📩 Letter #35: Settle down

Easier said than done.

Hi readers! For those who are new, welcome to Letters from Home & Away. For nearly a year, Ali and I (two buddies) have been writing letters back and forth to each other, recommending books and thinking through our choices, our commitments, and what it means to live “the good life.” 

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Dear Ali,

At Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach, there isn’t much to see. That’s what the guidebook says, but we go anyway. Decades ago, factories and neighborhoods dumped their garbage into the sea: empty pop bottles, appliances, and cars. Later, there were organized clean-ups. But the ocean helped, too. Waves smoothed the pottery and glass into trinkets, stones colored like amethyst and jade, amber and pearl. A few stretches of beach began to glitter. Word got to tourists, like us, who came to pick up the glass, put it in their pockets, and store it at home in jars or dishes. Maybe they looked at it after that. Probably they didn’t.

The beach is picked over. The reports were right. A lot of the rocks are brown and grey. My husband goes out to hunt in the tide pools for crabs, fish, and anemone, hopping from rock to rock. I push my feet through the stones. There are still some pretty ones left. I squat to try to take pictures in order to document that they were here. I was here. It’s not enough to witness. We can’t ever just let things lie. 

Later in the trip, we eat biscuits with jam and honey on a porch. In the distance, behind the highway, sea lions are barking. They’re pretty loud. It sounds like they’re having a party. Them too?! I take big breaths of cold air, trying to hold it in my lungs for later. I need all this rest and relaxation to improve me, to sort me out. I’d better enjoy it! I must enjoy it!

It’s the project of the summer for those with privilege. Let’s relax! Let’s relax aggressively, like it’s our job. Let’s have fun! Let’s reconnect! The prices of flights and hotel rooms are going up. Macy’s is back. It’s time to consume nature and food and art, host parties and take vacations.

But all of this fun costs money, and for money we have to work. All this fun takes time: and that’s time you could be working! Here’s our dilemma: It’s impractical to rest. Don’t rest too much. But it’s lame not to rest. You should be getting ahead. And you should be kicking back! Push yourself. Give yourself a break! I hate the phrase “work-life balance.” As if work wasn’t also your life. As if life happened only on weekends. No wonder we’re panicked about spending them well.

We go for a walk to look for whales. I want to see the whales because then it’s a story to tell: “We saw whales!” I look for breaches and blows. Nothing. The ocean is almost artificially blue. It doesn’t give me what I want, no matter how much I paid ($6) to drive into this state park and see it. 

In a beach town, we visit a wood shop, lined with beautiful tables, bowls, and chairs. Then a bookshop, shelves are stuffed with volumes. How much time it took for these carpenters and authors to make these valuable objects! I’m out here drinking hot chocolate “with whipped cream, yes please.” (It’s vacation!”) The homes along the coast with their walls made of windows raise one, all-important question: “How much do you think that cost?” Did the owner of that home waste her time driving around looking at cows? Or was she watching her investments instead? Watching the clock? Watching herself, to make sure she didn’t (inadvertently) waste her own life?

We drive for hours. One road takes us through redwood forests. Its curves are so narrow we have to honk when we go around corners. “Watch out: We are here!” We will leave but the trees will stay, bark like the skin of wrinkled ogres. I’m glad to be seeing them — though at times, it feels like too much to see. The Northern California coast is difficult to process. It’s an infinity of grassland and ocean, wildflowers laid so thick they look like pelts. It doesn’t fit into my ideas of progress, achievement, or time — time as something that’s always getting away from me, something to “make the most of” before it runs out.

In her lecture On Beauty and Being Just, the philosopher Elaine Scarry writes that seeing beautiful things doesn’t necessarily make us nicer people. And it doesn’t necessarily inspire creativity of our own. You can see lots of films and never make one yourself. You can have a sophisticated palate but be a terrible cook. But beauty does “confer aliveness”— we see the beautiful thing, and in our seeing, it becomes meaningful. Somehow, the beautiful thing does the same to us.

Beauty is, then, a compact, or contract between the beautiful being (a person or thing) and the perceiver. As the beautiful being confers on the perceiver the gift of life, so the perceiver confers on the beautiful being the gift of life.

Earlier, she writes: 

Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness or (in the case of objects) quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection.

The thing about beauty (or joy, or rest) is that it can’t be measured, or recorded, bought or earned or optimized. It can’t be neatly scheduled, then set aside. It can’t be stripped of its benefits, used for “self care,” and then left behind. Maybe someday, we’ll sit and look at the views from our glass-walled house, thinking we have “earned” them at last — when really, earning was always the wrong way to think about things.

On the way home, driving Highway 1, I freak out. My hands are sweaty. It’s getting dark, and there’s no median on the passenger-seat side of the highway. The highway curls around the sea cliffs like a swirl of caramel through ice cream. The ocean smashes itself against the rocks, hundreds of feet below. I imagine our car flying off the cliff. The radio plays only the words of a sexist rock DJ, and then only the words of a fundamentalist preacher, and then nothing, just static. The sun is setting, and the sky looks bruised: purple, orange, black at the edges.

How do you quantify “aliveness”? You can’t. You just know it when you feel it. 

More than a year ago, I was worried about the same things I’m worried about now: not having enough time for work or for leisure, for play or labor, sensing that these things aren’t so separate after all but still always feeling guilty about one or the other, terrified of waste and “falling behind.” To help, my friend taught me a meditation called “The Prayer of Patient Trust.” Here’s an excerpt:

We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. 

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

as though you could be today what time

(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)

will make of you tomorrow.

This summer, perhaps we need to settle down. Let life (all of it, work and play) just be life, not a series of exchanges and compromises, a set of exploited or wasted opportunities for advantage and gain. Trust that the world is working on us, without having to categorize or collect it, hoard or display or even understand it. Like debris in the waves, like it or not, over time, we’ll be changed.


My book recommendation:

The book: Having and Being Had by Eula Biss

Why you should read it: I love Eula Biss because she puts all of her thought processes — not just her logical arguments, but her doubts, insecurities, curiosities, and confessions, what she’s reading and what she’s questioning — on the page. In this book (which you and I recently read together at our friend’s kitchen table in Nashville), Biss turns her attention to questions about money and possession, consumerism and work. It made me feel less alone to know she’s thinking about the same things we are.

What else should you read? Earlier this year, I read On Immunity: An Inoculation, EB’s book on vaccines, fear, and our unavoidable interdependence.

Check out some of our recent work published elsewhere:

Ali has been writing about all things Austin, Texas:

Kate has been writing about tensions in contemporary culture: