Monday, November 30, 2009
In his mean post-break-up email, my ex accused me of being shallow (or wanting to be shallow, or heading toward being shallow, or something like that—still can’t bring myself to re-read it), of being concerned only with surfaces.
How great would it be to care only about surfaces! Oh, to be shallow, to skip along through life, taking it as it comes, letting all the junk just bounce off, not caring what other people think about you, not feeling a need to self-analyze and self-criticize and so forth, reading paperback best-sellers, seeing blockbuster movies, caring about Jon + Kate. Quel joy!
My friend Laura and I had a detailed discussion about the break-up, in which she offered a classy and helpful metaphor to sum up the situation. “It’s like finding something in an antique shop,” she said, “something that would be great if only, and you think, ‘Oh, I’ll buy it and get it fixed, or get it refinished, or cut the legs down,’ or something like that. But you know it’s not what you really want, and it’ll never be right, and you have to walk away and keep looking.”
I have another analogy, one that shows off my shallowness quite nicely, I think, especially when I develop it into a theory of life. Here goes: You’re shopping for clothes, and you’re in the dressing room, trying stuff on. You try on a black shirt and think, “Nothing wrong with that, I could use a black shirt,” or you try on a jacket and think, “Not bad, I suppose, and it’s a good deal.” Then you try on something else—a sweater, or a t-shirt, or the perfect little black dress—and you look in the mirror and say, “I frickin’ love it. I look amazing.”
Here’s what I’ve learned: don’t buy the other stuff, the “good-enough” stuff. Hold out for something that makes you feel like a rock star. And more important: trust that you’ll know it when you see it.
I’ve been applying my clothes-shopping philosophy to other aspects of my life. I don’t stick with a book unless I love it, I try not to waste calories on something that’s not super-delicious, I don’t pursue a job opp if the initial meeting feels sour… Basically, I try to check in with myself—be mindful, as they say—and make sure all’s well.
As I’ve written before, I have a lot of issues that come out in full force when I’m in a relationship, and it can become very difficult for me to get my bearings. Like this time: I doubted the gut feeling that was telling me to bail; I felt I should keep trying to make a go of it, because maybe, if I worked through my stuff, everything would click into place, and we’d live happily ever after. I thought my doubts could be coming from relationship-induced craziness, and not from the reality of the situation, which was simply that it wasn’t working, period.
During the drawn-out misery that led up to the split, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, completely at odds with myself. It’s like when you’re wearing a pair of pants that’s too tight, and all day, you’re fidgeting and squirming and you just can’t wait till you can get home, change into your sweats, and breathe easy. That’s what it felt like, when it was finally over: relief.
(Unfortunately, the break-up process wasn’t in fact over, though I didn’t know that at the time. There was a slew of drama awaiting me, including his most recent email, which looks like an apology and sounds like an apology, but, honey, that ain’t no apology—you know, “I’m sorry if I hurt you, but”—in which he said he should have “corrected” me more along the way. Oh, really?)
Bottom line, despite the fact that the relationship started so romantically, and despite the fact that in certain lights it looked destined by Fate, it didn’t fit—we didn’t fit—and there’s nothing I can do about it now except change into my sweats and lick my wounds.
Now, as I do a round of Monday-morning quarterbacking on the past few months, there are a couple lessons for me to remember, the most important of which is this: I have to believe that when the right relationship comes along, no matter how much stuff I have to work through, I will feel in my bones that it’s worth it. I have to trust that I’ll know it when I see it.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Buddhism teaches that it is not how much you know about yourself, it's how you relate to what you do know that makes a difference.... The common tendency, Buddhism teaches, is to use whatever is happening to reinforce a distinct feeling of self: to take everything very personally. The alternative, as discerned by the Buddha, is to hold that very feeling of self up for critical examination whenever it arises. How real is this feeling that drives us, which we ordinarily take so much for granted?
— Mark Epstein, Psychotherapy without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective
Years and years ago, after a particularly bad breakup, my newly minted ex-boyfriend came to my apartment one evening, grimly unpacked a box containing everything I’d given him, as well as the things I’d left at his place, then went up to my bedroom, unplugged the TV he’d loaned me, lugged it out to his truck, and drove off, all without a word. Game over.
Today, I’ll play a variation on that theme: pack up the camera my latest ex loaned me, the book he wanted me to read, the earrings he gave me for my birthday that I can’t imagine wearing now, knowing how he feels. It’s almost a ritual, this type of modern breakup: angry emails, screened calls, bitchy late-night texts, and a trip to Mail Boxes Etc.
