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How to Embrace Small Things
When the world is too big and stupid to bear, narrow your sights.
Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills (1937) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I woke up this morning in a great mood (which has not been common for me this year!) and I decided to write something EXUBERANT that would inspire as many humans as possible to believe in this day and welcome joy! I considered titles like How to Feel Great and How to Embrace This Moment and How to Fly Your Medium-Sized SUV to the Moon and Back (It’s So Easy, Really!).
But as I started to write, my mood deteriorated and I didn’t feel inspired anymore. My intentions were good: SHOVE THIS GOOD FEELING INTO A PRETTY PACKAGE AND SHIP IT TO AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE! But trying to create something that would make tons of Ask Polly readers happy immediately just made me confused and frustrated. It was too general, too bland, too wooden sign that says FRIENDS LOVE FAMILY TOGETHERNESS CORN DOGS! Soon I ran out of gas and started wandering the internet like a sad ghost.
Luckily that’s when I stumbled on this old profile of the Awl by Jia Tolentino. Tolentino doesn’t just capture what made the Awl an ideal publication to write for and an unrivaled pleasure to read. She also teases out the unique joys of very small things -- creations and collaborations and projects that feel intimate and odd and genuine – against the backdrop of a world that wants to combine and expand and commodify everything good into a faintly pleasing but faceless state of impersonal nothingness.
Beyond the sharpness of Tolentino’s prose here (Joseph Cornell boxes for writers!), I love how she captures what’s so delicious and irreplaceable about letting a bunch of weirdos sound exactly like themselves. When you stumble on an old piece from the Awl from writers like Patricia Lockwood or Tom Scocca or Danny Lavery who are unwaveringly patriotic to their freakish little creative homelands, it has a strange effect on your nervous system. Suddenly, your own odd qualities and quirks wake up and start bumping around in that lock box under the bed where you keep them (because if you let them fly free, you’d never get any work done plus you might become a nudist or a lounge singer or a White Walker or a nude lounge-singing White Walker).
The best writing – and I’d include a profile as graceful and concise as this one by Tolentino in that category – feels intimate. If you’re a little sad, it pulls you out of the mud for a minute. If you’re lonely, it makes you feel connected to a real person. If you’re sure that you’re not worthy of anyone’s sustained attention, it offers you a flash of how it must feel to be deeply loved for exactly who you are. Reading Sally Rooney or Damon Young or Rachel Cusk or Scaachi Koul feels reassuring because their work is guided by a strong drive to share the oddities of one microbiome. You can feel exactly what it’s like inside someone else’s head. It’s a Joseph Cornell box that you want to walk straight into, even though you don’t understand why there’s a big old key and some dice and a shell in there.
One of the ills of the big stupid internet is that the sweetness and personal connection of small things gets lost somewhere in the mix. Something about the endless noise, the endless repetition, the endless monetization of online life turns every cozy cottage by the shore into a crowded high-rise shopping mall where everyone is shouting at each other. Instead of spending the day watching seagulls diving and falling in the fog, or opening a small door and discovering an empty jam jar filled with costume jewelry, you dash around a neon-lit mall, shouting at strangers, until you can’t remember how it feels to know a lot less and wonder a lot more.
Sometimes I think my main work as a human being is to stop trying to turn my SUV into a rocket ship and start focusing on very small projects and limited initiatives with modest goals that aren’t for everyone. Sometimes I’m so busy looking for BIG IDEAS THAT WILL SAVE THE UNIVERSE I forget how much sustenance bubbles up from the poetry of the small: Here is an interesting weed growing in the corner of my garden. Here is a defiantly aggressive and intense memoir that just arrived in my mailbox. When you celebrate people, places, and things that are just trying to be what they are instead of conforming to what they imagine the big, dumb world out there wants from them, it opens up that lock box under the bed and sets your most inspired demons free.
The tiny details of your experience are precious and important. Reading about big troubles like climate change and the pandemic and the war against women’s rights day after day tends to drain that feeling from your body. But when you step away from the darkness online and greet the weird and perfect artifacts you encounter on any given day with focused curiosity, you turn the high-rise mall back into a seaside cottage. Now you can explore the exotic corners of a single microbiome, small and insignificant and intensely full of hope.
Thanks for reading. Today let’s all be “silly, fun, generative, and honest.”