personal

try not to breathe

One of my most vivid memories of elementary school is surviving the fire safety house. For a while I thought that this was a universal childhood experience, and then for a while I thought it was maybe just us, just this one district in West Virginia in the 90s. A lot of my adult life is like that: determining where on the no-one-to-everyone spectrum I’m landing.

The fire safety house was a trailer that could be towed from school to school, and inside was a little home built child-size: kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, all scaled to us in a way that nothing, at that point in our lives, was scaled to us. The blinds by the sink were the right proportion for the sink, which was the right proportion for the counters, which went up to our hips. The light bulbs in the hallways were low enough for us to change. Our feet touched the floor when we sat in the chairs, and the balcony upstairs – there was an upstairs! – was big enough for just a couple six-year-olds or absolutely no adults. I loved it: it was a dollhouse, perfect in the way no real houses are perfect, empty of mess and ready for us. And we had to learn how to escape it.

We would go in one class at a time and listen as a nice representative from the Marion Country Fire Department explained each room to us. It turned out that there were so many ways for things to catch fire. If we could see them all, we’d be okay. Everything was flammable: curtains, papers, wires inside walls, heating elements left exposed, our own beds, our own selves. Here was how smoke rose. Here was how heat mounted. Here was how, if we needed, to stop, drop, and roll – the three great commandments of my childhood. Put this towel along the bottom of the door. Don’t touch this doorknob. Don’t panic and breathe in too much, or panic and forget to breathe at all. Here was how you might die: from what got into your lungs, from what caught against your skin, from the house breaking itself apart onto you.

At some cue I never managed to catch, the little house would begin to fill with smoke. It didn’t smell like real smoke, like earth and spices and old things turning to ash. It was artificial in a way that always frightened me more than anything else we’d learned. But we’d just learned so much – we were going to make it! And we did, always, bursting out into the fresh morning air, shivering from excitement and feeling like small gods, like we’d tricked the universe into letting us live.

It turns out that a lot of schools have these. The original manufacturer even has a website with photos. I’ve spent minutes on minutes just now paging through photo after photo, trying to find the house I remember.

Frankly, I expected to be on fire so much more often as a child. (This was, after all, the same age at which I was very concerned about quicksand – another danger that hasn’t really panned out.) Why would they be so sure to teach us if it wasn’t going to be a recurring danger? For a while after each tour of the fire safety house, I would go home and eye each of my own lovely things with suspicion, imagining how they might betray me. I wanted to be alive so badly. I wanted it despite not really understanding what being dead meant. But the dangers of the world were knowable, learnable, and I would study them, and I would live forever.

And then, when I was I was eight years old, the after-school news showed me Columbine.

If standing in the little fire safety house was surreal, smelling that artificial smoke, then this was something beyond surreal. I took ballet lessons at the time and our recitals were held at local high schools with halls like the ones on TV, with cafeterias like the one on TV, with long sprawling lawns like the one on TV. The kids who were killed were so much older than me but even I could tell that they were kids. Braces and flyaways and closed eyes in the yearbook photos, the same Lifetouch background I’d had just a month before. Glasses and middle parts. Faces that were still halfway soft the way the faces of my friends were soft. But surely some things were so terrible that they could only happen once.

For a period of time, ending in the 1850s, such a thing as perfect security existed. We’d briefly invented unpickable locks. And I can’t imagine believing that if I turned a key I would truly be safe forever, but I know I did once, because as we walked back to class from the fire safety house I could not imagine anything really happening to us.

*

 In less than a week I’ll be twenty-seven, and in less than a month it will be the anniversary of the first school shooting I ever knew, and today millions of people marched in America. I wanted to march with them. I didn’t.

Instead, I sat on my couch and looked at photos of the signs in Washington, in New York, in the town next to my own hometown. I watched the speeches as they went online, and I read the signs, and I cried and then cried again.

Shortly after I started my job in 2016, we had a whole-building fire safety meeting. I work on the fourteenth of sixteen floors, so knowing the location of the stairs feels more important than it usually does. There were doughnuts and coffee. There were handouts. I, once and always the class pet, took a pen so I could write down notes.

After most of an hour, the speaker had exhausted most of what could be said about concrete stairwells and headcounts and said, “Now let’s talk about active shooters.”

And I wrote down active shooters like it was normal, because it’s normal.

This is what it means to have grown up in the world where Columbine was possible, where Columbine was not the last time, or even the first: I think about active shooters a lot. There are so many ways to die. I know that now. I’ve known that for most of my life. And so I always look for the closest exit in the classroom, the mall, the movie theater, the office, the way I was once taught to look for escape routes in a burning house. The only time I ever skipped class in college, it was because the classroom was small and narrow and a classmate I felt uneasy about sat right next to the door. It was fine; they were harmless. It’s usually fine. They’re usually harmless. But what if, what if, what if.

Today I woke up with plenty of time to go to the march and thought about all the high places in Manhattan, about long-range rifles, about how much some people love their guns, and I was too afraid. What if. What if.

The speaker at our fire safety meeting told us that this kind of surveillance was good and useful. You should always know your surroundings. You should always know which furniture is movable, in case you need to barricade the door. Think about angles of ricochet. Think about what you could hide behind, what is dense enough to stop a bullet. Some bullets, at least. Think of what about you is soft and unprotected: your stomach, your face, your heart.

