On sleeping with people

Nathan was the first boy I ever slept with—and I mean that in the most literal sense: for a few hours we slept side by side in a king-sized hotel bed. I was in ninth grade, he was a year older, and we were on a school trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee—a town of airbrushed t-shirts and kettle corn and laser tag, the kind of place where, at fourteen, you could run around safely and the world might seem open to you for the first time.

Some kids were hanging out in his room and Nathan had to be up early the next day, so he knocked on our door and asked if he could stay. I said yes, thrilled. I remember the next few moments like a scene from a movie: He neatly folded down the blanket, leaving the top sheet in place. He told me he would sleep on the sheet and I should sleep under it. Then he pulled off his shoes and climbed into bed, still in his jeans and t-shirt. I shrugged, as if whether he slept in our room or his, above or below the sheet, were minor details to me, as if I already knew what it was like to lie so close to a boy with my eyes closed.

I didn’t have a crush on Nathan, at least not before he knocked on our door. And any lingering attachment I might’ve felt after quickly reverted to friendship. The real thrill of that night was in the domestic intimacy of the moment, the way it was both taboo and comforting to lie there beside him. Even now as a card-carrying adult, I still love that—the warm mass of another body under the covers, a companion in the ordinarily solitary act of coming to consciousness.

sleeping

Growing up, friends were only allowed to stay over on school nights if their parents were away. These sleepovers seemed special, better than the Friday night pajama parties, as if it was the most extraordinary thing to go about picking out clothes and eating cereal and catching the bus—all in the company of a friend. The mundane rituals of morning were somehow transformed by the presence of an outsider.

I’ve always wondered why “to sleep with someone” is a euphemism for sex, when so often sex has little to do with sleep and sleeping is very unsexy.

One night when J and I had just met, he called and said, “You should come over.” Continue reading

January roundup: love and memoir

It’s ten degrees celsius in Vancouver and today I saw a woman drive through the alley behind my apartment in a sea-foam green convertible with the top down. Convertibles tend to stand out in a city where most people buy rain tires, but what made the woman particularly remarkable was her chinchilla fur hat and her passenger: a chihuahua in a chihuahua-sized baby blue Snuggie®. His erect posture and casual gaze made the dog look like he was accustomed to being chauffeured and the two of them made a funny picture idling beside the butcher-shop dumpster.

In my Vancouver literature class, my students and I have been talking about Vancouver as a postcard city, and the discrepancy between the real and the ideal. The woman in the convertible struck me as someone who somehow hadn’t noticed she was in the city of gore-tex and yoga pants and Subarus, a character in a story set in a different Vancouver than the one I live in. It was a few hours later that I wondered if anyone who writes about her own life can really criticize someone for making herself a character (even if said character purchases dog Snuggies). If nothing else, the book I’m writing is about my inherent tendency to narrate my life as a way of making some larger meaning out of it.

postcard city

postcard city

With that in mind, here’s your late January early February (I’m behind) round-up of love and memoir:

  • I really love this essay in Modern Love about the postcard kiss and the difficulty of letting a good story be nothing more than a good story:

He walked me to my car, and we kissed in the parking garage, under orblike yellow lights. It was a still kiss, a postcard kiss, a Disney princess kiss, the kind of kiss that makes blue cartoon birds chirp and swirl in the sky, their beaks holding garlands.

And this is exactly where the story should end. It should cut to credits, and the music should be triumphant but soft. Your last image should be of the young girl and the handsome poetry-writing boy frozen in a movie kiss. You should brush the popcorn off your lap and leave the theater smiling because everything worked out the way you knew it would. You can leave remembering that time when you were young and lovely, and things like that could happen.

(From “When the Words Don’t Fit” by Sarah Healy) Continue reading

the terror of gay marriage: my favorite love story of 2012

Ever since reading Zadie Smith’s essay “Joy” in the New York Review of Books (if you read no other link I post, read this one), I’ve been thinking about her definitions of joy and pleasure and how each relates to love.

Smith begins:

It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage.

(I so love how she essays.)

