What my Cleo taught me about how to live & love

Named for a Queen. Owning it.

Named for a Queen. Owning it.

My sweet Cleopatra, named for a Queen, sister to a mastiff I never met named Brutus, died on Monday morning. I was working on something and she had been breathing hard all day and I was planning to take her to the vet on Monday first thing. I called after her and she came over, laid at my feet and stopped breathing.

She was somewhere between 8 years old and 11. She was a gift from a wonderful man I met through a good friend who worked at the newspaper where I used to work. Kurt had a brain tumor and needed to go into hospice so he wanted someone to treat his baby right. Brutus, unfortunately, ran away. Cleo, who had grown up with a cat and Kurt, had remained. As you can see, she was beautiful.

My joke about her was that she knew that she was named for a Queen. She was dainty, quiet and sweet. She was well-trained and reserved at first, but mostly she liked to lick people and puppies. On our walks around the neighborhood, she would point her muzzle at the angry-looking feral cats and wag her tail like, “Look, Mom, it’s the love of my life.”

I would gently pull her in the direction of our path. “Um, let’s stay away from animals that might maim you.”

She worked as protection from all kinds of people and stuff, but she did not bark.

Every now and then she would howl in this really unladylike way that was kind of scary. At nothing. Like the wind.It sounded like the creak of a door coming off its hinges.

She sighed with impatience while I tried to make deadlines and hated my computer.

She pressed her wet nose into my face in the mornings when she was feeling well, a reminder for me to get up and get at it. Because I had never had a dog before, I failed regularly to do anything that makes sense to dogs (and probably humans.) She loved me anyway.

For instance, she thoroughly hated thunderstorms and firecrackers (I hear this is typical for dogs). One night, around 2 in the morning, she kept pacing and shaking, so I got several copies of the Yellow Pages (don’t judge) and made a makeshift staircase so that she could use them to climb up on the bed. She walked away and continued to whimper from a couch that I kept just so she could have her own throne.

A few days later, I went to Ikea. When I came home, she had gotten herself nice and comfortable in my bed, sans Yellow Pages. All I could do was laugh.

It was less funny when the frat boys next door had a Fourth of July shindig and Cleo tore down the living room blinds and nearly ripped a few doors off their hinges.

But Cleo did teach me about living and loving in profound ways. The first thing she taught me is that you don’t have to choose a way to be. My story about myself was that I was a cat person (not a single cat lady) and not really a dog person. They were so much work. They were expensive. I didn’t have the time.  But really I was non-committal and afraid of intimacy. I didn’t want to love something other than myself so hard because I was deeply afraid of loss. I don’t care what people say about it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved. It is hard to lose the people and things that we love and the ache feels like it never ends. So I understand why people avoid it.

Tall and Proud.

Size does not matter. I affectionately called Cleo my mini-pony because she really was the size of a small horse. What I loved about her was that she truly adored little dogs. They would be barking and freaking out and running around and she would just look at them and sniff their bellies and if they stood still, she’d lick them until they calmed all the way down.  So I learned from her that sometimes things look and seem scary, but approaching them like you might totally be destroyed by an experience is not a good way to make friends at the dog park/in life.

Even when you’re shy, you find the people and things meant for you. Before I got Cleo, I think I thought that I needed to do a lot of work to date and network and circulate to convince any potential partners that I was worth it. But what I learned getting out and about with Cleo is that just by being her beautiful Cleo self, she drew really great people to her and into my life.

You never have to ask your real friends to be there for you. From a recommendation for a vet to a crate (that Cleo tried to sit in without complaint for our first few days together until I felt like a moron and stopped putting her in it) to giving her medication with peanut butter to having a place for her to crash while my mom was sick and I needed to be back East, Cleo taught me how to think first about how to help us take care of her and trust my friends enough to be part of our community. My friends Andrea and Todd went above and beyond, even though they have three other dogs and two adorable sons and plenty of other things they could be thinking about at any given time.

