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The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

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Contains spoilers

  • She slowed to pick her way through places where water was seeping up through the mats of dying grass. Rain tapping through the brilliant leaves the only sound. She stopped. The sense of something there, with her, all around her, swirling and seething with energy. How intimately the trees seized the earth. How exquisitely she was included. Patrice closed her eyes and felt a tug. Her spirit poured into the air like song. Wait! She opened her eyes and threw her weight into her cold feet. This must be how Gerald felt when he flew across the earth. Sometimes she frightened herself.

  • “Go to the not-police. Sorry to put it this way. She might have got into trouble. So, what I'm saying is, go to the scum.?” “Oh, well, okay, but I don't know. How do I find the scum?” “Rises to the top. Just look around. Find the questionable people who are in charge of things.”

  • “Let’s put the seal on the promise,” she whispered, and held his face between her hands. He put his hands on her hands and it was like they were both holding him together. Then he dropped his hands and went to her.

  • They both started laughing in that desperate high-pitched way people laugh when their hearts are broken.

  • You cannot feel time grind against you. Time is nothing but everything, not the seconds, minutes, hours, days, years. Yet this substanceless substance, this bending and shaping, this warp-ing, this is the way we understand our world. Zhaanat was lying on her daughter's bed, in a slat of cool fall sunshine, the exhausted baby in her arms. They were drifting in frictionless eternal motion when Patrice entered, slipped out of her shoes. She took her hat off, lay down beside them, and opened her blue coat like a wing.

  • Sometimes he found small ocean shells while working in the fields. Some were whorled; others were tiny grooved scallops. He drilled holes in them and hung them from the lengths of sinew. “Barnes was saying there used to be an ocean here,” he said to Thomas. “From the endless way-back times.” “Think of it. Vera's baby will be playing with these little things from the bottom of the sea that was here. Who could have known?” “We are connected to the way-back people, here, in so many ways. Maybe a way-back person touched these shells. Maybe the little creatures in them disintegrated into the dirt. Maybe some tiny piece from that creature is inside us now. We can't know these things.”

  • Things started going wrong, as far as Zhaanat was concerned, when places everywhere were named for people—political figures, priests, explorers and not for the real things that happened in these places—the dreaming, the eating, the death, the appearance of animals. This confusion of the chimookomaanag between the timelessness of the earth and the short span here of mortals was typical of their arrogance. But it seemed to Zhaanat that this behavior had caused a rift in the life of places. The animals didn't come around to these locations stained by the names of humans. Plants, also, had begun to grow fitfully. The most delicate of her plant medicines were even dying out altogether, or perhaps they had torn themselves up by the roots to drag their fruits and leaves to secret spots where even Zhaanat couldn't find them. And now even these half ruined places that bore the names of saints and homestead people and priests, these places were going to be taken. In her experience, once these people talked of taking land it was as good as gone.

  • He’d be in danger, she thought. I do things perfectly when enraged.

  • Together they drank the icy birch water, which entered them the way life entered the trees, causing buds to swell along the branches. Patrice leaned to one side and put her ear to the trunk of a birch tree. She could hear the humming rush of the tree drinking from the earth. She closed her eyes, went through the bark like water, and was sucked up off the bud tips into a cloud. She looked down at herself and her mother, sitting by a small fire in the spring woods. Zhaanat tipped her head back and smiled. She gestured at her daughter to come back, the way she had when as a child Patrice strayed. “Ambe bi-izhaan omaa akiing minawa,” she said, and Patrice returned.

Enchantment by Katherine May

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  • But enchantment cannot be destroyed. It waits patiently for us to remember that we need it. And now when I start to look for it, there it is: pale, intermittent, waiting patiently for my return. The sudden catch of sunlight behind stained glass. The glint of gold in the silt of a stream. The words that whisper through the leaves.

  • I don't know what's wrong with me, really. It's nothing, but it's also all-encompassing. I feel strangely empty, devoid of thought and energy. I am not sure where my days go, but they go. Every single thing I must do—any hint of a demand—grinds against me. I resent it all. I want to be left, quietly, alone.

  • Autistic people are intimate with burnout, particularly those who, like me, were not diagnosed until late into adulthood. Burnout comes when you spend too long ignoring your own needs. It is an incremental sickening that builds from exhaustion upon exhaustion, overwhelm upon overwhelm.

  • How do we worship now? How do we get past the blunt knowing of our disenchanted age and tap back into the magic that we used to perceive everywhere? I wanted to touch the stones and for them to return a tingle of meaning laid down over millennia. Instead, they seemed to shrug me off. Make your own meaning, they said. We can't do that for you.

  • My bored childhood habit involved picking black pebbles out of the garden and smashing them with a hammer. The results were patchy and untidy, but a surprising proportion of them revealed geodes, hollows in the centre of the stone lined in sparkling crystal. I never quite got over the high of finding something so beautiful hidden in something so plain and commonplace; of being the first pair of eyes to witness this minuscule cavern. Later, I started to attend a mineral fair held at my local shopping centre on Sunday afternoons, spending my pocket money on specimens of malachite and serpentine, amethyst and obsidian, pyrite and celestine. I think I loved the words as much as the stones themselves, each one of them difficult to spell and salty on the tongue. It gave me a language that no one else around me spoke, a system of knowledge to contemplate and build.

  • I glance over my shoulder to check I'm still alone and unbuckle my sandals. The ground feels cool, and barefoot, I walk slowly, careful to land each tread safely. This place feels safe. It's pleasurable to watch the blown grass creating abstract patterns as it sways and billows. There are so many butterflies. I feel my attention settling for the first time in a long while, in this place that is infinite with detail, with layers and layers of life arrayed before my eyes. It occurs to me that I am resting. It is not the same as doing nothing. Resting like this is something active, chosen, alert, something rare and precious.

  • Mircea Eliade coined the term hierophany to describe the way that the divine reveals itself to us, transforming the objects through which it works. When we make a tree or a stone or a wafer of bread the subject of our worshipful attention, we transform it into a hierophany, an object of the sacred. For the believer, this means that absolute reality has been uncovered, rather than anything fantastical projected upon it. Hierophany is the experience of perceiving all the layers of existence, not just seeing its surface appearance. The person who believes, be it in an ancient animism or a complex modern religion, lives in an enhanced world, having been given a kind of supernatural key to see wonder in the everyday. “For those who have a religious experience,” said Eliade, “all nature is capable of revealing itself as a cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.”

  • The forest, I believe, will stay with Bert as he ages. It is a deep terrain, a place of unending variance and subtle mean-ing. It is a complete sensory environment, whispering with sounds that nourish rather than enervate, with scents that carry information more significant than “nasty” or “nice.” It is different each time you meet it, changing with the seasons, the weather, the life cycles of its inhabitants. It is marked by history and mythologies; stories effortlessly spin from its depths. It is safe from the spite of suburban playgrounds, and dangerous in a way that insurance won't indemnify. Dig beneath its soil, and you will uncover layers of life: the frail networks of mycelia, the burrows of animals, the roots of trees.

  • But that would be cutting off his branches. My son must make his own holy ground. He must find his own hierophanies, in his own way, without my interference. Sacred places are no longer given to us, and they are rarely shared between whole communities. They are now containers for our own knowing, our own meanings. They don't translate across minds. It falls on us to keep them.

  • You take off your shoes when you come home. You do it to keep the floors clean, but also to show how you trust this space to treat you kindly.

  • As I got older, I noticed more about how she waxes and wanes, and I began to remodel her in my mind: perhaps she was just like me, sometimes round with power and some. times dissolving into the sky, eternally shifting shape, rest. less. By then, I no longer thought I was the centre of the universe, and so it felt as though the moon needed me to notice her, too. Our relationship was reciprocal. When I stepped outside at night, we witnessed each other, and that was all that needed to happen. I couldn't ask the moon for anything. But between us, it felt like an exchange of information between two entities who know what it is to endure constant change.

  • Lately I have returned to my silent conversations with the moon. I go outside each night when everyone is sleep ing, and I try to transmit the depth of my longing for my own self back again, for time not to work, but to simply exist; for the right to feel curiosity again, without the sense that it would only make everything harder.

  • Danger, when it is always imminent, does harm. It doesn't need to actually arrive. You exhaust yourself in the act of forever looking over your shoulder. Your body readies itself to fight and never quite discharges that chemical cocktail. You channel it instead into anger and self-pity and anxiety and hopelessness. You divert it into work. But really what you do, with every fibre of your being, is watch. You are incessantly, exhaustingly alert. You don't dare ever let up, just in case the danger takes advantage of your inattention.

  • But most of all, I miss the sense of worship that comes when I get into the sea. I miss the feeling that I am entering a vast cathedral, and, rather than sitting in its dry pews, that Lam merging with it. I miss how when I feel the pull of the tides, I am also feeling the pull of the whole world, of the moon and the sun; that I am part of a chain of interconnection that crosses galaxies.

  • We are a forgetful species, obsessed with the endless succession of tasks that hover over our days, and negligent of the grand celestial drama unfolding around us. And here I am, remembering.

  • I often think that ritual gives us something to do with our hands rather than our heads, performing a set of actions that root us into our being again. Ritual is different from worship: a matter of instinct rather than construction, a gesture that lets us weave significance in the moment. It is so undemanding, so simple, almost passive. You follow the steps, and they take you down to find what you need.

  • It seems some of my angst has been absorbed into its [the bread’s] very fabric through the pummeling of my hands. It's as though I've allowed a different part of my body to think for a while, alleviating the pressure on my brain.

