Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentines Revisited

As soon as Duane Reade and CVS start stocking their shelves with red and pink paraphernalia I start feeling Valentine’s Day’s inevitable imminence in the winter wind that sweeps chills beneath the sleeves of my coat, up the skin of my arms, down my neck, beneath my scarf, down to the thin skin of my chest that my shirt leaves bare.  I contemplate Valentine’s Day even while January still clings to the calendar.  I used to dread it because I was perplexed by it.  Now I think I get it.

Since I started high school, I wondered what kind of people celebrate Valentine’s Day.  What kind of woman received flowers or jewelry or a heartfelt card and what kind of man gives such things?  What kind of couple goes to dinner in a candlelit restaurant or has particularly romantic sex that evening?  I wondered who these people are, why they celebrate this holiday and if it means anything. I thought maybe Valentine’s Day is a holiday for commonplace love, not the kind of love the French troubadours sang of in the lyrics of hope and tragedy, eroticism and intellectualism; not the kind of love I wanted.  But then I wondered if all love is paradoxically both rare and commonplace?

When I was a freshman in college I told my first boyfriend that I didn’t believe in celebrating Valentine’s Day.  I said that it’s tacky and superficial.  And I wished I meant it. I reminded myself of the fact that I don’t care for chocolate nor for the clichéd cards usually found near the pharmacy inside CVS.  But, really, I was just saying it for the same reason I always told anyone I ever dated that I didn’t need anything for Christmas or my birthday: I felt like loving me must be so much trouble that no one needed to go to any extra trouble just because it’s a holiday.

When I was little I unabashedly enjoyed Valentine’s Day.  I enjoyed eating boxes and boxes of Conversation Hearts, after first organizing the hearts by color and then by what they said so that I could save the best tasting, most romantic one for last. One year when I was very young, my grandmother came to my house with several boxes of art supplies and we spent the afternoon cutting and pasting and drawing and writing and glittering.  My grandmother made heart people out of paper and lace and Popsicle sticks and I wrote love poems on crepe paper that I had cut into heart shapes and then covered in glitter and pasted onto lace doilies.  It was a beautiful, lace-trimmed holiday that I enjoyed every time it came around for many youthful years.

Two years ago, after some turbulent teenage and early adulthood years of denying the holiday, I realized that Valentine’s Day is probably the perfect holiday for me.  After all, I love Love -- even as I grow increasingly wary of it over the years.  I love a truly great kiss – the kind of kiss that seems to touch every part of my body simultaneously while momentarily rendering me unable to move words from my mind to my lips.   And I love slipping my hand into the warm grasp of another’s at the end of a long day.  I love when love is new and feels as if any love that may have ever existed in my heart prior was lesser or just plain wrong as the new love sparks unfathomable, glittering brightness as my beloved and I walk together down the street or move together between bed sheets.  And I love when love has grown a bit and is happy to stay in bed on a Sunday, watching TV and reading the news.  And even though I don’t necessarily believe in happily ever after, I love the possibility that I might be proven wrong.  Sometimes it’s just nice to be in love with a possibility.

The truth is that in my heart of hearts, I believe in Valentine’s Day.  I believe it is important to celebrate love.  Love.  Love in the abstract and love in the tangible touch of someone you love and who loves you back.  Love as sex and love as sitting quietly together on a park bench.  I think it is good to be the people who give and receive flowers and heartfelt cards, the people who sit together in candlelit restaurants, who put a little extra effort into their appearance and pay a little extra attention to detail in bed that night.  I think it is important to show that in spite of the texts sometimes left unanswered and the many miscommunications, the silly arguments, the nights you slept on opposite ends of the bed, and all the times you were too tired or too preoccupied with something else that love still means something – still means everything.

And so, two years ago I celebrated my first Valentine’s Day with the first person I was head over heels in love with.  We had dinner and drinks at the same small taqueria on the Lower East Side where we had our first date.  He gave me a sweet, silly card and heart shaped box of champagne truffles from Teuscher.  I gave him a handmade card and a short story I had written.  After dinner we wandered the Lower East Side and decided to have cosmos (I wanted one because they’re pink) at a musty little pub called No Fun.  Sitting at the almost empty bar together, we were in what felt like it would be a happily ever after.  And by that I mean it felt right.  Valentine’s Day was what we made it and ours was like us – unplanned yet heartfelt, worth the trouble but willing to take it easy. We held hands at the bar and asked the bartender to take our photograph.  The picture came out bright blurry, the camera’s flash dances upon the bar lights and the streetlights behind our heads, a halo-like glow turns our faces gold.  We look happy.  It was love: paradoxically rare and commonplace. 