Nothing wrong with getting your snuggle on.

Forgiveness feels better than you think. I used to hold grudges. I still do, but less after Cleo. I have said this before but I like the saying that suggests that festering anger toward people is like holding a hot coal and expecting the other person to get burned. One of the greatest gifts of Cleo in my life was that even when I was annoyed with her or I raised my voice or something, she might cower a little bit and look at me before she stormed off, but a moment later, she would come wagging her tail when I came back to my senses. Then I would hang out with her on her throne and talk to her while I rubbed her belly, hoping I could get back in her good graces — but she had already forgiven me. Grace.

Check out my Striiipes.

When you are fully yourself, no matter how different, the people who are supposed to love you will adore you for it. Cleo was more famous in my neighborhood, especially around tiny children, as the tiger-striped mini-horse than I will ever be. People would always ask me about Cleo before they asked about me. Sometimes I would complain that I wish she had opposable thumbs so she could have done some work, but I actually loved how committed she was to just hanging out and pretending to tan her belly as opposed to needing to do work. She taught me how to take better care of myself and my heart. She hated water but she also hated the heat, so she spent a lot of her summer doing this version of downward facing dog.

Come and Take it! But you won’t! I’m too cute.

Being vulnerable is a beautiful, painful thing. While the people who know me best and have known me the longest know how intensely I love some people and things, the older I get the harder it is for me to pretend to be aloof. One of my best friends, the one who helped me take Cleo to the emergency vet in the middle of the night to be cremated, said that she learned from her puppy how to open up. I did, too. I was lucky to be a dog mom for a few years. Thanks, Miss Cleo, for teaching me how to howl when I needed to and how to walk and keep trying to live with grace. I already miss you so much.

Thirty five in honor of 35

The mid-thirties sounds ancient to me, but here I am. My birthday was last weekend. Hello, 35.

My friends have helped me figure out that I grew up as a tail-end member of Generation X, and in my twenties, it was plausible for writers to publish their first books and memoirs when they were 25, so I felt like a slacker even though I was an overachiever.

Well, even though I finally wrote a book (PLUG: Please buy it here!) it did not happen the way I thought it would. I didn’t expect to be rich or famous, but I did hope to have an agent, and a publisher, to have a slew of acknowledgments pointing to all the famous and talented writers and publishers and agents.

The first rule of my thirties that I learned a little earlier than my actual 30th birthday is that sometimes (OK, often) what we want or what we think we want is not the best thing for us. The things that grow and mature us can be just as amazing as what we think we want, even if they’re more difficult than what we envisioned – especially if they’re harder than what our daydreams offer.

Too late to get this shirt, I guess.

Vanessa Martir, one of my writing sisters, posted something similar to this on her birthday, and I wanted to follow suit. I didn’t actually envision what 35 would be like – I spent a lot of my childhood and teen years thinking that 25 must be pretty old – but my older relatives and friends all say this is when things get good. The following is a list of things I wish I’d known a decade ago; maybe I would have had more fun, I would have been less hard on myself.

1. It gets better: Why did I think two decades was as good as everything was going to get? I’m not sure. While it’s true that things get more complex as you get older, they’re also a lot more fun.

2. People are amazing: Sonia Sotomayor, Wise Latina Supreme Court justice and single lady has been doing press for her new memoir, My Beloved World, and she makes it a point to say  that she is not self-made, which I respect. None of us are islands. And with the right people in our lives we can do amazing things.

3. People are complicated: I like the superhero’s approach to life. We all have alternative faces we show the world, in one way or another. What matters is that we know who we are and we allow other people room to be complicated if they need to be or want to be. Or have to be.

4. Life only gets more complex: My mentor and friend Evelyn C. White said this to me and I know that she’s right. It seems more and more true the more time passes. I do hope it’s not like a Rubix cube by the time it’s time for me to go.

