IN THE SUMMER OF 2017 I began corresponding with a millennial writer named Hillary, who reached out to me electronically via Facebook Messenger to see if I wanted to write letter poems back and forth with her. I was forty-two years old, a solidly middle-aged, married Gen-X English professor with two kids. Hillary was twenty-seven, recovering from a recent miscarriage, working in the tech industry, and had just separated permanently from her male partner, who was struggling with an opioid addiction.
I live in rural southwest Virginia, where Hillary spent her teen and college years, and she lives in New York City, where I was born and raised. Immersed in the constant grind of the city, Hillary missed the mountains, and I was homesick, too—even after twelve years in southern Appalachia, I consider myself a New Yorker, and the 2016 presidential election and subsequent Trump-era conservative backlash made me feel even more nostalgic for the diversity and hustle of the city.
In the course of our correspondence, which takes place via text, Facebook Messenger, Instagram direct messages, and email, Hillary and I have developed what could be considered an unlikely friendship. We’ve had and continue to have existential crises together—mine mid-life and hers quarter-life. Hillary came out as a lesbian, got two new jobs, moved apartments four times, and got engaged to a woman. Other than publishing a new book, my life has pretty much stayed the same on the surface, but I write to her about perceived differences between my twenties and forties and struggle to articulate how mid-life has been making me hyper-aware of certain ephemeralities—of the shifty and impermanent nature of time, beauty, body, and memory in particularly urgent ways.
I ask her about all things millennial, and she tells me how to take decent selfies, how Tinder works, explains online etiquette and edibles, Venmo and UberPool. She asks me what it’s like to have a kids and a husband, to be “settled.” I give her advice that sometimes feels maternal: Call your doctor. Take yourself to urgent care. Finish your manuscript. Send her something she likes. The return address goes in the upper left-hand corner. You are fine. You will be fine.
Hillary and I are both Jewish, and in Judaism there’s an Aramaic term, havruta (literally “friendship” or “companionship”), that’s used to describe a study partner with whom one learns classical Jewish texts. This idea of learning in pairs—of having spirited debates and existential struggles that are both amiable and challenging, and of having concern for each other’s spiritual welfare—feels like what Hillary and I are doing, but our texts are not Talmud. Instead they are our lived, embodied experiences, our lives themselves, and our letters reflect this. What does it mean to move through the world as a woman in a body, whether you’re twenty-eight or forty-three? How should one live? What does it mean to have uncertainty or certainty in your life? How do we adapt to changing times?
We Are Beautiful: A Nightly News Program
Hillary, I was driving through torrential downpours today in New England—from one end of Massachusetts to the other—and I could tell you why and how I got there and who I was with, but I won’t do that because I’m writing you another letter on happiness. I have no answers, but you know this by now. I can’t tell the difference between happy and lucky which feels like it might be splitting hairs anyway since at this moment everything feels dire—like the whole country is teetering on the edge of disaster yet you and I are fine for now because you are toasting Pride with Prosecco at a rooftop BMW party and sending me pictures, and there I was at an as-yet-unopened boutique hotel avoiding pool-deck yoga and drinking rosé from a squat hand-blown glass while clouds hung low over the mountains, and then rain sheeting the windshield blurred the places I passed through so I drove one long highway punctured by route signs with arrows and someone always limping to a rest-stop bathroom.
My oldest son emailed me a message while I was gone titled “Good Finds,” and in it was a photo of a dozen pennies, four weird metal pieces to something that was once industrial, and five scalloped seashells arranged in descending order by size. He combs the beach with a metal detector called a Bounty Tracker 4, which beeps any time it gets near foil circles from juice bottle caps or the foundations of lounge chairs, and he has genuine optimism that he will one day stumble upon substantial money, gold jewelry, or even a watch buried in the sand. Earlier in the week, he found a yellow and brown-striped snail tucked deep next to a lifeguard stand and returned it to the ocean. He spent today tossing shark egg casings back into the gray and raging Atlantic, only to have them wash up again, black and slick and tentacled, at his feet.
Because I am the child of refugees and because we live in uncertain times, I try to teach my youngest son things he might need to know to survive, like basic knife skills, like his father’s and my full names, like our home address and the names of his grandparents and the cities they live in, but he is five, so when I quiz him as we’re walking tall sand dunes at the cape, he tells me we live in Transylvania and then condenses our phone number to three digits. We get lost in the mountainous dissolving terrain and can hear the ocean but cannot see it, and every sign we come upon says “No Beach Access.”
These things all happened today in the real and virtual worlds: journalists at the Annapolis Capital Gazette covered their own newsroom mass shooting. One friend posts on Facebook about stocking up on Plan B pills for her students, and other friends (a couple) have taken jobs in Canada because they are done with our lockdown drills and our president. A friend from college messages to say that when she requested a reference letter from a former client, the guy asked for a resume and a naked selfie. She sends me the photo, which is crisscrossed with black and white shadows and stops at her clavicle. We are all prisoners of light. Another friend is in the news for locking herself to an excavator to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will bring fracked gas right past us from West Virginia further north to sell abroad.
Who will come for us and why and what will they do to wreak havoc I don’t know, but I am an alarmist which makes happiness improbable—water streaming across the windshield moved aside by wipers. Our friends have had cancer. They have died or lost children or are still grieving their parents. Everyone I know is concerned about our rights, and perhaps happiness most days is just not-loss.
My friend on top of the MVP excavator, she lasted fifteen hours in the sun, lying twenty feet in the air, her spine bolstered by the machine’s blue-painted steel, and it took every sheriff, state trooper, forest service police officer, and MVP security guard in the area, plus three bulldozers and two cherry pickers, to get her down.
Letter on Gratitude
Hillary, it’s the night after Thanksgiving and everyone is asleep / I’m in the living room of my childhood home / my father has installed a timer that turns lights on automatically / the timer sounds like the fuse to a homemade bomb / my Chilean aunt made flan & brazo de reina for second Thanksgiving / an ex-lover sent a nude photo of himself by a window / I wondered if he had a Thanksgiving at all / the way the sunlight cut across his body / my sons were piled on their cousins watching Teen Titans Go / my uncle is dying slowly / my sister’s baby, we passed her around like a potato / when she cried we bounced from the knees / when she cried my mother made jokes about putting her up for adoption / told one cousin to have another child / told the other about my sister’s twenty-three frozen eggs / forgot my cousins are infertile / forgot my son is adopted / I ate fruit & brownie pie & flan & brazo de reina / I helped clear the table / I listened to my mother’s cousin talk about the war / she told us about a man with two dachshunds on the train with Uncle Jack to the DP camp at Bergen-Belsen / she was an orphan by then / the opera singer that met us at the port authority, she said / her nails were manicured & I was so impressed / the stupid things you remember, she said / my sister made us go around to announce our gratitudes & I felt impossibly empty / I felt very still / I wanted to say I had dim sum, I saw exhibits, I wandered the strangely deserted streets of SoHo at night / I said my family, but what I meant was my desire / when I was younger I thought I could return indefinitely / turn toward the body of the city always slightly unchanged somehow & waiting for me / late afternoon shadows splayed on the faces of buildings / in that golden light & traffic nothing needing me, my gratitude or praise