They use the term “the streets” as a catch-all for beat reporters who “work them,” but you don’t actually have to be ON the streets for it. But this week for reporting with my latest new employer, VICE, we were literally on the streets of Santa Monica and Venice, with the homeless. The official number of those experiencing homelessness in LA County is something like 66,000.
For me this was a return to the field — or streets — for the first time since the original stay-at-home order hit California in early March. I’m working with VICE News as a correspondent on the West coast now, made possible by becoming a project person earlier this year. (I’m not contractually tied to any org exclusively anymore, wheeeee!)
The crew and I were talking over tacos on Wednesday, saying we were honored to be telling a story about the emergency effort to get vulnerable homeless off the streets as the virus raged, because it’s an opportunity to tell the stories and flesh out those experiencing homelessness. Humanizing people who so often go unseen in our communities even though they live among us and are full and complex human beings, is what journalism is here for.
But of course, reporting during COVID19 is a different, eerie ballgame. We had risk assessment people monitoring us and our reporting environs. We had a doctor who made sure we kept enough distance or that we were never in any indoor space for longer than a few minutes. We were sanitizing nonstop, we were temperature checked everywhere, we were gloved and SO masked that I will technically be appearing on your television but largely unseen, because I and others are all masked, all the time.
So much delight to note from behind the scenes: I love watching documentary camera men do the dance of keeping out of each other’s shots and figuring out who is going to position where, all while rolling on the action. They just gesture at each other and communicate with their silent movements. I love our LA native musician who worked sound, Defari, who made all our mics invisible. I love being with a crew again, especially a producer who handled all the logistics and booking and planning and made sure that if I missed a question, it was covered.
Sarah the producer and I became fast friends and ended up laughing over drinks on patios after each long shoot day; it made this upside down time in our upside down world feel a little bit normal, and that’s a huge gift.
COVID life has lingered long enough now that I can’t remember The Before, or BC (before COVID). School let out for the “summer” but what does that mean, when school let out in March, really? And what is a summer without vacations or camps or any summertime rituals we’re used to?
The girls didn’t join in any of the BLM protests but Eva has gotten a lot more woke about the mistreatment of Blacks in American society and wants to read about slavery and is constantly aghast about the lack of humanity in the practice. She learned yesterday that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington kept slaves and this shocked her. I explained that while people can do good things, they also do terrible things, and that’s the complexity of life and human beings.
LA County is still seeing climbing numbers, but climbing steadily and not exponentially (like some places, cough Texas cough). Cooped up too long, I’ve relaxed some of my more vigilant anti-COVID practices and have let the girls have outdoor playdates with the siblings Brandon and Emma, with whom we carpooled. The kids sprung to life when they could all be together again, I was delighted for them and sad at the same time, knowing how much socializing they’ve missed.
My friend squads are getting together for socially distanced hangs in the pool or out in courtyards or at parks. Last weekend a bunch of us from NPR hung out together to gossip and complain (as journalists are wont to do) and it felt great. Well, at least until I overheated. I showed up in my “Merry Merry Merry” Christmas sweatshirt so I lasted for about 45 minutes out there in the blazing sun before having to bounce.
There’s no end to this in sight. School probably won’t start in the fall. Uncertainty and just living in the moment is the way forward, as it’s the only option.
“Love is something ideal, marrying is something real, and no one ever confuses the ideal with the real without being punished for it.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, c. 1823
Today is our tenth wedding anniversary. And we’re in our sixteenth year of love and friendship. In reflecting on this milestone, I’ll start with a moment of misery and move to some lessons learned.
Around two children into my marriage, I called my mom from a Tokyo hotel room, devastated by some marital dispute. I said something like, “I don’t know how long I can do this,” about my relationship. I continued: “Humans live so LONG nowadays!” My mom, who celebrated her 40th anniversary with my dad last year, chuckled and said she totally got it. Her idea is that modern marriage contracts shouldn’t be ’til death do us part. Rather, she wished they were more three or five-year contracts, like my then-employment contract at NPR. In those, you can re-up at the end of the three-year terms, or you can opt not to and both sides walk away without shame. It’s the norm. It’s also a built-in check-in. At renegotiation time, we say, “How are we doing? What could be better? What is the value of this to us?” All USEFUL in a relationship! Instead, in marriage we have a whole “I promise you forever” thing that’s lofty, high pressure and impossible to predict. If you walk away, does the whole relationship have to be considered a failure? It obscures what was likely a solid, satisfying partnership for various periods. Which gets me to my first takeaway…
To me, the day-to-day work is ultimately a better signifier of love than a ceremony. I cannot imagine my life without my husband. I cannot. But the promise you make in front of friends and family on your wedding day is at best a hopeful aspiration, and just one day in an endless run of days in which you choose to be present in the relationship. I have to get up each day and decide whether I still choose this, choose my partner, and so does he. A day can come when he or I decide to NOT choose the other. Ultimately, I’ve learned there was no epic sweep to promising ourselves to one another ten years ago, inside a 16th century room that’s part of an Amsterdam museum. In actuality, our partnership has represented a series of daily recommitments. In that sense, my mom makes so much sense. For a sustaining partnership, we don’t NEED the ceremony of a wedding or a traditional marriage vow at all! Why NOT short-term contracts?