5. Get your life: A friend of my sister’s has said this to me a couple of times with glee and the phrase makes me smile. We only get one shot, so I aim to wring the most of out of every experience, even when it’s frustrating and hard and lonely. Getting my life means everything. It makes me happy so I can make the ones I love happy.

6. Everything ain’t for everybody: I was super insecure in my 20s, though I tried faking confidence until it felt natural. I realized at 30 that I was trying too hard to fit in and thinking too much about what other people thought. It was a relief to shed that. Sometimes I still slip up and I forget that people’s reactions to me or my life are more about them than they are about me (I loved reading The Four Agreements for this reason). The older I get, the less I slip up.

7. Freedom is more than a notion: It is also not free. Which is fine. We all have to pay what my writing hero James Baldwin called the price of the ticket. Any dues I have to pay are what I consider rent for being here on earth and taking up space.

8. God/The Universe will give you what you need if you learn how to ask:  I’ve always been bad for asking for help, but I’m a believer in the divine because of how often I am provided with exactly what I need.

9. No woman is an island: We already covered this, but I’m stubborn and it took me a long time to learn how to lean on folks, too. How to be vulnerable enough to ask and wise enough to let go of expectation: that’s what I work on daily.

10. Vulnerability feels like hell but it is the only way to live: Yeah, vulnerable has looked to me in the past like a long euphemism for weak. But Brene Brown and Marianne Williamson and a ton of other writers have shown me the beauty of vulnerability. (My favorite so far is The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes)

11. Surrendering/leaning into change is frightening but endlessly rewarding: A couple of days before I left the newspaper industry, I was freaking out about all the changes in my life, and terrified that I was doing the wrong thing. When I went into work, I clicked on something that erased my hard drive and essentially wiped the slate clean. I knew that I had to surrender what I had been holding on to. And I have not regretted my decision for one second since.

12. Aim for excellence not perfection: When I published the book, I could immediately see all the flaws in formatting, in publicity for it, the people that I forgot to mention this time around, the ways that it was different and maybe less marketable than other books about single life. Then I remembered that I like aiming for excellence because perfection is impossible. It’s hard to enjoy life when you’re trying to be perfect.

13. Dance, Live, Sing like nobody is watching: I saw that quote when I was much younger. Yeah, whatever! People are watching, they always are – it’s Big Brother! But I would still try to shut out the invisible and visible eyes. I made friends who encouraged me to forget the world in favor of fun at least once or twice a year. For 35, I aim for much more than that.

14. Or, like everybody is watching: I am an extroverted introvert, so there is that side of me that’s a ham. I was an actor in high school, after all. So sometimes I like to put on a show. It’s always fun, at least for a little while. The pressure to be perfect can creep in and ruin the fun, but only if you let it.

15. Pain is weakness leaving the body: I always think of the loud grunting dudes in the weight section at the gym when I think of this, but when I feel really sad and teary and down, I think of how important it is to release things by way of tears or sighs or a long vent session followed by ice cream or chocolate.

16. Heroes are more than sandwiches: And you can be your own hero.

17. Nothing makes me feel as useful in the world as sharing my talent and gifts: Someone wiser than me said that our gifts and talents are our rent for getting to live on this planet. And I believe that with all of my heart.

18. Sharing and generosity are your rent for taking up space on the planet: That people are transformed, moved or inspired by anything I do amazes me. But I am humbled by the many talents and gifts of the people I admire, too. So it all moves in a circle.

19. You can do some things but you can’t do everything: My friend and writer extraordinaire Courtney Martin tweeted something about this over a year ago now, and it lingered in my brain.

20. We are our worst critics: What I have told my students is that the world has enough criticism for you and anything you do in your ambitions to be great. I tell them what I tell myself: don’t add to the criticism chorus.

21. Drama loves company: So the happy part of being Single & Happy comes from cultivating serenity and peace. It’s also meant that some people have left my life, don’t like what I create, can’t stand letting their lives be good and without drama. I still pray for them and wish them well, because I remember when I liked connecting with folks because I had some drama to share.

