Tuesday, April 11, 2006

This is why I have no willpower

I ate the airplane food. It was beyond disgusting and I'm talking now about what tried to pass for chicken casserole but was actually boiling cream of mushroom soup with -- Truthfully? I don't even want to think about. Describing it seems like self-flagellation. There was some kind of pie called "Banatoffee" and I ate it, despite the fact that the list of ingredients probably rivals that of the atomic bomb.

Which is to say that when I'm feeling emotionally...fraught, I stop thinking about physical hunger.

Now that I'm back, it's like resetting a wind-up clock, relearning to rollerskate. I'm drinking my seltzer water-tangerine juice mix already thinking about breakfast (oh, thank you, thank you, for American flavored coffee!) and the train I have to catch to go to Sarah Lawrence in time for my classes. When we were just getting to be friends, Phoebe described drinking deli coffee in this context: "I coffee-slum all the time." The longer I drink coffee, the more I lean towards delis. In London, there's almost no choice: Starbucks is ubiquitous, moreso than in New York. So in London, I drink skim lattes and cappuccinos -- frothy espresso concoctions with sugar instead of Splenda and sprinklings of cinnamon on top. Also in London, there's no such thing as half 'n half. In New York, I walk half a block to the Gracefully deli and fill a small cup with Vanilla Nut-flavored and there's no one standing around saying, "More whip!" or "This isn't hot enough. Again!" Gracefully is right next to a rehab center, two flights up on 1st Avenue, and the people buying coffee with me are dusty and wide-eyed. We drink our coffee as if there were something else in the paper cups -- light and sweet methadone, maybe, or liquid gold.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Goodbye, Bup!

I'm leaving for the airport in two hours, back to New York, back to my own life -- tangerine juice with cranberry packets of Emergen-C, sleeping in the middle of the bed (or, um, futon mattress), brewing coffee for myself, peeing with the bathroom door open, yoga classes and writing classes and subway rides, running along the East River, talking to Liz three times a day, Feldenkrais, therapy on 54th Street, a tiny class of eighth and tenth graders in Queens. I have to turn in 30 pages of writing tomorrow morning and I have no idea what it will be.

On Saturday, in Paris, Robert and I went out for a walk and he was acting kind of strange, kept suggesting that we "sit on a parkbench by the river" (which, I know, doesn't sound that strange but it's not something I can recall his ever having previously said). Walking across the Seine, I reached to tuck my right hand into his pants' pocket and he almost jumped -- and then stuck his own hand into the pocket and offered me his elbow to hold. I knew. I knew even before I glanced at his pocket that I would see a bulge there -- the shape of a tiny box, holding an engagement ring. And I didn't say anything. We strolled, we sat on a bench, we read the Herald Tribune and the Financial Times. We split three pieces of gum and had a brief bubble-blowing contest. We kissed and laughed and talked about Thomas Friedman's editorial and my maybe moving to London and our maybe living in Paris and we talked about the teenage couple sitting near us, the Chinese tourists -- four men -- taking turns posing for the camera, the boats floating past us, our dinner plans that night with his friends Kasper and Shirin. And then we stood up and walked home, his left hand in his pocket and my arm looked through his arm.

Last night, on the train back to London, I said, "I know you were carrying the ring in your pocket on Saturday." And he denied it. Five minutes later he said, "You notice everything, don't you?" But no, I said, not everything.

Saying goodbye makes me crave ice-cream and dark chocolate. Please, please, this is my penny-toss-wish thrown out into the hinterland: grant me the willpower to abstain from eight hours of airplane food...

Friday, April 07, 2006

Cutting them off

My father says that my wanting to cut myself from his family (two brothers, one sister, and their spouses) is "a low-rent thing to do." His father, my grandfather, is dying in Tennessee. He is. It's not a false proclamation stated to inspire sympathy; his health has been ailing for a long time now -- his words becoming less and less coherent, his epic hours-long walks limited first to around the block then to the corner and back, then down the hallway, and now, if he's up to it, from his bed to the bathroom. I went home a few weeks ago, both to see my parents and to see him, for what I assumed would be the last time. And then, I decided I wanted to go back again but before I did, something else came up: the issue of an old inheritance.

My father and his siblings (along with my generation of offspring) have been left with 600 acres of forest -- and a house -- near the Smoky Mountains that belonged to my great-grandparents on his mother's side. There's been an offer for the property and everyone save my father wants to sell it to developers who plan to tear it all down and build high-density condos and golf courses.

