I am bad at the afterward.
A couple years ago, I went to pick up my Master’s diploma in the basement of one of the stately old buildings on Columbia’s main campus. I was graduating mid-year to save money. I had worked my ass off. This is a crime against culture, and I know people will hate me for it, but it’s the truth: I had been in New York City for a year and I had only been to the Village once, in the pouring rain, to interview someone for thesis research. It seemed like a different city down there, and I had to go right back uptown and transcribe the interview and read three hundred pages and learn a different language so that I could prove that I was cultured. I tremblingly defended my thesis and proficiently translated academic texts in the new language and then finally I stood in the basement of the elegant building and this guy with sparse reddish hair dug through stacks of diplomas as high as fortress walls, looking for mine. He gave me a cynical little smile when he handed it to me. I walked outside, took the cobblestone path to the memorial library steps and sat down for a minute to think about my accomplishment. But all I could think was, “Shit.” And then I thought, “Shit, what do I do now?”
(this is all i need, right? source)
About a year later, I was teaching part-time, but I was starting to try to be a professional writer, and my biggest goal was to have a piece on Salon.com. I don’t remember why that was my goal. I think one of my friends once told me that she had this friend who wrote an essay there and then an agent contacted her immediately and then…happiness and success. Or whatever. I filled in the blanks. An agent! I wanted an agent to contact me. God, I wanted that. I wanted some hint from the world that I was in some way still a legitimate person, despite the fact that I didn’t have a real job and had already misplaced and probably lost the Master’s diploma I’d once thought was worth all of the time I spent in college climbing and climbing and dragging myself up toward the next thing. See, I was supposed to go to Princeton after Columbia. I had this Ivy League life planned out. I had a big bucket of inferiority and pride that I was carrying around everywhere because I had gone to a state school and I had stumbled into a little world where that seemed like a problem. Where people would ask me, “Oh, so you got a full scholarship?” as though otherwise, of course, no one smart would ever, ever think to go anywhere like a big, drunken state university. Dear god, no. So when I decided I was done even though I hadn’t really done anything real yet and I started writing instead, I thought I need to get an essay on Salon. I need an agent to see it and think I am the next big thing.
(i think the real reason people want to go to Princeton is that it looks like Hogwarts. source)
The editor had me rewrite the first essay I sent her three times. And then she didn’t write back. And then, finally, after my emails became thinly veiled pleas, she rejected it. Briefly and typically, I wanted to die. And then she accepted my second essay, and I wanted to live and I was triumphant and giddy. When it went up on the site, I had my first and (so far) only panic attack.
“This is stupid,” I thought, as it started. “I don’t even have panic attacks.”
I had dated a guy who had them, and they were vicious and horrible to witness. He cried like his whole body was just a well of tears and snot. Everything got wet. Sometimes he would hit his head against a wall. I was not like him. I was the one who took care of him.
I didn’t cry. I mean, I don’t remember crying. Instead, my heart pounded frantically, running a loop, getting nowhere. I felt like this was the end. I felt hopeless. I couldn’t get to my breath, it was avoiding me.
I had no idea why.
But I thought it had something to do with the fact that my goal was over. My piece was on the site. And here, on the other side, everything was the same. No, it was worse. Because it was supposed to be different and better.
I am ambitious in a cruel way. Maybe ambition always has a mean edge. Mine bites me. It prods me. It forces me forward when I’m really tired. It insists that I am not even close to a stopping point. Not even to a pause. I am like a guy with a wife and a new baby at home who stays too late at the office even though he really doesn’t have to. And at the same time, it’s clear that a tiny tree-hugging, stop-and-smell-the-roses, home birthing hippie has chained herself to my corporate heart, and she is not going anywhere. You would have to cut her out of there. I have this feeling that life is better when it’s slower, when you can appreciate the little moments. When you make mundane things matter by recognizing them. It’s possible that the hippie is my mom, who is really into home birthing, even though now she wears tailored clothes and her nails are freshly done. But let’s not make this about my mom– I have this feeling that life is better when you aren’t always trying to jump up to the next step, because you really believe the view will be totally better. But I keep jumping, anyway. So I am basically going to hate myself forever.
Yesterday was Yom Kippur, which is arguably the hardest of the Jewish holidays. It’s all about the relentlessness of things. Death, and how it always comes, the damage we’ve done to other people, the damage we’ve done to ourselves, the sheer quivering terror of being human in an unknowable universe. And of course, redemption, renewal, forgiveness, and the importance of trying and trying to be better. I don’t know. That’s what I get out of it sometimes. Also, it’s a fast day. So no food and water and you’re in services all day, and the prayers can be so mournful and wrenching, just the melodies are dark, rich, mysterious. I love to sing them.
(ok, so I’m having a hard time figuring out which photos could possibly go with this post. source)
For Yom Kippur, I wear a white robe called a kittel. Technically, it’s supposed to be a burial shroud. In Jewish tradition, you’re supposed to be married in it and buried in it. We Jews like to be in touch with our mortality. Technically, only men would wear these things anyway, you know, back in history, when only men died and got married. But here I am, a young woman, singing the ancient prayers, wearing the too-big burial shroud. With no jewelry, no makeup, wearing plain white Keds. I was singing for most of the day, in front of the congregation, with no water, no food, and by the time the sun set and everything was over, I was faintly euphoric and sort of floaty. My voice stayed strong—it sounded warm and glad and the husky undertones were seductive. I swayed, I opened up. Music and religion are so good together. Even for someone like me, who has never managed to believe in god.
“That was a big thing you just did,” my mom told me in the car, dropping me off at the train to go back to my regular life in the city, where no one wears ceremonial robes and I am just a writer who hasn’t published a book.
But I no longer felt it. That feeling ended almost immediately after, when my brain was flooded with updates, like turning on a cellphone. All of the things waiting for me on the other side. Quick! Write something smart and funny! Pitch it! What’s going on with the book? What do Bear’s aunts and uncles think I’m doing with my life? Do they think it’s enough?
I am bad at the afterward. The dry patches. The lulls. When I was a kid and my family got a puppy, I couldn’t wait for her to grow up and be a dog. I want to get to the next step. I want to feel like I’m going somewhere. I’m afraid to fall still, in case I get stuck there, wherever that is, in the empty space on the other side of accomplishment.
(you never know what might grow in the dry patches…source)
But because I think I should get better at being a person, and because of the tiny hippie attached to my heart, I did not immediately take out my laptop on the train, on the way back to the city. I waited ten minutes. I tried to let myself not think about the next thing. And my brain did a weird thing. It kept going to a snip of a scene from the day before when this woman I really like whispered to me on the bima, when she came up for an honor, “You’re an angel.” It was really clear that she wasn’t talking about the way I looked, even though I was wearing a lot of white. Because I looked more like a dude in a bathrobe than anything heavenly. She was talking about the singing—the whole thing. And I’m thinking about that now, back home in the city, and I feel pretty OK about not accomplishing anything else at the moment. Because for someone, for a day, I was an angel. And that is pretty damn good.
* * *
Are you good at celebrating your accomplishments?
Unroast: Today I love the way I look in my brother’s Columbia t-shirt. He left it behind when he went to Yale. There’s always a better Ivy. Unless you’re at Harvard, of course (I didn’t get into Harvard, and I cried for a whole day). But at least I got this big, soft shirt out of grad school. It’s comfortable to write in.
P.S. I have to tell you, I was on the radio, talking about body image for five seconds, and I am now going over everything I said in my head like four thousand times, and I’m pretty sure it was all really embarrassing and stupid, and if anyone happened to hear it, just remember that I am a lot more articulate when I’m not on the radio.
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