Discover more from warm cups of tea
i wanna believe in something
being alive and all that + beautiful world, where are you?
The sun is setting; come and sit on the porch in this imaginary universe without mosquitoes, and watch as the sky dims with the promise of lightening again tomorrow. Today I am offering freshly cut watermelon and black tea of your choice, perhaps an earl grey. I play you Frank Ocean’s ‘Self Control’.
some nights you dance with tears in your eyes
One of my favourite lyrics, ever, comes from ‘Self Control’: Now and then you miss it / Sounds make you cry / Some nights you dance with tears in your eyes. I admire the simplicity with which Frank conveys such profound emotion. Now and then you miss it — sounds make you cry — some nights you dance with tears in your eyes. That sibilance of repeated ‘s’ sounds drives the line forward, sounds that do make me want to cry. The vagueness of ‘now and then’ and ‘sounds’ gives way to focus on a sharp image, that image of dancing with tears in your eyes, and I realise now that I always picture the dancing taking place in the kitchen. The song as a whole is quietly devastating, asking an ex-lover to remember you as you fight against something that feels inevitable. In the outro, you seem to give in, repeating:
I have been thinking about that song recently, as summer ends and times change. The nature of a longform newsletter project that I chip away at over a prolonged period of time is that a lot happens during that time, but I think that the things I wanted to discuss have just sharpened. With the invasion of Ukraine, the world has entered a worse state than it was before, another war in an ongoing series of them. I often think about how literally all problems arise from capitalism and colonialism and imperialism. The three pillars of everything wrong with society, such as how people have jumped to condemn Russia (as they should), taking boycotts and sanctions to extreme lengths, when Palestinians have to fight so hard not to be actively targeted, much less supported, and the reason for that is racist ideals which only exist to justify colonisation and Western ‘intervention' and other imperialist movements/actions throughout history.
I read a short piece by Omar Sakr wherein Sakr openly acknowledges the bleakness of reality, but persists in calling for action. I found that it grounded me a little, and I do truly recommend it. He writes:
We need soldiers to lay down their arms when asked to invade other nations. Cops, too. We need everyone to resist because this absurd capitalist system and the powers that be within it are killing us all. I know this sounds tremendously naive, but we need the solidarity we’ve seen in action, we need the massive protests that have become the norm, not as a symbolic gesture, but taken further to cause this horrific machine to grind to a halt.
The idea of solidarity is crucial here. We won’t get anywhere without collective organisation, and to do that we need to listen to and understand one another, and speak to one another. Maybe it is better to give in to despair. But giving up on hope is impossible; it really is too bleak. We all know Prior Walter’s lines: “So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate. But still, bless me anyway. I want more life.” The radical vision of a better world. I am not sure what I am saying. I guess we are all just trying to get by.
Last year, I spent a brief period volunteering at the local council’s art gallery, and by ‘brief’ I mean I did on a grand total of three occasions whilst we were going in and out of lockdowns. I shared my first shift with a newly retired primary school art teacher, who was there to assist me though it’s a very relaxed role. I was rereading Normal People at the time, which I described to her as a book by a young Irish writer, writing about young people and the evolution of their relationship and also about like, being alive and stuff. She asked if it was a happy or sad book (“more sad I guess but it’s also like hopeful”) and shared her opinion that Ireland is a depressing place, with a depressing history, but of course, the people have overcome this in various ways.
I admittedly forget that some people aren’t intimately familiar with Sally Rooney and/or sick of hearing about her. For my part, I admire Rooney (aided greatly by her refusal to publish her books in the illegal state of Israel) and Normal People and Beautiful World, Where Are You? are important books to me. She has her share of critics, including but not limited to novelist Jessie Tu who panned Rooney in the Sydney Morning Herald last year. The bulk of Tu’s criticism arose from Rooney’s identity as an upper-class white woman, with Tu emphasising that she simply did not care. Which is fair! Not sure if that needed to be broadcast in SMH. I do think calls for diversity are important, particularly when considering what books we hail as ‘universal’ — this is a well-considered article — but I didn’t set out to delve into the nuances of my thoughts on representation in art / music / literature. To be fair to Sally Rooney, she is Irish and thus distinguished from other white people in my eyes because of Ireland’s aforementioned depressing history, specifically decades of violence and conflict with the English. I genuinely have a lot of respect.
Rooney’s latest novel is Beautiful World, Where Are You? was published in 2021, and places the earnest titular question at its core: it is the tale of two young women and best friends, searching for a beautiful world. Alice and Eileen were classmates at Trinity College; Alice is a novelist who found some success and had a breakdown, whilst Eileen is an editor at a literary magazine. Both have come of age and are simply stumbling through the wake of early adulthood, their lives here defined by their relationships to each other and others as the book delves into their friendship with one another and romances with others. Both share similarities with Rooney but I hesitate to think of Alice as a self-insert or spokesperson for her author, partly because I trust Rooney’s craft and partly because I find it disingenuous to suggest that any art is merely diaristic, or that fictional characters are solipsistic reflections of their creators unless it’s literally a roman à clef.
