Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Friday, May 22, 2015

Crowds of the Rare

Dear Readers:

This post today is dedicated to my thirty-year-old friend, and the subject of today's discussion will be "Wunderkinds." Thanks, Philip Graham, for sending me Alexander Chee's article, which pretty much sums up my generation's chronic state of I'm-not-good-enough.

This thirty-year-old friend was in town a few weeks ago; she lives in New York City and is surrounded by Wunderkinds (wun·der·kind = a person who achieves great success when relatively young). She's feeling the pressure. Everyone around her, it seems, is succeeding, thriving, finding little spurts of fame...and she, well, she's getting by.

Once, simply getting by in NYC made you a Wunderkind. Paying your own bills, working a job (one job! one single job!), feeding yourself, and managing to have a little fun every once in a while once meant that you were living large. It was New York City after all! People dream about it all their lives! And here is my friend, making a decent salary NOT waiting tables, living on her own, dating fabulous people, and eating out most nights.

Nowadays, that makes her one in a million, a slender, hungry fish in a massive sea. And if she is financially independent and manages to carve out time in the week, in the month, in the year to be creative, well, join the club.

Chee, in his article "Against Wunderkinds," writes, "In writing class after writing class, I see time and again how the question of talent haunts the young, who come to class hoping to make it into that anointed group—those who publish to glory young." That anointed group, all right—glory without the required experience. Chee is describing a haunted population I know well—a population, in fact, that I'm a part of. We went to good colleges, after all. We graduated with good degrees; we moved to big cities; we got good jobs. We were told we could be artists in our spare time. We were told we were responsible for our own futures; we needed to use our connections if we wanted to get anywhere. Our parents cut us off; work took over our lives; our dreams of being different became nightmares about running late to our jobs. We lost our time and motivation to be creative, and just now—now that we're finally leaving our twenties and entering our thirties—we're finding security, stability, and - finally - time to create.

My friend moaned and groaned about NYC: the pace, the competition, the way you're surrounded all the time by people more beautiful, more successful, more charming than you are. Funnier, richer, more popular. You're nothing, basically. Just to fit in, you have to stand out—in my friend's case, she stepped off the plane in bright Converse low-tops, zebra-print stretch pants, bleached-blonde hair, red lipstick, and sunglasses with light blue frames. 

She is a vision to behold, my friend. She looks the part of the celebrity, and she plays it, too. She goes out to dinner with famous comedians, and was interviewed to be one of Hilary Clinton's most high-profile campaign workers. She's published in Cosmo. She is beautiful, fabulous, brilliant, and hysterical.

Most of the time, she goes around hating herself.

I know how she feels. Whoever you are, there will always be someone younger and smarter and, well, better than you. I keep my eye on the 30 below 30 lists -- best new memoirists, best new novelists, best new poets -- even though I'm not below 30 anymore, and I will never make those lists now. Women in my graduating class have published books, and a 25-year-old in my department has three master's degrees already. I used to torture myself, never letting those numbers escape me.

When I was last home in upstate New York, I told my dad about a friend of mine who was publishing her first book. Norton had picked it up, and she was going places. Big-name journals wanted her, I told my dad, pinching a smile onto my face.

My dad read between the lines. He looked at me, smiled a little, said, "You'll get there, you know."


I still check the 30 below 30 lists. I still wonder about people's ages, and do many calculations involving my own: If I publish my first book in two years, I'll be thirty-three. If I get married by thirty-five, there will still be time for a kid. Because it's not just about art in the generation of I'm-not-good-enough -- it's everything else, too. Love and marriage. Babies, houses. Cars and incomes, vacations, mortgage rates.

But I write first thing in the morning now, and I don't type. Instead, I take the time to savor pen on paper, that luscious scratching sound writing makes. I doodle in the margins. I write things down and cross them off and rewrite them. I test different theories involving characters in my stories; I let myself wander and wonder. I toy around with fiction. I start another book. I look out at the breaking morning, avoiding the clock. I sip coffee, and when the sky is fully light I dress for the job that pays my bills.

