Love in a time of declining democracy (or how do you promote a book?)

Last semester was hectic. I was teaching two new classes (both on love!), so there was tons of reading to do, and daily prep work. Between bouts of marking papers, I was finishing the final rounds (rounds, plural–so many rounds!) of edits for my book. As I got dressed in the mornings, I listened to the news with a mix of hope and dread.

I spent some days feeling like a total boss who was doing cool things in a perfectly capable way and then finding myself overcome by the sudden onset of rage and despair. This despair typically emerged from listening to one of those news segments where journalists interviewed “real voters” on “the issues they care about” and I wondered–again and again–at the media’s willingness to let people make racist or xenophobic comments on air as if these were sensible concerns that deserved the same airtime as other voters’ fears about losing their healthcare.

I kept thinking, January will be better. In January the news cycle would die down. I’d be fully prepared for all my classes. The edits would be complete. In January I would sleep in more often. I’d get back to Wednesday nights at the climbing gym and the brewery. I’d read all the books that were stacking up on my kitchen table! 2017 was a beautiful utopic time when I’d write tons of blog posts!

You see where this is going.

But, as I wrote on Instagram, the end of 2016 had the useful effect of putting some things into perspective. Continue reading

on listening as a political act

 

I will try to keep this short.

Friends, I am feeling the darkness. I first noticed it in the summer, the day the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling hit social media. After I got out of the shower, I stayed on my bed for hours, wrapped in a towel, scrolling endlessly on my phone, feeling paralyzed, powerless. In September, I couldn’t sleep well. I felt a vague, persistent sadness. One day I cry-chopped an entire dinner because I’d had a tiny argument with my partner over groceries. “I don’t feel like myself,” I told him later. “But I don’t know why.” Then I got canker sores and acne and a pain below my right shoulder blade that has not gone away.

I think a good name for this feeling is existential sadness.

This is certainly not the first time I’ve had the thought that goes: Oh, the world does not work the way my parents told me it did.* I get it: I recognize my privilege.

But also I don’t. I had–up until last week–the luxury of believing that despite the very real existence of hate, there were enough decent people and there was enough moral outrage that someone who embodied that hate could never win a presidential election.

And yet I was wrong.

I got this wrong because though I have witnessed hate (especially growing up in the South but also here in Vancouver in regular if more subtle ways) I have rarely been the target of that hate. I have allowed hate to be an abstraction in my life. Continue reading

What’s mine, what’s ours: the fierce triumph of cohabitation

I thought I was two months behind on writing a blog post, but it turns out I’m three months behind. But I’m still here! Still writing. It’s just that most of the writing I’ve been doing has been elsewhere. Like over at The Walrus and an e-mail interview that wound up in this thoughtful article, but mostly in the giant, many-filed document that is my book manuscript. And now that manuscript is in editing purgatory and I am here, researching, reading, pizza-eating, and probing the depths of my own impatience. Waiting.

I have a lot of skills, but waiting for edits is not one of them.

So it’s a good time to write a blog post and the fact is that I have plenty to write about. Most significantly, the person I’ve been in a relationship with for the past year and a half now lives in my home. Our home. Ours. I’m working on that switch.

We first started talking about living together a year ago. My roommate was moving out and I was panicked. And he (my boyfriend) offered himself as a potential solution to the problem of the empty room. Then he wavered.

In the end he didn’t move in and, looking back, I’m glad about it. A year ago I had this incredible sense of intimacy. I had an idea of our closeness. But now I think: I barely knew him.

That process—the consideration of whether to live together and the decision not to, not right then at least—was the first real challenge of our relationship. I was anxious about finding a new roommate, and about whether or not I’d find someone to publish my book, but mostly about what it meant that my boyfriend wasn’t ready to live with me. We couldn’t commit to living together at the same time people were asking us for help making a tv show about using 36 questions to fall in love. The disparity between the idea of our relationship as a pop-science artifact and our own internal sense of doubt was strange, to say the least.

So this time around we gave the decision a lot of thought. I mean weeks and weeks of contemplation. There were late night conversations with long, uncomfortable pauses. Friends counseled that maybe we were taking our decision a little too seriously. Again and again we enumerated the pros and cons of cohabitation. Even after we’d made the decision to do it, we wanted to go into it will our best intentions, so we drew up a contract. This idea, which I borrowed from this smart book, turned out to be the thing that gave us a sense of control over the process of merging our lives. Our contract covers everything from cleaning to dog walking, expense-splitting and sex. It isn’t legally binding or particularly technical, but it’s intentional, it makes the nuances of sharing a life more explicit.  Continue reading

A failed attempt at rejecting true love

When I teach memoir writing we spend a lot of time talking about truth and Truth. Memoir, unlike some other forms of nonfiction, allows for a bit of negotiation between verifiable facts (truth) and larger, more abstract notions of How the World Works and What it Can Mean to Be Human (Truth).

