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.
It's Been a While
It hurts to feel unloved.
The first thing I need to tell you is that I'm okay, now. When the person whom you have loved with your whole heart for nearly two-thirds of your life tells you that they don't want you anymore, it is natural to have some feelings. It is natural not to be okay for a while. I wasn't okay. In some ways, I suppose, I haven't been okay for as long as I can remember. I'm getting there now, I think.
I have spent so much of my life feeling unloved and unlovable, feeling unremarkable, uninteresting, unseen and unworthy of being seen. And, yes, when you have devoted your life to a person who has lost interest in you, that doesn't help. But, truthfully, I've been like this since before we were ever an us. And it hurts. It hurts to try so hard to be good, to be worthwhile, and to constantly feel like you're coming up short. To want so badly to be loved and to be known, to feel a connection, and not feel it.
Being loved is not enough to make you feel loved.
About four months ago, I tweeted that I'd been having a hard time and asked for someone to say something nice to me. Well over a hundred people—friends, acquaintances, and strangers—responded to me with a compliment. If I'm being honest with myself, it's not even all that uncommon for people to pay me a compliment. But I've always had an excuse.
You're only saying that because you have to, because you're my parent/family/spouse/child.
You're only saying that because you don't know what I'm like on the inside.
You're only saying that because I've tricked you into thinking that I'm worth saying that to.
People have tried to tell me for a long time that I am loved, but because I felt unlovable, I didn't feel their love.
It hurts to let yourself feel loved, when you are used to feeling unloved.
Once, on a high school camping trip, I made a new friend, a boy who hadn't ever had a close friend before, who had learned to hate himself the same way I had. The program of this trip was ostensibly to teach us about ecology and wildlife science, geology, outdoor careers, but really it was about teaching us to love each other and ourselves. One night at the campfire, I watched him receive validation, receive love, for what may have been the first time in his life. His face screwed up and he hunched over, his hand clutching his chest. "This hurts!" he howled, tears streaming down his cheeks. I knew how he felt, because I'd felt the same thing the first time I went on that trip, the year before.
Knowing that that pain exists—the pain of release, of freedom, of love accepted—can make you hold even tighter to self-loathing. Self-loathing hurts longer, but it's less intense in the moment.
Loving someone won't change who they are.
That night on that camping trip, it was like watching my friend being born. We were close after that for a few years, and we loved each other. Then we both moved away to go to college and grew apart. We lost touch some time after his first wedding. When we finally did reconnect, many years later, I discovered that he'd become a conspiracy theorist with unmanaged rage issues. He unfriended me after I told him that I loved him but that I refused to engage with his arguments on his terms. That was years ago now, and it's for the best. I'm still a little sad about it, though.
Loving someone won't fix them. Loving someone won't turn them into a person who will be who you need them to be.
"You are what you love, not what loves you."
There's a scene in the movie Adaptation where Donald Kaufman says to his brother Charlie (both played by Nicolas Cage), "You are what you love, not what loves you." I've carried that line around with me for 19 years now, I think about it all the time. It's come up most often for me when thinking about about my creative work—my writing, my photography, my podcasts, and so on—and my relationship to audience. But it is also something I think about in terms of the world, this country, the people around me, and my relationships to them all.
Lately, I have been struggling. I have believed—believed without evidence or reason, but nevertheless believed fully and deeply—that I have loved my wife more than anyone has else has ever loved or been loved. If I am what I love then if that love diminishes, am I not also diminished? I feel smaller, and my world feels smaller. I've been resentful about that, feeling that my love has been taken away from me.
It's been a long time since I've actually watched Adaptation. In coming to write this, I finally looked up that scene again:
Let me transcribe the exchange:
Charlie: There was this time in high school. I was watching you at the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marshall.
Donald: Oh, God, I was so in love with her.
Charlie: I know. And you were flirting with her, and she was being really sweet to you.
Donald: I remember that.
Charlie: And then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Cannetti. And it was like they were laughing at me. But you didn’t know at all. You seemed so happy.
Donald: I knew. I heard them.
Charlie: Well how come you were so happy?
Donald: I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. And Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.
Charlie: But she thought you were pathetic.
Donald: [laughs] That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.
You can't make someone love you, no matter how much you might want them to love you nor how hard you try to be what they want you to be. That's a truth I've known and accepted for some time now. One that I'm learning now is that a person can only take your love away from you if you let them. Perhaps I am diminished now, but if my love is gone it's because I let it go. I let it go in order to protect myself, because it hurt too much to keep it, at least for now. But if I have become smaller, perhaps it's to give myself the chance to grow again in the future.
Sometimes I love the world so much I can't stand it.
I've been thinking a lot about Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" lately—of course I have. "Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on."
