Thursday, January 28, 2010

hey, universe

When I visited my hometown this past summer, I felt profoundly disconnected and alienated and a whole slew of other nasty things that, in all honesty, sort of freaked me out. Even though I haven't lived in Flagstaff since August of 2000 and I moved away from this part of the country entirely in 2004, Arizona--or rather, the southwest, both as a concept and in the contexts in which I've experienced it--and this town in particular have always felt close to my heart; I hate to generalize about “the land” and so I’ll try to avoid that, but this is where I’m most clearly from and I think that still counts for something. There was a profound ambivalence in my relationship to here for essentially the entire time I was growing up, as I think there is for most young people, and I regret still that I spent so many years here not hiking or biking or walking or even really looking around me. I was unable to appreciate its charms until I’d learned a little more about other places; time away allowed me to realize that I could come back, and things would have changed, but there was always some sort of core that I was returning to that felt familiar.

Until, as I mentioned, last summer. To have that connection suddenly lacking was shocking, but in retrospect it was probably less about the place (mountains and trees are more slowly changed than specific populations, I’d say) and more about becoming an adult; it was the first time I'd truly realized that eventually all of my friends would move away and so someday would my parents and old stores and restaurants would close and new ones I'd never heard of would open and more people would move here and this place I'd spent so many years first resenting and then nostalgically enjoying would become just a town, a place I had no connection to other than a past which had fairly conclusively become nothing but memory. I eventually soothed my anxiety with a long solo hike on an unfamiliar mountain and numerous helpings of the best vegetarian biscuits and gravy I've ever had, but I left feeling a little more like a city girl and a little less like I was ever going to be able to really return to some of the places I loved except as a stranger.

But home is home, still, even if sometimes it's comforting and welcoming and sometimes it's unfamiliar and vaguely threatening. The balance shifts every time: my last trip was profoundly unsettling, but this time my hometown seems to be trying to show me all of my favorite parts of itself. The weather, the people I have the opportunity to see, and even my parents (with whom I generally have a rather distant relationship) are in collusion to make me feel like this is a good place for me to be right this second. That feels good.

Things started inauspiciously: yesterday's travel was full of missteps and truly irritating setbacks. I was behind schedule and had already realized one major flaw in my preparations--I was nearly out of cat food and had no cash on me to leave to buy more--before the clock had reached 7 AM; this poor start was followed by a nearly missed bus, an incorrectly boarded train (I got on a train going the completely wrong direction for the first time in my six years here and rode two stops before I realized my mistake, although I'd still swear that the train was labeled as going to O'Hare), and a fuckup on the part of the airline in which they didn't bother to tell me that I was actually flying on their subsidiary which was conveniently located in another terminal. Finally, harried and sleep-deprived, I managed to make it to my gate with enough spare time to pick up my customary overpriced bottle of water and packet of trail mix from the in-terminal store. We boarded and I settled in with my book, hoping for an empty seat next to me so that I could just hunker down and make it through this portion of the trip in relative peace.

But hell, it often seems like when I'm the most irritable and tired is when awesomeness happens. And so as we took off, my nose buried in my reading (Freakonimics, which I wholeheartedly enjoyed), I turned to look out the window and I saw something I'd been waiting to see for well over a decade and a half. When I was in probably the fifth grade, I read a book about clouds and sun dogs and other such phenomena, and one of the things that struck me was the description of what a rainbow seen from an airplane would look like: instead of the customary arc that we see from the ground, an in-flight rainbow would appear as a perfect circle with the airplane's shadow in the center. And as we took off into the overcast skies of Chicago yesterday morning, I watched through my scratched plastic window as not only a rainbow but a double rainbow, the colors reversed and fainter the second time around but still clearly visible, appeared, the black shadow of my plane in the exact center. It lasted for maybe five minutes, and I wanted to whisper or maybe shout to my fellow passengers that there was something amazing happening right next to them, but I didn't. I just smiled, and when it finally faded I went back to my book feeling both calmer and more excited than I'd been before.

It snowed fifty-six inches here last week, which is amazing but means that by now the entire town is covered by dirty and generally rather unappealing snowdrifts ranging from waist-high to above my head. Today, though, I rented a pair of snowshoes and went, along with my friend E and two others plus one adorable dog, out behind a giant store and into the trees and solitude on a previously packed trail. It was raining when we left our cars, overcast and sort of icky, but almost as soon as we got out and away from things it turned into the large puffy soft clumps of snow that are my favorite form of precipitations and which fell down on us as we trekked out. We were walking over snow so deep and clean that every crack and hole was filled with a pale blue color that made me think of some of the things that cold might look like and I couldn't stop staring, at least in between the times I was attempting not to step on my own shoes and fall onto my knees yet again. There was very little speech; what mattered was my feet on the snow and my body moving forward, and my mind ranged from topic to topic more freely than it does when I'm standing still.

