From the Backseat: Catfish 101

ssI got the weirdest note the other day. It was one of those Facebook message requests that comes from someone you aren’t friends with. Her name was Elizabeth.

“Hi there,” Elizabeth said. “This may be the strangest email I’ve ever written. I’ve been chatting with a guy on OKCupid who is using your pictures. I’m pretty sure it’s not you. The username is morethanever8.”

Next was a screenshot: a photo of me from a few years ago, taken in New Hampshire by my friend Brian when we were ice climbing. I’m wearing a red jacket, the hood is up, I’m smiling and looking right at the camera. It’s one of my favorite pictures.

But apparently, it isn’t me — across the bottom, text read “morethanever8.” My OKCupid alter ego is apparently 36 and lives in Roslindale, Mass. And his match percentage with Elizabeth was a solid 93 percent.

“If this is the guy I’ve been chatting with, why don’t you add up?” Elizabeth wrote.

I stared at my computer screen. Identity theft is not usually how I begin my mornings. I clicked refresh to see if perhaps I had misinterpreted the situation. But no, my picture was being used to lure unsuspecting women. Unbeknownst to me I was part of a catfishing expedition.

But Elizabeth was smart. She’d done some Googling. As a climber and writer, I’m pretty easy to find online. And after some reading and a spot of quick mental math, she went on Facebook. She found me and sent me a note. Catfished she wouldn’t be.

But she and morethanever8 had chatted it up a bit, and he’d given her his phone number. She included it in the note. Well played, Liz.

So I called.

It was my journalism background that made me do it. I had his number, and a good reporter does not shy away from the hard questions. As the phone rang, I felt the familiar tension in my chest of an impending argument, a feeling that marks the lead up to any contentious interview. It’s trepidation mixed with excitement, fight-or-flight by phone. Stories like these are always an adrenaline rush, and this one even more so. This time it was personal.

But morethanever8 didn’t pick up. After a handful of rings, he sent me to voicemail. His alter-ego, and yet he denied me. Who would date such a jerk? I left a message:

“Hi. I’m Erik. This is kind of awkward, but I got a note saying you’re using my picture on your online dating profile. Um, could you not? I mean, I’d kind of appreciate it if you took it down, thanks. If you want to talk about this, you have my number. Bye.”

As so often happens in online dating, I’m still waiting for him to respond. But a few hours later Elizabeth messaged to say morethanever8 had removed my photos. It was only in writing this column that I noticed her note said “pictures,” not just the singular “picture.” Eww.

I’ve told this story a handful of times now, and each telling gets a laugh. But it also raises questions. Several people have suggested Elizabeth is some sort of online dating ninja, that she couldn’t have found me based on just the pictures and maybe concocted the whole story as a ploy to get my phone number. Maybe the number I dialed was hers, people suggest.

But I don’t buy that. As a reporter I regularly find people on scant evidence. I believe Elizabeth to be my Hillary Clinton, not my Donald Trump; my pantsuited white knight rather than my con artist.

But morethanever8 I’m still confused by. Who is he? What was he thinking? Did he expect to pull off being me once it grew time for an in-person meeting? Or was this some other type of scam, one where the prize was something other than carnal? Did he know what he was doing? Would this ploy allow him to evade a meeting and thus detection?

I clearly don’t understand these things. Like some long-retired phone company employee who borrows an iPhone to make a quick call, despite my inside role I still have no idea how catfishing works. I know only that I got nothing out of it but this column.

I do, however, still have morethanever8’s phone number. Maybe I’ll try giving him another call today.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

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Control

Someday I’ll write an honest story. An honest sentence. An honest word. Someday.

Sometimes driving I close my eyes. Speeding along the highway I pinch them shut and see how high I can count: one Mississippi… two Mississippi… three Mississippi… Sometimes I get to five. I’m always aiming for 10, but my fear invariably overwhelms me and my eyes snap open before I reach it. Maybe my car is a little out of its lane, but usually no. Usually I would have been safe for a few seconds more. Usually I would have lived.