My vote doesn't really count in this decision because, though the land was left to all of us, it is my father and his siblings who stand to benefit. (They would each receive the interest from the principle of the sale -- enough money, every year, for them to quit their jobs without really worrying about money for the rest of their lives. As for the principle, deeded to my cousins and my sister and me, we couldn't touch it until all four of them have passed away, decades from now.)

This is the letter I wrote to them two weeks ago:

My Dear Family,

This afternoon, I spent time researching Thomas Burnett Swann and was
astounded by the vast number of strangers online who name him as
their favorite author. I read essays devoted to explicating his
science fiction and I learned, too, that May 5th of this year will
mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Born four years later,
in 1980, I never had the chance to know him although his life is one
subject of conversations I shared with Great-Grandmommie that I will
never forget. She spoke of her son, as well you know, with a
tremendous amount of love and affection. The truth, of course, is
that she spoke of all of you with love, that she treated all of us
with graciousness and generosity.

Her behavior remains an example to me. Struggling to wrap a Chrismas
present, Scotch tape stuck to my hair, I remember her attention to
details--her beautiful bows and small ornaments, the preparation that
went into wrapping and table setting, flower arrangments and dressing
for dinner. Sometimes, walking down the street in New York, I
remember sitting beside her on the porch at Dandridge. I remember the
sound of clinking ice-cubes in her gin and tonic, Mr. French's Bloody
Mary, the plates of pre-dinner cheese and crackers, salted pecans. I
remember one such evening, the sun setting, as she told me a story
about herself as a little girl and then reached out and patted my
knee with her hand and said, "I love you, Precious." Perhaps that
sounds trite but, having grown up in an extended family rich in
intellect and sparse with displays of affection, her openness about
attachment to her family, to us, was nothing short of astonishing. In
her presence, I found I sat up a little taller.

With varying degrees of aspiration and success, she made me want to
be a warm person, to be disciplined, to always be in the middle of a
book, to rise early in the mornings, to swim and go for walks, to
lean over and smell the roses, to wear perfume and have a signature
scent, to care about the details and appreciate beauty, to have pride
without being boastful, to skin a dove, to put out fresh soap and
leave the lights on for guests, to give people my full attention,
and, perhaps above all, to be loyal to my family.

At stake is the issue of Dandridge but it also presents questions
about our family and how, together, we choose to spend our time, as
well as the gifts that Great-Grandmommie has bestowed upon us.

Though I harbor no false hope that it will sway you, my vote is in
favor of holding onto Dandridge. I appreciate that it is worth a
great deal of money, and feel increasingly resigned to the fact that
it will probably be sold at some point. But still, I feel that I
would be remiss if I did not go on record as saying that I do not
think it is ours to sell; I think, more accurately, that it is ours
to protect. This property is worth more than money; it represents, to
me, generations of our family's history and values and, in that
sense, I do not recognize it as something we have the right to sell
to developers who are open about wanting to plow down the forest and
put up "high density condos."

Really, now, what would be bought with these potential gains that
will still be around in twenty years? Thirty years? Groceries? Cars?
Vacations? Another house? At some point in this process, a fair
question to ask ourselves is how much money does one need in order to
be happy and to live well. It seems, at least to me, that one could
always "use" more money; why not?

A harder question to answer regards what in our lives is permanent.
Who and what can we count on? What do we know for sure? In answer to
the latter question, I have to confess that until last year I took
for granted the assumption that Dandridge would always be there, that
one day my own children would run around catching toads and rowing
around the ponds, that we would all (more or less) convene there on
the 4th of July forever. In consideration of the former question, I
want to say family. I want to believe that we can count on each
other, not always to agree, but always to be honest and, in honor of
Great-Grandmommie, I think that we are capable of handling this
matter with grace. I would like to believe that, with or without
Dandridge, we can get together and play Scrabble and go swimming and
eat homemade hamburgers (a veggie burger for Uncle Charlie) and spit
watermelon seeds into the grass and share decades-old embarrassing
stories and sometimes argue but generally just let out guards down
and be present with each other.

This is my real hope for us.

I'm so grateful to have such wonderful, rich memories of Dandridge. I
feel blessed to have known Great-Grandmommie, truly blessed, and I
believe that, regardless of how this issue is resolved among us, she
would want us to live peaceful and fulfilling lives. I hope to hear
from you and am determined to be more mindful to reaching out and
staying in touch.

