Monday, September 23, 2013

other people's husbands, other people's kids

After completely rocking out to this weekend's amazing Ian Hunter concert at the amazing City Winery, I spent Saturday morning sulking, rudely sending work emails in the last moments of my parents' visit, yelling at my husband (battered by wine and reduced to a sad sprawl in his bed) and losing-then-finding my last student loan check.

But also! I did: use essentially my entire first full paycheck to make a massive credit card payment, so I can start paying down my student loans; spend the rest of Saturday feeding my child, napping, building the Best Stack Ever of library books for the week; and volunteering first at a nursing home for kids and then as a group home for young moms and their babies/toddlers. Mac made an older friend and ground cake into their couches; I tried to sympathize with a woman attempting to parent a three-year-old and a three-month-old simultaneously.

I also read about, then argued with my husband about, the latest post on the ever-intriguing blog Polyskeptic. Which, in turn, generated its own navel-gazing about my own marriage, one, and my general skepticism about polyamory, two.

I don't really know why this is something that interests me. It's not the kind of lifestyle choice that has any bearing on my own life; I have the remarkable luck of having married the best person on the planet. I imagine kids who use their Columbia acceptances letters for the purpose of attending law school at Columbia, for example, probably don't spend a lot of time wondering about the road less taken. Over here in Brooklyn, I never get a bagel at Bergen Bagels and then wonder if I needed to play the breakfast-carb field more. (Although if that field exists you must call me now oh my God). Or go to the library and then wish I'd been more openminded about how to spend my afternoons. I have simple tastes: just give me the Platonic ideal of breadstuffs, weekend diversions, spouses, and I don't want anything else. If we had world enough and time, I'd still be hard pressed to explore the world beyond BPL, bagels, and my boo.

But you know. I do find it helpful, sometimes, to think about why I want such different things from other people, and how those differences inform my understanding of my own choices.

Fundamentally, for me, the benefit of being married isn't that it makes my life better. That it does is undeniable: I'm less lonely, more human, more happy, more functional. But the mechanism by which most of that happens has to do with the fact, now that I am married, there exist these shimmering and rare little moments in which my own well-being is no longer my priority. 

In my best moments -- in the moments that demonstrate to me that marriage and life and my efforts, chaotic and ambivalent as they are, to live my life in accordance with my value system, occasionally bear fruit -- I find myself capable of wanting things one way, but actively working to make them another way, in an effort to make life easier or more enjoyable or more comfortable for my partner. To some people, I can only presume, this comes easily. Those people should write blogs! I would certainly read them!

For me, this is the difference between marriage and other kinds of relationships, the ones I'm able to control more easily by remaining peripheral: I don't get a break to go be selfish and then return to the relationship later, when I'm in a better space. I don't get to decide that I'm taking my damn toys home and leaving if I'd really rather have things my way than play well with others. I don't get a pass on checking out when my husband gets sick or drinks too much or loses someone and is nearly-destroyed by grief. Unlike when I was dating, there's this imperative to behave well even when it's not getting me what I want, even when the people around me aren't behaving or responding how I would want. Whereas, in every other relationship of my life, when I don't want to be a brat, but I also don't want to pull myself together, I can just bounce, like I do.

So much of that is 1) exhausting and 2) predicated on being reliable, which is not a sexy value or a marketable value and therefore is pretty entirely overlooked, not least by me, at least most of the time. It makes sense to me that if I'm to put someone else first, always, then I can't making that commitment, simultaneously, to more than one person.

Some people can give that kind of love to multiple people, I gather. I'm not one, and not really interested in being one. It seems to me that one of the talking points of polyamory advocates is that this way of relating to others forces everyone to be super honest and get over "baggage" like jealousy and neediness.

To me, when I hear this, it sound like this: just effing deal with, and learn to be a grown up about, the fact that ultimately, you may need someone and that person may not be there. Which is a truth, yes -- but a shitty, hard truth, one I'd like to encounter as infrequently as possible, and from which I'd like to shield those I love as often as I can.