I close my eyes and try again.

Reckless. Stupid. Crazy. I know. But I need it. I need it to remind myself. Because I want something different. I want control. I want to see the world, to know what’s coming, to understand it and be able to maneuver around the dangerous parts. I want to know everything speeding at me, to avoid the crash, to never be surprised, overwhelmed, heartbroken. I want my open eyes to be enough to live a life without hurt.

But it’s not. Open or closed eyes, I am going die. As fast as I may drive, it drives faster. It is coming for me, and that truth is one I’m scared of. I do my best not to be, but how do you hold out a hurricane? It is coming, and what it means I don’t know. I only know it comes bent on consumption.

So sometimes I close my eyes. Not to forget or to hide, but to make ready. Does it seem crazy, my closing? It is foolish and reckless with no possible gain. I know. I can agree with that. But it also may be my first honest word.

I love life. That is my honest sentence. I love the look and feel and sway of it, the way it kisses me awake in the mornings and slams me down some evenings. I love how the day brightens for me, how words like “precipice” roll off my tongue. There is so much amazingness, and its beauty overwhelms me.

But life is not within my control. It spins around me, a cyclone I somehow exist within. I am both part of it and at the same time separate, an inhabitant of it more than its owner. Life will never be mine to keep.

And neither is yours. Neither is anyone’s. With our eyes open we may become convinced otherwise, we may think we can wrestle some version of control, but that is the real crazy. We can’t steer. We can’t. Crazy thinking is we are in control. We can only watch the hurricane, our eyes our front porch.

I am crazy, and I am not crazy. I am only saying out loud what life whispers every day. Life is the crazy one. I am not its outlier. I am in its heart. As are all of us. This madness is all of us. You think yourself safe? Life will kill us all. Do your best to control what you will, but eventually you will see too. We will all see. We have no control.

It is terrifying, overwhelming, and freeing. There is an openness in closing our eyes and letting go of control. It carries a freedom: The freedom to be, the freedom to live, the freedom to love openly, the freedom to exist with our whole hearts. I close my eyes to embrace that vision. I close my eyes to remind myself, to see beauty, to let go of any demands and instead catch a glimpse of what surrounds me. Flying along through the madness I can see how little I need for my heart to feel joy. Suddenly perfection is everywhere, in you and in me. It needs no push, no refinement, no outside markers. It fills the room, spills into the hallway. It is overwhelming. It becomes the hurricane.

That is what I want. I do not want to control. I want to accept. I want to live. I want to walk alongside. I want to love, and to be loved, without conformity or comfort. I want to live in the wind.

I love you, and in loving you I want to control you. My eyes are open, and I want to see you, to know you, to know you will accept me and never be mad at me and never leave me. Most importantly that. I want to be loved like you want to be loved and I want to be free from hurt like you want to be free from hurt. I want. I want. I want.

But at night on the road I close my eyes. And I remember.

I do not want to control you. I only want to see you, to bear witness to who you are, to feel the pulse of your heart and the rise of your breath. To learn about you without the push or pull of my own interest. I want you to love me and only me and never anything else, but more importantly I want to not care about any of that. I want to watch you unfold, to forget your past and the future and see who you are, to be let into the guesthouse of your heart, to stand at the foot of your spinning life, to lie next to you in the whirlwind of time. No steering. No control.

For that version of love I need to be reckless. I need to fly down dark alleys and make it to 10, to 100, to 1,000. I need to let the winds come full force as I stand naked in the rain, feel the waves and blown sand rake my body. I need to let life overwhelm me and drown in its blackness. I need to let it all come, even hurt and death, and lie in peace. Let the silence slide over me. I need to lose. I need to forget. I need to fall.

And it is so hard for me. It scares me so much. I want control. I want to never hurt, never be alone, never feel anguish or loss again.

