Tiny Revolutions №85: Talking to Strangers
the pendulum always swings
Last time I wrote to you about Joan Didion and how real changes don’t happen because you decide to make a list of resolutions, but rather because you realize you can’t live with yourself if you don’t make them.
At the time I was writing from a place of feeling like I’d done The Work, which in my case is a constant rotation of zazen, walks, and yoga, with the occasional woo-woo practice for good measure. I do feel like I’m pretty on top of what’s going on with me. And I do feel like I’m in a pretty good place, life satisfaction-wise.
But here’s the thing about self-awareness work: it never ends. You feel like you’ve finally got it together, and then something else comes up. (This kind of chronic dissatisfaction is what necessitates doing The Work to begin with, but I digress.)
It wasn’t long after I wrote that dispatch that the insomnia came for me. I’m always a waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of person, but I can usually go back to sleep within a few minutes. However, in the past week, it’s been bad. I’m awake for an hour, two hours, three hours, just lying there in the dark. This morning I gave up on sleep around 5 and took the dog out for a pre-dawn walk.
The thoughts that come for you in the middle of the night are, as we know, not the most optimistic thoughts. They are the undertow of the mind. Of the “what if,” “have you considered,” “you better deal with this” variety. So that’s what’s been floating around in my head lately.
And it would be nice if the message was clear. “Fix your relationship with X.” “Send that email to Y.” Or whatever.
But mostly I’ve just been feeling salty. The prevailing mental weather has been an intense feeling of frustration. Which is easy to understand; we’re still living in a pandemic that’s drawn on for fucking ever and all its various downstream effects.
It’s hard for everyone for different reasons. It’s hard for me personally because I miss being out in the world with other people. I’ve compensated by developing a more extensive life online; joining lots of digital communities, forging relationships with people who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away. I’m glad I’ve done that. It’s been a lifeline and I’ve met so many incredible people I’d never have otherwise. I don’t have plans to discontinue those relationships or my work in those communities.
But goddamn if I don’t miss the days when you actually saw and could touch the people you interacted with the most. My middle-of-the-night rumination is less about things I need to fix (I have fixed a lot already) and more about how I can move closer towards a life that brings me more often into contact with the people I care about.
Yesterday I wanted to do absolutely nothing but I forced myself into a maniacal cleaning spree. There’s so little I can actually control but one thing I can do is clear off all the shit that’s been piling up on my dressers and tables and desk over the past few months. It was tremendously satisfying.
One of the things I did was get rid of a piece of art I’ve had hanging on the wall for the last 10 years or so. I bought her at a yard sale in West Hollywood after she caught my eye driving by. I just liked the juxtaposition of the business casual outfit and the “don’t look at me” pose. It seemed to articulate some way I felt about my career at the time. (I later found out that it was a print of a self-portrait by the artist Cindy Sherman.)
She hung in my bedroom for a long time; far too long, really. It only occurred to me a few months ago that maybe having a giant image of a woman alone covering her face displayed prominently in my home was not a great guiding light for the person I wanted to be — not alone in the world, not covering myself up or hiding who I am. Has the image been subconsciously influencing me in some way or another? I still like it objectively as a piece of art. And I think she was right for me during some critical years of self-inquiry and exploration. But yeah, yesterday I realized it was time for her to go. I put her out on the curb and she was gone by dusk, hopefully to someone who needed her the way I once did.
Like I said, I don’t know where to go from here, but I know I’m not going alone. At this time last year I was hosting Tuesday night co-working sessions on Zoom for people who wanted to make progress on something writing related. I’ve thought about doing that again during this hideous Omicron winter, but I find I don’t have the stomach for it. The kind of interactions I’m looking to foster are the total opposite: the ones where you interact with people because they are *right there in front of you.*
At the grocery store last week a cute guy asked me about the kimchee I was reaching for. Oh yes, it’s the best, I said, and then we briefly moved on to his preferred brand of pickles. It was both amusing and awkward. Should I give him my number? Maybe I should give him my number, I thought. And then the moment passed and I finished up shopping and life went on. I wondered if he wondered the same thing. I also wondered if I’d have had the wherewithal to ask him his name or something, anything, before the pandemic, and thought hmm, probably not.
It seems to me that we’ve all gotten pretty bad at talking to each other; these last two years have made us even worse. Maybe trying to be better at it is as good a place to start as anywhere. I just ordered some cute business cards to have on hand the next time such an opportunity strikes!
On to some things I thought were worth sharing this week:
“PMS is something more than the fancy of a neurotic imagination. It is an essentially hereditary complex of systems, the most frequently noted but by no means the most unpleasant of which is an uncontrollable tetchiness, suffered by God knows how many women, by no men at all (the motherfuckers), and by some unfortunate girls as young as nine years old.”
Silly me, I write a whole issue about Joan Didion and then failed to include something important: I published an essay last month! As part of Essay Daily’s Advent Covers project, I took on Didion’s famous “In Bed,” about her experience of migraine. Only I wrote about my experience of PMS, which is similarly debilitating (and dubious to non-sufferers). You can read it here.
Today in Collaborations
Speaking of doing things with people, here’s something delightful that happened on the Internet. I tweeted this:
And then my friend Art Lapinsch brought it to life!
Art Lapinsch @artlapinschQuick build attempt to help writers "easily bang out a good amount of words per day" No-code build idea: Q&A style form to draft tool ✍️ I have a vague idea, let's see what we'll come up with. Documenting the process in the comments below 👇 https://t.co/PC61wn8SRR
You can click in to the thread if you’re interested in seeing how he did it. But also, you can check out the tool and see if it helps you write something. It’s called Draft Crony, and I think it’s pretty cool. Probably best for nonfiction writers, though lots of possibilities.
Would love to know what you think if you check it out; Art’s already made a bunch of updates based on user feedback.
I made a playlist of instrumentals to listen to while cleaning and writing over the weekend. Maybe you can use it?
Speaking of Playlists
I heartily recommend Sasha Frere-Jones’s newsletter. I’ve read Sasha’s music criticism for years going back to his time as the in house critic at The New Yorker, and it’s always a pleasure to see his name pop up in my inbox. A fresh set of soundscapes and musical discoveries every time.
Something to Think About
“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about — quite apart from what I would like it to be about —or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”
I’m sure I’ve plugged it in the past, but one of my favorite books about becoming who you are is Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. It’s a beautiful book I’ve returned to many times because of its simplicity and truth.
Speaking of Books
My book that I’ve been working on — the book that I did not finish last year — has a title. I’ve been loathe to talk about the title because I don’t want to jinx myself, but here goes anyway: it’s called “What the World Needs is You.”
It’s on its way. Maybe even this year!
A Tiny Assignment
Say hello to a stranger. See how it goes.
That’s all for me this time. Thanks for reading, as always.
Oh and for those of you in LA — I’ve been going to a coffeeshop in Echo Park or Silver Lake most Sunday mornings. Hit reply or let me know in the comments if you’d be interested in joining for writing or chatting or whatever. Was thinking I could make it a standing thing if there’s interest.
p.s. Share this with a friend who needs it.