What I was thinking about, among other things, was November of 1998, a memory stirred up by a happy chance observation the previous night. As I was walking downtown to meet E for a drink before I passed out from travel fatigue, I was thrilled to note that the night was clear and the sky was full of stars, far more than I had seen anytime recently. One of the great disappointments this summer was that every evening was marked by cloud cover; Flagstaff is where Pluto was discovered in 1930, and as such has restrictions in place in order to keep it a “dark sky” city, rendering the stargazing fantastic. And so I was tromping down the unlit street, my face turned up, when I saw a shooting star out of the corner of my eye and I suddenly remembered my junior year of high school. I was taking a physics class that year that, due to the a heavy emphasis on astronomy, offered extra credit for watching the Leonid meteor shower that was peaking that year. Accordingly, because I am an overachiever and because my teacher had gotten me all worked up about the night sky, I woke up in the middle of a cold November night, dragged a sleeping bag out on my driveway, and watched the stars fall for maybe an hour. It’s been a mostly forgotten episode until now, but when I saw the stars here so much clearer and more numerous than they are in any large city, I remembered the cold and the darkness and the exhilaration I felt out alone in it, looking up and seeing everything bright and sharp and waiting for the suddenness of a streak across my vision and I realized that some things, I appreciated even then.

Monday, January 25, 2010

also, i just like the word "shat"

Nothing to say so much tonight... Just this.

Monday, January 18, 2010

living in fantasyland

I realize that I am absolutely ridiculously lucky to have the life that I'm living, but I try to keep my potentially hubristic tendencies to a minimum by remembering that there's always room for improvement, new places to go both physically and emotionally, not necessarily better or worse so much as just different. What fun would life be if there weren't new possibilities around every single corner, hidden within each conversation and trembling just below the surface of every new interaction? What those possibilities are matters less to me than that they exist, that my ideas about what might happen tomorrow or a month from now are completely useless and also probably entirely false. I spent most of my life planning for the worst, or at least not the best; it feels good to throw up my hands and finally admit that I have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

Giving myself up to infinite possibility doesn't mean that I don't do my damnedest to try and ensure that more of my likelihoods are helpful than harmful. I've been making a serious effort for the past few months to change some of my less-than-stellar habits, the negative gains and slouching losses incurred during years of post-school semi-directionless life; why weight the odds against myself when all I have control over is now? I quit smoking, for one, a decision that I'm increasingly glad that I made, and I don't drink anywhere near as much as I did when I was younger; I sometimes even try to sleep more than six hours a night, although I'll admit I put off much-needed rest to begin writing this so maybe the learning curve's a bit slower on that one. I've also been attempting to become better at knowing what I need to be happy. I've learned to breathe, and I've learned to slow down enough to look around me, and I'm a better and more alive person for that.

But there's any number of things left to work on, and one of them involves speedily remedying the sad fact that I didn't read enough this past year. I've been coasting on the strength of my past more-than-two-decades of bookishness and neglecting my own dusty shelves, ignoring unread volumes because... I'm not sure. The best I can come up with is that there's been an awful lot going on: new friends, "personal journeys", way, way too many cookies. But in truth, none of those reasons are sufficient. Because, my god, I love books. I've loved books since before I was able to read to myself--I resisted learning to read at the age of five because, I'm retroactively convinced, I knew I would no longer be read aloud to anywhere near as often once I could carry the burden myself--and there is no excuse for neglecting something you love for that long. I console myself by remembering that all of the things I value about my life seem to come in waves; I cook not at all or have dinner guests three times in one week, I write pages and pages or next to nothing, and I play my viola as if my life depended on it one moment only to abandon it for weeks at a time the next. This past year may have had less literature in it than other years of my life, but that doesn't mean anything at all about now, or tomorrow.

