Five Small Memories

It’s 10pm and pretty much all I want to do is curl into bed and fall asleep with my head resting on Alley’s chest. “Refrigerator magnet,” you called it, offering up the adorable description one day when we were all talking about different spooning and cuddling positions. Like your partner is the refrigerator and your head is the tiny little magnet resting on it, moving ever so slightly as she breaths, in and out, in and out, in and out, you explained. Over and over forever. It’s weird that you haven’t talked to me in so many days. Knowing someone so well and then not knowing them at all and then wondering if you ever knew them is weird. I guess I wrote about this last week.

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Memory #1 (photo by Vanessa Friedman, film 2015)

Anyway the point is I wish I was in bed already, refrigerator magnet spooning sleeping resting etc. But I haven’t written a blog post yet today, and it’s Wednesday, and I’m not quite willing to let myself down on this “write a blog post every single Wednesday no matter what just do it just write some words down they don’t have to be perfect they just have to exist okay” thing just yet. I was on deadline today for a story that falls outside my comfort zone – it is not a personal essay, it is well researched, I interviewed more than one person, it took a lot of time and energy to put together – and it ended up being more than 2,000 words long and so I’ve already used up a lot of words today. I’m tired and going to bed would be nice. But this is nice too.

I titled this post “five small memories” right away, as soon as the page loaded and I could type a title, and I thought that would be easy. Snippets. Flashes. I’m so good at rambling on and on about myself but I want to cultivate other sides of my writing also, strengthen the muscles that describe characters and narrate plots and carve out settings and and and. One thing at a time. My first paragraph already feels sort of like a small memory. Do emotional scars ever go away?

Four more.

The beach where you cried while telling me you didn’t know if your self existed anymore, what if you’d sacrificed all the parts of you to follow one big dream, what if that one big dream was too big, what happened to all the little pieces. We are all made up of so many little pieces and being a grown up so often means crushing most of them into fine dust, wiping it off to the side or discarding it on the far side of your porch, saving it to do something special when you’ve got the time. Maybe this metaphor doesn’t make sense. I just mean that you are so big, and you are made of stardust, and your big dream is so special and important and you will always be yourself and if you ever lose her I will come find you and sprinkle stardust in your hair and remind you that I love you and you are so much more than just one thing. So much more.

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Memory #2 (photo by Vanessa Friedman, film 2015)

Why are high school cafeterias such cliches? It’s embarrassing that the one I think of is probably a carbon copy of the one every other kid who grew up in suburbia in the early 2000s thinks of when we think about lunch in high school. As soon as I realized I could, I brought my lunch into the photo room and ate there instead, holding court with the other artsy weirdos, thoroughly enjoying myself except when I was miserable, and even sometimes then. I wore so much black eyeliner and had that black skirt with the white polka dots that I wore almost constantly and there was that one day I dressed up like a fairy and wore wings to math class. I hated math class so much.

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Memory #3 (photo by Vanessa Friedman, film 2015)

You’re not supposed to drink any alcohol before going ice skating at Bryant Park and you’re not supposed to take any photos once you’re on the ice rink but we did both of those things when we celebrated my 18th birthday there in 2006 and I don’t regret any of it. I wonder why losing some friendships hurt so much more than others. I’ve been obsessing and fixating over the art of losing friendships, incase you haven’t noticed. I miss you in a vague and random way – I rarely think of things that remind me of you, and I don’t obsessively check your Facebook page. I try to remember what it felt like right when it happened – almost eight years ago – but it’s hard to put myself back there. I am a different person now. I thought I was straight then, and my hair wasn’t wavy.

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Memory #4 (photo by Vanessa Friedman, film 2014)

Earlier today, as I was feeding G his bottle before he went down for his nap, he extended one tiny arm up toward my face and with his little fingers grasped onto a chunk of hair that had fallen loose from my ponytail near the nape of my neck. He has gotten so good at pinching and grabbing, he can hold his bottle on his own now (mostly) and he happily feeds himself bits of avocado, cut up golden beets, sliced banana, but I did not realize how strong he is, so when he yanked that hair toward him, stopping his slurping to giggle delightedly over his new trick, I winced in real pain, shocked at what a tiny baby is capable of, at how a body reacts, at the newness of this entire world before his eyes. Spending time with babies is good for that reminder. Every day they experience so many brand new things. Every single day they discover the whole world.

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Memory #5 (photo by Vanessa Friedman, film 2015)

Wordstock, Genius Women, and Conditional Love

On Saturday I went to Wordstock, a literary event in Portland, and I attended three separate panels, all made up entirely of women. Well, technically it was two panels and one “conversation,” but the end result is that I spent my day listening to 10 immensely talented women talk to each other with not a single man on stage to interrupt or mansplain or do…anything. It was glorious. I regret nothing.