22. Have a vision: There’s something you have to contribute here that nobody else can give to the world. It’s easier to be happy when you’re working toward creating that.

23. I like lists, but sometimes they’re prisons: I used to make a five-year, ten-year and 15-year plan every year for my birthday. Then I realized that those lists were like New Year’s resolutions. They were inspiring to think about, but what if I decided I didn’t want to do everything on the list? What if I couldn’t make everything on the list happen?

24. Find out if you’ve got a prison you’ve put yourself in: This is another gift from my friend and mentor, Evelyn. Sometimes we blame other people for putting us in a box, when really, it’s a prison we made for ourselves out of fear.

25. What other people think of me is none of my business: Also, other people’s opinions don’t pay the bills.

26. Honor your gut: In dating and in life, I have always made a bad decision when I went against my intuition. Always.

27. Learn to fail gracefully: I fail all the time. I am often ashamed and humbled by my failures, and I don’t share them as publicly as I do my successes because my ego gets in the way. But I try to take what’s useful and leave the rest.

28. Learn to win gracefully: Because I’m competitive and I like to win, this has been a hard lesson for me to take seriously, but I practice.

29. Cooking is awesome: I didn’t learn how to cook at my mother’s side when I was a kid, but teaching myself how to cook and learning how to make things that are healthy (for the most part) has been transformative. I save money, I feel better and I feel like a rock star in the kitchen even when my dishes turn out slightly weird sometimes.

30. Believe in yourself and your future: This is especially important for singles. Maybe you don’t have one other person in your life to be your cheerleader, but you can be your own cheerleader.

31. Know when to fold ’em: Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to. I love the quote that says we should let go of the life we planned in order to make room for the life that is waiting for us.

32. Be flexible about your life plan/manifestos: I can be stubborn and inflexible, which is no fun and doesn’t make me happy. Sometimes you need to be vigilant about your dreams for your life. But sometimes you have to compromise. I hear this is good practice for love and relationships, too.

33. We are our own heroes: I have a long list of people who inspire me with their courage, creativity and generosity. But at the end of the day, I want to move from being inspired to actually implementing my dreams and visions. I want to live the kind of life that will leave a legacy of aspiration, true. But it helps me sleep at night knowing that I was invested in my own salvation, too.

34. Growing up is a privilege: I always considered it a given, especially once I was working for a big-time newspaper and living in beautiful parts of the country. But we know from Sandy Hook elementary to Hurricane Sandy that some people don’t get to grow up and live to see even their teens or twenties.

35. Let the beauty you love be the work that you do. I think that speaks for itself.

Single Lady Music: Beyoncé

File this under #GuiltyPleasures.

I became totally enamored of Destiny’s Child back when Wyclef was closer to relevance and I halfway believed a singing career a la Mariah Carey or Lauryn Hill was in my future. I could sing a little bit, despite awful stage fright, so the yearning, sticky-sweet ballads of my generation were right up my alley. I was as likely to jam to Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin as I was to try to reach all of the high notes of Whitney Houston or Rachelle Ferrell.

As much as I love soul, R&B and gospel, there’s something about pop music from the 1990s, particularly, that inspires a deep nostalgia that I’m not yet comfortable with entirely. I don’t want to say that Beyoncé is the Diana Ross of my generation, but the glamour, the talent and the iconography are all there. It’s likely that “Single Ladies” tipped her into the pop artist stratosphere, but maybe she was going to be that famous anyway because she’s just that talented.


Why is she always so naked? Why is she telling girls that we run the world when, clearly, there’s still so much misogyny in the world? What kind of message does our love for Beyoncé send to little girls who can’t live up to the standard of beauty that Beyoncé seems to set?