  • I tend to think that God is not a person, but the sum total of all of us, across time. That only makes the imperative greater. We have a duty to witness the broad spectrum of humanity, rather than to defend our own corner of it. That is the work I crave: the sense of contact. The possibil ity that it might change me in ways that I can't predict. The possibility that I might one day do better.

  • That's because we misunderstand play itself, casting it as exuberant, silly, a frippery that signals to us that our children are still young enough to have not yet turned their minds to more weighty en-deavours. But play is serious. Play is absolute. Play is the complete absorption in something that doesn't matter to the external world, but which matters completely to you. It's an immersion in your own interests that becomes a feeling in itself, a potent emotion. Play is a disappearance into a space of our choosing, invisible to those outside the game. It is the pursuit of pure flow, a sandbox mind in which we can test new thoughts, new selves. It's a form of symbolic living, a way to transpose one reality onto another and mine it for meaning. Play is a form of enchantment.

  • Through all my brave rejection of the writing life, I had been making one basic assumption: that writing was my path to reject. In that hour spent in my makeshift study, I learned many things: that a childhood talent does not necessarily translate into an adult one; that your craft will die if you don't nurture it; that your most profound thoughts seem shamefully thin when they're at risk of appearing on a page. Above all, I learned what happens when you turn away from play. The most beautiful reaches of your attention degrade within you, leaving behind a residue of bitterness and frustration. In playlessness, your adult self is not nurtured, but strangled. And deep play that play that connects across months and years, that fosters its own arcane missions, that delves into the minutiae of being is hard to find again.

  • Deep play is a labyrinth and not a maze, a twisting path with no destination. The walking is the thing. You are the walk. There is no end to it. Your only reward is more of the same more wells to fill with your attention, more fires to tend. And every now and then, for reasons beyond your control, those fires will go out.

  • This is not just a matter of knowledge, but also a matter of desire. We have forgotten how to want one good dress over fifty disposable ones. We have forgotten how to crave each new food as it comes into season. We must learn to know with our hands rather than our heads.

  • I think I'm beginning to understand that the quest is the point. Our sense of enchantment is not triggered only by grand things; the sublime is not hiding in distant land-scapes. The awe-inspiring, the numinous, is all around us, all the time. It is transformed by our deliberate attention. It becomes valuable when we value it. It becomes meaningful when we invest it with meaning. The magic is of our own conjuring. Hierophany that revelation of the sacred is something that we bring to everyday things, rather than something that is given to us. That quality of experience that reveals to us the workings of the world, that comforts and fascinates us, that ushers us towards a greater understanding of the business of being human: it is not in itself rare. What is rare is our will to pursue it. If we wait passively to become enchanted, we could wait a long time.

  • Cairns are spontaneous, shifting monuments to a hundred different things. A bunch of browning flowers is secured under one of the stones, facing seaward. I show Bert that he can add a stone of his own, and he does, and then adds one for every member of his family: for me, for Daddy, for Grandma, for the cats and for the dog all the beings he treasures. And just like that, he makes his own ritual, an act of invention and a gesture of connection. He doesn't need to be shown this. He knows already. What he needs, as he grows older, is continuing permission to map meaning across the landscape.

  • We don't destroy colonial attitudes about the landscape by erasing people from it altogether, and forbidding their ever-morphing acts of meaning-making. We don't preserve our natural landscapes by turning them into a museum. We heal these rifts by inviting back gentleness into our relationship with the earth, by allowing meaning to take hold again. We should encourage enchantment to bolt like a weed. It is, after all, native here. The stones, and the dried-out heather, and the sound of the sea, and the moon above our heads have all been storing it like a battery, waiting for its current to be found again.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

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Content warning: domestic abuse

  • If your chin turns yellow, it means you’re in love…The trick, or maybe it’s the punch line, is that the yellow always comes off on your skin. The dandelion yields every time. It has no wiles, no secrets, no sense of self-preservation. And so it goes that, even as children, we understand something we cannot articulate: The diagnosis never changes. We will always be hungry, will always want. Our bodies and minds will always crave something, even if we don’t recognize it.

  • If you could harness that energy—that constant, roving hunger—you could do wonders with it. You could push the earth inch by inch through the cosmos until it collided heart-first with the sun.

  • Your female crushes were always floating past you, out of reach, but she touches your arm and looks directly at you and you feel like a child buying something with her own money for the first time.

  • Your heart launches itself against your rib cage like an animal.

  • We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity. That is to say, queers—real-life ones—do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as a people. They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is enough.

  • And it sounds terrible but it is, in fact, freeing: the idea that queer does not equal good or pure or right. It is simply a state of being—one subject to politics, to its own social forces, to larger narratives, to moral complexities of every kind. So bring on the queer villains, the queer heroes, the queer sidekicks and secondary characters and protagonists and extras. They can be a complete cast unto themselves. Let them have agency, and then let them go.

  • You wonder if, at any point in history, some creature scuttled over what would, eons later, be the living room, and cocked its head to the side to listen to the faintest of sounds: yelling, weeping. Ghosts of a future that hadn’t happened yet.

  • “Safe as houses” is something closer to “the house always wins.” Instead of a shared structure providing shelter, it means that the person in charge is secure; everyone else should be afraid.

  • A reminder, perhaps, that abusers do not need to be, and rarely are, cackling maniacs. They just need to want something, and not care how they get it.

  • She is always trying to win. You want to say to her: We cannot advance together if you are like this. Love cannot be won or lost; a relationship doesn’t have a scoring system. We are partners, paired against the world. We cannot succeed if we are at odds with each other.

  • Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.

  • But the nature of archival silence is that certain people’s narratives and their nuances are swallowed by history; we see only what pokes through because it is sufficiently salacious for the majority to pay attention.

  • The trouble with letting people see you at your worst isn’t that they’ll remember; it’s that you’ll remember.

    — Sarah Manguso
  • The fact is, people settle near volcanoes because the resulting soil is extraordinary, dense with nutrients from the ash. In this dangerous place their fruit is sweeter, their crops taller, their flowers more radiant, their yield more bountiful. The truth is, there is no better place to live than in the shadow of a beautiful, furious mountain.

  • You celebrated him despite his position on gays marrying because he was the best thing possible at that moment; imperfect in a way that affected you but was generally good for the world. You did not believe this was a battle that would be won in your lifetime, and so you resolved yourself to live in that wobbly space where your humanity and rights were openly debated on cable news, and the defense of them was not a requirement for the presidency. You were already a woman, so you knew. Occupying that space was your goddamned specialty.

  • “Uncle Nick,” you say, “I am a lesbian, and my girlfriend just broke up with me.” Then the wrecking ball goes clear through the dam, and you begin to bawl. “Ohhhhh,” he says. “Ohhhhh.” You are wrapped in his arms; he is hugging you so tight. “Your heart is broken. I understand. Everyone’s heart breaks in the same way.”

  • These stories are so common that they are no longer shocking in any meaningful sense; it is more surprising when there is no evidence of a talented man having hurt someone at all.

  • I imagine that, one day, I will invite young queers over for tea and cheese platters and advice, and I will be able to tell them: you can be hurt by people who look just like you. Not only can it happen, it probably will, because the world is full of hurt people who hurt people.

  • Nonstalgia (noun) The unsettling sensation that you are never be able to fully access the past; that once you are departed from an event, some essential quality of it is lost forever. A reminder to remember: just because the sharpness of the sadness has faded does not mean that it was not, once, terrible. It means only that time and space, creatures of infinite girth and tenderness, have stepped between the two of you, and they are keeping you safe as they were once unable to.

  • When I was a kid, I learned that you develop immunity when an illness rages through your body. Your body is brilliant, even when you are not. It doesn’t just heal—it learns. It remembers. (All of this, of course, if the virus doesn’t kill you first.) After the Dream House, I developed a sixth sense. It goes off at random times—meeting a new classmate or coworker, a friend’s new girlfriend, a stranger at a party. A physical revulsion that comes on the heels of nothing at all, something akin to the sour liquid rush of saliva that precedes vomiting. Inconvenient, irritating, but important: my brilliant body’s brilliant warning.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

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  • To design a game is to imagine the person who will eventually play it.

  • She drove a red, American-made convertible, with the top down if weather permitted (in Los Angeles, it usually did) and a silk printed scarf in her hair. She was barely five feet, only an inch taller than the eleven-year-old Sadie, but she was always dressed impeccably in the bespoke clothes she bought in Paris once a year: crisp white blouses, soft gray wool pants, bouclé or cashmere sweaters. She was never without her hexagonal weapon of a leather handbag, her scarlet lipstick, her delicate gold wristwatch, her tuberose-scented perfume, her pearls. Sadie thought she was the most stylish woman in the world.

  • There is a time for any fledgling artist where one’s taste exceeds one’s abilities. The only way to get through this period is to make things anyway.

  • If Marx at twenty-two had a problem, it was that he was attracted to too many things and people. Marx’s favorite adjective was “interesting.” The world seemed filled with interesting books to read, interesting plays and movies to see, interesting games to play, interesting food to taste, and interesting people to have sex with and sometimes even to fall in love with. To Marx, it seemed foolish not to love as many things as you could.

  • For Marx, the world was like a breakfast at a five-star hotel in an Asian country—the abundance of it was almost overwhelming. Who wouldn’t want a pineapple smoothie, a roast pork bun, an omelet, pickled vegetables, sushi, and a green-tea-flavored croissant?

  • Sam’s grandfather had two core beliefs: (1) all things were knowable by anyone, and (2) anything was fixable if you took the time to figure out what was broken.

  • “Hi,” Sam said, without looking at her. “You can watch if you want. I’m going to play until the end of this life.” “That’s a good philosophy,” Anna said.

