Last year on New Year’s Eve, leaving a party.
On one of those tiny, hilly streets in LA that should really be one-way. I don’t drink and was content to be the driver. In control, orchestrating. I pulled the car over into a burst of bougainvillea to let a stream of Lyfts pass while I pressed buttons in hopes to defog the windows. We use this feature so rarely in Southern California — who can remember? A friend rolled down the windows and splat their palm trying to make a little viewfinder rectangle for me. I felt stressed, not about obstructed driving, but about the need to fix things — looking for a pocket of air — the little drops of condensation signaling I was on track with the car commands.
I was flustered. I ran the windshield wipers too quickly. The radio was playing something stupid. We were all done with radio Christmas songs — yes, even Mariah Carey at this point, our reliable holiday golden girl.
A new year. The Rose Parade tomorrow. Trees to curb. Drinking lots of alkaline water, etc.
The foggy windows might have been a moment to relax. People were content and tired. The party was fun — and now done. Already, someone had grabbed my phone and thumbed through Spotify, unburdening me of the compulsion to optimize the drive home with a perfect song. But even so, this had been the pattern my entire adult life: pleasing all my friends, ushering in memories, doing the hard shit in a great outfit. A frenetic commitment to studied ease.
It was and was not about the windows.
The window between Thanksgiving and New Year’s remains a time of deep stress for me. A time about presents and presenting: the party, the cards, myself, all of the ways to show I have it together and am a very grateful, single mom, living a very abundant life.
So when my friend in the back chimed: “Does anyone have any cool resolutions?” I paused, conditioned to acquiescence, letting others go first: spend some time at an ashram, take a break from sugar, less podcasts and more non-fiction books, etc. But then I surprised even myself when I blurted out: “My plan is to have people like me less this year!”
“I’m proud of you,” my German friend cooed, giving my shoulders a little squeeze. “I honor your intention.”
As is the shelf life of New Year’s resolutions, mine started strong and dwindled. In January, I was passing on invitations without explaining myself. I was repeating Joan Didion’s bit on self respect as a mantra — to give unanswered letters their proper weight — and lying my head on the pillow each night almost believing it was okay to appear (in my imagination) cold, neglectful, and even unpleasant.
By mid-March, I was still allowing some dead air time on texts and emails instead of obsessively responding to everything the second the notification flashed. However, by deep spring I was back to my old ways; exhausted and mildly resentful of Sunday nights after a weekend of overextending myself with activities, accepting dates with people to whom I was only half-attracted, burdened with extra side projects that were neither lucrative nor fulfilling. Somehow, despite my most mindful intentions, my lips were conditioned into a constant yes.
With this trajectory, picking up Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation was a, well, revelation. Not only for the dialogue, crystal cut prose, and brutal gaze, but for her work as a whole; her expanding oeuvre of prickly female narrators — from the angry and uptight protagonist in Eileen to My Year’s privileged hibernating heroine
The narrator in the book is well aware of her ample advantages: a covetable gallery job (one she mocks, naps through, and then drops), a steady income from an inheritance, an Upper West-Side apartment (paid for), an Ivy League degree (in Art History, no less), and her self-proclaimed beauty — thin, blonde, and a designer wardrobe. And yet, she rejects it all in favor of doing nothing. With a steady stream of pharmaceuticals from her therapist, the narrator chooses round-the-clock sleep above all else.
Moshfegh takes self-care to comical extremes. The narrator’s sleep project is not depression (although she feigns frail mental health for prescriptions), nor slow suicide, but she proclaims, it is quite the opposite — merely a way to “get better.” In this case though, the means to the end is not glamorous and self-care is not Instagrammable. It is unshaved, sleep-in-the-eye-corners, grubby, and groggy. Her retreat is not a chance to caption #blessed below a photo of herself outside a Korean bath or by doing a looks-so-easy tree pose on the beach.
What matters most is simply this: the narrator doesn’t care what care looks like.
She is selfish, lazy, and a bad friend; distracted, sadistic, and unable to show up. Most of the novel is her recounting her own fascination with the mundane activities she embarks on in her somnambulist state — mysterious boxes of takeout in the morning, bodega ice cream splurges, AOL flirtations, and online shopping. Her main visitor in hibernation is her college friend Reva, whose drop-ins, more often than not, prove to be a burden. The narrator resents her friend “on principle” lamenting, “Reva was partial to self-help books and workshops that usually combined some new dieting technique with professional development and romantic relationship skills, under the guise of teaching young women ‘how to live up to their full potential.’ Every few weeks, she had a whole new paradigm for living, and I had to hear about it.”
This friendship dynamic was key to my understanding the ways we see self-care and selfishness as two sides of the same coin. Could I improve myself when there weren’t five easy steps or the thrill of a total paradigm shift? Without breaking the bank? Without becoming an annoying acolyte? Could I think more about myself without cutting everything and everyone out?
What I love so much about My Year is the ways it allows our hero — a woman who does nothing — to exist on the page as she is. So often as women we feel that in order to exist we must earn our space, and self-care gets misunderstood and muddled with this assumption: we must do to be.
Moshfegh is, of course, not the first writer to do this well. Joan Didion does it exquisitely with Marya in Play it as it Lays, and more recently, Catherine Lacey with Elyria in Nobody is Ever Missing. Over the past decade, I’ve been following the growing attention to “unlikable female narrators” from Roxane Gay’s article, “I’m Not Here to Make Friends,” to the recent attention of Netflix’s “unlikable leads.”
We have finally begun to pay attention. We are allowing women to exist fully, even with what have been traditionally unfeminine or unpleasant qualities. There is now, in 2019, no media shortage of “anti-heroines.”
Thus, my project for this New Year to be unlikable yet again is nothing new. It may or may not mean turning my phone off for a period of time, deleting Instagram, and staying home. I don’t know what it will look like, and although my 2019 intention is not to be catty or feared, my intention is to work towards a self-care that allows space for these parts in myself — not about earning my space as a woman, but finding a self-care that takes me back to myself however it looks.
Julie Schulte is a writer based in LA. She teaches workshops on the wild feminine voice in memoir. She likes bold, untethered women in real life and played by Cher on screen.