#MatteredToMe - September 24, 2021
- Yanyi's recent letter, "How Do You Write About Joy" was a wonderful reminder. "The truly imaginative act, in catastrophe, is letting go of the promise of its end. It is to stop waiting for after in order to have now; it is to pause enough at existing where I am so I can acknowledge, and have, true joy."
- I think Chloe N. Clark's poem "Yesterday I realized I wouldn't die" made a nice complement to Yanyi's letter. I love the idea of small wonders you keep in your pocket.
- Hanif Abdurraqib and Pineapple Street Studios did a 2-part deep dive on The Fugees and their album The Scorev that was just magnificent.
- David Naimon's conversation with Pádraig Ó Tuama was so good. The whole thing was great but I was particularly moved by how they talked about engagement without trying to change minds, and what real dialogue might look like.
- There is a sadness I feel underneath Michelle Poirier Brown's poem "Praise," which just peeks out a little in the first and fourth lines. The whole thing feels to me resilient and hopeful in a wistful sort of way.
- Sarah Freligh's poem "Wondrous" was on The Slowdown today and the way it turns at the end, revealing the wonder that can come on the other side of grief, that goes hand-in-hand with the sadness, was lovely.
As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. I get to spend some time with family this weekend, and I'm looking forward to it. I hope that you can connect with the ones you love, too, whether in person or remotely.
Thank you, and take care.
As I type this, my wedding ring is in a drawer in my nightstand, along with:
- My father's father's watch
- My mother's father's money clip
- A Maglite
- A pair of onyx cuff links
- Twenty or so sets of plastic collar stays
- An old pair of earbuds that don't work with my current phone
- Several old and mostly empty journals
- The old band from one of my own old watches
I've always liked my ring. I liked it because it was beautiful—it's a two-color ring, concentric bands of platinum and gold. And I liked it for the symbolism—it was actually made as two rings that were fused together, but each is still a recognizable individual within the new whole. But I think mostly I liked it because it was mine, and because it stood for something that was ours.
A few weeks ago, I tweeted out a question: "Those of you who have been divorced, if you’re willing to share: what did you do with your wedding ring?" Over a hundred people responded and shared their stories. Some people sold theirs, some kept them for their children. A surprising number threw theirs into nearby bodies of water. Others found ways to turn them into something new. I was surprised at first that so many people replied, but in retrospect it makes a certain sense. Even the most amicable of divorces is bound to be one of the more emotionally charged experiences most of us go through, and of course many divorces are not amicable. It seemed to me that many of the people who replied might have been seeking some kind of catharsis or unburdening. If so, I hope they found it.
But I think, too, that there is something about this kind of sharing that reveals both the ways the rhythms of our experiences are commonplace, but the details are still unique. Each story shared represented an individual and inimitable life. But most of them also rhymed with other people's stories. Feeling that rhyme is, I think, a way of feeling connected to something bigger than yourself.
For myself, I have trouble imagining that I'll actually get rid of my ring. I am a terribly sentimental person. I just went and dug my little "treasure box" out of a cabinet in my garage. Inside are a bunch of things that meant something to me at one time or another:
- Some rocks I found under the deck at the cabin my family used to rent when we would visit Lake Tahoe after Christmas
- A chipped onyx ring that a friend and I found on a playground when I was in second grade
- A silver Pinewood Derby medal I won in fourth grade
- A souvenir key from Alcatraz, on a trip we took to San Francisco with my stepdad
- An old letter from a girl I liked when I was 16
- A rubber cockroach that my middle school science teacher gave me
I don't think about any of these things very often, but when I open the box and take them out, I can remember all over again what it felt like the first time I held them. Touching them now feels like holding hands with my younger self.
You can't hang on to everything, of course. You have to let go of the things that are poisonous, the things that overwhelm your present or that tie you down to a past that you need to outgrow. At the very least, you have to get rid of the things that you don't have room for anymore, just to have enough space to live and breathe. But what is a life if not an acculumation of memories? Some things are worth holding onto, even if the things they represent are small and perhaps inscrutable to someone on the outside.
I like to imagine that some day after I'm gone, my kids or grandkids will go through my things the way I remember going through my grandparents' things after they passed. Finding my box of memories, perhaps there will be some things that they recognize, and others they can only wonder about. Maybe they will make up their own stories for these objects. Or maybe they'll just throw them out. But for at least a little while, they'll be touching these objects that I once touched, and it'll be like we're holding hands again.
It's hard to believe you are already ten years old. It seems like not so long ago that you were a tiny baby, and now you're almost done with elementary school, you're a dancer, you're a fashion maven, you're just an all-around interesting person. It's been a strange year, and this is now your second pandemic birthday. Things haven't worked out the way we might have liked them to, but you've proven that you're a resilient and perseverant kid. You managed to keep up with your dance practice even when you had to use our garage as your studio with a chair for a barre. You got through a full year of online school and now you're back and doing great in fifth grade. You do six dance classes a week plus Performance Crew rehearsals, and just about every time I pick you up after practice you are smiling. It's a real joy to see you spending your time on something you love.
There are going to be more big changes coming up in the next year. For one thing, by the time it's your next birthday you'll be a middle schooler! But I know you can do it. You're a strong, smart, hard-working kid, and I'm so proud to be your dad.
#MatteredToMe - September 12, 2021
Here are a few things that mattered to me recently:
- The Movies With Mikey episode “Nihilism & Howl’s Moving Castle” talks about how the characters in the movie react to being swept up in situations beyond their control. I first watched it back in April, and if anything it means even more now.
