The Monday morning sky is a patchy quilt of convex clouds sewn together by threads of light. The clouds are gauzy enough so that you can see the sun coming up and out from behind. I am in the water, a pink latex swim cap moving back and forth across the length of the swimming pool. As usual, I am with the geriatric swimmers who like warmer water, which I do too. For swimming, I prefer the still, lukewarm water of pools: comfortable, sterile, and lifeless—the perfect incubator of thought, in which all variables are muted, as to not disturb my awareness.
I started swimming again a few years ago because I was tired of running, tired of battering my bones against pavement, and I needed something gentler, more soothing. Every day, I’d walk to the school gym, which was a strange building, in which you could only move along the perimeter; the pool was a floor-level atrium enclosed by glass walls, and from the pool, you could see all the people furiously churning away on their gym machines like robotic watchmen, with their eyes glazed over staring into nowhere, possessed by the orbital trance that emanated from their headphones. For a long time, I was a gym rat too. Then I started swimming.
Swimming, like any kind of aerobic exercise, is about building up a rhythm in which your level of consciousness floats slightly above the motions of your body. Your body knows what it’s doing, so you don’t really have to pay attention to it, and you have space to think, unhindered by your own body and its surroundings. In not trying to achieve anything, in not needing to outdo yourself, the swimming becomes something else altogether: not a sport, but a means to a particular state of mind, a space for prayer and meditation perhaps, which is more accessible than it sounds--not just a thing for saints and monks. It’s an elevated state of consciousness, where you don’t feel like you exist merely in your body, or you don’t feel heavy in it. Runners and drug addicts get this.
In the pool, the sun projects itself onto the floor, creating kaleidoscopic constellations of light. Every morning, swimming feels like a baptism into the day, an awakening of the spirit by water. There are some days, like yesterday, when the pool water feels laced with magic, beyond the earth, a place for the mind and not the body, when I am swimming through memory, drinking from Mnemosyne’s pool, and moments from my life play out like an old home video, a tape winding forward as I’m moving forward, spinning my arms in a circular motion, propelling through the water with a flutter kick. I glide tirelessly, turning my head sideways on a pulse to gasp for air.
Now I’ve reached the wall, and I’m somersaulting, and pushing off again, twisting in one smooth motion. It feels so good to feel frictionless, or to know that I can move with such ease.
All is still on the pool deck, which is dotted with plastic, white lawn chairs that haven’t met a human body since last summer. Now they’re used only as towel racks. The pool is always on the grimy side. One of the railings that swimmers use to climb out of the pool is completely missing, and the triangular blue flags hang like forgotten laundry, graying and tattered above the water.
There are two types of swimmers: toe-dippers, who slowly melt into the pool, inching in, one bodily cross-section at a time; and plungers, who jump right in, preferring a single shock. I fall in this latter category, the kind of person who prefers a fast and painful death to a more mild but prolonged one. My own death never feels so undaunting as it does in the pool, where it feels like I’ve fallen off a maddening trail and am now tumbling through an antediluvian thicket of cobwebs and ferns. Falling isn’t so bad when you’re more focused on what falling feels like--thrilling, exhilarating--than on the fear of where you’re going to land.
In the pool I feel everything, all of my sadnesses, my despairs, my disappointments, my confused hopes. I say all the words I’ve wanted to say to the people I wish would love me, and I mourn the loves I’m letting go. I allow the beads of anxiety about the future, about my relationships, about my work pass through me like kidney stones. The water makes it easy to bear. Years ago, when I was depressed and reigned by my anxieties, it often felt like the devil was gnawing on my insides, a metal pan scraping back and forth against a stovetop, with fire between the two; the difference between now and then isn’t that I don’t hurt anymore--in fact, now I’m more keenly aware of my grief, sorrow, anger, and stress--but that I’m able to bear them in moments, like knots in my hair that I’ll have to comb out over and over again, with patience and knowledge that this too will pass. I have to believe that those feelings aren’t eternal, that they’re like bee stings that will mend, and that I’ll be able to move faster through them if I jump right into them. Even though it feels like I’m swimming upstream, at some point, the current mellows out. Until then, I can scream, cry, weep, and wail without guilt.
I’m swimming through these feelings now, and it really does feel like I’m swimming through them, so that every feeling percolates through me like water aided by gravity, seeping into coffee grounds over and over again. It occurs to me that there’s no such thing as fair or unfair, as in how the things in our life unravel--these deaths that we deal with, and the hearts that break us--we don’t deserve these things, but we don’t not deserve them either. There’s so much that’s out of our control, and the anxiety and fear we inflict upon ourselves--the feelings and thoughts that hold us hostage--so often stem from thinking that we should be able to control the things that we can’t. We think that if we just make the right choice, we’ll reach some end that we’ve been moving towards, but then you never reach that place you thought you were going, and you feel like Sisyphus, pushing some boulder uphill, only to have it roll down again.
