Backward and forward

Flourish Vol. 49

I thought things would feel easier by now.

I thought this a year ago, even in the depths of the pandemic, even as it became clear that we were in this for the long haul, and yet spring of 2021 seemed like a lifetime away. Surely things would be better by then. I thought this in the depths of winter, certainly, as cases spiked after the holidays, but the promise of mass vaccination by spring became more than just a pipe dream. I thought this a few weeks ago, frantically refreshing the website of every pharmacy and grocery store within a 50-mile radius to find a vaccine appointment, feeing intense FOMO at all of my friends and coworkers posting triumphant selfies holding their little white cards. On the other side of that needle’s jab, I thought, maybe life would get easy again. Easier, anyway.

You can probably tell where this is going.

I’d only been vaccinated for a couple of flu-like days before reports started coming out of states shutting down Johnson & Johnson vaccination sites due to adverse reactions. And then Tuesday, a national pause due to extremely rare blood clots found in six people who received the vaccine, all women. While the immediate response seemed to uniformly criticize the government for overreacting, as someone who semi-regularly experiences near-debilitating anxiety related to her health (I’d already been to urgent care last week for a separate, ultimately harmless, concern), seeing that those effected were all women around my age immediately set off a few sirens in my head that have been maniacally chirping ever since.

If you tell me I have a one-in-six-million chance of winning the lottery, I told my therapist in an emergency session last week, I’d immediately count myself out. But tell me I have a one-in-six-million chance at developing a fatal blood clot — well, I’ll have already started getting my affairs in order.

Of course, the rational part of my brain reasoned, the clots are extremely rare. Doctor-ordered bloodwork confirmed my blood platelet count was normal, thus making the possibility of developing this type of blood clot rarer still. And yet it became difficult to focus on anything other than whether a cramp in my leg was normal or cause for alarm. If that bruise on my hip had been there yesterday. If I was short of breath, or just out of shape after a sedentary year that has left my body feeling like crumpled chip bag.

Just my luck, I kept thinking, to finally get to stop worrying about dying of COVID, only to have to worry about dying of a blood clot. Of course, this is hyperbolic. I am far more likely, as so many health experts have pointed out, to die from a blood clot linked to COVID-19, or oral contraceptives (which I thankfully learned many years ago were not a fit for my body’s chemistry.)

I thought back to last summer, when I landed in Denver for a weekend to scout out the city, and despite wearing a mask the entire time I was on the plane and in any public settings, despite a negative COVID test before my flight, I worked myself into a panic, utterly convinced that I had somehow caught the virus. This type of thinking is circular, viciously so, and my panic made my breaths shorter, and my shorter breaths only made me panic more. Darkly, I thought perhaps I deserved it, becoming sick, some type of penance for traveling during a pandemic, despite taking all possible precautions. Similarly, I’ve blamed myself for choosing the vaccine I chose, for not knowing “better”, for not being able to predict the future, or prepare for all possible outcomes.

My anxiety, my tendency toward circular, black-and-white thinking, my insistence at being my toughest critic and own worst enemy, is something I’ve spent years trying not to let get the best of me. I could sit on a merry-go-round of my own decisions all day, replaying choices until I am dizzy and confused and certainly no better off than I was when I started. I try to practice compassion and forgiveness for myself as much as I do for others, for who I was when I made the choices I made. “You did the best you could with the information you had,” is something I tell myself often. You didn’t know what you didn’t know.

Running in tandem to the vaccine plotline is the one in which I finally decided to trade in my tuna-can of a car for something sturdier, something that will help fulfill the life I want and keep me safe and durable out on the road. After weeks of researching and test driving, I made what I believed to be the most responsible choice, an option that checked all the boxes — it was the nicest, newest car I’d ever owned while still being in my budget — and I got a great deal for my trade-in and killer deal on my loan. But like clockwork, as soon as I drove it off the lot, rather than allowing myself more than a minute of happiness or satisfaction or simply rest, I immediately became fixated on the steep dip in gas mileage I was getting in comparison to my previous car (which again, was literally a tuna can, so, duh.)

I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that my ability to worry about buying a new car, or even getting vaccinated, is most certainly a first-world problem. And coming off of a week that saw a spate of police killings and mass shootings that have come to define this country, I realize that I am among the most privileged of the privileged to even have the time and safety and comfort to think this deeply about my life and every decision that comprises it, to assume that I will be able to see my future play out. It’s a privilege (which can often feel like a curse) to be able to fret about your life’s purpose, to spend so much time in your own head and — often — in your own way.

