Happy Birthday To Me

Sunday, 12/18

Emily is in town visiting from New York, so we’re at Powell’s. She asked about coming here sheepishly, like it was embarrassing to want to visit the best bookstore in the world on a short trip to Portland, but Alley and I were thrilled by the suggestion. In the same way that New Yorkers rarely make it to all the “tourist attractions” the city has to offer unless there are actual tourists in town requesting to go to said attractions, Portlanders can get stuck in their neighborhood bubbles. Plus, I really appreciate the fact that everyone who visits me asks to come to Powell’s. It makes me feel like my friends and I are good matches, ya know?

Anyway, here I am in Powell’s, typing away on my constantly-almost-dying computer that clearly needs a new battery I’m not going to buy. There’s a young woman at a table right behind me who is an admissions officer for a college – I know this because I noticed her name tag when I walked in to the cafe area and it says “admissions officer” but I didn’t catch which college she works with. She seems really young, so I wonder if maybe she’s a student ambassador or recent alumna. She’s had two young prospective students come to sit and chat with her in the time I’ve been sitting here, and eavesdropping on their conversations is making me oddly nostalgic for…I’m not sure what. Being 17? Not really. But maybe just that time before I knew which school I’d be going to, when I had applied to NYU early but didn’t know if I’d gotten in, when it seemed like “The Future” stretched before me in a long, limitless way.

Ten years later The Future (whatever that means, exactly) is arguably just as limitless, but it doesn’t feel that way. No matter how carefree I’d like to pretend I am, the truth is the choices I’ve made over the last ten years have narrowed certain passages of opportunity and broadened others. My Life (again, whatever that means) is taking a particular shape, and even if that shape is large and limitless in its own way, the truth is it is not, actually, large and limitless. Making choices does that to a life. It’s not bad, I guess I just miss feeling like a kid in a candy store when I thought about the future. Like, remember when I thought I was going to major in Judaic Studies? I could still get a degree in Judaic Studies, of course, I totally could, but the reality is I’m probably not going to. Which is fine. Anyway! Anyway anyway anyway. ANYWAY.

Tuesday, 12/20

It’s my birthday tomorrow and I’m turning 28. When I turned 18 I was living in Greenwich Village, in an NYU dorm filled with 800 other freshmen. I was best friends with Ali and Katlyn and Dara and Matt and John and Jeff, and in honor of my birthday we decided to go to a hookah bar. I bought a brand new (hideous) shirt at Forever21 in honor of the occasion and straightened my hair and put on a lot of green eyeshadow. We met in Matt’s room early in the evening to pregame before going to the bar. I proceeded to take six shots of vodka in rapid succession – that was a mistake. The walk to the hookah bar was eventful. I tripped a few times and complained about having to pee, eventually pulling my jeans down behind a dumpster and relieving myself. My friends suggested that perhaps I would like to go home many times – to be honest, when they told me about it all the next day I recognized that I had been a total fucking nightmare the night before. Even at 18, I could recognize that!

I didn’t make it to the hookah bar. John and Ali convinced me that I needed to go home before we even made it there, and then they helped my sloppy drunk ass get back to my dorm. Everyone else did go to the bar and there are photos of them toasting me at midnight, for my birthday, except I’m not there, because I was passed out in Matt’s bed.

John and Ali had walked me home, helped me get into my room, apologized to my appalled roommate who did not drink and was not my friend, gotten me out of my jeans and new green fake silk shirt, put my pajamas on my body, and sat with me while I tried to puke. In the hallway, a random girl we did not know took one look at me and said, “that girl needs a hospital!” and it made me upset so John chased her down the hall telling her to mind her own business. I thought I locked myself out of my room and couldn’t figure out how to get back in so they took me to Matt’s room and put me to sleep in his bed. The next day I realized my room key had been in my pocket the whole time. Matt slept on his couch when he got home from the bar and realized I was in his bed, and when I woke up at 5am, not hungover just very embarrassed and desperately craving fresh air, he got up with me and we walked to a coffee shop on MacDougal. I didn’t drink coffee – I still don’t – but I didn’t even like tea then, so I ordered a glass of milk. We sat on a sofa in the front of the coffeeshop and I drank the whole glass and felt like a little kid and I fell in love with Matt while we talked about everything. I think it was in college that I really started falling in love with my friends. I didn’t date anyone seriously during those four years but I had so many important love affairs (and breakups) with my friends. I want to call out that magic – loving your friends so hard it’s like falling – but I’m not sure I have the words right now. That could be a separate post, a series of posts, it could be a book…it is another story.

