Day 1,731: Longcuts

“Why does this never get any easier?” I groaned to my trainer last week in the middle of deadlifting.

He looked confused. “Well, because we keep adding weight to the bar. You could only lift half this much a year ago.”

I had to concede his logic, even if it didn’t really answer my question.


The main thing about me is I never think I’m making any progress. Yesterday, for example, I happened to read about the six 2018 books chosen for a special “Buzz Book” panel at a major book industry conference. That’s six books total, across all genres, out of thousands published in a given year. It had never once occurred to me that mine could be one of the six… until I saw that it wasn’t. And then I sort of deflated. Your book is just not the kind of book that creates buzz, I told myself. It’s a weird book, by a weird person. Just get used to that. 

I moped around for a while and then I saw the online table of contents for the spring issue of a literary magazine that recently accepted one of my essays. In fact, I thought they’d accepted it for the spring issue, except uh oh, why wasn’t it listed? Maybe they changed their minds after accepting it and just forgot to tell me, I thought. Because the essay is actually so forgettable that they didn’t even remember someone wrote it. 

“Hey babe,” said my unsuspecting husband, coming in from a run in the park. “Oh hey,” I said, then explained the ways in which my career had fallen apart in the past hour. “It seems very likely that I will dwell in mediocrity,” I said gravely. “I have walked away from a successful career with money to an unsuccessful one with no money.” (Did I mention that I left my day job a few weeks ago?)

“Or maybe you’re putting a ton of weight on two very small data points,” he said. “One of which would have been like being struck by lightning, and the other of which may very well be an error.”

“Oh please,” I said. “I have had years of cognitive behavioral therapy. I know all about binary thinking and catastrophizing and projecting and the rest of it. That doesn’t mean my career can’t still be falling apart. Hypochondriacs do get cancer, you know.”

Seeking someone who would understand just how bad things had gotten, I texted a writer friend about being dropped by the literary quarterly. “Why don’t you drop a friendly email asking what’s up?” she said. I had to admit it sounded reasonable. So I did, taking pains to sound breezy and oh-hey-just-curious. I got a response less than an hour later, saying my piece is scheduled for the summer issue. Because hypochondriacs do get cancer, but they also flail around in a panic a lot over nothing.


Panic, self-doubt, fear: all just standard stuff in a writer’s life, right? Except consider these facts:

  • In the late 90s, the last time I was trying to place work in literary journals, the one that’s publishing me this summer rejected me nine or ten times. This time around, they asked me to write something for them.
  • The only reason I could freak out over not being one of six Buzz Books is because I have a book coming out this summer, from one of the finest literary publishers in America, the publisher of my dreams, who have made my manuscript into a gorgeous book that has been circulating and getting industry blurbs and other enthusiastic comments that make me dizzy. 
  • And the only reason said manuscript exists is that I wrote it. For eighteen months I spent every weekend and most nights writing, and the book was on my mind in some way 24-7, like an earworm or a tinnitus buzz. My brain became a two-story house and I learned to live on both floors at once.
  • And the only reason I could write a book is that six months into sobriety,  I sat down on impulse one day and wrote a page of a short story, just to see if I had any muscle memory left after a decade away from writing. And then I did it again, and again. I kept sitting down to write because it felt good. I told my husband I didn’t care if I ever got published, or if anyone ever even saw what I wrote; I just wanted to be doing it. And I meant it.
  • And if you’d told me on that day that I’d ever leave my day job, I wouldn’t have believed it. And not just because I couldn’t have foreseen a writing career for myself. Because I thought someone as mediocre as me was lucky to have a job at all, that I’d somehow been tricking my employer into keeping me around. I was two years sober before I started to clearly see how good I was at my job, and over three when it dawned on me that my employer was probably never going to value me the way I needed to feel valued, and over four by the time it hit me that instead of just resigning myself to feeling overlooked, I could leave, make a new life for myself where I could shine and be seen.

That was four years ago. Four years from “Do I still know how to write a good sentence?” to “Why was my book not one of six chosen from thousands to showcase at BookExpo?” Four years from “Who else would ever hire me?” to “Who wouldn’t want to hire me?” The person I was four years ago would say “My God, 2018 Kristi sounds like an ego monster.” But 2018 Kristi (which should totally be the title of a Prince song) isn’t an ego monster. She just knows what she’s worth, and she knows it because she did every fucking bit of the work to get here. There were no shortcuts; if anything, there were longcuts, because the hard way is the way I always go.

I guess I must like the hard way.