So I close my eyes. I do it to let go of fear. I do it to recover myself, to reignite my spirit, to remind me that hurt and loneliness and anguish are just more sand, more waves. If I love you out of fear I love no part of you, not even the idea of you. I love the idea that someone might see me, accept me, nothing more. You are an apparition, a placeholder. That is the place where the crazy lives.

So I close my eyes. I let go, and in letting go I learn to love fully. I learn to seek and explore without fear, to question what makes your heart shine rather than question your motives for shining. There is a recklessness to it, a foolishness. Discovering your heart and yet ignoring the urge to stay safe, rejecting the urge to control, is its own version of night-driving. It is another risk, one without gain. It is crazy, lost, bleeding. We all want to be loved. And we want that love to be steadfast, enduring.

Maybe letting go is the key. Maybe rejecting control allows two people to grow in time: If I accept you then I can watch you shift and change without it threatening me. If you can watch me shift and change too without it threatening you maybe we have a chance.

I cannot control these shifts; not in you, not even within myself. And with time yours may diverge from mine. I want to celebrate them as I celebrate you, because in truth they are you. Your growth is you. Your movement and momentary expression in the world is you. That spinning movement of self is the miracle we call life. Your body is just a vehicle, one you both live in and never own. I do not wish to own it, or you, only to honor.

But that is not our pattern. We so want others to “be themselves,” like they are some fixed thing. But they are not. You are not. You are more complex than that. How much have you changed in the last year? The last five? What are you if not those shifts?

To love you I must let you go. I must cede control. I must strive to see the person you are, not who you were or who I would like you to be. I must find your heart, your never settled, perfect, dancing heart. And if you are you you cannot be who I want you to be. Unless I only want you to be you, who you are. I cannot want to change that, even if loving you as you are means together we veer into oncoming traffic. So I forfeit control. I close my eyes. I let go of the wheel.

And perhaps I find a perfect story.

Love and Thanks

messages-image1395101098I read a short story the other day, and in it the author did all the things I admire. Her writing was playful, light, a drift of thrushes flitting about a thicket. I was deeply taken with her.

My writing, by contrast, is more goose-like: heavy, waddling from here to there. Sometimes it flies, but it only takes flight through powerful strokes. And once airborne it soars; the light dance is not for me.

I wish it were. There is a pixie-ness in erratic movement, a detachment from worry and the future. My writing is too serious, too focused on getting a point across. Responsibility for understanding sits with me, the writer, rather than on you, the reader, and therefore every sentence is planned, deliberate.

But for a book on love that technique will never work. There words can’t fall like stones too heavy to lift again. I’d be lighting a tea candle with a flamethrower. Love deserves better treatment than that. It deserves starlings and pigeons, packs that move in unison though they have nowhere to go. That’s love. Or a version.

I know a girl who holds her heart like a grasshopper tucked in cupped hands and covered. She wants it to leap, but everywhere are frogs waiting so she keeps her hands closed.

Another woman’s beauty is her curse. She’s not sure if it’s her that men love or her container. They profess everything but whenever she speaks they go blank. Her words become an echo. Her physical beauty is only a reflection, that a woman so stunning will accept them is to say they are enough. It is the acceptance they care about. She is lost to them.

I married the same thing once, only it was smart that mattered rather than pretty. She was pretty, mind you, but it was the quick-talking brain I fell in love with. That is to say, if she was that smart and loved me then maybe I was that smart too. I couldn’t tell—I’d never been very good at looking at myself. But with her as my rearview I stared quite contentedly. It didn’t last long.

What is love? Is it a joke? A tease? Because it never seems to go as we’d like. I have an answer, one that leans on trademark and is likely deeply unsatisfying for many. But it was shown to me, so I must tell.

Love is the Force, the Matrix. It is everywhere. It binds the world together. It flows into people and pets and chairs. It moves inanimate objects and pulls apart windmills. It’s a fingerprint from god, and it’s on you.