In short, I am kinder to myself now. I make time to write because I love the act of it. I let myself stop when I am tired. I write about what I think is important, and I bask in what little successes come my way. It sounds morbid to say, but someday we'll all be dead, and every book will eventually be forgotten. 

Remember: the most important moment is right now.

So here you go, dear thirty-year-old friend: another post for you. You have done great things with your life already; remind yourself of that. I'll try and do the same. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Morning After

Do you sometimes feel like you can't check the Facebook without seeing some beaming new mom, some tiny newt, some proud papa you knew a million years ago in high school? Is your fridge so covered with birth announcements and baby shower invites that you can't find the handle? Is the man getting you down? Are you just downright feeling old? Have you simply read one too many Jennifer Weiners?

Okay, maybe not, maybe not.

Maybe, after a long semester and a long winter and a long week, that's just where I am right now.

Anyway, it was all those things and so many more, until I read Elisa Albert's After Birth. 

Yes, my squeamish readers, it's about birth. Yes it's about being sad afterwards. Yes it's about being white in the first world with a good man and a good job, a good degree, good friends. And yes, yes, there is whining. There is bitching. There is menstrual blood.

Pick up a copy anyway, friends. Male or female, I don't give a sucky banana. Want to know what it's like to give birth and then have to inhabit this world? Too bad! You need to learn anyway! Too many new American moms are made to feel helpless, afraid, alone, torn apart, and sucked dry. Do you wish for a friend, a good listener, a good storyteller, a fighter? Do you wish someone would laugh in your face and shake you by the shoulders? Do you want to read something sneaky, deviant, angry, and true? Are you ready for a slap in the face and a bite on the ear?

All right, then.

Go visit your friends, the book shouts as you hold it in your hands. Don't leave new moms alone!! Don't assume they're okay! Don't fret when you see their beaming faces on your News Feed! Don't be jealous! Don't feel inadequate! Just go on over there now, and bring food!

Albert writes that giving birth "is not at all dissimilar to the time surrounding death: periods of profound change and transformation that demand our complete attention." She tells us not to be so afraid of giving birth, of asking for what we want, of seeking a second opinion, of letting ourselves truly feel. Let's let our bodies do what they have always known how to do. Let's trust ourselves. Let's read this book, and then let's make more books like this one.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Alan Lightman is coming to town!

I was 22 and spending the night at Wellesley with my friend Claire. I’d graduated already; she still had a semester to go. I slept on the floor in her dorm room, which was lit with pink bulbs, the walls decorated with charms and beads and scarves she’d collected in India, where she’d studied abroad. I arrived in the late afternoon. We ate dinner in the dining hall, and then went out to a party. We stayed up late, as I recall, drinking wine from a box and watching the lake. It was fall, an Indian summer.

What I remember most, though, about that visit is waking up the next morning, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling while Claire slept. She’s always been a late sleeper. After a while, quiet as could be, I turned so I could study the bottom row of her bookshelf. Among many textbooks, a couple of novels I’d read, and an English-Arabic dictionary, I saw a tiny book, a book I could manage to skim while Claire snoozed. I tugged it off the shelf: Einstein’s Dreams.

I read the whole book while Claire slept, falling into Alan Lightman’s words, leaving that college dorm room where outside delivery trucks came and went, students left their rooms to go to the library, or the dining hall, or church.

“In the world in which time is a circle,” Lightman writes, “every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely. So too every moment that two friends stop becoming friends, every time that a family is broken because of money, every vicious remark in an argument between spouses, every opportunity denied because of a superior’s jealous, every promise not kept.”

I read every word and didn’t stop for water or the bathroom or a breath of fresh air. It was Milan Kundera, but American, I thought. It was physics and math, and it was, to me, one long poem. Lightman was talking about time, Einstein’s mind, metaphysics—and I could understand it perfectly. This was science in beautiful, tragic metaphors. Many times I wept as I read Einstein’s Dreams, but Claire never stirred. Sunlight travelled in patches across the floor as I fell in love with the book in my hands.

