on recording an audiobook (or the strange sound of your own voice in your ears)

I went to my first co-ed party when I was ten. The night ended in boy-girl slow dancing, which, I felt sure, was the most grown up thing I’d ever done. I danced with a boy who’d just transferred from another school and even though our unbent elbows kept our torsos at a comfortable distance, his hands on my hips felt tentative and electric and possessive. It felt just a little bit unchaste. The next week at school, he asked me to be his girlfriend.

A few days later, my mom and I were walking through the dewy grass outside our house one night when she asked, out of nowhere, if I had a boyfriend. Her friend Kathy had heard as much from her son, who was also in the fifth grade at a neighboring school. I can so easily remember the constriction in my chest, my total surprise that adults would notice or talk about the love lives of fifth graders.

“No,” I said instinctively. “I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

I immediately regretted this lie. Not merely because I hated lying to my parents but also because there seemed to be no way out of it. What was I going to do, casually bring up my new (first) boyfriend a few days later as if the whole conversation had never happened? I was embarrassed about having a boyfriend at all, and then—on top of that—I was embarrassed about being so embarrassed that I’d had to lie. This embarrassment inception could not be undone.

The new boy broke up with me a few days later, probably (almost certainly) because I was so weird and self-conscious around him after that.

I was so sad about being dumped, and sadder still that I couldn’t talk to my mom about it. But also, I felt relieved of the burden of my lie.

I don’t know why I was so self-conscious about having a boyfriend at age ten. Maybe because slow dancing was, to my mind, just a long slippery slope away from sex. Or maybe because desire itself felt like a kind of parental betrayal. A few years later, I would be equally embarrassed about not having a boyfriend. It seems my own desires—and desirability—have always sort of mortified me.

Sometimes I think I started writing about love precisely because there is nothing else I have spent so much time wanting—and so much time regretting. Continue reading

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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

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.)

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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

On anniversaries

“Are you disappointed?” he said, as we heaped pineapple fried rice onto our plates. “Do you feel like this is not special enough?”

My partner and I celebrated our first relationship anniversary last weekend. I’d never celebrated an anniversary before, and, while it did not feel particularly special to be sitting at my kitchen table in yoga pants eating Thai food, I wasn’t sure that I really cared about specialness. “What’s really the point of an anniversary anyway?” I asked through a mouthful of pad see ew, “To say we managed not to break up this year?”

“No. It’s like: ‘Hey, you’re special to me. Let’s celebrate this thing we created,'” he said.

It’s not that I needed him to defend the idea of an anniversary to me (though I appreciated his willingness to do so), it’s that sometimes I feel it’s my job to maintain skepticism when it comes to the rituals we associate with romance. We all seem to have a lot of ideas about what you’re supposed to say or do in love and these ideas have the power to make us feel either smug or inadequate–or, absurdly, both at once. And I just wanted to tread thoughtfully toward the anniversary celebration.

“I think I should write something about anniversaries,” I said. “People don’t really talk about how weird they are.”

“Are you gonna write about this?” my partner asked, glancing around at the takeout containers propped between haphazard stacks of books. Continue reading

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

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.

Continue reading

The Perpetual Terror of Forgetting (or attempts at immortalizing my dog)

I always thought of stories as records, as ways of remembering our lives. And I thought it was our duty to tell them, a way to keep ourselves alive and thriving. And I don’t mean our species here—because it seems obvious that stories help our species thrive—but rather our individual selves. As in: I tell therefore I am.

But stories are also ways of forgetting. Maybe this explains the relationship between collecting and recollecting: a story is a collection of details and circumstances that seem worthwhile. Any act of recollection necessitates prioritizing that which is relevant and discarding the rest.

Forgetting seems like an unfortunate side effect of time and age and general human fallibility. But  research suggests it’s part of the brain’s design and has real neurological value. What this means in practice is that we selectively inhibit some memories in order to facilitate the retrieval of others. The more a particular memory is retrieved, the more likely competing memories are to be forgotten. Forgetting is the brain’s way of speeding its processing time, and from an evolutionary perspective this seems advantageous: remembering takes work and we need some mechanism to streamline that process. I imagine remembering like walking through a field. The more you walk the same path, the wider and more accessible the path becomes. But, at the same time, the less you walk alternate paths, the more they grow over and become increasingly difficult to follow. If you need to get somewhere quickly—or remember something important—you are grateful for the well-trodden path.

Another dog photo may seem totally irrelevant at the moment, but wait for it.

I know another dog photo may seem totally gratuitous, but wait for it.

When I tell the story of the first person I loved, I remember his white t-shirt and his long hair pulled back. I remember the night a group of us went to Sonic and he sat down next to me. And I remember that particular mode of noticing that only happens when you are sipping a milkshake beside a handsome boy on a hot September night: your body becomes an antenna tuned to his every movement and inflection. And all your intention is split between two actions: noticing him and not letting anyone notice you noticing.

I remember how my friend Joel said, “I don’t want to get your hopes up, but it does seem like he likes you.” My hopes soared.

But I cannot remember exactly what I thought of him. Did I think we might fall in love, or was he just a diversion before I left for London? Would I have considered, at the time, the possibility that I might be here now, writing about that September evening? Did that night seem any different from the one before or the night after? Or did he, from all the other crushes I’ve had? Now that I have written our story, I can’t remember the night before or the night after. I can’t remember if it was him I longed for, or if it was Love. Continue reading