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?

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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!

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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:

the fear of success (subtitle: wtf?)

I spent a couple hours deep cleaning my home on Tuesday. It started with my desk, which needed dusting and de-cluttering so I could sit down and open my computer and build a simple, easy-to-find author bio website.

But then I noticed dust on my dresser and the bookshelf. Post-holiday dust. And dog hair under the desk. I got out the broom. Clean slate, I told myself. New year, clean room, clean mind.

Also, it turns out, there were tiny spots on the bathroom mirror from wiping the steam off. And the bathroom floor needed a sweep. Just this, I thought, but I definitely won’t clean the kitchen.

But when I went in the kitchen to get a rag, I saw ghosts of spills on the front of the dishwasher. Fingerprints on the refrigerator. The top of the plastic container that holds the dog’s food was kind of dingy.

Two hours later even Roscoe’s water bowl was gleaming but I was no closer to making the website. In fact, I think the website was the problem (or perhaps the solution, if you ask the dog). Making the website meant acknowledging that I was really doing this being-a-writer thing, and in a very public way.

For years people have suggested I submit to the Modern Love column in the New York Times. This suggestion made sense: if you write about love and love stories it’s pretty much the best place to get published. I mean, people get book deals after their stories run in Modern Love. But I resisted for lots of reasons: they don’t use pseudonyms (not even versions of your own name, like I use), it’s a high-profile place to broadcast one’s personal affairs, and the word count seemed like such an awkward length. And it’s super competitive—they get something like ten thousand submissions a year.

Well, the word count is awkward, but they’re publishing my essay this Sunday. And I am terrified.

I’m also thrilled. I got the email from the editor Dan Jones while making Christmas dinner with my mom’s family and I just started screaming right there in the kitchen, “Mom! New York Times! New York Times!” But once the reality of publishing in the column set in, I started feeling weird. And then I started cleaning.

(And Googling myself several times a day to see if my new website would pop up in time for publication. This is something I don’t recommend.)

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This is from the Douglas Coupland exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Taken July 29, the night I wrote about in the column. There’s some irony in here somewhere.

The other day I was talking to some friends about those times in life when you get separated from yourself and then, a bit later, you find yourself again and things suddenly come into focus. When I started this blog I didn’t have many reliable bearings. I wanted to write a book but had no idea how to go about it. I’d just gotten Canadian Permanent Residency and promptly moved out of the house I shared with my ex and into a new apartment. I was investing in my life in Vancouver—only without the person I came with.
I eventually figured out that I needed to do two things to be happy: write regularly and find some friends who liked rock climbing or going to breweries. And my life started to come into focus. Continue reading

I went as Minnie Mouse and other Halloween confessions

“How was your Halloween weekend?” one of my students asked yesterday. I replied that it was great, and then he asked if I wore a costume, and what it was. The answer was simple but, somehow unprepared for such a question, I turned bright red, stammered that I bought a pair of ears at the dollar store across the street, and then I quickly changed the subject.

I have always worn my embarrassment publicly in the form of immediately and fully flushed cheeks (and ears and neck and chest). In middle school, my classmates made a game of trying to make me go red. Adulthood has, thankfully, made these occurrences less common, but it still happens in front of a classroom at least once a semester. It’s unpredictable and awful—and I have learned, in the eight years I’ve been teaching, that the best thing to do is to just keep talking.

I woke up this morning and saw my mouse ears hanging on the radiator and wondered what it was about the phrase, “I was Minnie Mouse” that seemed so impossible to confess to a classroom of eighteen year olds.

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the handsomest, saddest Halloween dog.

The truth about my weekend is that I spent a significant portion of it thinking and talking about the space between loving someone and being in love with someone, and how, exactly, one can traverse that space. And one of those conversations took place in a bar very late at night while totally intoxicated and wearing Minnie Mouse ears. And maybe it was that—maybe it was the disjunction between chugging PBR by the Skytrain station on Saturday night and assigning a research paper on Monday afternoon.

Maybe, in that moment, naming the costume felt equivalent to confessing the whole thing: how happy I was all weekend and how strange it is to sit in an almost-empty bar and say to the person across from you, “I totally love you but I am a little bit terrified at the prospect of being in love with you.”

I have written before about the limits of the language of love. Our love vocabulary isn’t quite adequate for discussing all the ways we can be deeply invested in one another, but for the sake of this conversation, let’s call loving someone ‘friendship,’ and being in love with someone ‘romance.’

As far as I can tell, you can get to a romantic relationship either way—you can love someone first and then fall in love with them, moving from friendship to romance. Or you can do what I think most people do, which is to pursue someone as a romantic partner first and hope a friendship develops. But you have to have both, I think–friendship and romance–to create something durable. Continue reading

What does it mean to be the one not chosen?