I would have thought that, after all these years of practice, breakups would get easier. After all, I’ve got more in my life that can help fill in the hole, I’ve learned that I can take care of myself, and I know I’ll get through the pain. But there’s an added level of dreariness to the whole thing now, a depressing sense that I should have known better — that I should have avoided some of my typical pitfalls and patterns, should have been more in control, more grown-up.
And so 2009 draws to an end with yet another crisis of the soul. (It’s been a year of those, I must say. I hope 2010 is gentler.) As break-ups go, this one initially seemed to be as moderate as possible — not too acrimonious, no big blow-out. Of course, it’s just when you’ve decided that the seas are calm that a giant wave comes out of nowhere and smacks you down, hard.
You never saw it coming.
This particular wave took the form of an unexpected, vividly detailed, excruciating email from my ex. It packed a whallop, furiously listing one after another my faults and failings as a human being. In his anger, he craftily aimed a lot of his blows at what he knows to be my most vulnerable areas, the parts of me that already cause me the most pain and self-doubt. Hence the soul-in-crisis.
I’m terrible at coping when someone is angry with me — and boy, is he angry, a rage that is hard to face, and that makes me antsy, preoccupied, nervous, like I need to be looking over my shoulder. (This is a strange post to write, by the by. It's uncomfortably revealing, yes, but also, it could very well be read by the person who instigated the crisis. I don’t want to hurt him any more than I have, and then my Irish-German pride hates for him to know how much he hurt me, which is making it tougher than usual to scrape together these paragraphs. But this blog is for me, a way for me to try to write through my experiences and find my way out of the forest, so I need to disregard his reaction and soldier on.)
There were definitely a few things in the email that were unfair; had they been delivered in person, they would have sparked quite an argument. There were also a few "huh?" moments, which I guess will always remain a mystery. And then there were a couple real below-the-belt hits, not all of which I can recall, but I’m not up for a re-read. But there was enough in there that tapped into my deepest fears about who I am as a person, and what my life is and will be, that my therapist had her hands full. (As she put it, after reading the email, "I can only imagine the number you're doing on yourself.")
The overarching theme was that I'm selfish, shallow, cold, and incapable of being in a relationship. Of course, on the one hand, this is just the typical angry post-breakup attack — the pouring out of all the pent-up resentment and grievances — and needs to be read in that light. On the other hand, these accusations are not new to me — I've heard them before, and I've worried that they are, in fact, my great failings.
And you know, he's right about a lot of things. I was terrible to him, and difficult and mean and cold. He didn’t deserve it, I didn't want to be that way, but I was, a lot. It seems that in any kind of emotionally vulnerable situation, my more rational self gets shoved out of the picture, and the crazy, angry, frightened part of me steps up to bat. After all, the crazy part has a lot more experience in emotional situations (lived through plenty of those as a kid), while the rational part hasn’t been given a lot of opportunity to figure out how to handle those moments and so ends up pushed aside.
And there’s a good chance that I’m building some fairly horrible self-fulfilling prophecies. When someone thinks highly of me (like this boyfriend did, initially — he put me on a pedestal, it seems, which probably helps explain his extreme anger now: my feet of clay have been a big disappointment), I feel, "He doesn't really know me; if he did, he'd be out of here." Then, to confirm my screwed-up self image, I do my best to drive him away, at which point I say, "See, I knew it: I'm a terrible person."
This, by the way, is why this particular post is uncomfortably revealing for me. I’m afraid that I'll show you, my friends and readers, too much of myself, my ugly parts, and you, too, will turn away.
This is also why god invented therapy. Over the past year, these are the very issues I've focused on (along with that whole what-do-I-want-do-do-with-my-life thing), which is perhaps why my ex's email hit me so hard: after all this work and struggle, I'm still making the same mistakes, falling in the same traps. I have to have some faith, I suppose, that my growing awareness of these mistakes and pitfalls will help me down the line, but for now, I can panic at the idea that I'm stuck — no progress, no light at the end of the tunnel.
So what now. More therapy, more introspection, more attempts to take responsibility for my mistakes without going down the path of thinking that I'm a terrible person. More effort to look at myself honestly, but not to beat myself up mercilessly. And a hope that the lessons I’ve learned from my mistakes will help me avoid similar ones in the future.
As an attempt to begin to change my patterns, I set aside my anger (and my near-overwhelming defensive desire to rebut some of his more unfair accusations, and perhaps lob a few of my own) and tried to write a sincere apology. Once I got started, I found it a relief to say how sorry I am; I felt calmer, as if I got the crazy part of me to quiet down (after all, that part of me isn’t much interested in making apologies) and the more rational part to take charge.
In fact, I found that I was able to thank him for what I learned from him, even for the harsh lesson that his email embodied. That doesn’t mean I’m glad I got that email — it was far too bruising, and I’m no martyr — but I think he’d bottled up his emotions for so long that I hadn’t seen the hurt I was causing. Now, thanks to that tsunami of an email, wow can I see it, quite clearly, thank you, and can hopefully remember it in the future.