I’ve been thinking about my dog, Roscoe, who is my most regular source of joy, which Smith describes as “that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” I was nervous about this when I decided to adopt Roscoe: that committing to care for and, by inevitable extension, to love another creature would open me up to all sorts of uncomfortable risks. I rationalized this to myself by hoping that by the time Roscoe reached old age, I’d have a child, and this child’s existence would somehow make the death of a dog more bearable.

roscoeporch5

Maybe the timing was right for contemplating my dog’s mortality because on the morning I read Smith’s essay, Roscoe had awoken with a cough. He’d never had a cough in the three years I’ve had him, and when you wake late with a foggy, New-Year’s-Day headache and hear an unfamiliar deep hacking sound, you can’t help but panic. At first I was sure something was caught in his throat. I had no idea what it could be or how it might’ve gotten stuck there during his sleep but I nonetheless pried his jaws wide and shoved my hand in. Sticking your fingers down a dog’s throat must be an act of love. That tongue is the same tongue that licks dumpster juice off the pavement on rainy mornings. That is the mouth that chews chicken skin and cat feces with equal gusto.

I don’t know why, if it makes my heart shudder to hear my dog cough, I’ve ever imagined it would be a good idea to have a child. My relationship with Roscoe is mostly uncomplicated. He eats and sleeps and walks and gnaws on a cow femur. And I sit on the floor by his mat when I have papers to grade so he will rest his chin on my lap and make the work just slightly less tedious. Sometimes I ask Roscoe if he loves me, and he responds to the over-emphatic, joyful tones of my voice with a floor-thumping of the tail. Surely, it is not so easy to trick a child into such a display of love. Even now, with my sister and me well into adulthood, our family holidays accurately reflect Smith’s picture of joy: there is a small measure of pain, and terror, and delight.

It seems that joy, by its very nature, must contain the possibility of loss. And the greater the risk, the greater the joy. Smith’s distinction between joy and pleasure reminds me of the distinction Continue reading

meet the author

I’ve always been interested in other writers’ processes, but I was especially so when I first started writing, mostly because I found it reassuring to hear that there isn’t necessarily a right way to write. Some writers–like Tim O’Brien, who puts in eight hours every day, even on his birthday, even on Christmas!–make me feel like I’m destined for failure. Others–like Zadie Smith, who starts with the first sentence and writes every subsequent sentence in order up until the last one–remind me that some people possess an inherent talent that is utterly distinct from any inkling of talent I’m lucky enough to have (thus rendering her process more of a museum-calibre artifact than an actual how-to manual). In these cases, I am reminded that the best thing I can do is to show up to my writing desk with some persistence, however discouraged I may feel. And to play to my strengths, now that I’ve been writing long enough to begin figuring out what they are.

I want this blog to be a place to sift through material and ideas, but also a place to think through process. And, if I’m very honest, a place–however tiny–to anchor myself to the writing world, to put my name and ideas into (virtual) print, and to legitimize what I’m doing as a Real Writing Project. I thought two and then three times about posting this interview here, because it seems strange–very strange–to post an interview that I did for a literary journal on my own blog.

But then I thought, That’s what writers do–they talk about process in interviews. And then, It’s a good time to grow up and get comfortable with publicizing my work. It’s part of my job as a writer to find readers, and no one else is going to do it for me.

So, without further elaborate justification, here’s an interview I did for a really cool, new journal of creative nonfiction and visual art: Under the Gum Tree.

When and why did you start writing?

I started writing, really writing in a thoughtful and habitual way, when I was seventeen and working as a K-Mart cashier. Standing in one spot for eight hours scanning barcodes left me with a head full of chatter. It was almost painful, the noise in my head, and I discovered I could relieve it by writing. I did this whenever I could: on breaks, in the bathroom stall, at the register between customers. I wrote in tiny print on the front and back of the brown recycled-paper towels we kept at each register. I’m pretty sure my best friend still has a stack of letters I sent her while she was away working as a summer camp counselor, all written on brown paper towels.

on the dangers of kissing

Last night I fell asleep to the sound of my neighbors arguing. I don’t really know them, though they’re friendly on the rare occasion Roscoe and I meet them in the hallway. They are never noisy. Until last night, they were a practically invisible presence in my life. But when I heard her crying, the kind of crying you only do when you think no one is listening, when you find yourself in that strange, desperate place between love and frustration, I felt…sad and a bit sick.

