This morning I was talking to my roommate about one of my favourite books, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and suddenly found myself feeling slightly weepy. I talked through the burgeoning tears and moments later they urge had passed. I could have easily dismissed the teary moment to PMS—I had, afterall, gotten equally teary during an episode of Love Island just yesterday—but throughout the day I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment. I had been talking about the moment I had realized, influenced by Yanagihara’s novel, that there was great appeal, for me, to have “a little life”. A little life: finding rich and satisfying intimacy with other people, whether romantic or not, having a beautiful home; maybe you’ll have a dog. It’s a life that is defined by love and connection, and simple pleasures. It’s one that sounds completely satisfying and beautiful , but in a world in which we are constantly told that we should always want more, that we should always want better, it doesn’t feel like enough. It feels like giving up and settling. I think the reason I felt so teary describing that moment is that I want it so badly. And I want to also feel like that’s a worthy pursuit. I don’t want to be disgusted with myself for wanting that. The greatness of a life that results in love, joy and beauty, even in the face of terrible things and the worldly pressure is beautifully depicted in John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. I just finished reading the book and I enjoyed it so much. Although I shed quite a few tears over it, it didn’t leave me completely wrecked and feeling incapable of living in the world, which always feels like a plus. The novel follows an Irish man named Cyril Avery through his own little life, from the moment he is born into chaos to the tender moments of the months before his death. Over almost seven decades—each new section of the novel skips forward seven years—Boyne makes you feel tied to Cyril, as he comes to embrace the immovable fact of his homosexuality in 20th century Catholic Ireland, falls in love and makes quite a few mistakes all in between. I devoured the book, my emotions alternating between laughing and crying and groaning and gasping. It’s the best book I’ve read this year. Another thing I read this week that fits well into this theme and motivated me to write any of this down, was Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter titled oh no all my earnestness in one place. It’s comprised mostly of a commencement speech she gave at the University of Oregon in which she encourages the new graduates to forego the idea that there is a map and if they follow it, they’ll follow it right to certainty and security. Because more and more, that certainty is not there. You follow the map and then at the point where the bells should ring because you’ve absolutely made it, you’ve won, the map falls off. She talks about how many of us know that we have to throw away the map, we have to rethink what our futures may look like and what we need to do to get to that nebulous future, but find it difficult to do so. I screenshotted this:
She reminds us that we do not have to be ruled by fear, especially of the unknown and the uncomfortable. She reminds us to dig into the uncomfortable instead of dismiss it. She reminds us that whatever it is that we are struggling to reconcile with, whether it’s how we work or how live or whatever, that it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the power to make it any which way we want. Although as she suggests, that is easier said than done. I feel like I’ve been telling myself for years to ditch the conventional definitions of success, to ditch the ideas of how my future could look like. I’ve been telling myself for years to just listen to myself, rather than to the voices that tell me there’s a right way to get what I want and to have a satisfying life. I remind myself everyday that I can’t put too much stake into the future because there’s no way I can control what happens. But then I panic. Because the thing is that the future is like a poor potential partner: it demands you to invest everything into it but at no point will give you any signals, any indication, that it’s in it with you. That it will give back everything you’ve given it, and maybe more. And no matter how much you give it up and swear you won’t return it’s call, you always do. Because you feel like you’re missing out on something potentially great. And it’s hard to believe that something actually great will come your way without as much strife. There’s no use promising that you’ll get over it. But as Petersen’s newsletter, and Boyne’s novel, and my tears remind me, it’s worth trying to get over. Because you might miss the good stuff otherwise.
I started listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which hasn’t necessarily told me anything about success that I haven’t really thought about myself, but has given me lots of interesting stories to share at dinner parties. It is satisfying though to have things I’ve thought about before be expressed in a more eloquent and pseudo-scientific way.
I find it really hard to get into podcasts, though when I do, I dive all in. I recently have been obsessively listening to Gimlet’s The Cut on Tuesdays, and excitedly await the episode each week. New York magazine’s The Cut is the only media publication I read on a regular basis because it combines fantastic reporting and writing with easy humour, as well as has a splendid mix of celebrity gossip as well as newsy news. The podcast is essentially just an audio version of that greatness, a perfect distraction from tedious work. I’ve also been really enjoying the Longform podcast again, especially this and that.
You can find out the other books and movies I’ve consumed recently here