The Coupling Constant

I’m at that age. I’m at the age where everyone is coupling up. The age where things are done in couples. It crept up on me. I didn’t realize that this was a new baseline until it was impossible to ignore. I found myself on a long weekend trip of 11 people, five pairs of these 11 were (surprise!) couples. Let me add by saying that one of the sources of entertainment of the weekend was pairing up the lonely lingering one. The Couples were expected to do the entire weekend together. Maybe they normally do anyway. Still, the declared status of togetherness was overwhelming. People now come in pairs.

I found the realization disturbing whether or not you define yourself as being one half of a couple. It’s something that you don’t necessarily realize or care about when it’s just you and the other person. You’re wrapped up in life with this other person. Me and you. I suppose that’s what companionship is taken to mean. But with a group of couples, it seems to morph into something else. Navigation of the social space is different. You’re attached. You’re expected to know one another, complement one another, and present this to the world.

Now, I’m finding it a rarity for people not to be paired up. It’s all too tangible that this is the age where I should expect my peers to have significant others, husbands, and wives, if not families. Too many times in the past month have I already made decidedly wrong assumptions.

“So, you have roommates?”

“No, I have a family.”

“Oh…yeah, those are like roommates…”

It’s a different frame of mind. People come in pairs. Whether it’s the natural course of life, I’m open to debate. Companionship is, of course, a goal from a young age. It’s rooted in humans as the ultra-social species, perhaps even in our wiring for survival. The challenge of it all is maintaining independence and individuality within the couple, even if we’re horribly attached.

On the Brink.

I’m on the brink. I can feel it coming soon, the barrage of events that happen that make you realize that time is passing and life is happening.

“He’s sick, just old age illness,” she says. “He looks pale and slow and sad. I go to see him more often now to cheer him up. He seems happy when I’m there. I washed my car at his house, and he sat on the stairs to watch me. He’s a lot quieter. I asked him to go for a walk, but he doesn’t want to anymore.”

In a span of just a few months, I find myself making mental estimates as to how much time I might have left – how much time I might have left for them to meet my own children. The too real possibility is that there’s not enough. But I’ll make sure to go as soon as I can. Is Thanksgiving too late? Or maybe he will play with my hypothetical little ones.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt the urgency to get to a certain life stage. It started a little over a year ago, when my mom started making more regular trips to the emergency room than I’d like. I was suddenly acutely aware of what I was not doing. I wasn’t moving forward, progressing toward something worth building. And while I wasn’t doing that, I also wasn’t there, near her, as life is happening.

Just a few years ago, I wanted to travel – travel for work, travel for fun, and by travel, I meant live. Because how do you really learn a place unless you spend some real time there, with real people? Now I find that I’m struggling to find a way back, to somehow compromise the two. For someone who wouldn’t call herself a world traveler, my life is decidedly across borders, across several. My closest friends are scattered about in such a way that I think I’ll never find one place to be fully home. And now, so is my family.

So how do I find my way back? I’m convinced that it’s a matter of priorities. Yes, I may be in the middle of a doctoral program. But life is happening and it’s not waiting for me to be ready. For essentially my entire life, school has been at the center. (This is clearly where the Asian mother shoulder angel presents herself in all her glory.) Education is the key. Education is what will bring you far in life. Education is what no one can take from you. While all of that may be true, school alone is not life. It’s one facet. (This holds for work and career too, or just in general. I know, I’m late.) Still, in a household where education stood high above all else, it took quite a bit of time to re-work that perspective when I was out there on my own. While school happens, and will happen, life is happening.

So I’m on the brink of change – realizing the change in perspective, putting thoughts and words into actions. I’m moving forward. I’m building something. And for the first time, I’m consciously putting life first. Not because it fits into my school schedule, but because it’s important, central to connecting with people, building my world and theirs into something worthwhile.

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Sprouts

Something occurred to me as I was standing on the bus this morning, staring out the window, cramped between my fellow commuters.

I’ve never had to work at a relationship.

In my mid-twenties, I have never had to actively work and plan and strategize to keep a relationship alive and breathing and growing. Maybe this is normal, both the phenomenon and realization. But I’ve never had to – until now.

I have friends. But really, friends are selected and optional. There are people I get along with, who see the world as I do, have similar values and life goals. But friends and acquaintances can be and often are ultimately phased out if they’re not working for your life.

On the other hand, there’s family. Within this realm, there are a few kinds. Those who are way off in the distance, where it doesn’t matter whether your answer to their “how are you” is the reflexive “good” or the real answer.

Then, there are the ones in places of authority – namely your parents – and everyone’s supposed to have good relationships with your parents or else you’re deemed the kid with problems. So you maintain an amicable relationship with the parent, well, because it just makes life easier. Perhaps it’s simply an issue of acceptance.

