I recently heard someone describe their life as being divided into two halves. The first half was characterized by an attitude of “anything is possible!!!” said with conviction and excitement. The second half has an attitude of “...eh, I mean, anything is possible?” said with a knowing weariness that nothing is guaranteed so it’s best to stay humble.
That same division happened to me two years ago, a few months after I turned 30. As Covid kicked off, I recall the ground opening up beneath me and feeling like I’d been dropped on the floor of a deep canyon. On one side of the canyon, the side I’d just been on, I’d been tearing through my twenties with the energy and determination of someone who had something to prove—to herself, to others, she wasn’t so sure. I really did believe, for a very long time, that anything was possible if I worked hard enough to make it so.
It was the worldview of a very privileged person—and an embarrassingly American one at that—but it's one I still consider myself lucky to have had for a solid decade. It led me to travel the world in a way that few people get to, shape my worldview in the company of people who grew up differently than I did, and to doggedly pursue my dream to the point of realizing that, actually, I didn’t want that dream anymore. It was also really exhausting.
I find myself thinking about this canyon—this rocky transition from “possible!” to “possible?”—a lot these days, because I am pregnant. And when I tell some people about that fact, I detect a slightly quizzical reaction. I really don’t blame them. If you had told “possible!” me that I would be pregnant two years hence, she would not have believed you. She had way too much to do to entertain even the idea of that. But to be fair, she wouldn’t have believed much of what you told her about the near future then, either.
The people that do seem to get it are limited to those who have watched as I descended down the canyon of my two selves in the past two years, and then slowly climbed my way up to the other side, where I live now. Hang out with me over on this side, and I think it’s pretty easy to see that I’m interested in different things.
One thing I’ve realized over here is that “life doesn’t get any smaller the closer you look at it,” which is something I never considered before, when I thought the goal was to make my life as big, impressive, and shiny as possible. It’s also very clear to me now that there is no guarantee that the external conditions of life on earth will get steadily better, so in fact, an impressive and shiny life may not be worth as much as you thought. A grounded and humble one might actually be more useful, and even provide more opportunity for joy and meaning.
Surprisingly, when I settled in over on this side, the ideas and feelings I had about having a kid were worlds away from what they’d been over there, something I’ll probably write more about day. So when I found out I was pregnant, I just sort of said, “okay, I guess anything really is possible.” And here I am 24 weeks later.
I debated whether and when to share this news. Pregnancy related announcements online are incredibly fraught for good reason. But I knew it was getting to the point where this newsletter—which is supposed to serve as a depository for my meandering, persistent thoughts—might start to seem cagey and vacant if I didn’t share the big thing that was going on in my small little life.
It’s not so much that I want to write about pregnancy specifically, but rather about what this ordinary and extraordinary process asks you to do. That is, to get intimately acquainted with how little control you have over anything. Parenthood, from what I can gather, is just that multiplied by a thousand.
Indeed much of what I grapple with when I write here is how to honestly show up in our troubled world world how it actually is, rather than how your attachments, flawed expectations, and maladaptive coping mechanisms want it to be. In that way, I feel like I am taking an advanced nine month course in accepting the limitations of being a human, one who is in the process of making another human. It’s not pretty, but it sure is interesting.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, I’m embarrassed when I think about how much I’ve changed in two short years. It forces me to admit to myself (and to you) that I’ve changed my mind about some pretty big things—an admission that is worst nightmare of every blue check-marked smart person on Twitter. Maybe the change would have been easier to stomach if it had been more gradual. Or if I had gained this weathered second-half-of-life viewpoint as a 45 year old who barely remembers her younger self, rather than a 32 year old who still sometimes visits her old haunts on the other side of the canyon.
But when I look at everything that has happened in the last two years, I think perhaps the more embarrassing thing would be to not have changed my mind. To still be pursuing all that I was before, thinking I was in control. To not have come around to the acceptance that anything truly is possible, just not in the way I initially thought.
Things I enjoyed reading
“I look at people like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, and I think to myself: ‘If I were you, I’d just go home and enjoy my garden.’” On what pop stars grapple with when the fame suddenly fades. [Guardian]
I had to take three breaks while reading this because it's so harrowing, but I think it’s a good insight on what we lose when society and institutions rely too heavily on external identity markers to determine who is worthy of our compassion or help. [New Yorker]
The omnipresent conversation around burnout is starting to sound reductive to me: “It’s capitalism’s fault!” I like the way this piece wove together the many personal and societal factors that drive a person to work to the point of severe self harm, and how you have to take personal responsibility for some of them if you want to break the cycle. [Buzzfeed]
There is a reason why my (and maybe your) Instagram feed is now filled with so many cringe-inducing reels made by 30-something white women. And it’s not necessarily because they want to be making them. [Vox]
On the ethics of writing about other people. [Kenyon Review]
On the tension between over-medicalizing birth on one end of the spectrum, and romanticizing it on the other. [New York Times]
Why do we aspire to live alone when that’s not really what humans were built to do? And, in today’s world, what does it even look like to live a life “braided with others’, and mattering more because of it?”
Things I enjoyed listening to
A addiction psychiatrist explains the merits of resetting your “pleasure-plain balance,” that is: making life a little more difficult and full of friction to prevent your brain from becoming addicted to the modern world. [Armchair Expert]
I find it really fascinating that we can’t figure out why Covid hasn’t seemed to have had the devastating effect on sub-Saharan Africa that it has elsewhere. [The Daily]
Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid. [Honestly]
Paid Newsletter Interlude
This newsletter has a paid edition where I interview people about how to live a meaningful life in a chaotic, unstable world. This month, I talked to the wonderfully generous author, poet, and musician Musa Okwonga about how (and more importantly why) to keep making art in a world that’s a fucking mess. His answers were very convincing.
All my work, every book is a climate change book. In the End, It Was All About Love is a climate change book because it ends with a collective solution to a personal problem. And every single book I’ve written has a collective solution to a personal problem. Because the solution always lies in community.
I’m always thinking, in a world of climate collapse, what are we going to need? And all those apocalyptic visions of what climate collapse will look like, all these movies made by men of people becoming hunter gatherers and going town to town and killing people — that is just a male revenge fantasy. The real climate apocalypse is going to be people doing mass cookouts.
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“When your map fades into indistinguishable silhouettes; when the only sense you can muster is that of sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound; when life shoves you in the chest and offers a stark reminder that it has promised you absolutely nothing; Say to yourself — ah yes, I recognize her.” —Gabi Abrão
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