But the hard way is slow and progress only piles up in retrospect. Years ago, ending an obsessive long-distance love affair, I couldn’t see that two days without talking or writing was twice as long as we’d ever made it before. I could only white-knuckle each hour and dwell on how that would never change. Finishing a difficult essay last month, I complained to anyone who would listen about the agony of only knowing what I think through the act of writing it, so that what I know and my ability to express it are never quite in balance; it’s a race with a photo finish.

Not to mention, I raise the stakes all the time. In yoga, I was first taught to do a headstand with my feet on the wall for balance. Over time, I moved a few inches away. Then I started kicking up in the middle of the room. Then I could kick up in the middle of the room and add on variations: leg splits, a twist from the torso, a half-lotus.

“Why does this never get any easier?” I said one day to my teacher, who laughed.

“Why would it?” she said. “You keep moving forward.”

I’ve started writing what I hope will be my next book and the mess of it is making me crazy. I don’t want to have to flounder around in the dark, searching for the voice and the structure. I want to have it all figured out right now and just, you know, type it up. Maybe I don’t actually know how to write a book, I thought the other day. Then I remembered something my friend Claire said, because she’s been where I am now:

“The second book is much harder,” she said. “Because you proved the first time around that you can write a book, and now you want to write a great one. It’s a quantum leap in ambition, and therefore in difficulty. Be prepared.”

I listened when she said this and I nodded gravely and I thought I was prepared. But of course I’m not prepared, because I’ve never been prepared. To quit drinking, to write a game-changing book, to leave a job, to leave a lover, to serpent-twist my legs in midair. I trust that I’ll catch up with myself, somehow, in the ways that matter most. And I keep moving forward.

Day 1,651: Start Stopping

It’s New Years Eve afternoon. I’m at a coffee shop working on a commissioned essay about small matters like marriage and sex and desire and monogamy and how I’m a natural at three out of four. The writing is going…not great, okay? Plus I just ate a pretty disappointing croissant and the little boy behind me is singing the alphabet song over and over, with a dramatic, jazz-hands finish at “W, X, Y, and Z.” It was cute for a while. Sunset is at 4:27 today, which is an improvement over yesterday–but still, I mean, come on. We’re humans, not moles. We deserve better.

My social media feeds today are full of posts about how 2017 was the worst year in memory because of Donald Trump and I confess I don’t quite know what to make of that. Don’t get me wrong–I find the prospect of Donald Trump dying in prison almost pornographically thrilling. His stupidity, his reflexive cruelty, his little white fish-mouth all appall me. Forget mere politics–his presidency offends me on an aesthetic level in how it elevates a way of being in the world that negates wonder and mystery and transcendence. (And once you’re on my aesthetic bad side, you’re pretty much fucked.) Still, seeing him blamed for so much emotional damage awakens my unattractive urge to lecture: don’t give him that much power! Take the long view! Make a monument of your pain! (Because for one thing, he’ll still be president tomorrow. The year may be ending, but he carries over.)

But then I think, what do I know? I’m white, straight, and financially stable. I live in a big blue city.  As a woman, I’m, well, at least less vulnerable than a lot of other women. Sure, if I were otherwise in the demographic crosshairs, it’s entirely possible I too would be saying Donald Trump ruined my year. But he didn’t. It was a good year. It nearly fucking crushed me. I got mostly smarter, a little dumber. I trusted the wrong person and saw that betrayal, like most awful things, is survivable. My field of vision got wide and I shrank from it and then crawled back out and stood up. The bedrock under me turned out to be more solid than I knew, and thank god, because everything that wasn’t bedrock turned to confetti I’ll be picking out of my hair for years. But confetti has its own grace and sparkle.

And I’ll tell you one thing. All of it–the bad croissant; the missing sun; the gorgeous, hammering year–it’s all better than my best New Year’s Eve near the end of my drinking. By this time on those days my mind would be on two things:

  1. Wondering how drunk I’d get, and how bad I’d feel on New Year’s Day. Because once I had that first drink, how many more would follow depended on a mysterious alignment of circumstances, timing, and the secret harmonies of the universe or something, and very little to do with me.
  2. Intending to be a “healthy drinker” the next year, which to me meant having no more than two glasses of wine a day, every day. Intending because I didn’t have any real plan. And to be because I didn’t want to have to do anything. I just wanted to magically be different. 