I’m currently reading The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck (I know), after years of resisting due to the title’s stupid asterisk and yes, sometimes performative use of profanities. But I came across a couple of Mark Manson’s YouTube videos and was honestly entranced by his frankness about life and finding “purpose”, as someone whose life currently feels like a neon sign flashing ????? over and over again. In the book, Manson talks about how we don’t ever get rid of our problems, we just get new problems. I got rid of my risk of COVID, only to get a new set of problems (real or imagined) with the vaccine. I got rid of my shitty old car, only to get a different set of problems with a new one.

“The person you marry is the person you fight with. The house you buy is the house you repair. The dream job you take is the job you stress over. Everything comes with an inherent sacrifice — whatever makes us feel god will also inevitably make us feel bad. What we gain is also what we lose. What creates our positive experiences will define our negative experiences. It’s a difficult pill to swallow.”

-Mark Manson, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck

So it is. And so it goes.

Finding myself knee-deep in overthinking, second-guessing and regret, this recent video about decision-making has also particularly resonated. Especially his concept of “the choice of minimal regret.” Again, you do the best you have with the information you have at time. And you ask yourself, when you look back at your life, 20 or 30 or 50 years from now, will you regret having done this? Having not done it?

Another YouTuber I’ve really been enjoying is Mariah Alice, whose videos I found while researching van life. A fellow anxious over-thinker, I immediately identified with her personality and vulnerability, and was also immediately insanely jealous of her life. Despite living many people’s dream (though she is very cognizant of her privilege, and conscious about portraying the negatives of van life, as well) she’s very vocal about her struggles to figure out what to “do” with her life. In a recent video, she talks about how going back to school in person feels wrong, but so does paying for online school. Keeping her van feels wrong, and selling it does too.

God, if this isn’t my own inner monologue right now! For every pro there is a con. For every step forward, there is the possibility of sinking into quicksand. The possibility of jumping, as Mariah says she did in buying her van, without knowing whether anything will be there to catch you. Because I am a walking inspirational poster these days, it reminded me of a quote I’ve been loving lately: “Leap and the net will appear.” (This was credited to Buddha, which did not sound correct to me, so thank you in fact to naturalist John Burroughs for that nugget of wisdom.)

I’m a few years older than Mariah, and even as I feel my own mortality closing ever inward, I want to tell her that she’s still so young. That I wish I was living the life she’s living at her age, that I still hope to someday. That she’s already on the right path and ahead of most people simply by doing what brings her happiness, especially if it exists beyond her comfort zone.

I know too that I am still so young, that my fear of running out of time is my own self-limitation. Part of what I love most about Mariah’s channel is all of the older viewers who chime in in the comments to reminder her that even at their age, they are still learning and growing and taking risks, and that there is time yet to figure it all out. The future will work itself out.

And now? Now is the time for taking chances, for making the mistakes that need to be made. For the days that must happen to you.

A post shared by @merleeshay

Reads and recommendations:

(I’ve been to the coast more in the past month than the entire time I’ve been back home, and it’s absolutely saving my mental health.)

“If I do happen to be the next woman to die from an adverse reaction to Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine — and given that, of the 6.8 million people who received the shot, only six women so far have reported this reaction and only one has died, that’s statistically unlikely — there’s a not-insignificant number of people who will tell themselves that I deserved to do so because I was enough of a sheep to believe that the virus is real. Those people will likely just as readily feel certain that their distrust of scientists, medical experts and data will keep them from meeting that same end.” — I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Monday and took a selfie. Things got weird after that.

“With a return to some sort of normalcy in sight, the acutely painful parts of the past year might be catching up to some people, and their brain might be hitting the brakes as a result … few people have had the time to stand still and take in the enormity of the pandemic’s tragedy—not just the dead, but the loss of the year people had planned for themselves, and everything that meant.” — America Has Pandemic Senioritis

I was recently gifted a pair of drumsticks (and immediately feel one hundred times cooler,) and figured it was finally time to get around to watching The Sound Of Metal, which I had heard raves about but did not enjoy as much as I anticipated. I found it fairly informational and thoughtful but also kind of an extreme bummer (I won’t spoil it, I think it’s still worth a watch.) I had hoped there’d be more drumming and honestly was most intrigued by Ruben’s RV but listen, films are always a bit of a struggle for me. Catch me in here finally getting around to Game of Thrones, so take my cinema criticism with a grain of salt.

Briston Maroney’s music has been especially grounding for me in the past year of turmoil (Small Talk, specifically the intro, never fails to snap me out of a funk,) so his new album Sunflower was perfectly timed. It’s homey and warm and raw and best exemplified by easily my favorite track, Deep Sea Diver:

It’s a job seven days a week/to make things harder than they have to be.

Things don’t feel easy quite yet — but we’re getting there.

