waving not drowning

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What I did was promise my little dog I’d always come home for him. It didn’t cure anything. And I still want to–I won’t say die, because dying is messy, and scary, and painful and ugly and terrible.

But I don’t want to be around any more. If that makes sense.

Unfortunately, since there are few other options for “not being around anymore” (unless cryogenics has advanced past preserving Walt Disney’s head?) I think I should probably cut the shit and just admit that I’m suicidal.

I’ve been arguing about it. The therapist asks, “are you suicidal?” and I scoff. Actual scoffing, with a scoff-face and scoff gestures and scoffing my head all around scoffingly. “Pfsh,” I say, which is a scoff noise. “No. Geeze. I just–you know. Want to be dead. But not die. That’s totally different.”

“Okay,” they say slowly, gently. “Okay. Well. Do you have a plan?”

“Pfsh,” I say. “I would if I wanted to die. But I don’t. See?”

“Okay,” they say nodding, pursing up their lips, wrinkles forming on their forehead that I want to smooth down for them. “Do you feel safe?”

That always makes me think of Gandalf. IS IT SECRET? IS IT SAFE? But I don’t laugh because this is a very serious conversation.

“Yes,” I say.

Which is true. I feel safe from imminent death. And I also feel like that’s a bit of a disappointment.

Mostly I feel sad, and exhausted, and broken into shards that are too sharp to touch, and rubbed thin, almost transparent. I feel sick and anxious and thick with dread. I feel stuck. Unsaveable. That this is the how it is and this is just how it goes and my voice is too small and weedy to shout it all down.

Shouting is hard. Right now I’m not super good at hard things. Which includes planning to die and then the actual dying.

I think, though, that I don’t want to die. I don’t want to wish I were just not around. I don’t want to give in, and every day that I don’t is a really good day, a non-zero day, and that’s something.

Sometimes I resent making promises, even to a dog. It doesn’t seem fair to be beholden, because who knows what’s going to happen and maybe there will be nuclear war and I’ll be horribly radiation burned and–I don’t know. The metaphor doesn’t seem funny any more.

This isn’t a cry for help, or a bid for sympathy, or a notice, or a warning. I think I never really process anything until I talk myself through it with my fingers on the keyboard and the words showing up on the screen, sometimes surprising scary ones and startlingly deep ones and deeply, deeply stupid ones.

I didn’t expect to write this. I am hesitating about posting it. But you can’t deal with something until you look right at it, is what they tell me. You’ve got to stare it in the eye before you can punch it in the face, set it on fire, stomp it out. Eventually. Baby steps.

Naps. Reeses peanut butter cups. Breathing, not dying. I can do that.

vulnerability

When my memoir came out, I stopped sleeping. Well, I stopped for about a month before it came out, and then luckily it came out sooner than I expected so maybe that shortened the Epic Time of Unsleeping, overall?

It felt endless, so I guess it doesn’t matter how long it actually was.

I was excited about the book, and proud too. I had always wanted to be a writer, to publish a book, to stop lolling around whining about my DREAMS and actually do something about them and I did, I did that. I wrote an entire book and found an agent and sold it to a wonderful publisher and I was so so excited and thrilled and feeling lucky and good.

And all of that excitement, I think, that long road from idea to manuscript to book-in-the-world, obscured that last bit. That the book was going to exist outside my head. It would be something that people could pick up, and read, and have opinions about.

It is probably pretty common, that bone-deep urge to stand over someone who’s reading something you wrote so you can explain to them what everything means and why you said X and what Y means and look how funny that joke is and here is the opinion you should have about it (even if in real life you would actually hand someone your manuscript AND FLEE FOR YOUR LIFE).

With a memoir, it felt like that times ALL OF IT AND EVERYTHING. I don’t have just my writing and my careful selection of just the right word as if it were carefully arranged fruit on a decorative plate. It was my life there. Me. All the mess of me, and the truth of me, and the stupid things I had done and thought and the decisions I made. Just sent out into the world defenseless.

People would pick up the book and inevitably not just have opinions about the writing but ABOUT MY SOUL. Or my reasonable approximation thereof.

What it boils down to: Publishing a memoir makes you feel insanely, madly, horribly, painfully vulnerable. It is a little bit terrifying. It is completely strange. It’s kind of exhilarating. And if you don’t just say, you know what screw this I have no control over what people think let’s just let go and let Goethe, you go crazy.

So I went a little crazy for awhile.

I got better, though.

But this feels very similar, here waiting for my episode of In Deep Shift to happen. It was an amazing experience, strange and wonderful and crazy and enlightening and it changed me completely. That week of filming shook me awake and slapped me around and pushed me back into my life. I gained a tremendous amount of bravery and hope.

I moved forward after years of stagnation, trying to figure out what was next. I moved to Madison, and I found the courage to pitch a YA novel that tackles the bullshit politics of weight and happiness and self esteem and I started to figure out how I could be a writer, all the time full time and it was good.

And Jonas filmed the awkward, halting start of that. Tears and terror and dopeyness and reluctance. He put his hand between my shoulder blades and kept gently propelling me forward. He helped me recognize the incredible support network I had around me; he helped me find faith in the possibility that I could be a support for myself, too.

