On the bottom of things

A few years ago, I gave up on having long-term goals. By which I mean: I let go of the idea that the current version of me will know what the me of two, three, or ten year’s time will want to do.

The reason I had to do this is because I am the type of person who needs to keep her ambition in check. Ambition is almost universally praised in our culture, so it’s quite subversive to think of it as having a downside. But it does. Until about the age of 27, if you set me a goal or deadline — or, more commonly, if I set one for myself — I would happily ruin my life, mental health, and body trying to go after it, never stopping to question if the destination was still, indeed, worth it.

After spending a lot of time examining why that was, I have come to think of my ambition is an uppity fifth grader. That girl who cries if she gets something less than an A+ and always, always raises her hand because she always, always has done all the reading. This girl is useful to deploy at times — especially when your profession as a journalist hinges on not making mistakes — but she is truly a terrible person to allow to run your life and make all your decisions.

These days, instead of thinking about what I want to do or achieve in the future, I try to frame my decisions around how I want to feel right now. Often, at the beginning of a yoga class, you’re prompted to come up with a one-word intention and bring it into the present tense. Recently, the word I’ve chosen is spacious: I feel spacious. I am spacious.

I like this word because it’s practical and descriptive: mindful movement in all directions makes me feel physically spacious in a way that sitting in an office chair or scrolling through Twitter or commuting to work does not. But it’s also aspirational in a mental sense. Spacious is not rushed. Spacious is the opposite of how closed-in, sure-you’re-gonna-die anxiety feels. Spacious has time to read books and appreciate the light and have rambling conversations with wise friends.

Moving into 2020, I have been thinking about how I can make my life more spacious, even when the demands of being a person getting by in an expensive city with a full-time job feels like the opposite of that. One of the ways I’ve been trying to do that is by subtracting things: saying no to more social plans, deleting social media apps from my phone, drinking less so I can sleep more, even something as simple as opting out of whatever Netflix or meme or trend everyone is obsessing over.

My friend Philippa (who is such a devoted reader of this newsletter that she sometimes reminds me when I’m delinquent in sending it) sent me this quote from mathematician Kjell A. Nordström yesterday, and I think it nicely captures what spaciousness can feel like.

“I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

Obviously, none of us can quit email. (Have you ever noticed how it is always old white male academics with two assistants or, like, mega pop-stars who brag about doing this?) But I do love the idea of being on the bottom of things: Making space to hang out where there’s no pressure or expectations, creating enough time and stillness to notice how you feel. Deciding what to spend your precious time on from this vantage point seems wise.

Philippa put it better: “taking the long, quiet route to something interesting, and [remembering] the role of shutting things out in order to gain something else.”

Things I Wrote

When you tell people you are a journalist, they almost invariably follow up by asking you what you write about. When I’m feeling lazy and don’t feel like talking about work, I try to get away with a simple: “I write about travel,” The person usually excitedly replies: “Oh! So do you review fancy hotels and get to travel for free and stuff!?”

To which I sometimes reply: “Uhhh, more like I write about the travel industry. Like all the bad stuff the travel section ignores.” So far, January has been a good example of that brief.

  • I spent months reporting this story about sex trafficking in the hotel and accommodations sector. It happens everywhere. Reporting these stories really takes it out of me, but I’m grateful to have a job that gives me the time to do it.

  • I wrote a column about travel and tourism’s existential crisis in the age of extreme weather events and climate change, including the horrifying prospect of “see-it-before-it’s-gone” tourism.

Things I Read

  • OMG have you watched Cheer on Netflix yet? I gobbled it up, but as a former collegiate athlete, it also made me uncomfortable. This piece gets to why. [The Atlantic]

  • Who knew contemplating death could be so funny, so practical, even chic? [The New Yorker]

  • The idea of weekend loneliness makes me so sad. [The Guardian]

  • In which living in a shed in Oakland costs $240 a month. Wow American capitalism is so broken. [Harpers]

  • “Imagine a world in which you might thrive, for which there is no evidence.” A beautiful sentiment (and column) for these dark times. [The Guardian]

  • Ugh, thin-obsessed diet culture is so dull, so toxic, so counterproductive. I like the way this piece breaks down how it manifests throughout one woman’s life, and how she broke free. [The Times]

  • This profile about The Daily host and NYT mega-celeb Michael Barbaro is the most naval-gazey account of the New York media world I’ve come across in a while, but I’m recommending it anyway purely for the gossip! [NY Mag]

  • “I am fortunate to have been well paid for an almost pathological honesty, and the only way I am able to write that way is by being that way.” RIP Elizabeth Wurtzel. [The Cut]

Things I Listened To

  • The Dream season 2 is about the wellness industry and I really enjoy how they weave their rigorous reporting into the narrative. The episode about the scam of the supplement and vitamin industry made me fume with anger. [The Dream]

  • This episode on the “childfree” movement online is super interesting, nuanced, and non-judgmental. [WBUR]

  • I love that we’re living in the golden age of therapy podcasts. If you like Esther Perel (and if you don’t, you need to re-evaluate) you will enjoy Motherhood Sessions. [Gimlet]

Word Soup

“The ability to ask beautiful questions often in very un-beautiful moments is one of the great disciplines of a human life.” —David Whyte. (This entire On Being interview is quotable.)

“Find a way to be adrift and uncertain, pray your surroundings are beautiful, and hope that someone emerges who offers you some fruit.” —Helen Rosner

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