Sometimes loving a world with so much ugliness in it feels immoral. And yet I do. I do.
You can choose to let yourself feel loved.
You cannot choose which feelings or thoughts will come to you. But you can choose which ones to give your attention and focus to, which ones to feed. There are many kinds of love. The temporary loss of one doesn't negate or diminish the others that are still present—quite the opposite, sometimes.
I have long felt that giving one's attention is the purest and truest expression of love. That we all want to feel that we are important, that we are being seen and heard and known, and so to really look and listen closely is the greatest gift. It's what I have always wanted. To be known, and to know. To be loved, and to love.
This is what I'm learning and re-learning, over and over again: that there is color in my life, that there are so many people who love me, that I have so much love to give and so many people who I can and do give it to. I'm letting myself imagine a fuller, happier life, perhaps for the first time. I'm learning to love myself in the same measure that I love the world and the people in my life. I haven't been okay, not for a long time. But I'm getting there. I'm closer than I've ever been, and I'm getting there.
Thank you, and take care.
Today you are seven years old. So far today we have baked two cakes and you have gotten your ears pierced. We're in a bit of a lull before the next thing, and you've just informed me that we aren't celebrating your birthday at the moment and so you are bored. This is something I know I can always count on: that you will let me know how you're feeling.
We've spent most of the past year at home, and that has been challenging for you at times. But there has also been a lot of singing and dancing, and you've made rather a lot of tiny laptops out of paper. You also started gymnastics this year, which you've taken to with gusto. And you've given me about a million hugs, all of which have been wonderful.
I love getting to be your dad, kid. I'm looking forward to what we'll do together over the next year. Happy birthday, I love you!
Today you are officially a teenager! You've grown a lot in the past year. You've grown physically, of course—you're taller than Mom now—but you've grown as a person, too. It's been such a strange year in so many ways, one that we've mostly spent at home. You said the other day that it feels weird that in a few weeks you'll be in eighth grade since you never really got to feel like you were in seventh grade. That makes sense to me, but I also know you can do it. And even though this year has had its hardships, I am so grateful that I've gotten to spend so much time with you. And I know that whatever comes in this next year, we'll have our good times together, too.
Soundtrack: "Break Through (With Oohs) (Instrumental)," by Saxons. Licensed from Marmoset Music.
#MatteredToMe - April 23, 2021
- Helen Zaltzman recently released an episode of The Allusionist titled "Additions and Losses," which is about the ways that people's attempts to express sympathy are so often really just conveying their discomfort with disability or loss. (Content note: the conversation includes mention of ableism, cancer, and child death.)
- A friend recently shared the video for No-No Boy's song "The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming" with me. The song is about the singer's "Japanese Grandma," Joy Teraoka, and her bandmates in the George Igawa Orchestra, who performed around the state while incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, from 1942-1945. As someone who grew up on stories of the Internment, I found it very moving.
- Anne Helen Peterson wrote about labor shortages and how they're being driven by more than just temporary burnout but actually demoralization, and how this is a sign that our economy is deeply broken.
As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. In case no one has told you lately: you are enough, just as you are. You are not a problem to be solved. You are a person, and you matter.
Thank you, and take care.
New KTCO: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm talking with writer Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. Rowan’s second novel, Starling Days, is a beautiful story about the complex love between the book’s two protagonists, Mina and Oscar, and their respective challenges in the wake of Mina’s suicide attempt. Starling Days explores family and love in many forms, and how people both connect and separate. In our conversation, Rowan and I discussed the depiction of mental illness in her book, how she approached writing the multifaceted relationships between the book’s characters, and why it was important to her to include multiracial characters. Then in the second segment, we talked about faith and how we make and find meaning.
Here are some links where you can listen to the episode:
You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript at the episode page on the KTCO website.
Starling Days is now available in paperback, and you can purchase a copy wherever books are sold. I highly encourage you to pick up a copy from an independent bookseller like Pages of Hackney in London, Greenlight Bookstore in New York, The Book Catapult in San Diego, or your local bookstore.
A few pieces that I found helpful in putting both our conversation and the book in context:
- The first piece of Rowan's writing that I'd ever encountered was her essay "The Woman Scared of Her Own Kimono." The idea of being a stranger to your own ancestral culture is one that we discussed in our conversation, and one that's very relevant to the character of Oscar in Starling Days.
- In addition to being a writer, Rowan is also an illustrator. Her comic "An Agnostic's Longing" has a quiet, elegiac beauty to it, and I think it provides a good companion for some of what we discussed around faith and language.
- Right around the time of the US publication of Starling Days, Rowan published an essay with LitHub called "How To Write a Novel When Everyone You Love Might Be Losing It." In it, she writes about negotiating wellness and sickness, and how even though fiction draws from real-life experience, it's not the same as autobiography.