It’s all on tape, and I feel so incredibly vulnerable and completely exposed and a little scared. Here I am again, laying it all out to be picked over.

But I’m braver now, and a little stronger and a lot smarter and I’m pretty proud of myself for saying yes to the experience and yes to the opportunity to talk about the bullshit fairytale of weight loss and the incredible struggle to find happiness and solidity in your own skin. I wrote the memoir because I wanted to tell people they weren’t alone, tackling body image issues and anxiety and unhappiness and I did this episode for the same reason and I’m scared to be so vulnerable but I think, I think it might be worth it.

I’ve been sleeping okay.

taking it all off

When I was fat, I thought the only things I had any control over were my shoes, my eyebrows and my hair. Everything else was a mess, but maybe you wouldn’t notice if you saw how well groomed I was, right?

And so I spent really a fantastic amount of time hunting down the beautiful shoes that would broadcast around the world my sense of extraordinary style. And researching aestheticians who could give me an eyebrow arch that could cut you. And a hair stylist who would finally turn me into the sassy, punky, cute and sexy, pretty pretty badass princess I was inside my heart, but not on top of my head.

And money. I spent a lot of money too.

I was picky, so so picky, and never quite entirely happy with any of my choices and I knew, because I am not entirely self-delusional and only slightly stupid, that my dissatisfaction wasn’t because my hair looked dopey, it was because I was hunting desperately for enlightenment, peace, and true happiness that I would never achieve in the stylist’s chair but only through a deeply internal spiritual journey etcetera and so forth om mani padme hum, I know, I know.

Even when you’re so completely aware of the lie you’re telling yourself, it’s still so desperately alluring—that it could be that easy, so easy, to get what you want and make your way to who you want to be.

When I was fat, it was a way to try to make up for the fact that I was fat. When I lost so much weight, it was clear that I still wasn’t perfect, but these were obstacles I could overcome. The shoes and the eyebrows and the hair were out there, by god by golly by gum.

I manage to subdue it most of the time, to maintain rationality and be pleased with myself in a general sense, but when depression comes creeping in on all fours, usually in the winter, it’s harder to fight off the impulse to try and instafix everything with another pair of boots and a better hairstylist who is better at hairstyling and personality augmentation.

It’s been happening lately—I was sad. I decided to grow out my hair and have Mermaid Hair, shiny curls to the middle of my back in pastel colors. Except that my hair is fine, and so straight it’s a negative four on the Kinsey scale. And it grows about a quarter of an inch every third century. So I was constantly, eternally frustrated with it, too short, too shaggy, too much of a mess, cut it all off, no wait I’ll grow it now, cut it all off, no wait what was I thinking? Just another frustration on top of all the other frustrations in my life. Another reason to dislike myself.

Last week I was filled with epic loathing when I looked at my latest attempt to grow it out, and I made an emergency appointment and she took it all off and it looked so bad and I cried. Hair is very emotional, you guys.

I thought I’d dye it. Or get another, better haircut. Or grow it out again. Or try a different dye than last time. Something, anything. This documentary show I had been a part of, it was going to air soon and there would be interviews and there was a pit in my stomach about how I’d look in these interviews for this show in which I was supposed to be a beautiful butterfly emerging from a chrysalis but what kind of butterfly has a pile of burned feathers on its head for a haircut?

And then I stopped. And I stepped back and I thought about why I was panicking—this show. This show I had done, that was about figuring out how to be happy. Stepping back from the half-conscious chasing after superficial, temporary pointless things. About how to become whole.

So I decided to stop. Quit. Be done. I was finished.

My girlfriend found a coupon for Great Clips and we headed over and I said to the stylist, please buzz me.

They were very startled, and they said, okay are you sure? Are you sure you’re sure? Are you sure you’re sure that you’re sure?

I said yes, please. I am done.

It was already fairly short on the sides and she took off the top and when she was done I ran my palm over the soft dark fuzz and I saw that I looked nothing like myself and exactly like myself and I was completely delighted.

Women keep saying to me, I wish I could do that! I could never pull it off! And I am proud that I have managed to not jump up and down and shout you can you can you totally can and you should oh my god THE FREEDOM but when I catch myself in the mirror I am jumping up and down inside. I love it. It does feel like freedom. And showering takes half the time and I wake up looking just flawless and it is nice, so nice, to have a reminder every day that I can do this, this being me thing. I don’t need props. I got this.

me + Oprah = bffs

indeepshift

Honestly, I don’t really remember how it happened. And that can pretty much be said about the entire process, start to finish.

It was not too long after the memoir came out, I remember that. And I was still reeling from the whole process—interviewing and public speaking in public and the crazy, unexpected opportunities (Good Morning America? Sure okay!) and other crazy things that just totally fell through but mostly the fact that PEOPLE WERE ACTUALLY READING THE BOOK.

(also PEOPLE the magazine!)
People Review

The only way I had managed to finish the thing, and send it off to a publisher and let it be packaged and published and shipped out into the world where just anyone could pick it up and have an opinion about me was because I managed to completely suppress the fact that this was the inevitable result of, you know. Publishing a book.

So I was a little crazed at that point. When someone (my amazing publicist at Seal? An email from the ether?) contacted me and said Hey, there’s this documentary show on the Oprah network? It’s this guy Jonas Elrod, right, who had this extraordinary experience once, and documented his transformation.