Unfortunately, the only reply was a curt text demanding the return of his camera, but at least now I know that there’s not a lot I can do about how he feels, so I can stop trying to figure out if there’s a way to move us past the resentment to a less hateful place, perhaps give us both some relief. All I can do is try to figure out my own lessons — and send him back that damn camera, pronto.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
A creepy display at a manicure joint on Melrose, Technicolor graffiti, classic mid-century signage, a thrift shop's guardian spirits... as well as the flowers, the palm trees, and my little cottage in the woods of West Hollywood - here are a few glimpses of Los Angeles from last week.
Well, it was a wonderful trip. LA really rolled out the red carpet: gorgeous weather, amazing food, more wine than you could shake a stick at, an ongoing conversation about which madly expensive perfume I should buy from Scent Bar / Lucky Scent, and plenty of that helpless laughter I wrote about previously.
Once I get a sense of what 2010 is going to bring, work-wise, I may very well look at making the cross-country move for the third time.
Meanwhile, let me relive some of the food highlights:
- the sweetest uni at Hama Sushi
- pizza with oregano and salami at Pizzeria Mozza
- tacos with potatoes and rajas at Loteria
- escarole salad with almonds and sunchokes at Gjelina
- toasted sourdough bread from La Brea Bakery
- olive oil gelato and butterscotch pudding at Pizzeria Mozza
- spinach and goat cheese omelet at King’s Road
- chocolate-covered dried apricots and tamari-wasabi almonds from Erewhon
- honey-marinated hanger steak and pumpkin cupcakes at Joan’s on Third
- hamachi sashimi with XO sauce at Hungry Cat
- my final meal:scrambled eggs, sausage, homemade english muffin, potatoes, and black tea at bld
- and, best of all, Thomas’s lovely brunch: spinach salad with bacon, tarragon, chervil, and mustard vinaigrette; chicken with mushroom cream sauce and asparagus; a La Brea bakery baguette and fig-anise bread; and cookies with fresh berries. And several bottles of Champagne that I picked up from a store with an unbelievable selection of boutique wines, and an unbelievably rude proprietor. (When I asked if he thought I’d made good choices from his Champagne selection, he said, “I chose them first.” When I asked, “Well then, did I do a good job narrowing down to three bottles?” he said, “At that price point, yes.” Thanks, pal.)
Thursday, November 12, 2009
I lived in Los Angeles for eight years, after college. Those were significant years, I realize now: being on my own for the first time, and setting up my own life, and taking care of myself, in a place so utterly different from where I’d lived till then (New England, for god’s sake), and which I felt I made my own.
Of course, during those years, I itched to get back east, to live in New York, to be in a quote-unquote real city, to be around people who were quick and on a mission, who hustled.
Fast-forward a decade or so. I’ve been in New York (and environs) for a good long time now, and it just doesn’t feel quite right, somehow. I mean, I love it and all, but you know, I hate it.
It’s a completely schizophrenic relationship, with dramatic, turn-on-a-dime emotions. For instance, I’ll be walking down the street, think, "I'd like a pack of gum," and presto: a deli. There’s always a deli! I love that! Yay, New York!
And then my pack of gum and I will trudge down into the subway and wait and wait and wait for the train, with no announcements to let us know when/if the train will arrive, and when it does arrive, the wheels scrape along the rails like the world’s fiercest nails-on-a-chalkboard, and the train is so stuffed that it takes an eon for a few bedraggled souls to squirm their way out, and somehow the space they took up is absorbed by the remaining riders, so there’s no room for us. The doors close on a packed mass of people, quashing everyone so tightly together that if you could remove the roof of the train, you could pull out a solid loaf of humanness. The train leaves, my gum and I are left behind on the platform, and the whole farce plays over again.
Boo, New York. Boo.
I’m in Los Angeles now for a week — for the first time in years — and so far, it feels frickin’ great. I’ve had piles of delicious salads for lunch, and an incredible wine-soaked dinner at Pizzeria Mozza (so now LA has amazing pizza — another check in the plus column). I've settled into Thom's adorable cottage, which is right in the middle of the city and yet is so quiet (except for the crickets), and is surrounded by a lovely garden that makes me feel as if I'm a million miles from civilization.
I've laughed for hours at the most ridiculous things with the boys (wow, I really needed a few sessions of helpless laughing, after the week I’ve had), and last night had fantastic tacos at Loteria after cocktails in Thom's swank digs, and am now blogging away in a cafe on Melrose (that's another plus: there are available seats in the cafes, so I can settle in for a couple hours of Earl Grey and free wifi; however, a big minus is the parade of bozos in track pants and skate shoes, and bimbos in leggings and boots, all endlessly braying into their phones).