Maybe Valentine’s Day isn’t as important when you’re eighteen or twenty and in college, and your real world consists of studying and drinking and dreaming up all the possibilities that you’d like to fall in love with. But it is an important holiday when you’re even just a couple years older and in a relationship.  The truth is that the reservation you make for February 14th, the words you write in the card, and the extra romance is all an effort you make to celebrate something that is the best thing that has ever happened to you, or at least something that is making you superbly happy.

And I know people say that Valentine’s Day makes people who aren’t in a relationship feel bad about themselves, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to celebrate it.  After all, there are more people than one might think who don’t have a family with whom to spend Christmas or Thanksgiving, or good friends with whom to celebrate their birthday.  And what about all the single people with no one to kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve?  I think most holidays have the potential to make some people feel excluded, but I also think there is always reason to celebrate it you look for it.

Valentine’s Day is neither tacky nor superficial, at heart.  It is not an empty consumer driven holiday, not necessarily. At its best, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of the very thing that we are all most likely either longing for or taking for granted: love.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Eye for an Eye of the Storm

As a blizzard whips over the city and New Yorkers settle into their apartments with wine, potato chips and bacon (well, at least this New Yorker) I find myself thinking about the things we live with.  The people.  The experiences.  The objects.  The regrets. 
I live with my boyfriend in a cramped but cozy one bedroom apartment facing East 99th Street.  We live with the sounds of traffic and passersby coming in through our bedroom window at all hours of the day and night.  Sometimes sex feels like a threesome between us and the edges of Spanish Harlem.
In the three months since we moved in together, the apartment has become a collage of my boyfriend and myself—us.  Paintings I collected during my travels across Europe hang on the walls with his framed photographs.  My British monarchy magnets decorate our refrigerator alongside his corporate branded magnets.  I write in our bedroom at a desk that once belonged to his father and that now holds my notebooks and a model of the Eiffel Tower my mother gave me for Christmas was I was in high school. 
Moving in together was an experience—perhaps better termed a feat—that I was quite proud of.  The act was simple enough.  We loaded up my few belongings from the room I had been renting just twelve or so blocks south and drove them up.  It had been an unusually sunny late October day and we had finished the job so early that we had decided to have lunch at a Greek restaurant across from a gas station deeper in Spanish Harlem.  I sipped a beer and watched taxis fill up their tanks. 
The next weekend I invited a friend over to the apartment, made dinner and said, “Look what I’ve done.  Look how happy I am.”  And I was.
And I was not naïve.  I knew living with someone is not necessarily easy.  It is not romantic, like dating.  Living with someone is like life—messy, exhausting, ridiculous, surprising, infuriating, beautiful, and lucky.  All the things you couldn’t figure out how to be by yourself you now have to be with another person—like less stubborn or more organized.  And all the things you were by yourself you have to be with another person—like independent.  Like anything worth having, it’s hard. 
And the thing is, you don’t necessarily know what you’ll need to do until you’re in it and it’s asked of you.  I find this is true of relationships in general: you get into them and the most you can do is be yourself and be loving.  The rest, you figure out. 
And that brings me to the biggest most important thing we all have to live with: ourselves.  As the snow falls down outside my bedroom window and I think of the days that had recently past and the ones that lie ahead in the near future, I think that no matter how much you want to live with someone, you can’t make choices that make it hard to live with yourself.  Because just as I might be stuck inside this apartment for the next day or two, we are all stuck inside our own heads forever.  This is it.  We are all we get. 
And I learned recently, that no matter how much it hurt at the time, I don’t regret the loss of any past friends or boyfriends from my life.  I regret how hard I tried to hold on.  I regret determining not my worth, but my quality of character based on what other people said to me and how they treated me.  I regret letting people make me doubt if I liked myself. 
And I do.  I like myself.  I like that I am caustic and silly and introverted and too honest and awkward.  I like my weird alone time music and I like that I like taking care of people.  And if people don’t like me, I can live with it because I can live with myself.  And it looks like I’ll have to.  There are storms to weather ahead.