Now on his new show, what he’s doing is traveling to people who have also had transformative experiences and talking to them about what they’ve gone through and what they still need to do, in their lives, to be happy. So we think maybe you’re a transformed kind of lady and we’d like you to be on an episode! And I said oh yeah, sure cool, that’s cool.

Nothing happened for awhile, I remember that. And I pretty much forgot about it, but then there was a flurry of phone calls, and conference calls, and a video chat with the host/creator and some other people (and I think I actually ended up buying the professional version of Skype right in the middle of it because we kept having connectivity issues) and then there was a great silence again, during which I pulled my shoulders back down from my ears and sighed a great sigh of sort of relief because the whole thing seemed very complicated.

But news, occasionally—they’re deciding on candidates! We’re running it by Harpo! They really like you! They’re still talking about things and the business! I think at some point I realized there was a small possibility that Oprah her own self had maybe actually possibly said my name out loud and I closed my eyes tight and wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

I mean, you know how the story ends—they chose me for one of their stories. An hour-long episode. They’d come to Utah and hang out with me and my friends for a week. They’d interview family. They’d bring along ideas and tools and have people for me to talk to and adventures for me to have and it would be a blast, they said.

And then they showed up in July, and it was one of the most surreal weeks of my life. I took them thrift store shopping. They took me to a dojo to learn how to reconnect to my body and also be fierce and join a ninja club. The dojo master and his students were entirely welcoming, generous, and just crazy talented.

We did karaoke! We threw an enormous fourth of July shindig (that could not have been even half as great without my incredible and talented roommate Sare), went to dinner, went on a nature walk with a lovely therapist, went on a run through the mountains at sunset, did so many interviews, learned my favorite new joke of all time ever, met the cutest dog in the world outside of my own dog, bewildered the neighbors, laughed like a loon, and hung out with some of the warmest, coolest, kindest people on the crew ever, ever.

Oh my god, it was—it just was. It was everything, every day, all day.

Every time I wasn’t on camera I was upstairs in my bedroom, hiding under the covers. Quite literally. My friends, my gorgeous, so-lucky-to-have-them friends, they rallied. My best friend flew out from San Francisco to support me and local friends all came to hold my hand (and be on television) and do karaoke and remind me that this was cool, it was awesome, it was an amazing experience and it was overwhelming but it was wonderful, right?

It was pretty wonderful.

And now the episode is on its way to the television screen. In Deep Shift premieres on February 6, and my episode airs on the 15th. And I am filled with glee and excitement and panic and worry and gladness and–oh, just all sorts of things.

I don’t think I can watch it. Being there, inside my head, experiencing the entire week, that was pretty astonishing. Watching myself wander around wide-eyed and doing my best to not fall over for 52 minutes? I can’t do it. You watch it for me! Don’t tell me how dorky I look.

and that was the year that was

birthday lurve
My god, this year. This fucking year. 2013 was amazing and terrifying and so very, very bizarre and wonderful and weird and I feel like I forgot half of what happened because it was an overwhelming tide of all the things.

It started pretty terribly—right off a long string of the world’s most awful OK Cupid an eHarmony dates, sitting at a table in a terrible bar across from couples making out sloppily and wondering exactly what my life had come to. My ex was off on a NYE extravaganza with the girl he was crazy about and I was happy for him so happy very happy irritated because it wasn’t fair that I didn’t have anyone I was crazy about, okay? And I was ready for whatever was next, now, soon, hurry, please.

I spent a lot of the Summer of 2012 wondering what the hell I was supposed to do. At the end of the summer, I decided I was heading out of Utah. In late fall I had decided on Madison.

In January, moving felt so horribly far away—a job, a place to live, packing up my house. Logistics, too many of them. Being stuck in Utah, too real. My god the terrible dates I kept throwing myself on to distract from Worries About The Future. The awkwardness and the creeping sense that I was the problem and they were just a series of ghosts as described via A Christmas Carol, coming to me to point out all my flaws and errors and then leaving me psychologically broken (and sometimes feeling slightly violated because SERIOUSLY FINGERS THERE ON A FIRST DATE COME ON).

I might still have Feelings about this. But not many—because in February my book came out. My book came out! My book, it came out. I wrote it, all the pages in it. My publisher put it inside a cover that was more stunning than I could have hoped for. And it was released into the wild in February, a full month before it was supposed to have been, and that was when I stopped sleeping altogether. Terror subsumed everything.

Throughout the whole process, the copyedits and the proofing and the cover selection and etcetera and the other thing, I was so proud I had made a book and I thought it had turned out all right and I hoped people liked it in a vague and general sense. Then I realized that once it was out in the world there where people really could read it and would know all the worst parts of me.

God, the feeling of vulnerability. The raw, painful open woundedness of it, of my book in the world, of me totally naked and begging you to love me, out in the world. Of course I couldn’t sleep.

In March things started to happen. My book launch party—completely packed with so many people I love. My brother and my mother came. My best friends came. I was a little late starting the talk because I walked into the room, saw it was entirely full of people there for me, just me, oh my god there are so many people and they’re all going to look at me, and oh, I lost it, just a little bit.