I’m not sure why I’m telling this story now. It’s not cute – that time I got trashed on my birthday and didn’t even make it out to the bar. I don’t think I’ve ever written about it before. But maybe it’s easy to talk about now because it was ten years ago. I suppose that’s why I started writing about it in the first place, to reflect on the fact that ten years ago I turned 18 and tomorrow (actually, in 9 minutes!) I will turn 28 and wow, those are two very different ages. I’m not getting old, I know that – I have way too many friends in their 30s, 40s, 70s, etc. to be so arrogant as to pretend that 28 is old – but I am getting older. It’s nice to realize that even though I miss certain things about being a freshman in college (like feeling as thought the future was limitless! And also the breakfast buffet in Hayden’s dining hall if we’re being real…) I am happy about growing up.

I am happy with the version of myself I am becoming.

“You’re gonna be in your late 20s soon,” Diana texted me earlier today.

“I’m ready!!” I replied.

And I am.

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Check out that cool Forever21 shirt I bought for the occasion of turning 18 and not even making it out to the hookah bar ’cause I got way too drunk taking vodka shots from this shot glass that says “I HEART SLUTS” you are very welcome for this visual indeed!

 

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Snow, Boundaries, and Embarrassing Myself In Front Of Writers I Admire

I have barely left my house since having surgery seven days ago, but I really, really wanted to go see Chloe Caldwell read at Powell’s this evening. I got a little bit crazy about it. The last time I saw an author I love a lot read at Powell’s it was Emily Gould, and afterwards I invited her to come have drinks with me and some friends at the Bye and Bye and she came and read my Tarot cards with her brand new deck and it was very magical and exciting to have such an intimate interaction with one of my favorite authors so I think in my head I assumed that all Powell’s readings featuring my favorite authors would follow such a trajectory.

That’s a silly thought, obviously, but when has that ever stopped anyone. It actually mirrors some of the themes in one of the essay’s in Caldwell’s newest book, I’ll Tell You In Person, where she is supposed to have a sleepover with a very famous celebrity and she builds it up in her mind for weeks and then at the last minute the celeb cancels. You can read an excerpt of that essay online. (Spoiler alert: the celebrity is Lena Dunham. Extra spoiler alert: Dunham and Caldwell chatted about this incident and the essay it spawned at a book event last month in New York City and while I don’t often miss living in New York City, on that evening, with all the social media reporting of the event in real time, I totally did miss it.) So maybe I was actually just projecting myself into Caldwell’s book, as she suggests the reader could/should do in her opening essay. Except my fantasy was predicated on absolutely nothing, except for the fact that I thoroughly enjoy Caldwell’s writing and also write personal essays, whereas at least her fantasy was based on a real plan she made with a real person after they had exchanged real emails about their real mutual respect and affection for each others’ work. Anyway.

The thing is, it snowed yesterday, and so of course Portland lost its damn mind. This is my second winter in Portland and this is my second time experiencing snow in Portland and I just don’t really understand how a real live city does not have a legitimate plan in place for when it snows. I understand that snow is not a super common occurrence here, but there should be a city-wide plan in place for dealing with an event that reliably happens at least once a year, no? Apparently not. Anytime it snows or even seems like it might snow in Portland everyone totally freaks out and starts talking about how the city only has five plows and how we can’t salt the roads because it’s bad for the environment and how downtown and all the surrounding areas are going to turn into ice rinks and we’re all gonna crack our skulls open when we try to walk outside and then we’ll die. It’s not really an exaggeration, to say any of these things. Coming from New York, Boston, and Toronto, I can confidently say that Portland as a city is pretty incompetent when it comes to dealing with snow.