I’ve spent the summer blissfully removed from that feeling. Even as I have tried to remember, to write about the moment J and I finally decided to move apart, I’ve failed. The dialogue sounds tinny, the tone melodramatic. All I could come up with was a single, strange image: the moment the ball breaks through the glass instead of bouncing off of it. Something broken, something changed that can’t be repaired. Maybe I can’t tell the story, I thought, because it just wasn’t as momentous as it felt. Because the argument was barely an argument, just a disagreement about how we’d spend our Saturday. And maybe I shouldn’t explain it, I told myself, because in the end isn’t it always the mundane that drives us apart?

Though I couldn’t even hear their words, the tones of my neighbors’ voices validated the feelings which just last week had seemed so distant and overwrought to me. I lay in bed reading and trying not to listen, and thinking how grateful I was not to feel like that.

I spent yesterday afternoon reading about the brain. The research on the literal, physiological chemistry of love is too complex for a single blog post. Several chemicals and neural systems are involved and new research is always amending what we think we know about the mysteries of the heart, which in fact all reside in the brain. But understanding a little bit about it helps us to understand a lot about how love stories function in our lives.

Neuron, by Roxy Paine

First there are mirror neurons, the cellular basis of empathy–at least that’s the most popular theory at present. They appear to be far more complex than most brain cells, which respond to a single frequency, sound, or image. The same mirror neurons fire when we pick up a mug to drink from it, when we see another person drink from a mug, when we think about drinking, and when we say the word “drink.” Some scientists believe mirror neurons explain why we love fiction, and, by extension, movies, songs, stories of all kinds. So it’s likely then that when we hear a midnight argument and feel a kind of unbearable empathy, that’s our mirror neurons at work. They’re why when, in Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze says, “No one puts Baby in a corner,” we grin goofily, as if he’s speaking those words to us. They might explain why we love love stories: our brains feel temporarily like we’re the ones in love.

Which brings me to dopamine. Continue reading

27,766 words

I’ve been away. And for good reason. I’ve been writing, not quite every day but almost. All those strands of thought I’ve spent the past two-plus years collecting are weaving together into an imitation of an honest-to-god manuscript.

At present, I’ve got exactly 27,766 words. If we’re being technical, I’ve got about a bazillion more words than that, but 27,766 is the number of words that fall in order, one after another, into sentences and paragraphs and pages. In Microsoft Word terms, that’s about eighty double-spaced pages. And while I’m happy, thrilled even, about this sense of forward progress, the evolution of a bunch of disparate passages into a single, coherent thing brings its own unexpected anxieties.

Mostly, I worry about being a woman writing about love. I try hard to be smart and unsentimental, to be honest in a way that occasionally makes me uncomfortable. But I sometimes wonder about being dismissed as a girl who’s writing for other girls about their favorite girly subject. I am well aware of how writing anything that falls within the sphere of domesticity (or, even worse, romance) can relegate a women to the genre of chick-memoir or win her the label of myopic navel gazer.

And I worry about how slowly I write. I have, more than once, spent hours on a just few sentences. I’ve had the idea of this book for four years now, and have been writing it for at least two and a half. I try to think of Marilynne Robinson, who published her first novel (the truly excellent Housekeeping, which you must read if you are at all interested sentences) in 1980, and her second, which won the Pulitzer Prize, nearly twenty-five years later in 2004. In fact, each of her three novels has won a major book prize. She is not prolific, but profound, I tell myself.

Once I’ve got that Pulitzer nomination under my belt, I too can be less anxious about tangible productivity. For now, though, I am my usual, cautious self. I do not trust my sentences. I third- and fourth-guess them. It is better, I think, to trust in the writing process (that is, showing up at the computer every day for as much time as I can manage) than to trust in my own words. If you think something is good, give it a couple weeks. Things change.