-Olivia

One year in

Flourish Vol. 48

How do you even begin to summarize the hardest, strangest, most taxing year you’ve ever lived through? How do you digest and metabolize all of the trauma and grief and loss and change into something that makes any sense in hindsight, into an experience that points toward any direction forward?

If I was off the map before the pandemic, I am surely shellshocked and wayward at its (hopeful) tail end, blinking bleary eyes into the blinding sun of some foreign future, willing the world to once again come into focus. I don’t know what comes next, and each fleeting possibility pinballs through my brain like an electric current, challenging me with the tenacious mercy of a second chance, a precipice beneath which there is an entire new world. And it’s as terrifying as it is exhilarating, all of this uncharted life left to live.

I’ve spent the waning days of this bitter, disorienting winter mostly digesting, ruminating, reading, listening, planning. Everything and nothing is changing. My friends are getting vaccinated, my brother is having a baby. Daffodils are pushing through the frozen earth, the sun is starting to linger later in the day, painting the western sky and snow-capped peaks these melancholy golds and pinks. Everything is askew, off its axis ever since a year ago, and still there are birthdays and heartbreaks and tentative vacation plans being made, engagements and moves and major decisions to weigh. Life marches ever-onward. It’s all so cyclical, and it’s all so strange.

It’s been a year since I — like many in the US — started working from home, since I last saw my coworkers in our Los Angeles office. I remember grabbing the bare necessities I figured I’d need to weather a few weeks, maybe a month, from home — laptop charger, spare hand sanitizer, rations from the kitchen — leaving my desk more or less intact. One year on, several seasons since leaving LA, I haven’t returned to it yet, and so much has changed that I’m not sure when or if I’ll have the chance to. But colleagues who’ve made the trek back to our shuttered offices have reported an eerie sort of frozen-in-time effect; plans for a presidential campaign trail that all but disappeared, newspapers dated March 13, 2020; so many things we used to care about in the Before Times now rendered irrelevant.

It’s a sort of time capsule, an archeological relic, a reminder of how little we knew then about how different the world would become. And that’s how change so often happens, I suppose. Gradually, and then all at once. Until one day you awake and you are on a different shore. Until the life you used to live feels impossible and foreign. And still it was real. And this is, too.

What would it have been helpful to know a year ago? Maybe, knowing what I know now, I would’ve left LA sooner. Or made the park dates with my friends last a little longer. Maybe I would’ve been gentler on myself, paced my mental and emotional energy, settled in for 365 days of heartache and unimaginable change and growth that felt like burying past versions of myself, surrendering to the fact that control is an illusion. Or maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to know. Maybe this has been a reminder, as I have said aloud and to myself near-daily since this began, to live life one day at a time, carving out rituals and moments of peace, each day inching closer to the person you want to be.

So much of this past year has been about taking stock. Figuring out what is working, and what is not; what you need, and what you do not. When the wildfires came last fall, flames licking the foothills surrounding my childhood home and blotting the sun a blood-orange, my mother growing increasingly frantic and the air heavy with ash, I thought about what I’d take if it came time to run. How much do you truly need to make a life, and what constitutes your existence, tangibly? If it all went away, if you were forced to start all over again, how much of you would there be left? And if you must shed your skin, are you a truer version of yourself, or someone new entirely?

It will surely take time to grasp just how much this year has changed ourselves, each other, the world. But still I hope, despite the heartache, that some of it will be for the better; that we’ll spend the years to come picking up the pieces, but also finding what germinated and bloomed in these pockets of silver linings, too.


On life as it is, and as it will someday be:

“I know you work in media, but it’s OK to skip cable news most nights.” “Use your vacation days this summer.” “Buy a damn desk right now.” “Trump loses.” - What We Wish We Knew At The Beginning Of This Mess

"Now, in the cold, dark, featureless middle of our pandemic winter, we can neither remember what life was like before nor imagine what it’ll be like after." - Late Stage Pandemic Is Messing With Your Brain // “There is so much I’ve grieved these past 11 months, but perhaps most acutely I miss the company of women.” - In The Company Of Women: The Pandemic Void Only My Girlfriends Can Fill // “They were developing their own freedom and space, and during lockdown they lost what they had just started to experience.” - ‘What’s the Point?’ Young People’s Despair Deepens as Covid-19 Crisis Drags On // “I encourage people to practice compassion and gratitude, not just for the things that you have, but for the fact that your body has fared you up until this point, gratitude for all the ways you have been able to provide [during] this pandemic.” - How to Deal with Crushing Vaccine FOMO // “Every single person I see needs therapy right now. They come back and say, ‘I’ve called 20 people and I don’t know what to do.’” - ‘Nobody Has Openings’: Mental Health Providers Struggle to Meet Demand //

(Seriously, call your therapist if you’re lucky enough to have one!!)

