trying to sit in the dry patch for more than one second

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 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.


Kate on September 27th 2012 in fear, life, new york, Uncategorized, work, writing

27 Responses to “trying to sit in the dry patch for more than one second”

  1. Val responded on 27 Sep 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    You know what? I am just so grateful for you and your voice.

    Plus we keep waiting for our real life, not believing we’re living it. I know.

    Anyway, hugs, Val

  2. Amy responded on 28 Sep 2012 at 12:32 am #

    I’m terrible at the “after”. I anticipate and anticipate and plan and plan, and when it finally happens….ugh! I have this weird, awkward, saddish feeling and I keep looking for the next thing to anticipate. I didn’t think that happened to other people! Thanks for putting this out there!

  3. Kande responded on 28 Sep 2012 at 8:28 am #

    I see my friends raising kids and getting higher degrees and getting promotions and working full time -while I work part-time, put my schooling dreams on hold, and have yet to apply for a promotion and think ” ugg, they are so accomplished, they are so smart, so driven, have fulfilling careers and home lives, what a great balance. what is wrong with me? Am I lazy?”
    I see my friends who work part-time like me and while I am feeling like a failure for working part-time, I think of them ” wow, they are so smart, so accomplished both at work and at home, they have life perfectly balanced; I wish I could be like them” ( neglecting to see that really? I am).
    I see my friends who are sty-at-home moms and think ” wow, they are so incredible – loving, nurturing, selfless moms, so smart, raising great kids, what a wonderful life balance”. And feel jealous and make elaborate plans as to what I would do if I won the lottery and never had to work again.
    And it is dpressing because really what does all that mean? It means I have envious tendencies; and insecurities that I can’t shake; and can spend far too much time focussed on my regrets than my successes; and that obviously no matter my life path, I will still be the same. No magic cure.
    Yet sometimes – when I do an awesome job at my work … when I am able to make an amazing dinner because I have time to … when my daughter sighs a happy sigh after dancing for three hours because I work to help pay for it but stay home to have time to drive her around to practices … when my toddler chooses me over anyone else for spending time with and says with a huge hug ” Momma? You my favrit!” … when my husband can come home from work and not have to do anything but relax because I was home to do everything home related – I feel very needed, very loved, and very blessed.
    Now if only I could bottle that feeling and spritz it on me each and every morning!!

  4. Alpana Trivedi responded on 28 Sep 2012 at 8:56 am #

    Hello, Kate. This could be related, but I’m not good at the “what’s next” question. For example, when I graduated from college, the last thing I wanted to hear was “What’s next?” I think it’s not so much that it’s hard to celebrate accomplishments, it’s that the world seems to be in a go-go-go mode and always wants to know what’s next.

    And sometimes it’s unavoidable. It’s like if you get a promotion, it doesn’t end there. Now you have to actually fulfill those extra responsibilities that come with it. Or if someone’s trying to lose weight, after the weight is lost, the eating balanced meals has to continue. Sometimes no one looks forward to the “next.”

    By the way, I would’ve loved to hear you sing.

  5. Lisa F responded on 28 Sep 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Love love love love love love, and did I say, LOVE, this post!

  6. P Flooers responded on 29 Sep 2012 at 7:20 am #

    a) this is probably your best post ever
    b) Val, up there first to comment, is very wise
    c) Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

  7. P Flooers responded on 29 Sep 2012 at 7:47 am #

  8. Becky responded on 29 Sep 2012 at 11:02 am #

    I’m sure whatever you said on the radio was just fine. I’m the worst for over thinking what I’ve said, especially if a lot of people have heard it, and then tearing it apart. Whoever was listening isn’t going to hear it nearly as critically as you’re thinking about it now.

  9. Rosanne responded on 29 Sep 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Wonderful post, I can so relate. It’s probably another one of those pretty universal things that you have managed to put into words so eloquently. How lovely that you were an angel to someone that day and good on you for feeling that was enough. Pretty damn good indeed.

  10. Frances responded on 29 Sep 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    I have a good degree from a fancy English university. Because if you have the chance, you take it.

    But I didn’t know how to sit on it afterwards. How to put it to use. Even just to quietly congratulate myself.

    So I floundered and squirmed… and eventually did a patisserie apprenticeship. Something practical and quantifiable so that I have something to say to all the Aunts of the world…

    I bet your singing was both lovely to hear and satisying to voice.