Some part of me wonders if there is a safety house for this, and if not, whether we should make one. The least we can be is honest to our children. Lead them all, one class at a time, into the little trailer where the rooms are laid out like the school they have just left. Show them how to play dead. Show them how many ways there are to fire.

On bad days I read surgeons’ reports of what an AR-15 does to a body and think about the nonzero chance that I, a person living in America, will be in the wrong place at the wrong time someday. That my face becomes one of many faces on the evening news for a day or two, until there are others, because there are always others. When I was a junior in college, a man who lived about a block from me took his guns to Western Psych and shot until the Pitt police shot him. I was home on spring break. I cried then too.

There’s a line I’ve never been able to shake in Denis Johnson’s “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking” about “a family from Marshalltown who head–onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri….

Killed forever, I imagine telling my little-kid self, the version of me who was alarmed by artificial smoke and worried about quicksand.

And what do I do, I imagine that little kid asking.

I don’t know, I would say. I am saying. I don’t know. I will teach you what I know about surviving. But it’s nothing you should ever have to learn.

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dancing on my own

At a certain point, you have to accept that you just aren’t going to be a prodigy. That’s easier said than done. But I have a fourteen-year-old pen pal; I’ve been staring this one down for months now.

It’s not that I never tried to be exceptional. In my tenderer years I hammered my way through scales on the piano, entered children’s writing contests, briefly attempted to train myself into ambidexterity. I was a spelling bee champion, for God’s sake! Honorable mention at Math Field Day! But none of this, absolutely none of this, changes the fact that if my pen pal wrote right now to ask what my most exciting recent accomplishment was, I would have to tell her the truth: that I helped my boyfriend assemble an IKEA TV stand, which we purchased based on its reasonable price and neutral, professional color scheme. No one who gets excited about a nice FJÄLLBO is young enough for a Guinness World Record anymore.

I won’t say much about my pen pal – my friend – here. As far as I know, she doesn’t yet use social media, and she should get to decide for herself who she is on the internet someday. It’s enough to say that our families go to church together back home, that she loves writing and reading, and that I am enormously fond of her, so last Pascha I gave her my email address. There’s almost never enough time to say all you want to say, but what I wanted to say in the church hall that day was I would love to keep in touch with you, and it barely took any time at all.

Ever since, S and I have sent book recommendations back and forth, compared notes on our adventures, written our way into knowing each other better. Sometimes a whole month goes by between messages, which is usually my  fault. A month is a long time: it’s one rent check, or two therapy appointments, or about fifty swipes on an MTA card. Or four phone calls home – more if I’m especially happy or especially sad. But a month is about how long I need to think of something interesting to say.

In my letters, I’m on my best behavior: no swearing, no stories about drinking or kissing. No existential dread. No bummers. Which is funny, because I don’t want her to feel like she has to be on her best behavior with me. Does that make any sense? It’s as though I don’t know exactly which fourteen she is yet. Some fourteens are older than others. And some twenty-sixes are younger.

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self-portrait circa 1997

The thing about writing to a fourteen-year-old, especially if your own experience of being fourteen was kind of traumatic, is that you end up feeling like you’re writing to yourself.

And I do remember being that age. Being that girl. I remember what it was like to have my first-ever boyfriend, my first-ever high school class – what it was like to know that every day I was alive was a new personal record. The Guinness Book of Adolescence, basically. No one had ever been this young, this old, this terrified before. No one had been me before in a way that was going to be useful, though I kept reading through the library stacks hoping to be proven wrong. What I remember is that everything felt like so much, and there was no way to feel it less. When my first-ever boyfriend gave me the first-ever Franz Ferdinand album for my fourteenth birthday (had anyone been fourteen before?), I put it on the stereo while my parents were still at work and danced, alone, awkward, giddy, through song after song after song.

But that’s why it’s hard to write to S sometimes. She’s herself, not a reference to anything else. That’s the other thing I remember about being fourteen. Adults were always looking at me and seeing themselves, talking to me as though I could give their younger selves whatever message they’d needed. Which I absolutely could not. After all, I was busy being the first-ever teenager, inventing love, inventing sorrow.

Recently, in the course of trying to fix a problem that I think I actually created, I messed up my email inbox. In short, I have two personal accounts, both on Gmail: one is nina.sabak, created when I was applying to college, and the other is two words I thought sounded nice together, created when I was thirteen. The former is forwarded to the latter, though it would have made more sense the other way around. And when I was rattling around in Settings, I hit something that made nina.sabak re-forward every email it’s ever gotten.

A week later, I’ve more or less clawed my way back to the surface. Twelve thousand emails is a lot of emails, even when most of them are alerts about sales that ended years ago. After deleting all the junk, the old news, the expired notifications, I am intimately familiar with my entire inbox. And that’s to say that I am intimately familiar, so far as such a thing is possible, with every self I wrote myself into being between 2008 and now. Ten years is a long time, you know. It’s the difference between applying to college and willingly assembling a FJÄLLBO with your boyfriend at 2 AM on a Saturday night.

I saved all of S’s emails from the purge, obviously. I saved all the emails that mattered and all of the emails that half-mattered, plus the emails that might matter again someday. Gracious replies from authors I loved; orientation details from my undergrad enrollment at Pitt; everything my mother has ever sent me.

If I’d actually written anything to my fourteen-year-old self, I would have saved it too. I like to think.