And then, there are the ones where you’re needed. Whether as a friend, confidante, or supporter, as family, as the only one who can be there, you’re needed and yet the only connecting factor between the two of you is that you share some of the patterns in your respective genomes or were in the same four walls of each other as one or both of you was potty training. Apart from these characteristics, if you ran into each other in the world (already unlikely given your vastly divergent trajectories), it’s probable that you wouldn’t say more than a few words to each other. And would probably, in that interaction, judge each other a little bit. Or a lot.

It’s the last one I’m talking about here. For a long time, I took it for granted that the relationship would just happen. The world would happen naturally and work out perfectly because that’s what the world does in my world. But it hasn’t. And so I’ve recently realized that I have to work at it. Consciously making decisions to cultivate its little sprouts. I’ve never had much of a green thumb. This is hard work.

And it got me thinking then about the relationships that we’re “stuck” in. We don’t have choices in these. Even if at one time, the getting stuck was voluntary – like marriage. The thought of divorce is depressing. Even if the rates are looking optimistic, it still seems all too common. So we say, “they should have worked harder at the relationship.”

But then, we only get good at doing things that we practice. And how many people in their mid-twenties have had real practice at consciously working at relationships? At understanding another person? At being truly awake to their views and differences, no matter how seemingly well you know them? I’m talking about the necessary relationships, the ones that need to flourish, or you and everyone around you will suffer very real, long-term consequences. I’d venture to say few. We’re programmed to take the path of least resistance alongside being entrapped in this ideal that our own pursuits of happiness justify our choices at single points in time, even those at the expense of others.

As I got off the bus this morning, despite the anxious days and tear-filled nights, this is something to be thankful for. It’s life practice. Practice to build beautiful, rewarding relationships that only pressure me to grow. All the pressure and care will be worth it. We will only reap benefits and smell the sweet blooms when it’s all over. And maybe it will never be over. I’m ready for that too.

Spirals

I had to explain the concept of a spiral yesterday. I’m talking about the mental ones that rapidly devolve into the same black hole of self-hate and pity despite its origins. When it really is a dark abyss because the periphery of your vision becomes blurry, and the blinders focus on all of the miserable inconsequence of all that you do and ultimately are.

I gave examples.

You know, when you question whether this is what you want. And it has to be because, if it weren’t, than what the hell are you doing right now, here? Why do you have to sit through these anxiety-ridden situations with people you don’t understand and who don’t understand you? You could be frolicking in Dolores Park with a beautiful brown-eyed hipster who you don’t care about seeing tomorrow or talking to ever again for that matter. So this has to be what you want. But at the same time, you don’t fit here, do you? Do you really not fit? Or is it all in your head?

You know, when you question whether you should have come here? Or whether it was a huge uncomfortable mistake? And it probably was, because otherwise, this would be easier. But is the challenge all in your head? Something wrong with you? It must be because this seems so much easier for everyone else. And then, it’s your fault again. All of your shortcomings and inability to just deal with what life is, in this moment. But it might all be in your head. And then there’s something wrong with you.

You know, when you just had to say something, but didn’t. And with that omission, you are lacking. People think less of you. Or maybe you said too much. You couldn’t just hold it in, just for a few more seconds just to think about it to yourself. And you’re again reminded that you don’t fit here. You don’t know how to deal with this situation. But then, how much are people really judging you by it? Usually people are wrapped up in their own thing, but sometimes, they’re not. Or maybe other people really are more forgiving than you are of yourself. Perhaps.

And the worst and best part of the whole spiral, maybe because it’s the end, for now – could you just get a grip and get your shit together and get over it? Because if you don’t, you’re going to be forever anxious and afraid, consumed by others’ perceived judgment when it’s your own self-absorption that makes you think that they’re really thinking about you for more than a couple of seconds. And you’re not that. You can’t be.

One’s own head might be a horrible place to be alone, especially mine. And I am most often alone by preference and sometimes by necessity. But everyone goes through spirals – spirals of shame, of self-hate, of inadequacy. Whatever you’d like to call it. It happens when we challenge ourselves, push ourselves out of our comfort zone, and hopefully learn something for it – hopefully for something we want. Or maybe that’s what I need to tell myself. Maybe I need to know that all of this will somehow be worth it. So here I am, forcing some perspective, to fix my head.

Gate 43

Newly polished shoes, he sits there drinking his 5 o’clock beer next to the family of four eating breakfast. Two strangers share an intimate conversation over coffee. The woman in the red heels nervously fixes her hair in a hand-held mirror. Probably off to see a love interest. There’s a girl crying just outside the restaurant. Minimal effort at concealing the tears. Leaving something behind. Family? Friends? Love? Herself?

There’s something about airports that makes them a concentrated microcosm of human experience. People are either leaving something behind or going towards something or, often, both. Excitement, dread, joy, sorrow, anxiety, banality- all of these coexist in the context of overpriced water and kitschy souvenirs.  Somewhere in this world, there’s a girl who knows more about me than some of my friends do because we shared a 9 hour layover in the New Delhi airport. Her name’s been long-wiped from my memory, her face is a blur, her hair could’ve been blonde or not, but her story, her feelings at the time- these I remember with vivid detail. The same level of detail with which I can recount a conversation over wine with a man who would slip in an out of life randomly, purely by happenstance, for years until finally one day, he called my name at an airport. Both waiting on delayed flights going in opposite directions, we swapped our vastly different feelings about a shared sadness we’d both experienced in our own ways. A sadness we’d both been dealing with throughout all those chance run-ins and late-night sing-alongs. A sadness that had never been revealed until the airport effect washed away standard conversation decorum and left in its wake, something raw and emotionally unfiltered.

