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My Second Favorite Thing
A list can say a lot about a person...
“being alone never felt right. sometimes it felt good, but it never felt right.”
― Charles Bukowski
Roughly forty years ago, at the end of a pretty ordinary weekday, I sat in a New Jersey Chinese restaurant with my family when I glanced up, saw the faces I loved lit up, laughing, and making silly jokes. My heart filled. “This is my favorite thing!,” I said. “Being here with you, right now, like this.”
Smiles all around. Then came an unexpected question, “What’s your second-favorite thing, Mommy?”
“Being all by myself,” I said. Stunned silence ensued, then came nervous laughter tinged with disbelief.
I didn’t plan to say it but it’s funny how the truth just blurts out sometimes. This memory returned as I sat down to scribble this letter to you this week which was supposed to be about lists. I’ve been thinking about lists on and off for a long time: how they can reveal us to ourselves and to others, how they are, in many ways, little stories or parts of stories of our lives. Now I find myself thinking about the tension that exists between the desire for community, family, love, and the desire -- the need -- to be alone.
If I were making a list of my favorite things back around the time of that night out at the Chinese restaurant, it might look something like this:
Being with the people I love (while someone else did the cooking)
Being all by myself
In a hot bath with a book
Reading a book
Just about anywhere, anytime with a book
Thinking about what I’m reading
Daydreaming, imagining the stories I want to write someday when I have more time
In that simple list I can see the young mother I was, struggling in her job, doing all the usual juggling that comes with relationships, parenting, work. I can also see the girl I was before all of that started, the one who grew up in a huge and often chaotic family who escaped into a book just to create breathing space around her. If I were to make such a list today, it would look similar with a few significant changes:
Being with the people I love (dogs count)
Being all by myself
In a hot bath with a book
Reading a book
Just about anywhere, anytime -- with a book
Daydreaming, imagining, planning the stories I want to write right now
The shift is that I committed to writing. That decision has altered quite a few other things in my life, including the time I have for my first favorite thing. It hasn’t altered one fundamental fact that is glaringly obvious to me when I look at both lists: I want to be alone but safe in the knowledge that my people are nearby. Strip me of all my attachments and I’m not sure who I am. I’ve learned over the years that the longer I am alone without contact -- even phone, Zoom, email -- the harder it is to initiate contact. It’s a slippery slope as many have been forced to discover during this long hard year of isolation. Survival instinct in me drives me towards community even though I know that it will often require so much energy, commitment, and devotion that I will retreat, often, into the haven of my second favorite thing.
“These days, it’s easy to feel that we’ve fallen out of connection with one another and with the earth and with reason and with love. I mean: we have. But to read, to write, is to say that we still believe in the possibility of connection.” - George Saunders, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain.
I never really felt alone when I was young and escaped into a book; I found people, places, animals, stories that I spent a lot of quality time with. And now, though there are no guarantees that anything I have to say or write will be published, I’ve noticed that the act of writing itself makes me feel connected, less alone. There is the hope of touching another person. Even this newsletter is an outgrowth of that instinct to connect. I see now that this is one reason I started back in on it almost a year ago.
I’m glad I did. Here’s to another year of conversation and connection.
Let’s Make a List
The other day my husband was thinking out loud about life after everyone is vaccinated. What, he wondered, would most people say is the first thing they want to do when it is safe? My first-favorite thing kicked in. As soon as I can I’m going to visit my son in Colorado and fly east to New Hampshire to be with my family. I’m going to hug my stepdaughter and her husband and then work my way up to hugging everyone I know.
Then he said, “What’s the second thing?”
I waited for a startling truth to blurt out but nothing came. I will write, of course, but the question seemed to ask me to think beyond that and I realized I was stuck. So, let’s do a survey. Let’s make a list. Tell me the first thing you want to do when the world returns closer to normal and then tell me the second. I’m wondering what our lists will say about us?
Reply below in the comments or just respond to this email. I look forward to hearing from you.
In the meantime, check out some of these lists and stories about lists.
Some Random Lists For You
Dads and Dogs
Dads of America Explained by Their Pants from McSweeney’s. See also a list of what would happen if famous literary characters were given “very good doggos.”
