Those always strike me as a little grim, carrying a note of hungover disappointment at the self for having done this or that wrong in the past year, turning that disappointment into a kind of disciplinary fervor to just do better. And, at least for me, that kind of thing never works, no matter how hard I try. No amount of gritting the teeth is enough to magically create different results.
(Your mileage may vary. I understand that some people have the force of will and are able to deny themselves pleasure, or delay it, and get to their tasks or avoid their vices, by just deciding to. I am not this person.)
So, for me, a more interesting way to go into a new year is just to decide what to look for. To look for something isn’t necessarily to find it—but it does mean that you’re more likely to see it when it comes your way.
Some things I’m going to be looking for in 2020:
Crazy ideas. When something rolls across my brain and amuses or excites me, I’m going to pull up a chair and let it chat to me for a bit. Whether I then set it on its way or make it up a guest room is another matter.
Doubt. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I want to pay attention. Rather than assuming I’m missing something that everyone else understands, I want to entertain the possibility that there’s something I’m understanding that no one else has noticed yet. These often turn into the best ideas, the ones I really should be bringing into the world.
Desire. What do I want to do, with this moment or with my day or week or month or life? This is not the same thing as what I want to want to do.
Control. Am I trying to control other people, or the future? If so, how’s that working out for me?
Joy. There is almost always a clutch of large and small joys to be had, right before me, if I take even half a second to notice them. Stitch by stitch, these are the things that make memories, and memories make a life.
Still on the subject of podcasts in the midst of a Busy Holiday Season®️, there’s another one I feel completely compelled to share, even if absolutely none of you will be interested in joining me: The History of English podcast (recently misheard rather intriguingly as the “History of English Podcasts”) is completely wonderful.
The show, running since 2012, appears to be an extracurricular passion project of a solo practitioner lawyer from North Carolina, who says absolutely nothing about himself on the show. But he has quite a lot to say: he presents the history of English in meticulous hourlong increments, starting from the absolute dawn of the knowable history of human speech all the way up to—God knows, because seven years in, he’s only gotten a little beyond Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a few hundred momentous years shy of Shakespeare.
Anyone interested in etymology or English history or both would almost certainly enjoy the show. One thing I find tremendously charming is the way that Kevin (for that is the host’s name) delivers etymological facts by theme as he marches forward in time. An episode documenting the messy bloodline of King Alfred the Great, for example, provides him an opportunity to talk about Old English words for family and inheritance. But just when it veers close to feeling like a lengthy fact dump, the show manages to keep moving along narratively.
But anyway, enough about the show. Let’s talk about me.
I’ve had a long-simmering interest in the history of languages. Before the internet, I remember staying up late with my parents’ encyclopedia, reading the cross-references to work out how languages are related to and descended from each other. I briefly flirted with the idea of majoring in linguistics, before realizing that (at my university, at least) the subject was a great deal more medical, more wetly throaty, than I’d anticipated.
But there’s no shame in being a dilettante, I hope, and Kevin from the podcast gives me hope about even the prospect of being a devoted learner and teacher in one’s spare time around a busy lawyer’s schedule.
Okay, actually, enough about me. Back to the show.
The early episodes of the podcast go way, way back. By episode 7, we’re still in the land of Proto-Indo-European, which is the language that gave birth to most European and some Asian languages. It was spoken so long ago, by people who did not write, that all we know about it has been reconstructed by linguists working backward from modern languages like forensic analysts, finding traces of ancient words in the similarities and gaps between current words.
This absolutely blows my mind, and always has. Not only do linguists figure out little clues about dead languages by finding commonalities between their daughter languages; they also bring in geography and botany and biology and genetics to connect the dots. For example, we find some clues about where these Proto-Indo-Europeans lived by analyzing which words they had, and didn’t have, to describe the world around them—no words for “monkey” or “palm tree,” so not the jungle, and none for “olive” or “grape,” so a colder climate. Words for certain kinds of sheep only, which tells us something about what kinds of animals they could have raised, and that in turn tells us something about what their world looked like.
This kind of thing is completely bananas to me: can you imagine doing this as a job? Can you imagine tracing the spoken words of people who died five thousand years ago, and also getting to learn a lot about sheep in the process? Goals, I tell ya.
Something I find so fascinating about the history of words is that it traces the history of thought, and the history of sound. These are things that don’t tend to leave impressions in the archaeological record, and they can be obfuscated in written histories. But words can’t help but shift and change with use, like a well-worn pair of jeans thinning around the wearer’s knees.
