Love stories

(crossposted from Facebook)

I used to maintain a really rigid separation between friendships and romantic relationships, and was confused and made vaguely uncomfortable by people who seemed more able to smoothly interpolate between the two, even just people who were able to cuddle casually with people that I couldn’t tell if they were dating or not.

In retrospect, I think I interpreted any interaction in a romantic direction as something like a promise to play out the full plot of a love story, so going in that direction and then stopping or retreating felt like a huge rejection to me. I wasn’t even able to send people messages on OkCupid because of this. There was something deeply important to me about playing out the full plot of a love story; I think there was a kind of safety I only felt if I thought I was on track to someone falling in love with me and staying in love with me.

But in fact every time I thought someone would stay in love with me I’ve been wrong. The safety I’ve looked for in that narrative has never actually been there. And being so caught up in the narrative made it harder for me to see what was actually happening in my relationships, and made it harder for me to see my partners for who they were rather than for who I needed them to be in my love story.

These days I’ve been looking more carefully at the narratives I have around love, and trying to take them as object. And on the one hand I feel a lot of freedom now to explore romantic and sexual flavors of relating outside the boundaries of my narratives. It feels exciting and growthy. But on the other hand I feel unmoored. Outside of the stability and comfort my narratives promise I am directly confronting not knowing what I can expect from people, and not knowing how our relationships will grow and change as we grow and change, and I feel scared and anxious about that. I’m still learning to sit with all of this.

Nourishment

(crossposted from Facebook)

So, maybe you went to a workshop or something recently and learned something that could really enrich your life and the lives of the people around you – the importance of emotional honesty, for example. You’re excited, and you want to tell everyone about it. How might that look?

It might look like judgment. “Everyone is so fake. What we need is more honesty and realness!” I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel encouraged to try new things when people start out by telling me how bad I am.

It might look like advice. “The next time you’re in a conflict with someone, just open up about yourself!” I think people dramatically underestimate how hard it is to give good advice that people will actually use; what’s easier is to fall into a familiar pattern of what advice sounds like.

It might look like abstraction. “When people are really honest with each other, incredible things can happen!” But there’s something about this that’s hard to grab onto.

All of this is fine and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do it. I like hearing people be excited. But there’s something that each of these responses have in common I want to talk about. It’s like they all create a kind of distance between me and you. This is clearest with judgment; when you judge me, you’re placing yourself above me. But advice and abstraction also create distance; you’re placing yourself in the role of a teacher to my student.

That was abstraction just now, so I’ll get a little closer. I’ll tell you what I want: what I want is for you to get a little closer to me too.

When you come across a stunted tree in the forest, you might dream of making it healthier and stronger. But you’re not going to get there by judging the tree for being stunted, or giving it advice about how to grow, or talking to it about how amazing growth is. What you can do instead is nourish the tree. You can keep its soil rich with nutrients. You can help it get enough water. You can show it the sun. And the tree can grow, and how it grows is not up to you, and that’s okay.

That was advice. (I don’t want to go all the way back to judgment.) I’ll try to get a little closer again: I cherish the part of you that wants to share what you learned to make everything better. I hope you cherish it too. I hope you keep looking for what nourishes you, and keep learning how to offer nourishment to the people around you too.

Pain in school

(crossposted from Facebook)

I proctored a linear algebra midterm yesterday. The professor and I talked for a bit about the surprisingly high number of students who couldn’t make it because they were sick. Other than possible fakes (they definitely weren’t all fakes, one of my students had a doctor’s note saying he had developed a nerve problem), my sense was that the students just felt susceptible to being sick to me, because of how stressed out / burnt out / depressed they were.

I had a conversation with a student in office hours a few weeks ago which started out with her asking me how to do a homework problem and ended with her telling me that she came to UC Berkeley because it was the most prestigious school she got into and she thought she could handle the math program, but she kept running into things she couldn’t understand in the course, didn’t have much extra time to study, couldn’t afford a tutor, and overall felt like she was maybe too stupid to do math after all, and also maybe she was stupid for not listening to one of her teachers who told her not to go to UC Berkeley. My heart broke. I didn’t know what to tell her or how to help her.

When I feel into what my students are feeling, none of it feels good. Stress. Anxiety. Nervousness. Fear. A sense of not knowing what to do or what their place in the world is. A disconnection from their power. Shrinking away. It hurts to stay with them because I don’t know how to help them; I can’t do it for too long.

I want to tell them that it doesn’t have to be this way. That if they actually understood the insane structure of the game they’re killing themselves to try to win, they’d burn the whole thing to the ground in a night. That they were meant for greater things than sitting hunched over, still as the dead, at 6pm on a Wednesday in a crowded classroom.

My favorite moment of the midterm by far was the moment that it ended. The students came alive again. Suddenly it felt like I was in a room that had people in it.

I hope they had fun last night. I hope they laughed and cried and loved each other. I hope they don’t lose sight of how important that is.

Pain on Facebook

(crossposted from Facebook)

I’ve been posting a lot of darker stuff about pain and trauma lately, and I’m grateful to all of you for your responses to it. I hope people aren’t worried that I’ve been in a lot of pain lately (although that would be okay); actually this past month has been one of the most joyful in my entire life (and once I understand how that happened I’ll try to write about it too).