Here’s everything in me, scrambled like eggs, knotted like the nests of black and blonde hairs that we used to find in the corners of our dusty room, so incongruous and absurd but inevitable (what happens when two girls with different-colored long hair live together). Like my house, everything in me tends towards entropy, and for now, that feels alright. I am not making a sound, but I am not quiet either. Silence is hard to come by.
Can I move through this world, not caring about the footprints I’m leaving but fully engaged in the actual movement of walking? Every place is a sojourn--this entire life is a sojourn here on earth--there are so many arrivals and so many goodbyes, but there is no destination that will feel as though, this is the end, I’ve done it and I’m done.
I have to use a clock to limit my time in the pool, because the euphoria that I’m brought into also takes away any sense of exhaustion and pain. Like an acid trip, where you gauge the strength of the drug in your bloodstream based on how elaborate the oriental motifs are on the carpet in front of you, I know that when the stream of images begins to subside, the spirit has bowed, its content exhausted--but I’ll often swim on, feeling like I’m actually swimming now in this rectangular crater of water, rather than in my mind, in dreams.
I hate getting out of the pool. I hate being wet on dry land, my hair dripping all over me, goosebumps rising all over my body, wind and water chilling me to the bone. There’s no graceful way of doing it either, propping up one knee, and then the other, and then an elbow, and then the other, scaling the pool rim like an orangutan. I scramble towards my towels, and wrap two of them as tightly around me a possible.
Sue, a wiry elderly woman with curly brown hair, who diligently swims every morning for at least thirty-five minutes, says hi to me, greeting me with a huge smile.
“Hey Natalie! How was your swim today?”
We’re always excited to see each other--she is the only person at the pool who pulls me out of anonymity.
“Great,” I tell her. “The water was--”
“Perfect.” She finishes my sentence.
“Yes it was.” I say.
Every day we talk about the temperature of the pool water, like two acquaintances talking about the weather, because it’s the only thing we share. Like the weather, the condition of the environment is small talk to some, but of grave importance to mystics, always curious about the state of the world, and introverts who use books and music to talk about themselves. Both of us know all too well that there is a perfect, tepid temperature that makes swimming effortless, easy, and sometimes, transcendent.
12/25/2013 -- C.C.I wish you were here with me, Caroline! I have learned so much this year. I have accelerated and then slowed down. I have failed and I have been made aware of my imperfections--I am not always reliable or kind or compassionate or selfless--and yet--all is well here, and right now--I have seen and known God more than I ever have, and that has given me the capacity to love better, despite all of my flaws. Everything seems to be more delightful, while mattering less, if that makes sense at all. There is more of a levity to living, even though I can also feel the gravity of each moment. I can’t recount to you all that has happened since we last saw each other, but I can tell you where I am right now.
12/25/2013 -- A.B.
We've been listening to Bob Dylan quite a bit on the road (actually, we asked friends to make playlists for us and each has been remarkable, but no one has put Dylan on their playlists!) -- such great traveling music, with a sense of awareness of everything around him and in the air, and yet he remains somewhat detached from it all. There's a wandering feeling to his music that you and I both know well, and then there's the storytelling, and the poetry, and the muttering, and the harmonica! It's been awhile since I listened to Bob, but every time Bob is something new!
How are you? How is the city? I love living in cities--but I'm not sure if it's good for my soul--it feeds the worst parts of me, so I need to get away often--to make sure I'm caring about the things and people and matters I want to care about--and not get carried away with the material surfaces of the urban simulacrum--if I'm allowed to call it that.
12/26/2013 -- K.O.
When we entered the chapel, the service was solemn and small--and it all seemed really formal--and then the priest, Father William, blew his nose, and I almost burst out laughing. I think the funniest moments are flukes--when something almost too ordinary disturbs the peace or flow of things--little awkward charms, situational humor, you know. I think you would have laughed too! Because everything at the abbey is so much simpler--quieter and emptier--the funny, awkward moments are so much more pronounced.
12/24/2013 -- J.R.
The desert is not so alluring or attractive at first glance--or comfortable, for that matter--but it is open and expansive, stark naked, so different from the city lives we're used to, where people scurry around, in close confines but so unaware of each other, unaware of so many sounds and places and faces that just fade into the background, become distracting noise--distraction from some other, seemingly more important focus, because we're always going somewhere and what's ahead seems so much more important than what's here right now. In the desert, your job is to notice, to be attentive. It is easier to listen to God, and when all else fades away, it's clear that we're here to love and be loved by God--it's so easy to lose sight of that sometimes.
12/24/2013 -- S.S.
Amidst this quiet, this empty space, this wide and free landscape, it seems that loving is all we were meant to do. The rest feels trivial you know? How we go about our ordinary lives as if we had to make them into something extraordinary, hurrying here and there but to what end?
