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May 23, 2020

Suffering & Grace

Thursday, May 21: Things have a way of turning upside down after you write about them. That's been my experience anyway. Even if they don't turn fully upside down, they still keep moving and shifting, never staying exactly the same. Just as we do. We, these lumpy masses of thoughts and sensations and mysteries, dragged and driven around by consciousness.

These words, like their ancestors, are encoded moments. If I write to you now—at 7:34 on a Thursday morning in May, from the strange space I occupy in the dim light of my bedroom, where I've moved my desk for the summer, out of necessity, to be nearer the newer and more effective air-conditioner, the day's first tinny rumbles of motorbikes zipping by on the street just behind me—that I feel a heavy sense of peace for the first time all week, that is a snapshot. A still frame. The feeling has come before and will leave and return again, many times over, maybe even by the time you read this.

There's no real finality in life. Conclusions, as we tend to think of them, exist only in fictions and death. And even then, time goes on to have its way with them. On the other hand, it's just as true that every moment is a kind of conclusion, each one born of the prior and giving birth to the next. What continues is us, hurtling through all those deaths and births, growing our towers of disintegrating nows.

Friday, May 22: A sadness moved through my home this week that I hadn't witnessed or experienced before. I'd naively thought that my collection of sadnesses was basically complete, and that my job was just to manage that collection effectively. This new sadness ran counter to a thing I'd written in the last paragraph of my last letter, where I described my wife as being "uniquely skilled at allowing me all the space I need while also shining her warm light into me, like a real-life Care Bear." This has not changed. She still is that, and many other things. But within about 36 hours of writing those words I saw her overcome by a sadness that I hadn't seen in her before. And it was a sadness that begat only more sadness, in both of us, and then an impasse, and then still more sadness.

I'm trying to write about all of this in a less abstract way. But the truth is I'm not used to writing as a member of a "we" other than humans. So this is all still fairly new to me, being one of a two-person union, an organism with its own wants and needs and sides of the bed and all that, and I'm still trying to find the balance between writing from the most honest place I can and being careful not to talk out of school, keeping my private life—our private life—private.

Saturday, May 23: What little sadness still lingered on Thursday lifted entirely on Friday. After I wrote, I carried on with the parts of the routine I wrote about last week. Yoga. Meditation. Breathing. I took a shower, then went downstairs to eat. My wife had just returned from the market with several foods I still don't know the names of and some fresh coconut water. We sat and ate and I told her what I'd been writing about and my desire to share it, and she said go for it. So here it is.

Both the sadness and impasse were rooted in my wife's dawning realization that she might never have a child, and my reckoning that I was the obstacle in her way, and thus the creator (or at least the vice creator) of the very sadness I was trying to remove. I just turned 40, and she's turning 34 this year, and we know how clocks work.

I have not, at this dying moment, agreed to have a child. But I have moved that particular puzzle to the forefront of my thoughts, and am allowing it to exist there, in its full and inconclusive state.

After we'd finished eating, I gave myself a buzz cut (with some help), and it felt like a billion years of dead weight falling from my head. I'd been wanting to do it for a while, but just hadn't followed through. And then it happened very suddenly, exactly when I'd needed it to, and when I was able to appreciate it most.

I begin my yoga sessions each day by setting an intention. My first intention amid all the heartache of this week was: to heal. My subsequent intentions for the week have all been: to advance my healing. Sometimes that's all that can be achieved in a day. A little healing, with only the potential to be followed at later date by a little more. These words are part of that healing. And while I'm very aware that they risk negating my intention for these letters, to share notable things worth ingesting, thinking and talking more about, I am also choosing to accept this idea that I keep coming across, that this is just how it is right now.

Meditation and living in Thailand have taught me a lot about the value in going with the flow, being less resistant to the natural course of things, not clinging. And it's this not clinging that I keep coming back to lately. Basically all of my arguments for not having a kid come back to questions of what I might lose. Questions that are absolutely worth asking. Because sometimes resistance is necessary. Sometimes acceptance is a flaw. Sometimes one needs to fight and be vigilant. The answer lies in one's ability to know the difference, to know when to do what. And that ability comes from being aware, and being present. I honestly don't know what will come next. But whatever it is, I know I want it to emerge from a place of awareness and presence. So that's all I'm after right now. Getting here now. The rest, I trust, will move and bloom of its own accord.

Brian Leli, May 2020

You’ll Call Me and You’ll Thank Me

Dr. Kaplan calls me at the office a few days later with the results. He says, “Mike ... If you want to get your wife pregnant, you’re gonna have to have what’s called a varicocele repair. I’d never heard this term. He said, “We cut an incision in your abdomen, we go into the vein adjoining a testicle, we squeeze out the excess blood, we patch you up, and you can’t walk for about a week.” I said, “I don’t even want to have a kid.” Like, I ... I had to level with him because it was escalating so rapidly, and ... I was like, “Dr. Kaplan, I wasn’t gonna tell you this, but I don’t even really want to have a kid, and now you’re describing a Black Mirror episode, and I don’t ... I don’t want to be in that one.”
And ... Dr. Kaplan says to me something I never expected anybody to say to me as an adult, never mind a medical professional. He says, “Mike, here’s what they don’t tell you. No men want to have kids.” And I go, “That’s not true. Tell me more.” He said, “Our wives want us to, we all go along with it. It’s the best thing that’ll ever happen to you. You’ll call me and you’ll thank me. It is the most joy ... you will ever experience.” And I stumbled out of his office in a daze. I mean, I nearly wandered into traffic. And then, I turned around ... and I walked back in, and I make an appointment for a varicocele repair.

Mike Birbiglia, The New One

Eddy Currents

Some find irony in the fact that a study of our brains revealed to us not the secrets of the past, but what ultimately awaits us in the future. However, I maintain that we have indeed learned something important about the past. The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I am glad that it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.

Ted Chiang, "Exhalation," Exhalation: Stories

Michael's a Mystic

Most people struggle to be present. People go and sit in ashrams for 20 years in India trying to be present. Do yoga, meditate, trying to get here, now. Most people live in fear because we project the past into the future. Michael's a mystic. He was never anywhere else. His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator. The big downfall of a lot of players who are otherwise gifted is thinking about failure. Michael didn't allow what he couldn't control to get inside his head. He would say, "Why would I think about missing a shot I haven't taken yet?"

Mark Vancil, The Last Dance, S1:E10

When the World Went Away, We Made a New One

It’s easy to subscribe to a fantasy of diminishment as revelation—the notion that wisdom is the inevitable yield of hardship. But sometimes loss just feels like loss, and absence is just absence: the solipsism of pain; the ache of losing touch; the empty streets and bankruptcies, the missing ventilators, the bodies stored in the temporary morgues of moving vans. The trick is how to hold both truths at once—absence-as-presence and absence-as-absence—rather than letting one obscure the other; how to let fragile, unexpected, imperfect consolations exist alongside everything they can’t console.
Holding both at once lets us honor the pleasures and odd discoveries of quarantine without blinding ourselves to everything beyond it. It’s a way of seeing that does not back away from what is happening by pretending people are not dying, and that does not back away from what is happening by pretending people are not loving and being loved alongside this death. Because we are also eating brownies. We are stupefied by the tenderness of a child tucking a tube of Clorox wipes under the covers. We are brought to tears by the sight of a nurse walking home from work in hospital scrubs. Suffering and grace live side by side, as they always have—in the same homes, or else separated by those walls we keep between our bodies now, in service of a solidarity we trust but cannot touch. Grace locks eyes with pain from the other side of the sidewalk, six feet away, and they both keep walking.

Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Magazine, May 2020