  • The obvious place for them to go was Los Angeles, the city of her birth. She had resisted returning there because to return to one’s hometown felt like surrender.

  • She went to all of their usual Harvard Square haunts: the movie theater, the library, the Coop, the Mexican place, the video store in the Garage, the bookstore, the other bookstore, the other other bookstore…

  • By eleven-thirty, Sadie was in her pajamas, teeth brushed and flossed, ready to go to bed. She wondered if this was what other twenty-three-year-olds’ Friday nights were like. When she was forty, would she lament that she hadn’t had sex with more people and partied more? But then, she didn’t enjoy many people, and she had never gone to a party that she wasn’t eager to leave. She hated being drunk, though she did enjoy smoking a joint every now and then. She liked playing games, seeing a foreign movie, a good meal. She liked going to bed early and waking up early. She liked working. She liked that she was good at her work, and she felt proud of the fact that she was well paid for it. She felt pleasure in orderly things—a perfectly efficient section of code, a closet where every item was in its place. She liked solitude and the thoughts of her own interesting and creative mind. She liked to be comfortable. She liked hotel rooms, thick towels, cashmere sweaters, silk dresses, oxfords, brunch, fine stationery, overpriced conditioner, bouquets of gerbera, hats, postage stamps, art monographs, maranta plants, PBS documentaries, challah, soy candles, and yoga. She liked receiving a canvas tote bag when she gave to a charitable cause. She was an avid reader (of fiction and nonfiction), but she never read the newspaper, other than the arts sections, and she felt guilty about this.

  • To return to the city of one’s birth always felt like retreat.

  • Sam’s doctor said to him, “The good news is that the pain is in your head.” But I am in my head, Sam thought.

  • She felt, in a way, that she finally understood Marx (though he was now effectively settled down with Zoe). Long relationships might be richer, but relatively brief, relatively uncomplicated encounters with interesting people could be lovely as well. Every person you knew, every person you loved even, did not have to consume you for the time to have been worthwhile.

  • Despite the title, the cherry blossoms are not the subject; it is a painting about the creative process—its solitude and the ways in which an artist, particularly a female one, is expected to disappear.

    — (regarding Cherry Blossoms at Night, by Katsushika Ōi)
  • It isn’t a sadness, but a joy, that we don’t do the same things for the length of our lives.

  • It occurred to Sadie: She had thought after Ichigo that she would never fail again. She had thought she arrived. But life was always arriving. There was always another gate to pass through.

  • He went to see another therapist to help with his driving anxiety. Sam hated therapy, but he needed to get places, and so, therapy it was. The easiest way to conquer a driving phobia, the therapist said, was to drive.

  • “Your cousin Albert told me that, in business, they call this a pivot. But life is filled with them, too. The most successful people are also the most able to change their mindsets. You may not ever have a romantic relationship with Sadie, but you two will be friends for the rest of your lives, and that is something of equal or greater value, if you choose to see it that way.”

  • “‘Zweisamkeit’ is the feeling of being alone even when you’re with other people.” Simon turned to look in his husband’s eyes. “Before I met you, I felt this constantly. I felt it with my family, my friends, and every boyfriend I ever had. I felt it so often that I thought this was the nature of living. To be alive was to accept that you were fundamentally alone.”

  • The way to turn an ex-lover into a friend is to never stop loving them, to know that when one phase of a relationship ends it can transform into something else. It is to acknowledge that love is both a constant and a variable at the same time.

  • What makes a person want to shiver in a train station for nothing more than the promise of a secret image? But then, what makes a person drive down an unmarked road in the middle of the night? Maybe it was the willingness to play that hinted at a tender, eternally newborn part in all humans. Maybe it was the willingness to play that kept one from despair.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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Contains spoilers. Content warning: OCD, anxiety, cursing

  • As kids, Daisy and I had played all up and down the riverbank when the water was low like this. We played a game called “river kids,” imagining we lived alone on the river, scavenging for our livelihood and hiding from the adults who wanted to put us in an orphanage.

  • “I honestly can’t even tell if he’s cute.” “He’s in that vast boy middle,” she said. “Like, good-looking enough that I’m willing to be won over. The whole problem with boys is that ninety-nine percent of them are, like, okay. If you could dress and hygiene them properly, and make them stand up straight and listen to you and not be dumbasses, they’d be totally acceptable.”

  • Now you’re nervous, because you’ve previously attended this exact rodeo on thousands of occasions, and also because you want to choose the thoughts that are called yours.

  • Had you gotten some river water on your hand? It wouldn’t take much. Time to unwrap the Band-Aid. You tell yourself that you were careful not to touch the water, but your self replies, But what if you touched something that touched the water, and then you tell yourself that this wound is almost certainly not infected, but the distance you’ve created with the almost gets filled by the thought, You need to check for infection; just check it so we can calm down, and then fine, okay, you excuse yourself to the bathroom and slip off the Band-Aid to discover that there isn’t blood, but there might be a bit of moisture on the bandage pad. You hold the Band-Aid up to the yellow light in the bathroom, and yes, that definitely looks like moisture. Could be sweat, of course, but also might be water from the river, or worse still seropurulent drainage, a sure sign of infection, so you find the hand sanitizer in the medicine cabinet and squeeze some onto your fingertip, which burns like hell, and then you wash your hands thoroughly, singing your ABCs while you do to make sure you’ve scrubbed for the full twenty seconds recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, and then you carefully dry your hands with a towel.

  • Applebee’s is a chain of mid-quality restaurants serving “American food,” which essentially means that Everything Features Cheese.

  • “At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.”

    — Toni Morrison
  • Everything was loud and bright. At the bar, people were shouting about some sports occurrence.

  • “So I made up an email address that looks almost exactly like Sandra Oliveros’s and emailed Bitterley an order to send me a copy of the police report. And he replied, like, ‘I can’t; I don’t have it on my home computer,’ so I told him to go the hell into the office and email it to me, and he was like, ‘It’s Friday night,’ and I was, like, ‘I know it’s Friday night, but the news doesn’t stop breaking on the weekend; do your job, or I’ll find someone else who will do it.’ And then he went to the fucking office and emailed me scans of the fucking police report.” “Jesus.” “Welcome to the future, Holmesy. It’s not about hacking computers anymore; it’s about hacking human souls. The file is in your email.” Sometimes I wondered if Daisy was my friend only because she needed a witness.

  • I like being outside at night. It gives me this weird feeling, like I’m homesick but not for home. It’s kind of a good feeling, though.

  • I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.

  • “I want to share something Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. . . . The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.’ And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with. Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify, which is why I’d ask you to frame your mental health around a word other than crazy.”

  • Dr. Singh told me once that if you have a perfectly tuned guitar and a perfectly tuned violin in the same room, and you pluck the D string of the guitar, then all the way across the room, the D string on the violin will also vibrate.

  • “Here at the Pickett residence, we have both kinds of movies—Star Wars and Star Trek. What would you prefer?”

  • Davis was already there, and he hugged me in the entryway before we got seated. A thought appeared in my mind undeniable as the sun in a clear sky: He’s going to want to put his bacteria in your mouth.

  • “Do you feel like you’re getting better?” Everyone wanted me to feed them that story—darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it, too.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

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Contains spoilers. Content warning: police brutality

  • Sometimes I’d see a tiny restaurant I liked the look of so I’d get off at the next stop and go inside, order soup. I took a tour of world soups. Avgolemono. Sambar. Menudo. Egusi with fufu. Ajiaco. Borscht. Leberknödel suppe. Gazpacho. Tom yam. Solyanka. Nässelsoppa. Gumbo. Gamjaguk. Miso. Pho ga. Samgyetang. I kept a list in my diary, with the price of the soup next to each name. All were satisfyingly cheap and very filling.

  • Also, as I was finding, this dimming season sharpens one. The trees are bare. Spirits stir in the stripped branches. November supposedly renders thin the veil.

  • Actually, Penstemon is desperately romantic, deeply tied to her traditions, and I worry for her paper heart.

  • Alongside my bed there is always a Lazy Stack and a Hard Stack. I put Flora’s book onto the Hard Stack, which included Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, two works by Svetlana Alexievich, and other books on species loss, viruses, antibiotic resistance, and how to prepare dried food. These were books I would avoid reading until some wellspring of mental energy was uncapped. Still, I usually managed to read the books in my Hard Stack, eventually.

  • Once in a while I encounter that oblivion in the form of an unreal me. This unreal me is paralyzed by one bottomless thought: I didn’t choose this format. I didn’t choose to be organized into a Tookie. What, or who, made that happen? Why? What will happen if I do not accept this outrage? It isn’t easy to stay organized in this shape. I can feel what it would be like to stop making that effort. Without constant work the format called me would decay.

  • All over the world—in Greek villages, in the American Southwest, among the Tuareg—blueness repels evil. Blue glass bottles on windowsills keep devils out, and so on. Thus the front door, painted spirit blue, and the vibrant blue canopies above the windows.

  • ‘Riding a bus has really been useful to me in terms of sleep,’ said Louise. ‘You know how intolerable it is, how awful you feel, after a night or two of sitting up to sleep on a bus? Your feet prickle, yeah, and the back? Agony.’ ‘Everything hurts,’ said Pollux. ‘That’s what I think about when I really can’t sleep. How desperately I wanted to stretch out on the floor in the middle aisle. I would not have cared how gross it was. Nothing. I’d have done anything just to stretch out. After I think about how cramped and desperate I was back then, I usually fall asleep.’