With love,

I heard from my father, my mother, my sister, my grandmother. But my uncles, my aunts? I have not heard a word from any of them. One aunt, by marriage, told my mother last weekend that my letter has offended her because they need the money, she said. "What it would buy is peace of mind." I've been thinking about this all week and, truthfully, I can say that I disagree. After the necessities are taken care of -- food, shelter, love, purpose in the morning -- I don't think that peace of mind has anything to do with money. Not hearing from them draws clear lines for me in the sense that, regardless of whether or not it looks bad, I am finished with the charade of pretending that these people are my only family. If your family doesn't bring you some sort of fulfillment, how in the world could you expect money to bring you peace?

I have said goodbye to my grandfather and have decided now to create space between myself and my extended family. I say this not out of acrimony but out of an understanding that our future, as a family, is one that these people are not particularly invested in. I wish for myself to stop feeling let down by them, to stop expecting anything from them. Instead of returning to Tennessee this weekend, I chose to come to London -- to kiss the man I love and try to let go of the fear that everyone eventually falls away and disappoints.

What I know for sure

Things that help make me feel better:
1. Exercise that kicks my ass and makes me struggle to breathe
2. My forehead on a yoga mat in child's pose
3. Where the Wild Things Are, Eloise, books about Olivia the pig, Goodnight Moon, The Velveteen Rabbit
4. Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, Bruce Springsteen, Wilco, and 100.1 FM while I'm tooling around town in Nashville with the windows down
5. The real estate section of the Sunday Times, along with the Modern Love column in the Styles section (and, though this is a secret of shameful proportions, also the occasional Vows column and how they met description in the wedding announcements)
6. opening my mailbox to find magazines: New York, the New Yorker, Southern Living, O, and Audubon
7. Marc Chagall paintings
8. cappuccinos with whole milk and a piece of melting chocolate at the bottom
9. my old leather jacket
10. having a pink cheek glow, fresh from a run or fresh out of bed
11. poems by Galway Kinnel and Marie Howe
12. The Boys of my Youth by Jo Ann Beard
13. paperback mysteries, crossword puzzles, and cookbook photographs
14. Fresca
15. talking to my sisters
16. getting eighth grade Peter to participate during class, even if I don't understand what he's talking about and I've never seen him write on anything but the desk
17. Phoebe's French bulldog Guinness
18. writing every day
19. wearing Robert's shirts and boxers around the apartment
20. having cleaned my bathroom, changed my sheets, washed the dishes and the floor, vacuumed, dropped off laundry, and taken out the trash -- and knowing I don't have to do it again for a week
21. pedicures
22. holding baby Marley during yoga class
23. blowing bubbles with Extra Sugar-free gum
24. coming outside to find that my car is still there and I have not received another $75 parking ticket
25. sour cherry muffins, carrot cake, sausage, Monte D'Or cheese, frozen grapes, homemade whipped cream, Spanish olives, Diet Coke with lime, spinach salad, carrot apple ginger juice, seltzer water

Things that make me feel worse:
1. sleeping on an airplane
2. not sleeping on an airplane
3. skipping school
4. not writing
5. avoiding people and generally being a total flake
6. more than 2 glasses of wine
7. eating dinner at ten o'clock
8. hearing myself complain
9. not using birth control (and taking pregnancy tests every few months)
10. crumbs in my bed
11. sour cherry muffins, carrot cake, sausage, Monte D'Or cheese, whipped cream, too much coffee, too much anything
12. fear that missing Robert is making me miss out on life
13. conflict with friends
14. feeling, for whatever reason, like I have failed

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Post-poned indefinitely

Lord. I arrived in London last night and will be here until Monday, when Robert and I are flying back to New York together for "a few more days" -- or, whenever he decides again that managing his business from our kitchen table in Alphabet City is impossible. His friends Marcus and Priya were supposed to be getting married this weekend, starting today with festivities going on through Sunday evening. But their wedding has been canceled because, after they had an argument, Marcus didn't show up the next day to sign the marriage license and Priya and her parents waited long enough for it to become painfully obvious that this was not a promising start to a long and healthy marriage. But, of course, she says she still loves him. Marcus isn't even using the word 'canceled' -- he says only that it's been 'postponed' -- and do you even want to imagine the sort of words that Priya's relatives are using? So depressing. I feel horrible for her. They've been engaged since 2003. In talking about it, Robert reminded me that it's better for this to happen now. Yes, it would have been much better if it had happened a week or two earlier (like, say, before her entire extended family arrived from India) but still -- better for Marcus to show his true colors now, while she's free enough to get out of this relationship without a divorce and children and more years gone by.

