Other Selves How to Live Without Ecstasy Every Day
On chasing ecstasy, finding tenderness, creating art, and experiencing motherhood.
As I write this, I am pregnant for the second time. The baby kicks me while I write, seeming eager to transcend his bounds, which are me. I learned from my first pregnancy that gravity endangered my ankles, so I write with my feet up on the desk, straddling the computer, reaching for it between my legs, giving a kind of birth to the written product.
I relate to what Ruth Franklin wrote in her biography of Shirley Jackson:
She needed the children as much as they needed her. Their imaginations energized her; their routines stabilized her. More important, their heedless savagery was crucial to her worldview. Jackson could not come into her own as a writer before she had children. She would not have been the writer she became without them.
I expected children to destroy my writing time, and perhaps even my ambition to write. I never imagined the actual result of becoming a mother: that I would find having children both emotionally captivating and intellectually fascinating. With children, the era of chasing ecstasy definitively passed. But what replaced it was an era of tenderness, of contentment, of joy.
In my teens, I fell in love with a poem by Roseann Lloyd, “ Norwegian Spring, 1962 .” The poem’s speaker appears as Lloyd the woman talking back to Lloyd the girl, recalling—with a “pink aura” of nostalgia hazy as “homemade cherry wine”—an adolescent friendship: “How we could talk!” Together, they lay under the pine trees of a peninsula, drink, sing, and recite poetry:
We wanted To take in all the wonder in the world, all the ecstasy, all the tenderness. Ӧmhet,
you loved to say this soft word for tenderness, ömhet.
This poem has accompanied me through a whole pride of initiations. I read it aloud to my best friends from high school the night before leaving for college; to the actors backstage on the opening night of the first play I wrote. I excerpted it in my first novel. My first year in New York, the fall I turned nineteen, I traipsed down to a tattoo parlor on St. Mark’s Place, lifted my shirt, and told the artist to print ömhet beneath my left breast.
As a young reader, the ecstasy struck me deeper than the tenderness. Later, Lloyd writes, “I’ve learned how to live without ecstasy every day.” At nineteen, nothing seemed sadder to me. I was consumed with the pursuit of ecstasy: the nights that seemed to airlift off the ground, adventures that lasted a full twenty-four hours, preoccupations that outranked humdrum plans like class or sleep or deadlines. These were years in which saying no invoked FOMO, so I said yes instead: to the bodies of people I’d just met, to proffers made in bathrooms and stairwells, to rooftop parties, open bars, and nearly every drug. I sometimes said yes when I didn’t want to. I often said yes against suspicion that the offer was objectively a bad idea.
I feared the world might run out of music if I didn’t go chase it. I wanted to feel every sensation. It made me feel glamorous to skirt the edge of losing control. I wanted to be boundless. I suspected nothing I did quite counted. Such privilege.
What I didn’t know yet was that ecstasy came from the Greek ekatasis, “the state of being beside oneself or rapt out of oneself”. That these efforts to lift off the ground were actually attempts to leave my body, its needs and limitations. I mistook ecstasy for virtue, or for love. I failed to recognize the trap of ecstasy as baggies or bottles or strangers’ beds: that these, in their own concrete ways, were exactly the limitations I yearned to subvert; that there was something very sad in valuing myself so little as to believe nothing I did counted. I was years from knowing that there was a different kind of happiness—joy—to be derived from standing exactly within myself.
There was a year in college I spent in a suite inhabited by a boy I was dating and two boys I had dated previously. One night one ex and I decided to eat some magic mushrooms with the other ex designated to be our non-hallucinating guide. I was excited because I’d never done this before, and I was still young enough to think that I would imminently run out of firsts. So we crunched them down in peanut butter sandwiches and I immediately vomited; I have always had a strong heart and a weak stomach. Lovingly, our Virgil supplemented me with a calming dose of tea which I realized halfway through had more mushrooms in it, and before long, the light gained a queer sheen and the swoops and blossoms in the secondhand Persian rug started moving of their own accord. A series of other boringly adolescent things happened: We read Howl, we smoked spliffs, we spoke revelations we couldn’t remember later, we professed our love, we groped each other in a way less sexual than astonished.