(Please note: I have no idea what the city should do in the event of a snowstorm. Please also note: a “snowstorm” here can mean 2 inches of snow. I understand not salting the roads because it’s not great for the water and the environment. I don’t know what the deal is with barely having any plows. What to do when the rain inevitably comes and the temperatures warm for a tiny second and then plummet down to freezing at night, insuring that the entire city does, indeed, freeze over to the point of complete and utter danger for all who attempt to move around it? I don’t know! But I am not a city planner or an environmentalist or a genius, and surely there are people who are paid actual dollars to think about these kinds of city-related problems and then create solutions to fix them and help the citizens of said city? I don’t know. All I can say for certain is that the way Portland handles a snowstorm is really not ideal and it makes getting anywhere in the days after the Snow Fall very fucking difficult.)

So I very badly wanted to attend this reading at Powell’s, and I also very badly did not want to die on an ice-covered sidewalk. Also, as I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous blog posts, I just had a small neck surgery, so my body is extra tender and I am extra neurotic about going out in public by myself, lest a stranger bump me and hurt my poor injured neck. To be honest, the reasonable decision would have been to stay at home in my pajamas like I’ve done every night for the past seven days. But I’m not really a reasonable person, and as my mother is fond of pointing out, when I decide I want to do something, I make sure I fucking do it. I don’t think she necessarily sees this as a positive. So off to Powell’s I went.

As soon as I stepped outside I regretted it, to be honest. I had severely underestimated how cold it would be and I was underdressed. In an attempt to look cool and impressive for the reading I had worn my go-to feel-good outfit: black velvet leggings, pale pink sweater, Danner’s boots, Carhartt beanie. As I’m typing this out I’m thinking, when the fuck did this combination of things become my “go-to feel-good outfit”? But it is. Unfortunately it is not particularly warm. I had decided to wear my long grey wool coat, the one that is not waterproof and does not have a hood, and of course I didn’t bring an umbrella. I did have a scarf and my special touchscreen gloves that let me text without taking them off. I also had my hiking poles. It was raining lightly when I left my house and in the ten minutes it took me to walk .3 miles to the MAX stop the drizzle turned into heavy freezing slush. The MAX promised “serious delays” because of the weather when I checked the website at home, and sure enough I waited 32 minutes for the train to show up. I couldn’t feel my toes and the cut on my neck was pulsing. I thought about turning around and going home, but I did not.

Once the train arrived it was a quick ride to the city center, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the walking conditions on the West side were much better than what we were dealing with in North Portland. Whereas my hiking poles were an absolute necessity when navigating the streets in my neighborhood, I felt a bit silly carrying them down Oak Street. Sure, there was a lot of rain water, but not a slick ice spot in sight. I could practically run all the way to Powell’s.

I like going to readings alone. I don’t mind going with friends, but there’s something very calming in going to an event that requires you to focus all of your attention on an author and being completely solitary about it. I picked a chair close to the front and put down my wet coat, my wet bag, my wet hiking poles. I went to the bathroom and when I came back the reading was beginning. It was a conversation between Chloe and a man I didn’t know called Jay Ponteri. It was a sweet conversation. Jay was a little bit awkward, I think on purpose, but he asked smart open-ended questions and I liked the way he and Chloe interacted. She shared that they’d been having coffee together whenever she came to Portland since 2012. I wondered how they met.

I try to make it a point not to ask questions at readings, because I think all questions at all readings usually end up sounding dumb. It’s not because the people asking them are dumb – there’s just something about when a person raises her hand at a reading and starts trying to contextualize her question and then inevitably begins to ramble about herself and then the author has to interrupt her to get to the point and, whatever. It’s just good to challenge myself not to be that person. Except tonight, for some reason, I decided to be that person! The audience had asked several very good questions, actually, and no one had really stumbled on their words or been a self-centered weirdo yet, and Chloe’s responses were rad and I jotted down the authors she mentioned when someone asked who her favorites are and I felt victorious when she said Sharon Olds is one of her favorite poets because Sharon Olds is one of my favorite poets, and all in all things were going very nicely when I decided I absolutely had to ask a question. Why? I have no idea.