I don’t have answers for any of those questions. And I have written defenses of Beyoncé in the past, so I won’t go back into it. But the reason she’s become so popular is that there aren’t many singular black female figures in popular culture (not just those who are unmarried, since Mr. Carter put a ring on it a while ago) who seem to “have it all” – beauty, brains, a loving partnership and a sense of self outside of that partnership. For me, Beyoncé’s confidence and self-possession counterbalances the hypersexual sultry stuff.

There isn’t anywhere in our culture where women don’t get mixed messages about women, independence and relationships. I don’t think it’s fair that Beyoncé is the symbol of our angst about not committed to chastity or promiscuity. I love that she uses what she has to get what she wants; that’s what I aspire to do.

Here are some of my favorites.

Upgrade U: I know the feminists among us will pretend that we didn’t like this song, but I’ll just come out and admit that I loved it. I love it still.

Diva: I was inspired to write an essay about my short, failed attempt at being a rapper for an anthology when I heard this one.

Independent Women Part 1: Wow, it makes me feel old that this was 12 years ago. But whatever. I like the remix better, though.

Irreplaceable: Every woman who has had to, um, put someone out loves this song. It’s just a given.

Best Thing I Never Had: Honestly, I hated this song when I first heard it. But it resonated with me for a dozen reasons when I started listening to Beyonce 4 again recently.

What’s your favorite Single Lady music? I’m a Keri Hilson fan, too. We’ll get to her in a minute.

Top Posts in August: Single Lady Car Maintenance, Learning Intimacy & Wisdom from Alice Walker

August was a hit month at Single & Happy with Zen and the Art of Single Lady Car Maintenance.

Zen and the Art of Single Lady Car Maintenance was a global hit, which genuinely surprised me. I wish for all of you a day when you get Freshly Pressed. It was like being prom queen on the Internet – and I met a lot of great readers from all over the world.

Break-ups, learning intimacy & ending self-sabotage was not as popular. But a lot of you still liked it. (Maybe because I posted it the day after the Zen post?)

I need to remind myself of this at least once a week: “No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.” More wisdom from Alice Walker here.

You know how people will ask you if you’re single, then get shocked and say, “Why?!” when you tell them? Well, I tried dating so that I would figure out a better answer to that question. But that, too, was a #fail.

On the New York Times’ great Opinion piece, The Busy Trap, and the difference between being busy and being lonely.

Single Lady Quotes: bell hooks

From Goodreads

I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.

As a young writer, I aspired to be a poet like Ntozake Shange, who distilled so much of the black girl’s experience in her poetry and a warrior like Alice Walker. Intellectually, I yearned for the freedom, clarity and possession that marked bell hooks’ work.
bell hooks was the first black woman intellectual I admired. I read Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life – a conversation between bell hooks and Cornel West, when I was 13, and never stopped admiring her work. It also allowed me to envision myself as an intellectual in my own right. hooks has written over 30 books.

“To return to love, to get the love we always wanted but never had, to have the love we want but are not prepared to give, we seek romantic relationships. We believe these relationships, more than any other, will rescue and redeem us. True love does have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption. Love saves us only if we want to be saved.”

“Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.”

“One of the major tasks black women face as we work for emotional healing is to understand more fully what love is so that we do not imagine that love and abuse can be simultaneously present in our lives. Most abuse is life-threatening, whether it wounds our bodies or our psyches. Understanding love as a life-force that urges us to move against death enables us to see clearly that, where love is, there can be no disenabling, disempowering, or life-destroying abuse.”

“It is the absence of love that has made it so difficult for us to stay alive or, if alive, to live fully. When we love ourselves, we want to live fully…When we love ourselves, we know that we much do more than survive. We must have the means to live fully.”

“Exclusion and isolation, whether they occur through overt or covert acts, have always been useful tactics of terrorism, a powerful way to coerce individuals to conform, to change. No insurgent intellectual, no dissenting critical voice in this society escapes the pressure to conform….We can all be had, co-opted, bought. There is no special grace that rescues any of us. There is only a constant struggle to keep the faith, to relentlessly rejoice in an engagement with critical ideas that is itself liberatory, a practice of freedom.”