Last week I devoured all three of Lea Thau’s “Love Hurts” episodes in a single afternoon. Thau hosts the Strangers podcast, which I’d never heard of until a couple friends recommended it. Read this description and tell me you’re not curious:

Producer Lea Thau investigates why she’s single. She goes back to guys who didn’t want to date her in recent years and asks them why. From ages 15 to 38 Lea was never single, but since her fiancé left her while she was pregnant, finding love again has been hard these last few years. Is she too old? Is she too broken from that last big heartbreak? Is she too much this or not enough that? While looking for answers, the man she is dating disappears. This is the first installment in a series.

A fourth episode is due out tomorrow and I can’t wait. The series is, hands down, the most honest and straight-forward thing I’ve heard or read about online dating in particular and modern love in general. (Better, I’d add, than the Modern Love column, which I sometimes like but often find suffers from its 1500-1700 word limitation.)

I want to call Thau ballsy, but my feminist inclinations suggest I ought to find a better adjective. But that’s how these episodes feel: vulnerable and exposed—and that’s the biological reality of balls, isn’t it? Thau confronts romantic love—and, more specifically, romantic rejection—without worrying too much about justifying her own dating experience as a legitimate subject for discussion: I know that going back to guys who’ve turned me down, asking them, ‘Why not me?’ can seem so arrogant and whiny and self-involved and potentially aggressive, like, ‘How dare you not want to date me?’ but I hope it doesn’t come off that way.

I think of all the people I might ask that question, and all the people who might ask that question of me, and I can feel the sweat from my palms dampening my keyboard as I type.

The one thing Thau does that I’ve always avoided (on this platform at least) is talk about her experiences with dating as they’re happening. You could argue that it’s difficult to get much perspective that way, and the classically-trained essayist in me values perspective above all, but maybe there’s something to be said for reflecting on the dating process in real time. She perfectly captures the neurotic swing from sanity to anxiety that seems a requisite part of dating:

You feel joy…. You remember that before you met this guy, you’d finally come to a place where life felt really good, where you could let go of this idea that you had to meet someone now, and actually felt that your life was pretty awesome. Not just as a cover up like before but in a more genuine way. Finally. And you think, maybe there’s a way back there before too long, even if the first guy you kind of opened up to disappeared. Then two days go by and you think, “He still hasn’t fucking been in touch? Even just to wrap things up? He doesn’t even feel like he owes me that?”

I’ve made several good friends through online dating, but Thau’s experience is closer to what has been, for me, the reality of dating. You feel a strong connection with someone and then he disappears. Or you disappear. I have backed out of dates under the flimsiest of excuses. And I have learned the hard way that you must assume—no matter how explicitly someone declares their interest in you—that that person is actively dating other people, unless they’ve clearly said otherwise. It takes practice to learn to be kind and accountable in this process. But learning how to date with integrity has little to do with actually finding someone to love. (And more to do, perhaps, with finding your niche of furries or Pastafarians or Stevie Wonder Truthers.)

So then what about my dating life right now?  Continue reading

The fine art of the wedding speech (or how to be less of a jackass)

I know. No one should begin a blog post on the topic of vulnerability with “Last weekend, in a yoga class…” But I’ve been trying to practice the fine art of not giving a shit this summer so I’m going to do it, even though I know you might stop reading right here.

So, last weekend I was in a yoga class, and the room was set up so the instructor was in the middle and the rows of mats on either side faced the center of the room. What this meant in practice was that once the room filled up, my mat was very close to my neighbors’ mats. And when we were in cobra pose—bellies down, backs arched, gazing forward—my face was just a couple feet from someone else’s face. I cannot imagine who thought arranging the room this way was a good idea. Apparently everyone else in the class was a Sunday morning regular and perfectly content to updog right into someone’s post-coffee breath.

I like yoga because, like all writers, I spend a lot of time in my head and yoga forces me to remember that I have a body. I like it because it’s good exercise, but it doesn’t have the existential demands of, say, rock climbing. (While doing yoga, for example, I never wonder if I might break my ankles). But I like it much less when the spritely instructor asks us to come into a deep lunge, raise our arms high in the air, and make eye contact with someone across the room. And then, if we want, to “turn up the corners of our mouths.” Here one is forced to either smile gamely at some sweat-soaked stranger across the way or to actively avoid their serene faces and out yourself as the one very uncool, very un-Lululemon-ed member of the group.

I harbor certain useful illusions about myself as an open person. I write about my life for public consumption. I am lazy about closing the bedroom curtains. If you asked me to tell you a secret, I’d have a hard time coming up with something my friends didn’t all already know. Once I was on a date and I mentioned that sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I lie in bed and say the prayer I said every night growing up: Now I lay me down to sleep…. “It’s not that I think someone is listening,” I said. “But I find the words soothing.” “Wow,” he said, “That’s a pretty revealing thing to say on a second date.” This had not occurred to me–given the context of the conversation, it seemed relevant to share. Conversations like this inflate my sense of my own openness.