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self-portrait circa 2006

I’ll be twenty-seven next month, which is easily the most ludicrous thing that’s happened since I turned twenty-six. Each year I drift farther from the piano scales and spelling bee trophies and closer to becoming who I am next. I am not done growing up. I may never be.

One of these weeks S will write back to me to tell me what book she most recently loved. One of these weeks I’ll go request that book from the library so I can read it and tell her what I think, because that’s how this works: we both give a little, and we both take.

A funny thing happened while I was sifting through my mountains and mountains of duplicate emails. For once, I could see how whole years of my life fit together. On one page I found an email from that first-ever boyfriend titled “sorry,” and on the next page I found another. In the end I found more apologies than I wanted to count, more half-apologies, more angry parting shots. I found years’ worth of his words that still sting. On one page I found the first message one friend ever wrote me, and a few minutes later I found the last. I found my own letters to my mother from when I needed to tell her that I’d invented panic attacks and insomnia, from when I had my heart broken for the first time, then the second, then the third. I found alerts about sales that ended years ago. I found bus and train and plane tickets, Seamless orders, notes from myself exhorting myself to be kind.

And I found the first email S sent me last year. And I found my reply. I think – I hope – it was adequate. What is it I should be telling her? What advice, if any, would do?

I already know what I’d tell myself because I’ve had my whole life to think it over, and because it’s the advice I still need to hear. Be gentle with yourself. Let the world in. Are spoilers permitted? There are so many shortcuts I’d take. It ends badly, I’d say to my kid self as we read the apologies and flinch, so get out now. Maybe I’d follow myself to school, dog my own reluctant footsteps, whisper you don’t have to do this alone. 

Over coffee, which one of us likes and one of us hasn’t yet learned to, I’d tell myself that it works out okay, at least so far. That I make it to the future. That I grow up and move away and learn to cook orzo in my kitchen in Brooklyn while my boyfriend lies across the couch and tells me jokes just to hear me laugh. That swearing and drinking and kissing are among life’s great pleasures, and that you can love your life even while you’re still learning how to love yourself. I would tell myself that there are more important things to be than exceptional. And my younger self would nod at all of this and take careful notes and believe none of it, because your own life is not something you can be told.

S doesn’t need advice from me. If anything, I’m the one who should be listening.

No one has ever been this young, this old, this terrified before, Nina. Not even you.

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i must not think bad thoughts

The bagel I broke my tooth on at work wasn’t even hard – that was the humiliating thing. For all I know, that particular lower canine just had had enough of being associated with me. When something like this happens, it’s hard not to take it personally.

In any case, I was totally unprepared to feel something familiar floating in the wrong place. I spat out the bite – my first of the morning – as delicately as I could. And there was half of my tooth: bloodless, inevitable. I hadn’t seen one of my teeth outside of my mouth since I was a kid. Six and twenty-six; I’m taller now, but it felt about the same.

It’s hard to concentrate when the geography of your mouth has changed. (It’s hard to concentrate in 2017, period.) I made an emergency appointment at the nearest dentist’s office, and within two hours I was lying back under lights and mirrors and a stranger’s gloved hands. I’d brought the half-tooth in a Ziploc bag, for reasons that now baffle me. Did I think they could put it back in? Did I think I was a jigsaw puzzle? Maybe I was worried that they’d need proof that I hadn’t always been like this, i.e. wrong-mouthed and imperceptibly broken.

When the emergency dentist took his fingers and his mirror out of my mouth, I swallowed and said, “Do you ever have dreams about your teeth falling out?” This is maybe not good small talk, but the day was already off the rails, and I was leaning into it. Besides, he was a very nice man who hadn’t judged me for bringing him half a tooth in a Ziploc bag.

Of course,” he said. “All the time.”

“Oh, thank God,” I said, and we both laughed.

Someone else did my filling a couple weeks later and then my check-up, so I haven’t seen my dentist friend since. But I think about that exchange a lot. Even dentists, I tell myself approximately one million times a day, have that fear. It’s okay. It’s okay. And I tongue my reconstructed tooth, which is subtly but definitely different-feeling from its predecessor, to make sure it’s still there. It always is, but I’m never convinced until I feel it. It always is, but every time I bite something, I’m sure I felt it breaking. I’d better check. I’d better check.

When my teeth fall out in my dreams, they all fall out, one by one and then in impossible handfuls. To be honest, I think that dreams are mostly the brain composting its leftovers. To be honest, I still look up dream meanings anyway, hoping one of them will explain myself to me. So far, no luck. And I am running out of places to store the things that come out of my mouth.

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I just read the newest John Green book because the reviews made it sound basically like a book about my brain and because my therapist just read it too. And really, what is therapy but a chance to form a book club that’s unusually difficult to tell your friends about?

The most frequently invoked image (no spoilers, it’s literally on the cover) is a spiral. The main character gets stuck in her thoughts frequently and at random, in loops that get smaller and smaller and smaller. The farther down, the harder to describe. The more wordless, the lonelier.

But at one point, she observes that spirals go the other way, too: endlessly moving outward, sweeping up everything. At my best, I’m like that. I can make connections between ideas faster than I can reason my way into them. The words appear and I take them. A friend once told me that I must live five seconds in the future, which remains both the best compliment I’ve ever received and my pitch for a terribly mundane Marvel superhero movie.

If I’m fast, I’m fast in both directions. Here I am, saying the right thing at your party. Here I am, checking my tooth for the fiftieth time, cracking my knuckles till they’re long past sore, returning again and again and again to the same thought, as if I ever really left it.