It was a weird and stomach churning combination of gratitude for all the love I have and bewilderment about it too and fear because Jesus Christ, I am the girl who spent three years of grad school dreading class participation. I transferred out of community college to a four year school instead of graduating because I refused to fulfill the Speech class requirement. And then I walked into the front of the room and I breathed in deep and I was talking, and a little teary-eyed sometimes, and I lived through it.

March was a busy month. I still wasn’t sleeping. My book got reviewed in People, and then I wrote articles for the New York Post and Refinery 29. The Refinery 29 article got picked up by The Daily Mail, where I accidentally stumbled upon my very first Shitty Internet Comment, as well as Yahoo! Shine. I found out about Yahoo when my Brazilian waxer texted me to tell me I was on the front page, and that was a new threshold for weirdness.

Then Good Morning America called in the morning to interview me in the afternoon and I raced home to clean the house and change into something reasonable and I forgot to put on shoes. The film crew spent a lot of time fixing my stove. I felt awkward and said rambling things. They cropped Crom out of the final story that aired, and the headline said that losing weight had made me miserable, and I didn’t care because oh, the surreal madhouse my life had become, swirly eyes crazy brain etc etc etc.

And I felt so lucky, too. I did phone interviews and radio interviews and text interviews and some other interviews and I think I was generally saying reasonable things that were worthwhile, but I have refused to listen to or watch any of them, to this very day.

At the end of March there was a talk show in Chicago, and I visited Madison and looked at the neighborhoods I wanted to live in. There was my San Francisco book launch full of more people I love, who made it perfect. I coughed and tried to lean against the wall except it wasn’t a wall it was a banner thing and I almost fell down. It’s possible I fell down; I don’t remember it very well, because coping mechanisms.

In April an editor at Harper Collins said, we heard you’re writing a YA book; we want it. I got that message while I was on the train between San Francisco and Utah to go read at an alumni event and I cried a lot in public. I wrote a proposal and they wanted it. They wanted it. They wanted it. Oh god, they wanted it. I still wasn’t sleeping.

In April a documentary program on the Oprah Winfrey Network said okay, we are considering having you be one of our subjects and I said SURE OKAY without even considering what that meant. They put me through a series of Skype interviews. They kept telling me it wasn’t any kind of guarantee. Then they scheduled the filming of my episode for June and I said SURE OKAY.

Stranger Here became an audiobook in June; My company said, “you are the center of our business strategy” and I said, okay so can I work remotely? They agreed, and suddenly moving to Madison was going to be possible. Impossibly wonderful friends helped me find an apartment. The film crew came to my house and had me do Judo and run in slow motion and cry a lot in interviews and talk to therapists and it could not have been stranger. Every time the camera turned off and they said I could take a break, I went upstairs and got under the covers and trembled a little until they called me back.
They were lovely and kind and loving and supportive and I loved them and I was so glad they were gone. I went and got a prescription for a sleep aid because I was going a little crazy.

In the middle of July I drove from Utah with a little dog and as many possessions I could fit into my Hyundai because U-Haul lost my trailer reservation. I got to Madison and I looked around and then I panicked because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, how I fit into the lives of my friends here, how I was going to get the rest of my stuff out here, and worried, so worried I had made a mistake.

But I was happy. Every morning I went down to the lake with Crom and looked at the water and realized I was really genuinely happy for the first time in a long time. I was living so close to some of the most important people in my life, and my Utahn importants were not so far away and my family so near and I was happy.

In August I wore a bikini in public like it wasn’t no big thing (it felt like a big thing). In September I signed a book contract, in October I dressed up as Harley Quinn in a skin-tight costume I made myself and was full of self-doubt and insecurity and I wore it out anyway and it felt so good. In November I turned 40 and wore a very extremely super sparkly dress that was short AND low cut because hell yes do not go gently into that good night. I was surrounded by some of the most essential people in my life and we drank champagne and I was so happy. Later there was the stunningly gorgeous Thanksgivingkuh with stunningly gorgeous people and was filled with light and love and happiness. In December I got to see my nephew turn one year old.

Tonight I’ll cook and watch movies and play video games and it will be a very good night and a very good way to end the year. All year round I have been grateful and scared and excited and awkward and happy and panicked and such a lucky, lucky person.

Happy new year.

Madiversary

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And now I live in Madison.

Most of my things still live in Utah. My trailer reservation, U-haul went ahead and lost it. And I threw my hands up on that Saturday, the day before I was supposed to leave, and I said fuck it. Fuck it, I’m just going. I am going to fill up my little car with all the things it can carry and I am going to drive twenty hours across twenty states (was it twenty? It feels like twenty) and I am going to move to Madison with a few boxes filled full with random things and a heart full of determination and some slightly wild eyes and someday I will have my things but not now, because I am so ready to go, do you understand me? I am ready to leave now.

I left, and now I live in Madison.

I love this town. I bought an air mattress; I brought some pillows and my little dog. My apartment is the smallest apartment in the world, though probably not. When people walk in, they say, “Oh, this is a very small apartment” and they are not wrong.