I mean, who wouldn’t, right? But it was never going to work. Partly because I was never going to be a moderate drinker; moderation took a ridiculous level of effort and focus that killed all the fun. But mostly because I was coming at my so-called intention from a place of massive and (retrospectively) hilarious inertia. In the rest of my life I was a panicked striver, climber, analyzer. But in addiction I wanted nothing less than a revival-tent experience that would make dealing with my problem not just doable, but effortless. I wanted my soul to change before anything else did.

I said my mind was on two things most New Year’s Eves. Eventually there was a third: that nothing was ever going to change, that I would be setting empty intentions for the rest of my life because I was powerless to do anything but hope.

If you’re having the same New Year’s Eve thoughts I used to, my Happy New Year message to you is: it isn’t going to work. You’re not going to intend yourself into moderation or sobriety. And you’re probably not going to trick yourself there via other avenues like dieting or race training, either. If you do manage to back your way in like that, great! But if you’re in really deep, like I was, I suspect your brain is already coming up with workarounds and in six months you’ll be thinking Wow, I trained for a marathon and still didn’t quit drinking! That’s so weird. What should I try next? Yoga? Going back to school? Having another baby? 

The way to stop is to stop. There will be a bottle or glass filled with liquid you want to swallow more than you want to do anything else in the world and you won’t swallow it or even touch it. And it will feel so wrong to not touch it. But that’s how you start stopping. You do something that feels wrong, and you have faith that it’s actually right, that you can’t trust your own brain just yet. Or you don’t have faith and you keep it up anyway, because it doesn’t take faith to change.

That’s not all that’s required to heal from whatever got you here, of course. There are a lot of paths to what they call recovery, most of them involving a lot of uncovering of who you are under that shellac of booze and fear. But most of those paths also start the same way: with you stopping.  You rip the fucking band-aid off and you leave it off.

Recently I was talking to a friend who beat a long-ago cocaine habit. “I thought about it 24-7 for days after I quit,” he said. “And then not 24-7, but still lots of times per day. And then, three weeks in, I went a whole day without cocaine crossing my mind. Realizing that was an unbelievable feeling.” His face lit up when he talked about it, decades after the fact. I could feel mine light up too. “I loved that feeling!” I said, and we both laughed at the memory of it, the head rush of that first taste of freedom from the thing we’d thought we couldn’t live without.

You can get that head rush too. I promise. You can be laughing about it years from now. But first you have to start. You have to pull the band-aid off.


Day 1,605: Book Cover Reveal!

Psst…wanna see what my book looks like? It looks like this: Coulter_NothingGood

I used to work in publishing, so I can tell you that landing the right cover can be tough and involve lots of revisions and arguments. (You’d be surprised how many writers aren’t crazy about the final cover they end up with, simply because the cover that sells a book most effectively may not match the personal vision a writer has been living with for years.) I was already a huge fan of Alex Merto and thrilled he’d be designing my cover. Still, I half-expected to hate the first round of explorations, and opened the file nervously.

Six concepts were included, and I loved FOUR of them and liked the fifth. There was only one that didn’t work at all for me, and even that one was conceptually cool and thoughtful–I just didn’t think it was right for the book. My husband and I sat at the kitchen counter, stunned. “How can they all be this good?” I said. “It’s not normal.

This one, though was the clear winner among winners for both of us–and for my editor, my agent, and the handful of friends I consulted.  And so it was that we landed my dream cover in one round. It’s not lost on me that I went into the process insisting I didn’t want to use any obvious wine imagery, for fear of it looking cliched or too cutesy. I guess a great artist can take the thing you’re sure you won’t like and turn it on its head, because I get more excited about this cover every time I look at it, and I’ve looked at it a lot.

(Same thing happened when I bought my wedding dress, by the way: I marched into the shop grimly determined to buy the plainest, least fairy-princess dress they had, only to eventually walk down the aisle in a gigantic tulle skirt.)

Oh! You can pre-order my book now too, if you’d like. I think you probably should do that. It doesn’t come out till August 8th, so just think of it as buying yourself a late-summer present way in advance. (Another insider tip: healthy pre-orders on Amazon and other online booksellers can help physical stores gauge how much interest there is in a book and make them more likely to stock it.) There will also be an e-book version, of course. But the paperback is so beautiful, and compact enough to tote around in your bag or backpack, so you can take it everywhere you go. (But seriously, I had a vision of a book portable enough for someone to carry around and dip into at lunch or stoplights or whenever, and that’s exactly how it turned out.)

And yes, an audiobook is planned, and it looks like I’ll be reading it myself! (Sorry if you were hoping for Michael Caine as narrator.) I’ll post a pre-order link for that once it’s available.