Luckily, I have inspiration on my side. My boyfriend is an avid bibliophile; he once started a makeshift library in the breakroom of his place of employment, fomenting intellectual chaos of the best sort in his co-workers and building, in his words, "an army of bookworms", because his then-girlfriend insisted that his many volumes would topple over his bed and suffocate her in her sleep. When he returned to grad school in Montreal after new years he left me with a half-shelf of books that he'd already read and which I'm working my way through; I'm supposedly picking up several more boxes from his brother to store for him until he returns in a more permanent way. My girlfriend is equally dedicated to words--she's the one who turned me onto The Trouble With Normal, the book I was ranting about a few months ago--although she has less (by which I mean "absolutely no") time to read non-school things; she is, however, currently taking a storytelling class, which prompted me this past weekend to pull out my parents' old copy of Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales.

I mentioned that my parents read to me before I was able to read to myself, and in retrospect I'm impressed by how much ground we covered; before I was five we'd gone through, among other things, Narnia, Oz (all of Oz, which is a hell of a lot of text), and The Call of the Wild, which might have explained part of my childhood fear off dogs. I don't remember specifically reading folktales with them, but these books (with the exception of Jack London, probably) are perhaps sort of the Grimm Brothers of our age, and at any rate I'm fairly positive that by the age of seven I'd already been exposed to some of those old German stories, with their talking severed horse heads and gruesome fiery stepmother deaths. My parents had two volumes of folk stories, fairy tales, a massive Grimm Brothers and the Calvino that I loved enough to steal from them when I left for college, and I read them both obsessively and many times over; in high school, I also read a great many re-written folk tales, adult versions of the tales that we'd long ago sanitized for our children.

It's no huge secret that the old stories aren't as nice as Disney makes them out to be, and part of the attraction when I was young was definitely the blood and gore, the dismemberment and torture and stern justice meted out to the wrongdoers, who were usually women. In some original versions of Sleeping Beauty, the sleeping princess is raped and bears children in her sleep, who eventually suck the magical spindle out of her finger as they try to nurse and thus rouse her from her sleep; in the Grimm Brothers' version of the Frog Prince the poor amphibian receives, not a kiss, but a hard toss against the nearest wall before he is returned to his human form. This doesn't even begin to approach the punishments reserved for wicked stepmothers, such as being rolled down a hill naked in a barrel spiked full of nails or being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes until they danced themselves to death. And finally, there was my personal favorite gross-out moment: a stupid peasant girl is told that in order to win her paramour's heart, she must "cast friendly eyes upon him." The girl promptly gouges out the eyes of all the goats in her immediate vicinity, puts them in a bowl, and tosses them in his face. You can only imagine how well that went over.

But beyond the blood-and-guts aspect of my early fascination with folktales, there was something else, intriguing enough that it has kept me enamored to this day. Calvino, in the excellent introduction to his Italian Folktales--which I highly, highly regret never having read until last night--calls it "infinite variety and infinite repetition." Folktales have a certain inevitability to them; the youngest child will always prevail, cleverness and humility will eventually be rewarded (although it might be only after seven years living naked in the woods except for a bearskin, or whatever), and evil is punished. Against the backdrop of that stability is the weird-ass stuff that goes on in fairy tales, the talking animals and handless orphans and divine intervention and so on, the instability of total random bullshit happening to apparently nice people. Fairy tales have their own logic, and it's both comforting and fascinating to see how these two elements, the structure and the details, work against and eventually with each other.

Calvino, a communist and quite a distinguished writer in his own right, was seemingly drawn in by folklore nearly against his own will; he began the project by tempering his responses to the stories with careful hypothesizing and painstaking analysis, but eventually he became so enamored with his subject that he "would have given all of Proust in exchange for a new variant of the 'gold-dung donkey'." He writes that while he was editing the book the entire world seemed to become a fairyland, full of transformation and possibility, and concludes in the aftermath of his efforts that, in fact, he was correct and his suspicions were more than a work-induced hallucination: folktales are real. Not literally, of course, but as "the catalogue of the potential destinies of men and women", a mythology not of gods but of everybody, a means to explain the many ways our lives might progress. We are bound together in a struggle to determine some small measure of our own fate in the face of bizarre and sometimes unintelligible happenings, and our collusion in the face of the random is part of what makes us human. Like any good story, folktales are less about what happens inside of them than they are about where the people within them end up.