Robert met me at Paddington Station and we came home, where he cooked fresh cod, encrusted in seasalt, and scallops, and opened a bottle of Chablis, and I set the table with candles. Then I sat on his lap in an armchair and we ate vanilla ice-cream with raspberries and I wanted to feel completely focused on being with Robert, to close my eyes when he kissed me and to relax. But instead, I felt this squirrely anxiety, I kept jumping around, and feeling self-counscious about my tummy. And then, in bed, he reached for me and I started to cry.
"I feel so far away from you," I said.
And he pulled me to his chest, stroked my hair. "I'm here," he said. "I'm not going anywhere."
"No... but we will have to say goodbye again in a week. And then see each other in another month. Knowing that, knowing how hard it is to separate from you, makes me not want to open up at all."
I couldn't have sex because my muscles were contracted and I wasn't in the moment, my head was already saying goodbye in New York, watching his taxi disappear around Houston Street in seven days. He lay beside me, touching my neck and my shoulders and my arms and my tummy, and when I turned to him again, in the candlelight, I expected to feel that same tense shut-off-ness but this time, I felt excited. When I woke up today, we were wrapped around each other and when he opened his eyes, he said, "Can I bite your nose?"

That anxiety is back again -- I've felt this pervasive sadness for the past couple of weeks -- and I can't put my finger on it, exactly, on what's causing it. My family used to go to this run-down Methodist church in Nashville, in a converted garage, and at the start of the Sunday service, everyone would say together, "It is good to be in the house of the Lord." It's different, I know, but all day I've been walking around Marylebone with that same feeling, this time about Robert's house, about being surrounded by love.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Come on down!

I'm trying to get control of my life, beginning with my kitchen. Hello, Mop? Mop? Where ahhre you? Come on down and meet the floor! And the books, my god, the books stacked on top of every level surface. Yesterday, I looked at a co-op on 9th Street in the West Village and it was like coming face-to-face with my fate (well, an off-5th Avenue sort of fate). In 1200 square feet of space, this owner prides herself on having fit almost 8,000 books, 3 couches, 1 grand piano, mulitple armchairs, a television, a double bed, one cat and his assorted accoutrements (litter box, scratch pole, tiny toys), and -- lord, it is impossible to overstate the cramped feeling that standing in the middle of 8,000 books will give you. I walked out with a newfound motivation to cross the street when I get close to used bookstores. A new mantra: My home is not, and should not aspire to be, the public library. All the culinary mysteries I've been reading for the past month? Hello, sidewalk!

The past couple of weeks, since I returned from a week at my parents' house in Tennessee, have been really difficult. In addition to all the heightened stuff with Robert (we're still together, we continue to miss each other, I'm going to visit in a couple of days, and in two hours I'm going back to look at another apartment with a contractor), I've started seeing a therapist every Wednesday and was rejected from several literary magazines and a newspaper. One of my great writing friends, though, has sold her first book and has now crossed the divide that eludes most writers for decades: she is now able to support herself as a writer. I'm happy for her, really proud of her; this could not have happened to a more genuine and deserving person. Also positive is that my running is much-improved -- since January 10th, I've been running at least 15 miles a week in preparation for the Vancouver half-marathon on May 7th, with my dad and Robert, and now, finally, I'm starting to look forward to it. I know that I can do it. Also, on Friday night, I participated in a reading in Brooklyn. I stood up onstage at a dive bar (it opens at 8 in the morning) and read 2 essays into a microphone and I wasn't booed off. The best part of that was seeing my friends who came -- Tallu and Phoebe and Andrew and their friends. (The second best part was the guy who, I noticed, walked in front of me to get to the bathroom while I was reading and then came up to me outside afterwards and said I "did good." I was like, "Oh yeah? You enjoyed it from the bathroom?" And he held up both hands and said, "Hey! I didn't pee directly into the water so as not to make a lot of noise and disturb you. And I hesitated to flush!") Does life get any better than that? By "better", of course, what I mean is hilarious and humbling?

One of my best friends and I broke up. Did we break up? I don't know, we are taking a break. I'm going to have to think about this before I write anymore because I feel conflicted and still unsure how it even came to this point. That thing that Anne Lamott calls "K-FKD" -- K-Fucked, the voice in your head that delivers a constant stream of self-abuse -- has been playing loud for the past week, and considering the dissolution of what had been a solid friendship makes me feel horrible. I can think about this, or I can mop and clean my apartment, but I cannot do both at the same time. Maybe what I need now is a cup of coffee and Liz Phair, to get on my knees and start scrubbing.