#17: Xanax for the human condition

Good morning!

Welcome to August, a month that we have reached through the ostensibly linear passage of time in the year 2020. I wrote this newsletter in Denver, Colorado, where I’ve spent the last week with my twin nieces, changing diapers and doing ordinary things so theatrically I feel like I’m in drama school. I fly home to New York on Wednesday. Today’s newsletter is all about the nostalgia I’ve been prematurely experiencing for this bright spot in a dark time, and I wrote most of it with a pit in my stomach that honestly felt a little overkill.

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The Cult of Remembering

Last week, about three hours into a five-hour hike through the most beautiful canyon I’d ever seen, I felt a wave of melancholy I couldn’t quite place. I looked up at the rock cliffs stretching hundreds of feet above me dotted with cartoonish tufts of green grass; I looked down at the river rushing over my hiking boots and into a green pool enclosed by rocks as giant and smooth as whales. I watched my brother and boyfriend in the water up ahead, laughing at something I couldn’t hear. And I realized, with the appropriate amount of disbelief, that what I was feeling was nostalgia...for the hike I was literally, currently doing. 

The Narrows is a “water hike” through the narrowest section of Zion Canyon in southwest Utah. Andy, Avi, and I had stopped there on our 1,000-mile drive from San Diego to Denver, and had been urged by a friendly tour guide to book it last minute. Our road trip was motivated more so by safety than tourism, so it was surreal to find ourselves miles down the Virgin River, certain we’d never be this happy again. Maybe that’s why I was feeling prematurely wistful; I had this sense that it had all happened by chance—that of all the horrible surprises in store this year, we’d stumbled into a good one.

Rather than a loop, the Narrows is an out-and-back hike, meaning that halfway through, you turn around and hike back. This was part of the problem, because in the second half we didn’t recognize much, and I found this vaguely alarming. “I don’t remember any of this!” my brother kept shouting at us over the water. He thought it was funny, but every time he said it I felt a flash of despair almost equal in proportion to my euphoria. We’d just spent hours saying this was the coolest thing we’d ever done, and our memories were already disposing of it? I shook my head as if to shoo away the thought like a fly. It was surely a form of self-sabotage, thinking like that, but I’d become too aware of what this impromptu adventure meant to me, and now I was experiencing the significance of its conclusion in real time.

The next day, an emotional hangover looming, I typed out an iPhone note of everything I loved about the hike:

-all the butterflies in Veiled Falls
-us comparing the hike to playing adventure video games, then laughing at the stupidity of perceiving the natural world through the lens of a digital imitation
-the way time slowed down whenever we had to scale a rushing waterfall, our minds narrowing to the challenge of pulling each other up slippery boulders, then expanding when we’d succeeded to a sight so beautiful my throat would catch
-us joking about the idea that rocks are actually soft, but tense up when you step on them (still lol)
-stretching out on hot flat stones, tilting our faces up to the sun, water dripping down our legs...

It was a long and happy list but I was typing it out anxiously, as if I were being chased. When I finished, a memory resurfaced from my childhood: me crawling into my mom’s bed the night of my birthday and sobbing because it was over. I don’t remember what we’d done that day or even what age I was turning, I just remember feeling bereft at the realization that there was no going back, that something fun was ending even though I didn’t want it to. You’d think I’d have outgrown that sort of thing by now, but in my attempt to recapture the hike in my Notes app I sensed a similar desperation to deny the undeniable. To stop time. As much as I wanted to construe the act as commemorative, I knew deep down that it was fearful. That something was chasing me, and that something was probably death.

This wasn’t totally out of character. When I asked my brother to stop saying he didn’t remember the hike because it was stressing me out, Avi joked that it was a very “me” thing to say. Early in our relationship, I told him I wished I could record everything he said so I wouldn’t forget it. He used to laugh at that, but in time I’m sure he’s realized that I wasn’t just flirting. My obsession with “remembering” borders on compulsion, one I know many people share. It’s a fight none of us will win, obviously, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same could be said of being alive. Documenting our experiences helps us find meaning in the chaos of living through every second of every day, year after year, barreling toward oblivion, accumulating shades of joy and devastation and love and uncertainty faster than we can possibly understand them. The commitment is almost religious; a collective fuck-you to nihilism.

But there’s a falseness to it, too. A level of narrativizing inherent in picking and choosing what we remember, because we can’t remember everything. Sometimes I think this is necessary—we recast the details of our past to get at something that feels more emotionally honest to us than a more sober retelling. (Avi calls this “the emotional truth,” and uses it as an excuse to wildly exaggerate when he tells stories at parties.) But wielded too liberally this instinct can veer into self-deception. When we over-index on documenting our lives, or infuse it with the aesthetic of cinema, scoring the climaxes, editing out the in-betweens that make up a life, we risk inverting its utility. Instead of being an existential hedge against dying, it becomes one against living. We end up believing things about our former selves that weren’t quite true, or doing it for the gram, or missing a hike before it’s even over. In our search for meaning we obscure it.