This, I think, is a fundamental difference between myself and most of the (few!) people I know, or whose writings I follow, who prefer to commit to multiple people at once, and most often conditionally (I think that most polyamorous people are also advocates of leaving "non-functional" relationships, though I could be wrong about that. I'm not an advocate of this, in part because I play fast and loose with phrases like "non-functional" and would have left my own marriage about fifteen times by now if I let its future be determined by how I feel about Things at any given point in time.)

I don't want my spouse to need me, and to not be there, because I have my hands full with someone else who has a similar claim on me and who also needs me -- or (and I'm not saying this happens more in polyamorous relationships, only that, my view of human nature being what it is, I think the opportunity that polyamory provides for this is something of a moral hazard) because my other Most Important Person wants to provide me with stimulating conversation and delicious wine, and all you want is for me to sit with your stifling and ugly grief over tasteless sandwiches three weeks after everyone else has moved on. What happens when your two or three or four most important people have losses back to back? Who gets to find someone else to see them through that?

Most of all, my primary interest at this point in my life is getting over my pervasive selfishness. I am so self centered that the most innocuous and unrelated enterprises have a way of fading into the Amanda Show. The reason that new relationships feel fun and good, often, is that you're suddenly a star, every aspect of your precious self new and amazing and novel.

The parts of me that crave that are not the parts that I want to cultivate. I'm sorely in need of practice in loving people whose function in my life is more substantial, and less immediately gratifying, than fixing me in their fuzzy gaze, a la every poignant-wistful mid-nineties cultural reference ever, and reflecting a sexy/vulnerable/insubstantial image of myself back to me. Dating, for me, is the lowest common denominator of social interaction. I love being married not only because it happily precludes dating -- the biggest, shiniest get-out-of-jail-free card ever -- but also because the experience of withholding from myself the cheap gratification of That Guy Thinking I'm Pretty is the glorious antidote to the soul - crushery of dating.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

remember Paris, Part 1

Like so many of the "yeah, I did that" episodes in my life -- living in New York, having my son, not being bulimic, nursing school -- my trip to Paris was catalyzed by my husband. Without Z, I just never would have gone. There are about a dozen other places I've wanted to go, mostly to do some sort of volunteer program or relief work or whatever, and none of which I've actually made it to because student loans and living beyond my means and the vicious cycle I navigate with such finesse: Everything is too much and nothing is enough and eff it, I deserve and need five dollars worth of coffee, preventable malaria deaths be damned. If I can't be actively engaged in medical missions while raising eight adopted children and writing and publishing thought-provoking critical theory that is also accessible to lay-readers, I might as well be at home watching Mad Men over a three-roll combo.

So, a couple of things about that:

1. Yes, consumerism is poison. "We all" -- those of us who kvetch about our First World Problems while scrolling through memes about First World Problems -- know this, and we know we should feel guilty about it. But I spend most of my time confused about the nature of this guilt -- as I did with my eating disorder, honestly --  and thinking that the problem is this: by buying all these stupid things I am  privileging my own well being over that of other people. Shame on me! (Because shame: always a great inciter of life-affirming choices and changes.)

Actually, in my experience, the more immediate (not more significant) problem is that consumerism is poison to me.

For example: I'm a big eater of "special foods" -- those well versed in eating-disorder language might call them "safe foods". Yogurt is okay, but not if it's sweetened with sugar; chinese food is okay if it is steamed, sauce on the side and ultimately unused. Bagels are okay if a certain amount of time has elapsed since one last ate carbs; sliced bread is a problem, but bread crusts can be torn off and eaten if one is prone to nighttime snacking. And so forth, ad nauseam, so that often I just order sushi because I enjoy a. identifying each individual ingrediant in what I am eating, 2. allowing another person to make the exhausting and existentially-charged decision of how much food I "deserve" to eat.

