The pressure of social norms seems to increase in the digital age. Social media places a new pressure on everyone to remain forever photogenic, forever young, forever thin and fit, forever wrinkle-free. While eating Instagrammable food.
The trope of “doing it for the ‘gram” has become an inescapable religion with impossible, Sisyphean expectations. We watch the stories of already-thin women lamenting that they are “so behind” in their Coachella diets, and other people proudly starving themselves before Burning Man (a festival ironically born out of radical inclusion). When women don’t eat, it is criticized as anorexia; when men don’t eat, it is lauded as “biohacking.”
About two years ago, I decided to yield to what every statistic I knew was telling me and stop trying to lose weight at all. I decided to stop dieting, but when I did, I realized I couldn’t. I didn’t know what or how to eat. I couldn’t fathom planning my food without thinking first about its ability to help or hinder a weight-loss effort.
Do you feel pleasure at sitting down to a meal? Would you feel healthier anticipation about a trip if you didn’t worry so much about how your body looked?
Are we exhausted now by what we’ve defined as beauty?
It has seemed to take up so much of my life, being desperate to not only be acceptable to look at, but also beautiful, exceptional, enchanting. What might I have experienced if I had not been trying to claw my way toward beauty? What things might I have thought, feelings might I have felt, if that space were freed up inside of myself?
What would it have been like to pass that mirror in my hometown, and to see myself — on the way to the library, or a party with friends, or a walk in the park — and simply feel glad that I was able to do those things, that I have a body that allows me to? What would it have been like not to look at it at all?
The songs have been bluesy and slow so far, dumdeedumdeedumdeedum; that laggy sultry rhythm that hangs in the air and drips from our bodies. In the winter, a basement somewhere can feel like the center of the earth.
“What is blues dancing like,” my friends sometimes ask when it gets mentioned.
“I don’t know how to describe it, you just have to do it,” I respond.
The band is about to play the last live song.
T. jumps off the stage after playing the harmonica for the previous set and finds me at the back of the room. I’m trying to cool off, is it even winter time? In that room, no one can tell. Time stops, weather ceases to exist. After he takes my hand, just our luck: the band plays the first few notes of the fastest song they’ve played all night.
“Do you dance balboa,” he shouts over the rapid brmbrmbrm-ing of the drums. I yell back my signature answer, “Um, I have before… I think?” with a sidelong glance that means, “No, I have no idea how to dance balboa,” but he’s already started hopping around with his arms around me. Immediately I feel overheated; at once anxious yet also electrified about how quickly I need to follow his feet.
We are whirling now in feverish half-circles. Among the things you learn later in life: one day, you will finally have danced in so many different people’s arms that you will no longer feel panic at not knowing the steps. Just a lot of sweat from the movement. I don’t even know what beat we’re stepping on but the turns are fast and I can’t think about anything except speed and breathing fast enough to keep up. The room is orange, afire with heat and beat. I’m committing the often-warned-against sin of looking at the ground while flying.
He is cheerful at my frenzy and relents over the music, “Okay, okay, we can dance the whole notes,” and suddenly his embrace stills and the air flattens out like the Mississippi river photographed from afar. I’m riding the whole notes, I’m swimming in my uncertainty and delight ― the steps like taffy now.
It’s humid against the stage. I feel myself wanting to dance fast again, I’m always wanting more of the thing I just had, the thing I didn’t think I could take more of. Like sweetness, like direct sunlight, like the break-your-heart kind of love. But he is already pulling me back into the basic blues step, dumdeedumdeedum and I’m swaying again, for once not keeping track of time. In blues dancing, they always dip you at the end. If they don’t know when the song is ending, they keep dipping you until the last note sounds.
“Aren’t you afraid of falling,” my friends say.
“Aren’t you afraid of never having the chance to fall,” I respond.
Ten minutes later I’m going home, I’m walking west on 14th street, the cold hitting my skin and reminding me what life feels like. I don’t even put my coat on, am I even from Texas anymore? I blow my breath into the air, watching it twist and rise in the wind, balboa-ing into the sky.
Random and unrelated note: I’ve had I Will Follow You Into The Dark stuck in my head for a few days now, so that’s what I’m listening to while composing this post.
One of my favorite internet finds of this year was Maciej Ceglowski’s blog, Idle Words. “brevity is for the weak,” his byline declares.
I wish I had thought of that byline, because beauty (and the devil) are both in the details, aren’t they? I made a note to include more dialogue in future blog posts, but for now you get books.
