Just over eight years ago—eight years and thirteen days ago, to be precise—I started making a series of photographs that would eventually become my first book. The photographs and the accompanying text are about intimacy and love and the expression of love via acts of service. "Before I lived with you I never made the bed," I said. "But you like the bed to be made, and so I do. Every day."
I stopped making the bed on June 30th this year, a week after my 42nd birthday, two days after my 18th wedding anniversary. By then we weren't living together anymore, trading back and forth week-by-week between a studio apartment and the house where our kids waited for us. I only made the bed for her, I reasoned. It made sense to stop once we weren't sharing a bed anymore.
The other day while I was out grocery shopping, my daughter texted me to ask if she could bring a snack into the TV room or if she had to eat it at the table. And for a brief moment, I had no idea how to answer her. So many of my daily decisions had come to revolve around what her mom would want, or what would keep her mom from getting angry. Now that the house was mine and only mine, I was faced with the fact that I didn't know what I wanted.
I told my daughter that she could eat her snack in the TV room if she brought a plate with her and cleaned up after herself. It felt a little strange for a few minutes. But it worked out fine.
For more than half my life, I've lived for someone else. Suddenly having the main guiding force in my life gone isn't just confusing, it's intimidating. More than that, it's making me reckon with the idea that I'm not nearly as grown up as I thought I was. Adulthood is defined by the balance of freedom and accountability. You're free to make your own choices, but you're accountable for the consequences of those choices. If my choices are driven by a need to please someone else, that's codependency. If they're driven by a fear of making someone else mad, that's anxiety. If they're driven by an opposition to some perceived authority or rule, that's just adolescence. The question is: what do I want? The answer, so far, is that I'm not sure. But I know that I'll only really find out if I spend some time on my own.
I started making the bed again.
When I want to.
2021 has been the worst year of my life, at least so far. My dog died, I lost a friend to cancer, my grandmother died, I got a new job that turned out to be much more stressful than any previous job I've had, and, of course, my marriage ended. I'm not the type to look for silver linings or to minimize the pain I've felt. But it is also true that I have experienced some wonderful things this year, not least the support of friends and family, and the love between myself and my children. I have lost what feels like a lot this year, and it has made me all the more grateful for what remains, what has regrown, and what has newly come into my life.
Here are some things that mattered to me this year, in roughly chronological order as I experienced them:
- 2021 was, among other things, the year of TikTok for me. So many of the most joyful things I've experienced online came via that platform, and it started with, of all things, a sea shanty.
- The first book I read this year was Erin Morgenstern's fantasy novel The Starless Sea, which had in it a magical library in a hidden underworld, secret society intrigue, and all manner of literary, video game, and fairy tale references—which is to say that it was perfectly calibrated for me. Ultimately, it was a book about books and stories, and one that I found beautiful.
- In February, I invited Gabrielle Bates (of The Poet Salon) to do a KTCO Book Club episode with me, and she picked Brigit Pegeen Kelly's poetry collection Song as her choice to discuss. Many of the poems have this dark, magical feel to them—particularly the title poem, which just haunted me.
- At the height of last winter's COVID surge, when my anxiety was starting to become unbearable, I started listening to Theo Alexander's piano album Animadversions while I went for walks. It helped. And when I was at my lowest, unable to even get up off the floor, it helped calm me and bring me back to myself. I might have gotten through this year without it, but it would have been harder.
- D&D-based comedy podcasts have been a staple of my listening this year. I just needed to laugh, you know? I started listening to Dungeons & Daddies in January and it rapidly became one of my favorites. It is rowdy and often vulgar, but also hilarious and often surprisingly touching.
- Most of you probably know that I have been a long-time fan of David Naimon's podcast Between the Covers. He had a number of just knock-out episodes this year, but the one that I keep thinking about is his conversation with writer and photographer Teju Cole. I'm not exaggerating when I say it is one of the best podcast episodes I have ever heard in any genre. Such a wonderful, human, life-affirming conversation.