Isn’t this just amazing? I’m amazed. I’m also still sober. And these two states are connected.

Day 1,586: Tara Still Burned

We interred my father-in-law’s ashes last week. He died eight years ago, but my mother-in-law never got around to scattering the ashes and in the meantime, the Catholic Church made some kind of rule change about who gets into heaven based on how their ashes are handled. I wanted to say, “Oh, come on. If heaven exists, he’s been there for years! What,  they’re going to evict him because of something someone on earth does wrong?” 21 years of marriage to a lapsed Catholic from a very un-lapsed family has brought a lot of those “Wait, what?” moments into my life.

But anyway. We interred the ashes, which made me think back to my father-in-law’s death. “We were both still drinking then,” I said to my husband later. I think back to sitting with his body before the funeral home guys arrived, or receiving visitors that afternoon, or milling around at the memorial reception, and in my memory I always have a glass of wine in my hand. And not just me. Everybody was drinking; well, at least all the Catholics were. (Sorry! I’ll stop.)

My husband nodded. “We were indeed.”

“Do you think you’ll feel tempted to drink the next time something that bad happens?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. What’s the point?”


That’s what it’s come down to for me too, almost four and a half years into sobriety. What’s the point of drinking? Was there ever one? It seems like such a random thing to do, especially in times of trouble. To think “Something happened that I don’t like, so I will consume a depressant that also makes me dumb.” I mean, I guess there’s no real harm if you’re not an alcoholic, if you’re just consuming, like, Scarlett O’Hara’s nip of brandy. But it doesn’t change anything, either. Tara still burned. Rhett still left.

I’ve been thinking about this because the last few months have been troubling for me, and not even in a full-on crisis way, where I could spring into action–more like gray spaces and liminality:

  • I finished my book. It’s in my publisher’s hands now, being edited and designed and proofread and so on. It took me two and a half years to write. Now it’s done, and I’m glad–I needed to be done. But I’m also lost, because it was the center of my life, my lens for seeing the world, and nothing has taken its place yet. What do I orbit around now? I don’t know.
  • Also, it’s finite now. A book starts as nothing but possibility, but eventually–unless you want to be one of those writers who turns in a 3,000 page manuscript ten years late–it has to become a settled thing, an artifact whose beauties and flaws are set. And in a childish, unrealistic way I deeply resent that. I don’t like closing doors. I miss when my book was boundless.
  • I’m scared no one will read it.
  • I’m scared lots of people will read it. To make this book work, I had to put aside the question What will people think of me? I didn’t want to worry about making myself look good, or grasp too hard for the likability often demanded of female characters. I wrote the frank, non-cloying book I wanted to write, and turned it in. And then, after my first meeting with the (huge) marketing and PR team, I went Ohhhhhh. Right. This is going to be offered to the public. The public with people in it. It’s a memoir, after all. I can’t pretend I didn’t actually do the stuff I did.
  • Things are weird in non-book life too. My day job feels both turbulent and static at once in a way I can’t quite pinpoint. I’ve always believed in making my own meaning out of my career, versus waiting for someone to feed it to me. And I know that from time to time, meaning vanishes and needs to be found or re-made. That’s normal–cyclical, even. But this round of it feels unusually frustrating–like I’m alight with brain energy that wants to be solving complex problems but is only being called upon to do easy things.
  • And OMG, the guy I wrote about over the summer–well, I may never fully understand what happened, but I guess he decided his narrative of what happened between us needed a villain, and hey! there I was. It led to him treating me in a clinical, somewhat dehumanizing way that genuinely shocked me because it was so unlike the man I’d known for two years. Given what he’d shared of his history with women–well, that and the few times he sort of congratulated himself for managing not to blame me for our shared situation–I guess I should have foreseen that at some point I’d flip from being an actual person to just some problem to ‘safeguard’ (his word) himself from. But I just didn’t. On top of the shock, I was very angry for a while. But when our paths cross now it’s something oddly like pity I feel that after all his talk of courage and lasting friendship and having a spacious heart, when it really counted he just…shrank. Folded. The way he trashed my trust and good will is unacceptable, but it still makes me sad for him to see him diminished like that.
  • What else? Oh, family stuff where I’m struggling to be helpful without completely trashing my boundaries. A half-written novel I’m trying to get back to while I secretly wonder if fiction even matters in this burning-down world anymore. Not one but two dogs in Cones of Shame (allergy season hotspots). And this guy named Donald Trump–perhaps you’ve heard of him–who seems to be poisoning the groundwater every single fucking day that his mean, racist, rapey, treasonous, astonishingly stupid black hole of a self runs this country. I worry that just existing in his airspace is grinding me down into a subtly worse person. I really do.


