01. Something Resembling Faith

January 2020

When Candy and I landed in Helsinki in January 2009, we watched the inauguration of Obama from our hotel room at one o’clock in the morning. Then came a deeply weird decade spent roaming between New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York again. Ten years later, we returned to Helsinki before heading to a remote island in the Finnish archipelago to finish working on a book. Flipping on the television in our hotel on December 18, 2019, we caught the final vote tally as the House impeached Donald Trump. Such strange bookends.

I try to imagine my reaction if someone had described the decade to come while we watched Obama wave from his motorcade. That a vicious game show host would become president. That propaganda and Nazis would return and objective truth would disappear. Or that Britain would leave the European Union and seemingly pointless technologies like Facebook and Twitter would rip society apart. I did not see any of these things around the corner, just as I never could have imagined I would lose my parents or that I would grapple with so much dark terrain in the years to come.

Looking back on the optimism I felt a decade ago, it’s impossible for me to determine whether my sense of the world today is naturally rooted in growing older and reckoning with the inevitable upheavals and disappointments of life—or if it’s an appropriate response to the seemingly perilous state of society, technology, and the weather. Regardless of the causes, my project this year is to recover some degree of optimism and perhaps even something resembling faith.

The idea cohered on the train somewhere between Turku and Helsinki: take a photograph and write at least three sentences every day to etch these strange times into my memory before they are forgotten. Before the world changes completely. Surely I can manage to write a few semi-interesting sentences about each of my days. At the very least, this will force me to pay closer attention to the world. A new decade seems like the ideal time to begin this exercise. I’ve managed to keep it going for thirty days so far.

You can read the journal here, or see a bird’s eye view here.

But why make this thing public? Left to my own devices, my notebooks are littered with fragments and scribbles that make no sense to me a few days later. The other day I found a scrap of paper that said: The world is happening again. Digital atonement. Spinoza. Low-frequency tone. I swear it made sense at the time. Writing for a reader, real or imagined, demands some semblance of coherence. More importantly, making this a daily habit might help me let go of the perfectionism and doubt that have suffocated my writing over the past few years. And most importantly, I want to resurrect my personal station in the digital ether after sinking far too much time into the fever dream of social media and its idiot scoreboards.

Going forward, this monthly digest will highlight one or two entries that I think might be worth your time, along with occasional notes about the books and projects I’m working on this year. But this first dispatch is close to outstaying its welcome, so I’ll wrap things up.

Here’s a piece about my father’s little spiral-bound notepads.

And here’s a photograph of a melancholy gas station, as advertised:

Reading & Listening & Watching

  • A few weeks ago I finished The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa and it’s an eerie fable that reads like a half-remembered dream.

  • Here’s a list of my favorite records from last year. Of these, Kali Malone’s The Sacrificial Code has been played the most. Spiritualized organ drone.

  • After a six-year hiatus, Bohren & Der Club of Gore’s Patchouli Blue is another welcome installment of their slow-motion Blade Running doom jazz. It’s a perfect soundtrack for these days of pandemic anxiety and political sleaze.

  • Last month I made a reverberated mix for the Mysteries of the Deep series.

  • “The bottom line is we’re all prisoners of the universe,” says a man on a train that speeds across China’s rapidly developing landscape. This becomes the coda for Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White, a film that sweeps through seventeen years of dance halls, prison yards, trains, mahjong tables, and disorienting change. The final shot has lingered in my mind for days.