A confession

Sometimes I wander into bookstores for no apparent reason. And when I do this, I know before I walk in that I won’t leave without a book. I know I won’t leave without a book, and often I don’t leave without many books, and it doesn’t matter how impractical it is for me to buy it (especially if I’m buying my fourth copy of a book I know I will probably have to leave in a fourth country), I just know I need that book and I need it for my very own and I need it right that very instant.

Sometimes, when I wander into bookstores to buy a book that I probably don’t technically need, I stop at exactly the same section. It doesn’t matter what bookstore it is or if I’ve ever been to that particular store before. I go to the fiction section and I stop right at the end of the Gs and just before H begins. I stop and I find the exact spot where my books will be, and I see the names that would be on either side of mine.

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I technically don’t need and look at the books that would be surrounding my book, I pick them up and read the backs and sometimes I’m disappointed. They’re often normal, much like all other books in the store. They deal with normal people having normal problems. My stories, and you’ll know this if you’ve read them, are not normal. I have tried to write normal ones, and they’re fine – really, they are. But normal stories don’t excite me. I am constrained by reality enough in day-to-day life, why have to obey the same rules in fiction?

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I technically don’t need and I am disheartened by how normal the books are that surround where my book would be, I go and I touch the covers of books I love. I find the books that stick with me, that give me hope that strange books and literary books can be the same books, and I left myself remember them. I remember the moments that they touched me, I check out the differences between hardcover and paperback and US vs Commonwealth editions and I remember all the things they’ve given me, these books. I cling to them.

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I don’t need and am recovering from my disappointment in the normalcy of books by visiting books I think of as old friends, I remember the authors. I remember the way they talk about their stories and the silly conversations I’ve had while vaguely tipsy in a bar (often about them, but sometimes with them) and I smile. I smile because I know this is my world. I smile because I know these are my people – that we have friends and hobbies and passions in common.

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I don’t need and have spent time visiting old books and remembering authors I love because the disappointment about how normal life can be is just too crushing, I stop and remember how lucky I am. Lucky that this is my life, lucky that I have a safe haven that I can escape to, lucky that I already feel that this is my world. That there is no barrier to entry because I can already see a crack of light where the door is open and all I have to do is figure out how to open it the rest of the way.

And to be reminded of that, I think, is worth the price of a book.

Relationship Insanity; or, Getting Tired of Making the Same Mistakes

The funny thing about being single in your late twenties is that people suddenly feel like they can – and should – give you advice. As if being single is some horrible disease and with the right combination of positive thinking and flat-out refusal to accept the diagnosis, you’ll be cured. It is so ridiculously fucked up that I’m not even really going to address it, except to say this: Back off. I mean it.

But the problem is, if you’re single and don’t really necessarily want to stay that way forever, you have to do something. Dating is up there with flat hunting and applying to new jobs in my Top 3 Most Demoralising Experiences on Earth, so that’s out. I’m bad at it anyways. I just want to get past the bullshit and be able to talk, and dating just seems to be rehashing the same boring bullshit small talk over and over and over. I’ve been on one good date in my life, and I’m 99% certain the reason it was good was because we both knew I was leaving.

However, clearly the way I’m doing things isn’t working, so I got on the phone with my best friend to try to sort this issue out/ask for her help. You see, she is the person who can consistently tell me why a relationship is going to end – but doesn’t. She knows me well enough to know I’m basically not going to do shit just because somebody else says I should, so she keeps her mouth shut. Which means she both knows me well enough to know what I need and she knows that it’s very different from what I want. So when it came time to try to figure this out, she was a natural person to talk to. And what she said was that kind of lightbulb moment that you see in cartoons when suddenly everything is illuminated.

“Sarah, the thing is, I think every girl is raised on the dream that a guy will change for them. But the thing with you is, they always change for you, at least for a little while. They try, and you see that and that’s the image of them you keep in your head. I know a lot of girls who will date douchebags because they’re smart and driven, and you at least know how to pick nice guys, so you’ve got the hard part down.”