As a little girl, I had rituals. Of course, I’ve come to understand that little-girlhood is more or less comprised of rituals. Adulthood, ditto. But mine were different, urgent, inexplicable; I always felt that the entire world would go sideways if I didn’t do everything right. This door has to be closed twice. This faucet has to be checked and checked and checked again. This is the moment you have to touch something to prove that you’re real, and so is this one, and so is this one. I was, in other words, a small DSM-IV set loose to agonize itself into any number of beliefs and self-loathings, all of them intensely private and shameful.

The first inkling I had that I was not uniquely wrong and broken was in 2001, when I saw an episode of Invader Zim – one of the few I ever watched – called “Germs.” The plot, which I’ve somehow remembered for all these years, involves Zim donning a pair of germ-vision glasses. His fear, when it arrives, is all-consuming; he spends the remainder of the plot feverishly sterilizing and disinfecting everything he can, though the germs always come back. I think it was supposed to be funny. For me, at ten, it was very serious. How did you know that? I wanted to ask. I didn’t tell you. 

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I’ve eaten approximately a hundred and twenty bagels since I broke my tooth, and so far, none of them have sent me back to the dentist. I would relax, if relaxing were a thing I did. Who knows? I might still give it a shot.

I’ve had this mantra since I was a kid, sort of like an incantation to ward off bad thoughts, a command to myself to please just be normal for once. It’s shut up, but you have to say it over and over again. Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up. (Or else what? Or else it doesn’t work?) Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to replace it. Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to explain myself to myself the way a friend would. There’s a first time for everything, I guess. This is the year I learn to be gentle with the little girl I still am.

For the record, I am trying out okay. I am getting used to the geography of my mouth with that word in it.

My tiny book club meets tomorrow, and there’s a lot to discuss. It’s not going to be the way it sometimes is, when the words just appear and I take them. So let it be messy. I am no longer collecting my proof in Ziploc bags. I will still exist without it.

I think. I hope. I’ll check.

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ain’t we got fun

The American Girl Place Café doesn’t card, perhaps because no one on Earth has ever gone to the American Girl Place Café to get wasted. The presence of children, particularly children who are into historically accurate doll accessories, is kind of mood-killer if you’re trying to party. I was previously one of those children. I can speak with authority.

American Girl dolls, if you were not young, earnest, and bookish in the 90s, are distinctive characters from different eras, with an accompanying book series and outfits. On my playground, at least, who you identified with said a lot about who you were – not that any but the luckiest few actually had one of the dolls. When a great-aunt gave me early-Edwardian Samantha for Christmas one year, it made my entire life and probably directly resulted in both my scholarship to college and my good dental hygiene today. (As an aside, saying that you’re “more of a Samantha” in this context means something very different than it might coming from someone old enough to watch HBO.)

Secretly, though, I always related more to 1940s-era Molly McIntire: bespectacled, anxious, nontraditionally feminine. She liked a good plaid. She wanted to make the world better. I knew that it was unlikely that this really expensive lightning would strike twice, so I contented myself with collecting the books and gazing longingly at her spreads in the seasonal catalogs. I tried to do this openly, to show my Samantha doll that there wasn’t anything weird going on, just a desire for more friendship – and really, wouldn’t we all be friends? Weren’t we all pro-labor reform and mindful patriotism? My concern that a beloved toy might think I was conducting an emotional affair with one of her relatives is 1) totally typical and 2) proof that this entire paragraph has gone entirely off the rails. What I’m trying to say is, these dolls were a Very Important Part of my early life, even as they taught me a lot about my own limited purchasing power.

So I didn’t expect to go to the café, at least not until I married really rich and had wealthy daughters. But last month, there we were: my best friend and her husband, another dear friend, and me. Some dreams come true, belatedly. (I can hear you now, wondering why we spent our short lives doing this. Two words: Caity Weaver.)

Though we were all between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-seven, adult patrons in search of their recent childhoods must not be that uncommon; our waitress was very nonchalant. If you’ve come empty-handed, you’re allowed to choose a doll to sit with you at the table. (Samantha, if you’re reading this: I swear it’ll be you and me next time.) So once we’d picked our tiny dates, Mackenzie the Waitress led us to our table, past half a dozen little-girl birthday parties, handed out the menus, and took our drink orders with a completely straight face. When the cocktails arrived, so did four little tea cups and saucers for our dolls. My best friend’s husband thoughtfully helped his doll drink as we waited for the entrées. “What’s she having?” one of us asked. “A gin and tonic,” he said.

Adulthood kind of hasn’t been what I expected.

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The truth is that I haven’t written in a long time, once you subtract emails to my mother. So much has happened in the world, and what do you even say? Even on this blog, I begin posts and abandon them mid-sentence because they seem like such a waste of any reader’s time. I generally don’t know what’s happening and am usually scared: there, I saved you ten minutes.

It’s a weird time to be a writer. Actually, it’s a weird time to be a person. When I check the news, I wish I hadn’t, and when I don’t check the news, I’m antsy until I do. And so the idea of sitting and polishing one string of words, and then another, and then another – the idea of doing the one thing I love most and am any good at – seems absurd. How dare I look away. How dare I assume that my little sentences matter.

And yet you’re reading this, presumably – this silly story about having dinner with dolls. I generally don’t know what’s happening and am usually scared. But that makes me less scared somehow.

