#12 A Not-So-Brief Interruption
On my mind
I've been finding output hard the last few weeks. I just want to read and listen and rest and not make or do anything, especially things I "have to." So that's what I've been (not) doing—and it means I haven't put up a new newsletter in almost a month.
I wish I could say it's revived me and now I have a new-found passion for the outputs I've committed myself to. That's not the case. But what I do feel compelled to do is share a few of the things I've been absorbing. They've shifted my perspective in subtle and dramatic ways. And I figure we need all the shifts we can get right now.
A terrifying, necessary examination of the existential crisis our current social media-skewed reality presents to humanity. If you watch only one thing before the election, please make it this. (On Netflix)
This New York Times bestseller by Bay Area artist Jenny Odell was sitting, newly arrived and as yet unopened, on my bedside table when I finished watching The Social Dilemma. And thank goodness it was. It's a how-to antidote to the movie's dark vision, filtered through an art-historian-activist's eclectic mind.
Rebecca Solnit is one of my all-time favorite essayists (neck-in-neck with Joan Didion). This book's title is enough to demonstrate why. I picked up this thin tome last week because I felt hopeless and it seems to promise a glimmer in troubled times. But the "dark" to which Solnit refers it not merely dire (although she recognizes it's likely that), but specifically unknown and unknowable. Hope, she explains in the foreword, is the ability to believe things can get better with absolutely no guarantee that they will. To hope is a radical act precisely because we are not in control of the outcome—our greatest efforts could come to naught, or the smallest action could start a landslide. We have to do it anyway.
I cannot remember how I came across Václav Havel, but reading Solnit reminded me of him, and I finally bought a collection of his writings. Havel was born in Czechoslovakia in 1936, became a well-known playwright in the '60s, went to prison in 1979 for his involvement in the Czech human rights movement, and in 1989 became Czechoslovakia's president after his Civic Forum party played a major role in the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in the country. This quote, which opens the book, tells me this is a good time to be reading him:
"I am unwilling to believe that this whole civilization is no more than a blind alley of history and a fatal error of the human spirit. More probably it represents a necessary phase that man and humanity must go through, one that man—if he survives—will ultimately, and on some higher level (unthinkable of course without the present phase), transcend."
This five-part podcast from The New York Times/Serial and reported by Chana Joffe-Walt is a microcosm of a microcosm. It examines the 60-year history of (mostly failed) attempts to racially integrate a single school in Brooklyn. The repeated patterns of unfairly pooled power, inequity, ineffectiveness, and misunderstandings spiral outward to the school district, U.S. schools broadly, and our society at large. The insights gleaned from the failures are enough to make it worth the listen—but the glimpse of a possible way out of the mire, in the final chapter, elevates it to a must-listen.
While our relationships to ourselves, our communities, and our society are front-and-center in the titles above, this gorgeous, moving documentary focuses on our relationship with the sentient beings who inhabit a whole society parallel to ours (one we too-rarely pause to notice, let alone participate in). This is the story of a burnt-out filmmaker who decided to dive daily in the roiling kelp forests off the coast of South Africa, and who formed a bond that changed him, his family, and I can almost guarantee will change you, too.
Back to our regularly scheduled program ... sometime soon-ish. Thank you for being here.