Because memoir is based almost entirely on memory, things can sometimes be True without being verifiable. If I’m writing, for example, about a conversation I had with my mom when I was ten, I’m aiming to accurately capture the spirit of that conversation even if the dialogue can’t possibly be exact. But even when the class gets to a pretty good working definition of these two concepts, truth still feels a little slippery. Even in a genre nominally and practically dedicated to the investigation of truth, creative nonfiction, it still isn’t always obvious what qualifies as true. And maybe this is why I find myself increasingly resistant to notions of Truth in Love.

We throw around references to “true love” pretty casually, but what exactly is it? Seriously. I do not pose this as a rhetorical question. I’d love to know how people define true love and how(/if) they separate it from other forms of romantic love.

In my own efforts to process the idea, here’s what I’ve come up with in terms of our collective notion of true love: it happens once and with one person; it’s mutual; it lasts “forever”; it’s selfless. But when I investigate these ideas they all break down pretty quickly.

  • True love happens once: Often the phrase “true love” is preceded by the word “one.” We are, at best, a serially monogamous species. Most of us will love (in ways that are deep and devoted and serious) more than one person in our lives. Which of those experiences is the one true love? The person you were with the longest? The one you had the most intense feelings about? The one you’re with now?
  • True love is mutual: If you have never been in love with someone who did not love you back, you’re missing out on a profound (and profoundly miserable) human experience. Most of us would agree that unrequited love feels far from trivial. Many people have made major life decisions based on feelings that weren’t wholly reciprocated. It seems short-sighted to dismiss those feelings as less legitimate than feelings that were returned. And even in mutually-loving relationships, individual investment in the relationship is not always perfectly equal.
  • True love lasts forever: I put “forever” in quotes earlier because I find this concept as shaky as “Truth.” Not to be a total literalist but nothing lasts forever, not the earth or the sun or the universe or your feelings. I don’t mean to imply that love isn’t valuable or even sometimes profound. I just want to point out that the ways that we fetishize love in our culture don’t always make sense. Endowing love with mysticism requires putting ourselves in positions of willful ignorance and passivity. In general I am annoyed by willful ignorance, in love I am particularly annoyed.
  • True love is selfless: Can anything requiring reciprocity to be legitimate still be selfless? (again, not a rhetorical question.)

I’ve been thinking about this idea of true love as I’ve been catching up on all the Valentine’s-related stuff I ignored while on vacation last week. A lot of the criticism of Valentine’s Day (at least on my various social media streams) is that it’s too commercial. And, yeah, advertisers definitely use the holiday as a way to equate expressions of love with giving material gifts, but it’s pretty easy to reject the consumerism of the holiday while still acknowledging the sentiment. I really like the idea of having a built-in reason to tell the people you love that you love them—and of extending the celebration of love beyond romantic love. This year I spent the holiday eating mahi-mahi and drinking beer with twelve of my closest friends and I had this abundant, totally joyful feeling of love (though I acknowledge this is an easy feeling to summon while slightly sunburnt and totally tipsy and very far from rainy Vancouver.)

IMG_1754

See what I mean?

So I don’t want to reject Valentine’s Day but I do want to rethink the concept of true love. Still, I get that it’s difficult to separate the practice of loving someone from the mythos of love. I just spent an hour listening to love songs on YouTube as I’ve been writing this and I’ll be the first to admit the mythos of love—that insistence on mystery and ineffable Truth—is seductive. I love the way I feel Continue reading

smart and humble

Like every other writer I know, I read Claire Vaye Watkins’ “On Pandering” last week. It inspired long conversations with my friends and my partner. Who* do you write for? Who do you read? Whose view of the world are you pandering to?

There are a lot of great passages in the article, but this is the part that hit close to home for me:

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember…nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.

This part really struck me because I was, at the time, writing an essay on romance. By romance I mean the baggage of love. The cultural weight of it. All the ideology that comes with loving someone…especially when you are young.

For a long time all of my romantic ideology was connected to a particularly fairy-tale-ish passivity. I waited, I watched. When I was a teenager I showed boys that I was likable by watching their crappy band rehearse or listening to long guitar solos on the phone late at night or going to their ballgames. I waited for those boys to like me back. It never occurred to me that I could be likable because of my own interests, not in spite of them.

I spent much of my last long-term relationship watching my partner do things. Continue reading

How do you live with doubt?