An odd by-product of being cautious in writing about love, and of training yourself to doubt your initial instincts, to let them sit awhile before acting on them, is that you may also become doubtful of your instincts when it comes to love itself. Continue reading

What should a person know?

Consider these words:

know

acknowledge

notice

prognosis

cognizant

acquaintance

They all contain the sound of n+o or its mutated echo. Each suggests the idea of acquisition, the filling of a space in the brain or the body. An encounter with a bit of information, an awareness, or—if we are lucky—with another person.

I love this about words: the ways they multiply and divide, their particular cellularity. Each of these words contains within it the same single cell: the PIE root *gno-.

I think of the Gnostics, the early Christians full of spiritual knowledge. I think of the power of information, what comes with knowing something and the choice to share—or not share—what you know. I think of the difference between knowledge and belief and wonder if it is real.

I think about the things I am compelled to know. Right now: pizza. I want to know dough. To be acquainted with semolinas and yeasts, and the temperature fluctuations of my oven. I want to acknowledge our stories, why we tell them, what they offer. I want to notice what makes a sentence ache to be spoken aloud by its reader.

When I think of the things I do not want to know, the list is longer. I realize that I am an agnostic at heart, against gnosis, attracted to the unknown, the not knowing. Lately, I just want to settle in there, to inhabit that comfortable, ambiguous space. I tell my students that I am more interested in their questions than their answers. Those budding engineers and scientists are confounded by a teacher who says, “Don’t write a thesis. Your job is not to prove something.” Their hard stares suggest they do not like me for this.

Not knowing reminds me of the name of Shelia Heti’s new novel: How Should a Person Be? It’s on my reading list for the title alone. I like a good, hard question.

“To know – and to present what we know as if it’s all we need to know – is deadening, really,” Dinah Lenney says about writing essays in “Against Knowing.” I wonder, is knowing itself sometimes deadening?

Continue reading

the problem of deservingness

It’s sunny in Vancouver.

That statement deserves its own paragraph. It’s sunny in Vancouver, and over the past few days I’ve been the recipient of much kindness: comments and notes and messages from friends that arrive without warning and make me wonder what I’ve done to deserve them. I’m crediting the sun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of deservingness. In class, my students and I discuss the ongoing conversation about student entitlement. We talk about the difference between deservingness and entitlement. What does the university owe you? I ask them. Who deserves high marks? They have lots of smart things to say about degree inflation, their immigrant parents’ expectations, the value of a number on a piece of paper.

But I also think about deservingness as it relates to love and love stories.

“You deserve to be happy,” my dad said to me once, when I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure if I should stay in my relationship.

“No I do not,” I snapped back.

What I was trying and failing to say was not that I thought I should be unhappy, but that I didn’t think deservingness was part of the equation when it came to love.

My friend Lisa’s award-winning essay about grief, living and dying, and happiness articulates a lot of the feelings I’ve had about deservingness but struggled to articulate. She talks about her father’s death, the addition of tumors, the subtraction of life. “Things are always being added, taken away,” she says.

And this is just it: Life gives us what we get. Regardless of what we deserve. Continue reading

how to fall out of love

I think I was ten or eleven when my cousin Eric broke up with his long-term girlfriend Dana. I loved Dana. She was willowy thin with poofy permed hair and a thick Tennessee accent. When we visited, she talked to my sister and me like we were her friends, though I must’ve been, at most, half her age at the time.

I remember standing in my parents’ bathroom while my mom was doing her makeup one morning, trying to understand why Eric and Dana were splitting up. “Sometimes,” my mom said, “people just fall out of love.”

I was familiar with the fickle politics of elementary school romance (when Colby dumped me because I wouldn’t kiss him behind the lockers, I’d ripped his school photo into tiny pieces and deposited them into a friend’s open palm to give back to him) but I’d never imagined an adult could love someone one day and then not love her a week or a month later. I’d had friends whose parents had gotten divorced, but I assumed it was because someone had done something wrong. Someone had had an affair, or started drinking too much, or fallen in love with his wife’s sister. Divorce, I thought, was  directly linked to depravity. Obviously I watched too much television.