I wish I could explain it more precisely, but there it is. Love is a hummingbird, not a goose. The goose we can predict. It takes to the sky in great heart-shaped flocks and soars south to north with seasonal efficiency. But love isn’t like that. Love is Canada, where the geese land, and the rain that slows their way. It is the hunter looking to fell them. It is the marshes where they take refuge. It is the bullet and the reed. It is all those things. But we keep looking for the goose alone.

If I love you I don’t care who you are. I look at you and I know. I look at you and see brilliance. I see you for who you are and love that thing. I love it unceasingly, without reciprocation. Love is in the viewing, the standing next to, the breathing in. It is in your scent, the brush of your eyelash, the movement of your throat as you swallow. I love madly because I must love. It has nothing to do with being loved back. Those two are not connected.

Love honors, but it does not keep. How hard to remember! But I do not honor your walk by demanding it parallel mine. I honor your walk by watching you take it, by being blown away by each stumbling step, by admiring your courage those times your heart calls you to walk alone and you heed it, cast me to dust. That tearing sound? It is me. Your walk may leave me bloody, but it amazes me just the same. Love cannot kill me because it is me. It never leaves. It flows in and out of things. Sometimes it flows into you and out of me. A river in springtime, sometimes swelled with snowmelt and rain, a river in fall, sometimes lean and rocky. All versions of love are as equal.

So where does my love live? Where can it reside if not in you, with you? Nowhere. Everywhere. In me. Because you are fleeting, and if I love you I want you to be. I want your transformation to end, for the you that is to be you always. But you are the hummingbird. Your dance I cannot understand. Your shimmer changes with every twitch. I can only watch. I can only follow you with my eyes, my hands, my body. You might linger for a time, but I can not pour myself into you. Such acts are temporary.

So where does my love live? It lives in me. It is me. It is my body and being. It is my every heartbeat and breath. That is where my love lives. I boil with it, and it overflows me. I see you and recognize another such creation, perfect and wild. But I cannot give you anything. I can only hold that love myself, let the wonder of you live in my eyes. I know that love boils in you too, that the grasshopper you carry is a feint, a distracting jellybean. Your love is not for you to give away; it radiates like a second sun. It gives no greater light for my proximity. Find a place to entrust your heart inside of you and let it power the shining. Your heart is everything—the goose and the hunter.

And what of the fear that they are here because of the container? I suffer that fear myself, but only when I am in search of a container too, when my motives are shallow too. My covered eyes allow the world to fool me. Because what is a container? If you love, you offer the world you. That is the gift. Your container is destined to die. I may love the look of you, but look with an eye for beauty and everyone is beautiful. Smart, funny, pretty, kind, everyone has pieces. The other day I drew a woman who had the most stunning lips. I wanted to kiss them, but that’s not what she was there for. All the beauty of the world sat right there beneath her nose: full, red, alive. The rest of her form, what does it matter? Where are your lips?

I can’t fully explain. Either you get this or you don’t. But if you don’t, please come back to me. Reread, looking for pigeons rather than eagles. Majesty cures for a while, but humility allows a glimpse of the world around us. I am not wise, I can barely explain. But the river in springtime flood can carry us away without explanation. Love is like that. Don’t worry about the words themselves. Trust the feeling. Wade in. Worry about nothing. Worry about not drowning. That would be scary.

Traveling.

Traveling.

I have lots of thoughts. They begin with this:

If that is where your heart is, go.
Be prepared to be lonely, hurt, scared, lost, overwhelmed. And go.
If you wander you are accepting instability. It will overwhelm you at times, and it will show you tremendous beauty.
It will remind you of the impermanence of things.
It will give you the space and the emptiness to recall all of your failures, all of your imperfections.
And in facing those you’ll find courage, remember your heart. And you’ll also drown.

It is worth it.
But the things you are seeking to escape will still be there when you return home.
Life is a balance of movement and stillness, and it is in the stillness that we recover our hearts.
But the movement is necessary. It uproots what is otherwise hidden.
So that in stillness you can consider how to move through it.