What I wanted to know, really, is how Caldwell chooses what to share in her writing. I wanted to know, of course, because I want to know how to choose what to share in my writing. This question, if asked incorrectly, can sound sexist and boring, because no one ever asks men if people are okay with what they choose to share in their writing, no matter how personal or “inappropriate.” Jay, the person “in conversation” with Chloe this evening, suggested I read an essay she wrote earlier this year titled What I Think Of The Fact That You Keep Asking Me What My Family Thinks Of My Writing for more insight. I was immediately embarrassed that he suggested that, because that’s not what I was trying to ask at all, and I worried that I had said the question wrong, asked the sexist version of my query rather than the intimate one I meant to say. Also, I’d already read that essay; I’ve written almost everything Caldwell has published on the internet.

I am not interested in asking women what their families think of their personal writing, because that’s incidental. It is sexist to ask a woman that because we never ask a man. But I am interested in asking women who write personal essays how they choose where their boundaries lie, because I’ve struggled with that question so much myself. It is in my nature to overshare. I like telling you everything. (You are you – my audience, my readers, my friends, my people.) It gets me in trouble sometimes, sure, but that’s okay. The problem is when I feel “in trouble” with myself. There have been times I’ve shared personal details of my life or my story and regretted it later. Sometimes I’ve published those details formally but sometimes I’ve just casually chatted about something to a large amount of humans and later wish that I could take it back, keep it private, make it just mine again. That’s the conversation I’m interested in having, and that’s the question I tried to ask.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced I got any of that nuance across when I asked my question tonight. I totally floundered, hitting every embarrassing thing a question-asker at a reading event can do, stuttering and talking about myself to much and oh god, worst of all, potentially accidentally insulting Maggie Nelson while Maggie Nelson was potentially in the room?!?! This is too horrible to even really think about so I am trying to put it out of my head and convince myself that it didn’t really happen. While trying to spit out my question, which took me about three minutes instead of the appropriate 30 seconds, I tried to explain that a similar question had been asked at a literary panel featuring Maggie Nelson that I once attended. “You know, she basically just rolled her eyes,” I rambled, “and said this is what she does, and that’s that…” and then a woman in the front row turned around to look at me and I am fairly sure she was Maggie Nelson?! Unless I have totally lost my mind and of course it was not and I am a crazy person. But I think it was, and I was immediately Very Stressed Out that I had made my framing of her answer sound bad, when in actuality I admire that outlook so much, and wish I had a better idea of what in my life is up for grabs creatively and what I should keep shielded.

In any case, Caldwell saved me, answering the question before I could fumble my way through any more poorly chosen words. She talked about how she thinks the difference between her work and Nelson’s is that actually Maggie Nelson does have quite a strong boundary between her art and her personal life, and she is able to keep that boundary because of her use of academic texts in her work. Then she spoke a little bit about her own boundaries, and my understanding from how she spoke about them is that she has decided to be at peace with whatever she shares. Essentially, she said that because her work is to write about her life, it’s always okay for her to write about her life. I thought that was a brave and logical way to look at it, and I felt envious of her assuredness. She seemed so certain of her decisions. I feel like I second guess much of what I choose to share. I wish I felt more at peace with how much of myself I expose in my writing.

I waited in line to have my book signed once the reading was over and tried to say too many things at once: that I was an Emily Books member and that is how I originally discovered Chloe’s writing, that I also used to live in New York and I loved her essay in the Goodbye To All That anthology, that her essay where she comes out as queer in her new book means a lot to me (and that the woman who was rude to her about it on Twitter sucks!), that I was really embarrassed and upset about potentially making it seem as though I was saying anything negative about Maggie Nelson when I asked my stupid question, whether she was in the audience or not, because I would never ever ever say anything negative about Maggie Nelson…I proceeded to embarrass myself yet again, stumbling over all my words, so excited to be chatting with Chloe and thus taking more than a few minutes to sense that she probably wanted to move things along and chat with the other folks waiting in line to get their books signed and perhaps eventually hang out with her actual friends!