The first week: I walk miles, across town and around. I walk down to the lake just three blocks away. Every morning Crom and I go. He discovers the visceral pleasure and eternal excitement of duck chasing. He learns to swim, and there is very little better in the world than watching a little dog swim very earnestly and determinedly, paddling fiercely but not well. He gets over his fear of putting his face in the water when he realizes it’s the only way to retrieve his ball, bobbing on the surface. Someday he will catch a duck and it will be the greatest day of his life. Every morning I watch him chase his dreams and they are very good mornings.

I swim almost every afternoon except for the days when it’s raining. It rains a lot, and it thunders a lot, and I’m going to have to get over being worried about thunder and flinching at lightning because I think it is not going away.

Every night I find a place to eat on the Capitol—I’m just a couple of blocks from Capitol Square, and everything happens there, and on the streets that radiate out. In walking distance there are all the restaurants and bars and cafes and coffee shops in all the world. There’s a lot of sushi, and most of it is good and some of it is great. I meet people randomly, because everyone wants to talk.

Almost every day I run into the friends I have here because it is such a small town. People I love are just minutes away and I’m still getting used to the fact that we don’t need to have long protracted goodbyes because I live here now and really they are just minutes away that is a literal, factual fact.

There’s a concentrated energy and it feels like everything is going on—I know not everything is going on. I know this is a small town, but that is what I love about it. It is small but it is vibrant. That’s the word for it, it really is I swear to you. I know how stupid it sounds; I feel a little stupid using that word, because who the hell uses the word “vibrant” except for writers for New York magazine and old ladies in caftans. But I am a little giddy with it. The vibrancy, okay? I do not own a caftan yet though. YET.

The second and third weeks are the farmer’s market and the concerts on the square and trying to settle into a routine. But I’m having trouble finding a routine. I’m a creature of routine and this is a terrible thing.

It feels like I am unmoored. It feels like I’m a little out of place. Sometimes, I feel a little lost even when I know exactly where I’m going. I know my neighborhood now, all the blocks miles around. I’ve walked down Willy street and loved it best. I’ve walked down Monroe street and loved it best. I love the whole town best. At my favorite sushi place they call me the redhead and they know which lunch special I’m going to order—they don’t bring me a menu anymore. I am trying to be stable and secure. I am trying to settle in. To fit in and figure out how I fit in my friends’ lives.

The fourth week, the fourth week I lose my mind completely.

It’s not surprising. The giddy energy dissipates a bit and that is to be expected and what’s left is uncertainty. Insecurity. A weird loneliness that I can’t figure out. A strange kind of panic. I know I’m where I want to be, but I am suddenly terrified that it’s not where I’m supposed to be and no one wants me here. I want so badly for someone to tell me what I was thinking please. Tell me I haven’t made a mistake.

I go and buy a dresser. I buy a desk. I hang some art up. I buy flowers and I cook in my tiny kitchen. I breathe in and out and follow up on the volunteer applications I submitted at the library and the YWCA and Planned Parenthood. I breathe some more and I go swimming a lot. I am satisfied to see that every time I take my dress off I am less worried about what random people think of me in a bikini. I don’t care. Crom chases ducks. I do some writing.

The giddiness is gone, but the panic is gone too and in its place is—not quite contentment. Not complete security. But more routine and with it, feelings that feel more honest. Worry, because I always worry. A feeling of hopefulness because I am always somehow basically optimistic or maybe just not so bright. Or maybe because things are going to be okay because I love this town and I am happy here, very basically very happy or basically not so bright and those are generally the same thing.

And it’s going to be okay because this is a very good place to be.

next steps

utah
When I was 17, I fled from Pennsylvania to New York, because there was nothing there for me and I couldn’t imagine having a future in a rural place where the grocery store was a 20 minute drive away. But you know, I say fled, but really I was heading toward college and a life I chose for myself by god.

When I was 26 or thereabouts, I fled to San Francisco because the relationship I was in was toxic, and he wouldn’t let me break up with him. He wouldn’t move out. It sounds so absurd now, so absolutely absurd—what the fuck are you talking about, he wouldn’t? You call the cops if he won’t get the fuck out of your house. You make him leave. But I was scared and I felt trapped, and I had to get out.

But I was also heading for grad school to get my MFA and be the writer I always wanted to be but could never quite manage. I had never finished anything I wrote, ever, not once, until I went to grad school. In grad school, I wrote a book—not a good book, but a whole book, from front to finish. I found friends who are some of the most important people in the world to me. I started heading toward the person I wanted to be, someone independent and smart and creative. I started to believe in myself and it was the most amazing feeling in the world.

When I was thirty four? Something like that. I met a man and I loved him and he loved me and I chose to move to Utah, forward into the possibility of our future etc. and also to a place where I could afford to just be a freelance writer. To see if we could have a life together, and if I could make a living from things I made up. And we did, and I did. It was a really beautiful life, for a really long time and it was good. He and I grew up together in a lot of ways and took care of each other in a lot of ways and it is a sadness that it did not work out. But we have left each other better people, and that is such a good thing.

In Utah I have met some of the most amazing people in the world. In Utah I have found people who know me and love me anyway. Utah has been such a good place for me.

But I am done with Utah. This is the most beautiful place in the country, maybe, and it has been a gift to have the trails at my back door and the mountains shouldering up against the sky and there is so much that is good here, but I can’t stay here any more. It is redder than I can stand for much longer, less diverse. So small in too many ways. There is much that is wonderful here, but it wears on you, it does.

