Discover more from Active Listening
The week I graduated high school I moved into the apartment of my thirty-year-old boyfriend in Broward County and pretty much never went back home. I’ve spent a few nights there since then, over the past twenty-two years, but not many, and not more than about four in row. The reason mostly has to do with roaches. I grew up in Miami, so these aren’t just the usual big Dumpster roaches that I’m talking about here; they’re palmetto bugs, and they can fly. My parents’ house has some kind of congenital plumbing issues, lacks a septic tank, and has never had good seals under the doors, so there were a lot of them around, all year, and I’m not just afraid of roaches—I am, or was, legitimately phobic. The sight of one used to make me panic.
I say “used to” and “was” because I like to think I’m over that fear now. It happened when one crawled into the Airbnb a few blocks from my parents’ house that I used to stay in when I came to visit, chosen because it was, ostensibly, roach-free. It was clean, at least. But, like I said, Miami. One crawled in one night when I opened the front door. There was nothing I could do, no one to call, and the place had only one room—it was one of those freestanding old garages that are all over Coral Gables, that were built in the late 1920s, that smell like mildew even after they’ve been renovated because their foundations are concrete poured directly onto the perpetually wet earth.
Anyway, the roach. I had a broom. After I panicked I had no choice but to deal.
What I did was draw on some of the Buddhism I’d picked up in my twenties, a line about fear and anger being two sides of the same coin that is tempting to write off as woo. One of my favorite things about Buddhism is the injunction not to believe anything until your own experience confirms it (and, after it does, not to doubt it), but direct experience of fear being the same as anger—this I did not have. I’m not very good at getting angry; it’s an emotional I’ve always found hard to access. But there was nothing else for me to do. Alone in my sparkling white, palm-tree-themed Airbnb, I shouted at the roach. I could not, because of the Buddhism, kill it. So I used the broom to sort of shovel it out of its hiding place (I imagine it was terrified) and swept it back into the yard.
I haven’t been all that afraid of roaches since. Startled, sometimes, yes, but I got a handle on the fear. After our son was born and we were getting up to nurse at four a.m., after my husband kindly asked that I feed the baby in the dining room so he could sleep, I started to see roaches every night. We had a compost bucket in the kitchen, one that I discovered could be packed beyond its usual capacity if I put it in the freezer, took it out, and let the act of thawing speed decomposition, so that the scraps in there got smaller. There is nothing like the smell of rotting food to bring a roach. But this time I had a baby to protect; summoning my anger now was easy. I could tell them all to go to hell, and I could fall asleep again after the baby did, and not spend half the night awake in panic.
(To be fair, we were living in DC by then, and these weren’t palmetto bugs of my childhood, but a slower and apparently more stupid species than I had encountered in New York. B. orientalis, I believe.)
None of which is to say that I think increasing one’s anger is, in general, good advice. But I’ve been looking at all the images in the news of angry men—men in Afghanistan, invading, men who foment the violence that just killed more than one hundred people, and men (and some women) on the internet saying xenophobic shit about not wanting any of the Afghan people to receive asylum in their country—and I’ve been wondering if they’re afraid. This is vastly oversimplifying, but I’m going to do it anyway: When I think of both these groups, in sweeping terms, I tend to see them primarily as marginalized. As seeing themselves as marginalized. Who else joins the Taliban? Or ISIS? Or hates immigrants so much? And what’s the biggest fear that they both share?
Damned if I know. The Enlightenment. Modernity. The loss of confidence in an all-knowing and all-powerful creator. Women, minorities, uncertainty, sex. Inexorable change. You could even argue that climate change is driving global fear and anger. When a drought kills all the livestock, when a fire blazes through a mountain range and destroys a bunch of little towns, who’s last in line for food and water? If you’re already feeling poor, you’re scared.
This could just be me, projecting. I’m feeling the existential dread, at least. Maybe the deeply rooted fears that are motivating so much hate are just that—rooted. As in stemming from the past. From an infantile fear of annihilation. Anger at one’s mother for not being a perfect source of love. Or, hell, the unresolved planetary trauma of the asteroid that killed 99.999 percent of life on earth.
Last night while we were reading bedtime stories my two-year-old told me that love is scary. I’d given him a hug when we got to the part of a book about a baby being loved. “Love is scary, Mom,” he said. Then he got off of the couch and said, “You scared me away.” He’s also told me that I’m going to be a skeleton soon, that we’re all going to be skeletons, and that there’s a scary book at his daycare filled with animals that could eat him. He’s sniffing out one of the secrets we’ve been keeping from him—that there is death. That the consequence of birth is death.