I used to think my writing was best when it came from a state of intense emotion. I suspect a lot writers have had this thought.

This belief is useful at times. If, for example, you’re trying to be productive while struggling with a persistent-but-amorphous sense of anxiety, the anxiety can be neatly reframed as an imperative to write. The belief that writing in fact requires some form of suffering served me well all the years I spent either ignoring or tending to my “should I be in this relationship” anxiety. But when the relationship ended (and the anxiety ended and the sense of loss became bearable) writing suddenly came easily. I was focused. I wasted less time browsing strangers’ wedding albums on the internet, wondering if I could ever feel the uncomplicated happiness their faces so often betrayed. Emotional clarity, it turned out, was totally productive.*

I’m supposed to be writing an essay about what it means if you spend years thinking about the dangers of love stories and then your own love story becomes a matter of international interest. This is an interesting topic! This is an essay I’d like to read! But what I’m actually writing is an essay about doubt. Sorry if you thought that other thing sounded interesting. Someone else may have to write it, because the question I keep coming back to, in writing and in love, is this: how do you live with doubt?

Urrghghfghhg. I pose this question and then I make this sound. It is a groan that is mostly consonants. It is a feeling that lives in the throat.

Maybe this question about doubt is really a symptom of privilege. It’s a question you get to ask when you have nothing else occupying your mind.

When you write an essay (that millions of people read) about how you used science to help you fall in love, you turn your life into the kind of myth you don’t believe in.

When you ask your boyfriend what he makes of this and he says, “It’s not like you fall in love and then you’re in love. You fall in love and then you have to actually really get to know somebody,” you can feel it like a fog, the doubt that has settled over the two of you.

We are out of lightning bolts today.

We are all out of lightning bolts.

This is what we don’t talk about enough in love: ambivalence. And how normal it is. Maybe I am not writing an essay about doubt, maybe I’m writing an essay about ambivalence. There is a difference. Doubt is the fog. It is the feeling you can’t see through. It’s all consonants. Ambivalence is a little better. It contains some certainty. It is the yes and the no, two cards held close to the chest. You want to play them both, but you can’t.

“If you can fall in love with anyone, how do you choose?” he asked that night last summer.

“How do we live with doubt?” I ask him today over lunch.

We’ve come up with an answer. It isn’t perfect but it’s all we have. You choose. You choose over and over again. Because there is no right choice. There is no right person. There is simply someone you love, someone you have chosen, whom you will have to choose again. But there is no guarantee that you will always choose him, that he will choose you.

When you write an essay about a study designed to make two strangers fall in love and, after trying it, you yourself fall in love, and this essay goes viral, lots of people you’ve never met will care very much about the status of your relationship. This is strange.

So, how do you live with doubt?

Continue reading

Going viral

I was tempted to subtitle this blog post “wtf?” as well, because that’s what I’ve been thinking pretty much every day for the past month and a half. But it seems unwise to abuse a good subtitle. I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts on the response to my NYT Modern Love article for a couple of weeks now, but every time I sit down to write, I find it hard to make my ideas cohere in any useful way. Perhaps it’s still a little early to process it all. I intend to keep trying, but in the meantime, I thought I’d put together a list of some of the weird, amazing things that have come out of the article. Here goes:

I got a bunch of emails from enthusiastic strangers who tried Arthur Aron’s study. The Times devoted their February 15 Modern Love column to some of those folks.

The Diane Rehm Show did an hour-long interview with me, Art Aron, and Helen Fisher. Chatting with three people whose work I’ve spent years following and admiring was, for lack of a more articulate response, so so cool.

A guy in San Francisco made an art installation!

NQfkPdG

Two chairs sit by a chest with the questions engraved on its surface. Not a bad setting for a long talk.

According to a Forbes’ article on “life in the time of the 36 Questions,” there are at least eight apps based on Aron’s study. I’ve checked out several and they are all simple and elegant. I definitely recommend trying one. (Also, by the way, there are a couple card games, a book, and web-app–because apparently everyone who is not me has found a way to make money from this story.)

There are videos, made by MTV and Vice, and by Soul Pancake. The latter, which is not about the questions but the staring in the eyes, is my favorite. It captures the strangeness of the experience so well.

I did two interviews that I really enjoyed: One at UBC’s CiTR station for Arts on Air, where I got to talk about lots of things related to romantic love (beyond the study itself).

And another for NPR’s The Takeaway: http://www.thetakeaway.org/widgets/ondemand_player/takeaway/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F431277%2F

**Updated to add that apparently The Big Bang Theory is doing an episode on the 36 questions. So strange, you guys. So strange!

And I’ll leave you with this, without comment: