On Longing

When I lost my full-time job in May, I told myself I would spend more time writing and taking pictures. I have done some of that, but not as much as I expected. To provide a brief update on what I’ve been doing instead for the last four months:

  • Taking a long bus ride to and from my part-time job, staring out the window and longing - the same way I’d ride public transit when everything was normal.
  • Spending some of my idle time longing for the ability to “pretend that ‘this,’” as in, the pandemic, “is a vacation,” per my therapist’s suggestion. Playing a lot of Mario and Stardew Valley to try and manufacture that kind of peace of mind.
  • Roller skating around the Lakeside rink, or on the asphalt in Prospect Park, and having a really good time in between moments of longing for that person’s moves, or those skates, or that pair of yoga pants, or that hair color, this, that, or the other.
  • Doing things like setting up ant traps in the apartment and longing for the house I grew up in, which my dad sold in June. Longing for the ability to see my family again without something resembling terror or guilt.
  • Ripping through novel after novel, longing to put out something as tangible, as “real” in the world, as the book that’s in my hands. Writing and immediately deleting what I’ve written while longing for something resembling self-confidence.
  • Taking pictures that have not stuck in my brain, and looking at old pictures like the grass picture above. Longing to bury myself in them, to stick my nose in the sap of a foreign tree, to find moss in my pockets when I get home.

There is a pattern here!

Yesterday afternoon I read a wonderful piece by an author whose words have been a salve in this tumultuous time. Heather Havrilesky writes the Ask Polly column in The Cut, which is also sent out via Substack. I recommend her collection of essays from 2018, if you want to read her work in book format. I bring up yesterday’s piece because it had a number of good quotes, this one being the most memorable to me:

“You can’t write anything unless you’re honest. But you think that when you’re honest, it’s disgusting, because who you are is, at heart, disgusting. You have to start to chip away at that belief, starting now.

Instead of viewing that as a horrific task, I want to suggest that we enter this house of mirrors through a door that says THIS WAY LEADS TO JOY. Imagine joy while you’re examining your shame. Imagine a joyful life as a person who feels good and isn’t ashamed of herself in the slightest. Imagine that you actually deserve happiness. Pry open your brain and stick that concept in there.”

I want to examine this kind of longing I’ve detailed, because I’m questioning how much of it is actually longing (OED definition: Have a strong wish or desire. “She longed for a little more excitement.” That’s the actual example given, I didn’t make it up). It’s likely that I will be thinking and writing about longing, in some way, for the rest of my life. I can make my peace with this, because I think longing, or at least wanting what you can’t have, is one of the unspoken truths of every single human life. Writing about longing is as inexhaustible as writing about love - though distinct in some important ways.

Longing isn’t necessarily passive, either. A lot of my longing takes the form of being angry or sad that my life or physical appearance or resumé or apartment or whatever isn’t a certain way. This negativity can sometimes be a motivator (I was jealous of all the Instagram roller skaters who can do seamless transitions and I wanted to improve my own skills, so I got up and did it), but often it holds me back (see above example re: self-confidence and creativity). I am inclined to ask you to listen to My Own Worst Enemy - the song doesn’t actually add anything to this newsletter, but it’s what this kind of self-doubt sounds like to me; the song also rocks.

The thing about longing, however, is that it has a limited shelf life. It’s one thing to constantly want more for oneself, i.e. “chasing one’s dreams,” but it’s another thing entirely to be mired in those dreams. In the fiction I’ve read, I feel as though a character who does nothing but long and yearn is pigeonholed into moping their story away pathetically. In real life, there’s only so much longing I can do before it starts to become self-pity, or worse, self-flagellation. Many of Heather’s Ask Polly missives cover what I call self-flagellation under a broad “shame” umbrella. For most of this spring, I had a note on my bulletin board that read, “LOVE MATTERS. SHAME BLOCKS LOVE,” because of how purely it encompasses this battle in my head.

I’m not saying that now is not the time for longing or working for a better world. The world has left much to be desired, as of late! I’m not prepared to write about how horrible everything is, in countless ways, so I’m going to sum it up with this evergreen cartoon. What I am saying is that, at times, my longing for what I can’t do gets in the way of my ability to do the things I can do.

This is my urge to keep doing the things I can do. By writing this little anecdote about something I long for on a regular basis, I am actively combatting this negative feedback loop, even if that combat feels like hobbling down a quickly-ascending mall escalator at breakneck speed. If I can do something useful with my longing, I don’t feel like I’m “wasting my time” - whatever that means. There’s a lot of work I have to do behind the curtains to work at chipping away at the self-aggrandizement complex I have spent twenty-five years polishing, but I’d rather talk about the picture at the top of the page.

I’m including this picture because I love to photograph grass and other green things, and to point my lens at the ground and record where I’m standing. Much like writing about longing, it’s likely that, for the rest of my life, I will take pictures like this, even if I make work focused on some other project, which I intend to do. Taking pictures like the one above is my bread and butter.

I chose this particular grass because it was important to me to remember how the grass looked that morning. I woke up in Penrith, in the Lake District of England, alone in the middle of an off-season boutique hotel room. I had booked one night in advance, but upon arriving I decided to take out a little (more) money from my savings account to spend a second night, both because I was getting over a stomach bug I brought with me from London and didn’t want to desecrate a hostel bathroom shared with other travelers, but also because it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.

A few people told me that a trip to the United Kingdom in January wasn’t a good idea. I’ll allow that some of the places I visited on that trip might be nicer in warmer weather, but I loved how Penrith, especially, looked in the winter: the misty mountains; the fog lingering over what felt like endless foreign pastures; a lake so still it was hard to believe it wasn’t glass. I think about the quality of quiet I found out there, and what it was like to walk along an early morning field in that specific part of the world. This might look like any of my other pictures of late afternoon grass, but if you look closely at this image, you’ll find crystals of a cool morning frost. That frost, that fog, those permeable facts of nature, often disappear when you look at them too closely - not unlike how longing can change in shape over time.

I added this picture because I want to take my work in the direction of this act of investigation. I want to hold my work, both written and visual, under a finer lens. I want to define an intention a little more distinct than, “I am doing all I can do right now, because I don’t know how to do anything else, and doing this makes it easier to exist on this planet in 2020.” I want to collect of every “green” photograph I’ve made and put them away for a while, no matter how much I love them, in order to intentionally work on something goddamn else for a change. I want to have an original idea and have the faith to see it through to fruition. Mostly, I want to put things out into the world, even if they are old anecdotes full of longing and wishing and hoping and wist.

Whatever I do, even when it feels impossible, I want to do it with love.

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