This is my favorite folktale. It's called The Happy Man's Shirt, and I love it for its completely normal structure and for the somewhat open ending paired with the complete finality of the last line. Here is the basic plot: A king has a son, and this son is sad, but sad all the time. A doctor tells the king that his son can only be cured by wearing the shirt of a truly happy man, and there is a subsequent kingdom-wide search for this joyous individual. Several possibilities are rejected--the priest claims happiness but would be even happier if he were a bishop, the nearby ruler of a peaceful and bountiful land worries at night about what will happen to his possessions after he dies--until eventually the king becomes lost during (what else?) a hunt and hears a voice singing in the woods. He comes upon a young man, singing his lungs out as he prunes away in his vineyard. After ascertaining that this young man is truly and deeply happy, the king asks him for his shirt. The young man unbuttons his jacket, and the king stops dead, because:

The happy man wore no shirt.


I love folktales for their simplicity and their excess, their mixture of wit and somewhat dense moral staunchness, the way that even though I know what will happen I still want to read just one more version of Snow White just in case. I love reading in general because every damn thing I read becomes a part of my worldview, and the more I know the more colors and textures I see in everything around me, the more nuance I can understand and relate to and love. Sometimes the happy man wears no shirt. Sometimes you just have to figure it out for yourself. For my own part, I'm going to go close this computer now, sit myself down with a good book and a cup of tea, and give myself just a few more tools to ensure that I'll never need somebody else's shirt to make me happy. I'm just fine on my own, thanks.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Back in the day, when I had a certifiable anxiety disorder and I was getting free therapy for it, there was this exercise I was supposed to do where I tensed up my muscles, first in groups (legs! stomach! and so on) and then my whole entire body, for ten seconds at a time before letting go of everything at once. I discovered quickly that this makes you look really silly, but also that done correctly, at the moment of release a warmth and calmness flows through you that is the physical manifestation of forced relaxation, like a full-body "ahhhhhhh". Eventually, you're supposed to begin to hold a word in your mind as you do the tensing and relaxing, repeating it to yourself as you clench and grow red in the face and tremble; the idea is that, given enough practice, you can just think the word you've chosen and your body will react with the same wave of comfort, which means that you can forcibly relax yourself in public during moments of anxiety without looking like you're passing a kidney stone.

I wasn't a very vigilant practitioner of the clenching-muscle aspect of things, but it turned out that my brain was powerfully susceptible to the word-association concept; after only a few repetitions, I was able to whisper my word inside my head and whoa, my head would roll back on my neck and I would nearly collapse in my chair. It was impressive, and I started doing it at any opportunity because I was just so intrigued by the strength of my response. My word ended up being "safe", a relatively benign word but one that surprised me slightly when I came up with it because I'd never realized that I felt unsafe, but apparently I had, because when I was asked for a comforting word that was the thing I ended up settling on. However, the point--if there is one--of this story is that, when my therapist first posed the question of my word choice to me I burst out laughing because the word that popped into my head, full-blown and related to absolutely nothing I'd been thinking about before that, was "panda." Panda? My concept of personal comfort and positivity was summed up by a panda? Well, whatever. Apparently pandas are kind of assholes, but they are still somehow the international symbol for cuteness, and maybe that's what my mind was striving for, a completely meaningless and superficial stand-in for nothing much.

But anyway, it's been a panda week, where I'm feeling anxious for no reason I've been able to discern but which I could use a temporary reprieve from, even if it is mostly symbolic. Really, the best word to describe this week would be moody. Today, for instance, I had a wonderful morning full of coffee and baking and reading and good things, a frustrating afternoon of thwarted thrifting and too much walking, an anxious evening that made me feel like I had a vise on my temples, and now I'm feeling sort of... I'm not sure. Not bad, but not amazing. What do you do with a day like that? You sure as hell don't write anything that makes any sort of continuous sense; instead you blabber on about pandas and god only knows what else.

Well actually, tulips. I decided to try and salvage my afternoon by reading Sylvia Plath (Ariel, her poetry) for the first time ever, and eating ice cream, which maybe seems like an odd choice but worked well on the irritation part of the day. This poem doesn't really have anything much to do with my day or myself in general, but the tulips in it kind of scared the hell out of me and I love that. I swear, I'll never look at them the same way again, and I'm definitely somebody who spends a lot more time pondering red tulips than your average person on the street. So actually I'm not sure that's a good thing. But anyway.


By Sylvia Plath

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

i wanna be there; i wanna take you there

I spent yesterday home sick, recovering from a bout of food poisoning that turned out to be thankfully mild. Granted, I spent much of Friday night trying to keep down emergen-c and mostly failing, but my girlfriend stayed here with me and said comforting things and was generally lovely and I woke up in the morning feeling pretty much human, so I'm not complaining too much. I spent the day napping, reading, sipping ginger ale and eating soup and saltines, and catching up on the backlog of internet stuff that built up while I was away over the holidays; today I feel mostly back to normal, whatever that means.

