fall down the first time you ever tried to walk? Y/N If yes, are you still lying on the floor in your little overalls and saddle shoes, or did you eventually haul your ass up and try again?
  18. Fill in the blank: One year from today _____________.
  19. Fill in the blank: Five years from today ____________.
  20. Cat got your tongue? It’s okay. This quiz is not timed. Those blanks aren’t going anywhere.

Day 1,073: Going Long

“Physical pain?” my shrink says.

“None,” I answer.

“Fatigue?”

“A little.”

It’s a standard inventory that she goes through every week, with all her patients, not just me. (Well, I don’t think it’s just me. Oh my god. Do you think it’s just me?) A list of life elements to which I answer lots, some, a little, or none. Depression, anxiety, physical pain, fatigue.

Anger, grief, competence, pleasure? A little, a little, some, some. Would I know I was grieving if someone didn’t ask me? I’m not sure. Try it: set an alarm once a week and ask yourself what you’re mourning.

“Suicidal thoughts?”

“None.” Never. I grew up in a suicide threat-rich environment. It inoculated me against any personal interest.

“Hopelessness?”

“None.”

“That’s good,” she says, writing something down.

“I mean, futility, yes,” I say. She looks up from her legal pad. “But in like, a Sisyphus sense. I wouldn’t call it hopeless per se.” My shrink tilts her head to one side. “Hopelessness is a very specific word,” I explain.

“Well,” she says. “Maybe we should come back to this.”

***

A few days later I drive to a park outside Seattle to watch people run a 200-mile trail race. Well, to be fair, only the crazy people are doing 200; the normal folks are only running 100 or 150. On a 10-mile loop course. The first time I ran a half-marathon, at the end of Mile 1 I thought See? That was easy! And you only have to do it 12 more times–a thought I immediately wished I had suppressed. I wonder now if any of the runners finished that first loop, said Only 19 more! to themselves, and then, I don’t know, tore all their clothes off and started spinning in circles crying and screaming.

I’m here to steal details for an ultra-marathon that takes place in my novel. Also, my husband is pacing a friend for one loop, though I may not even see them while I’m here. And then of course there’s my middle-distance runner’s curiosity for just how far this so-called hobby can be pushed, not to mention…

Oh, fuck it. All of the above is true, but really? I’m here to see what futility looks like. I’m a futility tourist.

Big races can feel like county fairs, with massage tents and shoe showcases and kids’ 1K runs and all the free sports drink and glucose gel you can stand. This is not that. This is a few rented tents, a whiteboard for tracking time (no shoe-tag sensors here), and a half-dozen people grilling hot dogs and tofu pups. The only way  I know the organizers even have a permit is because I hear one guy ask “Should we get out the beer?” and another guy say “Well, I told King County we wouldn’t have any beer.”They agree to wait for cover of darkness.

It’s gray, chilly, and drizzling–ideal running weather, actually, but not so great for spectating. My Raynaud’s finger turned shock-white in minutes. It’s been doing that for 20 years with no pain or progression, but I still take a moment to worry every time it happens. With that task checked off, I plant myself midway between trail and tents and settle in to wait for some human suffering.

The first sufferer to emerge from the forest trail is a 40-something, robustly healthy-looking black woman. Huh, I think, having expected a tall, wiry, bearded white man like the ones in the tent. “Hey girl!” the woman calls out to the tent guys as she approaches. “Hey girl!” the tent guys call back. She eats a couple of hot dogs, chats for a bit about the Subaru one of the tent guys just bought, then heads back out–smiling–while we all clap. I think she must just be getting started. But no: “Just three to go!” the keeper of the whiteboard says. That means that even if she’s only (‘only’) doing the 100-mile distance, she’s already run 70. I don’t know about you, but I would have stopped grinning and “Hey girling!” by mile 65, 66 at most.

A few minutes later another woman comes trotting out of the woods. Here is my second chance to see a human being struggling not to come apart in the face of nothingness. This woman is less chatty than the first. She grabs some potato chips, visits the Port-a-John, and goes right back out. “Hey, you forgot to ask my number!” she calls over her shoulder.

“Oh yeah, what’s your number?” the timekeeper asks, though he’s already marked down her time.

“867-5309,” she says, and disappears around the bend.

What is wrong with these people? I think. Do they not understand that this is a desperate situation?

***

“Tell me more about the futility,” my shrink says.

I pick up a throw pillow and clutch it on my lap. “Okay, let’s say I actually manage to find a publisher for my book,” I tell her. “And let’s say it earns out the advance, or close enough.”

“You publish a successful book,” she says.

I cringe. “‘Successful’ is a complicated word. Let’s say it does well enough that the publisher wants another one.” She nods in assent, or acceptance. “Then I’ll have to write another one.”

“I thought you wanted to write another one,” she says.

