This is not my beautiful strife
On transience, blippery, and colleagues who send you Talking Heads covers
And you may ask yourself, "How do I work this?"
And you may ask yourself, "Where is that large automobile?"
And you may tell yourself, "This is not my beautiful house"
And you may tell yourself, "This is not my beautiful wife"
Some critics have suggested that "Once In A Lifetime" is a kind of prescient jab at the excesses of the 1980s. David Byrne says they're wrong; that the lyric is pretty much about what it says it's about. In an interview with NPR, Byrne said: "We're largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven't really stopped to ask ourselves, 'How did I get here?'" Songfacts.com.
A few of my wonderful colleagues, upon learning of my dorky David Byrne fandom, have taken to sending me Talking Heads deep cuts and covers. Most recently, one such song sender presented his climate journey through a Byrnian lens — This is not my beautiful life — as in, we’re all just here, nothing belongs to us, and we have a responsibility to take care of all the things. Which, of course.
At a superficial and lazy level (not a lyrics person, I know, shoot me dead), I always did read this song as a too-late realization of the excesses of capitalism — hello, I have all these perfect things, but how? But now I much prefer my colleague’s (more accurate) take — how did everything in my life add up to this, in a good way, and how will I steward the incredible privilege of being a human being alive right now, to live and breathe and dance weirdly and write words on a tiny rectangle and send them out into the world?
I like thinking through this detached vision of the self, even as it imposes an outsideriness. There’s that scary feeling of gazing upon the life you’ve built as if it’s made of the thinnest glass, in an effort to be mindful that whatever beauty you’ve created is a very temporary accomplishment. You are just a guest here, with a duty to leave the host a nice, unkillable plant and some designer tea towels. Scratch that, take only memories, don’t even leave your silly footprints.
In some ways, it’s the art pop incarnation of the incantation to Be a Good Ancestor. Be constantly mindful that you are a blip, even as it’s the most consequential time to ever be a blip. Indeed, your blippery will decide not just the fate of the next seven generations, but all humanity.
The Good Ancestor narrative largely reduces this to short-term versus long-termism, with catchy lingo to help you make sure you’re dwelling in the realm of the latter. Writes Andrew Anthony in his Guardian review of Roman Krznaric’s book, The Good Ancestor:
Central to being a good ancestor, therefore, is achieving sustainability. How do we do this? Krznaric is scathing of the view that science will find a way. It’s the same old Enlightenment conception of progress, he argues, that has justified environmental destruction and led to the climate change crisis. He names Steven Pinker as the champion of wishful scientific thinking. “He is like a child who believes they can keep blowing up the balloon, bigger and bigger, without any prospect that it could ever burst.”
The alternative Krznaric suggests is “doughnut economics”, as put forward by his wife, the economist Kate Raworth. This entails a rebalancing between social wealth and ecological protection wherein “we meet the needs of current and future generations within the means of Earth’s crucial life-supporting systems.”
I love any branch of economics that is prefaced with the word doughnut, and I have lots of time for Kate Raworth. But in some ways this feels like a confined read of what it means to be here now - it’s not just about being mindful of your resource use, though of course we consume so much more than we ought to. It’s more like that giant coin funnel at the science museum — the dimes get to the right place, but it’s the looping route, the watch and wait imposed upon you, that’s actually the important part.
Sustainable stewardship of planet, yes, but also cultivating the humility and awareness necessary to be ever aware of your role as a short-term steward (without letting it freak you out too much). And it’s from this point that you will find whatever work most needs you, in the beautiful life that doesn’t belong to you. Have I gone too woo woo on you? Have I gone too woo woo on myself? I think yes.
Put another way, imposing the distance lets you critique the rote paths and make sure you’re not buying gratuitous tupperware and mindlessly burning up the planet, simply because you were stuck on a track that didn’t allow your brain to go to more helpful places. It’s actually about the perspective itself, desirous outcome of a sustainable planet being something we don’t get to impose on the story. Right?
Despite the length of this email, I don’t actually think it takes that much to do this. Like mindfulness or meditation, you just need cues. A song, even, listened to daily, that tells your brain to zoom out, see the timeline, and adjust accordingly. Bonus if it involves my favorite awkward dancer.
How do you see yourself in the world? How does it guide your action? LMK.
Notes from you all help me get outside myself. T, thank you for this beautiful letter, and helping me realize that there is a hint of sadness in everything I write that I’d largely been unaware of, but am now very much ok with, and maybe even like?
…with a hint of sadness that I think many of us are experiencing these days. Reading them has made me feel less alone in this crazy world we are living in these days.
I had a particularly bad week last week in terms of climate anxiety… trying hard to control things that I ultimately cannot as an individual, and feeling down about just about everything. Questions swirled in my head day and night and it has been taking a toll on me (Why is everything wrapped in plastic at the grocery store? How can we end fast fashion?? Is there an eco/friendly brand of toilet paper that I can buy??? Etc.). Having my first baby last year has set me into overdrive in terms of my anxiety, and at times, panic. Reading your most recent newsletter in the midst of all of these negative feelings helped pull me back to a more grounded place: I’m here, I’m doing my best to make a difference, my efforts won’t be perfect (but that’s okay), and I’m not alone.
A perfect piece by Bill McKibben on who gets to own the normative view of our climate reality. (Hint: not Vaclav Smil).
It’s been a rough week to be a woman. This joyful unpacking of The Hawkesian Woman (why yes of course I want to be the Rosalind Russell of climate), by my husband Ben, is a nice counterpunch.
David Suzuki Climate rally on May 14th in Toronto! (Their rallies are the most fun). See you there?
In the key of fandom, I met Hannah in my twenties, when she started dating a friend of mine. I was intimidated by her super cool Much Music VJ self, so nearly twenty years on, I can hardly believe that she is one of my closest friends (a brilliant ear, my partner in runwalkrunning, a camping buddy, a Hot Mom, and the lady who picks up my son when my meetings run long, and then sends me sweet texts telling me what a charming conversationalist he is (srsly?)), not to mention one of the sharpest, warmest, thoughtfulest journalists in Canada, and co-queen of a burgeoning media empire. The first ep of her At the End of the Day podcast is about…being a fan, and I loved her chat with the hilarious Canadian baking star and comedian Ann Pornel. Listen, subscribe, love!
From the archives
“I love my work, I love my family, I love my life, and my vibe is generally Ned Flanders in a jumpsuit, but this week I was bummed.” It’s hard to believe this was what life was like two years ago. But it’s May again, and things are so full of emerging greenery here (except my garden, which is a gong show), that it’s impossible to be glum.
My kids and their friends moving to everyone’s favorite CBC voice singing…David Byrne.
Thank you so much for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts on how to make this newsletter better. Hope you are happy and healthy and inside or outside your beautiful life, depending on your preference.
Have a beautiful weekend,