She said that and it was like – yes. Yes, that’s exactly how it goes. I feel like I’m constantly dating guys who have to try – try to be what I want, try to keep up, try try try. They try past their natural inclination, and then orders of magnitude past that. And then they’re exhausted, but I’ve seen what they seem capable of and I keep pushing. And when they go back to who they naturally are, I get confused. And I push. And each time it doesn’t work, I get more frustrated until it all falls apart.

And I’m tired. I am. I’m so tired of feeling like I need to help somebody become. I’ve got my own work to do, my own set of things to work towards. I no longer have the emotional energy to put towards their becoming. I want to see proof now. I want to see that they have laid the groundwork.

But let’s be honest: I’m a sucker for the chrysalis stage. Becoming is fascinating, and if you add in a cute smile and good banter, I’m done. So I’m not doing this on my own anymore. A few trusted friends have been notified (in writing, because there’s nothing I love so much as a legally unenforceable contract) and we’ll see where things go from here. Maybe it’ll be a failed experiment, but the next time something sparks, I want to see if it’ll catch without me constantly fanning the flames.

You have better words than “fuck”, Sarah

No, no I don’t.

No, I don’t have better words than fuck. I don’t have them because they don’t exist. I don’t have them because words like fuck have the strength that I don’t. I can’t carry the weight of things without shuddering, but fuckFuck can take it. In fact, I can take the weight of them when I whisper/say/scream FUCK just as loud as I can or as quiet as I can.

I don’t have better words than fuck when I am angry or when I am sad or when I am scared. I don’t have better words than fuck when I want to tear my hair out (or yours). I don’t have better words than fuck when I see the inevitable coming and I know I can do nothing but hunker down and wait hoping that this, too, shall pass.

I don’t have better words than fuck because I have no use for them. I have no use for flowered-up language, for using five syllables when one perfect, shining, hard-stopping fuck will do. I have no use for softening myself or my reactions, and fuck is, if nothing else, an honest reaction.

Did you hear that? I don’t have better words for fuck because I don’t want them. If the word fuck has escaped my lips, be certain I do not care if I offend. If you hear me say fuck it is because I need the slow start of the “f”, the easily-stopped first consonant that could let people off with a warning. If you hear me say fuck it is because I need to extend the word, to draw it out with that smooth, soft “u”. If you hear me say fuck, if you hear it all the way to the end, it’s because I need something to stop just as hard and heavy and strong as the thoughts going through my mind.

I don’t have better words than fuck because my words do not depend on you or your opinions. My words are strong and harsh and simple, they are a constant re-arranging of the same 26 letters we’ve all been given access to.

Fuck. That’s a beautiful thing.

This damn book is following me

So every now and then a book seems to chase me. It hunts me down and refuses to be ignored until I buy it and finish it and love it. It’s kind of annoying. And it’s happening again.

This Is How You Lose Her is watching. Waiting. It’s insisting on being read. It’s on every list I read, it’s on every shelf in every bookstore I walk into. I woke up this morning to somebody posting some Buzzfeed list about beautiful lines in literature and this happened:

“The half life of love is forever.”
—Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her

Well, fucking fine, Diaz. I’ll read your damn book. You just go ahead and put beautifully phrased truths out there and aggravate me to no end. Go ahead and make me ache early in the morning with things I can’t put into words and make me feel like I’ll never be a truly beautiful, insightful, talented writer. You just go ahead and do that, you talented jerk.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for work and I have to do it earlier than normal so I can buy a damn book.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

I like to think that I’m a pretty straightforward person. I’m honest about what I want (to a fault, sometimes), I’m honest about who I care about, I’m honest about who I am. I don’t like to pretend, I don’t like to play games, and I don’t like trying to remember what I’ve said. So I just say what I think. It’s easier that way.

But somehow, people get confused about me. They meet me and think I’m a certain way, get talking to me, and find things to validate those assumptions. And then, somewhere along the line, I say something and they do a double take. A triple take.