Leaving most things behind, even for awhile, has given my head and my heart space to breathe. I feel relieved to feel, if even for a moment, unattached. And yet--here, this letter, a token of my attachments, a token of my love...our hearts and souls want freedom and also some kind of tethering. Blaise Pascal described men in three words: dependence, desire for independence, needs. Merry Christmas! I love you!
City driving makes me jittery and nervous, so I don’t do it very often. The pedestrians and bicyclists are chess pieces haphazardly played by some strange, illogical hand, bullets to dodge. So here in the city, I mostly walk or take the bus, or take BART, mainly to spare myself the stress and the near-convulsive panic I experience when I parallel-park, which I don’t do well in the first place and do even worse with angry drivers behind me glaring laser beams of fire into my car.
But I like sitting in cars, especially on a cold day with just enough sunlight for the car to trap, becoming its own little greenhouse. There’s something comforting about the protective walls of the car, how it separates you from everything outside of it, so that you’re in your own self-contained sphere, unbothered by anything else. Sometimes the car is most sacred when it doesn’t conform to its function, which is getting you from point A to point B. Sometimes you’re just trying to get it together at point A.
But on a road trip, the automobile itself is your prime destination, where you’ll spend more hours than all other stops combined. You might rest your head or fill up on food, but then you’re back on the road again, moving like a vagabond, living like a rolling stone, a wayward sojourner, briefly. A road trip plays out like the Canterbury Tales, in which the pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury contains the stories to be told, even though the stories are named for some end that is a mere abstraction while on the road.
Hours pass easily in the car if they’re not the hours leading up to something else, but rather, the hours that you keep and make something of. At the steering wheel, you stare ahead, the vast expanse awaiting, the open space above. You barrel towards the purple mountains in the distance that never seem to get closer or grow bigger. The Spartan trees, the dead trees, the lonely wind mills, acres of mysterious land, touched but untouched, cleared out but fallow, a purgatorio where the mind whirs and wanders.
On long stretches of empty asphalt, you’re focused enough to keep a sharp mind, but you haven’t given your mind away. There is room for daydreams. This is a meditation on the road, the path ahead of you focusing and re-focusing the squadron of voices in your mind, and you’ve got just enough breathing room to let a mellow, contemplative hum sail on through, like the Bateaux Mouches on the Seine, taking the same circular route, over and over again, with new and curious passengers every time.
My dear friend Asa biked through Europe the year after we graduated from college, and he wrote about what went through his mind on these long rides from Firenze to San Benedetto to Lago di Brescia, and he captures well the interplay of the conscious and the subconscious, the focus and the lack thereof. In a letter, he wrote:
"This isn't to say that you don't think about things, it's just that--well--there are long stretches where (I think) you don't. It's what you do tend to think about that's the truly strange part of the whole thing. When I say that one's mind is not one's own I mean to say that, while riding, the subconscious seems to take the wheel (err--handlebars) and kind of just float stuff around a bit. In some cases, this can be a good thing--I've remembered people and places I hadn't thought of in years on the bike--but in other instances, you get stuck on a bad topic, and there doesn't seem to be any real way (at least that I've discovered) of removing oneself from it. I spent an hour during a day's ride, right after a semi had nearly brushed me off of a particularly bad stretch of road, imagining what my head would look like crushed underneath the tires of this same truck. "Like I bloody watermelon," I thought."
Do you remember the first drive you took after a horrible breakup? Or the drive home from the airport after you said a long farewell? That space charged with all the particles of your emotions, the anger, the tragedy, the sadness, accelerating and halting in sync with the car. Whenever my mom gets angry, she clears her mind by going for a drive, detonating her feelings by physically moving through them, a smooth coast along asphalt sanding down the harsh edges of her skin.
I remember a Saturday afternoon in November. We were lying in a car with the seats pushed as far back as possible, backs folded down so we could recline comfortably. There was nothing to do and nowhere to be, so we just lay there, on a quiet suburban street, listening to folk music. The leaves were red, I remember, because when we were walking to the car we picked some off the ground and chose our favorite leaves. There wasn’t much to say, but it was thrilling to be with each other, so we just lay in the car, parallel bodies in space.
Months later, in that same car, we pulled over by the side of the highway, where Bohemian meets Bodega by golden fields of dry grass, and we argued blindly, teary-eyed, about petty things. Petty things that are worth arguing over because in romance, the stakes are great, and every little thing has some unbearable significance, some weighty fear attached to it. As we argued, every turn was hazardous, like city driving. But there was no running away because we were in this cramped little car with each other, with nowhere to go, and we had to stay and figure it out.
In the end, there’s always something waiting on the horizon. Thousands of miles later, when you arrive back where you started, you unpack the car that stoked hours of thought, sheltered so many strands of conversation. That tiny sacred space that moved you through so many landscapes, from the high desert to middle-of-nowhere Arizona, from the Sonoita Mountains to downtown Tucson. Through the redwood forests of California when the sun was setting and you saw only the two red rear-lights of the car ahead of you for miles of windy road, and it seemed like this ride was going to last forever. You fell asleep, and you awoke in awe to a new landscape, and you kept on moving. The car protected you, you felt safe for awhile, but in the end you arrived somewhere else, and you had no choice but to get out and join the crowds again, in the old rhythms of time that the road makes new.