The food, by the way, was surprisingly good. Then again, the intended audience of the American Girl Place Café is moneyed preadolescents, so the food had better be good. I ordered, if you can believe it, the “roasted cauliflower and broccoli salad,” which featured “Belgian endive,” a food that I, at twenty-six, am still not convinced is real. Sounds like a conspiracy perpetuated by Whole Foods, but okay.

After dinner, we, our dolls, and our tasteful one-Bellini buzz decided to get dessert. After all, Karen’s birthday had happened just a week and a half before, though we’d been disappointed to learn that you can only get the full birthday party experience if the birthday girl is seventeen or under. But adulthood is all about disappointment, I guess, and Mackenzie the Waitress was very sympathetic, even if there wasn’t anything she could do. She wasn’t judging us; she’d already done enough.

There’s a photo of us with our desserts, of course. It’s on Facebook. (Of course.) In it, we’re obviously delighted, smiling with all of our teeth. I have one arm around Karen, who’s wearing a Wonder Woman scarf she knitted herself. Her husband Ben has put on a bow tie for the occasion. Our friend Monique, architect of the evening, has just placed her dessert between her doll and mine. I’d forgotten that until just now, when I went back to look. These are my friends: people capable of kindness, even the smallest, the silliest.

It has been, to be completely honest, a rough couple of months. The summer stretched on until about two days ago, and the air was so humid that even shadows seemed heavy. I spent August getting the delicate balance of my antidepressants just right again, which I’d put off doing in case I was totally fine and the world itself was struggling. (Turns out the world and I could both use some help.)

What will the doll of 2017 be like? Will she come with a little smartphone for all the breaking news? Will she carry a sign, and what will it say? Will her knees bend? Will she smile?

american girl cafe group shot

 

The four of us had settled the bill by eight, and American Girl Place doesn’t close until nine. (This seems late to me, but what do I know? I’m a person who worries about dolls’ feelings.) So we made our way through the store very slowly, pausing to look at all the little props and outfits, the goods necessary for a fictional life. Molly isn’t for sale anymore, but Samantha is back. A lot of the little plastic faces were unfamiliar, since I haven’t really kept up with the line. But honestly, there are only so many molds; how unfamiliar could they be?

At one point, we came across the section of the store dedicated to dolls that look like the children who will take them home. In the display cases, there was one with red hair, wearing an apron and using a stand mixer to make something delicious and inedible. And I felt that old rush of affection I’d had for Samantha in her little bed next to mine, for Molly in the pages of her catalog. When I was a little girl, I loved these invented worlds, and I loved the idea of doing it myself: sitting and polishing one string of words after another. All those little sentences, mattering.

I generally don’t know what’s happening and am usually scared. But there’s still a place in Midtown where you and your eighteen-inch-tall friend can get a drink. There is still such a thing as joyfully wasting time.

Let me believe in a year after this one. Let me learn to cook with endive. Let all of this matter. And let me write it down.

 

 

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keep me warm

Last summer, when I wasn’t busy applying to jobs or having mild crises of identity, I taught myself to crochet. It is good to have a hobby that isn’t unemployment or anxiety. Besides, I was already a natural at those, and life is all about challenges.

To be fair, I didn’t really start from the beginning. Some evening in the endless summer of my childhood, when I was maybe eight and freshly myopic and still afraid of most dogs, my aunt showed me how to do the chain stitch. (Side note: in my memory, it was always summer in the 1990s, or else Christmas. Every foggy morning or spring evening has been rounded up or down accordingly. I cannot explain this.) Being an only child in a small family meant that staying the night at a relative’s house was among the chief pleasures of this earth. If you are young and excitable, as I was and still am, everyone who impresses you is a minor celebrity, and no one impressed me more than my own blood; I had made a lifelong study of them.

And so Beth showed me how to turn the hook, how to hold the yarn, and I was in business. I loved it. So satisfying to make something out of nothing, to make a snake that…well, went on forever because I either never got the hang of turning or was too intimidated to try. I could only do the chain stitch. If you wanted an ineffective scarf, I was your girl; maybe bespoke equipment for the world’s gentlest tug-of-war. How you got from a fistful of chains to a blanket was a mystery, and one I did not feel equipped to investigate.

After a while, my fascination ran its course, and I went back to making the other dozen crafts I loved: hand-drawn clothes for paper dolls, little dioramas folded and taped out of scratch paper, scraps of cloth unevenly embroidered. My parents have kept all of these things, done with more enthusiasm than skill, and sometimes we pull them out when I am home. (Like I said: only child.) At some point my projects seemed childish and I stopped. At some point or another, a lot of things have seemed childish and I stopped, though now I so often wish I hadn’t. Not because I would have been a master dioramist by now, but because I miss that girl, the one who made tiny bookshelves and chairs out of extra spelling worksheets.

In 2016, I hadn’t drawn a paper doll for years, but I had just woken up from the last school night of my entire life, and my hands felt empty. After twenty years in school, I was cut loose to wander the apartment in my pajamas at 11 am and try to figure out who I was going to be. There’s only so much YouTube and boxed wine. There are only so many ways you can stall. I missed New York and my boyfriend as much as I loved Pittsburgh and my friends, and at some point I was going to choose which place was next; at some point, I was going to need to admit that I had already chosen.

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My best friend knits. A lot of my friends do, actually, but Karen is one of the people I talk to most: multiple times a day, every day, though she’s in Chicago and I’m here. Some kinds of conversation are a sacrament, I think – the kind you can pick back up without preamble, as though whatever time has elapsed passed without mattering. Ours is one of those.