(Okay, I do regret missing out on seeing Michelle Tea. A lot! I should have woken up earlier and made it to her morning panel about YA sequels, or I should have not gotten lost on the way to her pop up reading in the afternoon…sigh. I guess nothing can ever be TRULY PERFECT. One day I’ll meet Michelle Tea and fangirl over Valencia and mermaids. It won’t be weird…)

Before I say anything else I should note that if you haven’t read After Birth or The Argonauts, you should do yourself a huge favor and read both, immediately. They are my two favorite books of the year, and guess what? The first panel I attended at Wordstock included both books’ authors: Elisa Albert and Maggie Nelson! It was honestly like a dream.

The panel was titled Triple Threat: Art, Ambition, and Motherhood, and if you think a conversation about those topics (plus writing memoir, revealing oneself versus protecting oneself in narrative, and feminism) with four genius women is the stuff of my deepest fantasies, congratulations on knowing me very well! The third author on the panel, along with Albert and Nelson, was Heidi Julavits, whose work I was not familiar with prior to the panel but whose book The Folded Clock I cannot wait to read, and the moderator was Emily Chenoweth, author of Hello Goodbye. At the very beginning of the panel, after each woman had read a passage from her book, Julavits said, “I’m so thrilled to be on stage with these three other amazing women that I kind of want to lock the doors and stay in here longer because the remaining amount of time isn’t going to be enough to get to the bottom of everything.” She was right, of course – the allotted 50 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time to get to the bottom of anything. I would’ve stayed in that room for weeks listening to those women talk.

There is something so powerful about allowing four women to sit together and just talk, particularly when that talk is about writing and motherhood and things that women are expected to just do. Or not do, actually. We are supposed to have babies and not complain at all and magically know how to be perfect mothers, but we’re not supposed to write our stories – when men write their stories they are Telling Important Tales, they are Doing Important Work, they are Articulating The Universal Experience. When women write our stories critics complain that we’re always crying on bathroom floors, complaining about having babies, stressing out about casual sexual harassment…at the very beginning of the panel the mic wasn’t picking up moderator Chenoweth’s voice, and eventually Albert pointed it out to her. Chenoweth turned to the audience and chided us: Not one of you was gonna tell me you couldn’t hear me? Not a single one? Oh well, it’s a woman talking, doesn’t matter what she’s saying anyway! Just kidding… She was kidding but she also wasn’t kidding. We are all kidding but also not kidding. We’re just trying to fucking tell our stories.

I could go on forever (clearly) about all the things covered during that specific panel, and I hopefully will get a chance to write more about it soon. There are many aspects of Wordstock that I think would be worth writing about: the exhilaration and inspiration I felt being surrounded by so many talented writers, the growing pains the event is experiencing and the kinks that will hopefully be ironed out for next year, the disappointing lack of POC in the panels I attended, the strong East Coast urges that rush into my psyche when I’m confronted with crowds and logistics and Getting Shit Done…the list goes on.

But what I specifically want to focus on for this blog post (you know, besides the 800 words I’ve already written about other stuff) is a topic that came up during a panel titled Unexpected Family: Finding Home with Kathleen Alcott, Mary Gaitskill, Claire Vaye Watkins, and moderator Allison Frost.

Near the end of the panel, the subject of chosen family came up. This is a subject that is close to my heart, and that is also really painful for me, because I’ve been let down by people who I considered chosen family, and I think I have let down people who considered me chosen family, and it’s something that I don’t think we talk about very much in queer communities (being let down by or letting down chosen family members), even though the idea of chosen family is so widely accepted among us.

Alcott, who I should say right now just totally blew me away for the entire duration of the panel, really knocking it out of the park on every single answer and making more than a few people in the audience (and on stage!) sit up a little straighter in total shock and discomfort (in a great way!), said, “The beauty of the chosen family is that they’ve also chosen you.” Which of course immediately punched me in the gut, as a statement, because I started thinking how bad it feels when your chosen family unchooses you.

There have been several powerful essays about the end of female friendships floating around the interwebs these days, but I don’t think any of them have touched upon the queer perspective, and none of them (so far as I know) have talked about how deeply painful it can be to be rejected by a community. A friend breakup is a very specific kind of pain, but a friend breakup that involves multiple humans or layers or shifting group dynamics is so specific, and I was just starting to feel really fucking sad when the moderator followed up on Alcott’s statement by saying, confidently, “[A chosen family is] unconditional love.” And then Alcott was like, “No, I think it’s very conditional.” And that’s about when I fell in love with her, for the record. But seriously, everyone seemed kind of taken aback, and then Alcott expanded on the thought: “The danger in the chosen family…it’s not dependable…there’s greater vulnerability…these people don’t have to love you for the rest of your life like your family would.”

Damn.

I think some of you are going to inherently disagree with this statement. I can hear some of the arguments, maybe. Maybe you want me to know that the family you’re born into isn’t necessarily dependable, isn’t necessarily offering unconditional love, will not necessarily be there for you for the rest of your life. To which I say, that’s true. It fucking sucks that not everyone is guaranteed unconditional love and acceptance and dependability from their family. I understand why we make chosen families. The family I was born into is incredible (hi mom, please don’t be offended by any of these words, I love you a lot, I love our family a lot) and I still find myself making pockets of chosen families. In a world where many people remain single or get married later in life, many people live alone, many people (especially queers, especially POC, especially young people struggling with debt) do not have the material resources to stay afloat: of course we look for chosen families. I don’t think that’s weird, or bad, or wrong, or anything like that. I think it’s beautiful.

