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20 things I've learned in the last year
Many iterations of this newsletter ago, before Substack, I used to write a list of things I had learned in the last year on my birthday.
Those posts are all long-deleted now, and even though they seemed popular with readers, I stopped writing them. Why? I suppose they started to feel a little hackneyed and unserious. But one of the benefits of getting older and ever more tired is that I don’t care about those things anymore.
This newsletter is about asking — and trying to answer — the big questions about how to live now. But the truth is there have been many days in the last year where I’ve had neither the energy nor capacity to even think about those questions, let alone find answers.
My concerns have been more immediate: How to find enough paying clients to pay my mortgage, while also afford the childcare I need to do that work, and yet still have time to spend with my kid and retain shreds of joy and rest in my life. As every parent knows, this shit is hard. The odds feel endlessly stacked against the maintenance of your own sanity.
But I have a sense that the time I’ve spent here, the lessons I’ve learned, and the empathy I’ve gained have made me far better equipped to address a lot of those questions than I was before. It reminds me of the clichéd — but still rather beautiful — metaphor of the lotus flower. Its seeds can lay dormant in the muddy riverbed for hundreds of years, eventually germinating under ideal flood-like conditions to grow roots and stems up to eight feet long. The symbolic flowers on water’s surface — synonymous with regeneration and resilience — don’t bloom unless its roots are long acquainted with the inky, murky surface beneath.
I’ve been hanging out down in that muck a lot this year. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.
The path to liberation involves the realization that you’re never going to get to the bottom of your to do list. Before my kid, this seemed like a grave injustice I was eager to prove wrong. After my kid, I lost the energy to delude myself otherwise. It’s much better that way.
To quote the wonderful book Braiding Sweetgrass (which I finally got around to reading): All flourishing is mutual.
Round-the-clock caregiving is the hardest work there is. Period. Anyone who says otherwise has simply not done it.
If you don’t want to feel anxious for the first five hours of the day, don’t drink coffee until you’ve had breakfast. This rule unfortunately means you have to eat breakfast.
All the really useful career lessons about how to work with people, how the world works, and how to actually get things done in a professional context come from time spent as a waitress/hostess, personal assistant, low-level service employee, babysitter etc. Those skills are truly the skills. You can tell when someone doesn’t have them.
I’ve spent a lot of the last year hoping to find some magic thing that would cure my post-natal depression, or whatever it is I’m grappling with. But finding your way out of these low places does not happen on a fast track. It’s a long slog of stacking small, consistently good habits, from nutrition and therapy to stupid daily walks and drinking a damn glass of water. Ask for help and trust your instincts about what you need. But know that nothing changes if nothing changes — and change starts with you.
Unfortunately, you must always pay extra for flexible / cancelable travel arrangements from now on.
In the words of Oliver Burkeman, “you have to live the sort of life you want your child to choose to embrace.” If you want them to value going outside, putting down devices, being creative, being kind, then you have to sincerely do those things in their presence, for yourself.
The way to avoid the 5pm existential dread that comes when you’re figuring out, yet again, “what’s for dinner?” is to prep dinner when you’re a more energetic version of yourself: in the morning. Throw everything in the slow cooker or chop and prep ingredients to throw in the air fryer later.
Related to number nine: “How can I make things easier on myself’ is a question to ask yourself at least three times a day. Also, buying an air fryer will change your life.
When it comes to describing relationships, people tend to emphasize their partner’s most positive, marketable qualities. But what really matters in a partner is how they act in the hard times, how they show up when things are the opposite of easy and sexy and fun. Over the years, you will spend a great deal of your time with that version of them. (Thank you, Dan, for being at your best when things are the worst.)
After years and years of reflexively writing my opinions online, being able to say: “That’s none of my business and I actually don’t have an opinion on it” is the greatest relief and a sure sign of growth.
