I had this thought as I walked on the National Mall today:
There’s something alike in the methods and the madness of the tourists and the periodical cicadas.
Consider it: both emerge at the outset of summer, although the cicadas have the decency to stay away sixteen years out of every seventeen.
It appears that they share a survival strategy: namely, being too numerous to eliminate. Both amble in packs across streets slowly and against the light, ambling awkwardly, veering into traffic, apparently daring cars and bikes and other pedestrians to collide with them. They find safety in numbers. And that’s just the cicadas!
But there’s something optimistic about both of them. Both look to the future. The cicadas awaken to mate furiously and create enough larva to emerge once again next time. They won’t live to see it.
Meanwhile the tourists wander around with their phones out taking selfies with every statue and building and every member of their group so that they will have proof that they were here, long after their footprints on the mall dissipate in the rain under the cicada husks.
I get grumpy sometimes on my afternoon walks when the trail is too loud and treeless in this semi-industrial place where I live. I just wish it were scenic.
But then I realize that it is scenic to some people. It’s not scenic to me because I’m an adult woman fixated on trees and quiet. I’m not that little boy in his stroller, who is fixated with his mouth agape at the big machinery moving gravel. His mother points at the forklifts and the diggers, the cranes and haulers. He stares in rapturous awe at the toys he plays with on his bedroom floor come to immense life.
It’s scenic to him.
He’d probably find a tree-lined quiet path dead boring.
I, too, long to lie down next to a tree and sleep. I, too, want to wait to emerge until 17 years later, and only then to scream a lot and make love once, then die in the grass.
(There are many ways to live a good life, and that one doesn’t sound too terrible.)
While it’s underground, does the cicada count how many times it freezes and how many times it thaws? Does it draw tick-marks on the wall of its dirt lair until it has enough, and then began digging out in a rush of adrenaline?
Does the cicada get senioritis in year 16, longing to be done with this embarrassing larval stage?
Does it remember what life was like 17 years ago when it buried itself? My neighborhood was very different then, and as a result we have few cicadas. How many millions of them went to sleep in 2004, dreaming of 2021, only to be fatally plowed under in 2015 when they dug the foundation for a new condominium?
Does 2021 look quite different to the cicada than it remembers? Does it look different than it expected? Does the cicada get nostalgic for the way things were when it was a wee larva?
Does it take a look around and wiggle its thorax to feel the sun and the breeze on its exoskeleton, basking in how short the time is?
You walk down the beach, cold and flat, wind whipping. The flat sand is dotted sparsely with walkers and dogs who chase and dance at the seagulls. The tide is low, running rivulets down the hard-packed sand speckled with mica, oil slicks, sand dollars burrowing, sandpipers running like ladies with their skirts drawn up to their knees.
About a mile down is where you get to the trees where the county park begins. There’s no line in the sand, but as soon as you cross into the park it’s summertime. The air is thick with sunscreen and barbecue coals. Kids flail on boogie boards, surfboards, skimboards, in wetsuits and swimsuits and gooseflesh in the sea.
The sea is blue under the blue sky and gray under the gray sky. The sky scuds in its stripes. A cloud bank sits like a pillow of smoke over seal rock where the sea lions bark and yawp undisturbed. The breakwater of the rock extends along the horizon far to the south.
The waves crash jade when they’re clear and foam-laced when the foam is high. I fall in love with the jade crash but I can never seem to get a photo of it. I see a jade wave and I go wow and take my phone out but then the next one is sandy and gray or foamy and white or it crashes too fast.
That thin wall of translucent green doesn’t want to be photographed. It’s only to see and to happen and to end.
Just as the waves aren’t water they’re just energy.
I’ve been trying for a while to tune into this body of mine.
The problem is trying. Trying is a lot like shoulding.
Take my years-long quest for the right glasses prescription. Things still seem blurry some of the time. Or do they? I can’t really be sure. I go to the optometrist. We do the eye chart thing. She confirms I have the right prescription. But by this point I’m overthinking my vision. Everything looks bizarre. This can’t be what the world looks like, can it?