A decade later, a friend who had her first baby around the time I did observed, “Have you ever noticed that all babies act like people just coming up on mushrooms?” I realized the inverse was equally true: All people coming up on mushrooms act like babies. And people describe heroin as womblike. Alcohol removes your inhibitions and your ability to walk or drive. Cocaine makes you babble. Cannabis fills you with wonder or fear but rarely both. MDMA—ecstasy—makes you want to touch everything.
This contrast strikes me as poignant: that some young adults seek to signify their own maturity through substances that return them to a childlike state. That we who alter our mood or behavior or experience are chasing childlike wonder.
There was a period of my mid-twenties, maybe twenty-four to twenty-seven, when I felt a constant anxiety about aging, and a desperate desire to return to youthful recklessness. I felt far from childlike wonder. I felt a horrible dread that the best times were already behind me. I was new to San Francisco, and angry at San Francisco for not being New York; equally was I angry at my (lucrative, desirable) full-time media job paired with writing my (contracted, long-imagined) first novel on nights and weekends. I missed, as I wrote in a poem, “the familiar restlessness of being / in the sixth season of yourself / rather than the first of another.” I didn’t want to stay out until five a.m. every night, exactly, but I wanted to want to, and I definitely wanted other people to want me to. I ate mushrooms one Saturday and ended the trip desperately sad at the realization that I would never live in the same city with all my best friends again, too young and high to know I would be just as wrong as I was right.
As I begrudgingly put away hallucinogens and my license to be childish, impersonating a grown-up began to yield some reward, artistic if not financial. In early 2013 I was twenty-nine and my friend Meera and I were scrambling to finish the film we’d worked for years to write, fund, and produce. The film had just been rejected from the country’s two premiere festivals, slashing our chances of ever profiting from its acquisition, and I was so broke I had recently been denied admission to the city bus. Searching for hope of any kind, I did a very Californian thing and had my chakras read. The readers were unpaid students at a school for psychics, so I figured they had no incentive to lie to me.
The apprentice psychics made two predictions. First, they told me that the piece of art I’d been working on was about to reach a large audience; that the success I wished for it would come. Second, they told me that they saw children.
“I can’t tell if the vision is you as a child, or you staying close to your childlike self, or you having children,” one of the psychics said. “But I see children, very strongly.”
Three weeks after the reading, our film was accepted to the Tribeca Film Festival, where it premiered to a week of sold-out screenings. Six months after, I was pregnant.
A wide swath of my first pregnancy was spent touring film festivals; if this period were its own film, it would open with a montage of me throwing up in a series of budget flights and minor American cities. At one such festival, I was feeling melancholic about not being able to join the fun group of filmmakers smoking outside, and struck up a conversation with a critic who mentioned he had two children. My pregnancy wasn’t showing yet, but I told him anyway.
“I’m afraid I’m going to miss everything,” I said, hormonal and depressed.
He chuckled softly. “You’re not going to miss anything.”
Not missing anything, I would realize, also means paying attention: Caring for a tiny baby demands a presence I had never known. There is no airlifting off the ground, no ambling off with new friends for twenty-four hours; the only blunting of lucidity is that which comes from sleep deprivation. Somehow, in the long, blurred-together days of living with a newborn, boredom and hypervigilance manage to coexist: A new mother is always guarding against any threat to the baby, but often with full hands and an under-occupied mind. In my first month of motherhood, I knew the entire daily schedule of the E! channel by heart.
At the beginning, babies pass out as soon as you feed them, in a milk-drunk stupor like your lush uncle’s after Thanksgiving dinner. But soon they have to learn to go to sleep, which sounds like the most absurd thing anyone could have to be taught. And it is, but the combined force of your and your child’s aptitude for it will equal your sanity in early parenthood. Overall, my baby was what people call a Good Sleeper: He slept through the night within a few months, he took long, consistent naps, he usually agreed to be put down in the crib instead of insisting on sleeping on me. Still, there is a process to rocking any baby—even a Good Sleeper—to sleep that demands a special presence, boredom, and hypervigilance. When a baby takes longer than thirty minutes to succumb to sleep, frustration and impatience intrude. You may want to scream at or shake your baby, but these will never make him go to sleep.