Your partner can enhance you, or he/she can diminish you. Choose well. Matty didn’t think twice about giving up his career for three years to support mine, a choice that women make for men regularly but is less common the other way around. I didn’t expect anything less from him, because our partnership is about sharpening the other from similar positions of power. (He also agreed to take my last name while we were dating, because, even if it’s just symbolic, down with the patriarchy!)
Marriage is a contract individualized to the people in it. Matty has always acknowledged we aren’t each other’s everything. I feel most seen in the understanding that we won’t fulfill one another’s every need, and he has long given me the space for meaningful connections with people who aren’t him. The moral here is what you decide about your relationship is between the two of you. But intimacy requires bringing your full, open hearts in speaking up and designing your marriage to your unique specs.
“In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. And then forgive again. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and foibles and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.”
I’m filled with appreciation and love. Especially because part of this post has been “maybe we’ll be together forever, maybe we won’t,” I want to underline how deeply love and appreciate my husband. If Matty and I don’t stay together “forever,” I will still never transition from my roaring twenties to my semi-responsible thirties with anyone else. I will never lock eyes with another man while pushing out a baby of ours in a delivery room. And there’s something beautiful about the moments unique to life stages, all the ones that forever bond us to each other — a shared history that can be shared with no one else. Our most daring choice to be together happens each day. Who knows about tomorrow.
“To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another fallible human being—what an insane thing to do. What a burden, and what a gift.”
*Incidentally it is also an excellent Pearl Jam album, though that’s neither here nor there.
On the first day, I wrote to folks in Santa Ana CA, Austin, St. Louis, Flushing NY, Spokane Valley and Tucson. On the next day I wrote to an 11-year old who was born in Plano, where I grew up. I wrote to a USPS letter carrier from Minnesota who requested a letter for himself. By the time I was finished writing letters to any random social media follower of mine requested one, I wrote fifty letters to people I’d never met, addressed to recipients in almost every US state, excepting Alaska and the Dakotas.
When they requested letters, people mentioned little bits about themselves: That they live in my old stomping grounds (Austin, or St. Louis). They mentioned their cats, or kids, or dogs. They mentioned listening to me when I broadcasted from Seoul. They mostly asked if it was too late to request a letter.
It surprised me how many people wanted a random letter from a stranger, but they were clearly as eager to connect as I was, during this disorienting global pandemic and what’s amounted to a national state of emergency. At least three of the letter requesters were my longtime friends. They can call me anytime, but wanted a letter all the same.
Our lives are upended and uncontrollable, yet contained by the walls of our homes. So when I wrote, I asked how they were doing in isolation. Were they scared and uncertain, like me? How did they fill their days? Find joy? I asked many people what they learned about themselves during this difficult period.
I am someone who is “very online,” so it’s much easier to bang out a tweet that reaches far more than one person at a time. Or I could have simply sent personalized emails to everyone who asked. But sitting down to compose a letter by hand, address an envelope and stamp it came with extra intention. It felt like a way to show an old-fashioned kind of caring, without costing more than a stamp.
Ultimately we’re stripped to our most primal longings to survive these days, and survival for humans means connection and communion where we can find it. Especially when my generation is the loneliest — a quarter of millennials said in a YouGov survey that they have no acquaintances, 22 percent reported having no close friends. And that was before this crisis hit.
It made personalizing these letters important to me. I wanted to be explicit in signaling the letters came from a real human, not a bot. When I ran out of my personal stationery, I found my four-year-old daughter Isa’s doodles in a notebook and wrote my letters on those pages.
I didn’t share quotes or poems or parables, as I sometimes do when I send cards or letters to friends. Instead I wrote about the rhythms and happenings of my days. I wrote about Isa singing full-throated the entire time she was on the back of a tandem bike with her dad. I wrote about how happy my neighbors are to see each other and how we delight in shouted conversations from across the street. I wrote about how lonely I feel, even though I’m quarantined in a house full of the loudness of small children.
I never expected replies. The satisfaction for me was in writing to people and knowing they’d receive something weird and rare. But the replies ended up being the best part. When the recipients got them in the mail, some of them didn’t wait to write back by hand. They sent me direct messages on social media with photos of themselves and the letters now in their possession.