In life and in health, sometimes it’s vital to defer to peer-reviewed evidence, hard data, or the advice of doctors to inform your decision-making. Other times, it’s actually not that helpful, or even counterproductive. It’s really important to know the difference between the two.
Babies (and later, toddlers) are mostly born with a perfect, intuitive, and adaptive relationship to their own appetite and hunger. They know exactly what they need, and it’s a marvel to witness if you’re paying attention. Try not to fuck it up with your own anxiety or ideas gleaned from Instagram.
If you want to read more books, you have to charge your phone somewhere other than your nightstand.
Most of what we think of as poor mental health at the individual level is actually a rational response to a broken society and collective. When you’re unwell, you shouldn’t worry too much about fixing those structural issues. But it’s important to recognize that there’s actually nothing wrong with you — you just weren’t meant to live under these conditions. Try to remember the help or support you needed most in this time, and resolve to give it to others when you’re a different, future version of yourself.
It’s important to pay attention, on some level, to what’s going on in the world and to engage substantively with the handful of issues that touch you most deeply. It’s not important to write carefully-worded statements on Instagram about every unfolding horror on every continent, in real time.
If you want to sort out your back and hip pain, you have to strengthen your glutes. It’s boring and hard, but it works.
The best, most hopeful place in the world is watching all the little children run out to ecstatically greet their parents at nursery pick-up. And yet, nothing will make you feel the enormous responsibility of being someone’s parent more than standing there.
One day your partner will tell you that you’ve gotten better at resting in the years since you met and you will feel proud about this achievement for weeks.
What Do We Do Now That We're Here? is a reader-supported publication. Paying subscribers help provide the time and space to think and write on these themes.
Things I enjoyed reading
“Can placebos ever come out of the dark shadows and become a legitimate component of health care?” I hope so. [NYT Opinion]
What the death of Twitter has done to the virality of online writing. (Mostly good stuff, in my opinion). [The Intrinsic Perspective]
A beautiful piece of writing about listening to Taylor Swift from prison. [New Yorker]
I appreciated this explainer about why the right-wing algorithm seems obsessed with seed oils all of a sudden. [Rolling Stone]
A profile of the “tweedy, introverted, low-profile bunch,” who host the wildly successful This Jungian Life therapy podcast. [NY Mag]
I think one of my main parenting aspirations is to not have my kid’s life look anything like this. [The Ghost Substack]
An astute piece on how Russell Brand weaponized the language of recovery and spirituality to make strategic, partial amends for his past. [Perceived]
Things I enjoyed listening to
Why does it seem like celebrities are getting worse and worse at PR and crisis comms? (Side note: I think I would be really good at doing crisis comms.) [Vulture]
I’m really enjoying the Search Engine podcast, hosted by the former Reply All host PJ Vogt. He asks and answers questions like: How do I find new music now that I’m old and irrelevant? and What did Sam Bankman-Fried actually spend $8 billion dollars on? [Search Engine]
Zadie Smith on her early life and new novel. There’s a ten minute exchange around 35:00 about how caregiving and depending on others is the only liberation from capitalism, which stopped me in my tracks during an afternoon trip to the playground. [Changes with Annie McManus]
There are lots of new paying supporters of this newsletter, to which I want to say: Thank you so much! As a result, I was given the (somewhat arbitrary but nevertheless appreciated) “Substack bestseller” badge. I wrote a little post on Notes about growing this newsletter over the years.
In other news, my essay about whether or not to have children in an age of climate chaos was featured alongside this (kind of amazing) Longreads list of writers on the topic, which was undoubtedly flattering.
Thanks to all of you who read, comment, reply, subscribe, and email me with your thoughts on Ballerina Farm or to tell me how your career plans have been shaped by this reading this newsletter. It means so much to me. If you feel able to support me further, you can upgrade your subscription to paid below. All content is free to read, but paying subscribers help pay for the childcare hours required to write this thing.
“But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, the very enemy himself — that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I am myself am the enemy who must be loved. What then?” —Carl Jung
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