Thoughts on "better"
About a month ago, in the brief interlude between Delta and Omicron, I went to the city with two of my best friends for our annual (minus 2020) Christmas night out. Everything felt foreign, even two years in - riding the NJT with a mask on, showing vaccine cards upon entry at bars, timed limits on tables at restaurants. But we did it, we left our houses and our kids and wore sparkles and drank too much champagne and ate too little at Air’s Champagne Parlor where we, like every other table, flirted with the flamboyantly fabulous nonbinary waiter. I went downstairs to use the restroom at Tokyo Record Bar and tried to convince the wait staff, as they reset for the next seating, to join a union. They gave me a complimentary can of sake. We took a cab to the Lower East Side and stumbled our way to the dingy and sacred Library Bar, where we had spend hundreds and hundreds of hours 15 years before, playing the Flaming Lips and the Velvet Underground on the jukebox and dancing down the length of the place, underneath whatever noir film they were projecting on the far wall.
It was all exactly as it used to be, and totally different.
And as we paraded out of the Library at midnight there was a young woman coming in who was about the same age as we were when we ended up there every Friday night, in between visits to Max Fish and Piano Bar and Katz’s and the unnamed garishly lit pizza place on Houston. Back when we were free from the responsibilities of caring for other humans, when our worries were about grad school term papers we weren’t actually worried about, and George W. Bush; when we thought what we were living through was unprecedented.
She was coming in with three other people, one of whom looked to be her boyfriend, and said with genuine admiration, “you guys look great!” and we, beyond buzzed and alive on an early December night, full of joy for the great privilege of being out of our house, together, feeling gorgeous and happy, tittered with glee, “We’re nearly 40! We have kids! We used to come here when we were your age! You were probably a child then! The age of our children now!”
Her boyfriend, a characterless white guy in a nondescript outfit, looked at us with glazed, uninterested eyes, but her whole face lit up.
“You’ve been best friends for that long! So it gets better right?!”
Oh god yes, we said, without even thinking. So much fucking better.
“Tell me it gets better. It has to be better than this,” she said, imploringly.
We looked at each other. Shit.
“Well…” my friend began. “It does - because you stop caring as much…”
Her eyes were like a fly fishing line, casting for connection.
“But like actual life gets better when you’re older right? Like, all of it?”
She was asking a question both totally unique to her own pain, whatever its root causes, and the collective pain of humanity in December of 2021.
And how could we answer that?
Would her unique pain get better? Was our unique pain from our early 20s “better” now? No. Of course not. It didn’t go away or get solved. We integrated it into us, though. We used it to grow, in different ways, in similar ways. It became us. And we stopped fighting it, at least as much as we used to.
Was this pandemic, this period of agonizing unrest and divisiveness going to get “better”? Was this time going to officially one day end, giving way to prosperity and openness and freedom and happiness?
All things end. Every state, pleasant and disruptive, ends. But no one, not even Fauci, can know what comes next.
These questions stem from our feeling that something wrong has happened - to us, to our country, to the world. Somewhere a right turn was taken when it should have been a left, and things aren’t playing out the way they should.
But in Buddhism and I’m guessing in most other spiritual paths, we know that’s not how it works.
Things are playing out exactly as they “should” because they are playing out exactly as they are. There’s only one reality and it’s the one you’re in in this moment, in this breath, on your bed or your couch or the toilet or your car in the garage before you go back inside to face your family. Nothing right or wrong happens. The pain of the past and the longing for the future, for something different than this, are thoughts that divert us from accepting that this moment right now is all there is and all there ever could be.
There is no grand plan written in ink - your wedding date, your new job, your pregnancy, your child going to in person school without a mask on, who the President is - that gets crossed out and overridden by the universe’s mistakes.
We were never promised a life without pandemics. We were never promised a boyfriend who didn’t look like an undecorated overbaked sugar cookie. We were never promised a healthy democracy, or a truly progressive President. We were never promised best friends to be by your side through every up and down of life, or healthy kids, or a loving partner.
There is some choice, we can make decisions within our lives and we can fight to make things more aligned with the way we want and believe them capable of being.
But there is no control, because the only right outcome is the one that already is.
It’s hard to accept that there isn’t a normal life to return to, or a “better” to arrive at. We had a life then, in the “before times,” and now it’s different, and whatever will come next will be different too. Life isn’t on pause, this isn’t a diversion. We’re not arriving anywhere. We’re already here.
Of course this particular moment in time is especially hard because of the fact that it is so starkly different than everything we used to have, and everything we secretly (or not so secretly) feel owed. And I do believe that 2022 will bring an ease to the acute hardship of the pandemic.
But for that young woman and for all of us I’ll state the truth, which is that once this hardship ends, which it inevitably will, we will face others. Maybe nothing will ever be this “bad” for you. Maybe once she dumps that boring boy and finds her ignition she will say, finally - this is better. But people you love will get sick and die. Dreams will be deferred, your heart will be broken, you’ll crawl into bed some nights having merely survived.
And even still, all of my friends and I agree that this nearly 40 year old life, with it’s complicated pregnancies, miscarriages, marital challenges, struggles with addiction, fears about our children, serious illnesses in our families, confusion about our sexuality, crushing career losses, aging bodies and the grinding daily trauma of being a full blown grown up in truly unprecedented times, is indeed better than being bloated from binge drinking until dawn multiple nights a week, unmoored entirely from your body, adrift in a city who’s job it was swallow you, unintegrated, unexamined, unrealized.
As our Uber pulled up we tried to give her something to hold on to - life doesn’t get easier but you get more tools to deal with it, and having friends like this is the most important tool of all.
“It” may not get better. But you will.
We couldn’t be on our way out of the Library unless we had first gone in.
So while it’s your turn in there, put “She Don’t Use Jelly” by the Flaming Lips on the jukebox, and settle into that duct taped vinyl booth.
Every song ends. Just listen to this one as it plays.