There might not be a deli on every corner (or a theater district, or City Ballet), but CVS sells Dom Perignon*, and I’ll be hitting Hama Sushi tomorrow, and getting pumpkin gelato in Silverlake, and there’s an entire store of Heath pottery just a few blocks from Thom's house, along with a shop that sells dead-stock vintage shoes (hold me back!), and my perfume source, which I've ordered from for a few years and now will finally visit in person.
I know, I know: it’s vacation, of course it’s fun, of course I’m relaxed and laughing and so forth. On the other hand: it's fun! Why question it. And right now, fun is a priority. I want to be with fun people, drinking Champagne from CVS and laughing loud enough to piss off the people at the next table, and feeling like we can’t talk fast enough, there’s so much to say. That’s a life I could embrace.
At the very least, I need to be here more than one week every couple of years.
*Alex and I in CVS, scanning the aisles: “Hair color, indigestion, external pain…” “External pain? What about existential pain?” “Look: external pain, existential pain,... Champagne!”
The real voyage of discovery consists not only in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.
Don’t know about the new eyes, Marcel, but man do I want to hit the road again and see some of those new landscapes.* I want to take my new (to me) car for a cross-country solo spin, I want to head back to Mexico for a couple months of easy living, I want to take intensive French lessons on the Riviera for four weeks to be followed by at least two weeks of practicing my new-found fluency (one hopes) in glamorous-sounding spots like Cap Ferrat and Antibes and Nice… oh, and in Marseilles, which just makes me think of cauldrons of bouillabaisse. Then there’s New Zealand, and Barcelona, and Buenos Aires, and Bali… all places I’m dying to visit and where I’d want to stay for a good chunk of time.
What’s stopping me? Well, let’s see. I’m working, for one thing, which, at this point in history, is not something to be taken lightly. I’ve got contracts and clients — and cash coming in — and my own L(ucky) L(ittle) C(ompany). It feels like it took a long time to get to this point, so I’m not sure it’s wise to disappear for a few months and then perhaps have to start from scratch.
However, my contracts expire at the end of the year, and though it looks like there could be more work in 2010, nothing is set in stone. My clients could very well decide that they’ve got nothing for me for the time being — at which point, I’m hitting expedia.com and finding me a ticket to points unknown.
And if it looks like those contracts are going to be renewed, well, then, I just need to build some vacation / sabbatical time into the year. That’s one of the joys of the self-employed way of life: I may not get paid vacation, but my boss tends to cheerfully approve all requests for time off.
To sum up: I’m a lucky duck, and 2010 could be another great chapter in my post 9-to-5 life. So why do I feel a panicky dread creeping up in me? It seems to hit when I feel like I’ve got nothing to look ahead to (cf. here and here and here), creating an opening for all those big Life Decisions to come on over and start tapping me on the shoulder (and/or clocking me upside the head). You know, the big ones: what do I want to do with my life, where do I want to live, who do I want to be, WTF is wrong with me?!
Nice, efficient downward spiral there, if I say so myself. I really have mastered that move in the past few years. Practice, practice, practice!
But I’ve also been practicing a few other tricks: namely, how to put the brakes on the spiral. For one thing, I don’t get automatically sucked into comparing my lot with that of a friend’s, or a colleague’s, or that of someone I read about in my dreaded alumni magazine or even just notice on the subway, for god’s sake. Instead, I’m trying to keep in mind something a friend told me a few years back, when he was helping me figure out how to pull my act together and get un-stuck from my unhappy work situation: Don’t compare yourself to other people; compare yourself to your own potential.**
When I size myself up in relation to friends or subway strangers, I get overwhelmed by a wave of defeat, of my failures and missteps and so forth. When I’m instead able to follow my friend’s advice and think about what my potential may be and how I can live up to it, I find myself wanting to be true to that potential, to care for it, and, actually, honor it (it’s mine, after all), and, by extension, to be true to myself. (Sounds New Agey, I know, but it feels very strong and calm, somehow.)
What that means, more and more, is that I need to write, and take pictures, and have my own projects, not just those of my clients. I need to be okay with not knowing where I’m going or what’s in store, and trust that it will all continue to unfold.
And right now, since the void of an empty calendar seems to freak me out, I’m thinking of the first few months of 2010 as either work work work, or France France France. Voila. Calendar full.
*Full disclosure: As I write this, I’m on a plane, crossing the country (hence the photos), but it’s only for a week-long trip, which is not what I’m talking about here.
**Hindu proverb: There is nothing noble about being superior to some other man. The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.