It makes me realize I’m not seeing things as they are. I never have, never can. All I can do is manipulate these organs and muscles into helping me gather enough information to stay alive, the legacy of millions of years of ancestors who developed many cells and crawled out of the sea. The picture is not perfectly crisp, even at 20/20, but it’s good enough to spot mold on the bread before I eat it and to admire a sunset.
These muscles in my face, the eyes that are the MVPs of my nervous system: they’re my only way of being here. I’m in this meat suit. I am this meat suit. But being really present in this meat suit isn’t so easy. It requires turning down the noise on everything else. And everything else loves to be noisy as hell.
To my surprise, the voice of my body is really quiet. It doesn’t withstand overthinking. Like the little voice the other day that told me to go for a walk instead of writing. I began to second-guess it, negotiate with it. It shrugged. I walked.
Listening hard enough to hear this tiny voice is such a mind shift. An example: I’m still coming to realize that nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants especially) tend to make me feel pretty bad. Years of dieting and control will numb you into inattention, because that way of life is all in the numbers. “Health” is all about metrics, which a computer or a book or a trainer can instruct you on. A potato or a tomato becomes a number of calories, or of carbohydrate grams, or it is on or off of a list of approved foods. That’s a quick way to forget how to listen into the meat suit. Do you actually like potatoes? Do they like you? How would you know?
Ironically, a lot of us begin trying to control our bodies because something dissociates us from them in the first place, whether it be the normal dose of nonsense the culture feeds us, or actual childhood trauma. We become dissociated from our bodies’ needs because these events make it advantageous to look outside not inside. Then, because we are dissociated from our bodies’ needs, we “overeat” and can’t tell what we actually need. Then we are “obese.” Then we ask someone outside us to tell us how to stop being fat. We perpetuate, rather than solve, the problem—which is to tune into what the body needs.
My shouldless day reminds me of intuitive eating. Let’s talk about that.
If you aren’t aware of intuitive eating, the basic idea is that you stop shoulding all over your body when it comes to eating. No more diets, control, punishment, restriction, forcing, measuring. Just tuning in—tuning way in—and listening to what the body is asking for. Is it asking for more food? Less? When? What kind? How much? Every day is different.
We are not cars; we do not run on the same amount of unleaded 87 every so many miles. Some days we want a giant salad. Some days we want a bag of cheetos. Some days maybe it’s both. It’s all neutral.
If you’ve been living in this society (hi!) this may sound radical, irresponsible, stupid. We tend to believe that our bodies are these reckless agents of chaos which, left to their own devices, would fatally gorge on cake. To avert this disaster, we learn that we must do our research on what the best, healthiest, most slimming, most “super” foods are, and eat primarily those. The “better” we eat, in some sense, the more moral we are. It all has very creepy religious overtones.
But this causes most of us a lot of grief, not to mention ill health, if you factor in the mental anguish of trying to live like you’re a car.
Anyway, I’ve been on my own meandering intuitive eating journey for the past four years, and now that I’m also on a shouldless journey, I’m pensive.
Both eating intuitively and living shouldlessly are about trust. It’s about bringing the locus of control right inside yourself, not outsourcing it to a calorie-counting app or a to-do list.
For many of us, living like our locus of control is outside us causes us to fail. Our bodies rebel against restriction. Our hearts mutiny at the thought of yet another hectic week with no reprieve.
If you experiment with the idea of loosening the reins, the question becomes, can you trust yourself? Can you trust your body?
That’s an incomplete question. Trust yourself to what? Trust your body to what?
Can you trust yourself to be a productivity machine seven days a week? No, not for long, and the payment for trying will eventually come due.
Can you trust your body to shaped fashionably? No. That’s not its job. No more can you trust a dog to file your taxes. You might be able to train him to do a lot of the tasks, and he might even get some of them right, but at the end of the day, the IRS is going to call you on some major errors. He’s a dog; he needs to walk, and smell butts, and nap. He does not need to collate last year’s statements, and he’s not terribly good at it.