Our friend JD is one of the most thoughtful gift-givers we know. When he gave Crystal The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman, he said that she would understand him better after she read it, as if Kalman's consciousness was an extension of his own.
Crystal sat by the fire in front of our humble abode in the desert reading this book, occasionally chuckling, sometimes reading out loud, to me, to the desert air. Even though we had gone to the desert in part to find solitude, it made sense to bring our friends along, in books, in music, in the little bits and baubles that become living artifacts because of what they mean to the people who find them. John Donne says that no man is an island, that every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, and we didn't leave to flee from community; in fact we left with the hopes that when we returned, we could give more of ourselves to it.
The first night we arrived in Joshua Tree, it was late, and everything was dark. Sylvia, our host, greeted us when we arrived at her little homestead, a flat sprawling lot of desert sand with scattered debris and an occasional shrub. We couldn't see anything, but the incredible darkness brought forth the light of a million stars that city brights drown out. We looked up, surprised again and again at how the celestial light could pierce through the darkness, and how this was as God intended--total darkness with marvelous light, not lukewarm versions of one and the other.
We heard our shoes crunching against the sand as we made our way to our desert studio, a small barn loft with just enough space: a sitting area, a kitchenette, and a loft for sleeping. I tried to memorize the path from the studio to the outhouse. The little path lights, which projected spiky, leaf-like projections onto the sand, and the petrified branches that were meant to pave a walking way, were sorry second thoughts, haphazard efforts at softening the spell of darkness. It's okay, I thought to myself, I came here to wander anyway.
On the road, without expectations, it's easy to find a home wherever you go--wherever you are welcome, wherever you are willing to sojourn for awhile. We were not restless, but we were ready to rest, with all the days that 2013 had piled onto our backs, with all the joyful frenzy of city life that wears you down but pulls you in deeper with all its sounds and people and man-made spaces.
We made tea and a scrappy dinner. Crystal went outside and lit the fire pit by our front porch, and a slight desert wind skimmed the fire, sending it crackling into the air.
Our minds were where we were, not where we could be, or where we were not. The silence made every sound louder and crisper. We did not feel the need to talk loudly, or talk at all, comfortable with being together in silence, alone with our thoughts, but not lonely.
Earlier that week, we had asked each of our friends to make us playlists for the road, where we would spend a majority of our trip. We needed two thousand miles worth of songs, and we thought, what a way to have our friends here with us, how much more could we know our friends through the sounds they loved, the songs they had swallowed into their souls (how we depend on other people's consciousness to bring forth our own, how we understand the world through sights and sounds imparted to us as gifts!).
The first night was sweet and silent, but there were sounds all around us, echoes of the songs we had heard earlier that day, echoes of the words we had read and wrote, fuzzy whispers of the friends and family who we loved and left, for a little while at least. In stillness we sat, in darkness we slumbered.
And we sweetly anticipated the morning light, which illuminates what darkness had hidden.
"Artists are the voice boxes for colonies of intricately related interdependent creatures, living and dead. No one but Wordsworth could have written Wordsworth's poems, the genius and the primary effort were his, but they only came into being because of webs co collective feeling, labor, memory, and perception that surrounded and permeated him."
-Janna Malamud Smith, an absorbing errand
The jaws of the house were pried open by the squawks of women, who inhabited the place like noisy birds, chittering like lunatics. The dust on the furniture had not been touched for years. (It is possible to live somewhere and never touch the surfaces of the objects in it, objects stationed like islands, merely existing in an ocean of voices and spirits, which are the real materials of households held up by circuitous irrationalities.) The only thing keeping the house from ruin was the insanity it possessed: insanity the flesh, the lifeblood, the current moving through a wooden skeleton.
In the morning, hot water boiled on the stove. Coffee grounds waited in a can. A book sat open on a wooden credenza, which had been sanded down to soap-like perfection. White cotton panties draped atop ivory candles, melted down like tears. Lozenge wrappers that had missed the wastebasket lay like petals scattered by flower girls, waiting to be picked up by a gust of human wind. There was nothing new about today, the same quietness delicately hovering above a pot of dawn darkness. Lukewarm blood, not yet rolling. Her stomach, the keeper of her every sadness, anxiety, restless thought, was clenched like a baby’s fist senselessly holding onto the seams of scrap linen, as if the tension of her hand could stop time from tumbling forward. She had labored to sleep, an effort made more tireless by rushes of dreaming and feeling that the ordinary tedium of daylight holds at bay. These fuzzy, flickering pictures of a past not yet forgotten and a future so far forward were the bookends of her unconscious mind.
This is what has passed so far in January:
January was a month of soup:
Sometimes soup alone. Sometimes soup with friends. Once soup with confessions. Five times soup with beans and vegetables.