The Sensbile Thing

I always think to myself that I’ve been through enough, so nothing could ever possibly ever hurt me that badly again.  I always make the mistake of thinking that surviving past heartbreaks and hardships means that it won’t be that hard to go through more in the future.  And it’s true.  But it’s also wrong.  Nothing will ever hurt quite like that; it will hurt differently—not less.  It makes me think of the Scott Fitzgerald line, “There are all kinds of love in this world but never the same love twice.” There are all kinds of heartbreak in the world but never the same heartbreak twice.  It’s like a virus that mutates.  There is no immunity.  

And even as I’m crying and reminding myself that eventually it always gets better, that eventually you accept that the bed is not half empty but half full, eventually you get up and go out into the world and start to trust people again—even as I’m telling myself that, I wonder if it’s really any better or just different.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Downside Up

I know something is bothering me somewhere deep in my subconscious because I feel very conscious of the world being a globe floating, rotating in space.  I feel very aware of being in my bed with continents and magma beneath me.  I feel precarious. And I feel like the world could just fall, like it could stop orbiting and start plummeting into the universe.  I feel like gravity could give way and the world could fall down and I would fall up, up into the atmosphere until I exploded.  I think about how horrible it would be to fall up. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

And then

I woke up with a frantic need to find a poem I had seen projected onto the old Roman wall in Canterbury, England almost five years ago.  I had seen it there in white lettering on a late October night, after the high street shops had closed and the day’s tourists had retreated to their bed and breakfasts and I was walking back to campus, enjoying the echoing sounds of the town troubadour singing love songs in the square.  And then there was you. 
That was the last line of the poem.  It resonated with me so much that I would recall it upon occasion for the next five years.  And then there was you.  It’s not a line to live by, not a distinctly insightful reflection about the condition of being human.  Or perhaps it is.

I can’t sleep very well lately because I am haunted by ghosts of myself.  They are discontented specters, betrayed by time, betrayed by me.  They beg me, “What have you done?”  They cry, “You are not who I thought I would be.” 
Walking through Washington Square Park one night, I told a ghost, “Time moves on and I made choices.  I’m not saying they were right.  I don’t want to think about that.”
A rat scuttled in the bushes.  My ghost murmured, “Nothing’s changed.” 
Nothing changed even though everything did.  The heart remains unaltered.  I don’t go there because it would betray me to my present.  But there it is.  
“I think I might believe in God,” my ghost confided.
“Well, you know me,” I replied, “I consider myself agnostic.  Most days I don’t think there’s a God, but I’d like to be proven wrong.”  I shivered in the cold and then added, “But really I think there must be something more, otherwise how do we live with ourselves if this is it.”
A rat ran across our path.  “Must be the same rat we heard earlier,” my ghost remarked.
“Mhmmm.  So you know moral relativism?”
“Yeah sure,” my ghost nodded.
“Well sometimes what is good to do and what is right to do are different things.”
“So, I don’t know…  I’m just elevating a real problem to philosophical idea.  I’m more comfortable with ideas.”
“Me too,” said my ghost.

I the early morning hours I lay awake in bed, wishing I’d had the courage to tell my ghost how I felt.  I think maybe what haunts us is a reminder of who are supposed to be.  There is no right and wrong in matters of the heart, only choices and what happens next.  And then there was you.  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

:It is defined as the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its stated velocity

Yesterday I Googled programs for teaching English in France, having finally decided I wanted to throw whatever sense of security I have left to the wind.  Then I saw that application which required multiple letters of recommendation, test scores, proof of vaccinations, etc. was due in three days.  Four years ago I would have gone ahead and applied anyways, asked for an extension, begged for last minute letters of recommendations.  But the person I am today decided that such singled minded impulsiveness, which might even border on a sense of entitlement, was not the way to go.  The person I am toady decided that something life changing could wait another year.  It was the practical choice. 

I’m not sure it was the right choice. 

I rarely truly want anything.  Last winter there was a Kate Spade purse that I just had to have and a certain purple pair of Chloe sunglasses but in general, nothing really sparks my interest since I moved to New York.  I’ve had no interest, not to mention passion, in any of the jobs I’ve worked since moving here.  I was ambivalent about my MFA program and my romantic relationships alike.  I don’t feel that sense of possibility inside myself anymore.  Nothing feels kinetic. 