So, it’s a lot. How am I coping with it? Well, writing, for one. Running. Intense cross-training. Sleep, walks, friends, therapy, sex, a small bump in Effexor dosage. Live music–19 bands since May, to be precise!–poetry, dogs.

Also: sugar, brooding, excessive clothes shopping, and highly distracting fantasies, with some self-pity and catastrophic thinking just to round things out.

What’s missing? Yep. And not just booze, but the thought of booze. I’m not saying “God, I need a drink” and then consciously choosing Nordstrom or Orangetheory or a concert as a substitute. By now, I’ve genuinely internalized these other strategies for calming down or cheering up. Even a year or two into sobriety, I couldn’t have imagined that.

I also couldn’t have imagined that this level of discomfort would actually be, well, okay. I mean, I don’t love it. But I’m able to step back and see that it didn’t come out of nowhere. I’m in a phase of huge change in nearly every part of my life. More change than when I got sober. And most of it is a joy, or has the potential to be. I’m so curious about what’s going to happen. But even joyful, curious change can kick your ass. I’m getting my ass kicked up and down this year. And I’m fundamentally all right. The center will hold.

And here’s the key thing: even if I weren’t fundamentally all right, I don’t think I’d be drinking. Because I know to my bones now that alcohol doesn’t fucking workEverything that’s hard in my life right now would be so much worse. The guy entanglement would have been a train wreck, and I’d be the one acting like an ass afterward, not him. I’d be chronically exhausted. I’m sure I would have left my company by now because I never would have figured out how to take care of myself in such a rough environment. I’d be in a tailspin over Donald Trump, convinced he had robbed me of all personal agency, vs. just being a catastrophically dangerous president (which is plenty bad enough).

The only thing that would be easier for me as a drinker? The book stress. Because there would be no book. There would be no writing at all. I’d still be convinced that my fundamental purpose on earth had been a youthful phase. And I’d still be passively waiting for something else to take its place. And nothing ever would.

If you’re drinking to solve a problem, know that it isn’t working and it never, ever will. I’m not saying you should stop drinking; that’s your business. Maybe you don’t even drink at harmful levels. It’s still not solving any problems. It’s not helping you sleep. It’s not helping you get to know people, or have better sex. It’s not making bad things un-happen. It’s just blurring your view of those things during the time the alcohol is in your bloodstream. And when it’s out of your bloodstream, whatever you were running from will catch up to you. If you are drinking alcoholically, odds are good that you’ll end up running from more and more, slower and slower.

Here’s the other thing to know: you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to feel all that stuff gaining on you while you struggle to keep moving forward. Because on the other side of drinking, you will be all right. Not as fast as you’d like. But faster than you think. Will you become clean as the driven snow? I kinda doubt it, babe. You might take up smoking, or commence a deep study of chocolate, or get really angry. You might even, uh, become a sober married woman who still manages to get involved with a married man. (Can you believe some people?!) But you can slow down and walk, and see your problems at their actual size, and think about how to hold them with at least a little grace.

And you will be okay. You will.

Day 1,495: Stonewall

Someone was rude to me in a work meeting last week and I called him on it. It wasn’t a big drama. He cast a condescending aspersion, I calmly corrected it and requested he not do that again, he muttered an apology, and the meeting moved on.

Except the me part of the meeting. As the tide of the moment receded, I sat there a little stunned. Who just said that? I wondered. Did I?  


I learned young that defending myself out loud led to pain. My young parents didn’t know what to make of me, their hyper-attuned, hyper-verbal starter kid. Even my first word was two words: pretty flowers. On car trips they’d pay me not to talk, and I don’t blame them a bit. What I do take issue with: the sweeping judgments on my character that flew so freely in our house. They didn’t attack over things I’d done. They attacked for how I was. Too anxious, too sad, too scared, too ungrateful.

Look, I’m under no illusions that raising a scapegoat was fun. But in my defense, I only ever asked to be raised as a child. I did not request special assignment as the Locus of Discontent. It pissed me off. I knew I was better than the words they used to describe me, and because I was both hyper-verbal and too young to see around corners, I argued back. It never worked out well for me–at all–at all–but I kept pressing my own bullheaded little case because I knew. I was eight years old and I knew I deserved to be seen more clearly.