“Talking to God in prayer or profound, moving, emotional experiences that happen in nature, that happen with art, that happen with falling in love—all of these things get labeled spirituality.” - Gen Z Is Deconstructing Religion And Finding Faith

“Many millennials who have turned their backs on religious tradition because it isn’t sufficiently diverse or inclusive have found alternative scripture online. Our new belief system is a blend of left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology and Dolly Parton.” - The Empty Religions of Instagram


A few last, late-pandemic recommendations:

This copper Yeti thermos, for keeping my coffee warm and dog hair-free for now — and for the road, and reusing in coffee shops, in what I hope is the not-so-distant future // This silk pillowcase has helped keep my curls quite fresh for Zoom calls, a thing that has both saved my sanity and perhaps made me a little more insane // The book Three Women, as recommended by a friend, the only reading that has fully captivated my frantic, frazzled little rat brain in quarantine // Marrying Millions is back for season 2, and it is truly giving me life (well, serotonin — same thing) // And Nomadland, which has only further fueled my post-pandemic plan to go wander around this world for a while (though I don’t think I have the guts to go fully off the grid.)

I’ve been a bit of a music rut lately, save for cycling through Valley, Dayglow, and this eccentric little song from CMAT, because I’ve been feeling a very Western cowgirl typa way.

Anyway, we’ve managed to make it this far, and there’s light at the end of this tunnel, yet. Thank you for being here, thank you for surviving this year. Be kind to yourself, and remember to set your clocks forward this weekend. Here’s to better days ahead.

-Olivia

Threadbare

Flourish Vol. 47

I am, as I have been for the past year, tired. But this tired feels different somehow.

I’m willing to bet you can relate, because a lot of us are hitting a pandemic wall right now, reaching an inevitable breaking point nearly a year in the making. Sure, we’re finally turning a corner — hopefully — but it feels as though, at the very same time, all of the wheels are coming off. The old ways are no longer working, and it’s become blatantly obvious that no one is coming to save us. Despite the tenuous optimism of 2021 (my own included), I feel like my personal orbit this year has so far been seeped in tragedy and sadness, people running out of options and out of steam, and the pervasive sense that we just cannot catch a break.

It’s this sick sense of deja vu, too — a 2020 2.0, with yet another impeachment trial (this one with the added horror of death and destruction), botched stimulus checks, and a haphazard vaccine rollout providing barely a tourniquet to the staggering loss of life as we march steadily onward toward 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, a year into this slow-motion disaster.

Mothers, essential workers, people of color, people with disabilities, the poor, teachers, students; all have been laid bare by this pandemic and hung out to dry by our government. I am none of those things, impossibly privileged in my exemption, and still I feel myself hollowed out. Still I feel there are only so many salves and stopgaps that we can use to obfuscate the horror before everything that allowed this tragedy to rage unchecked must be gutted and rebuilt from scratch. What more do we owe of ourselves to the systems that have failed us so catastrophically?

The American government may not be better than this pandemic, but the people it is meant to serve sure as hell are. I realize I’m stating the obvious and preaching to the choir, but we should not be rationing our PTO and sick days to recover from a life-threatening virus, we should not be GoFundMe-ing our medical care and our COVID funerals, and we should not be expected to operate at a normal capacity as everything crumbles beneath our feet.

I don’t know what the answer is, other than acknowledging that there is no roadmap for how to survive a pandemic in a country that was already running ragged before it. And so where there are no right answers, there are no wrong ones, either. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not coping properly, or functioning sufficiently, because we are all still living through — lest you forget — un-fucking-precedented times.

“Self care” has become so hopelessly co-opted and commercialized that we’ve forgotten it doesn’t just look like face masks and bubble baths and Chardonnay (although sometimes, for me, it does look like that, and that’s okay too.) But stillness is valid, and so is numbness, and grief, and despair. Feeling everything, or feeling nothing, whatever it takes to get by. Crying can be incredibly cathartic, as can nature and animals and yoga and walking and tuning back into your own physical being, however you possibly can. Sleep when you need to, try to eat well, drink your damn water, put your phone down, take time off before you burn out. Above all else, take care of yourself, and your loved ones. Some wells can be replenished. Others cannot.


I am trying to find stillness where I can. In a much-needed week off work and a cottage on the Olympic Peninsula. Trying to replenish myself with a hot tub under the stars, lilac sunrises over snowcapped mountains, the tide taken out so far at night that your eyes lose sight of where it meets the shore. Getting lost in Olympic National Park, a hushed fairytale woodland so empty and otherworldly it felt like stepping into Narnia. Sorting through trinkets at antique stores and crystal shops, indulging in strong coffee and fresh seafood and baked goods, foraging for mushrooms as the snow fell, searching for instruments and making music and a little magic wherever I could find it.