  • The phone never stopped. The information in my head boiled over. Even though I wrote things down, my DO list kept accumulating. I began hearing the phones even after work, as I walked home, as I arrived home, all the time. Now, not only was I haunted at the bookstore, but the bookstore began to haunt me at home. Phones rang in my dreams. It was exhausting, but also there was something moving about this attention. Louise had been excited by the word ‘essential.’ As it turned out, books were important, like food, fuel, heat, garbage collection, snow shoveling, and booze. Phones ringing meant our readers had not deserted us and some far-off day they would walk into the bookstore again. Sometimes it was exhilarating to be needed. Sometimes I felt important.

  • People wandered about like toddlers, bending over to look at last year’s dried grass. They watched the sky and examined the tags of newly planted city trees. And the air—it was a clean cold food. Sunlight hit my shoulders at an angle, just that slight burn promising summer. The city closed off parkways so people had room to walk outside and the paths were always full of people dodging one another, stepping off curbs and stumbling into gutters.

  • Pollux was sitting at a little table next to the window. It was one of his workstations, which are scattered through the house and garage. He’d brought this table into our room when Hetta began to inhabit his office. It was the place he worked with the eagle feathers. They were beautiful mottled brown and white feathers, wing feathers, so they curved slightly. Pollux was straightening them out by stroking the spines on a hot lightbulb. He was wearing sunglasses against the glare. Over and over he drew the feather over the glass. This would only be normal in a Native person’s house. The feather gradually straightened. It took a long time. I watched him from under my pillows. The light lay on his hair, picking out silver, black, and white strands. The patience of him, the way he was devoted to that feather, worked on me. Again and again he warmed the feather, bent it the opposite direction, pulled it straight, warmed it again. He seemed the picture of human love. I knew the fan was for me. I knew the feathers actually were me—Tookie—straightened by warmth applied a thousand times.

  • Jeronimo Yanez shooting Philando Castile in one annihilating movement. Seven shots. We’ll never be clean again, I remember thinking at the time. None of us who let this happen. But what had I done since? A few things. Not effective things.

  • An elder announced that the jingle dress dance was meant to heal people and whoever needed healing could come forward. People moved in from every direction. They held one another up.

  • What flowed over me was not easy to feel and I resisted, but then a ripple of energy caught me up and spread, became wider, powerful, deep, musical, whole, universal: it was the drum. My hip pained me on the side where I came down hardest. I kept dancing. I saw spots and lights, nearly fainted, but still I danced, on and on.

  • ‘A hummingbird remembers every flower it has ever sipped from,’ said Asema. ‘I remember every beer I’ve ever drunk with you,’ Pollux said to me.

  • Pollux’s grandma had once told him dogs are so close with people that sometimes, when death shows up, the dog will step in and take the hit. Meaning, the dog would go off with death, taking their person’s place. I was pretty sure that Gary had done this for Roland and then visited the store to let me know.

  • ‘I really believe that to live inauthentically is to live in a sort of hell.’

  • You can’t get over things you do to other people as easily as you get over things they do to you.

  • Mine is the god of isolation, the god of the small voice, the god of the little spirit, of the earthworm and the friendly mouse, the hummingbird, the greenbottle fly and all things iridescent.

  • ‘You let the logs burn long enough so they made a space between them. You gotta keep the fire new. Every piece of wood needs a companion to keep it burning. Now push them together. Not too much. They also need that air. Get them close, but not on top of each other. Just a light connection all the way along. Now you’ll see a row of even flames.’

  • Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters. —Tookie

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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  • In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.

  • This boom and bust cycle remains a playground of hypotheses for tree physiologists and evolutionary biologists. Forest ecologists hypothesize that mast fruiting is the simple outcome of this energetic equation: make fruit only when you can afford it. That makes sense. But trees grow and accumulate calories at different rates depending on their habitats. So, like the settlers who got the fertile farmland, the fortunate ones would get rich quickly and fruit often, while their shaded neighbors would struggle and only rarely have an abundance, waiting for years to reproduce. If this were true, each tree would fruit on its own schedule, predictable by the size of its reserves of stored starch. But they don’t. If one tree fruits, they all fruit—there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the county and all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know. But what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.

  • What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.

  • This is the grammar of animacy. Imagine seeing your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, “Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.” We might snicker at such a mistake, but we also recoil from it. In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.

  • The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be a human.

  • Imagine walking through a richly inhabited world of Birch people, Bear people, Rock people, beings we think of and therefore speak of as persons worthy of our respect, of inclusion in a peopled world. We Americans are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species, let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us. We don’t have to figure out everything by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us. Imagine how much less lonely the world would be.

  • I had known it would happen from the first time I held her—from that moment on, all her growing would be away from me. It is the fundamental unfairness of parenthood that if we do our jobs well, the deepest bond we are given will walk out the door with a wave over the shoulder.

  • You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy.

  • Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity. Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind. An integral part of a human’s education is to know those duties and how to perform them.

  • What would it be like, I wondered, to live with that heightened sensitivity to the lives given for ours? To consider the tree in the Kleenex, the algae in the toothpaste, the oaks in the floor, the grapes in the wine; to follow back the thread of life in everything and pay it respect? Once you start, it’s hard to stop, and you begin to feel yourself awash in gifts.

  • While a sharp shovel would make digging more efficient, the truth is that it makes the work too fast. If I could get all the leeks I needed in five minutes, I’d lose that time on my knees watching the ginger poke up and listening to the oriole that has just returned home. This is truly a choice for “slow food.”

  • Imagination is one of our most powerful tools. What we imagine, we can become.

  • After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over the people who came to our shores. They look at the toll on the land and say, “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.” This same observation is heard from some contemporary scholars who see in the social pathologies and relentlessly materialist culture the fruit of homelessness, a rootless past. America has been called the home of second chances. For the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?

  • The earth is so richly endowed that the least we can do in return is to pay attention. And so, with a little evangelical fervor of my own, I set my sights on the conversion of their scientific souls.

  • The diversity of salmon in the river—Chinook, Chum, Pink and Coho—ensured that the people would not go hungry, likewise the forests. Swimming many miles inland, they brought a much-needed resource for the trees: nitrogen. The spent carcasses of spawned-out salmon, dragged into the woods by bears and eagles and people, fertilized the trees as well as Skunk Cabbage. Using stable isotope analysis, scientists traced the source of nitrogen in the wood of ancient forests all the way back to the ocean. Salmon fed everyone.

  • There are often other walkers here. I suppose that’s what it means when they put down the camera and stand on the headland, straining to hear above the wind with that wistful look, the gaze out to sea. They look like they’re trying to remember what it would be like to love the world.

  • It is an odd dichotomy we have set for ourselves, between loving people and loving land. We know that loving a person has agency and power—we know it can change everything. Yet we act as if loving the land is an internal affair that has no energy outside the confines of our head and heart. On the high prairie at Cascade Head another truth is revealed, the active force of love for land is made visible. Here the ritual burning of the headland cemented the people’s connection to salmon, to each other, and to the spirit world, but it also created biodiversity. The ceremonial fires converted forests to fingers of seaside prairie, islands of open habitat in a matrix of fog-dark trees. Burning created the headland meadows that are home to fire-dependent species that occur nowhere else on earth.

  • We can’t ask the salmon directly what they need, so we ask them with experiments and listen carefully to their answers. We stay up half the night at the microscope looking at the annual rings in fish ear bones in order to know how the fish react to water temperature. So we can fix it. We run experiments on the effects of salinity on the growth of invasive grasses. So we can fix it. We measure and record and analyze in ways that might seem lifeless but to us are the conduits to understanding the inscrutable lives of species not our own. Doing science with awe and humility is a powerful act of reciprocity with the more-than-human world.

  • If there is meaning in the past and in the imagined future, it is captured in the moment. When you have all the time in the world, you can spend it, not on going somewhere, but on being where you are. So I stretch out, close my eyes, and listen to the rain.

  • It is the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave.

  • What could such a vision create other than woe and tears? Joanna Macy writes that until we can grieve for our planet we cannot love it—grieving is a sign of spiritual health. But it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.

  • We are deluged by information regarding our destruction of the world and hear almost nothing about how to nurture it. It is no surprise then that environmentalism becomes synonymous with dire predictions and powerless feelings. Our natural inclination to do right by the world is stifled, breeding despair when it should be inspiring action. The participatory role of people in the well-being of the land has been lost, our reciprocal relations reduced to a KEEP OUT sign.

  • Despair is paralysis. It robs us of agency. It blinds us to our own power and the power of the earth. Environmental despair is a poison every bit as destructive as the methylated mercury in the bottom of Onondaga Lake. But how can we submit to despair while the land is saying “Help”? Restoration is a powerful antidote to despair. Restoration offers concrete means by which humans can once again enter into positive, creative relationship with the more-than-human world, meeting responsibilities that are simultaneously material and spiritual. It’s not enough to grieve. It’s not enough to just stop doing bad things.

  • Many indigenous peoples share the understanding that we are each endowed with a particular gift, a unique ability. Birds to sing and stars to glitter, for instance. It is understood that these gifts have a dual nature, though: a gift is also a responsibility. If the bird’s gift is song, then it has a responsibility to greet the day with music. It is the duty of birds to sing and the rest of us receive the song as a gift.

  • On last year’s mission to the hollow, my daughter begged to follow the salamanders and see where they were going. We trailed behind by flashlight as the amphibians twined between scarlet stems of red osier and clambered over flattened tussocks of sedge. They stopped far short of the main pond, on the edges of a vernal pool, a small depression in the land that goes unnoticed in summer but reliably fills with snowmelt every spring, making a watery mosaic. Salamanders choose these temporary basins to lay eggs because they are too shallow and short-lived for fish, which would gobble up the salamander larvae, to inhabit. The pool’s evanescence is the newborn’s protection from fish.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

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  • Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.