As Rooney-narrators, Eileen and Alice are rather neurotic and often frustrating. As a review pointed out, it is very funny when Eileen questions whether anybody has ever theorised sex. Eileen in particular seems hyperaware of her place in the world, to an extent which can be aggravating given her privileges. Still, I’m like Eileen but a lesbian and not white. Alice and Eileen struggle to understand themselves at various points, which results in miscommunication throughout the book. For one, they are separate for most of it, each wanting to meet but hesitant to express it outright. Instead, they exchange emails of berating and encouragement, as well as updates on their own lives, and these emails form every other chapter whilst they are apart.
In one email, having returned from doing publicity in Rome (and being met with an accusation from Eileen, who reminds Alice she was taking a break) Alice questions the place of the contemporary Euro-American novel, declaring “I don’t think I’ll write a novel again”. In a memorable response, Eileen writes:
After all, when people are lying on their deathbeds, don’t they always start talking about their spouses and children? And isn’t death just the apocalypse in the first person? So in that sense, there is nothing bigger than what you derisively call ‘breaking up or staying together’ (!), because at the end of our lives, when there’s nothing left in front of us, it’s still the only thing we want to talk about. Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it a nice way to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive — because we are so stupid about each other.
I, too, root for our survival. I’m not sure that I agree completely with Eileen’s whimsy — we very much still need those ‘more important things we should be doing’. She’s right in that our connections to one another are everything, I just think these connections are what make solidarity possible and meaningful and the first step to change. We need one another, on the broader level of solidarity across communities and on the more micro-level of interpersonal relationships.
That is where books can be a powerful source of connection. Beyond the debate taking place on the page, about the value of novels about people ‘breaking up and staying back together’, I hone in on the assertion that our relationships matter, and matter most (people can really change one another). How do I explain. I think Rooney leaves it to the reader to understand not only the role of a contemporary novel in that context but also the place of art as a whole, as a tool for loving each other and finding each other interesting. It’s that 1) Poems and essays (and fiction and plays and music and movies and visual art) can be a balm during difficult times, going on to transcend those difficult times. and 2) Art can bring us together. What I mean is, Rooney’s interview response that she finds beauty and joy in reading novels, and music, and chess, and the outside world, and conversations with friends. What I mean is, with news of the invasion of Ukraine, many turned to Ukranian poet Ilya Kaminsky’s ‘We Lived Happily During the War’, and on February 27, Kaminsky tweeted:
In Alice’s reply she writes, “So of course in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?” Keep a place for me.
And so we find it in ourselves to go on. In another email, Eileen recalls sitting at the back of a taxi, thinking about her lover Simon, and about Alice, and being struck by the beauty of the world, in one of the book’s most vividly cinematic passages. She ends the paragraph,
I was tired, it was late, I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi, remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me.
I understand being struck by those small, fleeting moments, often amplified into something much grander. This passage evokes a mix of quiet content and hazy nostalgia, in my mind the same feeling as ‘Self Control’, or ‘Holocene’ by Bon Iver, or Angie McMahon’s piano cover ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen (as well sa the original). My friend showed me ‘Wednesday’ by Wolf Alice in January and it is devastatingly lovely. I remember being small and I remember old ambition / if I had kept up with dead dreams, would I be in this position? I think that we deserve a Wolf Alice b-sides & rarities album. After that night, I (finally?) delved into Wolf Alice’s first album and a similar poignancy echoes throughout ‘Blush’, where lead singer Ellie Rowsell asks, Are you happy now? Ellie is half Irish, which is honestly so real and true.
There’s a line in ‘Heft’ by Japanese Breakfast, I spent the summer trying to be sweeter / I spent the summer staying in. Japanese Breakfast’s memoir Crying in H Mart (published under her real name, Michelle Zauner) was one of my favourite books in 2021. Zauner writes with piercing tenderness about food, grief, and identity, all anchored to her relationship with her mother and how it evolved in the wake of her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. Towards the end, she reflects on the process of writing Psychopomp whilst caring for her mother, an album which would become her debut as the solo artist Japanese Breakfast. The full verse from ‘Heft’:
I spent the summer trying to be sweeter I spent the summer staying in I ran a mile, and then another I spent my nights by hospital beds
Again I am struck by the fleetingness of each passing moment, of summer, here contrasted by the inevitability of night. With her third album, Jubilee (2021), Japanese Breakfast deliberately turns away from the ‘grief girl’ narrative; the lead single, ‘Be Sweet’ flings out a request to Be sweet to me baby / I wanna believe in you / I wanna believe in something. Jubilee is a crunchy album, with sounds and textures that crinkle like cellophane and reflect light in all directions. Japanese Breakfast still touches upon grief and loss, even imagining the apocalypse on the winningly satirical ‘Savage Good Boy’, yet she deliberately places joy and vibrance at the centre of the album. I don’t know. It’s so much not enough. Still. Yesterday (Friday) I went to an event and afterwards scrolled through people’s social media pages, as I do, and I think now of a line from a poem by my new friend(?) Xiaole, who hopefully will never see this but it really did strike me: “When you begin to play a piece of music, what you are saying is there is a second after this second after this second.”