For example: Once upon a time, I had bright purple hair. I mean, bright purple hair. I have always been a little bit of a punk deep down inside; I love loud, angry music and piercings and tattoos more than my mother would like me to. Guys with tattoos make me stop and stare far longer than is strictly socially acceptable. If I had to draw my dream guy, he’d be tall with tattoos and a labret piercing and maybe an eyebrow piercing, just for good measure.

And so, when I finally quit my corporate job, I got the chance to really embrace that part of myself. The day after I left the office, I sat in my hair stylist’s chair and went from dark brown hair to purple. But I’d forgotten the assumptions new people make about things like purple hair. So it was a bit of a shock to me when, after a month or two of being friends, a guy I knew came back to my flat to have a couple beers and complain about school and noticed my icon of Mary and Jesus.

“Wait, is that really a picture of Jesus?”

“Yeah, it’s my icon.”

“But you don’t like…believe in that whole thing, do you?”

“Yeah. I do.”

He stopped and looked at me. “Huh. You just look like an atheist to me.”

I didn’t realize a person could look like an atheist. I didn’t realize people would draw this conclusion about me. In my head, I was clear. I had purple hair, I like things with skulls on them, I want to be a writer, I go to church every Sunday. All of these things are genuinely me, but the combination is apparently surprising.

It goes the other way, too. I’ve been told that I need to be “corrupted”, whatever that means. At 27 I am very comfortable saying I’ve done my time being wild, I’m quite content to stick with lamb dinners with port and truffles for dessert. But people (guys especially, for whatever reason) think that I’ve been like this my whole life. It wasn’t always ballet and poetry and port, I promise. There was a time when it was cheap vodka, bad beer, and stamps on my hand from seven different clubs in a night. But apparently I give off the “stick up her butt, but she’d be fun to party with if she let her hair down” vibe. My friend calls this “The Librarian Effect” which is accurate, if creepy.

What I’m realizing is that no matter how straightforward I think I am, I don’t actually have a clue who people think I am. I don’t know what assumptions they’re making about me, or what they think I really need. I just know that I like things the way they are, and whatever people think of me, it’s probably not any of my business anyways.

I geek out

Confession time: Sometimes I realize what a massive nerd I really am, and I revel in it.

When I was 15, my friend Garrett told me about a book. Well, he told me about a lot of books. And movies. Garrett was the guy I went to for that sort of thing. But this one book in particular stuck with me. We were hanging out at his house one day and he said, “Hey, you know what you need to read? House of Leaves.”

I’d tell you what it’s about, but the best way I can describe it is by saying that at the reading I went to last night, Mark Danielewski said, “It’s a book about a movie,” and the audience cracked up. I mean, sure. But it’s about more than that.

All of this is to say that last night I headed off to Blackwell’s to listen to him read and I had major butterflies. I’ve been reading his work (what little of it is out there, the man has a long and intense creative process) since I was 15. House of Leaves is, to this day, the only book to scare me so badly I still get chills when I think about it. He takes on simple moment – a book falling off a bookshelf – and makes it so scary I am freaking out a little right now just because I thought about it.

One of the things he was talking about last night was the way he wants his work to really play with media and form, how he wants it to exist in the space between image and text, the way he wants to challenge the basic idea of what can be done with text. His work is often called experimental, but he really sees himself as part of a longer tradition of writers who seek to use visual cues to clarify and intensify the reading experience (including the likes of Faulkner, before anybody thinks he’s only referencing obscure, avant garde writers).

And this is where I get to the part about me being a massive nerd. When I go to readings (and I’ve been trying to go to as many as I can lately – that’s one amazing thing about Edinburgh, there are readings just about every week), there is always a question and answer period that I do not participate in. You see, for as extroverted and social as I am, inside I’m the nervous little girl who got picked on in school. I worry that I’ll say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, ask the stupid question, and so I let this weird pressure from 12 year olds that only exist in my memory anymore stop me from asking a question I find interesting. Last week I heard Eleanor Catton read from The Luminaries and refused to ask anything because I was so nervous I’d be judged for asking a simple question, rather than something literary and complex. I just wanted to know how she handled her process – the book is meticulously plotted, the structure is intense, so was there room for surprise? Did anything in the book happen before she realized what was going on, and did it make her worry about the structure at all?