One of my friends has been working her way through at least some of the assignments from Learning To Love You More, a series of guided directives created by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher that was/is intended to inspire art and creativity and other good things all over the world. Assignments include things like "take a picture of your parents kissing" and "photograph a significant outfit", and each comes with a specific set of instructions to be followed. I like the idea of making something personally significant from what is essentially an impersonal order to create, and also the possibility that you could learn something about yourself through such a loosely structured but somewhat formalized framework. Anyway, one of the assignments that my friend did was #53: Give advice to yourself in the past. The idea is that you write a list of things you would like to have been able to tell yourself at a specific age, things that you think might have made your life at that time better, but my friend did a more loose interpretation and I think I'm going to follow suit. Which seems fitting, because one piece of advice I would give my past self would be this: don't be so damn concerned about rules. It will only hold you back.

The self I would write to, in this hypothetical situation, is my grad school self, roughly ages 23-25. I actually spent some time over the holidays talking to my boyfriend about grad school and the way that most people go through it (hellishly for the most part, it seems, and at the very least fairly unhappily) and how there are different ways to approach it (the way he is, as just another experience) that can be much kinder and probably more interesting. 20-20 hindsight in my case, of course, but isn't that what this exercise is about? At any rate, some background: when I was in high school, my ultimate life dream was to go to Northwestern, study with the viola teacher there, and play in the prestigious training orchestra downtown. Which, of course, is exactly what ended up happening, four and five years later. It was the first time that something I had wished for had so literally come to pass, and despite the advice of numerous (and mostly bad) movies and books it was a shock to me to discover that sometimes dreams come true absolutely suck. During these years my always-present anxiety spiralled out of control, I had eye tics and crying jags, my relationship fell apart, my ability to value myself hit an all-time low, and I barely slept. I'm not trying to make you feel bad for me; this is just what happened, and I'm here now so obviously everything worked out okay. But if any past self of mine needed a ray of hope, it was that one.

Advice to myself, ages 23-25

Grad school won't impact your future as drastically as you think it will, so don't worry so much about being perfect. The things you'll take away--a few friends, most of whom you didn't actually hang out with while you were in school, and some new ideas about how not to live--will end up being more important than any orchestra rehearsal you suffer through during these years.
Probably you should have sucked it up and gone to therapy. Not because you're crazy, because you're not; it just would have given you some new ways to think about and cope with stress and anxiety, and would most likely have at least helped the eye twitches.
Getting grey hair is no big deal. And yours is apparently silver, which is actually a little bit awesome.
I'm glad you kept reading through these years, no matter how busy you were. I think that helped. Don't forget that even if your degree program doesn't value your brain particularly, you still should.
Never, ever drive to Alaska again. Or if you do, know what the hell you're in for first and prepare accordingly.
Even the really shitty things that happen will end up working out, and you'll learn enough from them to eventually be much happier. Try not to let those shitty things allow you to devalue yourself, because you're much more awesome than you think you are right now.
Take care of yourself, even if it means not always taking care of everybody else.


I most likely wouldn't have followed any of this advice anyway, because I was stubborn as hell and determined, it seems, to drive myself into the ground for the sake of god-knows-what. But it occurred to me as I was writing this that really what this blog is and has been for at least the last year and a half is a sort of extended version of this exercise. I think in some ways I'm making amends with my past, laying out for myself the ways in which things can and have improved and trying to make sense of how I got from there to here. I was twenty-five when I graduated, in the spring of 2006; as I'm write now, in the winter of 2010, I'm twenty-eight and I feel like an entirely different person. Maybe that's just what happens. But it's comforting to know that this advice, as relatively pointless as it is, is also unnecessary. I made it through anyway.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

we pass through each other shimmering

I feel unfocused lately, thrown off balance by the events shaping my personal life to the extent that it's a little difficult for me to put words even to what I'm feeling, much less to anything outside of my immediate and somewhat overwhelming experiences. Don't get me wrong: I feel absolutely insanely lucky. I am, at least for this moment in time, living the dream. Some dream. But which dream? That depends on who you talk to. A middle-aged businessman's dream of twenty-something threesomes, a gooshy adolescent's dream of love, a horrified parent's nightmare, a queer utopia: all of these and more are possibilities, as are the adverse and generally less positive alternatives. So much remains to be seen. The future is so full of possibilities that blanket statements are not only ill-advised but virtually impossible.