What did make my baby go to sleep pretty reliably, I found, was a combination of soporific music—Paul Simon’s Graceland played softly on my phone—and a quasi-yogic practice of relaxing every muscle in my body as I rocked him. I visualized all tension draining from my body progressively from my feet up to my face. Now more relaxed and patient myself, I would listen for the deep breathing and tiny, telltale fart that signaled he was out, sneak my phone camera over my shoulder to confirm that his eyes were closed, then put him down with deep, delicate tenderness, praying the shoulder-to-crib transition wouldn’t wake him. The relief I felt, daily, at accomplishing this task—the absurd, monumental charge of teaching sleep—astounded me. Perhaps I had never paid such sustained attention to the learned practice of relaxing and letting go. Perhaps love had never looked so tranquil, so patient, so contented, before.
It’s nearly impossible to articulate the transformation of ecstasy to joy, to contentment. There is no single moment in which it evidences itself, perhaps with the exception of hearing a howl not your own, finally, after hours of pain and rending.
But there is a series of moments; sonic, tactile, transient, searing. The sound of my husband and my son laughing from the other room. The seize of my heart in realizing that my son is now big enough to wipe off my kisses, but still small enough to allow them. The sleepy whisper of his little-boy voice responding I love you too, mama as I put him in bed. The warmth of him curled against me, his little legs as disproportionately long as my big ones are, the two of us watching TV in the same position. Those legs sprawled over my pregnant belly, now too long to contain on my lap, as he falls asleep rocking on my shoulder the way he has since his whole spine fit in my palm. His disregard for pronouns as he exclaims Mama, it’s so glad to see you! when he gets home from preschool.
I never knew before that the most wholesome sensory experiences can cut deepest—that the feelings these arouse are those all manufactured experiences strive to emulate. It seems no accident that when I printed tenderness on myself at nineteen, I put it where no one could see it; yet it remains, a gentle wink at those who have gotten so close to my heart. Now my tenderness holds my hand as he leads me to the park. It is much harder to pose as impenetrable when accompanied by the evidence of how one has been entered and exited.
Serially I revisit the stories that mean most to me; I find that the best of them yield new fruit every time I bring a different self to harvest. Reading “ Norwegian Spring, 1962 ” now—closer to the age of Lloyd the nostalgic revenant than the teenager she recalls—I think that the Laura who tattooed ömhet below her breast interpreted the poem’s narrative entirely wrong. This is not a poem that lionizes ecstasy, or seriously mourns its departure. This is an elegy from the one who survived ecstasy’s seduction, addressed to she who did not survive:
I’m not drinking any more, Bente, and I’ve learned how to live without ecstasy every day. But the tenderness, oh, yes, the tenderness. I have that now and the poetry is still calling and the trees where I walk and hear your clear, light voice. Tu lu lilla söt snut. I call back to you.
I think about how you would be now, had you chosen to live your life.
Cherry wine comes at a cost. Those who stay under the pine trees of the peninsula forever are only the ones memorialized there. The rest of us have to learn another way to live. And the luckiest of us can learn a way to look into a reflection—your eyes in a smaller face, or your face in the mirror—and mean it when you think it’s so glad to see you.
If ecstasy gets so swept up in the moment that you forget how you’ll feel about anything the next morning, contentment removes the need to lie to that tomorrow’s self. Ecstasy stays out all night; contentment gets just the right amount of sleep. Ecstasy slams ten drinks with a bar crowd of people you’ll never see again, and contentment eats a delicious meal with the people you’ve loved most for a decade. Ecstasy is too much of every intoxicating thing, and contentment is just enough of the nourishing things. Contentment is gratitude, self-acceptance, the present: the joy of standing within oneself. If ecstasy was my twenties, contentment has been my thirties. I can feel my early-2000s self rolling her eyes at me from here, but her sarcastic disdain is no longer my weathervane.
I am reluctant to assign motherhood a talismanic power that might imply non-parents are unenlightened, and I sometimes resent how writers, especially, overcompensate for youth’s departure by emphasizing how terrible it was: shallow, unfulfilling, ignorant, reckless, insecure. Is it possible that my young, ecstatic period was all of those things and also a ridiculous amount of fun? That there is a particular fun that can only be activated by shallowness, lack of fulfillment, ignorance, recklessness, and insecurity? A well-lived life cannot only be a series of well-balanced meals. I honor my ecstatic phase for what it had to teach me, yet most of the time, I don’t wish for its return.
I grew up. Ironically, it was only in doing that—or admitting I already had—that I stopped fearing the best was already behind me. It was, in fact, right in front of me, drowsy in my arms.
Laura Goode will teach an online workshop here at Catapult— How to Pitch Anything.