This obnoxious and unproductive little mindfuck is sustained in no small part by my insistance that, when the going gets tough, the tough throw up their hands, run for an hour, and order sushi ten minutes before the restaurant closes, because weighing more than a hundred fifteen pounds and cooking and eating dinner with one's family and before eight o'clock all feel intolerable.

Insofar as there is a root cause of my bulimia -- there's not, but it's a useful little story, so indulge me -- it lies somewhere in this general area: I do not believe the everyday things that people enjoy and look forward to are acceptable things to value, so I do not let myself have them or notice them or enjoy them. As a rule, I mean. I don't plan and look forward to outings or shows or trips or parties. I don't buy new shoes when I'm sad -- even when that sadness stems directly from my inability to walk in my current work shoes, purchased in 2010. I get my eyebrows done when I feel too bad about them to leave my house; when I go, I look at women who are there for manicures like I'm some kind of anthropologist encountering the rituals of an unfamiliar tribe.

And when you feel this way -- that you deserve nothing, that Nothing is in fact a tangible moral imperative for you, a prop in some sort of weird and ritualistic exercise in not having -- and when, paradoxically, your response to Facebook pictures of other people's offices or children or friends is to wonder why you're not good enough for a sign on your door or another child or  for people to want to go to, and document, brunch with, and when a sandwich is an okay thing to eat at lunch, but not at dinner, and only if dinner then has no carbs in it, and only if it costs less than five dollars -- then sushi after a long, hard day, seems like the answer. And it can be easy to overlook that part of being a grown up is that most days, in fact, are kind of long and hard.

So I stopped eating sushi last week. I was inspired by my trip to Paris. Initially, I did this because I wanted to save the money to go back to Paris, but also because, in Paris, I thought much less about eating. I fought much more about it, because I was still no more inclined to eat Foods Combined with Other Foods and because their bread is delicious and terrifying and everywhere, but there was so much else going on that food just became a necessity -- and by the time I ate, I was usually hungry enough to reconsider some of my essential truths about foods, and also, it's hard to stay obsessed with breakfast when you're at the Musee D'Orsay.

I'm rolling into week two of my sushi fast, and it's hard, because eating my special foods is a compulsion and now I'm trolling for other compulsions. I'm obsessing about how much I run; on Saturday, I bought an issue of Shape magazine. But the particular consumption-compulsion that kept me going through much of the past year isn't there.

And it's clarifying for me a little how -- at least for me -- buying this thing, so I can feel this way, isn't (only, or even most immediately) an issue of social justice (I could eat sushi or, like, help dig a well in Cameroon). It's also an issue of my own quality of life, because if I'm getting through the day by imagining my run-and-sushi, I'm not calling my friends or taking comfort in the winning husband-and-child combo awaiting me each day or taking the risk of saying uncomfortable shit like:

  • I think I made a mistake. I think I made a series of mistakes and am now so far from the things I once believed I wanted that I no longer know what it is I want.
  • I think answers like, "Not my will, but His," are not meaningful in the sense I once believed they were, and I'm angry/hurt/raw over that, and I wonder if I gave up things that mattered to me in an effort to live out a belief that, in reality, is more a slogan than a principle.
  • Some days -- see my last post -- I'm genuinely excited by my job. A lot of other days, I just don't want to deal with it.

It's hard. And buying things, to eat or drink or wear or own, is a distraction, and makes it feel like things aren't so hard. But that's only because you're distracted.

So I'm trying to stop, sushi first. Because another thing I really loved about Paris is that consuming is not a project; that eating and drinking are part of everyday life, not activities. They just, you know, eat dinner. Then they go do something else. They don't really seem to understand about low-carb or gluten-free or Paleo diets, none of which seem much more healthy or normal to me than my Safe Foods diet, but all of which kind of allow eating like mine to seem life a lifestyle choice and not a symptom of a mental illness.

I'm so blessed and so grateful for my physical health -- that I feed myself, no matter what, or how weirdly, and that I don't throw up. But I'm tired of the weirdness I have about food, and the way it separates me from other people, and the way I settle for delicious sushi when I am stressed or ashamed or disappointed or entrenched in today's existential meltdown.