And then I stopped. I just got too fucking tired to fight with angry, scary adults all the goddamn time.  Or if I occasionally couldn’t resist, it was in the spirit of a soldier who knows she’s about to die in battle and says, you know what, fineHeedless and pre-numbed.


I lived. No one’s hurt me in those ways in decades. I rarely even jump at sudden movements anymore. And as part of my adult toolkit I even learned how to pretend to have a productive conflict with another human being. I read all the books about the I statements and not globalizing and empathy and whatnot. In marriage and especially in sobriety, I’ve even learned how to sort of back my way into an actual grownup argument, with real feelings and everything.

But there’s an overload switch in my brain and sometimes it flips. It is especially flip-prone when someone is mad at me, and “mad” can mean anything from momentarily annoyed to seriously disappointed to fuck-her-and-the-horse-she-rode-in-on. And because I now have people in my life who actually see me, sometimes “mad” just means “I know there is so much light and humor and wisdom inside you, Kristi, and I guess I was just wondering why the flying fuck you aren’t showing any of it to me right now. Thoughts?”

That’s a good kind of mad. But my switch flips and I go mute. Or close enough to mute for the girl whose first word was two. I can’t talk because I can’t think. And I can’t think because I am measurably stupider in this state. The part of my brain with the words and nuances and opinions about politics and novelists and jeans and chicken has been shoved aside by the part that’s just looking to get me off the battlefield before I get humiliated or hit or locked in my room.


It’s not fun, right? It’s not rewarding to try to hash something out with a normally chatty and open woman who is suddenly staring glassy-eyed just to the left of you. It’s not fair when you express your own difficult emotions as clearly and kindly as you can, only to watch this chick who is famously good with words go full-on aphasic and treat you like you might be packing and trigger-happy.

But what can I say, except that sometimes I’m not there? I leave without wanting to. The kid I was is trying to save me. I don’t need her to but she doesn’t care. Maybe she’s still trying to prove herself. Maybe this is how she gives shape and meaning to all her pain (because otherwise, what the fuck was it for?). She’s bullheaded, after all. And surprisingly forceful.

Until a few years ago I didn’t know what was happening. Or I knew–I’m not disassociating, not truly gone, just mute and embarrassed. But I hadn’t connected the dots. I was 44, sober for just over a year, when I realized I wasn’t just a stonewaller or a bad fighter; I was scared of real harm. Finally I learned to, as they say, use my words. I’m overwhelmed right now and having trouble processing. Or Can we just sit for a minute while I catch up? Or to anyone close enough to know the shorthand: just I’m not here right now. I’m sorry. I’m just not here. 


I messed up a man’s life this year, and he messed mine up too. But we are decent and earnest and thoughtful people, the kind of people who generally take care not to wreck stuff. We set out with our separate checklists of repairs, and at the same time tried to look after our originating friendship, which had been the kind that you just don’t find outside of college, or maybe your 20s. Some of my repairs turned out to be more like renovations, but not the catastrophic kind, more like adding some windows than gutting the kitchen. (Others were–are–slow, expensive, and grueling. But I should have seen them coming from a hundred miles away and instead I marched right into them. I don’t get to complain.)

I didn’t know the specifics of his repairs, because we’d agreed not to share details with each other. But based on not much more than hope and naiveté, I decided that the trouble I’d catalyzed in his life had probably been short-lived and shallow–my disruptive presence a blip–and that the tentative new back-to-friends reality between us would solidify. Did I want to be that easily forgotten? God, no. Especially not by him. It hurt to even contemplate. But if it would help to set his world back on its axis, well, who was I to resist the sacrifice.

So we bumbled along, trying to reset our friendship in a start-and-stop way. And then one day I said in passing Looking forward to our coffee tomorrow! and he said Oh yeah! Actually, do you have a second to talk? Right now? Somewhere private? And five minutes later we were leaning against the granite facade of an apartment building while he explained that actually, well, no. No coffees, no conversations, no quick walks around the block to catch some sun. Not for now, anyway. Not when he still had so much left to resolve.

Even as I listened my switch was starting to flip. The ambush-like timing had primed it and the actual words did the rest.

What he said: I need more time to process everything and I can’t do it while I’m still spending time with you. And It’s nothing you’ve done. And I need to take responsibility for my own life. 

What I heard: My life was great until you came along. I don’t want you anywhere near me and I wish we’d never met. 