*tofu scramble with sweet peppers, mushrooms, onions
*garlicky nettle hummus with preserved lemons & toasted pepitas
*baked oatmeal with pecans & pumpkin seeds
*adzuki bean & vegetable miso soup
*roasted miso brussel sprouts
*burnt chocolate granola (see below)
I checked out 6 books from the library.
I spilled my gum in my purse 4 times.
I knocked powder sugar onto someone's shoe 1 time.
I listened to Lauryn Hill MTV Unplugged 4 times.
I hosted tea time and went to tea time.
I hosted tea time and went to tea time.
I dined al fresco once.
I transcribed these things in my journal:
"The heart in its plenty hammered by rain and need, by the weight of what momentarily is" (JACK GILBERT)
"The spirit dances, comes and goes / But the soul is nailed to us like lentils and fatty bacon lodged under the ribs" (JACK GILBERT)
"I trust nothing especially myself and slide head first into the familiar abyss of doubt and humiliation ... then I realize it doesn't matter, words are always a gamble, words are splinters from cut glass. I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient." (TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS)
"the love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting through our wounds" (NICK CAVE)
"Oh Jerusalem, wash thy heart from wickedness / that thou mayest be saved from thy deception / how long, shall thy face those lies within thee. Oh jerusalem, keeping them from perfection" (LAURYN HILL)
"I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside." (FLANNERY O'CONNOR)
"You have to be sure that all the time and pains you spend in the world are expended on the things that belong to eternity." (???)
"the pulverizingly tedious self-absorption loss wraps you in" (HILTON ALS)
"Would I have to eventually mourn this memory on lower Broadway, his scratchy-sounding duster, and should we travel to Amsterdam together, him and entire country? His existence was too much." (HILTON ALS)
I made 2 jars of this tonic: lemon-ginger-turmeric-echinachea-orange juice-peppercorns-licorice-slippery elm.
I saw American Hustle and August: Osage County.
I read at least 30 Jack Gilbert poems.
I found the perfect birthday card for my dad.
We celebrated his birthday with Sri Lankan food.
I deleted Instagram from my phone to slow down my brain and decrease mindless use of technology.
I discovered my favorite beer, which I would drink if I could be hophead without getting hives and a headache.
I wrote many gratitude lists, which have so refined the clarity and gravity of abundance in this life.
Coffee made by friends.
Breakfast with friends.
Synonym published a piece I wrote about waiting.
All the ways I’ve learned to love, or not love at all, have rested on the belief that my heart is fragile, like those delicate glass orbs, frosted with glitter, that we used to hang on our fake Christmas tree. At some point, I realized that those ornaments were as likely to break if I clutched them too tightly, as they were if I let them slip out of my hands, dispersed by gravity into smithereens.
In middle school, when all the girls went around in a circle saying which boy they had a crush on (boys came and went like fashion trends) and who we needed to make code names for, and who was the best handball player, I kept silent. “Who’s your crush, Natalie?” “No one!” I would retort, quickly and snappily. “You’re lying! Tell us who,” they’d whine back. “I swear, no one! I just don’t like anyone right now,” I’d say, exasperated, arms crossed, defending myself against what seemed like accusations.
During my freshman year in high school, one afternoon in November--after school had let out, I had stuck around for something or another, somewhere on campus, and then around 5 or so, went upstairs to my locker in Dobbins Hall to pack up my bag before leaving campus. I climbed the two flights of stairs, and when I reached the top, was intercepted by a skinny boy with floppy black hair that draped like a silk curtain across his forehead, covering most of the top half of his face. He was walking away from a group of friends--and towards me--but I didn’t know him, and had never met him.
He walked right up to me.
“Hey,” he said. “Will you go to winter ball with me?”
“What?” I said, averting my eyes. His question shocked me. The casual way he asked a question of such gravity--to a thirteen year old, no less--left me breathless and panicked. I didn’t think I heard the question correctly.
“Will you go to winter ball with me?”
I paused, now feeling dizzy, a sense of vertigo displacing me in both time and space.
“What?” I said again--hearing the same question I had heard before.
He repeated it a third time, “Will you go to winter ball with me?”
I was silent, lock-jawed, spooked by this Jack-in-the-Box that had so abruptly appeared in my otherwise safe and normal adolescent existence.
I stared back at him.
“Why?” I spat out, the only word I could utter--and with that one mysterious word, turned around and ran down the stairs as quickly as I could, out of the building, face flushed hot red, heart galloping, me, panicking. Might as well have been fleeing from a burning building.
I’ve always thought that question “why?” was illogical and cruel, sickly irreverent. From the moment after that word left my mouth to this day ten years later, I am embarrassed by that handicapped response, so immature, so inane, so graceless. I never talked to that boy again, though I admired him from afar after the fact--I was interested in why he was interested in me.