Women and Men
The photo below captures a list from Thomas Horton’s 1945 book What Men Don’t Like About Women that would not have been printed today. It details the things men specifically don’t like in the women at the office. The book is out of print (no big loss there) but you can still find out all about it on Amazon where the pitch reads:
“Author pours out his heart about women as secretary, as boss, as gift receiver, as walking companion, as bar fly, as wife, as letter writer, and as mistress. What Men Don't Like About Women will save many a girl many a heartache and it will make for a wholesomeness and frankness between the sexes that can spell only emotional health.”
Here’s to your emotional health, ladies. (P.S. What do you suppose “Their messy tidiness” means?
The To-Do List
“An Argument for To-Do Lists” which features the bold statement: “ they dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.” I agree, the act of writing a list dampens my anxiety - until I arrive at the end of the day/week/month and see that most of them remain in their original, unchecked-off state. Then my anxiety catches fire.
“An Argument Against To-Do Lists” which offers this: “If I need a to-do list to function, I’m not in control of my life.” Does that mean if I get rid of my to-do list I’ll be in control of my life?
Short Reads: Stories Told In Lists
In “To Do” by Jennifer Egan a murderous mom has a lot to remember so she makes a list that any of us can identify with. Right?
Long Reads: Women Novelists, Milk & Vodka, and Kiss June
In honor of Women’s History Month, Bookshop.org assembled a list of 40 books by women recommended by Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend and, more recently The Lying Life of Adults.
Ever wonder what happens to your shopping lists when you get home and find out you’ve lost it along the way? Ever wonder what folks think they know about you based on this scrap of paper? Bill Keaggy did. He collected cast-off shopping lists for years, posted them on his blog, and then made a book about them. Here’s a gallery of some of them and here’s the book, Milk Eggs Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found which, sadly, is not available through bookshop.org.
There there’s this list from Johnny Cash’s archives published in Shaun Usher’s tome Lists of Note which is only available for astronomical book-collector sums. He shares them occasionally in his daily newsletter Letters of Note which, as I mentioned, has achieved addiction status for me.
To Watch and Listen: Brown Times
For one of the most beautiful essays to come out of this pandemic, click into the video below, move your cursor 19 minutes in from the beginning, and listen to the words of Libby Brydolf as performed by Linda Libby of Write Out Loud. The essay was among those selected by the San Diego for the city’s Decameron Project, a modern version of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, stories spun by ten young Florentines over ten days to entertain and restore each other in during the plague. Libby Brydolf is one of those people who combines her love of the specific and of nature to say something universal and true about where we’ve been and where we are headed. This essay even contains a list, a rainbow of browns that take on beauty once we understand how to see them.
That’s it for this week. Let me know how you are and what you’re reading. I love hearing from you. And don’t forget to share what the first two things on your list of things to do when the pandemic recedes into the distance. We can all look forward to them together.
If you are between books, head over to our Spark Community Recommendations page at bookshop.org where you’ll find the books mentioned in this and other newsletters if they are available. Browse away or shop for a gift. Every purchase supports independent bookstores and helps us to raise money for literacy programs.
Don’t forget to share Spark with a friend. Invite them to subscribe. The more the merrier. Here are a couple of buttons that make it easy.
P.S. And now, your moment of Zen…low, low tide
A respite between gales and ice storms. Rae Francoeur snapped this between blizzards in Rockport, MA
Calling for Your Contribution to “Moment of Zen”
What is YOUR moment of Zen? Send me your photos, a video, a drawing, a song, a poem, or anything with a visual that moved you, thrilled you, calmed you. Or just cracked you up. This feature is wide open for your own personal interpretation.
Come on, go through your photos, your memories or just keep your eyes and ears to the ground and then share. Send your photos/links, etc. to me by replying to this email or simply by sending to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The main guidelines are probably already obvious: don’t hurt anyone -- don’t send anything that violates the privacy of someone you love or even someone you hate, don’t send anything divisive, or aimed at disparaging others. Our Zen moments are to help us connect, to bond, to learn, to wonder, to share -- to escape the world for a little bit and return refreshed.
I can’t wait to see what you send!