The month of May was, for me, out-of-control. For those of us in the academic world, it always is; for those of us in the Taurus birthscape, it doubly always is. This year, my May was mostly out-of-control in all the best ways — and when I say “best,” I mean it.
For example, my friend Mary (a celebrity quilter whose blog has a following of roughly 90 trillion readers) created an enormous quilt for me, and she showed up with it in downtown Chicago in the lobby of the Cadillac Palace where I was watching “Aladdin” on Broadway* for my birthday. This quilt was really special: it had my name on it; it said "2017"; it had a poem about how to use the quilt to feel less alone in the world. I’d always wanted a well-made quilt, but it seemed like something I’d have to buy when I was a lot older and knew what a “401K” was.* Mary has literally written books about quilts. She’s on TV about quilts. A Mary quilt is a work of art, and this one — a scrappy and tied quilt made up of quilt blocks from dozens of full pieces she’s created over the years — was the most beautiful work of art I’d ever seen.
And also, as I have gushed about to anyone whose ear I can borrow, Luke and I got engaged. This happened last weekend after a particularly lucrative and nerdy birdwatching walk at Montrose. It had been raining for the whole week, and then on Saturday the sky miraculously cleared up and the sun got all bombastic, and before we left to go to the bird sanctuary, we saw an indigo bunting at our feeder. The last time we saw an indigo bunting was the first time Luke and I went birdwatching several years ago. We were in Grand Isle, Louisiana, and we almost died because we slept in a tent on the beach in a massive lightning storm. The next day, walking through the flooded swamp trails off the coast, we saw a spray of indigo buntings rise up from a bush like an electric blue magic trick. I’d never seen one in Chicago before, and our bird feeder doesn’t tend to attract anything remotely rare. If you are a person who believes in signs — and why not, I say — then this was one.
When we came home from the bird sanctuary, the hallway and the bedroom and the living room had been filled with flowers. (Luke had recruited some friends to bring the flowers in — he'd purchased them the week before while I was out.) They were mostly yellow daisies; there were at least a thousand. This is a “Gilmore Girls” reference (here’s the scene if you never got through the first season), and in my wildest dreams I never imagined it could be actualized. There was also the classic Luke twist on the 1,000 yellow daisies proposal: they weren’t all daisies, because “I would have had to have them shipped from Chile, and it didn’t seem like the right thing to do”; and they were potted, living flowers rather than cut ones. So my wedding proposal became an occasion to put more life out into the world, and not a botanical firework that would fade in a week. (Sidenote: Do you want any yellow flowers for your garden? I have 1,000. I am legitimately offering them to you.)
I was not supposed to spend any time daydreaming about being proposed to, or about having a wedding. Weddings and marriage are essentially institutionalized religion; they’re problematic in hundreds of ways, offensive to many of the smartest warriors whom I idolize on the radical left. I have literally written an entire book about how our Western relationship structures are all wrong; about how relationships do nothing but change, and so promises made for a lifetime are unrealistic at best. Luke and I are actively polyamorous, and poly people don’t always get married (you know, because of all the love we have to give to all those other people). Weddings cost tens of thousands of dollars. Just looking at the ring Luke gave me (a hand-crafted Oregon sunstone set in gold) and our home filled with thousands of blooming plants made it obvious that Luke had spent more money than he had on this one moment.
And yet still — here I am going to get cheesy — I love this person with so much of my heart, and my life is so much fuller and makes so much more sense when he is in it. We are greater than the sum of our parts (or, at least, he makes me greater than I ever thought possible). I’ve never wanted to shout anything from proverbial rooftops quite so much. Maybe I am socialized to feel like that; but I will say that knowing Luke gives me more energy for social justice, opens me up to wider possibilities around giving my time and money to organizations I believe in, and helps me cultivate my own values in a deeper way than I ever could have on my own.
When he knelt down, it felt all wrong, because I just wanted to be down there with him — on the ground, becoming small for a moment because love is so powerful. So I sort of fell on him sobbing rather than saying yes. It was extremely graceful. I have no idea how public proposals are really possible; I mean, how is anyone not just sobbing the whole time?!
