Last night, I dreamed that I was on a plane, and for some reason, the plane needed to make a stop in New York. It landed in Brooklyn, inexplicably beside the backyard of a bar I once frequented, and I looked out the window and started to cry.
This weekend was a busy one. I went to First Friday at the ICA and had drinks by the waterfront. On Saturday night, I had dinner in the South End and then went to see a great production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner, at the Huntington Theater. Sunday was spent at an apple orchard, picking apples, ogling fall foliage, and eating cider donuts. It doesn’t get much better than New England in the fall. So why the subconscious attack of New York nostalgia?
I can’t even begin to guess at the kinds of things my brain goes through when I’m asleep (later in the dream, I lost a tooth, the pieces falling out of my mouth like broken shards of pottery as I tried to hide it from the people I was with), but I’d venture a guess that my subscription to The New Yorker plays at least a tiny role.
Joe got me a subscription for Christmas two years ago, back when I was still living in New York. The issues would arrive in the mailbox every week and I would dutifully read them from cover to cover, always beginning with poring over the Goings On About Town pages, looking for readings and openings and exhibits and concerts to go see. I would look forward to seeing which restaurant would be profiled in the Table for Two section. Then I would flip through and look at all the cartoons, choose which long-form features looked most appealing. I saved the fiction for last. As in most everything else I do, my reading of the magazine was methodical, linear.
As the months progressed, my relationship with the magazine became more fraught. It seemed that as soon as I would finish one issue, another was waiting in the mailbox. I started to be more choosy about which articles I would read and which I would skim or even skip altogether. You might be thinking, “Of course! This is normal! You can’t read EVERYTHING!” But for me, it felt like a tiny failure each time I skipped an article, and eventually, entire issues.
In December, I wondered if I should ask for a renewal of the subscription for Christmas. Joe assured me that his gift had been a gift “for life,” or something to that effect. Fast forward to January when I figured out that what he actually meant was the money was scheduled to auto-deduct from our joint checking account which was by that time just my checking account. Another broken promise. ANYWAY.
When I moved to Boston in February, I updated the mailing address and began receiving The New Yorker here. I know many people all over the country read the magazine and it’s a common sight on the T, but it still felt out of place in my new Boston home. I would reflexively begin with the Goings On About Town and then realize I couldn’t attend any of the events listed there. The feeling was oddly crushing, so now I open the magazine wide, right to Talk of the Town. Even then, some of the blurbs are so specific to New York that I cringe a little. I used to get the jokes, the references, feel that tiny twinge of satisfaction knowing that I was some kind of insider. I know it’s kind of smug garbage, but it’s the truth. And it’s different now.
Now, when the magazine comes, I put it on my nightstand. Not the one on “my side” of the bed, but the other side, where there’s a stack of New Yorkers. The stack on the table by “my side” of the bed is comprised of whatever books I tell myself I’m going to read before bed–usually short story or essay collections. So there’s my “bedtime reading” and then my “primary” book, which is what I carry with me in my purse and read on my commute and during lunch breaks if I have time. Lately, I’ve been feeling so neglectful of my stack of New Yorkers that I’ve reserved Fridays to take one with me and read that on my commute instead, and usually try to finish it up over the weekend. Usually, I just end up with a pile of crumpled, half-read magazines folded down the middle, but at least I’m trying. Sure, I can also read the magazine on my phone and on my computer, but I prefer to read it in the printed form–I’m old fashioned that way. It somehow feels like I haven’t really read it if I read it online.
The holidays are creeping up on us and I’m starting to get notices in the mail about my subscription running out. I’m torn. I do enjoy getting the magazine–there are some seriously great articles and stories, and it’s always nice to get something besides junk mail. It also feels like a link to New York, in some ways, as sad and nostalgic as it sometimes makes me. But it also induces a great deal of guilt and anxiety in me–will I have time to read it this week? What if I miss an article I would have really loved?
It sounds silly, but it really does cause me stress, and I know I’m not the only one to suffer from this condition. There should be some kind of support group.