And I am finding solace, as always, in the celestial and the spiritual. Watching “The Midnight Sky” and falling asleep to the soundtrack to “First Man” after a calming session of Yoga with Adrienne. Parcast’s Virgo Today has become something of a daily ritual for me lately, providing affirmations and pearls of wisdom that kickstart my thoughts for journaling. During a spontaneous visit to Powell’s the other day, I entered into a fugue state of literary lust and walked out an hour later with Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Origins — among other books — and have been enthralled reading it so far (see above). I’ve also gone further down the rabbit hole of Carl Sagan’s work, thanks mostly to this excerpt that writer Aminatou Sow posted to her Instagram Story, an incredibly prescient passage from Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness...

In a time when it feels like our need for answers guided by science and for spirituality that helps us find peace with our own mortality has never been greater, I found this quote from the same work equally illuminating.

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”


As far as the more earthly aspects keeping me (relatively) sane, I have become a little addicted to thrifting; mostly costume jewelry and Depression-era glass (what can I say? I like bling). I’ve also become obsessed with the escapism of scents; my Christmas gift from my mother was a rollerball of D.S. & Durga’s Radio Bombay, a perfume I’d held out on purchasing for a year since first smelling it at a boutique in LA. It’s earthy and musky and sexy and easily my favorite fragrance ever, and I highly recommend ordering a sample set of D.S. & Durga’s distinctive scents for an instant sensory pick-me-up. Thanks to them, I’ve become a bit of a perfume sample fiend, my latest acquisition being a tester set of Dedcool’s Series Two (Rocco smells like LA when the jasmine blooms in spring, one of my most happy-making scents ever.) My childhood best friend and I went in on these friendship bracelets engraved with the coordinates of our hometown (because why not), and I highly recommend this diffuser/nightlight combo infused with a few drops of lavender for an especially soothing yoga experience. I’ve also found comfort in the absurdity of Squishmallows, these absolutely gigantic, ridiculously soft stuffed creatures certainly intended for children (but who’s keeping track?) Baby Yoda has become my newest prized possession, and inspired an affinity for other childlike interests that have since reinvigorated a bit of playfulness and joy in my life: a sensory bin full of water beads to squish when you’re feeling stressed, a dazzling, nostalgic glitter tube that makes me smile every time I look at it, and this cosmic thinking putty that really does sparkle like glittering galaxies when you illuminate it with a blacklight.

And as always, there is solace in music. These are just a couple of my recent finds, but with more newly-discovered gems and old favorites than I could reasonably highlight here, I figured I’d go ahead and share my current playlist, too.

All this to say, we’re all in uncharted territory right now. Cling to the people you love, be kind even to those you do not. And don’t forget to send a few Valentines this week; whether that be a gift, a card, a voicemail — a little goes a long way these days.

Love,

Liv

Faith in the future

Flourish Vol. 46

I can’t quite explain the belief that, someday, somehow, I would finally have my breast reduction surgery, and that afterward, in one way or another, I’d be able to share that experience with the world. Last week, I had the chance to do just that in a personal essay for the BuzzFeed News Body Week series.

If the response I got to initially opening up about my experience in this newsletter was overwhelming, inviting the whole world to bear witness to it — while one of the scariest things I’ve ever done — brought back to me more love than I think I could ever possibly reciprocate.

I had worried, naturally, about the potential ramifications of talking about my breasts on the internet (and in front of my coworkers!), of making myself utterly vulnerable to trolls and critics and creeps. But if I’ve learned nothing else in the past year, it is that there is no reward without risk. Nothing flourishes in your comfort zone. Everything, everything you want lies on the other side of fear.

I’ll quit talking in platitudes and just share some of my favorite responses to the piece. I could truly publish an entire newsletter comprised of just the flood of emails, tweets and DMs I received about my piece, but I’ll try to narrow it down to just a few of the many life-affirming words that have only validated my belief that, for all of our oversharing, we don’t talk about women’s pain, about mental health, and about all of our own private wars nearly as much as we should.

Of course, this surgery and the constant struggle with large breasts is an intensely personal journey and an individual choice to divulge, but in response to my own story I heard from people I’d known for years who had never shared that they’d had the same surgery, from other women who said they’d been ashamed to tell anyone they’d had a reduction, or were thinking about a reduction, who thanked me for bringing this conversation out of the shadows and into the light. The way I see it, we’re all human beings briefly made of rather haphazard flesh and bone, and my body is not taboo, so I will no longer be acting as such to make other people comfortable. I told myself that if even one person was helped by my story, then any potential trolling would be worthwhile, and judging by the women I heard from who are in, or have been, or would like to be in, the same boat as me, the score is something like kickass women: one million, trolls: zero. (Now we just need to do something about the patriarchy and the disastrous American healthcare system.)