“You and Dad wouldn’t fall out of love, though,” I’d said to my mom. It was something in between a declaration and a question.

“We could,” she’d said. “You never know.”

At the time, I was pretty uncomfortable with this idea, which is probably indicative of how sheltered and easy my childhood was. I struggled to imagine ever not loving any of the people I loved.

As an adult looking back on this moment, and as someone who thinks often of what it means to love or not love someone (and of those gray areas in between), I’m really interested in the metaphor: falling out of love. It has the same kind of helpless passivity as its progenitor (falling in love), but I’m not quite convinced that these are opposite processes.  Continue reading

prom night in America

The prom is, in a way, the quintessential teenage love story. It’s mythology is larger, by far, than the event itself, thanks to the attendant rituals–which are, it seems, becoming increasingly elaborate–and countless teen movies whose plots pivot on that one night when everyone finally seems to get what they deserve. Prom is prom not for what it is–a bunch of overdressed, overeager teenagers–but because of what we want it to be. Even in my parents’ love story the prom figures in as a crucial plot point.

“I think the prom is very serious also. It’s an American ritual, it’s a rite of passage, and it’s very much a part of this country.” –Mary Ellen Mark

My own first prom was with Dave–Dave who was number 33 on the football team, who played guitar in an actual band, who, some people said, was still in love with his ex-girlfriend even though everyone suspected she’d ditched Dave for Meghan. I remember standing at my locker one day after seventh period when Dave–this guy I hardly knew but totally adored–walked up and asked me to prom. Just like that. Like Samantha in Sixteen Candles, I thought. Occasionally he’d call me after dinner and I’d sit on my bedroom floor listening as he practiced the guitar solo from “Stairway to Heaven” and trying to think of something interesting to say when the song was over. I never admitted that I didn’t know if  I’d ever even heard “Stairway to Heaven” (I was a devoted Beatles fan–but Zeppelin was, at the time, way too rock-and-roll for me).

On prom day, I left school early to have my hair done. It was, I think, the only time my dad—by then principal at a neighboring high school—let me miss class without being debilitated by illness. Donna coaxed my stick-straight hair into wavy curls with the aid of about a half a can of hairspray. Afterwards, I locked my keys in the car and spent two hours in the Wal-Mart parking lot in the neighboring town. I wore a cream colored dress with silver embroidery and while I stood around waiting for Dave to pick me up, my dad told me I looked really pretty. If he was a teenage boy, he said, he’d be cooking up ways to try and steal a kiss.

If my dad had asked later why Dave stopped calling, I would’ve only been able to say that we had a nice time that night; that Dave didn’t really like to dance but was happy to sit with me in a rocking chair on the front porch of the old southern inn; that when he realized he forgot our tickets and had to run back home during dinner, his best friend’s date turned to me and said “I can tell you really like him,” and my face burned red. But I was grateful that my dad didn’t ask, that I didn’t have to say that no, he never kissed me, never even tried, that I was actually nothing like the girls he’d had crushes on high school.

This, I think, is the nature of prom, the unavoidable consequence of an event that is so laden with expectation. One is always left with the same questions I ask my students as they write their final papers: so what? who cares? It easy to be disappointed by prom, or to be cynical about the hype, the lavish spending (which, according to USA Today, is an average of $1078 per student), and the school-sanctioned homophobia. But I recently discovered this photo/video project by Mary Ellen Mark and her husband Martin Bell and I’m charmed by how seriously they treat their subject, how the kids are so self-conscious and yet so unaware of how they must be perceived by anyone other than their peers. I like how, in making a book and movie about prom, they’re actually telling a story about race and class, sex and sexuality, and that gap between who we are and who we hope others will perceive us to be. Mark’s photos capture what I didn’t understand when I was sixteen–how visible that gap is, how, perhaps, it is never more apparent than it is on prom night in America.