Last year, in the fall, I started to think it was time. Not to flee (maybe it felt a little like fleeing). But I needed mostly to find a place I chose very carefully and very deliberately. To find my chosen home. At first I was ready to go anywhere and everywhere—back to San Francisco, to New York where my mom and brother and his family are. To Portland or Seattle or. I don’t know. Somewhere.

My friend Karen said, wait. Wait, come to Madison. Come be with my family. It ended up on the short list. Because it’s beautiful, and green. Fresh water lakes instead of a fetid sea-monkey broth. Midwestern-kind and polite, but still sophisticated, or sophisticated enough for me. Because I realized every time I went back to SF or NY or Chicago that I was kind of done with big places. Maybe Utah ruined me. Maybe spending so many years in Pennsylvania planted a small-town seed. Something.

I chose Madison for family—so many people I love in a small radius, from right in Madison to Milwaukee and Green Bay and Chicago and Minneapolis. Closer to the east coast. A walkable neighborhood again, oh thank god for I have missed being able to walk to the corner for milk. Colleges I can teach at and a lake I can run along the shore of and put my feet in and a big open horizon. I love the mountains, but I have missed the horizon.

I made the decision to move last year, and to Madison before the year ended, and have always planned to move, maybe by the fall, definitely by the fall. On the burner—maybe a side burner. It depended on work and my house and family. But then, suddenly, everything came together, with work and my house and a place to live exactly where I want to live that accepts dogs and suddenly I was moving in just a month, a few weeks. I’m moving this weekend, to Madison. In the middle of a shower of insane things happening and travel and work and other work and everything that has kept me from sleeping these past six months.

My problem is that usually, I think people can read my mind. Or they know everything that has happened with me and to me and in my life. Or more accurately, they don’t care that much. That is something I have always struggled with, remembering that people want to know these things. I have told some people and not told others and I never remember what and who. And probably I should get better at saying, for instance, oh hey, I’m moving to Madison.

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

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Update: The contest is closed, but the book is available here!

Food is love (I cut your sandwiches in triangles because I know that is what you like) and sex (licking chocolate from your fingers, from his fingers). It’s comfort (the casserole my mother used to make) and anger (I am going to finish the potato chips because fuck everyone) and happiness (a birthday cake, a perfect peach, a beautifully puffed soufflé would you look at what I’ve done?). Food is frustration because you don’t know what you’re hungry for or you don’t know what to make for dinner or maybe you’re just tired of cooking or it is too hot.

It’s fuel, it’s in excess. It’s too much or it’s not enough. It’s bone-deep physical craving that makes you twitch; it’s satisfaction. It’s what your family does together, crowded into the kitchen stirring and chopping and yelling and making a beautiful mess. It’s what you do alone, meditative chopping with a cat winding around your feet.

It’s memory: pulling out the recipe card with their terrible handwriting to painstakingly recreate the tomato sauce only they can ever really make correctly but you try, you really try and for a minute they’re with you, smiling from across the table and every bite feels like home, it really does.

Food, and what we eat and how we eat it and who we eat it with and who we present it to and how—it took me so long to realize how tremendously important it is, how life-changing, affirming, transforming it can be, how valuable those rituals are. I ate compulsively, without considering what I was putting in my mouth, and why. I ate voraciously, hungrily, thoughtlessly and furiously and alone. Weight loss surgery changed that, necessarily. Abruptly I couldn’t be so violently careless. Or I could—I just paid a price for it. I did it to myself, but I resented it anyway, because there is very little in the way of logic when it comes to the complex emotional morass of food and eating.

And then Lisa Harper asked me to contribute an essay to the book she and Caroline Grant were editing, about the grace and diversity and importance of family food culture and how food matters in our lives, and I was a little panicky. What do I know about the importance of food? It had only ever been important to have it in my face. What did I know about eating, except that I liked to do it a lot but didn’t care much about what I was eating?

So I thought about that, and that’s what I wrote about. I wrote about my brother, the fancy chef, who understands it at a deeper level and who has always understood it. My essay is a little one in a book, The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage, full of other writers who really understand it too. Who write beautifully about how food and how we eat defines us and our relationships. They write gorgeously about patience and love and brokenness and coming back together and ritual and compassion and compulsion. It’s a beautiful book, and I think it’s important—it is easy to forget how important it is to nourish the connections in your life.

It’s also yours to win, in a random drawing! Two readers each get their very own copy of The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage to feed their brain-holes.

To enter, leave a comment. Tell me you’d love a copy of the book, and also what your favorite thing to eat is. If you tweet about the drawing and leave a comment with that link, you get a second entry in the drawing, even! Go go go do it. I want you to read this book, because it is so good.

whole-hearted

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Someone once said to me (someone who really ought to know better): enthusiasm. That’s your best quality. They meant: The way you throw yourself into things. The way you are all-or-nothing. The things you try, they are done and dusted. The people you care about, they know you care about them. The cliffs you fling yourself off, that is some full-fledged epic-style flinging and it is kind of amazing how you have not yet ended up a splash on the boulders far, far below the sane people way up above you, dude. Or words to that effect.