I apologized for scaring him and we negotiated one more story. As for the scary book at daycare, I told him all he had to do was shout at those animals and tell them that they were not allowed to eat him, and they wouldn’t. He seemed relieved by this. We do our best.
Anyway. Matt’s article about why we’re not moving to Portland went up this week. Today, as in right now, Friday, for the next few hours, Insider has taken down the paywall, so you can read it now for free. So check it out! Here’s one of my favorite parts:
At some point my wife and I started talking in a semiserious way about moving back to Portland for good. Beyond the family connection were the things drawing everyone else to Portland. The city combines the delectable slowness of a small town, the conveniences of a bigger city, and the unspoiled beauty of the Far West. As workers in every other American city ran endless sprints on the treadmill of success, Portland seemed to have extracted the best that capitalism had to offer while escaping the attendant neuroses. Where else outside Europe can you find open-air pubs crowded with good-looking people drinking pilsner at 2 o’clock on a weekday? . . .
There was one problem. The image I carried around of Portland as an idyllic refuge, far removed from the troubles of the outside world, was getting harder and harder to maintain.
Matt goes deep on the political, economic, and climate problems—especially the climate problems—that we’re facing all over the United States, and why, for him, those crises have culminated in Portland no longer being a realistic option for us.
What’s not in the piece, however, is the factor that determines the biggest reason for most people’s moves: employment. We both work remotely, so for us employment is not such a motivating factor. Insider is based in New York; Matt’s work as a writer often has him interviewing people in DC. The company I work for is based in Berlin and Lisbon. We really could work from anywhere.
But where? We’ve both longed to move back to New York, but not with children. (New York City has the most segregated school system in the country.) We like DC, it’s lovely, but its housing prices are extremely high, and while we’ve made a handful of cherished friends here, we’ve both found the culture to be cold. And transient—our friends keep leaving. The fabulous Finnish-Turkish couple we met when we first moved here have relocated to Brussels. Our Swiss friends came for a semester, then left again. Everyone else keeps moving to the suburbs. I don’t mean to be hard on DC, because there is a lot to love here, but after five years of renting here we just couldn’t get enthusiastic about making a permanent commitment. And, since we don’t have to be here for our jobs, why should we?
There’s a lot here to unpack, and I’m short on childcare this week, so I can’t keep typing. Home ownership is such a freighted thing. Mortgages are welfare for the middle class; the fact that we can afford to buy a home at all is a product of hard work, yes, but also some astounding privilege; and the fact that neither of us could take this step until after we’d both turned forty makes us feel poor, part of a generation that can’t expect to maintain the living standards of our parents, which serves to obscure our own felt awareness of our privilege.
But if not Portland, not New York, and not DC, then where? We have relatives in all three of those places, and many friends, but we have friends and family in Miami and LA and Boston, too. So maybe one of those? Or back to my forefathers’ ancestral home, off Talmadge Road, somewhere around Plainfield, New Jersey? Or maybe Mexico? Or London? Or Berlin?
No. There was only one place that made sense—a place, paradoxically, where we don’t have any family, where we have only a handful of long-lost acquaintances, a place I’d initially struck off the list because I did not want to start over that completely on our friendships. A place that lands somewhere around #89 in the rankings of the best 100 places to live in North America. Where there are no lines around the block at open houses. Where, even in this absolutely crazy housing market, we basically saw the first house we liked and put an offer in and got it. After dithering for months and months, we went there and walked around a neighborhood and made our minds up in about an hour. I’m going to write more about it, unpacking what it means to choose this place, but for now I’m basking in the relief of having finally come a decision: Philadelphia. We’re moving to West Philadelphia. We’re closing on the house next week.
If you’re in Philly or have friends there, by all means please let me know. We need someone to recommend us for the fancy swim club, and to introduce us to the best Indian and Japanese food, and also to be friends with us. We’re really excited.
No book recommendations this week. Matt’s reading a novel by Richard Yates and I keep getting parts of it from him in summary. Something about marriage and monogamy. So instead of books I’m going to send you this. You might remember when, last year, this was all that we were dealing with. Besides the virus.
Bonus: The original video is a recording of a Turkish street musician named Bilal Göregen, whose ancestry is Kurdish, who is blind, who is playing a song written in Finnish in the 1920s. All nominees for our ever-expanding Western Canon.