Despite its lack of grace, the question “why”--a question I still ask of the feelings in me that feel like afflictions and not births--wholly embodied my reaction to--even the possibility of--romantic affection, which was: how could you be interested in me? How could you love me? And anything that involves you-liking-me-and-maybe-me-liking-you was tremendous and terrifying, like walking out onto the high perch of a diving board, imagining how much belly flopping would hurt and how much water would go up my nose and into my ears, and how doom was so plainly inevitable. I always expected the worst. Anything with a high chance of loss wasn’t worth much of my time--or heart--at all.
At best, this was all one big terrible joke, a ploy to humiliate me. I could make a conspiracy theory of anyone's affection for me.
I’m sure there were many psychoanalytical reasons why I felt this way, but in the landscape of my consciousness, surely the movies I watched played a part. The Nora Ephron movies (You’ve Got Mail; Sleepless in Seattle; When Harry Met Sally) and a whole slew of Julia Roberts chick flicks (Notting Hill, Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) were highlights in my dad’s VHS collections, so my sister and I devoured them too, with seriousness, with a weighty sense that these narratives were the way things were supposed to be. They were some of the first romantic narratives we encountered.
This is what they laid out: A man meets not just a woman but singularly, the woman, and the romantic entanglement relentlessly works itself out because it is destined to be so. No matter the obstacle, his love is reserved only for her. That became my belief--that my love was reserved, and should be preserved ruthlessly, sealed off to anyone who inquired about its existence, kept in the cellar, salted and cured, hoarded for winters to come. I would not release my love so easily, lest it be snatched from me. I believed that once I let it go, my love would float away like Moses down the Nile River.
The first safeguard: never admit attraction at all. Admission was weakness. Giving away even a piece of myself was to make myself vulnerable; it was to skin myself while still alive. I would never whisper of even a fondness for any boy I knew, and whatever delights welled up in me, I hid away, pounded down into myself. I was determined to contain it all in the stuff sack of my being, this compression bag that was as terrified of what it contained as it was of letting anything out.
This was an existence of silent yearning--and confusion--in which I superimposed the narratives I encountered--in books, movies, music, etc.--onto my own desires, everything a future story that could only be contained in my head at present. I’d not let my heart make a single sound, though its inclinations towards love and being loved never submitted to death for lack of entertainment.
In the first few months of college, I met Shannon, who would become my best friend. Shannon loved ceaselessly, shamelessly, and hung her loves like little charms around her neck, even if they sometimes scraped at her skin or made too many jangling sounds. She had a high school love who tore at her heart for many years after they had broken up. The memory of him conjured easy tears, and his face was embedded in so many songs and even in the faces of strangers she had never met, whose one word or gesture or piece of clothing could transfigure into his. She didn’t know why she couldn’t let him go (we never really do know though, do we?). She was still netted up by the idea of him. It was never as easy as burning the physical mementos of him, which she did occasionally, ceremonially. Those mementos all turned out to be mere effigies, never the real things at all.
I saw all the wispy little loves she breathed in, how she could continually wring her heart out, though it never dried up. She never had any less love to give, even though, by admission or by thought, she could give so much of it away.
During our third year of college, she fell in love with Eric, who worked at a cozy little bread shop on Brattle Street, a bare-boned, cramped space with wooden interiors, always smelling of yeast and sawdust. She visited the bread shop whenever she could--multiple times each week--always ordering the same thing (the densest, most fragrant vanilla bean-flecked loaf and an over-priced slow-drip coffee). She always asked for the heel of the loaf--the end-piece, she called it--which had more crusted surface area than any other piece. He began giving those to her diligently, automatically, whenever she came in, with her mane of tangly blonde hair. She was once mistaken for Ke$ha.
When the price of the loaf rose by 25 cents, Shannon was indignant and said that she might boycott the place entirely--but I knew that this declaration was an impossibility. It was a failed attempt at detachment.
Unlike me, Shannon wore her emotions the way she did her make-up: heavily, brusquely, sometimes recklessly. Out of self-proclaimed necessity. It was easy to see her embarrassment or pain, which always seemed to stun her, crumple her, and those were the times she ran away--when she could not bear to let her pain be known--because she couldn’t stifle them, so she just left, often frantically. She wound her loves so tightly around her heart, and even when the spool rolled and spoiled, unraveling ceaselessly, she never cut the thread, even if she threatened to do so.
Toward the end of that third year, we knew we were leaving campus soon, so Shannon decided to give Eric a note, declaring her love in a charming and off-handed way. The note was ripped around the edges to look like a casual remark, unmeditated. She walked in, ordered her loaf and coffee, and as he reached over the counter to hand her the coffee, she passed him the note saying, “This is for you.”