But this time I refused to be nervous. Okay, that’s a lie. This time, I refused to let my nervousness keep me from asking a question. When the floor was opened up for questions, I raised my hand. I asked my question. And nobody laughed. Nobody judged me. In fact, another girl in the audience (who had written her dissertation on House of Leaves so you know she cares deeply about his work) complimented me on it.

And this is what I realized – I’m here because I care about writing. I’m here because I want to be around other people that care about it as much as I do. I chose Edinburgh specifically because it’s a city with a deep literary tradition. I chose it because it’s the center of Scottish publishing. I chose it because every day of every week of every year there is an event going on that’s related to books. To literature. I chose a city where I could immerse myself in things like this, and the other people at these events probably feel the same way I do. The girl who wrote her dissertation on House of Leaves was truly excited to have him sign a copy of the book. I was so nervous about asking my question I had butterflies in my stomach, and when I got my copy of his new book signed and we chatted about Singlish, I had an adrenaline rush for an hour afterwards.

These are the celebrities I care about. People talk about movie stars and musicians, and I understand how they’d be exciting to meet (especially musicians that write their own music, not the people who are solely performers – what can I say? I value creativity). The people I want to meet don’t have their pictures everywhere – I wouldn’t have recognized Mark Danielewski if I saw him on the street – but they care deeply about the things I care about, and they’re passionate about their work, and their minds work in ways I want to understand.

Maybe one day I’ll sit where he was sitting, maybe not. But if so, I hope that when somebody in the front row is sitting there, too scared to raise their hand all the way for fear they actually be called on, I give their question as much consideration and respect as he gave mine.

I have the most bizarre superpower ever

Sometimes I think we all have a secret super power. Something we’re eerily good at that most people aren’t. Maybe you can figure out a recipe just by tasting the food, or you’ve never misheard a song lyric in your life. I get guys I’m not dating to propose to me.

Seriously.

There is something about me that makes guys see white picket fences. Babies. Fights over who did the laundry last time and, seriously, could you please just remember to take out the trash today? Please? It is the most bizarre and confusing superpower I have ever come across.

Confusing because, once they’re actually with me, these guys decide that no…they’d really rather not. No joke, I have had four guys propose to me, all claiming to be asking in earnest. Their plans for the future have ranged from the honest admission that “I don’t actually know what I’d do if you said yes. I’d be happy, but I don’t have it, like, planned out or anything…” to elaborately thought-out transcontinental lives. All of them involve children. And what’s funny is that sometimes I can actually picture what life would be like if I settled down with them. And all of them are very different visions of myself.

Transcontinental friend – I’d be a stay at home mom. I’d write, I’d take the kids to school, we’d cook dinner together. I’d look the part of the nerdy housewife, all jeans and Doctor Who t-shirts and MST3K jokes.

Football player – hahaha, just no. I lied. I couldn’t picture this life because it was just such a bizarre experience.

The guy who proposed less than 30 seconds after learning my name (and again later) – We’d work our asses and never see each other. What overlapping free time we had would be spent being super lazy. I’d write, I’d write a ton, in part because just being around him was so tempestuous that I’d never lack for material. I’d dye my hair crazy colours, I’d get a few more tattoos, I’d be in jeans and black band t-shirts most of the time.

The ex – It’d be nuts. He brings out the crazy in me and we’d alternate between having a lot of fun and me getting frustrated with having to manage his life and mother him. We’d run a business together. He’d be the more hands-on parent. I’d have short purple hair and pink hair and blue hair and full sleeves of tattoos and maybe even a tan.

I could be any of these women, with varying degrees of happiness. Truly, I contain multitudes.

