Living with Guilt—for a Lifetime

By E.B. Bartels

I went to MoMA PS1 the other day because I felt guilty. I had been living in New York for two years now and I had never been—and as someone who loves museums, studied photography for a decade, and used to teach middle school art class—this was embarrassing. Besides, I had heard the Mike Kelley show was great and thought I should go before it closed.

My boyfriend had also joked that I was becoming an "indoor cat." I was horrified. That alone was enough to drive me out of my apartment. Besides not being a fan of cats (gross), I had been spending an awful amount of time at home recently. My excuse was excessive schoolwork and a cold, but that was just an excuse. Even before his comment confirmed my hermitic habits, I had been feeling bad about not taking advantage of "all that New York has to offer." Because why live in this great, expensive, exhausting city if you don’t leave your house?

The first few months I lived in New York, I didn’t do anything at all. I was paralyzed by indecision. I was overwhelmed by the number of events—theater shows, dance performances, author talks, book signings, art openings —happening every single night. I couldn’t go to everything, but how could I decide? I couldn’t, so I did nothing.

Then I tried to do everything. I took myself on museum outings, bought student tickets to plays, and attended as many writer talks as I could, even if I hadn’t heard of the author. But I got tired. Living in New York means I also live in New York—I have days when I am exhausted or sick, or just want to come home eat a whole box of mac and cheese by myself. It’s ok, I tell myself. You can’t be a cultural tourist all the time. But I still can’t help the deep nagging sense of guilt that surfaces every time I spend a Saturday afternoon in my bed reading.

Guilt comes easily to me. Perhaps it’s due to being a lapsed Catholic—the guilt that is ingrained with that religion, mixed with the guilt of never making it to confirmation (driver’s ed classes met at the same time as confirmation classes, and I had my priorities in high school). Part of it comes from privilege—feeling bad when I receive financial assistance from my parents as a broke graduate student, feeling bad that I fortunately can receive financial assistance from my parents, feeling bad for feeling bad (such a first world problem). There's a special type that comes from growing up in the northeast. My Massachusetts friends and I joke about a complex we call "New England Weather Guilt." Whenever the sun is out and the temperature is over 45 degrees, an urgent feeling sinks in its claws: I need to be outside. Who knows how long it will stay sunny? Who knows when it will next be above freezing? It seems that everyone in the New England area rushes outside to absorb as much vitamin D as they can before it beings snowing again. When I spent a year living in St. Petersburg, I learned that the weather guilt complex isn’t specific to New England. During the long "White Nights" in the June of northern Russia, I would spend 20-hour periods outdoors, lounging at picnics in city parks, kicking around a soccer ball with classmates, drinking a beer by a canal, because I felt like I should. Sometimes I wanted to go home and just sit inside and read Nabokov. But as soon as I did, I felt bad again.

The day I went to PS1 was a gorgeous February afternoon, so my New England Weather Guilt was in full force. It was a freakish gap between blizzards—a spring-like day, when all I needed was a jean jacket and some light sneakers. I spent all morning puttering around and finally, by two in the afternoon, hauled myself out into the world. I felt good as soon as I stepped onto my building’s stoop. I felt even better as I walked to the subway. Here I go! Doing stuff! Taking advantage of New York! Being a real person! I arrived in Queens and boldly walked into PS1, ready to see some art and really live in New York.


As soon as I entered the museum, I wanted to turn around. I had not realized that this day was the last day of the Mike Kelley exhibit. PS1 was packed. There were lines to get into the smaller gallery rooms, lines to use the bathroom, people pushing strollers and throwing elbows, lots of loud annoyed sighs. I also had not realized that the well-known Kim Gordon was performing that afternoon in a tribute show to Mike Kelley, and dozens and dozens of twenty-somethings in flannel with facial piercings milled about the exhibit waiting for the doors to the concert to open. And it was hot. The PS1 heating system had not adjusted to the spring-like temperature outside, and it was unbearable indoors. Dry, oppressive heat blasted throughout the galleries. It was so warm I was surprised the artwork wasn’t melting off the walls. I felt faint.

This is awful, I thought. Why am I even here?

But the guilt welled up again. I had made it all this way. I couldn’t turn around now. Going back to my apartment would make me like an indoor cat that had gotten into the backyard and hated it. So, I took a deep breath. I removed some layers of clothing. I waited in lines for my turn to look up close at beaded collages and glass jars of illuminated shapes. I made way for babies in carriages and stepped aside for impatient patrons. I drank plenty of water. I stepped outside for fresh air breaks. But, three hours later, I had seen every room, studied each piece of art, and felt like a productive person. I had enjoyed the Mike Kelley exhibit, but, more importantly, I felt good about myself. I wasn’t an indoor cat anymore; I was a nice Golden Retriever who went for a frolic in the local dog run and then returned home to curl up on the couch. It seemed a lot like exercising—while it’s happening, you hate it and want to be on your sofa with a bag of corn chips, but after you’re finished, you feel accomplished. You can talk about it after with that casual air of someone who enjoys such activities: Oh, yeah, I went for a run before work yesterday. Oh, Mike Kelley? Yeah, I saw his show at PS1.

I got onto the train in Queens, smiling. Maybe next I would go see that Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim, but I was off the hook for a few weeks. I felt good. Except…when was the last time I called my grandparents? Also, I should go for a run tomorrow. And I should spend more time working on that piece for my writing workshop. I should get to bed earlier too, and I shouldn’t eat so much ramen, and I should drink less, and I shouldn’t spend so much time on my computer, and I should get a drink with that friend who keeps texting me, and I really should stop spending so much money, and…if it’s not one thing, it’s a hundred others. Even if I did it all, I would still find something to feel bad about. At some point, I hope I will learn to accept that this is just how things are, but until then, I’ll be busy beating myself up.

E.B. Bartels a writer, photographer, and native of the Boston area. She is currently living in New York to pursue an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University's School of the Arts. Her nonfiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Fiction Advocate, Agave Magazine, Vitamin W, The Wellesley Review, Wellesley Underground, and the anthology The Places We've Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. E.B. is the 2013-2014 Online Content Editor for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art's literary blog, Catch & Release. You can read her writing at, tweets at @eb_bartels, and visit her website at

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