(Fair warning that this newsletter is quite long-winded and rambly from here, so proceed at your own risk.)

Sitting here on the eve of a long-awaited inauguration, it’s hard not to feel a pervasive optimism. So much is still awful —400,000 dead from COVID, the increasing radicalization of Trump truthers and white nationalists, an ever-warming planet — but there is also the unspoken undercurrent that at least things cannot possibly get worse. That is my sense of the future we’re embarking upon, anyway, though sometimes it feels that hope is in desperately short supply these days.

Kyle Chayka, a writer whose work I have long admired for cutting through the bullshit and capturing ephemeral thoughts and feelings I struggle to describe myself, wrote for The New York Times about how nothingness has become everything we wanted. That somewhere in the scrum of a reality barbed with racism and injustice and death, we chose to forgo feeling the bad things, or anything, really, in favor nothing. For self-numbing. For opting out of the human experience.

Even before the pandemic, Chayka writes, many Americans opted to “simply stay home, pursuing as uncomplicated and swaddled a life as possible, surrounded by things that feel if not good then at least neutral … We create an acceptable layer between our internal and external environments, a barrier that’s still under our control even as the outside world grows increasingly chaotic.”

"It’s as if we want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations,” he continues. “So that we won’t have anything left to lose."

In the depths of my own depression and quarter-life crises and loss of faith in humanity over the past four-and-a-half years, I have personally been guilty of seeking solace in nothingness, of self-numbing, more times than I could count. Where I used to be an avid reader, I find comfort now in the low stakes of sitcoms and inanity of reality television, anything that allows the cogs in my brain to stop whirring for a while. ("We turn unremarkable albums into think-piece fodder and recommend terrible reality-television shows to our friends because they recognize and soothe our anxiety; they act as anesthetics more than art,” Chayka writes.) I partake in wine and weed or both more often than not (sorry, mom.) I am almost obsessive in my quest for comfort and order in my physical space, maintaining a god-like reverence for candles and neutral colors and soft lighting. I squeeze serotonin and that “smooth brain” sensation from online shopping, warm drinks, soft blankets, dream pop, ASMR. I have often felt that my nerve endings have become too fragile, and the world outside too brittle.

(Well if it isn’t all of my favorite pop artists and the High Priestess of Sad Shit herself!)

"No one seems to want anything,” Chayka writes about the culture of negation. “There is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up. It’s an almost Buddhist rush toward selflessness with the addition of American competition and our habit of overdose: as much obliteration as possible.”

It’s as if we’ve strapped ourselves in to hurtle toward the apocalypse, medicating and insulating and dissociating so as to feel as little discomfort as possible before our impending doom hits. While it’s true that anyone who knows me knows I love a good nihilist meme, and my sense of humor errs dark and often a touch morbid, I know that if I ultimately surrendered to the emptiness, to hopelessness, I would never be able to get out of my — very soft, very comfortable — bed in the morning.

My own spiritual crisis reared its head in the form of a nothingness that keeps you up at night, a profound loneliness, a resounding emptiness in the work I was doing and people I was meeting and life I was living. A gaping void I tried to patch over with yoga and soundbaths and CBD, with crystals and plants and tarot and solo trips, meditation and long wooded walks and therapy and journaling and music. Taken together, all of these things began to slowly but surely thaw out my soul, reconnect me with my being, stir something within me that left no room in my life for what was no longer authentic. But initially, my greatest frustration was that there was no silver bullet to finding purpose and meaning. No retreat I could take or fancy course I could buy or book I could read to transform my life overnight, as much as the spiritual-industrial complex might like to insist.

Because if nothingness can be commodified, mindfulness can too, allowing yoga and meditation to be packaged and distilled (and whitewashed), sold as the route to enlightenment, contentment, an escape hatch from this current mode of reality. As an inner peace than manifests itself as a smug sense of outward satisfaction. A kind of, as Scott Barry Kaufman writes for Scientific American, spiritual narcissism.

“Self-enhancement through spiritual practices can fool us into thinking we are evolving and growing, when in fact all we are growing is our ego. Some psychologists have pointed out that the self-enhancement that occurs through spiritual practices can lead to the “I'm enlightened and you're not” syndrome and spiritual bypass, by which people seek to use their spiritual beliefs, practices and experiences to avoid genuine contact with their psychological “unfinished business.”

In a sense then, this brand of mindfulness can become its own form of self-numbing, where the vice is a palatable form of spirituality rather than alcohol or drugs or sex or reality TV, a veneer of enlightenment that phones in an attempt at engaging with the hard questions without ever having to actually walk through the spiritual fire (or shadow work, if you will.)