#MatteredToMe - April 16, 2021
- Anne Helen Peterson wrote about burnout and permission structure and American work culture. "If you struggle with your own relationship to work, you understand this: your best and gentlest intentions for yourself are readily compromised."
- I think Lydia Kiesling has a particular talent for writing very specific descriptions of very specific anxieties in ways that are specific and specifically personal but still feel like she could be dipping into my own personal stream of consciousness. She did that in her novel, and she also did it in this recent piece for The Cut about fearing the pandemic will end and everything will just go back to being garbage, the way it always was.
- Jess Zimmerman's "twisty little passages" does something amazing with its form, using a very old game to invoke nostalgia and the structure of exploration to tell a story about regret and longing and being unable to let go.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. For whatever it's worth, I believe you can get through this—I believe in you.
Thank you, and take care.
What Would You Be If You Stopped Trying?
Do you ever wonder what you would be like if you stopped trying to be the person you want to be? I don't mean "the person you think you're supposed to be" or "the person you should be" or "the person your parents/spouse/friends/therapist/society want you to be." I don't mean "your best self," or at least I don't exactly mean that. I mean that maybe there is a way that you want to be, in order to live according to values that you hold deeply and dearly. Maybe there is a part of you that does naturally exist inside of you, and you feel good about yourself when you are able to turn toward that part, but you have to work at it. Maybe there is a way to be that really works for you, that reduces your stress, helps you feel at peace, helps you accept your life, that when you lean into this way of being everything is better, or maybe not everything is better but some things are, and even the things that aren't better are at least more tolerable, but maybe it doesn't come naturally for you to be that way, maybe you struggle with it, maybe sometimes you fail and the failure is hard, and even when you succeed it's still sometimes exhausting.
I like to think—although maybe I'm kidding myself—that if you've known me less than five years and especially if you primarily know me online, you might not know that I am, by nature, extremely argumentative. That sometimes the most alive I ever feel is when I'm debating somebody, when I can get into a good back-and-forth with somebody and my whole brain lights up with the effort of making points and counterpoints, not necessarily in order to win the argument, which usually ends up feeling like ashes in my mouth, but, yes, in order to win this point, and maybe the next point, and the next one. My parents and brothers and old friends know this about me, and of course J knows this about me, but I like to think that maybe you don't know this about me, and I like to think that maybe my kids don't know this about me, because I try not to be this way anymore. A while back, maybe five, six, seven years ago, partly through therapy and partly through just looking at myself, I decided I didn't like this about myself, that it wasn't working for me, that it was causing me problems, and that I wanted to change. I think I have changed, at least outwardly. I don't argue with people as much as I used to. I have an easier time seeing other people's perspectives and accepting disagreement than I used to. I am better able to both set my own boundaries and respect other people's boundaries. But none of that comes naturally to me.
I want to be a kind person. I want to be generous and gentle, nurturing, patient, understanding, supportive. I want to be a good and sensitive listener, someone who is open and vulnerable instead of guarded and defensive. I want to be someone who prioritizes healing over justice, collaboration over competition, love over intellect. When I am able to be those things, I don't just feel better about myself, I feel better in general. But it all takes so much work. None of that is what I would be if I didn't keep putting forth effort to interrogate and counter my natural impulses. It's not that I think that these things aren't me in some way, because I believe—or at least I want to believe—that my desire to be these things is an authentic part of me, and that it's okay to judge myself at least as much by my actions as it is by how I feel on the inside. It's just that I wonder if I'm trying to squeeze myself into a shape that doesn't actually fit me. I don't know what I'd be if I stopped trying so hard, and it's terrifying to contemplate the possibility that my authentic self might be the opposite of everything I value.
But even as I write this, I'm remembering saying something very similar to my therapist several years ago. A lot of what I worked on with her had to do with letting go of doing things out of a sense of obligation to others, and at the same time ceasing to place obligations on others, and to just do things because I wanted to, and to allow others to do what they wanted to. After several months of discussions, I said to her that I could see that if I accepted this framework I would probably be happier, but that I didn't know if I could accept it, even so. I didn't know if I wanted that, because it went so far against what I thought of as being a good person, and it was terrifying to contemplate letting go of that ideal. I did eventually accept it, and I think I am happier. I guess I can hear the echoes of that same resistance here. It feels different, though, because my desires to be a certain way aren't coming from a feeling of obligation now, of what I feel like I have to be for others—or anyway they're coming much less from obligation than they used to and much more from a consideration of what I want for myself and what my values are.
I'd like to think that there's a way to integrate all of this, a way to live according to my values that doesn't feel so hard all the time, a way to be the person I want to be while also accepting the person that I am. I don't know what that looks like, though.