A story about showers, spiders, and creative curiosity.
Hi, friends. The Core Stories is back via email newsletter! But I’ve switched platforms from Mailchimp to Substack. I plan to share essays here at least twice a month, and subscriptions are free for now, though I’ll eventually be adding more missives and paid options to the mix. In the meantime, I hope this essay shakes some new truth out of you.
Rooting for you,
At the jagged edge of a long, exhausting day — long and exhausting not because I’d tackled too much, but because I’d accomplished hardly anything at all — I was in the shower. I had been firmly stationed in the shower for too many minutes, but I am always showering for too many minutes lately. Our home is perpetually cold. The worst chill is in the bathroom, except at the epicenter of the steam. If I step one inch out of the faucet’s way, if I bare a spot of my skin to dry air, my hands freeze up again. And so I avoid it. For as long as possible, I stay where the small, contained space means cozy warmth.
I washed my face with soap for the second time, even though I am not someone who washes her face. I blinked, rubbed my eyes. I noticed a tiny spider belaying her way down from the ceiling on invisible thread, and I drew back a bit, condensing myself even tighter into the water, to make way for her, though I wondered where she thought she was going. She jolted downward in sloppy spurts, like she was drunk, down, down, rocking sideways, and then smashed into the shower stream and gushed towards the tile. I watched the tiny current tug her into the drain, and she was gone.
Earlier that week, I’d spotted a similarly tender little spider in my car. I was parked down the block from the house, perched in the driver’s seat with my feet folded under me, for a therapy session via Zoom on my phone. (The car is a sunbaked natural sauna; it is its own small, safe, and warm spot.) I was talking to my therapist about creativity — about how I know I need creative play to lift me from all that’s dark and heavy, about how I am desperate for wonder and delight and connection, for vital lightness. The spider came out from behind my rearview mirror and crawled across the sun visor towards the window, making herself seen. I followed her with my eyes, and then looked back at my phone screen and lost her. Perhaps she’s still in there somewhere, weaving a web under the seat.
On the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, Lauren and I fanned out all the craft supplies on the hardwood floor with the heater blaring behind us. We had magazine tear-outs, white paper doilies, a heap of multicolored construction paper, and a pile of glitter glue from the gift package my sister sent. On trips to Michael’s and Target, we’d bought silly sticker packs and nostalgic candy — the exact sorts of cheap, plasticky things that conflict with every last one of my typical sustainability principles. We dug the glue sticks and envelopes and card stock out from storage, and a few pairs of the exact same mini-sized, dull-edged, purple-handled scissors I used as a kid.
It is hard to explain how literally I mean this, but I will try. Making valentines — tearing, pasting, scattering slivers of red and pink all around us, and holding our handiwork up to the candlelight — felt as surreal as time travel. The process transported me back into the heart of childhood.
My birthday falls on Valentine’s Day, which means that the mushy paraphernalia still makes me as giddy as it did when I was a kid. In elementary school, it was a day decadently adorned with pink streamers and red balloons, a day of sugared, shimmering celebration when standard classes were traded for cupcake parties. I loved the exuberant whimsy and warmth, and I still do. It is my firm belief that our world needs more kitschy delight, not less of it.
All classmates got cards, exchanged in personalized mail slots made from shoeboxes. I’d spend hours — days? weeks? — at the kitchen table or at the counter of my grandmother’s art studio, creating these rose-toned masterpieces. Maybe I’ve only adapted the mental memories from the smudged photographs I’ve seen in family albums, but my body still seems to remember it all: the peeling of one white doily from the stack with glue-sticky thumbs, the crisp chhh of the scissors on fresh construction paper, the glitter wedging itself beneath fingernails and globbing onto elbows and eyebrows, the Elmer’s scent wafting like syrup. And so, on the floor of this home in Oakland that I now share with my partner, as I dotted a sparkling rim around a hand-cut heart for the first time in many years, I felt some essential part of myself returned to myself, like I was slipping back into a shedded skin.
Except, I also noticed my mind wanting to rush. I kept doing the math over and over — how many cards did I need to make for how many friends, and how long would each one take, and could I get them done in time? It was silly to attempt to force the creative process of card-making into one slice of a Sunday evening. I’d forgotten how this stuff works. Crafts aren’t conducive to time constraints. They are inefficient, unpredictable, and messy. That’s basically the whole point of a creativity. It is a way to engage with mess, for fun.
It’s no wonder that most of us leave the crafts behind with childhood. As grown-ups, we “don’t have time” anymore. This is the lie we tell ourselves. The truth is that we stop delegating time to what’s unwieldy or uneconomical, for what doesn’t promise some sort of professional or social clout, for what is no longer “worth it.” We get productivity all twisted up with utility and efficiency, which is a sad way to misinterpret a word that could just as easily mean fertility or fruitfulness.