Last year, before the summer began, she and her boyfriend visited me at my old apartment in Pittsburgh, and we all went to a yarn store so I could buy needles and something soft and pretty. I was still a student, desperate to keep learning. On the couch, she showed me the knit stitch over and over until I got it, sort of, then forgot it, then got it, then mangled it, then tore everything out and started again. Her boyfriend sat nearby with a crochet hook and a project of his own. It was quiet. (Side note: in my memory it was always quiet that spring, like we were all holding our breaths, but really, it was only me.)

But after they went back to Chicago, I couldn’t make my hands move right anymore. The yarn kept falling slack and my stitches got looser and wilder, and I tore them out, and I tore them out, until there weren’t any left to undo. By graduation, I’d forgotten how to cast on, and that was the end of it, because you can’t stitch into a row that doesn’t exist.

Once upon a time I had known how to make foundations; once upon a time, that was the only thing I’d known. I laced up my sneakers and walked back to the yarn store alone. Four miles round trip, but it wasn’t like I had class to rest up for anymore. And I bought a set of hooks that looked like the ones I’d used almost twenty years before, though memory is tricky and a lot of things that look familiar aren’t – though I will tell you that when I got back to my apartment and relearned the one stitch I’d ever known, it felt like coming home.

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Here is a short list of places I have crocheted:

The New York Public Library, most days on my break from work. Bryant Park when it’s nice. Greeley Square, where I once lost a hook. My office once when it was raining and I was the last person there. My couch, obviously. My bed, obviously. The L train but not the 6, because I only ride it for three stops. My parents’ couch, where my dad sat next to me for hours on end and watched me, sipping coffee, telling me I was patient, and I guess I am. The floor of the bedroom I grew up in, working as fast as I could to finish a scarf for my mother. My dad’s car, whenever he drove me to Michaels last summer because I was home and we wanted to do something, anything, together; because I adore my parents but I was going to leave anyway.

Here is a short list of things I have crocheted:

Five scarves, one for me and four for people I love. Two cats. One bunny. Five pussyhats. Over half of an afghan, though stay tuned. Most of a shawl – remind me to pick up more yarn. Three cactuses. An indeterminate number of tiny octopuses. One deformed semi-rectangle that I am keeping as a reminder that I am allowed to be bad at things, maybe even very bad.

Here is a story: for my birthday, Griffin took me to a yarn store in the Village that we stumbled upon last year and that he’d quietly remembered for, what, eight or nine months, because I had loved it and had refused to buy anything. Did I say it was too expensive? Did I say I wasn’t good enough for yarn that nice? Those both sound like things I would tell him. He told me I had to pick out at least five skeins; he knew me, he said, and he knew I would choose two and say that was enough, that that was all I needed.

In my memory, it was sunny when he said this. In my memory, it is always sunny when I’m with him, even on the days I know it rained, even when it’s night. A person who knows you and loves you and is gentle with you, who can persuade you to be gentle with yourself – that’s sunshine.

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In a month, I will have lived in Brooklyn for a year. This feels impossible, but it’s true. My life is happening, and I’m in it.

From here to work is eight miles, if you drive. From here to my last apartment in Pittsburgh, three hundred and seventy-two. From here to the house I grew up in, four hundred and one, though I pretend every day that it’s less.

I think – but am not sure – that if you tore out every stitch I’ve ever made and laid that yarn along the highways, you would make it to one of these places. I just don’t know which one.

How did I hold a needle, back when I sewed? How did I draw a paper ballgown? How did I make those dioramas, those many imaginary rooms, carried carefully from school to the dining room table, where I would explain each piece: a tiny coffee table for tiny books I hadn’t yet written, a bed the size of my thumb, a little rug to warm even smaller feet? Why did I spend so much time on my obsessions, and when did I stop?

A few months ago I taught one of my friends to crochet, and she watched my hands so carefully, the way I watched Karen’s once. Some kinds of silence are a sacrament, I think. Ours was. And then she went home and taught herself more, the names of stitches, the different weights of yarn, the feeling of doing something a thousand times and then a thousand times more. Not perfectly but patiently. Maybe that is a sacrament too.

It turns out I’m still a student. It turns out that I will never know everything, just enough, and just barely. It turns out it isn’t that hard to turn a fistful of chains into a blanket, actually. This girl in 1999 ought to know that. But it’s okay; she’s going to find out.

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gone sour

As an elementary-schooler, I had difficulty putting consonants together. I was solid on R, reliable with S, did not stutter, but the complex sounds of the language – ch, th, and so on – eluded me. Maybe this wouldn’t have been a problem if my own last name didn’t begin with a whispered shhShah-bahk. But I didn’t talk much anyway: it’s a wonder anyone noticed.

So I went to speech therapy, along with the other kids who couldn’t quite pronounce what they needed to say. I don’t really remember much of it: it was held in a small, warm room where I got to read aloud, my favorite thing, feeling my way through the words I sped through in my head. There were take-home worksheets of vocabulary to practice, accompanied with helpful line art: catcher with attending leather glove, swingset with chains slack, chair with no one in it. At my baba’s house, I said slowpoke and an uncle feigned insult. Or maybe he really was insulted. I was eager to explain that this was homework, not a thing I’d meant about him. I was that kind of kid: eager.