But that’s the funny thing. I can be so many things and be happy doing so many things that it’s almost hard to pick a partner because that’s picking a life. It’s saying, “Not only am I choosing you instead of anybody else on the planet, I’m choosing the person I am with you.” It’s not that we won’t all change and grow in our lives, but once you pick a partner, you decide to grow with them, which may not be a direction you’d be inclined towards on your own. And that freaks me out. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of being with somebody long-term, but choosing a self?

Or I could just wait until I find a guy that accepts my multitudes and would be fine with me being a writer with short purple hair and only a couple of tattoos who can still host a dinner party and rock jeans or a cocktail dress as the occasion demands.

Yeah. I like that option.

It’s a cage match between history and chemistry

In one corner sits History. History has been coming here for years, doing battle, waiting for the right time. Time is, in fact, on her side. She has the full knowledge of war and violence within her, her fists carry the weight of every fight that has ever come before.

Chemistry is in the other corner, checking out her bag of tricks. Tiny changes, minor imbalances that throw the world off-kilter, that’s Chemistry’s specialty. Mess up the equation, screw with the ratio, and Chemistry will kill you. Will kill everybody. Chemistry requires endless attention, she must be fed, be watched, or it will all go wrong.

A man, stripped to the waist with his heart up for grabs, holds up a sign and walks around the ring. The sign reads, “Fight to the Death”. There will be no second round. It must all be decided now, it must all be decided here.

He locks the cage behind him and a bell rings. History remains in her corner while Chemistry starts off with a literal bang. There is a flash of light and a smell like rotting bananas, and Chemistry is on a roll. She takes a water bottle, shifts it around, and offers it to History, her fingers adding a notation, adding one little atom, turning the liquid into a pale blue poison.

Having seen this trick before, History declines.

In fact, History pays no attention to Chemistry at all. Chemistry jumps around, tweaking Bunsen burners and creating noxious fumes, but History simply puts on a gas mask and continues reading. The audience is feeling faint by now, exhausted from the multicoloured pyrotechnics and breathing unidentified gases not meant for human lungs. Chemistry does not notice.

History looks up from her book and watches for a moment. Chemistry is close to the edge, she is building a bomb in her corner, she is ready to give up and blow everything away. While her back is turned, while Chemistry is focused on her work, History scales the cage, finding a hole where Chemistry’s experiments have weakened the metal, and crawls through.

She ushers the audience out, waking them up and helping them crawl to safety. She pulls at the man’s arm, letting the sign drop from his hands, and helps him stumble out of the arena.

Chemistry is finally finished with her experiment, the countdown is on, it will all go up in flames, everything, she will burn it to the ground. She turns, triumphant, only to see that she is alone in the room, and the Bunsen burner’s flame and the pending explosion will destroy her, only her, and she barely has time to think about what she has lost when  the entire arena is swept away in a final burst of light.

“Happiness Consultants” are a thing that exist

About eight years ago I was sitting in my then-boyfriend’s optometrist’s office waiting for his appointment to be over. I hadn’t brought a book with me and there were no magazines around, so all I had to look at was the slowly yellowing furniture and a wall of tall brown filing cabinets.

The receptionist, either sensing my boredom or seeking to alleviate her own, started chatting with me. We started talking about my boyfriend, about school, about the coming summer. Pretty typical small talk.

“Now, dear,” she said. “Do you mind if I tune into you?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I have this gift. I’m able to speak with the universe and uncover things about people. But I find the universe is more cooperative when the people I’m asking about know what’s going on.”

All I wanted to do was spend a day in the April sunshine, and instead I was in a dingy office being asked if I minded that the receptionist commune with the universe to find out the answers to my unspoken questions.

“Sure, why not?”

“It’ll just take a moment.”

She went quiet and closed her eyes. I sat, uncomfortable in the hard plastic chair, wondering if I was supposed to say something. Lead her a bit, maybe? Let her know what I was curious about?