100 million single people…and it’s still rough out there.

A book excerpt from Single & Happy:

I could not believe no one had written a first-person account of dating as a single woman in the 21st Century and how to cope with all the shenanigans that come with the package, because no matter how brilliant, sexy, big-boobed, erudite or compliant with societal norms a woman is or is not, it is really rough out there for single people. The insinuation that singles should be coupled or something is wrong with them doesn’t make it any easier.

Not just a little bit rough, honey. It is incredibly hard to find like-minded people with true commitments to self-awareness and goals that are scheduled beyond a calendar date in the next couple of weeks. There are books on weight-loss, getting your money right, how to be more devoted to God, and of course, how to get a man. What I really needed for a good decade, though, was a book on how to be happily single.

The book I wanted to read and kept waiting for was one that would inspire other single people to slog through the ridiculous maze that comes with being alone in a culture that devalues single people.  I wanted to create a space online for others who were uncomfortable with the dominant cultural narrative in the United States that continues to profit those who constantly tell singles that we are incomplete, not enough, not worthy and amoral if we are content to live, travel, dine and go to the movies by ourselves.

I also wanted to celebrate the beauty and community available to a vast network of singles that did not rely on anything but a community of singles and our allies for exposure.

I’m not interested in being the anti-Steve Harvey, the new Oprah or any kind of New Age guru, relationship expert or life coach. I am just one nerd in a big world who does the best that I can to make sense of an influx of information, social cues and daily life. The narrative that casts single people as the avatars of loneliness, as Michael Cobb has written in his new book, just happened to get stuck in my craw as I was making a lot of transitions in my life. As other journalists will tell you, sometimes you can’t just let a story go.

My motto is to take what is useful and leave the rest. I hope that the stories and information here will be applicable across gender identities, sexualities, ethnicities and economic backgrounds. My intention is to celebrate and document the moment we are all in. While I bring my own biases to this predicament as someone who has been self-reliant and a loner since I was very young, I wholeheartedly believe there is something valuable her for most dating adults.

And we are a huge tribe. In 2010, almost half of all American adults, 100 million, were single – the highest rate in recent history. While those singles spent $2 trillion a year on consumer products, according to Boston Magazine, marketers were still marketing mostly to a culture wedded to heterosexual relationships. But outside of the blogosphere, aside from isolated examples of singular (pun intended) narratives of single people and their journeys, there are few stories that contextualize single life in a positive way.

The stories I found lacking are those that express the fun, joy, humor and moments of serenity that come with single life. The Boston Magazine story was one and Kate Bolick’s now-infamous piece in the Atlantic was another. What are some of the positive stories about single life you’ve seen?

Single Lady Books: The Best Advice I Ever Got

Goodreads Cover Photo

Kate Couric is one of my virtual mentors, even though initially her perkiness got on my nerves, I have always appreciated her hustle.

And I admire the way she has continued to work and write about her very personal experience of losing a husband and raising two girls by herself while also commanding respect for herself in the broadcast journalism industry, which can’t be an easy feat.

I wrote about graduation/career advice at Bitch Magazine last week and it made me think about The Best Advice I Ever Got, which is essentially a compilation of advice from commencement speeches that has so much good stuff in it was a good thing I read it online, or I would have highlighted every passage.

Here were some of my favorite quotes:

Anna Quindlen
Acts of bravery don’t always take place on battlefields. They can take place in your heart, when you have the courage to honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and yes, your soul, by listening to its clean, clear voice of direction instead of following the muddied messages of a timid world. So carry your courage in an easily accessible place, the way you do your cellphone or your wallet. You may still falter or fail, but you will always know that you pushed hard and aimed high. Take a leap of faith. Fear not. Courage is the ultimate career move.