This was kindergarten and first grade, my introduction to academics, like a tiny debutante. I loved school the way I’d loved looking at maps long before their letters made sense to me. These things were proof of the enormous world. I wanted all of it.

But I was shy. But I was anxious. I don’t know which came first anymore. I have always been self-conscious, prone to debilitating worry, though it was college before I understood that not everyone felt like throwing up before tests they’d studied for. As a little girl, I was both things simultaneously, afraid of people even as I longed for them, tongue-tied and hiding behind a sofa if something suddenly made noise. Catlike, maybe, though most of the cats I’ve known have the extravagant confidence of creatures who only fear death, not humiliation. I was skittish. I didn’t talk much, anyway.

I graduated from speech therapy in 1997, able to pronounce anything you threw at me but afraid I might still slip up. When my teachers asked for volunteers to read aloud, I thrust my hand up and closed my eyes, feeling a little sick. This was my favorite thing. And often I was chosen, because I was that kind of kid, not quite a teacher’s pet but a little too nerdy and sincere to be quite anything else. Mostly I said the words right. Mostly I felt such relief afterward, such disappointment it was over, even as I pretended not to feel the cold, wet armpits of my shirts.

From almost twenty years away, my childhood seems gentle and indistinct. I can’t really remember the intricacies of my playground alliances, of the few sworn enemies I had, and the fights – if you could even call them that – that we had by the slides. I never hit anyone, never even swung, because I could argue. Everyone loves a pedantic girl, right? Weird and competent kids have their own kind of power.

There was one accusation, though, that I was powerless against. It came from classmates and their parents alike, sometimes presented to me directly, sometimes relayed telephone-style. It had to do with the way I carried myself those years that I was learning to shape the language in my mouth, those years I was afraid of embarrassing myself and certain that I would, the way I hung back and stayed quiet and avoided eye contact so no one would realize how very strange and uncool I was. Self-deprecation plays very differently than you intend sometimes. It went like this: “My mom says you’re spoiled.”

Or, variation on a theme, “You think you’re better than everybody.”

Or, as the father of some friends once put it while we were alone together on the family porch and I stared at my knees: “You aren’t too good to talk to me.”

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a portrait of the (very concerned) artist on the first day of kindergarten, 1996

I still have trouble with certain letters, especially if I talk too fast. And I almost always talk too fast, in part because at nearly 26 I’m still a little shy about you listening to me speak. It’s the classic chicken and egg scenario, if the chicken were something just shy of a speech impediment and the egg were an anxiety disorder. You know: the usual configuration.

(And I do talk too fast, am infamous for it, had to repeat myself endlessly and more slowly until I moved to New York, where everyone is apparently rushed for time or just as eager and anxious as I am. This is my other great self-consciousness. Oh, the misery of not being understood when it took you so much to speak in the first place.)

What’s accent and what’s a trick of my own tongue? I drop the first R in particularly, sometimes in yesterday, always in alternative. (The first months of this administration have been hell in part because I cannot get this one down. Altuhnative, altuhnative, altuhnative.) Sometimes it all comes out at once, not so much a mumble as a crash landing. I do enunciate, sometimes too much, and I tend towards the four-syllable words I’ve loved since I first soldiered through them as a child. In recent years, I have made peace with this, with the fact that I don’t really sound like anyone but myself, though maybe I’m growing into it. A professor told me recently that I’d seemed a little uncanny when we first met, when I was twenty. “The vocabulary?” I said. “The vocabulary,” he said.

I didn’t talk much, anyway, and then I did.

It’s been years since someone called me spoiled for being so quiet. That’s the sort of thing that stops sounding like a good argument once you’re both over eighteen and your household’s parenting style is no longer quite as relevant. That’s the sort of thing that is less cutting when the person you’re talking to is funny, and I – shy, anxious child – learned to be funny. Sometimes I wonder if humor isn’t just a response to fear. Sometimes I wonder if everything isn’t just a response to fear.

Still, I’m myself, and I remember how it stung to be on the playground, the porch, the room where the mothers waited during ballet practice, the bedroom of one friend or another, and to feel like maybe it was true. Maybe, like milk, I was spoiled: unremarkable until I’d gone sour, despite my best intentions.

There’s a way you are meant to engage with the world if you are a little girl, or a full-sized girl, or a woman. There’s a humility that is expected of you, a friendliness whose absence is punished. Lately I don’t give it so much mind, but even on particularly sunny days, when I am telling a story that someone has asked to hear, I wonder: am I talking too much? (Hand up, eyes closed, stomach clenched. This is my favorite thing.)

Pronounce these words for me: spoiled, exhausting, self-absorbed. Say bitch – you’re old enough now. Now say them again. Now say them again.

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a portrait of the artist looking profound, circa 2004

The other day I went for bagels with my boyfriend at the place around the corner, which we visit most weekends because they know us by now. It feels nice to be recognized in a city as big as this one. It’s named for our neighborhood in Brooklyn, Bushwick, even though it’s technically a block over the border into Ridgewood, Queens. Neighborhoods are fuzzy. Boroughs definitely are not.

We ate our bagels in relative silence, me slower than him as always, and we split an almond croissant that tasted like sugar and perfect autumn days. And I sipped my coffee and tried to say this thing that’s been bothering me for as long as I can remember. I thought, I feel like I take up so much space. I said, “I feel like I talk too much.”

He said, “You don’t talk enough.”