So, I have to make a decision–do I want to spend the money to renew my subscription, or should I just read the free content online and use my money elsewhere (like a gym membership)? The more I think about it, the more I think I’m going to need to cancel the subscription…
Thank you all so much for reading, and for your support, and your kindness, and your patience over these last few months. I haven’t been updating here as much as I should or as much as I want to, and lately, I’ve been using this space as a kind of catharsis/venting/writing space more than a literary style blog, and that might be confusing. It’s also confusing when I decide to post about once every three weeks. My apologies for all of that, and my gratitude for sticking with me. I can’t promise any huge changes, but I still love this blog and I want it to continue and I’d like to make it more of a priority.
That said, let’s talk about shoes!
About a year ago, I started to realize my leopard flats were more uncomfortable each time I wore them. One day, I happened to actually look at them (of course, this was in the middle of the day, after I’d been wearing them for hours, and was at work), and noticed there were holes worn straight through the soles. Whoops! I’d paid $70 for them the year before, but they weren’t very high quality, and I lived in New York City, so I guess I couldn’t have expected them to last very long.
Ever since, I’ve had my eye out for replacements, but I haven’t found any yet. It seems like a few years ago, leopard flats were EVERYWHERE. And now that I need a new pair, they’ve disappeared! There are leopard heels, and leopard loafers, and leopard sneakers–but the leopard flats have been hiding (at least the affordable ones have). I don’t normally buy shoes online because I’m afraid they won’t be comfortable, and I haven’t seen any cute leopard flats in a physical store every time I’ve looked.
But there are some cute options out there, if I’m willing to pull the trigger and take the chance on online shoe buying. Here are some of my favorite options:
Which are your favorites? Do you have any recommendations for where to find cute leopard flats?
*image via The Black Apple
There are some days when I’m walking down the street and I wonder whether people can tell that I’m a walking wound. Of course, I’m more than that, but can they see? Can a stranger on the train or sitting in the park or at the grocery store see that my heart is still tender, that it’s raw and bleeding? Can a friend?
Thankfully, those days are happening less and less. But they still happen, because wounds take time to heal, even when you take care of them the best ways you know how.
But six months ago, when I’d first moved to Boston and I was still feeling my way blindly through every day, I think I was mostly wound, even though I tried to prove otherwise. And it was that wound that wrote a letter to my favorite advice columnist, Ask Polly. I’ve read her weekly column for a long time, and her words, always cutting and honest and funny and poignant, resonated with me, no matter what the issue she was addressing. I wanted to know what she would think of my situation. I wanted to know what a stranger would say. I wanted someone to make me feel better, to make me feel less alone and flailing and confused. So I wrote her a letter.
Reading my letter, six months later, was almost as much of a shock as seeing it published. I am not cured. I am still looking for balance, but that balance is not only between anger and sadness. I still have questions that will never be answered and that leaves a gaping hole in me. There is still a part of me that gnaws, the part that shoulders the blame, but I know it’s nothing more than a demon. Mostly.
But if I wrote a letter to Polly today, it would be a very different letter. I’m not sure it would involve Joe at all. Of course, everything does, still, at some level, but it’s not everything.
The whole truth is not the letter, or Polly’s response. She gives some good advice, but a few paragraphs from me couldn’t possibly sum up the whole situation. She’s never met me, and she’s never met Joe. She doesn’t know the particulars, the countless tiny things that added up to the now. Because no one does.
I’m still processing seeing my words on the screen, without warning. I’m still trying to remember the place I was in when I wrote the letter, trying to think about what I was looking for. I’m wondering if he will read it, I’m worrying that he will read it, I’m wanting him to read it. Because when someone you loved the only way you knew how, and then some, cuts you out of their lives completely, there is no response but becoming a wound. But time and friends and family and love and generosity and wisdom and acceptance and words all have healing power, and together, they can start to heal that wound, and I’m so fortunate to have an abundance of all of those things in my life.
There are some parts of Polly’s response I don’t believe are true. There are some things in my own letter I no longer believe are true. But there are true things in both. The most important takeaways, though, for me, are that I am more person than wound. I am stronger and more assured and more hopeful and less scared than I was when I wrote that letter. And in six more months, I will be even better.