The past week has seen floods throughout communities along the north-east coast of the Australian continent. Many people I know were affected, though thankfully only minorly. There have been shows of support whilst the government offers very little. Every day I wake up and am faced with the prospect of carving out a life under late-stage capitalism in systems where I am continually marginalised. I guess I refuse to believe that selfishness and division lie at the heart of human nature. I want solidarity, a shared cause, empathy and understanding, politics with integrity, my friends over for dinner, the notion that people care and that a beautiful world can exist.
The epilogue of Beautiful World invokes the lockdown. I think I described this at the time as a ‘jumpscare’. That is how I felt. Now that it has been a few months since I read, I have a greater appreciation for Rooney’s refusal to turn away from reality; instead, she realigns the entirety of her book by placing it at the precipice of the global pandemic. Sure, her characters would be far from the most affected, but I do think it elevates the book. And the fact that our lives are arguably more online than ever (and dependent on technology! qr codes and zoom meetings are inescapable! my best friends and I have been spread across three states since 2018 and see each other via zoom these days!) adds another dimension to the use of emails. The book ends with Eileen emailing Alice about being pregnant, something I am honestly unimpressed by — I understand the symbolism of growth and new life but I wish the final sentiments had been provoked any other way. Even so, I find myself agreeing,
And I want that: to prove that the most ordinary thing about human beings is not violence or greed but love and care. To prove it to whom, I wonder. Myself, maybe. […] It’s not the life I used to imagine for myself either. But it’s the life I have, the only one. And as I write you this message I’m very happy. All my love.
come monday night, we’re in a state of grace
It recently passed 22/2/22. Angel numbers excite me, just as the passing of the seasons excite me, just as pink-and-orange sunsets excite me.
The problem here is that I wanted a semi-diaristic space in this newsletter and am still deciding if it’s too indulgent. Alas. I spent a while thinking that I hope people think that I have a rich inner life. Settling into the year and reacquainting myself with the idea of doing things, though the realities of the pandemic are still with us every day, i.e. people are still getting sick, and becoming close contacts, and doing rapid antigen tests. On 23/2/22 a uquiz result told me, “You’re a thoughtful soul with what the kids call a “rich inner life,” in such a specific affirmation of a specific thought that I do feel soothed. I guess I need to let go of worrying about how I am perceived. I touched upon this in the eight months of therapy that I always forget I did. Things will happen as they happen and uncertainty is okay. Less worry, more patience for myself.
I have felt constantly stuck inside my head, and many good things happened to me despite / alongside that. I went to events and talked to people. I saw Fun Home with my friend Sam and I cried and I saw Eilish Gilligan and was delighted by local pop music is. I had many days in which good things happened. I am enjoying having few responsibilities, trying to let myself be grateful for these months instead of guilty. I am planning a trip to Adelaide. On February 27 I recalled a line from Angels in America, “All of us … falling through the cracks that separate what we owe to our selves and … and what we owe to love”, words written thirty years ago and spoken by a chronically pathetic character (I’m allowed to say this because I am also like Louis but a lesbian I fear) that still ring out.
I read some books including She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, which came with a strong endorsement from my friend Ezekiel. Absolutely incredible, will probably be the best book that I read this year. I will let it simmer in my brain, and for now simply transcribe, word-for-word, one of my tweets on the matter: ‘no like this historical fantasy epic about 14th century mongol-ruled china actually being a treatise on desire’. Read it. The depth of Parker-Chan’s understanding of desire and gender and the idea of fate and the way this informs her characters and character dynamics which in turn drive the plot it’s all so brilliant.
My song of the moment is ‘Young Luv’ by Stayc. I am obsessed with this song. She is everything to me. The new Big Thief album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You has been a soothing friend with lots of great sounds. I have been listening to the new Gang of Youths release angel in realtime and Luna Li’s debut Duality, letting the albums settle over me. Here is a March playlist.
It’s now early on Sunday 6 March. How time passes. This was a bit all over the place and I don’t want to read it again, so thank you for being here. Take care of yourselves, and each other. If you have the means, please donate to citizens and not militaries. All my love.