- By coincidence Ada Limón’s poem “The Hurting Kind” just a couple of weeks before my own grandmother died. In it, her speaker says, “I am the hurting kind. I keep searching for proof.” I think I am, too.
- Jonny Teklit’s poem “On Some Saturday, After All This” is cathartically joyful. Perhaps that might be something you could use right now.
- Megan Pillow’s flash nonfiction piece “Instructions for Fucking Your Postpartum Wife” has this ache to it, this weariness and resentment and desire, desire for freedom, for newness, for intimacy, for rest. I loved so much about this piece, how it moved through different emotions and tones, how at times it feels like a flying-apart and at times like a coming-together.
- I don’t know if I’m reading W. S. Merwin’s poem “Thanks” right, but it feels to me that it embodies both the futility of gratitude and the sincere power of gratitude. It seems both frantic and ecstatic, both grieving and joyful. And isn’t that just where so many of us are right now? I am, at least.
- Last month on the New Yorker Fiction podcast, Ann Patchett read Maile Meloy’s story “The Proxy Marriage.” I can’t remember the last time I read a literary story about love that was well-crafted and profound and not a downer or fundamentally misanthropic, which is probably why I loved this story so much.
- I’ve been feeling a fair amount of burnout and despair lately, for obvious reasons. Adrienne Maree Brown’s “The Darwin Variant, and/or Love of the Fittest” looks right at the despair and grief, acknowledging the feeling of futility so many of us are feeling in the face of catastrophe. The way Brown turns toward love, reframes activism in terms of love, reframes movement in terms of connection, strives to find the possible in an out-of-control situation—well, it’s what I needed.
As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. I’m grateful to you for being here with me. I hope that what you need today will find its way to you.
Thank you, and take care.
listen I love you joy is coming
The last line of Kim Addonizio’s “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall” has been ringing in my head for the last few hours or so, and it’s got me to thinking about art that is probably or maybe definitely not intended for me, but which nevertheless lives in me. You may know the poem already but if not, here it is:
If you ever woke in your dress at 4am ever
closed your legs to someone you loved opened
them for someone you didn’t moved against
a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach
seaweed clinging to your ankles paid
good money for a bad haircut backed away
from a mirror that wanted to kill you bled
into the back seat for lack of a tampon
if you swam across a river under rain sang
using a dildo for a microphone stayed up
to watch the moon eat the sun entire
ripped out the stitches in your heart
because why not if you think nothing &
no one can / listen I love you joy is coming
When Addonizio’s speaker says “listen I love you joy is coming,” she is very specifically not talking to me. She’s talking to the woman in the stall next to her. It’s that specificity, given in the title, that I think gives the poem an extra something. And yet I have never been able to read that poem without feeling like it is, indeed, speaking directly to me and saying something that I desperately needed to hear.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with connecting with art that was not intended for someone like you, art that is trying to speak to someone else. I think that this is one of art’s great strengths: its power to connect across differences in experience. Of course, any connection that art creates—or, indeed, any connection between any two people—is necessarily a connection across difference, because no two of us are ever exactly alike. (As an aside, this reminds me of the answer Rachel Zucker gave during our panel on interviewing, when I asked about interviewing across difference, and she said that the more problematic thing in her experience is when she assumes similarity.) I’m thinking, too, of how much it has meant to me when people unlike me have connected with my own work. When, for example, child-free people have connected with my family images, it has been among the most profound audience interactions I’ve ever had.
Still, I think it is always important to avoid erasing this difference. Not only because differences are what make us unique as individuals, but of course because different groups face very different challenges and pressures. There is a special power to the experience of two people who share a community, a lived experience, being able to speak one to another directly, without interference or intrusion. It’s a different kind of connection, perhaps not necessarily “better” but special in a way that can't be reproduced in any other way.
There is a way in which I am sometimes so desperate to feel a connection, a sense of belonging, that my impulse is to claim—or at least desire to claim—a space that isn’t mine. The impulse itself isn’t wrong, but if unexamined it can motivate behavior that is unwelcome or harmful. My task as a reader, then, is to allow myself to love a thing—when it is a thing not intended for me—with my whole heart, to acknowledge and honor my feelings as real and valid and meaningful in my own context, but also accept that there remains a separation. To acknowledge and understand that this thing will never and can never mean to me what it means to the person it was intended for. The separation doesn’t make my experience less valid or less important to me, but it’s important to keep in mind the “to me” part.
And anyways, isn’t this what love ought to be? A powerful feeling of connection and meaning and admiration and perhaps affirmation, without possession or erasure or coercion or appropriation? A way of making not one thing out of two, but of allowing each to exist in itself, beautiful and wonderful unto itself, complemented and increased by its relation to the other.
I’m thinking about conversations I’ve had or heard or read with people like Matthew Salesses or Natalie Diaz, who have talked about the limits and the trap of empathy, of needing to identify with someone in order to love them. How empathy is (or maybe can be?) a form of possession. I’m not quite there yet, perhaps. There’s still something in me that struggles against rejecting empathy entirely—and, of course, that probably isn’t exactly what either of them have suggested, I don’t really know.
But I feel like I’m getting closer to understanding something about the seeming paradox of human existence being both wholly separate and different from everyone else, and being deeply and materially connected to all other beings. How love is both and maybe neither.
Again, I’m not there yet. But I think I get a little closer the older I get and the more I think about it.