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the bride- and groom-to-be

Lately, however, I seem to be bumping up against the boundaries of my openness. This experience has taken various forms, but the most prominent one is my utter terror at giving a speech at my sister’s wedding. My sister is getting married! In two-and-a-half weeks! And I am so happy for her. I think this is the right thing for her right now. I think her boyfriend is the right guy (or, to be technical, because I staunchly oppose the soul mate myth, I think he is a right guy; I think he is great and they are great together).

When people ask me if she and I are close, I always tell them that she is my favorite person in the world. She is. It’s no exaggeration. I’ve even thought about mentioning this in my speech. But the idea of articulating even this minor anecdote in front of a room full of the most important people in her life makes me want to cry-slash-puke. It’s hard to explain my anxiety to people. They say, “But you’re a writer.” Or, “But you talk in front of groups of people for a living.” Yes, but I don’t regularly stand in front of my students and verbalize my deepest, most sincere joys and anxieties (while wearing a floor-length tulle gown, no less).

I am the oldest and my sisterly protectiveness seems to take the form of deep empathy. When she cries, I cry. I’ve done this my whole life. When she’s happy, I experience her happiness as if it is my own. I tell my sister I love her almost every day, but a wedding speech demands this love be articulated in a very specific format. It is essentially an invitation to publicly declare to the people you love the most that you find their happiness so overwhelmingly good that you can hardly stand it. This is a version of openness I am struggling to grasp.

For me, the gap between writing these things and stating them is expansive–expanding. I am pretty good at one and petrified by the other.

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A few things about finishing a book draft

I did it. I finished a draft of a book on July 11, two Fridays ago and about ten days after my deadline.

I sent the draft to my friend, and skilled deadline enforcer, Erin at 4:23 p.m. (her words were, “I won’t even look at it after the fifteenth. So don’t bother.”), just in time to run, literally, to my appointment at the chiropractor. And then I came home and had a small celebratory beer and went to a baseball game.

At the game, I wondered if maybe I had arrived at one of those whole-life happiness apexes. I imagine you only get a few—if you are lucky—and most of the time you don’t notice you arrived at one until you have crested and are sinking back down to the grit of daily-ness. Finishing the draft, however uneven and full of holes it may be, felt like the most exciting thing I’ve done. I posted a note about it on Facebook and when I looked back at it while standing in line for the bathroom, I almost teared up from all the comments. (One should try not to cry in line for the bathroom at a baseball stadium on a Friday night. People get uncomfortable.)

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I remember sitting around a table with friends two New Year’s Eves ago, having lemon cake and champagne before heading out. We all had big plans for 2013: people were getting married and finishing school and starting a new business. I said I would finish a book that year. The prospect seemed both unimaginable and inevitable; after three years, I had to finish it. But I only finished two thirds of a draft before getting mired in an awkward structure and an impulse to be very kind to everyone I was writing about. Instead of finishing, I bought a last minute flight to Texas where I could play Trivial Pursuit with very old friends and not think at all about writing.

So I sat in the stands at the baseball game, drinking overpriced beer on an empty stomach on the hottest day of summer so far, thinking, this could be it: the happiness apex. Because surely the part between completing a draft and getting (or not getting) a book published is fraught with demoralizing experiences. Not just the obvious rejections from agents or editors, but also the moment when you look over what you’ve completed and realize how far it still is from the shimmering, beautiful thing that you’ve spent so many years picturing. (I have not yet looked.) But I had baseball and beer, and later frozen yogurt and blueberries on the back porch while gossiping about the neighbors. I was happy. But then it has been well established that is remarkably easy to feel happy on a July night in the company of fresh blueberries and a handsome man.

What I have discovered in the days since completing the draft is that not only do I miss the daily writing—the stress of it and the purposefulness of it and the enormity of it—but that my thoughts still return to the book’s central questions. It doesn’t feel much like finishing. When I was writing about and researching love everyday, it was always on my mind, whatever I was doing—but mostly in a fairly-detached, fairly-rational way. I even found myself giving people advice about love, which feels pretty fraudulent since I don’t exactly have an impeccable history of good choices, but I know a whole lot about what others have discovered. And 2014 is the year of faking it, so maybe I am in the habit of fraud.

I suspect that anyone who has ever written a book (or a half-way thoughtful and somewhat honest book) has discovered that the entire proposition relies on fraudulence. I’ve also found that reading and writing so much about love has left me pretty cynical about the process, and distrustful of my own intuition (thanks to even the most basic knowledge of neurochemistry) and yet, nonetheless, weirdly hopeful. In other words, I have just enough knowledge to paralyze myself. I am too aware of all that can go wrong.

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