And one thing that language doesn’t lie about is the thought process that goes into the mundane everyday choices of words that average people make. Despite the best intentions of grammarians and usage experts everywhere, language never has been primarily about perfection. It’s about communication. It does its job to the extent that people can understand what others want to say, and can make themselves understood in the process.
People of all stripes are natural geniuses at inventing new, easier, and more nuanced ways of saying what they mean. Sometimes they borrow and break old words to do so. Sometimes, this way, words come to mean their opposite: pairs like “guest” and “host,” “give” and “take,” and “black” and “white” come from the same Indo-European root word. Through the messy process of speech occurring over generations of people delicately navigating their societies, these words took on seemingly nonsensical new meanings. And just like we’re all writers now, we’re all the masters of how to communicate our meaning, our humor, and our nuances exactly how we please.
Okay, now back to me.
In Book One, I indulged myself by writing a little sub-subplot about linguistic history. (This is the pleasure of writing a book: no one can stop you). I imagined a pair of late-Victorian scholars chasing a theory about how one might get to know the ancient inhabitants of Europe by looking at the words they borrowed from each other. As it happens, I think the theory as presented in the book is wrong, but the great thing about fiction is that, again, no one can stop you. I can do that on purpose and no one is allowed to criticize me!
I imagine most of you are either long gone or reading out of mere politeness by this point. But to sum it all up: I think there’s something tremendously beautiful about how language can pry open our deep history. Every time we open our mouths to speak, we’re not only articulating our own present thoughts—we’re also building upon the feelings and frustrations and joys and creativity of millions of people over thousands of generations. All the people that came before us still live through us in this little way, carved into our bodies in our DNA and carved into our brains with the words we keep shifting and borrowing and laughing and shouting.
Further recommended reading if you are interested: John McWhorter’s piece, which includes a fascinating idea that the weird way English uses the verb “to do” (as in: “do you like me?” Where every other self-respecting language would say: “Like you me?”) actually comes from Celtic languages.
Today is the winter solstice: the least amount of light, the most amount of dark.
We don’t like dark terribly much as a species, any more than we like waiting. The winter solstice is a bit of a relief, then, because at least we know this is as bad as it gets. Even if it gets colder and it sleets from now through March, at least there will be a little more light at the edges of the day to see us through it.
(Perhaps if we were nocturnal, we’d have this same sense of relief at the summer solstice? We might be panting with relief in our stuffy underground burrow at the thought that the light will at least stop growing longer, forcing us these long dull listless days without a respite from the searching sun.)
The word “solstice” comes from two Latin roots: “Sol” (sun) and “stit-” (stationary). People who had been tracking the sunset’s journey south along the horizon were watching for the time when it would pause—pause, and then reverse its track. The solstice is that noticeable pause.
Like a deep breath that has been let out. The empty feeling in the lungs, like a rattle in the ribcage, the belly like a bag pressed flat. A sense of desolation, they say, but also a definite glow of opportunity. Possibility. The inhale is inevitable.
Soon (not too soon, don’t get ahead of yourself!) but soon, it will be spring. There is, at least, the reassurance that the mechanism hasn’t broken; the sun isn’t going to decline indefinitely. The gears are still turning, or the sun is still at its proper axial tilt and the orbit is stable, or what have you. The clock is still ticking.
But all that future possibility is to come. For now, we’re in the pause.
And we may as well enjoy the dark, for now. The reassurance that it is all temporary, that the breath will be let back in momentarily, should all give us a chance to befriend the dark, even if we wouldn’t have chosen it.
Years ago I heard a quote I can’t now find about a room used for scientific experiments that needed to be kept completely, totally dark. Even a bit of light from a door opened too soon would ruin it. Signs posted on the door warned people to keep the dark in.
What phrasing: not keep the light out, but keep the dark in. It belongs to itself. Let it be. It’s not just the absence of light, although it’s hard not to see it this way.
It’s become a pattern here for me to talk about time and the seasons as heavyhanded metaphors for phases of life. Maybe it’s my brand, who knows. But in this construct, solstices are times of change when the change can’t be seen yet. The winter solstice in our lives is the time when things have been getting worse, and darker, and it’s become harder to see a way out of hard times (see? I cannot untangle myself from disliking dark). The solstice is the moment where we notice it’s stopped, and it will turn around.