“I do. That’s not the point,” I say. “And then there’s work. Things are going well there. I feel valued, like genuinely valued.”

She smiles. “Certainly has been sounding that way for a while now.”

“But what happens when you do well at work?” I ask her. “They ask you to do more work. That’s the best case scenario. Doing more work. Like the best case scenario for writing a book is writing another book. Even with running, the best case scenario is you don’t get hurt and you can keep doing it.”

She leans forward a little. “But unless something has drastically changed and I don’t know, you love all these things.”

“I do,” I tell her. “But still, isn’t it kind of horrific that they just go on and on and on? And then, you know, after that I’m going to die.”

***

Finally! A man who fits my vision of an ultra runner ambles out of the woods. Well over six feet tall, with brown dreadlocks almost to his knees. Minimalist shoes. Tattoos on painful-looking parts of his legs–calves, the backs of his thighs. At the aid tent, they ask what he’d like to eat and I wait for him to say something like I am nourished by the spirits in the trees and pull a chewed-up root out of his shorts.

“How about something to make me run faster, not feel pain, and be in a better mood,” the man says. “A steroid smoothie, maybe?”

“We have pizza,” someone says.

“Even better!”

I notice then that he’s carrying retractable hiking poles and limping a bit. While he’s loading up on pizza, a woman comes in, also limping, and ducks into a tent to sleep for an hour. Shortly after she zips herself in, another man appears. Unlike every other racer I’ve seen so far, he’s full-on running, not shuffling or walking. Also unlike the others, he doesn’t stop to eat or pee.

“RUNNING SUCKS BALLS!!!” he yells as he flies past us. The dreadlocked man watches him go and says, “Hard to argue with that.”

Over the next hour I start to see things I didn’t before. That almost every runner is walking kind of funny, for instance. That their approaches and departures are slow even by my standards. That though their aid tent breaks are downright leisurely compared to the water stops at a normal-person race, no one sits down. (I ask about this and am told it’s for fear of never getting back up.) That the trekking poles many runners are carrying are for walking the steep uphills, because if you’re going to travel 200 miles you’d better have some plan for pulling your heart out of the red zone.

They are adapting to conditions, in other words, instead of just barreling through. And maybe it’s because anyone who would run this far is preternaturally in tune with his body and mind. But I suspect it’s more that they each learned the hard way at some point that barreling through an 80-hour race just doesn’t work. So if you want to win–never mind that, if you just want to finish–you do what works.

I think about my first year sober, how clear it became about six months in that the new conditions of my life required that its major components not, as the man said, suck balls. I realized I would need a better job, more practice saying no, more sleep. More time outside. More time in general, for walking the uphills.

And did it feel futile, the prospect of stacking up sober day after sober day until the occasion of my glamorous funeral? Uh, yeah. It absolutely felt futile. For a little while. Until I felt steady enough to start noticing all of my surroundings, not just the path in front of me, and realized that time has astonishing density.

***

My shrink can’t really argue with the fact that I’m going to die, though she looks like she might like to. “Well, we all are,” she says.

I shrug. I have decided to prioritize worrying about my own death over the deaths of Everyone Else (the exceptions being close family members, my dogs, and, for reasons I cannot explain, Michael Stipe).

“Do you think you’re going to die young?”

“Not really, but I guess it depends on what ‘young’ means,” I say. It’s just not my day for coping with commonly understood English words.

She stares ahead at her bookshelf for a moment. I think she might be looking for a dictionary to hurl at me, but when she speaks again, she speaks softly.

“You’re perilously close to finally having the life you’ve always wanted,” she says. “It’s not surprising to me that you would panic.”

I loosen my death grip on the throw pillow. “I know,” I tell her. “I know.”

***

It’s really raining now, and I’m hungry, and at home the dogs are getting hungry too. I decide I’ll leave, though a big part of me wants to stay and watch the whole calm, plodding spectacle play out in real time, like that Warhol film where a man sleeps for eight hours. As I’m heading to the car I spot my husband John sucking down some Gu at the aid tent–he must have finished his pacer loop while I wasn’t looking. He seems pretty chipper for someone who just ran ten miles. “It was great,” he says. “I could have done another one. I mean literally another one.” His friend is already back on the trail alone, with 30 miles to go.

John walks me to my car and sees the bag I keep there with a set of running clothes and my second-best pair of shoes, for times I want to go out for a few miles and haven’t planned ahead. “Never too late to join,” he jokes. And for a moment, my body wants to do exactly that. I can already feel the tightness of my ponytail, the damp air on my mostly bare legs, the subtle pooling of blood in my fingertips–even the ache in my upper back that sets in when I go long and my rhomboids decide to do some of the work. How good it would feel, I think, to be out there, with those people, in the weather and the tedium and the pain, trying and doing on the hamster wheel where I belong.