Since moving to New York, I often find myself feeling like an extra in someone else’s life.  My life feels passive.  I do work for other people in order to get paid.  I try to be the person they would like me to be.  In my relationships, I spend time with someone else’s family, someone else’s friends.  I smile and nod and try to be nice—and, more importantly, I try to be happy.  I spend a lot of time wondering why I can’t be happy, why being included in someone else’s life is not enough for me.  But all I can come up with is that it isn’t mine.  I haven’t seen my own family in a year and half.  Most of my friends live a plane ride away.  Too much of my life is for other people.  I’m not happy because I’m not doing enough things that make me happy. 

I’m not being self pitying.  Or at least I’m trying not to be.  I think it is necessary to be aware of one’s situation.  Sure, maybe I could have tried harder to make more new friends in New York.  Maybe I should have fought my natural urge to be antisocial and go out and mingle with fellow students when I had the chance.  Maybe I could learn to budget better and buy a plane ticket home.  And maybe I should remember that this was what I wanted.  I wanted to move to New York.  I knew I didn’t know anyone and that I’m too introverted for most social situations so making friends would be difficult.  I knew I wouldn’t like any of the office jobs I took, but I knew I needed the money and that I didn’t want to stand behind a cash register in a retail store all day.  I knew I didn’t really want an MFA; I just didn’t know what else to do. 

Every choice I’ve made since coming to New York was because I didn’t know what else to do.  Maybe that’s how most people live or maybe I’m alone in this mess.  That’s one more thing I don’t know.  But I wouldn’t call any of my choices mistakes.  There are only choices and what happens next.  And what I’ve learned is how quickly it can all spiral into a life you didn’t want.  I used to wonder how complacency happens.  I get it now.  I read Revolutionary Road when I was a freshman in college and I wondered how the main male character could willingly do a mindless office job.  In the book, he told everyone that he did it so that he could let his mind focus on more interesting, more important, more artful things but privately he admitted to himself that he liked shutting off his brain for eight hours a day.  I understand that too now. 

It’s terrifyingly easy to let life just happen to you because it feels like the practical thing to do.  You have responsibilities, rent, bills, commitments.  When you’re bored you go to dinner or a movie or a bar.  And if you’re me, you wonder why some part of you is still bored.  But boredom itself is easy, passive.  Changing your life is hard.  Caring about something is hard.  Being invested in yourself is hard.  I didn’t think so back when I was in undergrad and every possibility I desired felt like it was only ever a semester away, but making things happen for yourself is hard. 

I went on over fifty job interviews this summer.  All jobs I didn’t want.  And I eventually got one.  And someone congratulated me.  I wasn’t proud.  I’m not even sure I was relieved.  I was employed, which is no small thing.  My choice of employment was a product of not knowing what else to do.  I still don’t know for sure.  I know I was happiest when I was living and studying in France.  I know I elate in translating and conjugating verbs.  I think maybe I should find a way to live abroad again.  I’m not sure, but I made the choice not to choose yesterday so now I have a year to figure it out.  And now that’s what I’m choosing to do. 

In the meantime

I sat on the hardwood floor crying, talking, praying to God and to my dead relatives.  I don’t know if I believe in God or an afterlife.  And how can you in a world like this?  But also, how can you not?  What else is there? 

What else is there?  That’s a question that haunts me through jobs, relationships, lonely nights, crowded bars where I know no one.  I thought it was a good question to ask when I was very young, living in small town Wisconsin.   And I thought it was a fair question when I was in Chicago.  And I thought I was looking for the answer each time I moved, every time I travelled.  And in a way I was.  There is always somewhere new to go, to explore, to think about and to let change you.  But there is also always more of the same. 

“You have to find something to do in the meantime,” he told me.   And suddenly I was crying, “The trouble is the meantime becomes time.” That’s what happened.  I took jobs in the meantime.  I had some drinks in the meantime.  I got an MFA in the meantime.  I kissed men in the meantime.  And I forgot what else there was that I was killing time waiting for. 

Time is such a curious thing.  There is always too much or never enough.  And it’s never quite right.  And we’re running out of it, even as we try to kill some more.  We think we’re killing time with drugs and TV and sex and conversation but time is killing us.  We’re dying for something. “I liked the girl from the reading.  You’re not that girl anymore,” he explained.  But he must not have heard what I read because I am still that girl.  We fall in love with misconceptions and then feel let down by the truth.  It’s a kind of falling out. 

I’ve always been good at leaving.  There’s plenty of places to feel lonely.  On the hardwood floor crying, talking to God and to my dead relatives, I explained that I had gone off looking for a place I wouldn’t feel alone.  And all I found was myself.