He finished explaining himself and waited for me to respond, because he didn’t know Elvis had left the building. I turned my face toward the granite wall and just kind of…watched it while I tried to think of how to defend myself against the things he had not actually said. He patiently watched me watch the wall, which was really very nice of him. And then finally I came up with some words:

I’m just sort of looking at this granite. 

Yeah. That’s how I rose to the occasion. What I meant: I’m not here. I’m sorry. I’m working so hard to stay but sometimes the kid won’t let me. I’m sorry. I’m just not here. 

What he heard: Granite. 


It wasn’t long after that someone was rude to me in a meeting and I called him on it. It wasn’t a huge drama. I just did it and then sat there stunned. Who just said that? You did, I thought. Cleanly and clearly. That was you. 

It’s not that the kid’s gone, but she slacks off more these days. Maybe her threat meter is more finely tuned. Maybe she’s just tired of defending me, the same way she got tired of defending herself. Or she shows up only when she knows I’m truly vulnerable (GraniteGate) and lets me handle lower-risk situations (meeting dude).

And even during GraniteGate, I broke through eventually. I rallied, sort of. By which I mean I was ineloquent and defensive and likely a general pain in the ass, but I was there, doing what I could, and she let me stay. And when our talk ended and he said Do you want to walk around the block once before we go back?, she just watched quietly while I said–cleanly and clearly–Yes. But I think I want to do it alone. 

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 1,439: Desire Isn’t Lack

Have you seen the streaming series I Love Dick? It’s a dark comedy (based on a 1997 cult novel) about husband-and-wife artists at a residency in Marfa, Texas. The wife, Chris, falls fast and hard for Dick, the macho artist who runs the institute. Dick is totally uninterested in Chris, which doesn’t stop her from writing him scores of increasingly unhinged letters.

“Dear Dick: Every letter is a love letter,” the first one starts, because Chris’s goal is to seduce. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.) Later letters are defiant: “Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” (Spoiler: it’s not.) Then they move into stranger, richer territory: a celebration of Chris’s by-now rampaging, catastrophic desire. “Dear Dick: Desire isn’t lack. It’s excess energy. A claustrophobia inside your skin.”

“Desire isn’t lack.” Were you raised to think that desire can be additive? I wasn’t. I don’t blame my parents. I blame the entire fucking world for raising me with advice like be happy with what you have and some people would be thrilled to live your life and a hundred years ago women couldn’t do x, y, or z at all, so be glad you at least get a chance.  

Don’t get me wrong:  gratitude is good. And people mean well, mostly (I guess). But it all comes down to: your wants are wrong. Both genders get this message, but it’s hardly news that female desire is especially apt to be viewed as unsettling, even monstrous, if it’s not contained. (When’s the last time you heard anyone say “Well, girls will be girls” over a failure of impulse control resulting in harm to someone else?)

Intellectually, I’ve known for decades that there was nothing wrong with my desires, my female desires. I went to college in the era of so-called “sex-positive feminism.” Like any bold young woman of the time, I flounced from bed to bed (to floor, to beach, plus one tree this one time), up for anything, without demanding those letters and sodas soon to be immortalized by Liz Phair. (Well, plus I was already kind of a junior drunk–who wanted sodas?)

In fact, I didn’t demand much of anything, because my only real desire, or at least the one that drowned out most others, was to be wantedTo fill that gaping need from my childhood with men’s approval. To be worthy of the male gaze, which I was learning to challenge in my literature and film classes even as I pursued it outside the classroom, or sometimes from a guy right across the seminar table.

I got really good at being wanted. It’s not that hard. It’s more or less performance art, albeit not the kind that wins you a residency in Marfa. Even in my egalitarian marriage I couldn’t help but try to make myself into the perfect blank slate for however my husband might want to see me in the moment. How could I stop, when I didn’t even know I was doing it?  And the harder I worked at being wantable and lovable, the more my own wants faded away, because I hadn’t saved any energy for them. Certainly in my last decade of Big Drinking, which roughly coincided with my 30s, I was far too preoccupied with making my life seem Totally Fine and Normal to want much of anything. By the end, I would have told you that what I wanted didn’t matter anyway.

Then I stopped drinking. Some months afterward I started to like myself (so weird), and some months after that I started to notice that I had the ability to want stuff, all kinds of stuff: to write, to run alone in the woods, to make eye contact with people. And some months after that I realized with a small shock that it’s not just male eyes that have a gaze–that I have one, too, and it’s not necessarily always trained on the exact person I am married to. Which is where I got on the road to realizing that desire can be blissful and mystifying and awkward and a major pain in the ass, but one thing it isn’t is a lack. It’s more. It makes life bigger, or maybe just more crowded. Denser in the margins.