  • We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.

  • The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.

  • It turns out that when people make enough money to meet their needs, they just find new things to need and new lifestyles to aspire to; they never quite manage to keep up with the Joneses, because whenever they’re in danger of getting close, they nominate new and better Joneses with whom to try to keep up. As a result, they work harder and harder, and soon busyness becomes an emblem of prestige.

  • Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.

  • Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.

  • The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.

  • Each hour or week or year is like a container being carried on the belt, which we must fill as it passes, if we’re to feel that we’re making good use of our time. When there are too many activities to fit comfortably into the containers, we feel unpleasantly busy; when there are too few, we feel bored. If we keep pace with the passing containers, we congratulate ourselves for “staying on top of things” and feel like we’re justifying our existence; if we let too many pass by unfilled, we feel we’ve wasted them. If we use containers labeled “work time” for the purposes of leisure, our employer may grow irritated. (He paid for those containers; they belong to him!)

  • The medieval farmer simply had no reason to adopt such a bizarre idea in the first place. Workers got up with the sun and slept at dusk, the lengths of their days varying with the seasons. There was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life: you milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvesttime, and anybody who tried to impose an external schedule on any of that—for example, by doing a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner—would rightly have been considered a lunatic. There was no anxious pressure to “get everything done,” either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion. Historians call this way of living “task orientation,” because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today.

  • Soon, your sense of self-worth gets completely bound up with how you’re using time: it stops being merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you feel you need to dominate or control, if you’re to avoid feeling guilty, panicked, or overwhelmed…The fundamental problem is that this attitude toward time sets up a rigged game in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough.

  • Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time—instead of just being time, you might say—it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally “out of the way.”

  • The universal truth behind my specific issues is that most of us invest a lot of energy, one way or another, in trying to avoid fully experiencing the reality in which we find ourselves. We don’t want to feel the anxiety that might arise if we were to ask ourselves whether we’re on the right path, or what ideas about ourselves it could be time to give up.

  • We recoil from the notion that this is it—that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at.

  • After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do.

  • I don’t think the feeling of anxiety ever completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations.

  • In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organizing your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do—and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing. Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default—or deceiving yourself that, with enough hard work and the right time management tricks, you might not have to make them at all.

  • “Missing out” is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place. Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time, but didn’t—and to willingly make that sacrifice is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you.

  • Richard Bach: “You teach best what you most need to learn.”

  • The general principle in operation is one you might call the “efficiency trap.” Rendering yourself more efficient—either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder—won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time,” because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits. Far from getting things done, you’ll be creating new things to do.

  • Think of it as “existential overwhelm”: the modern world provides an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing, and so there arises an inevitable and unbridgeable gap between what you’d ideally like to do and what you actually can do.

  • This helps explain why stuffing your life with pleasurable activities so often proves less satisfying than you’d expect. It’s an attempt to devour the experiences the world has to offer, to feel like you’ve truly lived—but the world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities. Instead, you find yourself pitched straight back into the efficiency trap. The more wonderful experiences you succeed in having, the more additional wonderful experiences you start to feel you could have, or ought to have, on top of all those you’ve already had, with the result that the feeling of existential overwhelm gets worse.

  • the more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time. Whenever you encounter some potential new item for your to-do list or your social calendar, you’ll be strongly biased in favor of accepting it, because you’ll assume you needn’t sacrifice any other tasks or opportunities in order to make space for it. Yet because in reality your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice—the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time. If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it, your days will automatically begin to fill not just with more things, but with more trivial or tedious things, because they’ve never had to clear the hurdle of being judged more important than something else. Commonly, these will be things that other people want you to do, to make their lives easier, and which you didn’t think to try to resist. The more efficient you get, the more you become “a limitless reservoir for other people’s expectations,” in the words of the management expert Jim Benson.

  • Meanwhile, the long message from an old friend now living in New Delhi and research for the major article I’d been planning for months would get ignored, because I told myself that such tasks needed my full focus, which meant waiting until I had a good chunk of free time and fewer small-but-urgent tasks tugging at my attention. And so, instead, like the dutiful and efficient worker I was, I’d put my energy into clearing the decks, cranking through the smaller stuff to get it out of the way—only to discover that doing so took the whole day, that the decks filled up again overnight anyway, and that the moment for responding to the New Delhi email or for researching the milestone article never arrived. One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.

  • To approach your days in this fashion means, instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get around to at all.

  • So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.

  • In this state of mind, you can embrace the fact that you’re forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead—earn money to support your family, write your novel, bathe the toddler, pause on a hiking trail to watch a pale winter sun sink below the horizon at dusk—is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any right to expect.

  • Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time.

  • So if a certain activity really matters to you—a creative project, say, though it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause—the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little, and no matter how many other genuinely big rocks may be begging for your attention.

  • The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Perhaps the most appealing way to resist the truth about your finite time is to initiate a large number of projects at once; that way, you get to feel as though you’re keeping plenty of irons in the fire and making progress on all fronts. Instead, what usually ends up happening is that you make progress on no fronts—because each time a project starts to feel difficult, or frightening, or boring, you can bounce off to a different one instead. You get to preserve your sense of being in control of things, but at the cost of never finishing anything important.

  • The alternative approach is to fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you allow yourself to work on at any given time. In their book Personal Kanban, which explores this strategy in detail, the management experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry suggest no more than three items. Once you’ve selected those tasks, all other incoming demands on your time must wait until one of the three items has been completed, thereby freeing up a slot. (It’s also permissible to free up a slot by abandoning a project altogether if it isn’t working out. The point isn’t to force yourself to finish absolutely everything you start, but rather to banish the bad habit of keeping an ever-proliferating number of half-finished projects on the back burner.)

  • \[Warren Buffett] tells the man to make a list of the top twenty-five things he wants out of life and then to arrange them in order, from the most important to the least. The top five, Buffett says, should be those around which he organizes his time. But contrary to what the pilot might have been expecting to hear, the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explains, aren’t the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance. Far from it. In fact, they’re the ones he should actively avoid at all costs—because they’re the ambitions insufficiently important to him to form the core of his life yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most.

  • If you’re procrastinating on something because you’re worried you won’t do a good enough job, you can relax—because judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start.

  • What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.

  • Most other resources on which we rely as individuals—such as food, money, and electricity—are things that facilitate life, and in some cases it’s possible to live without them, at least for a while. Attention, on the other hand, just is life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. So when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life. Seen this way, “distraction” needn’t refer only to momentary lapses in focus, as when you’re distracted from performing your work duties by the ping of an incoming text message, or a compellingly terrible news story. The job itself could be a distraction—that is, an investment of a portion of your attention, and therefore of your life, in something less meaningful than other options that might have been available to you.

  • The crucial point isn’t that it’s wrong to choose to spend your time relaxing, whether at the beach or on BuzzFeed. It’s that the distracted person isn’t really choosing at all. Their attention has been commandeered by forces that don’t have their highest interests at heart.

  • Achieving total sovereignty over your attention is almost certainly impossible.

  • Even if you quit Facebook, or ban yourself from social media during the workday, or exile yourself to a cabin in the mountains, you’ll probably still find it unpleasantly constraining to focus on what matters, so you’ll find some way to relieve the pain by distracting yourself: by daydreaming, taking an unnecessary nap, or—the preferred option of the productivity geek—redesigning your to-do list and reorganizing your desk.

  • The overarching point is that what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.

  • I wish I could reveal, at this point, the secret for uprooting the urge toward distraction—the way to have it not feel unpleasant to decide to hold your attention, for a sustained time, on something you value, or that you can’t easily choose not to do. But the truth is that I don’t think there is one. The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise—to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.

  • The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, or a boring Sunday afternoon, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it.

  • There is a very down-to-earth kind of liberation in grasping that there are certain truths about being a limited human from which you’ll never be liberated. You don’t get to dictate the course of events. And the paradoxical reward for accepting reality’s constraints is that they no longer feel so constraining.

  • Our efforts to influence the future aren’t the problem. The problem—the source of all the anxiety—is the need that we feel, from our vantage point here in the present moment, to be able to know that those efforts will prove successful.

  • So a surprisingly effective antidote to anxiety can be to simply realize that this demand for reassurance from the future is one that will definitely never be satisfied—no matter how much you plan or fret, or how much extra time you leave to get to the airport. You can’t know that things will turn out all right. The struggle for certainty is an intrinsically hopeless one—which means you have permission to stop engaging in it.

  • Whatever you value most about your life can always be traced back to some jumble of chance occurrences you couldn’t possibly have planned for, and that you certainly can’t alter retrospectively now.

  • These truths about the uncontrollability of the past and the unknowability of the future explain why so many spiritual traditions seem to converge on the same advice: that we should aspire to confine our attentions to the only portion of time that really is any of our business—this one, here in the present.

  • This future-focused attitude often takes the form of what I once heard described as the “‘when-I-finally’ mind,” as in: “When I finally get my workload under control/get my candidate elected/find the right romantic partner/sort out my psychological issues, then I can relax, and the life I was always meant to be living can begin.” The person mired in this mentality believes that the reason she doesn’t feel fulfilled and happy is that she hasn’t yet managed to accomplish certain specific things; when she does so, she imagines, she’ll feel in charge of her life and be the master of her time. Yet in fact the way she’s attempting to achieve that sense of security means she’ll never feel fulfilled, because she’s treating the present solely as a path to some superior future state—and so the present moment won’t ever feel satisfying in itself.