Your heart is amazing. You are looking for it, trying to learn how to remember yourself. I get that. My heart is the same. All hearts are the same. The base ingredient of this world is love. Beauty and love. But we forget. Sometimes we need to shake things up to remember.
But in truth they are there all along.
You are those things.
In movement and in stillness.
Yet it is so hard to remember.
If you need to go to remember, go.
If you feel going may offer something, go.
And when it is time for stillness again, you’ll know.

It’s already there in you. Perfect, beautiful, amazing. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves.
And sometimes we need to wander.
But there are 1,000 ways to wander.
Some mental, some physical, some emotional.
If you have been in one place for too long, perhaps geography is what needs to change.
But.
A shift in place will not fill that space.
It will distract you for a time, an elongated moment, and then the emptiness will come screaming back.
But wandering will give you fresh eyes to see the connections you already have, the community you left behind.
It will remind you of its richness.
That is its gift.
That is why I say “Be prepared to be lonely, hurt, scared, lost, overwhelmed.”
Leaving will allow you to see what you have with fresh eyes.
But what you feel is missing is not missing.
Nothing is missing. Nothing is ever missing.

You are in this moment now because you need to be. Nothing is missing, nothing is broken. Your heart is reminding you it is up to you to create the world you love, the one that feeds you. Your seeking is about something else, something more elemental.
Movement may be part of recognizing what that thing is.
It may be an important part.
But the struggles inside you are your heart, not your place in the world. The place you are in is exactly the place you are meant to be. It is in recognizing how to move from that place that we get lost.
And in thinking there is a right way to do it.
Go or stay, you are doing what you need to do.
And stripping your heart bare—that is the key. To everything. No matter what.

Do not seek to be happy.
Seek to experience life.
Seek moments like now, where you are wondering what to do.
Those are life’s experience.
They are worth holding onto, moving within, breathing in, swallowing until they drown you, sharing.
You are worthy of sharing. Of being reckless with your heart and your choices. In whatever way fits for you, feeds you.
Love cannot hurt you. It cannot bleed, maim or kill you. It only seems to when we look to bend it to our own purpose, when we seek to control it, to force it to feed only us.
Instead, let your love feed the world. Offer service and kindness to others. That is the key. It is what feeds our hearts.

I cannot do this, what I aspire to do.
So I keep practicing.
You understand. I know you do.
The world wants us to see love as a gift, not a cage, not a binding contract. And yet we fight against the world. So it keeps reminding us.

If I sleep with you I’m going to want to keep you.
And that is OK.
It is the place I am at.
This life is about learning to let go.
So I keep learning.
But I do not start from a place of fear.
I start from a place of recognizing and accepting myself.
And gently leaning into the struggle.
Without judgement for myself.
That is love: a practice ever evolving.
You will slip and fall.
Yet that is not failure.
That is THE POINT.
It is you, you being perfectly you. It is beautiful.

We are all searching for a place to be ourselves, fully ourselves.
Most love is a box.
You are worthy of more than a box. You are worthy of everything.
Can I offer that?
Can you?
No.
But that is what we are yearning to become, where we yearn to be, not some other place but in a space where both we and the world can be ourselves.
So we practice.
Practice however you have to.
Nothing is missing.
We are just confused about love, the world and everything in it.
When someone else hurts you, remember they are confused.
When you fuck up, remember you are confused.
Never understand anything.
Just wonder.
I wonder about you.
It feels good to be wondered about. Amazing.
That is love.

Love everything.
Everyone.
Understand nothing.
Love the world. All of it.
Then you’ll see nothing is missing.
Your job is not to be perfect. Your job is to be a mess. To be confused. Lost. Drowning. Overwhelmed.
To let go of judgement. Of yourself and others.
When someone hurts you, you still love them. Love them fully. Openly. With everything. With your all.
Accept them as perfect, even when they are a mess.
The point isn’t to be happy. The point is to feel: sadness, hurt, loneliness, these are what you are searching for.

Confusing, but worth it.


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For B, in Gratitude

For B, in Gratitude

10491231_958451607514258_8227570007696309004_n“Life and love are confusing things, and too many nights are spent sleepless.”