In the same way, your body wasn’t designed to be thin, to look a certain way. Some people’s bodies may naturally look the way that you wish your body wanted to look, but the whole reason the rest of us generally spend our lives fretting about not looking that way is that our bodies don’t really want to look that way. If they wanted to look that way, they probably would by now. If that dog wanted to file your taxes, you might have found him once or twice poking around your filing cabinet, hunting for your W-2s.
Letting go of this idea that we can control ourselves into some external version of perfection can be sad, and scary. But I think it’s the only way of starting to living a life that actually suits us, rather than contorting ourselves to fit our lives.
So the whole point here is letting go, relaxing that white-knuckle grip you think you have on your digestion and nutrition and appearance. Tuning in, neck-down, which is the only way you can start to figure out what’s really for breakfast, and what your squishy little self wants your day to be. That’s the focus of our next post.
I’ve long been intrigued by Ellen Burstyn’s habit of occasional “shouldless” days.
I have what I call should-less days. Today is a day where there’s nothing I should do. So I only do what I want to do. And if it’s nap in the afternoon or watch TV, and eat ice cream, I get to do it. I had that kind of day yesterday.
The shouldless day always seemed out of reach. My shoulds live on my daily to-do lists. I can’t remember the last day I existed without one.
But today I’m having a shouldless day. It’s going great. Much better than the other kind of “unproductive” day I’m familiar with: the wasted day. On a wasted day, I procrastinate, rebelling against the to-do list, and I’m neither enjoying myself nor making good use of my time.
Yesterday, when I decided that today would be shouldless, there was the fear that it would feel like a wasted day, with that semi-nauseous feeling, a mix of boredom and overstimulation and guilt. There was also the hope that it would be the opposite of a wasted day: I would be a woman of pure luxury, steeping myself in a scented bath and reading for hours.
Yet I’m finding (so far) that this day is neither wasted nor glamorous. I woke up rested, and with ideas lighting up my brain for a change. I did a load of laundry and some other domestic work. The Sunday crossword. A long hilly walk. Finished the Q documentary. Mario Kart. I’m writing this now. Later maybe reading, yoga, time with family.
A good day.
A little part of me is still piping up to ask: Am I doing it right? Am I doing it wrong?
Those questions are wrong, because today is shouldless, and however I do it is fine.
For writing long projects, outlines are key. I don’t care who tells you otherwise. People who pretend to write by the seat of their pants—they have the audacity to call themselves “pantsers”—are liars and fools.
I know this from experience. For years before I developed a robust writing habit, I tried unsuccessfully to write long projects. I always flamed out around page 4, finally having outrun my little idea. Tired, panting, peckish, I abandoned those poor little project stubs for good.
It’s only when you know where you’re going that you can get anywhere. You usually end up going somewhere entirely different than you planned, but that’s fine! If you have a map, even a completely faulty one, you are less likely to just sit down and wait for rescue. Even a bad map will get you a little further from home than that.
So this is my nugget of very helpful advice: start with an outline. Feel out what the beginning, middle, and end of your story might be. Then, braid on details from there. [Redacted] [Redacted] And there you are! You’re all done, with a masterful, complete, final, unimpeachable, beloved, groundbreaking, astonishing, mouthwatering, award-winning, enduring, delectable final product. Great work.
“Write drunk, edit sober,” is a famous quote. It is too pithy to be real. They attribute it to Hemingway. He never said it. He wrote short sentences. Those are always better. This is fun to read. Long stuff is not fun to read.
Ugh, now that I have that out of my system—let’s talk about editing.
When I’m looking at an empty page, I long for a perfect first draft. Whether I love or hate the words as they’re coming out, I know they will change. They will be rewritten. Editing will improve them. First-draft words are just temporary stand-ins for the real words that will come later. They’re not there to stay. They’re there to tie down the ephemeral ideas flitting around in the ether.
But that being the case, what in tarnation is editing? It is just writing, again. The words that were the first draft go away, and new words are written. That’s not “editing;” that’s just draft-two-ing and draft-three-ing. It’s horribly inefficient.
Better to have started with the good words in the first place, say I.
So here’s my writing tip, in case you were wondering: start with draft two, or even three. Don’t bother writing draft one; it’s usually no good.