“They stand quietly,” Lightman writes, describing those waiting to see the Great Clock, the first clock ever invented, the thing that would count their lives down. “They stand quietly,” he writes, “reading prayer books, holding their children. They stand quietly, but secretly they seethe with their anger. For they must watch measured that which should not be measured.”

Claire finally woke up. She looked at me and asked, “What it is it, my love?” I held up the book, asked whether she’d read it. “Not yet, my precious one,” she replied. “It’s for a class.” We went to the dining hall for breakfast, and then I drove back to Cambridge, cleaned my apartment, took a nap, and cooked a meal. Time rolled past, winter into spring into ten years from that day. Still, Einstein’s Dreams come to me often, and now I check the time less.

Don't miss Alan Lightman in Santa Fe this Wednesday! He'll be discussing his latest, The Accidental Universe (Vintage). 

May 6, 7:30 PM, at the James A. Little Theatre on Cerrillos Road...thanks, Santa Fe Institute!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

To Nepal, with love

My brother was in Nepal for almost five weeks, and he left Kathmandu eight hours before the earthquake struck.

Between Kathmandu and JFK, he spent his layover in Dubai, walking past sleek perfume shops and turnbaned men and women with heavily-lined eyes and stiletto shoes. I imagine that the Dubai airport is breezy and sweetly-scented, the walls all windows, the air cool. I imagine my brother there, scruffy, a little bit smelly. He washed his own clothes in Nepal. I imagine that the well-dressed, well-coiffed women and men stared at my brother with amusement, mild repugnance, certainly a hint of jealousy in how free he must have seemed, not caring how he looked as he walked in flannel and denim through the beautiful airport.

His phone didn’t get service until he landed in New York, and so for many hours after the earthquake hit, he didn’t hear the news. Across the Atlantic Ocean, he must have closed his eyes and brought Nepal back: snow-capped peaks, torn prayer flags flapping, alpine flowers and glacial streams. Bright, noisy cities and towns; whitewashed temples; street venders. Crowds, smiles, wind scented of incense and something else, something sweet and smoky, faintly rotten. Dust on your hands and in your hair after a day on the streets. The teeming wildness of it all, and the flush of color on every sidewalk and wall.

It was only when he landed at JFK did he hear the news. First, he listened to frightened voicemails my mother had left—Call when you get here, call right away. And then he had to put away his phone to go through customs, and while he waited in line he wondered why my mother had sounded so afraid. No phones allowed in customs, he was told. The moments dripped by so slowly, and finally he took his phone out again and called my mother and she told him the news.

Now, he grieves for a place he just met. When I spoke to him on the phone the morning he arrived at JFK, I asked if he’d seen any signs, if he’d gotten a clue. Nothing, he’d said. No sign. Everything was fine: the sun shone, the people milled about, the temples stood. Now, he eats dinner with my mother and father, and drives the quiet streets of our hometown. Winter is finally melting away. The other drivers are orderly; no one honks; it seems so clean and sterile here. There is an absence of color, now that he’s home. He wonders about the people he met; so many faces he glanced at, so many smiles he exchanged, for my brother is a friendly guy, handsome and exuberant and chatty. He hears from a few of them; houses have been lost, lives have.

Eight hours before the earthquake hit, he boarded a plane and looked out at the Himalayas for the last time. Nepal had a piece of his heart now. The sun shone; the plane took off; there was never any sign.

Readers, kindly make your way to Cloudy Alberg, my brother Dave's blog about mountains, books, bikes, teaching, and travel. He's just returned from Nepal - he left Kathmandu eight hours before the earthquake struck. You can read his Nepali chronicles here, and learn how you can help.

(All photos on this page copyright Dave McCahill, 2015)