Kids, on the other hand, don’t have visceral relationships with Mondays. They can’t sense the thick smog of a week’s responsibilities closing in around them, and so they can so easily play hooky on everything happening beyond the undone slew of stickers and sequins in their present surroundings. They are married only to immediacy, bending minutes into hours and folding entire days back on themselves as they fold paper hearts. Time squishes and stretches and slips away, and it just is, and they just are.
On the floor, I kept jolting in and out of presence and stress. Stress? About crafting? That’s how it hit my nervous system. What time is it, there is not enough time, how long has it been, there is not enough time, like an internal grandfather clock ticking loudly in the background to make sure I didn’t forget its watch. Making valentines felt good, and it also felt awfully sad, and it helped me see how modern adulthood has broken my brain, how capitalism has broken my spirit. I have healing to do.
I want to lose track of time again, and deliberately. I want to lose track of time and find myself in that unbound space. I want to let time squish and stretch and slip away, fluid as water, while I just keep making stuff in the middle of it all, making myself, weaving the architecture of a life that’s mine to make.
It has been a year already? It has only been a year?
There’s research to show that time perception has been skewed for so many of us since the pandemic began. In a UK study, more than 80% of participants reported that time feels different now — faster for some, slower for others. There are various potential explanations. First, there is the trauma: time seems to slow down or halt completely during traumatic experiences. Even micro-traumas, or the witnessing of potential micro-traumas, seems to have this effect: in lab experiments, when people are simply shown a variety of images for equal intervals of time, they tend to think they’ve looked at the frightening ones — like photographs of snakes — for longer.
Then, there is the uncertainty. With the future so unknown, perhaps the mental balance of the past-present-future continuum gets tilted off-kilter. (If I can’t confidently predict whether or not I’ll be vaccinated in one month, two months, three months, how is it possible that I’m three months ahead of where I was three months ago, that I’m existing in what was once an unfathomable future in which hardly anything has been resolved?)
There is also the perpetual sameness that begets the Groundhog Day references. The brain “squirts dopamine every time there’s something novel that’s happening, and dopamine helps set the initiation of the timing of these events,” explains cognitive neuroscientist Kevin LaBar. And so, novel events become memories that the brain later recounts to estimate time’s passage. This is why vacations — full of newness and adventure — seem to pass miraculously quickly, but when you return home, you feel like you were gone for ages. But the effect of this pandemic is the opposite. This is some kind of hell, not a vacation; every day, we are trapped in the consistent doldrums of our homes, and yet there is always new news to keep us on edge. (If photographs of snakes make an impact, what about witnessing the nonstop upward-ticking numbers of the death tolls?) And we are home, but we are still not home, we are still not home, we do not know if we will ever get to go home again.
What I’m saying is, time is somehow heavy and slippery at the same time, isn’t it? It is too slow or it is too fast, it is too loud or sneaks by in a hush, it is just never what we want it to be, too clunky and capricious. It is hard to lose in a way that feels right.
My continuous glucose monitor (CGM) is key to treating my Type 1 diabetes. I wear a disposable sensor like a button on my skin, and every five minutes, it uses Bluetooth to send a new glucose reading to an app on my phone. Each reading gets plotted as a data point on a graph, so I can see where my levels are at and which direction they’re trending, so I know whether I need insulin or juice, so I can work to manually adjust the fluctuations that your body, with its functional pancreas, manages entirely on its own.
Every ten days, I have to insert a new sensor that takes two hours to calibrate. For those two hours, the graph gets no new data points. I am in the dark. This can be freeing, frightening, or frustrating. Either way, it’s a reminder of how much I can’t predict or control.
No matter what I do or don’t do, what I eat or don’t eat, whether I exercise or sit still, the same infuriating thing always seems to happen in that two-hour window: my blood sugar mysteriously skyrockets. The moment my monitor jolts back to life, it buzzes and beeps at me with alerts. It’s like my body goes rogue when she knows she’s not being witnessed. But I am my body, aren’t I? Sometimes I think of her as a rebel, in all of her clumsy inconsistency and inefficiency, but she is me.
Last week, I showed up to therapy — in the parked car again — feeling frazzled, because the sensor had just recalibrated, and my blood sugar was unfathomably high and continuing to climb for no reason I could rationally pinpoint. The numbers were fine before that two-hour split, in which I had merely done the same morning workout I always do and eaten the same breakfast I always eat. It didn’t make sense.
Or maybe it made perfect sense. Maybe uncharted time does a number on the nervous system; maybe not knowing is even more stressful to my body than I can consciously process.
“So much happens in the dark,” said my therapist. She was talking about the internal workings of my body, but she was also talking about this past year and about how much has happened in the canceled, shut-down spaces. She was talking about creativity; she was saying that producing and publishing things isn’t the only kind of creative act, and just pure presence — listening, looking, finding light in the shadows — can be creative enough. Seeds split and germinate underground.