- My favorite kind of criticism is the kind that isn't just a close reading but the kind that says "This is why this work is important to me." Anahid Nersessian's Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse is a perfect example of that. Remarkably, Nersessian not only showed me why Keats's poems mattered to her—and thus why they ought to matter to me—but she used a group of 200-year-old poems to tell her own story, too.
- In looking back over my reading this year I noticed a few recurring themes, among them, stories about breakups and loss and aftermath. Jad Josey's flash fiction piece "You Will, You Will, You Will" was one such story, and a particularly beautiful, tender, generous one.
- Beth Nguyen's essay "America Ruined My Name for Me" was a beautiful and nuanced piece about racism, foreignness, identity, and choice. I loved it.
- Sarah Gailey's novel The Echo Wife is a gripping thriller about clones, with a memorable and utterly fascinating narrator. The story delves into trauma and asks the reader to consider how we got to be the way we are. It's chilling, often unsettling, compelling, and I think some of Gailey's finest work.
- Jess Zimmerman's story "twisty little passages" takes its name from the 1979 interactive fiction game Zork, which also provides the story's form. The way the form invokes nostalgia to create a story about regret and the inability to let go is just breathtaking.
- This spring, Helen Zaltzman released an episode of The Allusionist called "Additions and Losses," which is about the ways that people's attempts to express sympathy for disability or loss are often more about their own inability to sit with discomfort than anything else. It's a topic that I've had a lot of occasion to think about this year.
- A friend emailed me in April with a link to the video for No-No Boy's song "The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming," a song about the true story of a swing band formed in the Heart Mountain Japanese-American incarceration camp. It's a catchy tune, and it's about an act of resilience and joy in the face of hardship and injustice. Obviously, it meant a lot to me.
- By coincidence, I read Ada Limón's poem "The Hurting Kind"—which is about the loss of her grandfather—just a couple of weeks before my own grandmother died. "You can't sum it up. A life," the poem's speaker says. And it's true.
- Jonny Teklit's poem "On Some Saturday, After All of This" was such a joyful, jubilant, love-filled poem that it brought tears to my eyes when I first read it. It still does.
- Sarah McCarry's newsletter future recuperation is consistently lovely, and this year it continued to be so. Her letter "solstice," which went out in June, was about sadness and sailing and a sense of things ending, a small reaching from one person to another. "The grief in me sees the grief in you," she wrote. Sometimes that's all we want, really.
- Late in her book Goldenrod, in her poem “Wild,” Maggie Smith writes “I’ve talked so much about loving the world / without any idea how to do it.” And this seems to me the crux of it, of both the book and perhaps of my experience of life. These poems struggle to love the world, and yet they do love the world, even if they don’t know how or why. And I think the struggle itself is an expression of that love, because to look at this shitty, painful world and decide to try to love it anyway may just be the most loving thing any of us can do.
- The kids and I watched a lot of movies this year, and the one that stands out to me the most, for the beauty of both its animation and its story, is Song of the Sea. It's a fairy tale, based on the Irish legend of selkies, and the plot of the story follows a familiar children's adventure structure. But it's also a story about a family dealing with loss, children dealing with change, and acceptance as a path to healing. I just loved it.
- I'd been missing Maggie Tokuda-Hall's podcast Drunk Safari, which ended in 2019, so when I heard that she and Red Scott would be starting a new show, Failure to Adapt, in which they argue about the relative merits of books and their movie adaptations, I was all in. And my goodness, it was exactly what I was hoping it would be: hilarious, delightful, and just a ton of fun.
- The other D&D podcast I started this year was Rude Tales of Magic, and let me just tell you: this show gave me some of the biggest laughs of the year. I'm about eight episodes away from being caught up and I'm going to be bummed when I can't binge listen to it anymore.
- In late August, I asked on Twitter, "Those of you who have been divorced, if you’re willing to share: what did you do with your wedding ring?" More than a hundred people responded, and their stories felt like a blessing.