Sushi's really only the answer to the following problem: hunger. For September, I'm interested in figuring what other answers to non-hunger-related problems I can come up with.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Extreme Grace

I haven't written about grace in awhile -- I haven't written at all in awhile, because I've been all exploring Paris this and finishing nursing school that and by-the-by, my after-school program served full-on 216 6th graders a day this week, one of whom came up behind me yesterday and enveloped me in the Biggest Hug Ever, and it. was. amaze., considering that mostly I remember sixth grade boys as being simultaneously underwhelming and exhausting.

But here is grace: because I spiraled -- briefly, like I do -- from the kind of more expansive view of faith I referenced in my last post (remember that? hey, August Amanda!) to Total Emotional Collapse. And then, as is often the case, what seemed like the end of everything was actually just a giant paradigm shift: Oh Wow, as a certain spiky-headed compadre of mine likes to say.

So here's a few things I'm glad to have resolved for myself, things that I'm newly okay with:

  • I just have absolutely no interest in an existence structured around, and limited to, those things that can be intellectually understood, proven, and articulated discursively. Play by those rules, and you're just yanking away not just God but all my favorite things about life, like love and imagination and dreams and art.
  • It's totally possible that objective reality is a thing, but I find it entirely unlikely that an individual human can perceive it, or can see enough of it to make any but the most qualified and specific truth claims. 
  • Some people really love the challenge of trying to push fact and discourse to some sort of limit where it shows them the truth. I think that's awesome, and I will happily benefit from their technology and museums. But the things that interest me most don't have to do with discourse, logic or fact. I'd much rather use these tools to mess around with things dearer to my heart: stories, people, life and meaning. 
  • Also-also: irony may be my favorite tool of all, and it makes sense to me that if it's helpful in wrenching a position for myself in relation to say, Christianity, it's equally applicable when approaching other valuable, but incomplete, efforts at understanding the world, like rationalism, science, and the rest of modernities various little darlings. 

This is grace, and I want to pass out uncomfortably-illustrated pamphlets about it on the subway:

  • God doesn't take off because I stop thinking the things I learned about sin are true. 
  • I don't need to out-blog people who think different from me about Him, or explain in words a reality that exists outside of and before and around language. 
  • I don't need any special protection, either from people for whom the literal truth of the Bible is both assumed and necessary or from those who think that reading the Creation story as a gesture towards meaning rather than as scientific data leads directly to QED NO GOD. 

I can say: maybe I feel convinced of God and Christ's existence because I prefer a world understood on those terms, because that world -- however complex and contradictory and challenging -- is also a truer and more generative and more convincing account, for me. Yes, that is probably true.

For me, today (and hopefully moving forward, because this leitmotif is one I'd happily confine to Summer 2013), the Historical reality of a physical Jesus is just uninteresting, when instead I could attend to the experience of Christ in my life, today -- what that means for, say, prison reform or rude "stakeholders" or dealing with a screaming two year old or figuring out how to turn my essentially selfish nature towards the ongoing project of Being Married and other gettings-over of myself.

Why care so much about what Christ looked like in Galilee when clearly my day-to-day existence is screaming for some more attentive consideration of what Christ looks like accosted by panhandlers or managing a rocky start-up program in an urban middle school or as a working mom acclimating to a newly supporting-cast position in her life?

That's basically all I've got as far as apologetics go. I'm not sure what to tell people whose worldview demands that I agree with them in order to satisfy God, or that I do better at explaining myself in order to gain their permission to believe and feel the way I do about God without further intervention. Except for my Triumvirate of Most Awesome Phrases, magic with any custodians and sullen twelve year olds and aggrieved staff members alike:

I hadn't thought of it that way. 

Thank you for bringing that to my attention! 

Is there anything else you need from me?

BOOM. And 6 am came and went without an existential peep from a certain Baby of the World.

Any more grace up in this girl's life this week, and it'd be Christmas.