But fuck, I’ve never heard anyone articulate the flipside of those relationships. How having a falling out with your chosen family can be just as painful as being rejected by your biological family. How you can think you’re fine but wake up some days and still feel so sad, so mad, so helpless. How the love can feel so fucking conditional.

I thought it was really brave and really honest of Kathleen Alcott to say that. I’ve been thinking about it for days now, and I have a feeling I’m going to be hanging on to it for a long, long while.

To conclude on a note that is not a total bummer, I will tell you how I was also lucky enough to hear Cheryl Strayed interview Diana Nyad later in the day, and I stood in line to have Cheryl sign my copy of Tiny Beautiful Things (again!) afterwards, and when I got to the front of the line I said to her, “You signed this in 2013 in Brooklyn, and I was so sad, and you held my hand and told me to close my eyes and picture a time when things wouldn’t suck, and now I live here in Portland and I’m so happy!”

And I’m sure nine million humans have said some variation of that to Cheryl Strayed over the course of her life, but she was so gracious, and after she signed my book she took my hand and looked at me and said, “See, I was right,” and I said, “Thank you,” and then I stepped aside to let the next person have their turn and I flipped my book open to see what she had written.

“Trust your wild heart.”

And I do. And I will. Unconditionally.

“Here are a bunch of thoughts. Here are all my feelings.”

Oh my god this is like, my eighth draft of this post. I keep writing it and writing it and writing it and it’s never really exactly what I mean to say so I hit “save” and add another draft to my robust yet useless Google Doc “blog” folder and I don’t cross “WRITE YOUR DAMN BLOG POST OR ELSE” off my to-do list and I feel bad about myself because this used to be so easy! It’s very weird to feel so incompetent at something I used to find so easy. “Wrote 2-5 posts a week” is a line on my resume from a former job. I’ve been keeping some sort of written journal for more than 20 years, and I’ve been writing on the internet for at least a decade. What’s my deal?! Why is this so hard?

I think I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to make this first real blog post “perfect,” or “exactly what I want to say,” or even just “not really shitty.” But…I’m out of practice. I’ve recently been lifting weights for the first time in a few years, and I’m not as strong as I used to be – I can’t deadlift as much weight, can’t do as many pushups, can’t hold my planks for as many minutes. These revelations have not been surprising. When you stop lifting, your body gets weaker. You can see where this metaphor is going.

I had lunch with a friend today and we talked about creativity and writing and blogging and being public with one’s art. She reminded me that a thing does not have to be perfect to be deemed worthy of being shared. I thought this would be a space to share polished essays, but it’s not – it’s a blog. It’s messy and unfinished and doesn’t know exactly what it’s supposed to be yet. There’s no theme, no cohesive subject matter to focus on, no way to distract from the fact that I just want to share the things that are happening in my brain and my heart and my life. It always feels so self-indulgent to blog without a theme: Here are a bunch of thoughts. Here are all my feelings. Here are some disjointed stories I wanted to tell you, opinions I thought you might care about. Here I am. Me, me, me. But you know, the more I think about it, the more I think: Why? What exactly is so self-indulgent about wanting to tell my stories? How come I’ve trained myself to roll my eyes every time I talk about my propensity to overshare? What is the issue, exactly, with taking up space?

I’ve been thinking a lot about change. About the nature of living a life. The shifts and discoveries and adventures and loss and and and everything.

The only thing constant is change. Susie wrote that to me in an email before we even met, when we were still just writing back and forth about my plans to volunteer at her homestead in Southern Oregon last year. That was back in June 2014 when everything felt awful and Sky was letting me cry on her couch in LA indefinitely. I didn’t know how I was going to get myself to Oregon and I didn’t know anything else anymore, either. But I figured it out. I took the train up the coast of California, which I strongly recommend, and met Susie in person. I stayed in Southern Oregon for a few weeks and then a month and then it was February and I was still there. Then it was March and I was going to Mexico with my new friends – who along the way had turned into family – and a girl, to see them get married and to fall in love. I thought I’d stay in Southern Oregon forever but love, sigh, it has a way of changing your plans. (What even are plans?) So I moved to Portland and now it’s November and I’m here, I’m in Alley’s bed and she’s watching TV downstairs and Taylor made dinner for herself and Evie and I made dinner for me and Alley and Scout the Cat hung out with us while we all ate dinner and watched Empire, a show I had never seen before this evening, and this morning I went on a hike with a new friend and tomorrow I’ll go nanny two tiny infants and soon it will be Thanksgiving and then Christmas and my birthday and my family will visit from the East Coast and then it will be 2016 and oh, I wonder what the new year has in store for me. I wonder what tomorrow has in store for any of us. Even as I establish routine, as I make dinner and go to my weight training class at the gym and learn when F and G need to take a nap or when they’re hungry or when they’re just crying because occasionally babies cry for indiscernible reasons and that’s okay, everything is always changing all the time.

And that is such a positive, such a gift. And I am so grateful.