Who Do You Think You Are?

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It’s my last day in New York and I have pink eye, which is a complete mystery because Tariku doesn’t have it and it’s not like I’ve been walking around Sephora shoving dirty mascara brushes in my eyeball. Now I have to throw out all my makeup, which is about enough to make me have a nervous collapse. Farewell, dear MAC eyeliner. We had a good run, you and I.

It’s been a whirlwind few days. I was mostly here to meet with my team over at Penguin. Because you know that memoir I’ve been working on for the last couple of years? Well, it’s coming out May 5. I kind of can’t believe it.

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Here I am with my agent and good friend Alexandra Machinist and my wonderful editor Becky Cole.

The limbo between finishing and publishing can be a scary thing for a writer. Actually, it’s all scary- the first blank page; the mid-point, when you’re sure you’re creating a steaming pile of doodoo; and the end, when the doodoo has magically transformed into a precious beautiful baby in your arms. Most of the time, I feel like I’d rather go take this baby and lock myself in a closet with it for the rest of my life than release it to be judged by the cold cruel world.

But that’s what we do if we want to connect- we allow ourselves to be judged. Sometimes it’s awesome and you find yourself in front of a studio audience chatting with Whoopie Goldberg. Sometimes it sucks and the slut-shaming trolls go bananas on you online, or the mean girl from high school says something shitty about you to your mom at the grocery store.

But the advantage of having done this a couple of times before, is that I now know that even at its worst moments, to put these words on a page and have people actually read them is one of the great privileges of my life.

This is my third book, and I still look over my shoulder every time I walk through the big glass doors of Penguin offices because I’m sure that I’m about to be revealed as the big faker I truly am. I’m convinced I’m going to be arrested by what Amanda Palmer in her inspiring The Art of Asking calls The Fraud Police.

Stop right there, Ma’am. We have it on good authority that you have been masquerading as someone with something to say in this world. Who do you think you are?

I share this with you because I know that the fear of being exposed as a fraud is a very common experience. I might even venture to say universal, if my writing students are any indication.

As Scott likes to say, “Just what exactly needs to happen before you’ll finally feel successful?”

The real question is, “Just what exactly needs to happen to make you feel worthy?”

Worthy not of my success, even, but of the few square feet of sidewalk I’m standing on. Worthy of this ordinary human experience, with all of its joys and suffering.

The answer definitely doesn’t hinge on this book. It’s a far deeper issue. But the fact that I have finished something, in spite of being hotly pursued by my imaginary fraud police, is a start.

Who do I think I am?

It changes all the time. A snapshot of this evening’s answer, as I look out over this dazzling city, looks something like this:

I think I’m a child of God. I think I am both animal and spirit. I think I am you and you are me and we’re all part of the same buzzing electrical generative crazy planetary thing. I think I’m a mother and a wife and a daughter and a friend. I think I’m a writer.

Who do you think you are?

Death by Book

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As I approach the finish line of this new memoir, my response to the question How are you? has lately been, This book is killing me, or (in the style of the Wicked Witch), I’m melting! MEEEELTING! And other cheery and not-at-all dramatic stuff like that.

Then, right before Halloween, my best friend Julie in upstate NY called to tell me her husband just had emergency heart surgery. If they hadn’t caught the blockages, he would have been dead within the year.

After I hung up the phone, I vowed to slow down, to be in the moment, to be present for the miracle that is my life. Forever more. The end.

And then I used that vow to flagellate myself for the next few days because, as usual, I was unable to accomplish this goal in any significant way. Until I finally just said forget it and tossed the vow out of the window of my car, while texting at red lights, blasting The Shins, crying and eating an emergency taco on my way to therapy.

When I got home from therapy, I (not at all slowly or mindfully) stuck T in front of Phineas and Ferb, while I packed two suitcases for NY. In the morning we left to meet Scott and see an Everything Will Be Alright in the End show. The next few days were a maelstrom of activities and meetings and rock shows and no sleep. By the time we were in a rented car heading over The George Washington Bridge to go upstate and visit Julie and her family, I had been running nonstop for so many days that my whole body was vibrating.

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When we got there the air was crisp and smelled like rain, the grass phosphorescent against the grey sky. The last of the fiery foliage still clung to the trees. I began to breathe as we wound through the country roads that I recognize in my very bones, from having spent every summer of my childhood there. I hurried us all into our half-assed costumes (Frankenstein, the Mummy And a fortune teller, fyi), then met Julie, her sister and their kids in the hippie haven of Woodstock. It was adorable night, with exuberant trick-or-treating punctuated by lots of old school drum circles. Without even trying, there it was in front of me: the wonder of my days.