Oscar in Santa Ana said, “Handwritten anything is so special these days.” Robert in Austin quipped, “I got your note today in the mail and my wife was like, ‘Someone named Elise wrote you from California 🤨’ and I was like ‘Oh [expletive], do I have a secret lover I don’t know about?'”
He went on to tell me how he and his wife were three days out from the arrival of their baby, and that they were on their way to pick up Texas BBQ-Asian fusion takeout.
In the following weeks, Howard sent a letter by mail with a photo of the new baby and a personalized koozie with his phone number on it. He said he read a book once in which the author asked, “What if we really loved our neighbor as ourselves?” The author put his phone number in the back of the book. Howard was inspired and emulated the move with his number on the koozie to “make myself available to people and the world feel smaller.”
In addition to the tweeted and texted photos, I received dozens of handwritten replies. They came from Eldersburg, Md. And Kirkland, Wash. Tucson. Flushing, N.Y. Kearney, Mo. Fort Collins, Colo.
People wrote me about leaning into their hobbies and how they’re spending their time — starting gardens, going on daily walks and sewing masks to donate to hospitals. Some of the replies were typed and printed out, with a Post-it note appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.”
I got dozens of handwritten replies. Some of them were typed and printed out, with a post-it appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.” One couple from Arizona sent me, along with their letter, two national park brochures of the parks they live near, to help with my homeschooling of my children. A high school freshman wrote me back, sharing her love of playing guitar, singing and acting, but admitting no one at school even knows because “high school is hard. There’s so much pressure to have a high social status.”
A lot of letters included wishes for what comes out of this crisis. The one consistent hope was that the slower pace, deeper intention and attention we’re paying to each other can continue in the next phase of our living history.
So many of the feelings my pen pals shared with me mirrored my own. I wrote to them originally to process my fears and anxieties during this time. In the end, the respondents helped me remember the clarifying thing about this pandemic — that we’re all part of one community of humans. For the duration of this crucible, and beyond, we should celebrate that which makes us most human: perspective, surprise and connection. Letters to strangers — and from strangers — can satisfy all three.
North Korean state media showed images of leader Kim Jong Un appearing at a fertilizer factory ribbon-cutting today, 20 days after he was last seen in public. During his “disappearance” we learned he was maybe in “grave condition” (CNN), possibly “braindead” (Weibo chats and MSNBC) or fully dead, and/or maybe just avoiding COVID19 by holing up in Wonsan, his resort town. The night the news spread about his “grave condition,” I was putting the kids down for the night and both spouse and I sprung into action to try and figure out what was up, instinctively. Neither of us had any responsibility over North Korea coverage anymore but raced to figure things out as if we had an audience to satisfy. Chasing down KJU rumors — what a weird thing one’s mind and body learns to do automatically.
Now he’s apparently back or resurrected. Suddenly April 2020 is behind us.
I read today an idea about the passage of time that really resonated, from Ann Friedman:
“Apparently when everyone’s routine disappears and gets remade at the same time, weird things happen to our collective sense of momentum. Novel experiences slow down our perception of time (aka March), while repetition speeds it up (ahem, April).”
THAT EXPLAINS IT!
To catch up: I spent a lot of the month writing letters and then receiving letters, from strangers who only knew me from Twitter and DM-ed me their addresses. I can’t wait to blog about that nourishing, connective experience. It filled my tank when I needed it the most.
What else can I say? Everything feels fraught and chaotic. I feel lonely and despairing a lot, despite the small children shouting and jumping on me all the time. I binge-watched Normal People the TV series (based on a book I devoured last year) and cried every episode. Last night I zoned out in the frozen food aisle, breathing faintly into my mask and staring at taquitos for too long. I’m trying to remember compassion, compassion, compassion, including for myself.
As for family, we are all grateful and privileged and so lucky to be living well enough to enjoy the sunshine of Southern California, to have each other to dine with and feel with and fight with and push against. We are all, collectively, in our cocoons, in the midst of a grand metamorphosis. I don’t know what world we’ll emerge into, but we’ll be wholly changed. We certainly won’t be caterpillars anymore.
The writer Cheryl Strayed has a new podcast with The New York Times, Sugar Calling. It debuted maybe a week ago, but who knows, because I can’t feel time anymore. Anyway, today I listened to an episode featuring her mentor, the prolific and talented writer George Saunders. His collection, Tenth of December, is one of my all-time favorite books, and I like to re-read his commencement speech, “Congratulations By The Way,” for a pick me up.