I decided I could not face the prospect of waiting for the MAX in the freezing cold for another 32 minutes in my wet wool coat with no hood, so I paid $11.64 for a Lyft driver to deliver me home, door to door. In the car I googled Maggie Nelson, so I could try to decide if the woman I thought was her in the audience really was, and of course the first thing I found was an interview with Maggie Nelson by Chloe Caldwell. Oh god. That was definitely her in the audience. Or maybe it wasn’t…

In any case, the interview ends so beautifully, with Nelson musing about the boundaries or lack thereof between her personal life and her writing. The way she phrases it in this interview actually brought me a lot of peace, in spite of all my general panic and anxiety:

Generally speaking I have a lot of flow in my life; i.e., I don’t experience big partitions between being a writer or a person or a dinner-maker or a partner or a parent or a teacher or a reader and so on. So I guess I feel that I wear one hat, it’s just capacious.

Upon arriving home I told Alley my entire ridiculous tale and she laughed and laughed and said, “Sounds like typical Vanessa antics,” and I laughed too but also sort of kept panicking and then I said, “Maybe I should email Chloe to explain all of this!” and Alley looked at me like I was a truly crazy person and said, “Maybe you should write a blog post about it instead.”

So I did.

Surgery / Recovery

I had surgery one week ago.

My doctor made a medium-size incision on the left side of my neck and removed an enlarged lymph node that had been living their since July. I didn’t want to write about the lymph node too much (at all) before I got my test results back. The thing is it was either absolutely nothing or it was cancer. There was not in between, the doctor explained. We had done the CT scan and we had even done a fine needle biopsy, so we had ruled out a lot of things already. But there wasn’t a way to rule out cancer without removing the lump and studying it under a microscope, so that’s what we did. And, great news: I do not have cancer! I found out today. So now I feel comfortable writing about it a little bit. By the way, while writing this paragraph I decided to pull the wood chair I am sitting on a little bit closer to the table and I somehow managed to slice my pointer finger open on a jagged edge of wood, so now I have a medium-size stitched up incision on the left side of my neck and a small-ish open slice on the right side of my pointer finger. Both cuts hurt a little bit more than I would like.

The thing about surgery is that I didn’t really think about how I was taking a thing that was whole (my body) and agreeing that we should cut it open. Even if there is a lump in your neck, your body still functions the way it is supposed to. I could sleep on both sides of my body, I could cuddle my girlfriend, I could have energetic sex, I could go to yoga, I could pick up a toddler, I could go for a run. My friends could hug me. Strangers could bump into me. I could shower easily. You get the picture. Sure, the lump was concerning, but my actual body was working just fine.

Now the lump is gone, and the potential concern is gone – which is excellent, I am grateful, please don’t get me wrong – but my body isn’t behaving in the way that a whole perfect thing would behave. All of the things I mentioned above: sleeping, sex, showers, etc…they are currently not super effortless. And it’s frustrating because I mean, I did this to myself. My neck did not incur an injury on its own. I decided that the risk of leaving it untouched was greater than the risk of opening it up.

“Do you think it was the right decision to get surgery,” I asked Alley, while lying in bed before sleep a few nights ago. We hadn’t heard my results yet so I wasn’t certain I didn’t have cancer, but I knew that a week prior my body had felt healthy and now my body felt broken, at least to some degree. Healthy is relative, of course. Broken is also relative. “I don’t think that’s a productive question to ask now, babe,” Alley said, and of course she was right. I had already had surgery, so I couldn’t undo it. And she knows I pick over every choice I have ever made, second guessing myself all the time, and I appreciated her trying to help me not do that. “You’re right,” I said, lying uncomfortably on my right side, facing away from her, careful not to put any weird pressure on my neck.

I fell asleep wondering if it was the right decision to get surgery.