Two years ago, I looked at the list of books I finished reading and decided to set an intention to read more books by female authors. So in 2017 and 2018, I kept track.
Reading is a form of bravery. It offers new worlds and ways to think about hope. Perhaps it even offers us magic when we need to believe in something beyond, or myth when we question the why. I consider the power of poetry as prayer, or the meditativeness of mantra.
Somewhere in those first few months, I stretched under the skies in a tent in Joshua Tree National Park while clutching Ali Smith’s Autumn, a friend’s body warming my side. Joan Didion casually appeared on the kitchen table in Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, and I finished Blue Nights. Bookstore hopping in warmer weather led me to Sheila Heti, and I became obsessed with her journey in questioning motherhood. At a Chinese teahouse, C. and I read our Kindles and ate green dumplings, and it was a very good date. By my bedside, Ada Limón (whom I discovered last year) stood guard, the pages creased and L’s boasting ringing in my mind: that he “knew I’d love her because my life is like Sex and the City,” but none of that is really true, because Ada Limón is so much more than Sex and the City. I think he meant “wherein strong woman’s voice writes mostly about what ends up being love” which would be mostly true. I was treated for a health issue for much of the year, so when I’d wake up in the middle of the night coughing I would read a few pages of Rebecca Solnit. I organized my books in my mind and on my shelves because life is chaotic. I let the words light up the caverns and hobbit houses I traveled to. Nothing like paddling around a Norwegian lake while B. marvels at my book, “Wow, that thing is so beat up.” It’s the things we love the most that end up taking the biggest battering.
“Can you recommend any funny, happy books?” J. texted me one day in the middle of the year.
I looked over my lists. In disbelief at not finding anything, I pored over them again.
“No. Well, one that I read in 2016, but nothing recently.”
Is sadness more interesting to me than funniness? Apparently, I fill up my quota of sadness in books and therefore not-so-mysteriously find funniness in men very attractive.
What I knew would happen today (because I am, in my ripe third decade, predictable) is that I would flip back to the beginning of the new notebook I started: wondering what I had written on the first page.
Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being. Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality. Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh. The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo. The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding. Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage, Not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty That is of many days. Steady and clear. It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.
– excerpted from Jack Gilbert’s poem, The Abnormal Is Not Courage
A note for those who follow my reading list on my website: I decided long ago when the face of the internet started changing into what would become “influencer zombieland” that I would not advertise on my personal blog. (My dad was like, “Could you be more diplomatic and say that you liked all of the beef noodle soup restaurants in Houston equally?” No, Dad, I’m trying to tell the unaltered truth when the internet now holds so little of it.) So, for my book list, I changed all the links; they were Amazon links when I posted them originally on my reading list, and Amazon is, well, Amazon. But then they bought Goodreads, so I realize it’s not that much better. Is it a losing battle against Bezos’s empire? Yeah, maybe, but I hoped you’d to be able to find and reference the books in some way.
Another note:There have been people who criticize certain blog entires for being “too long,” and thanks in part to Maciej’s snarky byline, I stare the exhaustingly-brief-and-meaningless-clickbait-y-with-no-personality internet straight in the face and say: read a book, or a longer blog post with personality. Seriously. Brevity is for the weak.
I’m sort of kidding.
Below is my 2018 in the books that I finished, in rough chronological order. The asterisks denote ones I absolutely loved and would highly recommend. I only count poetry books that I read cover to cover, but mostly I read them piecemeal so they always make up a tiny percentage of what I read.
Our tech team at TED started a book club this year, and after noticing that most people would fall into a male-author-only nomination pattern, I suggested that we try to intentionally nominate more female authors. The result was the selection of the final book on my list: a book by a writer (Rivers Solomon) that goes by the pronoun they/them, which I hadn’t accounted for in my tracking over the past three years. I acknowledge that there are so many other ways of counting diversity outside of what I have counted.
For fun, I’ll add my 2017 book stats at the end so that you can see how it compared.
(the numbering/order is more chronological, the asterisks are the ones I loved)
Below are my 2017 “finished book” stats, for comparison. I track my books continuously throughout the years here.
Happy reading, with love.
Say we never get to see it: bright future, stuck like a bum star, never coming close, never dazzling. Say we never meet her. Never him. Say we spend our last moments staring at each other, hands knotted together, clutching the dog, watching the sky burn. Say, It doesn’t matter. Say, That would be enough. Say you’d still want this: us alive, right here, feeling lucky.
– excerpted from Ada Limón’s poem, The Conditional