So now I am engaged, and I am very happy about it. I have graduated with my first-ever advanced degree. I have been given my first (and maybe only-ever) serious adult-sized quilt. I turned 31; I made a loaf of sourdough bread with a proofer and a lame; I drew every bird in North America; I took my sister and her boyfriend to Pilsen to eat great tacos; I saw my second indigo bunting; and I watched “Aladdin” on Chicago's version of Broadway. It was a big month. I’m actually leaving a TON out here. I simply have to move on.
The day we got engaged felt full and rich; it was a climax if ever a climax existed. But then, what do you do after that? The time spilled out in front of me unstructured and wild. When you’re in the midst of a crazy schedule, scads of uncharted time sounds like a huge lotto win. “If I had time,” you think, “I would finally get around to that THING that I’ve been meaning to do.”
Then you get the time, and what do you do? You binge-watch something utterly mediocre on your laptop while playing Candy Crush for a few hours simultaneously. And that may be fine for a day — hey, you earned it, right? — but you do it for several days. And soon you begin to feel really, really bad.
I know I’m not alone in this; I’ve heard it from a ton of recent graduates who are in the seductive purgatory of post-grad job interviews. But it is a dangerous trap to fall into. It doesn’t take long for aimless sedation to evolve into depression. And herein lies the importance of a difficult balance.
I believe very strongly in — and have written often about — the importance of savoring moments of joy. But I also believe that moments of joy can only really exist in a context of active struggle. Pleasure and joy are not synonymous. It’s weird, because they seem the same. It’s like knock-off designer hats or bags or whatever it is designers make that people try to knock off. For a minute, you think you have the real thing; but ultimately, one reveals itself to be a cheap replica in the details. Joy is a rich, full, lasting feeling that relies on connection to others and a certain elusive fulfillment in exact balance with hard work. Pleasure is what you get when you eat Oreos: it’s great for a minute, but then you need another Oreo, and then a whole package of Oreos, and then you get sick. It’s a quick and fleeting jolt; an external stimulus that placates rather than invigorates.
To ignore the pain of the world we live in is to refuse real joy, because such a choice is inherently isolating. Loving is signing up for loss, but we do it anyway; in truth, the loss is kind of the point. Without the potential for equal and opposite suffering, the love doesn’t mean anything. You take the joy knowing that it necessarily coexists with a shadow. You can’t have one without the other.
Ultimately, I am asking a question about how to live in the world. Watching TV and eating Hot Pockets is an attractive idea, because pleasure is easy; but you’ll end up feeling bad because pleasure is unsustainable. In this moment, we are living in a country where oppression and violence are ruling doctrines — and it is essential that we pay attention and continue to work for change. Yesterday, the policeman who killed Tamir Rice was fired from his job for filling out paperwork incorrectly — he wasn’t charged, however, for taking the life of a child playing with a toy. The man on trial for a murderous and racially driven rampage on a TriMet train in Portland spewed hate speech in court. Our president is deciding whether our entire country will pull out of essential worldwide climate initiatives as I write this sentence.
We have to pay attention, and we need to show up. Those of us with free time are especially obligated, because free time is, sadly, not currently a right afforded by everyone. Acknowledging shadows gives way to real joy, in small, startling moments. This is something that I hear again and again from activists, artists, and workers alike.
Savor the moment when joy comes, and work to see the shadows when it’s absent. One cannot exist without the other, and it goes both ways. I come with no solutions, except to say — and I’m mostly saying it for myself — to turn off the TV, leave the house, and be a part of the human race, even when it’s not immediately what you want to do. We owe each other, but also ourselves, the opportunity to lead full and real lives.
*If nothing else, my adulthood has taught me that I love Broadway musicals. I am yet to see one that isn’t somewhat if not extremely politically, socially, or representationally problematic. And yet, the SONGS! THE SONGS!!!!!!
**In numeral age, I am exactly ready to have a flush 401K (whatever that is), and to buy such a thing as a quilt. In personality and function, I am about seven.