Katie Couric

I realized that whatever your path, whatever your calling, the most damaging thing you can do is let other voices define you and drown out your own. You’ve got to block them out and find that place deep inside you, shaken but still intact, and hold on to it.

Maya Angelou

My paternal grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, gave me advice that I have used for sixty-five years. She said, “If the world puts you on a road you do not like, if you look ahead and do not want that destination which is being offered and you look behind and you do not want to return to your place of departure, step off the road. Build yourself a brand-new path.”

A List of valuable lessons from The Art of Non-Conformity

You may have noticed that I am a fan of lists. I especially like inspirational lists. Check out this great one, “34 Things I’ve Learned about Life and Adventure,” at the blog, The Art of Non-Conformity:

Balanced people don’t change the world.

Passionate people who don’t have it all together change the world. If you’re worried about life-work balance, something is probably wrong with your life or your work. Instead of agonizing over balance, get excited and create change.

Deadlines and quotas are your friends.

Set them and live by them, or live by the law of procrastination. Forced deadlines are better than artificial ones, but take whatever you can get.

If you want to publish a blog, do so on a regular schedule—no exceptions. If you’re trying to write, aim to write at least 1,000 words a day. These practices will serve you well.

Get over it.

If you’re like most of us, something bad probably happened to you at some point. It was unfair and cruel. Maybe it was even really bad.

But you have to get over it for reasons that are entirely selfish. Simply put, you can’t let these things define you. It’s about your life, not anyone else’s. At some point, you just have to move on.

Even atheists want something to believe in.

We all want a mission. Eager volunteers will usually work harder than paid employees. Give people something to believe in and they will support your cause. Challenge them to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Susan Cain’s TED talk on the power of introverts

I really enjoyed Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet.” Here’s the review I posted here in January.

There’s a lot to love about this talk, including her wonderful, moving story about her grandfather and his modest presence.

But the quote that really resonated with me is “Solitude for some people…is the air that they breathe.” This is totally worth 20 minutes of your time.

A great weekend read: Toni Morrison on an authentic single life

Hat tip to my brilliant friend Andrea for sharing this lovely article about Toni Morrison ahead of the publication of her novel, Home:

She never took drugs, she says, not even as a teenager when everyone around her was smoking dope. “I did not want to feel anything that did not originate with me. Because the big deal, as they described it, was that it made you feel so good. I did not want to feel something that was dependent on it. I want to feel what I feel. What’s mine. Even if it’s not happiness, whatever that means. Because you’re all you’ve got.”

When she started The Bluest Eye she was the single mother of two boys, living in Syracuse, New York. She rose at 4am every morning to write before work. If she felt discouraged, she thought about her grandmother, who had fled the south with seven children and no means of support. Any existential panic – about her income, her prospects as a writer, her availability as a mother – evaporated in the face of daily necessity.

At one level, says Morrison, it was terrifically simple. “I was young. I started writing when I was 39. That’s the height of life. The real liberation was the kids, because their needs were simple. One, they needed me to be competent. Two, they wanted me to have a sense of humour. And three, they wanted me to be an adult. No one else asked that of me. Not in the workplace – where sometimes they’d want you to be feminine, or dominant, or cute.” She smiles. “The kids didn’t care if I did my hair, didn’t care what I looked like.”

She had married Harold Morrison, an architect, after meeting him at Howard University in Washington DC and they had divorced six years later, leaving her with two sons, Harold and Slade. At Random House, she was first an editor in the textbook division and later, moved to offices in Manhattan, a fiction editor. She was supported at home by a network of women friends, who helped her with the kids, and some of whose fiction she published. As Morrison has said, “We read about how Ajax and Achilles will die for each other, but very little about the friendship of women.”

I adore Toni Morrison and have for many years. She is inspiring to me not just as one of the greatest living American authors today, but also as a woman unafraid of self-possession and authenticity. The piece is rather long, but it’s quite good. It provides insight into her that we’re unlikely to get elsewhere since she’s decided not to write a memoir.

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