- Maile Meloy's story "The Proxy Marriage"—which I heard read by Ann Patchett on the New Yorker: Fiction podcast—is a story about love and friendship and society and war, a story which says profound things about all of those things and which also made me very happy.
- Mikey Neumann's "Nihilism and Howl's Moving Castle" video posits a phenomenon he calls "situational nihilism." "We don’t choose to have no beliefs, they are taken from us," he says. "We didn’t choose this, the world did this to us." And yet, both in the movie he's discussing and in the real world, it's something we can recover from, especially when we come together with the ones we love. It's a surprisingly hopeful video, and one that I really appreciated.
- Admittedly, I have been in a somewhat heightened emotional state for a lot of this year. So when I tell you that the most cathartic (joyful) cry I had all year was because of an anime about a high school bike racing club, you may need to take it with a grain of salt. But, man, I really loved that show.
- Molly Spencer's poetry collection If the House kind of fucked me up. There is a feeling of incipience, of winter cold, to these poems, a feeling that spring may, yes, bring new life but also reveals what was hidden under the snow. And of a love that has become as skeletal as winter trees, about which I sense a tenderness, a wistfulness, but also a rage. Potent, beautiful, breathtaking poems.
- Ben Kielesinski's TikTok is, for the most part, videos of him taking the viewer on walks out in gorgeous Pacific Northwest landscapes. If that sounds soothing, well, it is. Maybe that's exactly what you need. It was for me.
- Michelle Poirier Brown's poem "Praise" is one of tenderness and gratitude and natural beauty. It's one where the sadness peeking out from underneath the gratitude only makes the resilience stronger and the beauty more urgent.
- I heard Albert Garcia's poem "Offering" on an episode of The Slowdown, and there is something about the way it makes a small pleasure into something bigger, an act of service and love, which made me feel warm inside.
- Last month, Sarah Gailey wrote one of the most resonant and profound descriptions of grief that I have read in a long time. The grief in me sees the grief in them. I hope their sorrow finds some solace, at least as much solace as their writing has given me.
- I've been reading Monet P. Thomas's newsletter Away Again since it began. (Strange that it's already been almost four years. It still feels new.) About a month ago, she posted "An aside," and the wide spaces between the... paragraphs? lines? stanzas? Whatever you might call them, they made me stop and re-read six times. Just now I read them four more times.
- I was just thrilled to see Sarah Hollowell's debut novel, A Dark and Starless Forest, hit shelves this year. And what a great debut it is, indeed. It has in it all of the things I've loved in Hollowell's short stories—magic, sisterhood, menacing forests, unapologetically fat characters—but expanded and given more room to grow and spread and take up space. What I particularly love about this story is how it is less about having the characters be good or make good decisions and more about having them do what they must and then have to live with both the benefits and the costs of those actions.
- There’s a way in which the end of a serious relationship can shake your entire concept of yourself, and through your grief you have to find yourself again. That is, I think, what Yanyi's forthcoming poetry collection Dream of the Divided Field is about—though reducing it to being "about" one thing is doing the book a disservice. Here, Yanyi braids poems about heartbreak and implied emotional violence with poems about transition and immigration. Each has a similar but distinct sense of a loss of self, a search for self, a yearning for connection and belonging, a sometimes violent disconnection—to a partner, to a place or culture, to oneself and one’s own body. I can't wait for you to be able to read these poems.
- Finally, I watched Encanto with the kids last night, the last movie I will have watched with them in 2021. And it was a wonderful way to cap off the year with them. A beautiful story about the ways that trauma echoes through generations, and how holding on too tightly sometimes only makes things fall further apart. Yes, I cried.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. Here's a thing I've been saying a lot lately: I know you're doing your best, and I am, too. If you're reading this, it's because both of us, you and I, we both made it through this year. And isn't that amazing.
However, this year has been for you, I hope that 2022 is easier, happier, more nourishing.