I looked at him then, this person with warm brown eyes and, just then, a couple of crumbs in his beard, who has spent more time listening to me than most people besides my parents, who was looking back at me. I was all my different selves at once: the one learning to pronounce her own name and the one afraid to speak in case she stumbled through it, the one who didn’t think she was better than anyone, the one who didn’t talk much anyway. And this self, whoever I will later know her as, the one who is trying and trying and trying.

We learned to pronounce consonant clusters in speech: ch, th, and so on. I said, “Thank you.”

Pronounce these words for me: chastened, grateful. Say older. Say good enough.

That’s good enough. That’s good enough.

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great again

Dear future self,

 

Please remember that for a long time, a small eternity, you could not write.

 
 
You could not write even though you kept trying, hitting backspace, trying again. The words never added up. They crumbled like sand. Somewhere was a sentence that would explain the way you’d been sleeping, half-awake for late-breaking bad news, coiled like a spring held down for a long, long time. That sentence escaped you, and meanwhile you looked at the ceiling in the darkness, your eyes blurry without your glasses – but anyway, there was nothing to see.

 

You could not write except in Facebook statuses and notes to yourself. Directives: pick up your laundry, buy tomatoes, call your mother. You used to write in the second person in college because you had no idea what you were doing and giving instructions felt like role-playing as God. It had helped when you didn’t know what you were doing. Well, at this particular moment, no one seemed to know what they were doing. Happy new year.

 

Please remember that the morning after the election, you took the quietest train ride of your New York life thus far. The sky was gray and spitting rain, and below ground no one spoke, barely breathed, just looked at the floor and the feet of strangers.

 

At your desk, fourteen stories up from the sidewalk in Midtown, you sat and stared at your phone. So much to do, so much of the morning left. Everything urgent; you, so tired your skin ached. You stayed up on election night to watch the returns and then kept staying up because you could bear neither to see them nor to look away. At one, you went to bed, and at two your boyfriend came in to tell you it was over. Had he been crying? Had you? Earlier in the evening you looked in the mirror to see mascara smeared along one cheekbone from burying your face in the pillow, again and again and again. In the moment before you came fully awake, there in the dark bedroom, whatever he was saying did not yet make sense, and you wanted to say tell me something good.

 

At your desk that morning, you sent texts to your friends: I love you, I love you, I love you. And they texted back: I love you, I love you, I love you. One wrote I’m so sorry, like we’d all died and were sending our mutual condolences from different parts of the void. It felt like that. It really felt like that.

 

***

 

Dear future self, please remember how it felt to wake to a world that was changed each time you looked. This was not a trick of the light. This was an inauguration, this an executive order, and this a press conference; this a tweet replying to a tweet replying to a tweet. Eight years is enough time to get comfortable, to think that the old angry past is dead. What did Faulkner say? The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. 

 

And you, raised on history books, unaware that history could still happen in January 2017. Like the factory only made so much and America ran out at some point in your childhood. Like the textbooks ended because there was nothing more to say.

 

And you, feeling homesick for your own private West Virginia, the one you’d believed in. What a cliche: white girl moves from Appalachian stronghold to the land of the coastal elites, New York for God’s sake, and has some complicated feelings. Brooklyn is full of girls like you. But on election night, you watched your state light up red as soon as the polls closed, and you wanted a sandwich board that said I’m Not From Here, that said But I Don’t Know How To Go Home.

 

So many thinkpieces about West Virginia in the aftermath. They were all variations on the thinkpiece you’d been reading your whole life: what the hell is up with this state? But that wasn’t a question you were interested in: you wanted the photos. Here a house with vinyl siding set along a half-dirt road. Here a close-up of someone’s coal-stained hands. Here a faded hoodie, a crooked tooth, a sign with the president-elect’s name stuck into the yard around a trailer. Total poverty porn. But it still felt good to look at something so familiar. This was your home, remember: you knew it better than some Vanity Fair journalist ever could. Unless you didn’t. And maybe you didn’t.

 

While you were off at college conjugating verbs in Russian and making mix tapes for pretty girls, one long string of dominoes kept falling. Maybe you can see it now, in the future. Maybe you have made a study of the critical moments. You grew up, got braver, did laundry, called your mom. That’s a life. And all that time, the country grew up, got angrier, tried to tell you what was coming. Just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there to see.

 

 

***

 

Dear future self, I don’t know how this ends. I read the news and don’t read the news, I march when I can and sit very still when I can’t. A week and a half ago this was a different place, or at least we were pretending it was.

 

Dear future self, tell me something good. Tell me that my friends are safe. Tell me that we didn’t do the worst we could, not yet, at least not this time. Tell me that I am really from the place I thought I was from: a flawed country made up of people who were trying their best.

 

Dear future self, I hope you can write. I’m trying, but it’s hard when you don’t trust words anymore. They don’t mean what they should. Like alternative facts. Like make America great again.

 

There is a fear I haven’t shaken for months now, a fear that the meaning is going to leak out of the world until nothing matters: not fury or love or literature or law, not the names of places or people, not me. I am afraid that none of my words matter. I am afraid that I cannot change anything. But I think maybe I can.

 

I can’t write but I am going to keep writing. I can’t sit still, so I’ll march. I can’t sleep, so stay up with me, tell me a story, tell me how we got here and where we’re going.

 

Dear future self, I am writing to you because I don’t know what else to do. Second person, right? Role-playing as God. And, like God, I believe in you. You are the person I need. I am walking towards you as fast as I can.

 

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