I struggled with whether to “go public” with my letter and Polly’s response. But, in the end, I believe that we learn from our mistakes, and my mistakes, as well as my achievements, are all a part of my experience. And I need to write about my experiences in order to fully process them. So I’m owning this experience, claiming this wound. I was there; that happened to me. But I’m not there anymore. I’ve moved on. And there are far better things ahead than those I’ve left behind. (Except Chief–he’ll always be the best.)
I’ll let Polly sum it up:
This tragic turn in your life gouged a big scratch across you. Own that scratch, the anger and the sadness there. Tell the truth about what it did to you. Because it was a gift, this premature exit from a fantasy world. It was your passage to a better life, lived among real people with heart and substance, where tarnished things are good enough, where you are good enough. You are good enough. You are good enough, right now. You are good enough. You are.
With The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison shows with grace, candor, intelligence, and skill, that it’s possible to build an entire essay collection around empathy, a concept many don’t truly understand.
The collection has been a huge success for Graywolf, the small press that published it, and has generated a lot more praise and buzz than most literary essay collections. But I really became curious about it after I read Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” online at the Virginia Quarterly Review. In it, she lists some classic examples of female suffering and pain–Miss Havisham, Anna Karenina, Sylvia Plath. Women are fragile and broken–but we are also mythologized for that pain. The pain is all a part of the pleasure–or so the canon would have us believe. Jamison then pushes into her own history of pain–a topography of various scars, some of which were self-inflicted by cutting:
I used to cut. It embarrasses me to admit now, because it feels less like a demonstration of some pain I’ve suffered and more like an admission that I’ve wanted to hurt. But I’m also irritated by my own embarrassment. There was nothing false about my cutting. It was neither horrifying nor productive. I felt like I wanted to cut my skin, and my cutting was an expression of that desire. There is no lie in that, only a tautology and a question: What made me want to cut at all?
And that’s the question–there is a kind of glory in suffering, a kind of pride in pain, but why do we do it? Why do women, in particular, seem to be cast in the role of the sufferer? But on the flip side, there’s a generation of what Jamison calls the “post-wounded,” those jaded women who won’t admit to hurting because to do so would be to admit weakness. An alternate title for the essay could be, “The Double-Edged Sword of Female Pain.”
I bought the book as a treat for myself. I bought it in the bookstore on Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg’s main drag, after a morning of crying and trying not to cry and shaking and hating being back in Brooklyn. It was the first time I’d been back, really, since I’d left, and it was hard and it made me have to confront things I didn’t want to confront. I said goodbye to one friend before she moved across the country, and had difficult conversations with other friends. I realized I’m never going to see Chief again. I dragged my rolling suitcase from the East Village to the Upper East Side to Prospect Heights to Williamsburg to Midtown and finally back to Boston, nearly never happier to be home.
And on that bus ride back to Boston, I read and read. And I thought about empathy, what it means to truly feel for someone else. Empathy is commonly confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone else, and while it’s not necessarily a bad emotion, it’s not empathy. Empathy is when you can truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes, can feel someone else’s pain and situation from their perspective. Empathy, when it comes down to it, is a rare bird indeed.
Jamison’s collection ranges from her experiences as a medical actor–a person who pretends to be someone else to demonstrate certain symptoms for medical students; to a “ghetto tour” you can take through the Watts section of Los Angeles; to being punched in the face in Nicaragua; to corresponding and visiting a prison inmate; to an exploration of Morgellon’s Disease, a mysterious ailment that plagues thousands–and no one believes them.
I find myself thinking of the essays a lot this week, reading about what’s happening in Gaza, what’s happening to refugee children on our own borders, what’s happening to people in the Ukraine–the list goes on and on and on, lately. And I wonder if something like empathy is even possible in the face of such tragedy and violence. I’d like to think it is, but most days, I’m not sure.
But the book. The book is stunning in its range, its emotion, its intelligence and honesty. It was precisely what I needed to read on that bus ride from New York to Boston. It was a reminder that there are countless kinds of pain and an equally complicated number of reactions. I can only hope that more of it is met with empathy.