  • Obviously, it mattered to keep half an eye on the future—there would be vaccinations to be administered, preschools to apply to, and so forth. But my son was here now, and he would be zero years old for only one year, and I came to realize that I didn’t want to squander these days of his actual existence by focusing solely on how best to use them for the sake of his future one.

  • The writer Adam Gopnik calls the trap into which I had fallen the “causal catastrophe,” which he defines as the belief “that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is the kind of adults it produces.” That idea sounds reasonable enough—how else would you judge rightness or wrongness?—until you realize that its effect is to sap childhood of any intrinsic value, by treating it as nothing but a training ground for adulthood. Maybe it really is a “bad habit,” as the Baby Trainers insist, for your one-year-old to grow accustomed to falling asleep on your chest. But it’s also a delightful experience in the present moment, and that has to be weighed in the balance; it can’t be the case that concerns for the future must always automatically take precedence.

  • “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up,” Herzen says. “But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment…Life’s bounty is in its flow. Later is too late.”

  • Our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time.

  • One way of understanding capitalism, in fact, is as a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters—the earth’s resources, your time and abilities (or “human resources”)—in the service of future profit. Seeing things this way helps explain the otherwise mysterious truth that rich people in capitalist economies are often surprisingly miserable. They’re very good at instrumentalizing their time, for the purpose of generating wealth for themselves; that’s the definition of being successful in a capitalist world. But in focusing so hard on instrumentalizing their time, they end up treating their lives in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle in which to travel toward a future state of happiness. And so their days are sapped of meaning, even as their bank balances increase.

  • And yet we’d be fooling ourselves to put all the blame on capitalism for the way in which modern life so often feels like a slog, to be “gotten through” en route to some better time in the future. The truth is that we collaborate with this state of affairs. We choose to treat time in this self-defeatingly instrumental way, and we do so because it helps us maintain the feeling of being in omnipotent control of our lives.

  • As the author Jay Jennifer Matthews puts it in her excellently titled short book Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are, “We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life, [to which we could] steal life’s provisions and squirrel them away. The life of this moment has no outside.”

  • De Graaf had put his finger on one of the sneakier problems with treating time solely as something to be used as well as possible, which is that we start to experience pressure to use our leisure time productively, too. Enjoying leisure for its own sake—which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure—comes to feel as though it’s somehow not quite enough.

  • As long as you’re filling every hour of the day with some form of striving, you get to carry on believing that all this striving is leading you somewhere—to an imagined future state of perfection, a heavenly realm in which everything runs smoothly, your limited time causes you no pain, and you’re free of the guilty sense that there’s more you need to be doing in order to justify your existence. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when the activities with which we fill our leisure hours increasingly come to resemble not merely work but sometimes, as in the case of a SoulCycle class or a CrossFit workout, actual physical punishment—the self-flagellation of guilty sinners anxious to expunge the stain of laziness before it’s too late.

  • In his book Sabbath as Resistance, the Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the sabbath as an invitation to spend one day per week “in the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.” One need not be a religious believer to feel some of the deep relief in that idea of being “on the receiving end”—in the possibility that today, at least, there might be nothing more you need to do in order to justify your existence.

  • And so in order to be a source of true fulfillment, a good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome.

  • There’s a second sense in which hobbies pose a challenge to our reigning culture of productivity and performance: it’s fine, and perhaps preferable, to be mediocre at them.

  • The publisher and editor Karen Rinaldi feels about surfing the same way that I do about cheesy piano rock, only more so: she dedicates every spare moment she can to it, and even wiped out her savings on a plot of land in Costa Rica for better access to the ocean. Yet she readily admits that she remains an appalling surfer to this day. (It took her five years of attempting to catch a wave before she first managed to do so.) But “in the process of trying to attain a few moments of bliss,” Rinaldi explains, “I experience something else: patience and humility, definitely, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the futile. And the freedom to suck without caring is revelatory.”

  • (You’ll have noticed how frequently the office microwave still has seven or eight seconds left on the clock from the last person who used it, a precise record of the moment at which the impatience became too much for them to bear.)

  • One critical aspect of the radical incrementalist approach, which runs counter to much mainstream advice on productivity, is thus to be willing to stop when your daily time is up, even when you’re bursting with energy and feel as though you could get much more done. If you’ve decided to work on a given project for fifty minutes, then once fifty minutes have elapsed, get up and walk away from it. Why? Because as Boice explained, the urge to push onward beyond that point “includes a big component of impatience about not being finished, about not being productive enough, about never again finding such an ideal time” for work. Stopping helps strengthen the muscle of patience that will permit you to return to the project again and again, and thus to sustain your productivity over an entire career.

  • The final principle is that, more often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. The Finnish American photographer Arno Minkkinen dramatizes this deep truth about the power of patience with a parable about Helsinki’s main bus station. There are two dozen platforms there, he explains, with several different bus lines departing from each one—and for the first part of its journey, each bus leaving from any given platform takes the same route through the city as all the others, making identical stops. Think of each stop as representing one year of your career, Minkkinen advises photography students. You pick an artistic direction—perhaps you start working on platinum studies of nudes—and you begin to accumulate a portfolio of work. Three years (or bus stops) later, you proudly present it to the owner of a gallery. But you’re dismayed to be told that your pictures aren’t as original as you thought, because they look like knockoffs of the work of the photographer Irving Penn; Penn’s bus, it turns out, had been on the same route as yours. Annoyed at yourself for having wasted three years following somebody else’s path, you jump off that bus, hail a taxi, and return to where you started at the bus station. This time, you board a different bus, choosing a different genre of photography in which to specialize. But a few stops later, the same thing happens: you’re informed that your new body of work seems derivative, too. Back you go to the bus station. But the pattern keeps on repeating: nothing you produce ever gets recognized as being truly your own. What’s the solution? “It’s simple,” Minkkinen says. “Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.” A little farther out on their journeys through the city, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off to unique destinations as they head through the suburbs and into the countryside beyond. That’s where the distinctive work begins. But it begins at all only for those who can muster the patience to immerse themselves in the earlier stage—the trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills, and accumulating experience.

  • We do each get to decide whether to collaborate with the ethos of individual time sovereignty or to resist it. You can push your life a little further in the direction of the second, communal sort of freedom. For one thing, you can make the kinds of commitments that remove flexibility from your schedule in exchange for the rewards of community, by joining amateur choirs or sports teams, campaign groups or religious organizations. You can prioritize activities in the physical world over those in the digital one, where even collaborative activity ends up feeling curiously isolating. And if, like me, you possess the productivity geek’s natural inclination toward control-freakery when it comes to your time, you can experiment with what it feels like to not try to exert an iron grip on your timetable: to sometimes let the rhythms of family life and friendships and collective action take precedence over your perfect morning routine or your system for scheduling your week. You can grasp the truth that power over your time isn’t something best hoarded entirely for yourself: that your time can be too much your own.

  • Many of us know what it is to suspect that there might be richer, fuller, juicier things we could be doing with our four thousand weeks—even when what we’re currently doing with them looks, from the outside, like the definition of success. Or maybe you’re familiar with the experience of returning to your daily routines, following an unusually satisfying weekend in nature or with old friends, and being struck by the thought that more of life should feel that way—that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the deeply engrossing parts to be more than rare exceptions. The modern world is especially lacking in good responses to such feelings: religion no longer provides the universal ready-made sense of purpose it once did, while consumerism misleads us into seeking meaning where it can’t be found. But the sentiment itself is an ancient one. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, among many others, would instantly have recognized the suffering of Hollis’s patient: “Then I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

  • The Great American Return to Normal is coming … [but] I beg of you: take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise, and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.

  • The hazard in any such discussion of “what matters most” in life, though, is that it tends to give rise to a kind of paralyzing grandiosity. It starts to feel as though it’s your duty to find something truly consequential to do with your time—to quit your office job to become an aid worker or start a space flight company—or else, if you’re in no position to make such a grand gesture, to conclude that a deeply meaningful life isn’t an option for you. On the level of politics and social change, it becomes tempting to conclude that only the most revolutionary, world-transforming causes are worth fighting for—that it would be meaningless to spend your time, say, caring for an elderly relative with dementia or volunteering at the local community garden while the problems of global warming and income inequality remain unsolved.

  • What you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much—and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.

  • No wonder it comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance: it’s the feeling of realizing that you’d been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet. And this realization isn’t merely calming but liberating, because once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a “life well spent,” you’re freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time. You’re freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you’re already doing with it are more meaningful than you’d supposed—and that until now, you’d subconsciously been devaluing them, on the grounds that they weren’t “significant” enough.

  • …virtually any career might be a worthwhile way to spend a working life, if it makes things slightly better for those it serves.

  • “Time is the substance I am made of,” writes Jorge Luis Borges. “Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

  • You have to accept that there will always be too much to do; that you can’t avoid tough choices or make the world run at your preferred speed; that no experience, least of all close relationships with other human beings, can ever be guaranteed in advance to turn out painlessly and well—and that from a cosmic viewpoint, when it’s all over, it won’t have counted for very much anyway. And in exchange for accepting all that? You get to actually be here. You get to have some real purchase on life. You get to spend your finite time focused on a few things that matter to you, in themselves, right now, in this moment.

  • Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?

  • Pursuing the life projects that matter to you the most will almost always entail not feeling fully in control of your time, immune to the painful assaults of reality, or confident about the future. It means embarking on ventures that might fail, perhaps because you’ll find you lacked sufficient talent; it means risking embarrassment, holding difficult conversations, disappointing others, and getting so deep into relationships that additional suffering—when bad things happen to those you care about—is all but guaranteed.

  • James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?”

  • Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.

  • Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?

  • There is a sort of cruelty, Iddo Landau points out, in holding yourself to standards nobody could ever reach (and which many of us would never dream of demanding of other people).