She cried that night, telling me how embarrassed she was to have flaunted her silly affection the way you might feed ducks at a pond, scattering bread for the pecking flock. That the affection was unrequited did not bother her--it likely deepened the pining in fact. Though she regretted her gesture, I admired her--and still do--for her easy admissions of love and delight, little bubbling geysers sporadically spewing forth; her proclamations of being enchanted by someone’s beauty, which instilled in her a sense of God-inspired awe, the way beautiful things point us back to some divine mystery we cannot fully comprehend. We are strengthened by the ethereal whispers of gestures, faces, words, moments, and rhythms that etch themselves onto our swelling hearts--the ones no one else notices--and those fluttering wings of beauty we meet--if we care to meet them at all--are made more glorious by our attachments, migrating here, there, everywhere.
A year ago, Shannon called me from Dar es Salaam, where she was wandering and sojourning. She called to ask for dinner ideas. A man she loved was coming to dinner, and she wanted to please him, feed him, as we do to those ones we love. “A chickpea stew,” I suggested, “with couscous.” Warm, comforting, drawn out. A stew: love stirred in a pot, tenderly slowly, onions caramelizing, chickpeas soaking up all the liquid, roots and fibers softening, breaking down. She could not say she loved him, but both she and I knew, that she slipped her heart into that stew, knowing words, that night, just wouldn’t do.
If you've known me for a long time, then you know that for the past decade or so, I've written an annual Christmas letter for my family, which my parents send out (before Christmas) every year to friends and relatives. This year, I shirked that duty, going to the desert on a road trip instead, skipping out on a traditional Christmas entirely. To make up for that, I promised my parents that I would write a New Years letter, so I did. It used to be an update of the family, but since I don't live with my parents, it's become more of a rambling digest.
There's some of you whom I talk to every day, others of you whom I haven't seen in years; and still others with whom I've had only a brief but meaningful encounter. But like I've written before, I believe that once a kinship comes into being, it will never cease to exist, even if it is silent, or latent, for awhile. So for the one time per year when I can flip through the rolodex of my mind, remember the heartstrings each of you have plucked, think fondly of every meeting I've had with you, I do so joyously. I write this letter to all of you, knowing--hoping--that in some way, we're all still connected to one another.
So I hope you enjoy the letter that I've written to you this year--about my trip to the desert, about 2013 and beyond. And if you have a minute or two, please write back and tell me how you are. I'd love to hear from you.
With candor and affection,
On Friday night, after 2000 miles on the road over the span of a week, I arrived at a warehouse in a desolate neighborhood in Oakland. It was quiet and dark—just parking lots and brick-lined warehouses. My stomach was knotted and tight. For the past six days, I had been out in the desert, on the road, and in a convent; beneath a flowering garden of stars in empty stretches of black sky; in a graveyard of fish bones by a salty, white sea. I had watched the red sun descend spilling warm waves of color over the mountains, black smoke billowing like an ominous cloud behind; floated through fields of dusty blonde cat tails and curlicued reeds of dried desert grass; sailed down a straight and breathless road snaking endlessly through the chiaroscuro contours of purple-hued mountains; freely reeled, rambled, rollicked, never in one place for too long. I breathed in the silence of a monastery, steeped in a wilderness away from everywhere; walked a yellow brick road on a rainbow hill; wrote letters to loved ones on a plain wooden desk; napped; stoked a fire in the still stands of a desert homestead.
Now, in Oakland, at our friend’s dinner party, we were about to join the bustling throngs of civilization again, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to encounter, swallow, and sift through all the noise. Or smile and make small talk, try to yell louder than the music in the background. Wasn’t ready to return to the patterned routines of my ordinary life with dulled senses and a twittering heart.
Of course I knew I’d come back, like every other time I’ve left home, which always begins with a feeling of wanting to leave, wanting unfamiliarity and novelty and a different breath of air. I am, by instinct, a hoarder and archivist, always hungry, always trying to fill up, which has often left me more restless than satisfied, feeling like a wanderer. I read somewhere about the “capitalism of the heart,” in which happiness and experience are currencies to be gathered and seized. Maybe I’ve been wanting to get rich, thinking I could fatten up my spirit by moving from place to place, always looking for the next place to go, anticipating a deadline to usher me into a different geography, awaiting some future joy, as if somewhere else is something better. If you’re lucky or wise, sometimes you won’t desire anything at all.
Sometimes it’s easier to displace yourself and surround yourself with strangers you don’t know, people you’re not attached to. That’s why the first time you leave home, you feel liberated, uninhibited. You’re not responsible for much more than observing lives in which you have no stake. You can construct barriers around yourself. You don’t have to care. You may be living a messy, scrappy life, but you’ve tucked your heart away, falsely manicured, or festering.
When I first left for college on the east coast—a little more than five years ago now—I was hopeful for the revelation of a wild and unhindered life. I was under the impression that the farther I flung myself, the more people I met and the more things I saw, the more worldly wisdom I’d gain. I associated this experience consumption with happiness—with the ultimate pursuit of truth, too—and I constructed my own hierarchy of experiences, which was based on the way I wanted to be viewed, lauded, glorified.