But because human lives and human circumstances are not tied to the axial tilt of the Earth, there’s no telling when things start getting better. The solstice pause is invisible, isn’t it, when it’s in your life? It’s like hitting rock bottom, which can only be confirmed when you’ve started to rise again.
On this note, I heard an interesting tidbit from Alexander Shaia about the timing of Christmas. It’s not smack-dab on the winter solstice; it’s three or four days later. Three or four days is enough time to start really noticing that the sun is scooting the other way now, back up the horizon, which means the days are just a tiny bit longer. And that’s when Christmas happens: when you can actually see the beginnings of the increase of light.
The solstice is the mysterious point of stillness before change. We can’t always notice it when it’s there; it’s only in the rearview mirror, when things are really beginning to shift, that we can pinpoint the longest night of the year. Meanwhile, that moment of deepest darkness, which marked the beginning of the increase of the light, was set silently, imperceptibly, into motion.
If the days are dark for you right now, I wish you the best. I hope the reversal is coming soon.
In addition to living in the Golden Age of Television, we also appear to have the great fortune to also be living in the Golden Age of Podcasting. (How can a medium that didn’t exist 20 years ago have a Golden Age? I’m not entirely sure, but it sure feels like there will never be a time with more podcasts than there are now. I mean, how…?)
All this Content can make some of us (me) feel a little overwhelmed. Thoughts and prayers. We’ll get through this together.
But not before I recommend some Content.
The podcast world is full of all manner of shows to listen to: political analysis, news updates, science and history and pop-culture informers, emotional shows about hidden and unknown things that, one surmises, couldn’t be revealed outside the secretive world of the podcast. And then there’s a whole lot of random people swapping jokes with their friends for public consumption, which I’ll admit is a genre I really don’t get.
Due to my strong innate inclination to FOMO, I’ve become a heavy user of this medium. Shocking though it may be to you few, you happy few, you band of readers, the world of written Content like blogs is long gone, and the age of video and audio is at hand. Therefore, people whose ideas I want to hear are saying their ideas out loud in this format, rather than writing them down. And I do get a lot of insights this way, but unfortunately, one must listen to the whole damn thing to wait for a few morsels of wisdom to fall. This makes podcasts rather more difficult to skim than a printed article, and a lot more time-consuming.
So I listen at 2x speed. Then I wonder why I tend to feel a little manic and overstimulated.
But that’s a problem for another time.
After this wordy intro, all I’m really here to say is that one of my favorite genres of podcast lately is fiction. It’s a rich field, and because the podcast medium is cheaper to produce and has lower barriers to entry than film/TV and traditional book publishing, there are a lot of small producers making great audio fiction that you can access all for free.
This time of year, a lot of us are traveling, and I think some of these podcasts make a great short alternative to an audiobook if you like to listen to a story while you drive, or while you take a break from whatever you need to take a break from this season.
All of these shows make the most of the limitations and the opportunities of audio-only, whether they have a single narrator or a whole cast.
So, below are some of my favorites in different genres, in no particular order:
Surreal: Welcome to Night Vale and Within the Wires: Two shows from the same writing team at Night Vale Presents. Welcome to Night Vale is in the form of bizarre, hilarious community-radio broadcasts from a town in the desert where all conspiracies are true. Listen basically in any order, except for episodes marked as multi-part. For more of an ongoing story, each season of Within the Wires is presented as found audiocassettes of various kinds (relaxation tapes, museum audio guides, dictation tapes, and voicemail) from an alternate history of the 20th century. It’s slow but so creative and beautiful.
Parody: A Very Fatal Murder from The Onion perfectly parodies investigative reporting shows like Serial, wherein the host has boundary issues. The first season stands alone very well.
Action: Carrier has excellent performances. It follows a woman who takes over her father’s job as a trucker, only to find that there’s something very wrong with her deliveries. Also, Passenger List tells the story of a young woman trying to find out what really happened to a plane that disappeared in midair with her brother on board. These are both miniseries, so there’s an ending!
Eco-Thriller (?!): Forest 404 from the BBC was a great sci-fi adventure set in the far future, when the world has entirely forgotten nature. The feed also includes ambient nature sounds and brief talks with scientists about topics related to the story. It’s also a miniseries (as Tahani knows, you can trust the BBC to exhaust itself rather quickly), so there’s an ending.