In the podcast episode, he shares a letter he wrote to his graduate students at Syracuse during this terrifying time. It felt so affirming and nourishing to hear it, just as I’ve been really hitting the wall with this kind of contained lifestyle. Here it is, but not in its entirety.
“Dear S.U. writers —
Geez, what a hard and depressing and scary time, so much suffering and anxiety everywhere. I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, “Moron! If you only knew.”
But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here — at least not since 1918. We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterwards. What new forms might you invent to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important.
Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us about something crazy that happened in 1960. What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this. And what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you’re paying now and what records you keep, also, I think with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, ah, so this is happening now. Or hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth — did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker. And then I real quick tried to pretend I didn’t just call the universe a stinker.
I did a piece once where I went to live incognito in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week. Very intense, but the best thing I heard in there was from this older guy from Guatemala, who was always saying, “Everything is always keep changing.” Truer words were never spoken. It’s only when we expect solidity, non-change, that we get taken by surprise. And we always expect solidity, no matter how well we know better.
Well, this is all sounding a little preachy, and let me confess that I’m not taking my own advice — at all. It’s all happening so fast. Paula has what we are hoping is just a bad cold, and I’m doing a lot of inept caregiving. Our dogs can feel that something weird is going on — no walk? Again?
But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger, and we tend to live our lives there on its back. We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger. Now and then, that tiger wakes up, and that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up when someone we love dies or someone breaks our heart or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always, there have been writers to observe it and later make some sort of sense of it — or at least bear witness to it.
It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer too, especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting — warts and all.
All of this to say, there’s still work to be done, and now more than ever. “
Starting today I’ll be in available in your feeds every weekday, hosting the daily TED talk podcast, which is the fittingly-named TED Talks Daily. It’s one of America’s top 20 podcasts and downloaded a million times a day, all over the world. Not only do I love working with the good folks at TED already and love being able to host this from anywhere with an internet connection, I can’t wait to connect with the global TED community. From the TED announcement:
TED Talks Daily, which is downloaded one million times per day, is one of the most downloaded shows, and not just in the US — it’s been featured in Apple Podcasts’ top ten charts in 130 countries around the world (more than any other podcast)…
“TED Talks Daily has long been a favorite way for audiences to engage with TED Talks, so we’re looking forward to adding onto the format,” said Colin Helms, head of media at TED. “What listeners have come to know and love about TED Talks Daily will continue, but with Elise as our host, we can build a richer backdrop for our talks.”
Ever since moving here I’ve craved and sought LA’s multi-hyphenate, project-based way of life. (Which is to say, I wanted to be job promiscuous instead of contractually locked down to one single employer.) So in addition to my other hustles, my dear friend Rachel and I co-founded a media company, and brought on another rad mom friend, Meghan. Reasonable Volume (yes named after Milton’s riff in my fave film of all time, Office Space) is already off & running and making bespoke pods & projects, so let’s make something together.
It probably goes without saying that I left my full-time role at NPR but in true LA-style, I am staying “attached,” like they say in Hollywood, to NPR projects as a roving host at-large. Public media remains vital and maybe now more so than ever.
And with guidance from my smart, savvy agent/friend/life coach, Howard, I sold my book project, Flawless, examining K-beauty, gender & power to Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This year I have to actually write it.
OK that’s the update. Change is hard but constant. I’m trying, like everyone else, to keep my head above water and stay open to all of it. My cadence these days is every other day or so I’m totally fine and find a lot of joy in my quotidian quarantine life, and every off day I’m in total despair and think of all the calamity and uncertainty nonstop. The only way through it is through it, but I hope that we can all stay connected and supportive to one another during this wild time to be alive, a wild time to be a human.
I FOUND MY WHITE WHALE. So, five years ago I went to the Costco in Seoul’s Yangjae neighborhood and bought a bulk box of frozen “Naanwich,” which are little sandwiches made with naan and stuffed with chicken tikka masala. I was pregnant with Isa at the time and following my discovery, I ate two or three of these things a day. Then, the next time I went to Costco — and every other time since — THEY WERE GONE. Poof. It was as if they never existed.
I have been searching for Naanwich at Costco for five years. Today, when I braved the non-Costco grocery store to stock up on (mystifyingly) $400 worth of groceries (I guess I really do have a lot of mouths to feed), the shelves were picked over, as is the case during these pandemic times. However. When things are ransacked, they reveal. And on a frozen food shelf near the end of the aisle with employees make every shopper queue up in one single file, appropriately-spaced line, I found ONE SINGLE BOX OF … NAANWICH.
2020 has devastated me and will likely be one of the hardest years for all of us, ever. But it also makes stark the simple joys of reunions. This year not only did I reunite with my high school economics teacher, Mr. Coates, who had a singular influence on me, but I FOUND NAANWICH, my white whale.