Oh, and desire–both projected and received– is fun. Well, at least it is as a parlor game, or a flexing of muscle. I guess I should have known that at some point I would meet my match. That I’d stumble onto desire with, you know, meaning and that the combination would knock me on my smug, female-gaze-y ass.

(I should acknowledge at this point in the story that there is a fine line between discretion and irritating coyness, and that you might not think I’m landing on the right side of it.)

I landed not so long ago in a case of highly inconvenient, non-parlor-game desire, of a severity known as “lovishness.” Maybe “landed” is too passive a word, given that the road in took many months, scores of conversation hours, was the product of hundreds of small decisions made by both parties. And yet in retrospect we recalled a moment of mutual, literal dizziness, as if we had been dropped from a great height into a new territory and were still a little airsick. So: yes. Landed it is. I landed. He landed. And we stared at each other in a woozy mix of swoon and friendship and fear.

I had not planned to experience a desire bigger than my ability to philosophize about it. Lovishness seriously freaked me out.  “I know this is supposed to mean I need to work on my marriage,” I told a wise girlfriend. “But I like my marriage! We’re happy. I just kind of want this other thing too. Maybe I just need to work on myself. Maybe my lunacy is so deep that I can’t even see the problems this is a symptom of.”

My friend waited patiently for my shame-spiral monologue to end. Then she said: “When married women have feelings for other men, we always get told it’s because we’re not working hard enough. Maybe you don’t need to work on anything. Maybe you’re just having a human experience.”

“I guess I thought I’d had all my human experiences by now,” I joked. Well, I tried to make it sound like a joke. even though on some level I wasn’t. But I’m a different kind of human than I was 1,439 days ago. I’m, like, here. I see and feel stuff.

“You’re just so awake,” said the man whose emotional landscape had become layered with mine. This was months ago, before we’d talked about the thing we already should have been talking about. At the time I thought to myself: well, yeah, duh, because I’m sitting within arm’s reach of you. But I knew that wasn’t the whole reason–that I wasn’t some blank-eyed doll who only came to life under the gaze of the right man. I knew he’d seen it in me because it was already there to be seen, because I am. I’m awake. And being awake is even harder and scarier and more tiring than I would have expected. It demands courage and skill at pushing on impulses to test and question them. Which is a fancy way of saying that you can honor and respect even your fiercest desires without necessarily storming off to fulfill them right that minute. You can let them settle in a bit. Get used to them. Talk about them (uh, this part is especially important in situations like mine, and may you be as pleasantly shocked as I was by the security, open-mindedness, and sheer modernity of your spouse. It’s kinda hot.)

A newly sober woman I know was struggling one night not to rush out and buy a bottle of wine or six. A mutual friend, also sober, said “Look, the alcohol will be there later if you still need it. What’s the big hurry?” That’s how I’ve started to think about inconvenient desires. Okay, fine: it’s how I’m trying to start to think about inconvenient desires: that the big ones (which, oh God, this one was) don’t just up and vanish. There’s no need for a panicked, reactive rush, because the desire will still be there when I figure out what to do about it.

“Do you feel like you could control this?” the man said during a particularly fraught post-landing conversation. “Because I have no illusions that I could control this.” Of course I can! I wanted to say. The emotions, the narrative, the damage mitigation–leave it all to me, babe, and we’ll have ourselves a harmless little fling and part as the best of friends. 

I looked into his eyes for a long time while I tried to convince myself of these things. “No,” I said finally. “I don’t think I could control this.” Which was one (utterly miserable, deeply resented) step away from reactivity and towards the rational, non-destructive, but still heartbreaking decision that had to be made. Because as he was brave enough to recognize before I did, we were no longer in fling territory. This was a letters-and-sodas situation, the kind that can ruin good lives.

I’m still too much in the middle of it to know a lot, but I do know this: there’s bound to be another inconvenient desire some day, and then another and another (assuming that life is long, e.g. I’m not suggesting a constant parade of sexual rapacity), each one carrying its own sparkle and trouble, decisions and accountabilities. Because humans have human experiences. And I have become fond, most days–though not so much lately–of being a human. The kind who gazes back, and pays attention to what she wants, because what she wants matters, too.

“Dear Dick: Did you think this was going to be pretty?” It’s not pretty. But it’s beautiful.