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When we got back to their house after the candy carnage, Julie’s husband was resting on the couch, waiting for us.

Scott asked him, “How are you feeling about all this, Man? Are you anxious?”

He replied, “I’ve never been calmer. Nothing matters to me anymore except this.”

The “this” he was pointing at included six children racing through the living room on plasma cars, screaming with laughter and leaving chocolate fingerprints on every available surface. The youngest of them toddled behind, yelling “Tarikoosh! Tarikoosh!”

Ah yes. This.

Writing is hard. Mothering is hard. Sometimes keeping both balls in the air does indeed feel like it’s killing me. But it’s not. Ultimately, it’s nourishing me. My family and my work both give me much more than they ever take out of me.

The book is called Everything You Ever Wanted. It’s a motherhood memoir for the slightly less traditional moms among us, about going from being a member of a harem to a member of the PTA, and it comes out in May. It is almost finished. So close. I can’t wait to share it with you. I am wicked stressed, but it is not killing me. Not at all.

Physical Text

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Last weekend aerialist and choreographer Bianca Sapetto and I taught our Physical Text workshop for PEN Center USA.

Fifteen of us met in the bordello-red rehearsal room of the Fais Do-Do nightclub, on a Saturday afternoon. We arrived eager, reticent, caffeinated, exhausted, hopeful, skeptical, open, closed. A myriad of emotions ebbed and flowed throughout the course of the afternoon. The participants brought a level of vulnerability and courage that knocked me out. This workshop was a perfect three-hour distillation of why I find teaching so rejuvanating. Bianca and I were on a high for the whole next week.

This workshop has been a dream of mine and Bianca’s for months. It was born of a conversation we had while hiding out in a sun dappled corner of a coffee shop, brainstorming about our shared passion- how to make art in a fully embodied way.

I told her that in spite of my years of dance classes, I secretly knew that I had learned to put on a good show of things while not truly feeling my body at all. I was always working on the surface, convinced I could fool everyone and they wouldn’t notice I was clumsy, shy, messy, flawed.

The body is our greatest recording device, home of all that has happened to us and, to paraphrase Eve Ensler, I was totally obsessed with my body but didn’t inhabit it at all.

Problematic, because I have a life now that most days I would actually like to feel. I also have a writing life that requires I be able to feel. Every morning, when I face the blank page, I discover anew a pressing reason to push through the shame and fear and find a way back to myself.

Bianca and I synthesized an amalgam of movement and writing exercises designed to facilitate a greater flow between body and intellect. This workshop was our first laboratory and it was electric. We left inspired, edified and dedicated to further exploring this fertile territory.

Writer and entrepreneur Rachel Resnick attended the workshop and wrote a wonderful piece about it. You can find more at her website, Writers on Fire. Thanks also to Rachel for the pictures. I didn’t actually snap any myself because for once in my life I wasn’t hiding behind a camera!

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Je Suis Arrivè!

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Settling into my friend’s place in Paris right now. The sky is soft and grey and I’m drinking a strong coffee and staring out the window at the last of the fall foliage and thinking about a remarkable book I devoured front to back on the plane- Elif Shafak’s memoir, Black Milk: On The Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity and Motherhood. Of course, this very conflict is at the forefront of my mind, as I embark on a week away from my little guy. Once again, the synchronicitous universe drops exactly what I need to hear right into my lap.

In the book, Shafak talks about two dominant images of motherhood, from which we are expected to choose:

1. The traditional mother- a paragon of selflessness and self-sacrifice. We give up every trace of individual desire so that our families might thrive.

2. The quintessential superwoman- effortlessly juggling husband, career, kids, and home, all without breaking a nail or skipping a Pilates class. You can have it all. If you don’t, you must be doing it wrong.

Shafak writes:

As different as these two views seem to be, they have one thing in common: They both focus solely on what they want to see, disregarding the complexity and intensity of motherhood, and the way in which it transforms a woman and her crystal heart.

Throughout the book, Shafak regularly converses with six, finger-sized women she calls “Thumbelinas,” or her “inner harem.” These colorful and divergent little gals represent some of the distinct, persuasive and often conflicting voices inside of her.

I found the idea so intriguing and resonant that it inspired me to conjure my own Thumbelinas. I didn’t intend to write this for anyone’s eyes but mine and frankly I’m a bit embarrassed by how naked it is, but I found the exercise so thought provoking and useful that I thought I’d share it.