But, Kaufman writes, “Healthy transcendence doesn’t stem from an attempt at distracting oneself from displeasure with reality. Healthy transcendence involves confronting reality as it truly is, head on, with equanimity and loving kindness.

“Healthy transcendence “is not about leaving any parts of ourselves or anyone else behind or singularly rising above the rest of humanity. Healthy transcendence is not about being outside of the whole, or feeling superior to the whole, but being a harmonious part of the whole of human existence ... Healthy transcendence involves harnessing all that you are in the service of realizing the best version of yourself so you can help raise the bar for the whole of humanity.”

I hope I’ve been able to avoid the pitfalls of spiritual narcissism (though this may, in and of itself, be narcissistic?) While I by no means have any of this figured out, I have been fortunate enough to figure out what works for me, and I suppose becoming the best version of myself and leading by example is my form of helping raise the bar for humanity, on the most micro of scales. This newsletter has been hugely cathartic in that, allowing me to openly discuss my mental health, therapy, surgeries, dating, moving, career choices, existential crises, etc. I have been shown the rewards of vulnerability, of pushing through discomfort, of taking risks, of being humbled and having my ego quieted, and I love nothing more than advocating for other people to explore doing the same.

Of course, as Kyle Chayka’s piece notes, it can be easy to feel optimistic while riding out this pandemic from a place of privilege. I am not a frontline worker, I have not lost any immediate family or close friends to COVID. But I have spent 10 months immersed in the horrors of this pandemic every day. My family has weathered several sudden deaths and tough circumstances in the past year. And even a proximity to all of this horror is enough to permeate the most detached or naive or insulated person.

This past year, this presidency, this pandemic, have all forced me to stop pretending that “good enough” is good enough, that life is long enough to settle, that our mortality and existentialism are somehow separate from the hustle and doldrum of our daily lives. That the meaning of life and what happens after it are best left to philosophers, too taboo for polite company.

I have never been able to suspend my disbelief or self-awareness for even a second long enough to buy that anyone or anything created this universe. Organized religion has always been radioactive, and so faith, in a traditional sense, was never an option for me. And yet increasingly often now I find myself referring to my spirituality as faith, because despite the death and destruction, the despair and frustration permeating every aspect of our lives now, I find that at the back of my mind, the bottom of my well, the innermost part of my being, there is hope. A glinting nugget of gold among all the silt. It echoes within the walls of my being, the belief that people are mostly, fundamentally good. That there is an order to this universe, a flow to the energy, that everything happens for a reason and we get back what we give, and we all get what's coming for us, sooner or later. That there is permanence in death, but maybe there's something after it, too. Because I see ghosts all around me now; out of the corners of my eyes, in the seasons, in synchronicities, in the people who leave but never really go away.

I find myself meditating, saying little prayers, setting intentions, tracking moon phases, referring to astrological forecasts. It's a hodge-podge of a belief system, I suppose, but it's my own. And I have found faith in a lot of places lately. In strengthening and repairing bonds within my family. In seeing things that began as dreams come to fruition in my life. I find faith in the slant of the winter sun through the trees, in the stars that knit themselves into constellations before my eyes, in impossible coincidences, in good things happening to good people, in the peace of knowing that I am in exactly the right place at the right time. In the ocean and the mountains, in poetry and music, in the eyes of my animals when they stare back at me, in the unwavering belief that better days are coming, that no feeling is final.

Anyway, I guess I’ll end this ramble by encouraging you — for perhaps the first and only time — to read the comments on an internet post, because there are some real gems in Chayka’s piece.

“There is no escaping the terror and beauty of existence.”

And now, of course, here’s some music.

All this to say, I hope you too have a wealth of things that give you faith in the future. And if not, I hope you start seeing them all around you.

-Olivia

Begin again

Flourish Vol. 45

There’s this spiritual cliche people like to plaster on their Pinterest boards. Depending on your predilections, it’s either spoken by God or the universe, and it goes like this:

I had to make you uncomfortable or else you wouldn’t have moved.

But you know, being cliche doesn’t always make something untrue.

Like most people, this was the most uncomfortable year of my life; the first time I admitted openly that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, that I couldn’t go this alone. A year that felt like bursting out of my own skin, like losing faith in everything, like being short-circuited by terror and grief, like letting all the old ways wither and die.

Sitting here writing this from my home in Oregon, it blows my mind that at this time last year, I was still waiting for my “lightbulb” moment. I was tired of Los Angeles, frustrated with the stagnation of my life, pleading for a lightning strike of inspiration that would make it all make sense. The discovery of some burning passion, a chance meeting with my soulmate, a stroke of luck that would set my life aflame and set the wheels of my one true purpose speeding headlong toward destiny.