  • In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?

  • This quest to justify your existence in the eyes of some outside authority can continue long into adulthood. But “at a certain age,” writes the psychotherapist Stephen Cope, “it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us.”

  • In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?

  • How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?

  • The individual path “is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being itself when you put one foot in front of the other.” His sole advice for walking such a path was to “quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what that is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.” A modified version of this insight, “Do the next right thing,” has since become a slogan favored among members of Alcoholics Anonymous, as a way to proceed sanely through moments of acute crisis. But really, the “next and most necessary thing” is all that any of us can ever aspire to do in any moment. And we must do it despite not having any objective way to be sure what the right course of action even is.

  • People sometimes ask Derrick Jensen, the environmentalist who cofounded the radical group Deep Green Resistance, how he manages to stay hopeful when everything seems so grim. But he tells them he doesn’t—and that he thinks that’s a good thing. Hope is supposed to be “our beacon in the dark,” Jensen notes. But in reality, it’s a curse. To hope for a given outcome is to place your faith in something outside yourself, and outside the current moment—the government, for example, or God, or the next generation of activists, or just “the future”—to make things all right in the end…it means disavowing your own capacity to change things—which in the context of Jensen’s field, environmental activism, means surrendering your power to the very forces you were supposed to be fighting.

  • To give up hope, by contrast, is to reinhabit the power that you actually have. At that point, Jensen goes on, “we no longer have to ‘hope’ at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive … When we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it.”

  • Once you no longer need to convince yourself that the world isn’t filled with uncertainty and tragedy, you’re free to focus on doing what you can to help. And once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count.

  • Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity.

  • Any strategy for limiting your work in progress will help here (here), but perhaps the simplest is to keep two to-do lists, one “open” and one “closed.” The open list is for everything that’s on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it’s not your job to tackle it: instead, feed tasks from the open list to the closed one—that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can’t add a new task until one’s completed. (You may also require a third list, for tasks that are “on hold” until someone else gets back to you.) You’ll never get through all the tasks on the open list—but you were never going to in any case, and at least this way you’ll complete plenty of things you genuinely care about.

  • A complementary strategy is to establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work. To whatever extent your job situation permits, decide in advance how much time you’ll dedicate to work—you might resolve to start by 8:30 a.m., and finish no later than 5:30 p.m., say—then make all other time-related decisions in light of those predetermined limits. “You could fill any arbitrary number of hours with what feels to be productive work,” writes Cal Newport, who explores this approach in his book Deep Work. But if your primary goal is to do what’s required in order to be finished by 5:30, you’ll be aware of the constraints on your time, and more motivated to use it wisely.

  • Serialize, serialize, serialize.

  • Train yourself to get incrementally better at tolerating that anxiety, by consciously postponing everything you possibly can, except for one thing.

  • Decide in advance what to fail at.

  • the great benefit of strategic underachievement—that is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself—is that you focus that time and energy more effectively. Nor will you be dismayed when you fail at what you’d planned to fail at all along. “When you can’t do it all, you feel ashamed and give up,” notes the author Jon Acuff, but when you “decide in advance what things you’re going to bomb … you remove the sting of shame.” A poorly kept lawn or a cluttered kitchen are less troubling when you’ve preselected “lawn care” or “kitchen tidiness” as goals to which you’ll devote zero energy.

  • There’s scope to fail on a cyclical basis: to aim to do the bare minimum at work for the next two months, for example, while you focus on your children, or let your fitness goals temporarily lapse while you apply yourself to election canvassing. Then switch your energies to whatever you were neglecting. To live this way is to replace the high-pressure quest for “work-life balance” with a conscious form of imbalance, backed by your confidence that the roles in which you’re underperforming right now will get their moment in the spotlight soon.

  • Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete.

  • Consolidate your caring.

  • …it’s also a machine for getting you to care about too many things, even if they’re each indisputably worthwhile. We’re exposed, these days, to an unending stream of atrocities and injustice—each of which might have a legitimate claim on our time and our charitable donations, but which in aggregate are more than any one human could ever effectively address.

  • Once you grasp the mechanisms operating here, it becomes easier to consciously pick your battles in charity, activism, and politics: to decide that your spare time, for the next couple of years, will be spent lobbying for prison reform and helping at a local food pantry—not because fires in the Amazon or the fate of refugees don’t matter, but because you understand that to make a difference, you must focus your finite capacity for care.

  • Embrace boring and single-purpose technology.

  • An alternative, Shinzen Young explains, is to pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have. Experience life with twice the usual intensity, and “your experience of life would be twice as full as it currently is”—and any period of life would be remembered as having lasted twice as long.

  • Be a “researcher” in relationships…when presented with a challenging or boring moment, try deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity, in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome, or successfully explain your position, but, as Hobson puts it, “to figure out who this human being is that we’re with.” Curiosity is a stance well suited to the inherent unpredictability of life with others, because it can be satisfied by their behaving in ways you like or dislike—whereas the stance of demanding a certain result is frustrated each time things fail to go your way.

  • Cultivate instantaneous generosity.

Keep Going by Austin Kleon

Cover of Keep Going
Buy “Keep Going” on Bookshop
  • Every day is ground hog day.

  • In a moment of despair, Phil turns to a couple drunks at a bowling alley bar and asks them, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” It’s the question Phil has to answer to advance the plot of the movie, but it’s also the question we have to answer to advance the plot of our lives. I think how you answer this question is your art.

  • Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person. “Even after you have achieved greatness,” writes musician Ian Svenonius, “the infinitesimal cadre who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’” The truly prolific artists I know always have that question answered, because they have figured out a daily practice—a repeatable way of working that insulates them from success, failure, and the chaos of the outside world. They have all identified what they want to spend their time on, and they work at it every day, no matter what.

  • We have so little control over our lives. The only thing we can really control is what we spend our days on. What we work on and how hard we work on it.

  • “Any man can fight the battles of just one day,” begins a passage collected in Richmond Walker’s book of meditations for recovering alcoholics, Twenty-Four Hours a Day. “It is only when you and I add the burden of those two awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that we break down. It is not the experience of today that drives men mad. It is remorse or bitterness for something which happened yesterday or the dread of what tomorrow may bring. Let us therefore do our best to live but one day at a time.”

  • “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” —Annie Dillard

  • A daily routine will get you through the day and help you make the most of it. “A schedule defends from chaos and whim,” writes Annie Dillard. “It is a net for catching days.” When you don’t know what to do next, your routine tells you. When you don’t have much time, a routine helps you make the little time you have count. When you have all the time in the world, a routine helps you make sure you don’t waste it.

  • Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life and helping you take advantage of your limited time, energy, and talent. A routine establishes good habits that can lead to your best work.

  • Some of my favorite artists make “to-draw” lists. David Shrigley will make a huge list of fifty things to draw a week in advance. Having the list means he doesn’t have to waste studio time worrying about what to make. “The simple thing I’ve learned over the years is just to have a starting point and once you have a starting point the work seems to make itself,” he says.

  • Writer Steven Johnson does this in a single document he calls a “spark file”—every time he has an idea, he adds it to the file, and then he revisits the list every couple of months.

  • When I’m stuck in the morning and I don’t know what to write about in my diary, I’ll modify the pros-and-cons list. I’ll draw a line down the middle of the page, and in one column I’ll list what I’m thankful for, and in the other column, I’ll write down what I need help with. It’s a paper prayer.

  • “Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • The important thing is to make it to the end of the day, no matter what. No matter how bad it gets, see it through to the end so you can get to tomorrow. After spending the day with his five-year-old son, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his diary, “We got rid of the day as well as we could.” Some days you just have to get rid of as best as you can.

  • When the video-game artist Peter Chan was young, he loved to draw, but he would crumple up his “bad” drawings in fits of frustration. His father convinced him that if he laid the “bad” drawings flat instead of crumpling them up, he could fit more of them in the wastebasket. After his father died, Chan found a folder labeled “Peter” in his father’s possessions. When he looked inside, it was full of his old, discarded drawings. His father had snuck into his room and plucked the drawings he thought were worth saving from the wastebasket.

  • Build a bliss station.

  • In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said everyone should build a “bliss station”: You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

  • “The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty, and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from.” —Lynda Barry

  • “I must decline, for secret reasons.” —E. B. White

  • Forget the noun, do the verb.

  • Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb). Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting.

  • Job titles can mess you up. Job titles, if they’re taken too seriously, will make you feel like you need to work in a way that befits the title, not the way that fits the actual work. Job titles can also restrict the kinds of work that you feel like you can do.

  • Job titles aren’t really for you, they’re for others. Let other people worry about them.

  • Your real work is play.

  • Art and the artist both suffer most when the artist gets too heavy, too focused on results.

  • That, said Vonnegut, was the whole purpose of making art: “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”

  • Make gifts.

  • One of the easiest ways to hate something you love is to turn it into your job: taking the thing that keeps you alive spiritually and turning it into the thing that keeps you alive literally.

  • When you start making a living from your work, resist the urge to monetize every single bit of your creative practice. Be sure there’s at least a tiny part of you that’s off-limits to the marketplace. Some little piece that you keep for yourself.

  • “Don’t make stuff because you want to make money—it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous—because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people—and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.” —John Green

  • “Suckcess,” on the other hand, is success on somebody else’s terms.

  • “Suckcess” is what poet Jean Cocteau was referring to when he said, “There is a kind of success worse than failure.”

  • In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde argues that art exists in both gift and market economies, but “where there is no gift, there is no art.”