Which is nice, right? That’s nice. But it doesn’t change my argument in response—that it is also a kind of brokenness. That what it actually feels like it means is that the regulator that normal people have is out of whack in me. Gone missing entirely, maybe. Though I suppose if it were missing entirely I really would be a chunky splatter, metaphorically speaking. More so than I usually feel.

So this regulator that I imagine—very steampunky, lots of gears, makes some kind of whistle or clanking noise—I think it’s the thing that lets most people be adults. Make smart decisions. Consider things carefully. Be less dangerously impulsive. Beat down those essentially self-destructive urges.

It is, this imaginary bit of machinery inside me, the thing that ought to have helped me not gain 100 pounds because I was afraid if I didn’t eat all the cake, there would never be cake again. That should have made me carefully consider the fact that there were consequences to eating all the cake. That there were other things to think about beside “not having all the cake.” Instead, what I did was eat with an impulsive and reckless abandon while my regulator clanked and whistled uselessly and disregarded.

Weight loss surgery cuts into that, physically speaking—you can try to circumvent and that works to an extent. But it hurts. And eventually Pavlov is pleased to note that the association of pain with overeating becomes an effective way to curb that reckless consumption. It’s not cured—it’ll never be cured. It becomes contained.

And yet it feels kind of like a whack-a-mole, because other impulses have gone and reared up their ugly heads. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because how many articles have I read about weight loss surgery patients suddenly developing impulse issues? Compulsive spending, gambling, drinking. But that didn’t apply to me because I am not stupid.

And then Ben and I broke up and I bought a bottle of wine and I thought, oh. This is much better, with this bottle of wine in me. I hardly even notice that I’m crying all the time and that is so awesome you guys, who is going to the store for another bottle?

It was okay, though, right, because it wasn’t like I was doing a morning shot to wake up or keeping a flask in my desk or getting drunk at lunch. I wasn’t drunk all the time! So no problem, right? Here’s the problem: when it was there, I drank it. When there was wine, I’d have a glass, and then another. And I’d keep saying yes until it was all gone. Because there was no reason not to. Because if I didn’t drink it, I’d never have alcohol again. It didn’t feel like I was drowning sorrows—but it was nice to not think. It was nice to be cheery.

It felt better than bingeing ever had.

And it helped when I’d panic. In social situations where everyone expects me to be an extrovert, I can do that for you if I’m drinking! Let me give you what you need the only way I think I can. I didn’t think anyone noticed I was anything but totally charming and not tipsy at all—but of course people noticed.

And then those nights when we’d have a bottle of wine in the house, those nights were getting hazy. And then the nights when there wasn’t a bottle of wine in the house, I started to go out and buy one. Or two. And it was becoming a problem—no, it was a problem. It was full speed ahead into reckless abandon, it was a pattern, it was throwing all caution to the wind and saying fuck it, I do what I want. I can drink if I want. I can drink until we run out (echoes of I can eat everything and anything and all the things, and let’s see how fat I get).

God, do I ever learn?

I do. I do learn, eventually. So I got that going for me. And I’ve quit drinking for awhile. Easy-peasy. Except it was hard the first day, and I was mad. And then I thought oh, yes. Yes, that’s why this is a really good idea, if you’re getting mad because you can’t have a glass of wine (and then another or two) with dinner. That’s why this is possibly the best idea you’ve ever had.

It has been fairly simple since that first couple days—see above, re: whole-heartedness. When I do a thing, I do it well. Ladies.

It is frustrating though, to feel so broken. To feel like I have this tiny little flaw in me that can rupture in new and unexpected ways at any time. Like I will be spending the rest of my life being mindful, being vigilant, being afraid that I will find a whole new way to fuck things up and lose control and maybe that’ll be the time I don’t catch it and everything just falls apart. It won’t and it can’t because I won’t let it—I get better every time at beating it back. But that vulnerable feeling never quite fades and the worry never quite dissipates and that’s probably, in the long run, a good thing?

I think, when I’m being not-so-hard on myself, that it’s what makes me who I am. That these moments of weakness have made me incredibly strong. They’ve helped me define who I don’t want to be and who I can’t be and who I refuse to be ever again.

I’ve always been so, so ashamed of my vulnerabilities—and believe me, the fact that it manifested so patently and physically in my size was such a source of self-aware misery. But I’m learning achingly slowly that being vulnerable is no terrible thing. Letting other people know you are vulnerable and flawed won’t leave you alone and lonely, the way you’re terrified it might. Though it has taken me really so ridiculously long to learn that.

And I’ve even figured out that, if you can forgive me for being sincere here for a moment (which is another of my vulnerabilities, the way I come over all unexpectedly sincere sometimes): it’s where our vulnerabilities meet and mesh that helps us understand each other and fall in love—true love, all kinds, not just the romantic—with the most important people in our lives.

And this flaw of mine, this vulnerability of mine. This bright and brash and slightly mad part of me that sometimes erupts? It also manifests in adventure and taking chances and being brave and trying things because it is a sadness, to be afraid. It manifests in loving people hard without being afraid. And wanting their happiness as much as my own and saying the things that matter even when I’m scared. And from that, the good things in my life, so many of them in all arenas, have come. They’ve come from closing my eyes and flinging myself at the things I want, the things I want to experience, the kind of person I want to be.