I still enjoyed the hike. I’m still convinced it was the most fun I’ll have all year, which is kind of a dark lens through which to view your experiences (I don’t recommend it). But over the next few days, I spent a lot of time staring out the car window thinking about why humans are so drawn to and yet pained by nostalgia, and how the pandemic has changed our relationship to it. I feel nostalgic for a wider swath of ordinary experiences than I ever thought possible (talking at close range, dilly-dallying in the grocery store, riding the subway). As civilian life ceases to exist as we knew it, an ambient sense of longing now connects us instead. And yet we’re also watching as a delusional commitment to American nostalgia blinds so many to our current reality, with millions suffering to preserve a cruel, nationalist fantasy. Obviously the implications of the two are wildly different, sometimes devastating, but I think they belong to the same instinct. If we think of nostalgia as a form of anxiety—about loss, about the unknown, about our lack of control—it makes sense that the pandemic has raised the stakes, made some of us almost childlike in our desire to just make it stop.

I felt that in the river, I think, at the end. A vice grip on a short story with a happy ending, like a kid who doesn’t want her birthday party to be over. However inconsequential, the force of my own wistfulness was almost unsettling. I still feel it now, as I anticipate returning to my apartment in New York, uncertain about when I’ll see my family again, or be as happy as I was laying on a big stupid rock. It’s not a self-pitying feeling—if anything I’m acutely grateful for the privilege to seek out joy in the midst of such turmoil. It’s more like fear: that the tidy narrative of this trip will soon be over, and that soon it will be time to get back to something far less comprehensible. I recognize this transition as one the world has been going through in a much more significant way over the last six months. Before covid, there was a tidiness to our day-to-day existence that’s since unraveled. And while the precariousness was always there, we’re now unable to look away from it. It’s on display now, all messy and devastating, and our nostalgia, in comparison, seems quaint.

In an essay at the beginning of the pandemic, Arundhati Roy urged us to view the pandemic not as a threat to what we love and understand, but as a portal to something better. I’ve been thinking of it as I anticipate whatever comes next for me, and for all of us, however maddeningly unpredictable. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” she wrote. “This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 

1. This week’s Small Good Thing is a digital zine by Sarah Phillips and Jared Gordon dedicated to unpacking the multifaceted quality of, simply, vibes. It’s weird and absurd yet also kind of tender. 

2. Catherine Cohen, the comedian and cohost of the podcast Seek Treatment, just launched a poetry newsletter called My Sexy Little Email. I love her unhinged poetry and couldn’t have subscribed fast enough. (She’s publishing a book of poetry with Knopf in 2021 called God I Feel Modern Tonight.)

3. The possibly universal but new-to-me knowledge that you can simply put sneakers in the washing machine? (Thanks mom.)

4. This video, care of my friend Laura, by a language expert that reveals the bias and elitism in a lot of people’s language pet peeves. (It goes beyond vocal fry.)

5. The surprisingly useful Google results for: “does Walgreens sell menstrual cups?” (It does and I was in a hurry.)

6. This Zadie Smith essay from 2014 in the New York Review of Books about New York and the people who live there. Especially this quote:

“You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. ‘A reality shaped around your own desires’—there is something sociopathic in that ambition.”

7. The fact that “animals in captivity would rather have to search for their food than be given it,” which struck me as an illuminating metaphor. It’s corroborated by this article, but I originally heard it in the book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, which we listened to an audio while driving through California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. (We liked it okay.)

8. The song “Midnight City” by M83, as we drove through LA.

9. A spoof Instagram account created by Charles Rogers (the creator of Search Party and one of my favorite Instagram follows) for a fake senator named Anne Ranch, who is actually just a bunch of stock images of middle-aged women with Steve Buscemi’s face photoshopped on it. Truly outrageous and yet also somehow barely satire? An incredible creative work tbh.

10. This impressively comprehensive and incisive piece by Meehan Crist in the London Review of Books called, “Is It OK to Have a Child?” which examines, and in some places dismantles, the arguments against procreating during a precarious time.

11. A good portion of a box of See’s Candy (care of my California nostalgia), but most importantly, a piece of Milk Bordaeux, the best chocolate in the box.

12. Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, more than I’d care to admit. (August is my favorite.)

13. This satisfyingly concise slideshow about the immorality of billionaires, to which I would only add that I believe the existence of billionaires is a policy failure and a direct result of a country that values profit over people (more so than it’s about a certain group of people being particularly evil, even if they are).

feed version for sharing. solidarity forever, don’t cape for billionaires 🧚‍♀️💕✨💐
July 21, 2020

14. This wavy lamp by Wooj, which represents another notch in my quirky-lamp-served-to-me-via-Instagram-ad belt. Feeling watched.

15. The definition for the word limerence, which is: “the state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one's feelings but not primarily for a sexual relationship.”

I’ll leave you with this absolutely stupid photo of me doing six hang loose signs across a single panoramic of Bryce Canyon. It took three tries and my knees hurt by the end.

Thanks so much for reading, and I’ll see you next week.
Haley

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