At school, I experienced major culture shock. People talked and dressed differently. Social hierarchies seemed more important, as did your lineage and blood. The details of your résumé and birth certificate carried much more weight, and your taste—in books, music, art, and clothing—reflected how cultured and intelligent you were. Your taste was a boon or a shame; either way, it was judged. As a result, I always felt like I fell short of what I was supposed to be: my taste was never refined enough, the depth of my knowledge too shallow. I didn’t try hard enough, even though I felt like I was always trying and wanting more than what I had. I also felt burdened by the expectation that I should be grateful—and thus unconditionally happy—for admission into a school that the world branded as ultimate, the apex of all college experiences.
Even beyond school, I searched for a place where I could be more than an observer and outsider. I lived amidst constant noise, hoping that the voices of each place I sojourned would light my way through a labyrinthine maze of discovery. There were stretches of time when I lost sight of God, who isn’t forceful, but is easily forced out, if you’re constantly searching for a home in this weighted world. In this relentless pursuit of gratification, of what you think is self-enlightenment, you begin to collect every shard of tragedy that breaks open along the way, while little joys fall through your fingers like pixie dust. You’re the perambulating ruffian pushing a shopping cart full of useless artifacts. Your cart is brimming, but you’re still looking for more.
The desert is empty and sparse, a thinly veiled landscape that is purposefully uninviting. Everything protects itself. The physiology of its fauna and flora are telltale signs: spiny, prickly, precarious and beautiful, guarded by needles that stab lest you try to steal its treasure.
But the emptiness of the desert calls you to pay attention and fully inhabit your consciousness. You see the desert quail scurry across the road; notice the detritus laying haphazardly on the open plain; watch the trails of steam rise up from the hot sands. Like a monastery in which lack strengthens presence, silence focuses your attention; sometimes it sharpens sadnesses and amplifies joys. A fermata is held over every feeling. Solitude beckons. You have everything you need in this moment. Nothing is urgent. The future does not require your attention. Your heart is filled because you are no longer in want. The horizon, a bottomless basin that cleanses you with its smooth wash of colors, filters out all the thorny noise that was pricking you just days ago in the city. Now you have space and time to listen to God, and the first principles by which you want to live your life float to the surface, a buoy so achingly clear in an infinite blue: love God first, and love others. By that principle all else will fall into place.
Another year of moments is passing: moments of indefatigable ecstasy, moments of grief-worn insanity, moments of wondering why and how I ended up here, and whether I’m okay. This year I began to invest deeply in one place, in a real community in San Francisco—and how delightful that has been, to have a family of friends in this ever-changing city, while living so close to the family who raised me—both are gifts. Since I left home, I’ve never felt more anchored to a place than I do here—but I think it’s more than the place: I’ve begun to anchor myself to a way of living that gives up everything that school taught me to cling onto: productivity, success, being good enough, worrying that I don’t have enough or am not enough, stressing out.
In a letter to my sister, Naomi, I recounted to her ten ways of living that were important to me in 2013. Here’s what I told her: Live in community. Live vulnerably. Live freely. Live with God. Keep searching for God. Prioritize your life so you have no regrets. Let things go. Leave room for serendipity. Rest. Call Mom and Dad. And in all those things, love deeply, unconditionally, and sacrificially.
On the night of Christmas Eve, we arrived at a Cistercian abbey after hours of silently winding through the dark dirt roads of the Sonoita Mountains. At midnight, we attended mass in a small chapel on the hill, with a few other guests scattered among the plain wooden pews. Faded paintings of saints lined the white brick walls, and potted poinsettias graced the aisles. Guests sat in one room; nuns in another. We could not see the sisters. We saw only Father William, a visiting priest, who sat behind a massive pulpit carved out of a gnarled tree trunk. Between scriptural readings, a sister sang unaccompanied, a single, shrill voice quivering, warbling, humbly following a melody line. Father William urged us to “enter more deeply into the mysteries of the son of God,” and retold the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, a children’s book by Margery Williams. He read these lines, in which the Rabbit asks the Skinned Horse what it means to be real:
“Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.”
So often we wait for the whisperings of the world to teach us how to exist, and we let the whistling winds blow us from one place to the next, with a vague vision of where we want to end up, but no idea of how we want to live out the moments that will get us there. So we continue to fill our lives with momentary pleasures, aesthetic pursuits, crafting and arranging a life that is fit for the person we imagine ourselves to be. In the process, we forget our souls; we forget the one true love that makes our hearts real.
In the coming year, let love guide your every action and thought. May you experience the joys and heartbreaks of intimacy, baring your soul shamelessly, fearlessly. May you welcome the discomfort of the change you cannot control, and patiently bear the little battles of a mundane existence. May you continue seeking God, a changeless face that never bores, never turns away. May you breathe in every moment, listen to the silence, fling doubt away, and let faith and prayer inhabit your being. May you remember God, even when you are weak and hurting. May you call a friend, ask for help. Thank God for every meal, blessing, and heart you touch. May you love God first, and love others accordingly.