Drama: Motherhacker and Sandra (both from Big Podcast company Gimlet; both miniseries (do you see a pattern here? I love an ending)) are comic dramas with great acting that live in our world of spam calls and Amazon Alexas, but with unnerving twists.
Suspense/Horror: Video Palace was a truly creepy story of a man investigating a mysterious VHS tape that haunts him.
Sci-Fi: Steal the Stars has government alien conspiracies, forbidden love, and a main female character with a captivating, deep voice. What’s not to like?
Immersive:The Walk,written by novelist Naomi Alderman of The Power, is controversial in terms of quality, but I liked it and would recommend it if you’re down to have a weird, maybe dissatisfying narrative experience. This is immersive audio, meaning you the listener find yourself spoken directly to by the cast. You are tasked with walking from Scotland to London to deliver a mysterious package as the world goes to pieces around you. It’s weird, and it doesn’t necessarily entirely work as a story, but I listened to it with some friends on a long drive and it was absorbing and made the drive feel eventful, rather than merely distracting me from the tedium. So give it a try.
Are there others you like that I left out? Leave a comment or let me know on Facebook or Instagram.
The season of advent started today in the Christian church. It’s the new year, liturgically, and here’s how I rang it in so far: I drove my boyfriend to the airport in a long pre-dawn dark that my body couldn’t decipher from bedtime. Hours later, I went with my parents to their church in Sacramento in a blustery atmospheric river that festooned the streets with bright-yellow leaves in deep gutter puddles. Now it’s not quite five, a roast is in progress, family is coming over, and night is already falling.
It’s all extremely cozy, for me, but for so many without easy access to comfort, it’s simply dark and wet and cold. Some of our ancestors were rather direct about this fact:
The most amusing difference between Irish and Scottish Gaelic is definitely in the words for December: Mí na Nollag (Month of Christmas) in Ireland, and An Dubhlachd (the Blackness) in Scotland.
— Pádraig Durnin #ucustrikesback #stopcasualisation (@padraigfd) December 1, 2019
Advent is that blackness. It’s the waiting, the longing for something. Advent will end with the incarnation on Christmas Day. In the meantime, for many centuries it’s been a time of darkness, and reflection, and sobriety, and even a fair dose of sadness.
But just like the apocalypse we were recently reminded of, this isn’t just about a one-time event on a religious timeline. Waiting is a recurring season in our lives. Waiting for medical news, resolution to a quarrel, feedback from a job interview, a grade on a math assignment, a pot to boil, the alarm to go off, spring to come, the next season of The Crown to be released. And just like December nights in northern latitudes, all this waiting can feel so long.
And, being human, we’d rather…not.
Advent, therefore, becomes time for Christmas carols, which the dour keepers of church time remind us is terribly premature. Advent is time for displays of Christmas excess of all kinds, electrical and musical and commercial and gastronomical and sartorial, which begin basically in October and come down with a disgusted, ashamed crash precisely on December 26th (when the dour timekeepers, looking rather pleased with themselves, are settling into their mere second day of Christmas).
We can’t tolerate the wait, whether it’s for Christmas or anything. We would do anything to avoid the cold and dark, and the uncertainty.
On Wednesday, we drove to my grandma’s house (happy birthday, by the way!) to celebrate Thanksgiving. But a precursor to today’s storm tore through the area, and the power was out from lunchtime until long after bedtime, while the wind lashed and buckled the windows, and the rain and hail made it hard to hear each other speak. We sat and ate and played cards by candlelight, ate soup warmed by the gas stove (#blessed), and let our phones die.
It felt like such a long wait, even though precisely none of my actual needs, or even really my desires, were impacted. With our dying phone batteries and cell data we refreshed the PG&E outage page for updates on the repairs. And then the indicator lights all blinked on at 2:30 am, and immediately, normality resumed. The waiting was entirely forgotten.
“Why not now?”
This question has been orbiting me lately, articulated in a few different ways. I’m waiting on a few things, myself, all of which (I’m continually disappointed to realize) are my own responsibility to create. So, why not now?
The answer within comes quietly: “because it’s not yet time.”
As the wonderful Henri Nouwen wrote:
So, for us and many people, waiting is a dry desert between were we are and where we want to be. We do not enjoy such a place. We want to move out of it and so something worthwhile. Dear Lord, help me be patient as I await your arrival.