(Editor’s note: this is the text from my first newsletter, sent on Jan. 28, 2019.)
Thanks for signing up to receive this newsletter. As I’ve become more uncomfortable about Facebook, and more guarded about whose stories I share and where I share them, I’ve thought about how to communicate with others without feeding the algorithmic beast. I’ll aim to send this weekly, with the expectation that it will be a collection of the things that interest me ― smart and moving stories, friends’ doings, some thoughts on the arts, media, journalism and anything else that speaks to me. And I expect it could shift a lot as I get down to the actual doing. Sound good? Let’s get started.
My Favorite Movies of 2018
Go to my blog for fuller reactions to each film, but with 2018 behind us, I ranked the films released last year that I saw, from least- to best-liked. Go to the blog and leave your lists, please (even if your “list” is simply your favorite film; I’m curious). This isn’t an Oscars ranking, just how much enjoyment or thought the movie brought forth from me. 13. Mary Poppins Returns
11. Isle of Dogs
10. The Notorious RBG
9. Mary, Queen of Scots
7. First Man
6. The Favourite
5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
3. Free Solo
2. Black Panther
1. First Reformed
A little more about First Reformed ― and despair:
Yeah, I know, this is nobody’s favorite movie, though it got an original screenplay nod (for Paul Schrader, who also directed it) from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. This bleak film about a pastor (Ethan Hawke) who falls into despair over the state of the world is very, very good, and the wild, miraculous ending will leave you debating what happened with yourself and others who see it. But what I like best is that the movie served as the topic for one of my favorite church messages of the year, by Frank Zinni, who unblinkingly looked at despair with subtlety and courage. As someone who has had a very vulnerable-feeling year, it was a true gift. The line that stays with me, that Frank credits to the poet David Whyte: “Despair … is a season.” Here’s more from his book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:
Despair is strangely, the last bastion of hope; the wish being, that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again. Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore. Despair is the place we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place. Despair, strangely, has its own sense of achievement, and despair, even more strangely, needs despair to keep it alive …
We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here. We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again. In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do, from the beginning. Despair is a difficult, beautiful necessary, a binding understanding between human beings caught in a fierce and difficult world where half of our experience is mediated by loss, but it is a season, a wave form passing through the body, not a prison surrounding us. A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition.
Refusing to despair about despair itself, we can let despair have its own natural life and take a first step onto the foundational ground of human compassion, the ability to see and understand and touch and even speak, the heartfelt grief of another.
In my house, 2018 was a hard one. We dealt with job loss and other unsettling events that re-juggled our expectations and living arrangements. And to play along with Whyte’s description of despair as a season, it lasts longer than a day or a week. You have to give it time to move along. First Reformed, which confronted despair so straightforwardly and equivocally, helped me to allow this drear season and to move beyond it. And, finally, to realize that it will likely return on this life’s calendar.
Next newsletter: Oscar guesses (and less despair).
What I’ve Been Reading
My friend Donna and her husband Ben are on a service trip in Ghana. Ben is a retired engineer and, as you might guess, retired engineers can provide really useful service in this world. Donna is sending dispatches each day sometimes more than one-a-day, and I am enjoying following along, as I know almost nothing about West Africa.Donna’s writing reminded me of two trips I took to Haiti in January three and five years ago, respectively, both with my younger son and folks from local Unitarian Universalist churches. I collected all the things I wrote about it here, including one of my better poems ever. It starts like this:
Seventeen pilgrims on the road from Port-au-Prince to the Central Plateau.
Haiti is life lived on the road, in full view.
It is a hot, dusty iceberg. The mystery resides in the heat and the dirt.
The water is there, but ― did I mention? ― don’t drink it.
Haiti is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a plantain husk.
It is a mosquito buzz at midnight.
It is the fear your net is tattered.
Haiti is a heart pumping in the hot sun.
It is families separated.
It is drums in the night.
Haiti is the roosters who practice dawn all night long …
You don’t hear much about Haiti, ever, but the country is in the midst of a lot of unrest. I appreciate journalist Michael Diebert’s Twitter account as a way to know what’s going on there and across the region ― especially Venezuela these days.
Tommy Tomlinson’s piece in The Atlantic on being a 400-pound-plus guy in America (excerpted from his book The Elephant in the Room) was smart, brave, and absolutely ruthless in its self-dissection.
Early in the piece, he discusses seeing his body in a mirror:
Some days, when I see that disaster staring back, I get so mad that I pound my gut with my fists, as if I could beat the fat out of me. Other times, the sight sinks me into a blue fog that can ruin an hour or a morning or a day. But most of the time what I feel is sadness over how much life I’ve wasted. When I was a kid, I never climbed a tree or learned to swim. When I was in my 20s, I never took a girl home from a bar. Now I’m 50, and I’ve never hiked a mountain or ridden a skateboard or done a cartwheel. I’ve missed out on so many adventures, so many good times, because I was too fat to try. Sometimes, when I could’ve tried anyway, I didn’t have the courage. I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of. But I’ve never believed I could do anything truly great, because I’ve failed so many times at the one crucial challenge in my life.
It’s not ALL as hard as that and it’s often wry and funny. I encourage you to read it. And listen to Brian Koppelman’s interview with Tomlinson. Koppelman pushes Tomlinson about his relationship to food (which is just as complicated as you’d suspect) and I was unexpectedly moved by their exchange. And not to keep harping on poems, but I wrote something about intentions and aging called I Want to Be a Little Old Man.
If sobriety and recovery are of even the least interest to you, then you need to read GQ’s interview with multiple musicians who’ve embraced it. It has its share of crazy anecdotes, like Joe Walsh talking about bringing a chain saw to his hotel room, but also the most graceful, precious stuff, like this from one of my faves, Jason Isbell:
“I think part of the process for me of sobering up, and I don’t know that I’ve ever put it this way before or really thought about it this way before, was using my work to connect with the world that I had always felt so isolated from. And I think probably my survival instinct kicked in and said, ‘Well, what you do is you use these songs to connect with people in a way that you’ve not connected with them before.’ And after that, I sort of felt like I belonged in the world.”
You’ll laugh, you might cry and you’ll definitely recognize something in your human experience that resonates. Or, you know, you’ll have some stories to share with friends about the crazy days of the Eagles and Aerosmith.
Eat Drink Tell
In a week when it seemed every journalistic enterprise in America was laying off its staff, Jill Lepore of The New Yorker did a good job of putting this crisis moment in some perspective, both historical and current ― alas, without much in the way of comfort or answers.
Yeah, this is a bit of a strange segue to the sobriety piece, but I’m always looking for a low-calorie beer that tastes good and delivers less of an alcohol wallop, and I’m hopeful about this one ― Dogfish Head’s Slightly Mighty IPA, arriving on store shelves in April. Men’s Health editor Matt Allyn got a preview and he likes it.
Thanks for Reading This Far & An Invitation
If you want to reach me, I’m happy to pick up the conversation and available at 484-751-7795 and firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter as @kevdonahue. Let me know which parts you liked and which parts you didn’t. As I said earlier, I expect to post weekly, most likely on Fridays.
The next one will be lighter. Promise.
P.S. A thank-you to Michael Easter, who started a more useful version of this idea a few weeks back. I loved his and it spurred me to follow up on my own plans, which had been napping in the corner for some time. Michael’s motivations are different than mine, but we do read some of the same things, both are suckers for music with some twang, and he is an excellent health journalist. You can subscribe to his newsletter here. No problem if you like his better. I do.