A friend sent a note the other day, and those were my words typed in solidarity with someone trying to figure it out. It had a certain ring to it, flowed in a writerly way I strive for all in all my work.

And it’s true: whether in life or in love I have no idea what I’m doing, and many nights are spent tossing. If the world overwhelms you, if it seems too bright or too fast or too complicated, I get it. I too am doing my best to hold on.

I read a book the other day by Oliver Sacks, now-deceased professor, writer and neurologist. The book was called Gratitude. It’s small, took barely an hour, four essays Sacks wrote in his final years. It chronicles turning 80, the revelation he has cancer, and his final thoughts before his death at 82. It’s short enough to read in an hour. And like any book addressing death directly, it’s powerful. A Washington Post reviewer called it Sacks’ posthumous gift.

Perhaps anything that grows so directly from death is bound to be moving, bound to contain poignant reminders our days are few, that life will not continue forever. A year ago my step-grandmother died, and the piece I wrote about her was similarly affecting.

But death is not only sad; it also a doorway, a secret entrance, the key to god and the universe and life and love and everything. It is both. It is everything. It is all of it at the same time.

How? Simple: You are already dead, so there is nothing to fear. Ever. Nothing.

How easily we forget. How easily we get distracted by work and bills and advertisements and immediate needs. But we will die. We will not escape. We are there already. Time has bent and death is upon us and every thought we have from now until it arrives is but a dream, the briefest hallucination.

Death will come, and when it does it will come fast, fully, completely. And in that moment it will feel like your life was a blink, a sneeze, a flurry of activity ended premature. There is no way to sidestep, no way to avoid that which everyone before has succumbed, which everyone we know will succumb, that which we ourselves will eventually also submit.

But there is something comforting in that. You will die, and I will die, and no matter how many people surround us in the end it will inevitably be alone. But it is a doorway everyone passes through. We all walk together to that aloneness, united in something we cannot but do by ourselves.

So we know it is coming. There is no stopping it. And we know it will happen alone. But in that truth we are united and no one is ever alone. So let go of the fear. To fear death is to expend energy that makes no change. Instead we can welcome it, look with openness and wonder as it approaches, greet its coming with a willingness to see what adventure it holds, the final and most brilliant version following a life of mini-adventures.

That switch, that walk through death’s doorway with openness and grace, makes all the difference. It transforms everything. Death is coming, but exorcised from fear it loses control of us. It becomes just another step, another dance we are lucky enough to experience. And in becoming that it allows us to let go of ourselves. Death’s inevitability becomes just one more step, one more mystery to uncover, one we can do with grace.

Because mysteries are the most amazing parts of life. Falling in love is the mystery of meeting someone new, watching the story of them unfold before you. Life is but the unfolding of your own mystery. Death is just another version, a new step in a dance we are privileged to practice. Like life, like love, it is an experience to cherish, something to be lived fully, felt fully.

And stripped of fear, stripped of the need to control every step, those moments before death arrives become brighter, richer. There is no reason for fear, no reason for regret, no reason to look back and say “I wish.” Because stripped of fear, stripped of angst and worry, we live fully. Love falls deeply, wildly, uncontrollably. Life runs reckless, perfect and free. Every moment becomes a chance to fill the space we are offered with beauty, grace, wild blasts of perfection, moments that breathe and then die just like we do. We do not look to hold onto them after they are over, because they, just like us, are temporary. And in the briefest spark burns the full essence of life.

Life, love, sleepless nights and the promise of an adventure far greater than anything our memories hold—it is all before us, within us, surrounding us completely. We cannot get away from it, the raw beauty of a world stripped clear of pretense and fear. It whispers in the wind, hides the air we breathe, courses alongside the blood in our veins. It is all that we are.

But we forget. We wander and stray. We fall into ourselves, trapped in a conversation so easily distracted.

But not to worry, Death will greet us all someday. You will be reminded. And when that time comes, I will be next to you. As will everyone.