My Thumbelinas (inspired by Elif Shafak):

Ms. Dignified Artist
Weathering a life of both hardship and triumph, she ages gracefully. Famous photographers take black and white photos of the dignified lines on her face. Capable hands, clay under her nails. Her emotional life is intensely feminine but her assertion of voice is masculine. Clothes like a Maoist. Could forget to eat. Could live alone in the desert and kill rattlesnakes with her walking stick, its tip sharpened to a point for just this purpose. Secretly tossed in turbulent waters of insecurity and doubt. A lifetime of painful and storied relationships that never quite worked, but instead were transformed to art by alchemy.

Mrs. Trophy Wife
Eternally coiffed, nails done, fingers wrapped around the steering wheel of a luxury SUV, no tattoos, expensive clothes and lots of ‘em, feet never see a flat shoe, waist never sees a size beyond 2. She is smart enough not to care about being smart- would far rather be powerful. Uncontrolled by sentiment, she’s my funniest Thumbelina. And my meanest. Lives on juice cleanses and laxatives and Chardonnay.

Miss Boozy Good Time

Fat fingers, sun damaged, inked to the gills, everything been pierced at one time or another, needs love more than money but never quite gets enough of either. Muffin tops and eyes sinking into face bloat and cleavage spilling out of the top of her shirt. 20 years and 20 lbs ago, she was so punk rock. She knew everything. She was unafraid of consequences. She was bold and ready to join the carnival and unaware that any of the other Thumbelinas existed or ever would exist. She can take it on the chin. She can laugh at herself.

Ms. Busy Busy Bookworm, Phd
She has always been most comfortable hiding behind a pair of thick-framed glasses. Her happy place is the library. Her treasure is her Grandmother’s first edition of The Magic Mountain in German. She keeps it where a picture of a boyfriend would be on her desk. She favors clothes that make her look like Sylvia Plath at Smith in the 50s, like cashmere twin sets (bought vintage of course, her adjunct professor job doesn’t allow for new cashmere). She’s a little bit chubby because she eats while she reads and she reads a lot, the pages of her books stained with peanut butter and mocha lattes. She doesn’t think about her body much at all- she feels like a head on a stick. She plans every year to go to temple for the High Holidays, to make her parents happy, to stay connected to something, but she never does. She is happiest in a world of ideas.

The Patient

She would like to think that she wears her hospital gown like Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted but more likely she looks like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She is sick. People take care of her, until they don’t. No makeup, big eyed, at odds with her body and her nervous system and always, always in pain. She watches hours and hours of television. She doesn’t eat regular meals; her days have no shape. She eats comfort food- grilled cheese, macaroni- exactly when she wants to. She likes the shades drawn. She is always planning to get better. There is always another illness.

Mrs. Mommy Martha Stewart
Tying little shoelaces (little shoes! adorable!) and cheerfully cleaning up pee accidents on the kitchen floors (everyone has accidents sometimes, honey!) making snacks and helping with homework and blowing kisses at school drop-off and texting the other moms about soccer drama. Dressed in workout wear or nouveau-hippie silverlake garb. A pretty mom. A nice mom. A mom who gets a little snarky on the wine at back-to-school night but what the hell. Full of advice. Goes to church on Sunday. Good at solving problems. Good at making quiche.

This is just a beginning.

If you feel inspired to share in the comments, I’d love to meet some of your Thumbelinas!

Life Among Ghosts

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I am in the deep desert. Deep high gorgeous painted desert. I think there is nothing in the world quite like this. Just look at it. Here we are.

My girlfriend Marti and I drove for twenty hours to get here, not counting pit stops for psychic aura readings and vortex visits and moccasin shopping. It has been a long time since I’ve taken a road trip with a friend, eating fast food with the country radio station blaring and the windows open to the desert wind. It was a blast.

We arrived Monday at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keefe lived and worked. I’m teaching at the AROHO (A Room of Her Own) women’s writing retreat here. It’s an amazing organization and a magical week. My workshop participants are brilliant and brave and have reminded me that if you want to learn something, teach it.

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My grandmother loved this part of the country and I now understand why this place is called Ghost Ranch. When the winds kick up around here you find yourself awash in memories. I’ve been walking with my grandmother’s ghost every day, talking to her. She was razor sharp and funny as hell and I’m pretty sure she’d roll her eyes at the tears I still shed for missing her. Even so, I think she would be proud of me today.

I miss my kid like crazy. I keep seeing things I want to show him- fossils and meteor craters and constellations. The colors, the clouds, the shooting stars. I will bring home stories. And lots of good rocks.