constellations #80: a working life
For the last week or so, the only song I’ve wanted to listen to is “Fireworks” by Mitski. It has long been one of my favorites from her, a perfect distillation of an affect that feels quintessentially Mitski to me: intentional but guarded; ambitious; a calm exterior with a feverish intensity churning underneath. It is “an ode to stoic forgetting,” as one critic put it, “to the need to remain implacable in the face of devastation.”
You know that part in “On Self-Respect” where Joan Didion describes losing “the conviction that lights would always turn green for me?” “Fireworks,” for me, feels like a song for the life that comes after, where the shadow of that delusion Didion describes still hangs over you, but you recognize it as such, and you just put your head down and do the work, every day, even though you don’t really know if you’re getting anywhere. In other words: a perfect song for anyone who was told they were special as a kid, and believed it, and then came to realize the world’s blithe indifference to that. (This is a self-own.)
I love the song’s opening line: “One morning this sadness will fossilize / and I will forget how to cry.” A realist’s optimism: not the belief that pain will disappear, but that it will become impenetrable.
I’m fascinated by the way Mitski writes about these ideas — work, burnout, thwarted ambition — in general. I wrote about “Class of 2013” and “Working For The Knife” in a previous newsletter, how they’re both songs about believing your time is running out: The window is closing, and if your dreams aren’t close now, well, they’re never going to get closer. Or “My Body’s Made Of Crushed Little Stars” — a song about sprinting, confused and all-consumed, towards your greatest creative vision when you know that rent is still due. Or “A Burning Hill” and “Last Words of a Shooting Star,” too — being “too busy on working days” and thus relieved in the face of catastrophe; to be “tired of wanting more” and so to instead choose “littler things.” Songs about working hard and being worn out and feeling jaded but not turning entirely hopeless. These songs evince a certain view of the future: conditions are probably not going to get better, and life will continue to be hard and exhausting, and luck isn’t going to get us where we want to go, and the good things around us might disappear, and anyway if anything good does happen it’ll be because we’ll have it made it happen against some remarkably long odds. Sometimes the way these songs describe dreams or great longings, they all feel fated — and thus not so much our hopes as our burdens. (I think by default, in an unobserved kind of fashion, I probably feel this way, too.)
Maybe I have been drawn to this song about bitterness and exhaustion and feeling that the fates have let you down lately for a simple reason: I lost my job last month. NPR cut 10% of its staff and that included me. My last day is later this week. I’ve cycled through a lot of feelings since I got the news; mostly, now, I’m just sad. I genuinely loved the work. I genuinely love the people I worked with. I worked at NPR for seven years — most of my 20s, and so, in other words, a time in which my own dreams rapidly became legible and feasible to me. I’m sad and I’m angry that now it’s ending, and that it’s for reasons that have nothing to do with me.*
Beyond the immediate, practical issues my layoff presents (rent is still due), it just feels really destabilizing: my relationship to my labor, my ambition, my creative fulfillment has been turned upside-down. I whined to Matt the other day, Now I have to reconfigure my whole sense of self! (Which is so embarrassing to admit; it’s just a job, it’s not my life or who I am; I know. But I gave many pivotal and transformative years of my life to this place, where I went from wanting to be a writer and editor to being a writer and editor — a big attachment to be ripped away from.) Anyway, he said, That sounds so exciting! and I laughed so hard. It doesn’t feel that way to me at all. It feels awful, inconvenient, unjust. But I suppose it was inspiring to be reminded that, through another lens, the change could seem like a thrilling opportunity. (And inspiring to remember that I've decided to share my life with someone who sees it this way; a while ago I sent him that meme of the two guys on the bus where one guy is miserable and the other is smiling, and the caption “it’s out of my control” was written over both of them — and I said “me & you <3” — I think you can probably guess which is which.)
I saw Eileen Myles read last week while I was thinking about all this. Their new book of poems is called A “Working Life” — a collection “transfixed by the everyday,” as the jacket copy reads. Myles is so prolific and has been writing so consistently for so long; it’s hard not to think of them as someone who just does the work, who keeps unceasingly showing up. They talked about this a little bit in the audience Q&A afterwards. Someone asked, You write so much about the everyday aspects of your life; is there anything in your daily life that you can’t write about, that you wish you could but you haven’t figured out how to write about? Myles smiled and said, Oh, yeah, well, that’s an easy question. They continued: If you don’t know how to write about something yet, you just wait until you do. And you write about it then. So subtly, gloriously optimistic I wanted to cry. The easeful conviction that anything you don’t know now, you’ll know in the future — and the belief that the future will be filled with time and space to write about it; in the meantime, you just keep doing your work. Inspiring!!!
Last year on my birthday I wrote about cultivating patience. “I would be wise to make sure I’m ready when the moment comes,” I wrote, which, in retrospect: ha ha ha ha. Now, a year later, I guess I am still thinking about the coming moment. Is it too bold to say that this year, I want to change my orientation towards the future, at least a little bit? To perhaps think less about fossilizing my sadness and instead channel some optimism? The marker of this, maybe: Ask me in a year what I didn’t know then that I know now — what I couldn’t write about yet but now can, or if that even seems possible. We’ll see.
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: the record by boygenius (which I reviewed for NPR Music and went mildly TikTok viral for!); 10,000 gecs by 100 gecs; Rat Saw God by Wednesday; Duster live at Bowery Ballroom; “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath; a sweet trip to Washington, D.C., including a 10-mile race PR; a podcast interview with my sister about her equestrian career; homemade rice krispies treats; the sight of lilacs blooming in someone’s yard in Gowanus; long walks for ice cream on beautiful spring days; great vegan dim sum; a really great sunset in Sunset Park; a wedding dress
This time last year I was: turning 30; and, before that, thinking about my voice
Thanks for reading. Happy Taurus season! I hope the future feels bright to you this month. Talk to you soon.