And then there’s today.

In some ways, it’s appropriate- even poetic- that my drawn-out breakup culminated in an airport goodbye.  It’s interesting to me that the very thing I was trying to get away from by embracing the relationship at the start, is the same thing I’m going towards after entangling myself in a web of feelings and expectations and shared experience. It’s difficult and painful to extract yourself from another person’s world, especially when you can see and feel how it might be hurting them, but the trust you have to have in yourself to know that the disentanglement is necessary, can be a powerfully grounding force.  Our intertwined worlds gave us both (I hope) greater vision and a more robust understanding of the world we want to exist in. Not only did I get to share my world and experience someone else’s, which is always a gift, but through it, I also learned myself better. My decision-making feels more firm. My lifestyle, more purposeful. My values, more clear. Despite the headache I have from being the girl crying outside the restaurant, I would do it all over again because it’s become a part of the person I’m working towards being. At first, I was hoping to avoid feeling the hurt that comes with a breakup, but now… Now, I’m happy to feel it. I’m happy to know that my time was spent well, that it mattered, and that because of it, I will be better. And hopefully, he feels the same.

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You have always been the place you need

For more than two years, a poem has bounced around my head. It has nearly one million views and I suspect at least 300 of those views are mine. Each time I watch the poem, it catapults in a previously unconsidered direction and reverberates for days, leaving behind bits of new understanding.

This poem is called “The Type” and it is by the poet Sarah Kay. It is a love poem, but it is not the love poem that I wanted or expected. This poem is not about romantic love, though it is not dismissive of it. This is a poem about self-love. This is a poem about settling into yourself.

For context, this poem was inspired by a line in the poem “Detail of the Woods” by Richard Siken: “…Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else.” Without going into detail, I will say that for all of the years of my adulthood, I’ve been searching for a place to call my own. When you are searching for this place, the danger (and I fall into this), is to mistake romantic love, or the possibility of romantic love, or just romance, or sometimes simply attention, for a more basic type of love. It feels almost reflexive to do this, to accept a mismatched love as the answer to a larger question.

The poem says what I don’t want to hear. Maybe this is because I want to feel special and her words make flirtatiousness and romance and even love seem secondary to something else. Maybe this is because I recognize my own mistakes in some of what she says.

…Sometimes it is not you they are reaching for…but their hands found you first.

…Do not mistake yourself for a guardian, or a muse, or promise, or a victim, or a snack.

…You are not the answer. You are not the problem. You are not the poem, or the punch line, or the riddle, or the joke.

Kay’s words mean different things to me at any given time, but the constant lesson is that romantic love alone will not fill my gaps or reveal my place. At the most basic level, only I can do this for myself. I don’t know when I’ll get there, but I have the tools I need. Finding my place is not mutually exclusive to romantic love (because come on, we want to find that too!!), but I will continue to watch this poem over and over to remind myself that, as Kay says, I need a place to call my own, but at the most fundamental level, I have always been the place.

– M

Drive.

I’ve experienced something new this week. I’ve found out what it means to be a man. Specifically, what it means to have the distracting tunnel vision that seems to cloud logical thought and reason all because of sex – “the sex drive of a man,” if you will. Now, moving past the inherent sexism of using those words together to suggest that women’s libidos are typically meager (as this is definitely not the case), let’s accept it for the time being for the sake of understanding each other.

So, I’m having major struggles. Work is not going efficiently at the moment. I need to talk about this. And I have a thought, eyes wide – is this what men deal with everyday, all the time?

So, of course, I ask the experts. Evidence from my small sample size suggests that the short answer is: yes.

From this, I only have more questions alongside greater empathy for the constant struggle. For example, how do you regularly cope with wanting sex multiple times a day, at least every couple of days? How do you concentrate for more than 20 minutes? What is the “typical” ideal frequency of sex? What do you do when your partner isn’t up for sex as much as you’d like? How do you deal with this issue in a long distance relationship? I only have more questions and my newly found respect.

Maybe I’m a little late to the party. It’s taken me some time to deal with other issues before having the capacity to embrace different aspects of who I am and confront the minute details of my sexuality. While it’s only been a few weeks of this awareness, I have a sneaking suspicion that this may well be my steady state. Over these past few weeks, I’ve reaffirmed my understanding that life inevitably changes and wants, desires, and states of mind, fluid – matters of perspective. Like many questions, answers to mine are understandably different from person to person. Luckily, I have ample time to figure them out for myself.

For now, I’m just going to loop This Summer’s Going To Hurt Like a Motherfucker. Foreboding? Perhaps.