That’s when the tingle started. It spread from the back of my skull, creeping out in all directions, towards my ears, my forehead, the base of my neck. It swept down my spine and lingered in my shoulders. It ebbed and flowed through my body, and then it stopped.

“Well, that was interesting!” The woman smiled at me. “You’re a writer. How wonderful! You’re going to write about love, about all kinds of love, about love in every way we think about it and many ways we don’t. You need a pen and a journal, I can’t believe you don’t carry them with you! Here, darling, here.” She rifled through her cabinet and gave me a small red notebook and a black pen. The pen had her name and phone number on it with “Happiness Consultant” between the two. I thanked her and put them in my purse where, she was right, I had neither pen nor paper.

As my boyfriend walked out, she stage whispered across the room to me. “Don’t tell my husband I did that, darling. He hates when I tune into people in the office!” I promised that her secret was safe with me, shook her hand, and left, boyfriend in tow.

I wouldn’t have thought much of it (or even remember it, honestly) except that when we were talking about school, I never said what my major was. I barely talked about wanting to be a writer to my closest friends. I hadn’t even mentioned that I was reading anything, let alone that I dream(t) of writing as a career. And yet something about me screamed “writer” to her.

Did she really touch the universe and see into a part of my soul? No idea. But I wouldn’t mind at all if it turns out that she’s right.

Fortune favours the brave. Or the gullible.

I’ve only ever had my fortune told once.

We were in a bar sometime past 2 o’clock in the morning, celebrating the success of our masters program’s first public reading. A friend had been lying down on a bench and using my chest for a pillow and suddenly she sat up.

“If somebody buys me a drink, I’ll tell their fortune.”

This is, perhaps, not what you expect when you think of getting your fortune told. Maybe you, like me, think of tarot cards or a dark room and a woman draped in velvet and peacock feathers. But this is what life presented me with. After all, I’d never had my fortune told, and I’d especially never had my fortune told by a drunk poet. And how many people can say that’s happened to them? (Sidenote: This is something you’ll run into frequently with me. If it’s absurd/rare, I am game.)

I asked about my writing and then, panicked, thought maybe I’d been too specific.

“Was that too much? Should I just ask about love? Fine. Will I ever fall in love again?”

My poet medium looked at me. After answering the question about writing, she addressed love. She was almost reluctant, almost amused, almost – well, almost I’m not quite sure what.

“Oh, God, that’s a no face. That’s a no, isn’t it? Okay, it’s cool.”

I was almost resigned. I’m 27, I’ve got two failed relationships under my belt (in the sense that, despite what we thought was going to happen, they did not end in marriage), I am working on being totally okay with being single again. Single life, when done right, is wonderful. The last time I was single, I got my life set up just exactly how I wanted it. I was seeing my friends all the time, I was playing Ultimate and learning to rock climb. I traveled when and where I wanted. I worked my butt off and never had anybody complain that I was late for the third time that week. These are wonderful things. They were wonderful at 25 and they’ll be wonderful again soon.

But they’re not wonderful yet. So when she looked at me, I was worried. No more love? That’s it?

“No! I mean, yes. Yes you’ll fall in love. And it’ll fucking ambush you.”

She laughed. This is a girl who knows some of my most ridiculous stories, who had just heard me read about a broken heart 6 hours before. She held my palm, her fingers baby soft, and looked into the air just past my head as if watching a movie play out.

“You’ve got one more love. And it’ll be delightful. Six months. And it’ll take you completely by surprise.”

“Wait, it’ll only last six months? Or it’ll happen in six months?”

“It’ll happen sometime in the next six months. And you’ll never expect it when it happens.”

I’d never had my fortune told before not because I didn’t want to know but because I never believed that it was possible. The future isn’t some pre-written script we’re following, and I don’t know that I think anybody can see what will happen. But I also know how it felt when she held my hand and looked just past me, and it felt honest and connected and real. So we’ll see how it goes. At any rate, no matter what happens in my love life, in six months I won’t be any worse off than I am right now. But apparently things could get a whole lot better.