"I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me" -- The Mountain Goats
This was a big year. I turned 50. My book, Teaching Machines, was finally published. I celebrated both events — sort of but not really, and that's fine. Because the pandemic raged on, and Kin and I (mostly) stayed at home.
Everything has changed.
This was a transformational year. Another transformational year. I continue to grieve for Isaiah. Some nights, I have terrible dreams about him and dope; some days I can shake it off, and things are okay. Grief changes its shape with time, of course. But still,without warning, the wind gets knocked out of me, and I'm swept away by the impossible sadness of his loss. I still regularly cry in the shower. We scattered his ashes on the coast this summer. We finally had a chance to sit, in person, with a small group of friends to remember him. I finally got to hug my mom. I got a memorial tattoo, my skin and my heart scarred forever.
I knew at the outset it would be a difficult year: I had to continue to wrestle with Isaiah's death. (I will forever.) I had to start to put my own life in order, after the years of Trump and COVID and, well, everything. By the end of 2020, my health — physically and mentally — had taken a sharp downward turn. I had a number of fairly scary medical diagnoses late last year, that I've spent most of this one trying to resolve. And I had to figure out what I was doing with myself professionally — post-book and possibly, post-Hack Education.
At the beginning of 2021, I made a bunch of resolutions. As one does, I suppose. When I can break things down into small and manageable tasks, my follow-through is usually quite stellar. But neither my grief nor my professional angst work this way. There's no simple To Do list that I can tick those items off of. Done. Check.
Several of my resolutions were simple, I confess: I vowed to stop playing video games on my iPad — save The New York Times Crossword — and read instead. I set myself the goal of reading a book a week. (Instead, I have read 101.) I resolved to (mostly) quit social media — Twitter entirely, except to pop in once a week with the obligatory retweet of promotional stuff for the book. I've deleted a lot of apps from my devices, and I spend a lot less time on them. I am better for it.
I initially told myself I'd do a "dry January." Instead, having read Holly Whitaker's Quit Like a Woman early that month, I've quit drinking altogether. My sobriety feels like the lynchpin for everything.
I've started meditating. I've fully committed myself to my yoga practice. (I started doing yoga just weeks before Isaiah died. Just today I did my very first headstand.) I've taken up power-lifting, and I can both squat and deadlift more than I weigh. And I'm currently doing Couch to 5K so I can run my first 5K next year. Kin and I get up at the crack of dawn weekdays and walk 4.2 miles around Lake Merritt. (We walk that much on weekends too, just not so goddamn early.) One weekend this fall, we walked from San Francisco to Pacifica. Physically, I've never been so strong. Never. I've lost 40 pounds — although that's less the result of dieting or exercising and more the result of not sitting on my ass and drinking a bottle of red wine a night while doom-scrolling Twitter.
I'm now trying to gain a bit of weight so that my squats and my deadlifts can get even stronger. I love to eat, so this is amazing.
I've thought a lot and I thought quite carefully about food this year. I always have, to a certain extent. I love food with a passion, except for those foods that I passionately abhor. (I have a tattoo featuring the illustration to A. A. Milne's poem about rice pudding, natch.) I'm the kind of person who's looked up the menu online before eating at a restaurant so that I know exactly what I'm going to order before I've even sat down at the table. I'd started cooking more often (and more elaborately) even before the pandemic hit, but nowadays we don't eat out at all. I find great solace in planning meals, picking up the weekly CSA, watching onions caramelize, butter brown, and bread bake. It feels like something I can control. While everything else is fragile or broken, I can reliably feed us something delicious. Things can look pretty goddamn grim outside my kitchen, sure, but at least I know what's for dinner.
Cooking sustains my body and my mind — that's so cliche. I mean, it certain does the former, but as to the latter, it's one of the many tasks I look forward to because it actually gets me out of my head. There are still times when cooking that I am doubled over with grief, no doubt. Isaiah shared my love of food and, to a certain extent, cooking. I now tear up when chopping onions, not from the sulfoxides, but from remembering how fastidious he was when he would help me prep meals, dicing the onions and garlic into the tiniest of pieces so that he didn't have to experience any of what he claimed was the sliminess of the allium. He was always so brutally honest about my cooking — my pad kee mao wasn't nearly spicy enough, he'd complain. I think of him every time I waver on how big a pinch of red pepper flakes exactly needs to be.
But mostly these days, I admit, I'd rather not think.
My weightlifting coach often reminds me not to overthink things, as I steel myself to pull or push the barbell. "Turn off your brain. Let me do the thinking. You just move your body like I tell you," she says. And I love that. I appreciate it. But I struggle, how I struggle, to actually let go. I squatted 120 pounds, but the hardest thing I've tried to do this year is meditate.
When Oprah interviewed Adele this fall, no surprise, she wanted to talk about the singer's dramatic weight loss. That's the story that society wants to talk about when a woman's body changes dramatically. And ah, Oprah, promoter of so many of our toxic wellness narratives. But that wasn't the narrative Adele was interested in. Rather, she spoke frankly about her anxiety, about how she used exercise to restore and keep herself centered. Showing up to the gym was showing up for herself. Her trainer gave her a plan when she had no plan. Working out gave her purpose when she was floundering. (Adele shocked Oprah by saying she could deadlift 160-170 pounds. She's two decades younger than me and about an inch taller, but that's now my goal: lift at least as heavy as Adele.) "I'm an athlete," she said.
Maybe I'm an athlete. I'd never have used that word to describe myself before now. I'm someone who, thanks in no small part to my terrible terrible eyesight, has always eschewed physical activity. But now maybe I am an athlete. I've accomplished things I never would have even tried to do this year — things I was frightened to do because of my physical limitations. I joke a lot about how lifting heavy things is, both literally and metaphorically, what I obviously need to do right now. I'm seriously committed to it. An athlete.
I used to use the word "writer" to describe myself. Used to. Despite all the progress I've made this year physically, I have really struggled professionally — and as such, still really struggled mentally. It's not just that my body has changed; I'm not sure I fit into the skin of "writer" right now. That's an odd thing to say, I suppose, considering Teaching Machines came out this summer. But the process of bringing the book to light was incredibly frustrating and traumatizing and in the end, largely unfulfilling. I am not certain I'm ever going to be able to focus on another writing project. I've let Hack Education go dormant, and while I need to pick it back up — financially, if for no other reason — it's very, very hard to return to writing period, but particularly about a topic that does me absolutely no good psychologically. (I mean ed-tech does no one much good psychologically. But I really cannot be the person who keeps trying to make that argument.)
One of the problems with marking one's life by the calendar is that stages don't neatly fit into a schedule that way. This year, as I said, has been transformative. But I'm still in the process of changing, and the end of 2021 doesn't bring any of that to a close.