But for all of my posturing, my grinning and bearing and tentative belief that my luck was about to change, behind that hope was a shadow realm of fear. I was bored and unfulfilled and stuck in a daily cycle of disappointment that was wearing my psyche down to dust. But I was also afraid to rock the boat, to burn my life down, to take any sort of risk at all. Desperately self-conscious about what the world might think of my life choices and hard decisions and wildest dreams, terrified by even the slightest hint of embarrassment or disappointment. If you never try, you can never fail. I avoided all threat of discomfort in the name of saving face — so nothing ever changed.

But 2020 did not allow us to turn away from discomfort; it was an electrical shock to the system, an ice bath of a year in which we lived surrounded by grief and pain. We stood on the precipice of our greatest fears, or drowning among them. We marched headlong into the eye of the storm, whether we were remotely ready or not.

In Los Angeles, I battened down the hatches, stocked my shelves, tried to reassure my loved ones and bolster myself with creature comforts as I watched everything I ever believed in burn from behind glowing screens. And with the world as we knew it gone, there were only so many ways to distract myself before all of my nightmares came knocking, too.

So this was the year I became well acquainted with fear. With the shadow realm, the darkest corners of my mind and all the ugliest parts of myself, loosening my grip on everything I thought I wanted more than life itself, reconsidering everything I swore I’d never do. Realizing that some nightmares were actually dreams, and some dreams were actually someone else’s. I plunged to the depths I always knew were there and came back up for air, with a renewed appreciation for all of the life above the surface.

In spiritualism, there’s a practice called shadow work, and it feels like I spent all 365 days of this year neck-deep in it. Looking my demons straight in the eye, sitting in silence, in loneliness, in heartache. Taking a magnifying glass to the pieces that were broken, lifting the hood on systems that were no longer working. Allowing myself to cry for others’ suffering, to scream at the top of my lungs about the injustice of this all, to acknowledge the rawness of my own grief, to make peace with uncertainty. To peel back the mask of who I’ve spent much of my adult life pretending to be, and introduce to the world the person I’ve always been, no longer caring in the slightest what others might think of her.

This was a year that brought us all face-to-face with our own mortality, with loss, with systems that are impossibly backwards and broken. We learned, in stark black and white, what mattered and what did not. Who would be there for us and who would not. This was not a year for pretending, for posturing, for polite smiles. This was a year for true colors and hard truths, for taking nothing for granted, for dusting off all the hopes and plans and I love you’s and I’m sorry’s because tomorrow is never, ever a guarantee.

This was a year to stop bullshitting myself, stop making excuses, stop whispering about my wildest dreams under my breath and swing for the damn fences already. And with great risk, I like to think, comes great reward, because this year has rewarded me more than I ever imagined, or feel deserving of, really. Blessed is not a term I use often, or lightly, but it has somehow summed up this impossible, wretched, life-affirming year. And on the eve of a new one, as this flame burns down to nothing, all I feel is gratitude. That I am alive, and healthy, and employed. That I am with people I love, that they are healthy and employed, too. That from so much discomfort was borne some of the best things that have ever happened to me. I know that my privilege is immense, and my survivor’s guilt is, too. But I have learned this year too that if you are not going to mark your accomplishments on the walls of your own life, few others will.

Two-thousand-and-twenty brought me a life-changing surgery (and another gnarly surgery), an out-of-state move, a promotion. I weathered pay cuts, furloughs and partial unemployment, covered the pandemic and protests, spoke at a Columbia Journalism class. I paid off my car, finished Invisalign, scouted out Denver solo, took my best friend on a free trip to Catalina Island, started playing piano again. I dyed my hair pink, dyed my hair green, aggressively saved and invested my money, marked three years in therapy, found out I'm going to be an aunt, and maintained this newsletter — even when delving the depths of my mind was the last thing on earth I wanted to do.

This is more for record-keeping than grandstanding, and in fact it's probably a paltry list compared to some peoples' 2020, but I am trying to be better about staking out my right to to happiness and celebrating my own wins — even if the biggest win is just surviving.

I am not the same person I was when I began this year, but I don’t think I’ve changed. Instead, this feels like excavating, like shedding skin, digging down deep to the person who has been dying to see the light of day my entire life. This is a year for leaving what is no longer serving you. For letting the old ways die. For blazing new trails. For asking yourself, when all the cards are on the table, what do you want to do with this life?

If you are still reading this, we made it. We lived through this. Thank you for sticking with me in 2020, for making me stick with documenting this year, for bearing witness to the horror and beauty and mundanity with me. Thank you, thank you, I love you.

Onward.

-Olivia

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