  • Try it: If you’re bummed out and hating your work, pick somebody special in your life and make something for them. If you have a big audience, make them something special and give it away. Or maybe even better: Volunteer your time and teach someone else how to make what you make and do what you do. See how it feels. See whether it puts you in a better place.

  • You never know when a gift made for a single person will turn into a gift for the whole world. Consider how many bestselling stories began their life as bedtime stories for specific children. A. A. Milne made up Winnie-the-Pooh for his son, Christopher Robin Milne. Astrid Lindgren’s bedridden daughter Karin asked her to tell a story about some girl named Pippi Longstocking. C. S. Lewis convinced J. R. R. Tolkien to turn the fantastical stories he told his children into The Hobbit. The list goes on and on.

  • The ordinary + extra attention = the extraordinary

  • You have everything you need.

  • Kent said she made common things “uncommon.” (She thought “uncommon” was a better term than “art.”) “I don’t think of it as art,” she said, “I just make things I like bigger.”

  • All this is, of course, wishful thinking. You do not need to have an extraordinary life to make extraordinary work. Everything you need to make extraordinary art can be found in your everyday life.

  • “Drawing is simply another way of seeing, which we don’t really do as adults,” says cartoonist Chris Ware. We’re all going around in a “cloud of remembrance and anxiety,” he says, and the act of drawing helps us live in the moment and concentrate on what’s really in front of us. Because drawing is really an exercise in seeing, you can suck at drawing and still get a ton out of it. In a blog post about picking up the habit of sketching later in his life, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “By sitting somewhere and sketching something, I was forced to really look at it.” He said his drawings were “a means of experiencing a place or a moment more deeply.”

  • Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you. First you must protect it, and then you must point it in the right direction.

  • “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” —Mary Oliver

  • Set up a regular time to pay attention to what you’ve paid attention to. Reread your diary. Flip back through your sketchbook. (The cartoonist Kate Beaton once said if she wrote a book about drawing she’d call it Pay Attention to Your Drawings.) Scroll through your camera roll. Rewatch footage you’ve filmed. Listen to music you’ve recorded. (The musician Arthur Russell used to take long walks around Manhattan, listening to his own tapes on his Walkman.) When you have a system for going back through your work, you can better see the bigger picture of what you’ve been up to, and what you should do next.

  • If you want to change your life, change what you pay attention to. “We give things meaning by paying attention to them,” Jessa Crispin writes, “and so moving your attention from one thing to another can absolutely change your future.”

  • “Attention is the most basic form of love,” wrote John Tarrant. When you pay attention to your life, it not only provides you with the material for your art, it also helps you fall in love with your life.

  • Art is for life (not the other way around).

  • It can be hard and downright painful to grapple with the idea that people we find reprehensible in their personal lives might also be capable of producing work that is beautiful, moving, or useful to us.

  • We’re all complicated. We all have personal shortcomings. We’re all a little creepy, to a certain degree. If we didn’t believe that we could be a little better in our art than we are in our lives, then what, really, would be the point of art?

  • “The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair,” writes Sarah Manguso. “If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.”

  • You are allowed to change your mind.

  • We’re afraid of changing our minds because we’re afraid of the consequences of changing our minds. What will people think?

  • But to be on brand is to be 100 percent certain of who you are and what you do, and certainty, in art and in life, is not only completely overrated, it is also a roadblock to discovery.

  • Uncertainty is the very thing that art thrives on. The writer Donald Barthelme said that the artist’s natural state is one of not-knowing.

  • The internet, unfortunately, is no longer a safe place to do any kind of experimental thinking, particularly for somebody with an audience or any kind of “brand.”

  • Your bliss station, your studio, a paper journal, a private chat room, a living room full of trusted loved ones: These are the places to really think.

  • Interacting with people who don’t share our perspective forces us to rethink our ideas, strengthen our ideas, or trade our ideas for better ones. When you’re only interacting with like-minded people all the time, there’s less and less opportunity to be changed.

  • Jacobs recommends that if you really want to explore ideas, you should consider hanging out with people who aren’t so much like-minded as like-hearted. These are people who are “temperamentally disposed to openness and have habits of listening.” People who are generous, kind, caring, and thoughtful. People who, when you say something, “think about it, rather than just simply react.” People you feel good around.

  • The Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca said that if you read old books, you get to add all the years the author lived onto your own life. “We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all,” he said. “Why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?”

  • My friend John T. Unger has the perfect rule: Keep your tools organized and your materials messy. “Keep your tools very organized so you can find them,” he says. “Let the materials cross-pollinate in a mess. Some pieces of art I made were utter happenstance, where a couple items came together in a pile and the piece was mostly done.

  • Demons hate fresh air.

  • Our morning walk is where ideas are born and books are edited. It’s so crucial that we go for our walk that we’ve adopted the unofficial United States Postal Service motto as our own: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom. . . stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

  • “No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk,” said director Ingmar Berman to his daughter, Linn Ullmann. “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”

  • When we’re glued to our screens, the world looks unreal. Terrible. Not worth saving or even spending time with. Everyone on earth seems like a troll or a maniac or worse. But you get outside and you start walking and you come to your senses. Yeah, there are a few maniacs and some ugliness, but there are also people smiling, birds chirping, clouds flying overhead…all that stuff. There’s possibility. Walking is a way to find possibility in your life when there doesn’t seem to be any left.

  • Like a tree, creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season you’re in, and act accordingly. In winter, “the tree looks dead, but we know it is beginning a very deep process, out of which will come spring and summer.”

  • The comedian George Carlin lamented how obsessed we all are with the notion of forward, visible progress. “It’s the American view that everything has to keep climbing: productivity, profits, even comedy.” He felt we made no time for reflection. “No time to contract before another expansion. No time to grow up,” he said. “No time to learn from your mistakes. But that notion goes against nature, which is cyclical.”

  • One way to get in touch with your own seasons is to follow Kent and Thoreau’s leads and observe the seasons in nature. Draw the same tree every week for a year. Take up casual astronomy. Watch the sun rise and set for a week. Observe the moon every night for a few cycles. Try to get a feel for nonmechanical time, and see if it recalibrates you and changes how you feel about your progress.

  • “Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long.” —May Sarton

  • “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.” —Toni Morrison

  • Whenever life gets overwhelming, go back to chapter one of this book and think about your days. Try your best to fill them in ways that get you a little closer to where you want to be. Go easy on yourself and take your time. Worry less about getting things done. Worry more about things worth doing. Worry less about being a great artist. Worry more about being a good human being who makes art. Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them. Keep working. Keep playing. Keep drawing. Keep looking. Keep listening. Keep thinking. Keep dreaming. Keep singing. Keep dancing. Keep painting. Keep sculpting. Keep designing. Keep composing. Keep acting. Keep cooking. Keep searching. Keep walking. Keep exploring. Keep giving. Keep living. Keep paying attention. Keep doing your verbs, whatever they may be. Keep going.

  • Switch your phone to airplane mode. Draw up some lists. Hire a child to teach you to play. Make a gift for someone. Tidy up. Lie down for a nap. Take a long walk.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Cover of Luster
Buy “Luster” on Bookshop

Contains spoilers

  • I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing.

  • “You’re kind of aloof,” he says, and all the kids stacked underneath my trench coat rejoice.

  • I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. IT is almost. The difference between being there when it happens and stepping out just in time to see it on the news. Still, I can’t help feeling that in the closest arm of the multiverse, there is a version of me that is fatter and happier, smiling in my own studio, paint behind my ears.

  • “I never said no to you. Not to anything. That documentary about Norwegian puppetry was three hours long.”

  • I throw in some blatant lies and make sure any inconsistencies are small enough to explain away once I have a foot in the door and am armed with enough recon on my interviewer to either have talking points on the company culture or a five-point plan to suck dry any available reservoirs of white guilt. I interview well despite my nerves, and while I wish I could take credit for that, my ability to maintain human form and make a good impression is all about my skin. The expectations of me in these settings are frequently so low, it would be impossible not to surpass them.

  • …the bike lanes in Manhattan already terrifying at 11:00 a.m., filled with delivery boys and girls who jet into traffic with fried rice and no reason to live, along with the sentient abdominals who do this for fun…

  • The Sabbath itself was pristine. Of course I indulged loopholes. Sometimes I slept it away so I could avoid the boredom, sometimes I spent the day curating twelve-hour mixtapes of Christian rock. But most of the time, though I wasn’t allowed to dance and knew that everyone was having fun without me, I liked the quiet, the languor of a single hour, of a day when you are deliberate, thankful for what was made deliberately, retina and turnips and densely coiled stars, things so complex I could barely render them in paint.

  • It’s a death rattle, she says, directing me to the lawn mower and adjusting the string on the mask, the grass communicating its distress, and for the rest of the day I think of that, sick to my stomach, the lawn buzzed and alkaline, the vinegar in the wine and the carnage in the dew, everywhere the perfume of things that want to live.

  • The acceptable interval for which I can be embarrassed for what I said to the doctors has passed, but I still think about it for weeks, what I meant when I said I was an artist. I think about the painting in the clinic and the canvas fibers curled beneath the oil. All the raw materials that are gathered and processed into shadow and light. The pigments drawn from sand and Canterbury bells, the carbon black drawn from fire and spread onto slick cave walls. A way is always made to document how we manage to survive, or in some cases, how we don’t. So I’ve tried to reproduce an inscrutable thing. I’ve made my own hunger into a practice, made everyone who passes through my life subject to a close and inappropriate reading that occasionally finds its way, often insufficiently, into paint. And when I am alone with myself, this is what I am waiting for someone to do to me, with merciless, deliberate hands, to put me down onto the canvas so that when I’m gone, there will be a record, proof that I was here.