But in spite of--or because of?--all of that, my mind has been on receptiveness, on the things that we share between ourselves and why we do or don't value them. It's a rather obvious time of year to be thinking about both generosity and change, but it isn't just Christmas or the new year that has giving and receiving, renewal and growth, on my mind. It doesn't hurt, though; holidays are just days, perhaps, but the things with which we imbue especially these two--forgiveness, redemption, renewal, a kind of carte blanche for whatever comes next--are cultural and deeply ingrained, hard to divorce from religious celebrations or the turning of a calendar page regardless of how much or little we may care about those things. Certainly the last month has been full of a lot of things that could easily become metaphors in this particular context, if I wanted to go that way; it's easy to see it as highly symbolic that my relationship(s) have resolved during the full swing of holiday mania. Personally, I'd rather check my symbolism at the door and just try to remember what I've learned so that next year will be even better.

Giving is something I've always valued about myself. I have, so often, given too much, physically and monetarily and emotionally, that even saying that feels like a warning sign, a red flag that I'm going to repeat past mistakes and everything will shortly go to hell because I'll get lost on the road to somewhere different yet again. It's possible; anything is possible, but what makes me feel good, what really makes me hopeful, is that I don't actually believe in the inevitability of fucking up. I've spent this last year learning more about something that I sensed and to some extent followed through on before, the idea that there are different ways to give: the ways that matter, and the ways that only seem to matter. I remember learning as a child that monetary expenditure does not automatically equal love and that's true enough, but I failed to understand that not only are the two completely separate entities but that "monetary expenditure" can be replaced by phrases such as "pointless and unnecessary martyrdom" and "extreme self abnegation" to the same effect. I've spent money on things that led to significant happiness or seriously helped people I loved--a pair of new glasses, a dinner or a concert ticket or a pair of used snow boots in February--and I've made things myself for next to free or simply extended a hand to another, and none of these are more or less valuable as long as the reception and ultimate outcome is the same. What matters is your intent. If your intent is to spread goodness and you do, it doesn't matter at all how you got there.

The thing is that, while I've gotten better at giving, my progress at being receptive has been much slower. I've always had a hard time taking things readily from others: gifts, compliments, friendship. I've talked and written about this before, but like everything else this is a progression and I've been thinking about it in different ways that hopefully shed light on new aspects of what this can mean for me and my life and my happiness. Lately I keep coming back to the idea of religion, which is perhaps odd for a halfhearted atheist, but then I read something like this text from a book about snake handling in the South, words from a deeply religious speaker who identifies himself as "the End-Time Evangelist," and I feel a little tremor of recognition: "You can have as much of God as you want... These seminary preachers don't understand that. They don't understand the spirit of the Lord... They know the forms of godliness, but they deny the power."

I'm not religious but there are concepts that I find in discussions of religion that resonate deeply for me, things like ecstasy and rapture and faith, ideas that I feel can be applied to my own queer godless life; I reject the forms, but in some ways I can't deny the power, of the language and the rhetoric and the potency of surrender. All I have to do is replace “god” with something like “love” or “joy” or some other buzz word and suddenly religious narrative makes a good deal more sense to me. The idea of receptiveness as part of the way to enlightenment--by which I mean greater joy and openness and general lovingkindness towards both others and myself--makes more and more sense to me as I try to allow myself to relax and just appreciate what is offered to me. It feels somehow powerful to allow myself to accept what others extend to me; what I experience when I truly thank somebody, when they give me something, tangible or not, that has worth to us both, is what I suppose I've always hoped they felt towards me when our roles were reversed. It feels deeply good.

This, I think, is part of what will ultimately help me to redeem myself now from the shadows of my past relationship missteps; if I can be strong enough to accept what my lovers wish to give me and feel deserving of it, then I can be strong and whole enough to give what needs to be given within my relationships. I can keep living the dream, and if I fuck it up it won't be because of this but because of something altogether different. And so I'm trying to remind myself, to remember that if there is a proper and joyous way to give then there is also a way to receive that allows me to be a happier and more complete person, and that this is what I want now for myself and for my friends and lovers and family: to uphold each other, to feel the power and strength that comes from both offering and accepting, to feel the warmth that our connections, brief or extended, generate and to be happy with the joy we bring each other.