I’ve been focusing on pain for a few reasons. One, because it helps me understand and heal myself. Two, because I think there’s a hell of a lot of unacknowledged pain out there, especially male pain, and I hope me publicly naming and holding it can help some of you understand and heal yourselves, too. Three, because I’m done with not saying what I want to say.

But four is specific to the dynamics of Facebook: in the same way that I think talking about pain here can be healing, I worry that talking about joy can be harmful. I worry that it reminds people of what they don’t have in a way that’s not healing, especially the further they are from me socially. And I worry that there’s already an imbalance of people talking about their joy but hiding their pain, which I want to rebalance.

I’m left genuinely unsure about how, if at all, to celebrate the joys in my life publicly on Facebook. I’d be curious to hear opinions, especially from people who do feel hurt by reading about all the good things happening to their friends (message me if you don’t want to write about this in public). Thanks in advance for any contributions.

 

A portrait of a man in pain

(crossposted from Facebook)

(Written after Day 1 of volunteering at the Authentic Man Program.)

A man craves love, desperately, the way a bird craves the sky. But a man’s life is barren of love. The men around him are afraid of loving him and each other; they have never been shown how. The women worry about him, but it’s not the same, or there aren’t any. He dates, or not, but it doesn’t last. If love stumbles its way into a man’s life, unexpected and sublime, he gropes at it clumsily and it slips through his fingers.

A man, thinking of love, feels fear. A man feels grief. A man feels despair. A man feels rage. All of these are unacceptable, and so he disowns them. Who could love a man’s face made ugly by fear, or grief, or despair, or rage? Who could love so much pain in a man? A man locks away his fear, his grief, his despair, and his rage, and sinks them as deep in the ice as he can.

A man wanders through his life, frozen and alone. A man finds it easy to keep doing this. In time his pain can become a distant memory. He can take comfort in the ice. But he is unsatisfied (being unsatisfied is acceptable) about something.

One day a man might follow his dissatisfaction back to the ice. A man might stare at the ice. A man might take a deep breath, and blow out slowly onto the ice. A man might see the ice begin to melt. A man might be scared shitless of the flood to come.

And so the work begins.

The divine

(crossposted from Facebook)

Hunt the divine. Smell its scent on the wind. Strain your ears to hear its voice. See its shadow on the ocean waves. Find the tracks left behind by the divine in mud, in broken branches, in dying birds.

When you find the divine, dash it against the rocks and suck the marrow out of its bones. Fill yourself with the divine. Taste the salt of its blood. Digest the divine. Shit the divine. Smear it on your face.

The divine is radiant power. The divine is blinding horror. The divine is roaring pain. The divine will destroy you. Welcome it.

When the divine looks you in the eye, hold it closer than a lover. Crush the unbearable sweetness of the divine against your hips. Worship the divine with your mouth, your hands, your spine, with everything in you that knows how to love. Fuck the divine. Hold nothing back.

Sing the divine. Dance the divine. Cry the divine. Scream the divine.

An apology to every woman I’ve ever dated

(crossposted from Facebook)

Happy Valentine’s day. I’d like to issue the following apology to every woman I’ve ever dated:

I am sorry for casting you as the love interest in my movie.

● ● ●

For most of my life, my understanding of how romance was supposed to work was centered around four archetypal characters: let’s call them

  • the Jock,
  • the Cheerleader, 
  • the Nice Guy, and 
  • the Nice Girl.

All of these characters are white. The Jock and the Cheerleader are blonde and the Nice Guy and Nice Girl aren’t. The Jock and the Cheerleader start out dating each other and bullying the Nice Guy and / or the Nice Girl. The Nice Guy and Girl gradually fall for each other even though the Nice Guy is kind of a goofy dork, and maybe something bad happens to the Nice Girl and the Nice Guy rescues her from it, and then happily ever after or something. Along the way maybe the Jock and the Cheerleader break up because they deserved it.

I believed that it was my job to

  • never be the Jock (because he’s Bad / superficial / popular / cares about looks / cares about sports and being physically strong / too masculine),
  • never pursue the Cheerleader (because she’s Bad / superficial / popular / cares about looks / cares about being sexy / too feminine),
  • aim to become the Nice Guy (because he’s Good / not popular / sensitive and emotional / looks beyond physical appearance), and
  • aim to “win” the Nice Girl (because she’s Good / not popular / sensitive and emotional / appreciates the Nice Guy).

I also believed that as long as I stuck to this script, my relationships would basically work out fine and I would get my happily ever after. Needless to say, that is not what happened.

I didn’t understand for the longest time how the thing I was doing to my partners was taking me out of contact with them; I couldn’t see them for who they were because I was too busy seeing them as the role I wanted them to play in the story of my life. Even when I was trying to be emotionally sensitive and understanding, in large part it was driven by my need to perform my own role, the emotionally sensitive Nice Guy boyfriend.

(Separately, refusing to be the Jock held me back in a lot of ways, that’s a whole other post: it’s the reason I was not supposed to care about fashion or fitness, and also the reason I was not supposed to ever openly exhibit sexual desire.)

My edge right now is being fully present with a woman, experiencing attraction and affection for her if that’s what’s there, without making it the opening scene of anything, without layering over the moment a tired narrative that draws me into old patterns and blinds me to the full humanity of the person in front of me and the connection we’re sharing.