It is still incredibly, painfully embarrassing sometimes. Both the good side and the bad. But I’m getting better at believing, whole-heartedly, that the truth of who you are, both that good side and that bad side, can’t, shouldn’t, won’t ever be hidden, and is probably loved. Hopefully.

best cat

fang

Last year, my neighbor stole my cat.

Fang, my fat, sweet, not-so bright little buddy, had started exploring that summer. We’d leave the back door open, and he’d sort of slide himself out sideways, ooze down the stairs, and tip toe into the yard. Then a breeze would kick up and he’d spring twelve feet in the air, do a perfect somersault, and come barreling back inside to not be seen for a full ten minutes.

Eventually, he worked up courage in his little cat heart, and he stayed out there for a moments at a time, breezes be damned. The next step was to go creeping around the yard creepily, staring at birds until they were uncomfortable and had to check their teeth in the mirror. And soon, he was hanging out in bushes, dozing in the grass, and sneaking along the bottom of the fence looking for ways to break out of this joint.

We didn’t know that last part until he came sauntering through the front door one afternoon.

He didn’t appreciate being on lock-down, and escaped the house at every opportunity. To the point where it was starting to hurt my feelings. “You’re breaking your mother’s heart!” I’d yell after him when he once again dodged between my feet and went flying like a fat little rocket down the sidewalk to parts unknown.

Then one day, we realized he hadn’t come home last night. Surely we’d see him in the morning, we assured one another. But no. And then another day and another and I grew frantic and made up signs. It reminded me of how I found him eleven years ago, when I was living in Jersey City. He had turned up at my apartment door, so sweet and cuddly I was convinced he couldn’t be a stray. I printed signs that night to put up in the neighborhood the next morning, and then whoops, September 11th. I spent that week curled up on the couch with him purring (poorly—he never really managed to figure out how to purr correctly) and me crying and watching CNN and if that doesn’t bond you, nothing will.

This time I managed to post my signs throughout the neighborhood, in all my neighbor’s mailboxes on streets in a five-block radius. I called the shelter every day to check after a fat cat with fangs, ridiculously friendly. Kind of dumb? He wasn’t turning up.

“He’s found a good place to hang out,” Ben said. He didn’t believe that because he is essentially a pessimist. I didn’t believe it because I was really scared.

Fang was gone and the weather got cold and we missed him a lot. And then one day my favorite neighbor said, “Is that your cat?” And it was Fang, dodging through the undergrowth and away.

“Oh,” said the neighbor two doors down. “Sorry!” Accidentally she had started feeding him wet food every day and keeping him inside every night and forgot to see if he belonged to someone.

“So why didn’t you get a new one?” said the guy I was seeing when I told him the story.

“A new—cat? Just replace him?”

“Sure,” he said. And while he was so very, very pretty, it was clear that this would just never work.

So. Fang came home. After Ben and I broke up, Fang slept with me and Crombomb every night, all three of us in a row, sometimes some of us on top of others of us, snoring. Them snoring. I never snore. I squished Fang’s belly because that is the weird thing he liked. We watched his programs. We hung out, and his asthmatic purr was one of the best things in the world.

When my two roommates moved in, they brought with them a dog each, and one cat. The dogs had all been friends of cats. The cats were all familiar with and comfortable with dogs. When the sniping started—the barking and the hissing and the batting and the leaping off to safe spots, we didn’t worry too much. They were figuring out their places. They’d figure it out. They snuggled on the couch sometimes. They got worked up sometimes. It happened.

We left for an hour one day, and when we came home, we heard snarling and frantic barking and things falling over and what we found was two dogs tearing my Fang apart. Crom barking at them wildly, jumping at them, trying to pull them off.

The dogs had gotten excited. As dogs do. And Fang hadn’t been able to get away to his safe spot. He was breathing, panicked and shallow, and his fur was shredded and his eyes were huge and my hands were shaking when I wrapped him up in a towel and tried not to hurt him any more than I already had.

At the emergency vet they looked at him and told me he was in critical condition, and they rushed him to the back. “Critical?” I said, when the nurse came back out, and she said, “He could die.”

It is more awkward than you think it would be, considering the business, to start sobbing in the middle of the lobby of the emergency vet. They also have fewer boxes of tissues than they ought.

He lived. He lived for three more days. Torn apart and in so much pain but sometimes, when I stroked down the back of his ear, the silky fur of his nose, he would purr. His silly purr. The vet said, “He’s made it this far. He has a chance.”

We tucked him into my closet, which was his safe spot. The one he couldn’t get to. For two days Sare fed him water from a dropper, and disgusting liquid food from a dropper, and he got himself into the litter box. I slept wrapped around him. Saturday night I tucked him in and left him to check on Crom. I fell asleep on the couch, just for a little while—I didn’t mean to. And when I woke up and raced upstairs, he was gone.

We buried him in the middle of the night, by the side of the house, because I didn’t want him to leave again. And then I had to fly on Sunday morning.

When I came back, I found flowers planted on his grave. And the house is very full, but he’s not here, and sometimes I catch myself thinking, maybe he’s just been stolen away again is all.