  11. claire responded on 29 Sep 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    my yom kipper sacrifice was that I had to stay home and miss all your wonderful rendition of what we jews have heard for so many years, but none to my ears as lovely as yours. Oh well if I be have and do not sin (too much), perhaps I will behave and fortunate enough to hear it next year. Love CRF

  12. San D responded on 29 Sep 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    Like so many things in life “man prepares and G*d laughs”. I am one who keeps an eye on the prize as it were, and tilt my sail in that direction (how many cliches can I fit in one post, she ponders). Now in retirement I can satisfactorily say I was able to accomplish my goals and then some. But I do admit that some things in life are surprises (and not always pleasant), and it is what we do under those circumstances that shows the fruits of our “education” be it formal or informal. I like Marie Curie’s quote “chance favors the prepared mind”. As for caring about the “branding” of a college, to me that is a silly as being connected to your SAT score, your weight number, your IQ, or your age.

  13. Sarah S responded on 29 Sep 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    Beautiful, authentic writing, Kate. I can completely relate. There’s always the next performance or audition in my world, which, ironically takes away from the performance or audition of the moment. *sigh* I love that you had that transcendence on Yom Kippur — I would so liked to have heard you sing!

    @Val: Yup.

  14. Hannah responded on 29 Sep 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    I had the opposite feeling this Yom Kippor. That I’d put so much pressure on myself to have a meaningful prayer experience, that I had to literally feel my life in the balance, that I had to have a soaring angel moment– Barely anything happened.

    But the next day… in the quiet mundane space of Ordinary Thursday praying, I liked it. I felt safe. Not angelic at all. Not even particularly meaningful. But normal-meaningful. The meaningful that comes to life when we just slow down and breathe and take life as it comes.

    It’s okay to be be bad at the afterwards, I think. I know I was, am. But don’t forget that you are good at the ordinary, and that’s more important than being good at the afterwards, isn’t it?

  15. Patricia responded on 30 Sep 2012 at 9:19 am #

    wow – you can write. loved this piece – very thought provoking. any chance of hearing you sing on YouTube? that would be nice.

  16. Robert responded on 30 Sep 2012 at 10:47 am #

    Yeh ,read this one all the way through.Good piece,as I am not a young women and not naturally interested in some of your concerns,I am older and realise most things aren’t worth worrying about.I like the Jewish stuff and I’m Church of England.

  17. Heather responded on 30 Sep 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    to me you seem so accomplished! i have been struggling to even get my associates while i work full time (a not so glamorous data entry job), so the fact that you have a masters! wow.

    maybe you should carry around an envelope of confetti with you so that every time you accomplish a goal, you can throw it up in the air and yell “hooray!” that way it can feel less anti-climatic :)

  18. Claire Allison responded on 01 Oct 2012 at 4:13 am #

    I liked this post. I think it’s a good post-master’s summary. I’m still sitting on my new degree wondering how to take it. I may be stuck a bit in the starting blocks, but I’m just trying to decide how to take it all.

  19. Sheryl responded on 01 Oct 2012 at 9:48 am #

    I think what can be so tricky about the aftermath of achievement is that tendency to think that it’s not enough. That whatever I’ve just accomplished, I didn’t do well enough, I could have tried harder, I could have achieved better. So instead of revelling in the success I too often find myself critiquing the small failures within it. Which in turn pushes towards the “next”: finding that next thing, and doing it even better than you did the last.

    Doesn’t leave a lot of time for reflecting on the accomplishment itself though.

  20. Kate responded on 01 Oct 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    I love your perspective. I think I’ve quoted you to like twenty people now. You said something once in a comment about how you kept waiting to be better and then one day you realized that you were already good and had been that way for a long time, you just couldn’t see it. I LOVE that idea.

  21. Kate responded on 01 Oct 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    Confetti is a good idea.
    Except for the cleanup. But maybe I could throw it over water. See how I’m overthinking already?

  22. Kate responded on 01 Oct 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    I want to be good at the ordinary! I hope I am. That would be better.
    Also, interesting about your YK. I get how that could happen really easily. It’s supposed to be SO spiritual. But any old day can be, if we let it. You put this really beautifully.

  23. Kate responded on 01 Oct 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    Oh, those aunts…

  24. Kate responded on 01 Oct 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    I don’t have any of my cantorial stuff on YouTube. Maybe I’ll record a prayer sometime and put it somewhere, though…I’ve never even thought of doing that! Thanks for asking!

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  26. Eat the Damn Cake » The utter despair of shopping at Macy’s responded on 23 Oct 2012 at 11:58 am #

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