On being gentle with myself: it is hard

I am trying to be so gentle with myself and it is only half working.

I spent the day reading Chloe Caldwell’s new book, I’ll Tell You In Person, and it is such good creative non-fiction, the kind that makes you want to take out a notebook and start writing every thought you’ve ever had, detail every action, pour your whole brain onto a page or twenty because she makes it look easy so you tell yourself it will be easy. But of course as soon as I open my computer to actually follow through on that impulse and write a blog post my brain gets fuzzy, I’ve started this post three times, I keep deleting everything I type, I gave up on a few drafts before this one, who knows if I’ll get to the part where I even hit “publish.”

On being gentle with myself: it is hard.

I had surgery six days ago and the healing and recovery process is not going the way I planned. The general election happened one month ago and suffice it to say that did not go the way I planned either.

I should know better than to make plans, I guess.

(It’s really hard to communicate that to a Capricorn sun Virgo rising babe like myself.)

(Did you know I actually have five signs in Capricorn? Anyway.)

Alley teases me because of my optimism and unwavering happiness, usually. We have a running joke: Every day, I cheerfully announce that the day is a 10. It doesn’t matter what has happened that day, or where we are, or if it’s sunny or rainy. (We live in Portland. It’s usually rainy.) My personal belief is that I’d like for every day to be a 10, so I make it so. Alley is much more judicious. Her days are weighed against each other. “If a day on vacation in Thailand is a 10, then a day when I have to go to work in Portland cannot be a 10,” she reasons, completely filled with logic and sanity. But I have no such scale. “You have to weigh each day against itself,” I’ll exclaim, hearing myself sound like a total insufferable lunatic. “Sure, a vacation day in Thailand can be a 10. But so can a regular work day in Portland! LIKE FOR EXAMPLE TODAY GRAYSON AND FINN [the toddlers I nanny] HELD HANDS AND DANCED TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME WHICH I WOULD SAY IS A DEFINITE 10!”

Uh but the thing is, recently the days have not been feeling like 10’s.

On Friday night my mom and Alley brought me home from the hospital. They babied me and put me into my bed and I fell sound asleep with the help of pain pills. I woke up early-ish on Saturday, probably when the pain meds wore off, and lay quietly next to Alley, watching her sleep and reading the news on my phone. I felt happy that she was able to sleep in because she so rarely does, and I felt safe lying next to her.

Then I read about the Oakland fire. Reports were only just being posted on Twitter and Facebook and the magnitude of the tragedy had not yet hit me. I told Alley about it when she woke up a few hours later. I hated doing that. I had already texted one of our close friends who lives in the Bay. She texted back as Alley and I were wondering out loud about her. Safe. Alley checked in on another close friend. Also safe. We kept reading the news. My mom came over from her hotel. I put ice on my neck. Alley realized she knew someone who was missing in relation to the fire. A friend. My heart dropped for her. I checked my Facebook feed. Everyone seemed to know someone. Everyone was affected. Suddenly my community was grieving, but before we even had a full list of names to check there were people with opinions yelling at us. About building codes, about wild parties, about being irresponsible, about I don’t even fucking know what.

All we ever want to do is take care of each other, make each other feel safe, create love and kindness and care in this world, and even in death and tragedy there are large groups of people who just won’t accept that. I don’t know. I am having a really hard time with that. I’m not being articulate because my brain can’t process it.

I am just so sad. I don’t know how to stop feeling sad. I don’t think I have a right to despair – as I detailed in my last post, there is work to be done, and anyway, I am white and cis and able bodied and… – and yet. I am just so fucking sad. I don’t know how to wake up and continue being a person every day in this world. I just don’t understand it. Logically I understand that we are gearing up for a fucking fight and I have to get strong, but I am failing at that task right now in more ways than one.

My neck hurts.

It has only been six days since a doctor cut a hole in it so I guess that makes sense. I was told my recovery time would be 1-2 weeks.

My heart hurts.

I don’t know what the timeframe for healing from this broken world looks like. I think I just have to keep being gentle with myself.

I wish it were easier.