But spring is coming. I’m ready to re-engage with productivity in a new way.
I have a hunch that screens are also implicated in this problem of time distortion. They steal time from us — who hasn’t accidentally surrendered an hour to scrolling for what seemed like five minutes and come out empty-handed? The thing about screen time is that it doesn’t dance with the body, doesn’t delight the limbs, doesn’t leave glue on the skin. Doesn’t smell like anything. To scroll is to slam the brain with sped-up stimulation without inviting the involvement of the body or embodied imagination. How do our bodies know they’re experiencing a real moment (or a whole feed full of moments) if they aren’t called on to process the textures? How do we encode time in memory without our bodyweight involved?
This brings me here: I am hating Instagram these days. I am absolutely hating it. And yet, I keep going back to it, as if I don’t know what else to do.
It’s not that there aren’t useful, joyful aspects of it, but that I find myself listing those useful, joyful aspects — like the post that pointed me towards my new favorite pair of pants, or the rabbit hole of frog cakes that I recently tumbled down — to justify continuing to engage with the thing that I know is ultimately bad for me. (This…is how addictions work.)
I know that it’s bad for me because when I click the Instagram icon, my body instinct says no while my brain says yesyesyes. When I click the icon, I am almost squinting, trying not to look. When I click the icon, I am almost always avoiding something; I am ignoring that I am surrounded by a million things to look at, as if looking around the room is too hard. Why am I Instagramming in the shower? Why do I spend hours compiling and editing photographs to share, just for a few friends to double-tap and pass right by, like we’re high-fiving at a crowded party where we can’t actually hear each other’s voices?
There is a complex set of rules for how I’m supposed to use Instagram if I want to be heard better. If I use Instagram that way, I am rewarded via alterations in my brain chemistry, and if I rebel, which I do, I am punished via alterations in my brain chemistry. I basically owe Instagram for my entire creative freelancing career, which is a story for another day, but these days, I mostly feel mad at it. I am mad at what the platform has become, at the performativeness of it, the rushed push of it, the necessity of it, the condensed space and pressure of it. It is too small and cramped and quick a canvas. It is an onslaught of distraction. The literal loops of those reels are a little too apt as metaphors.
I miss when it felt fun and juicy and joyful, and I know that for a lot of people, it still does, or the fun is just getting started. But not for me. Maybe I’ve been on Instagram too long. Maybe I’m just tired.
Maybe I need a space that feels softer and slower and safer for the precious stories I’d like to weave. I’d like to focus as much on processing as I do on publishing, to digest slowly instead of gobbling. Creativity should feel like alchemy, I think, not abandonment. Like presence undisturbed by time, not time undisturbed by presence.
If I stop trying to force Instagram to work for me, which is really why I’m writing this essay — to tell you that I’m going to focus on sharing images and words via this newsletter from now on, while minimizing my attachment to Instagram, if I maintain it at all — what kind of time and energy might I gain back? What kind of attention and intention? Could I make and mail more valentines, more personal and sticky things instead? Could I shift my body back towards right relationship with time?
Lauren gave me a film camera for our anniversary last fall, and I have started toting it everywhere I go. (It’s the source of all the photographs you’re seeing here today.) On my walks, I focus in on the pink edges of almond blossoms against petaled clouds. I capture the odd crow perched on the sandy beach, surrounded by the squawks of milky seagulls, and the spider on somebody else’s iron fence with the sun glinting on its lanky legs. The shutter makes a chewy click with each snap, like it’s winking out loud.
The great thing about shooting film is that you have to wait to see the results of your work. You get a limited number of shots per roll, so each one is chosen with attentive care, and you must finish the roll before developing it. It is all about process, with your fingers twisting the knobby edges of the lens and your thumb nudging the shutter speed up or down, with your eyes squinting, your knees bending, buckling back to get the angle you want.
I’m thinking a lot about what it means to embody curiosity, which is a precursor, or perhaps a partner, to creativity. I was going to call curiosity an “emotion,” but I wasn’t sure that was right, so I Googled it. The first hit was this NPR article, which says yes, but it’s a fickle one: it can be experienced as a pleasurable feeling, but also as an aggravating feeling. What gives?
The article cites psychologists Marret Noordewier and Eric van Dijk, who published a paper in 2017 to explain one crucial factor that affects where curiosity lands on the spectrum between negative and positive: time. When we’re told we must wait a long while (in the study, this was a mere 30 minutes as opposed to a single minute) to scratch curiosity’s itch with answers, we “focus on not knowing, on the information gap itself, and this is largely aversive. But when our curiosity is on the verge of being satisfied, we focus on almost knowing, or the anticipated resolution, which is a more positive experience.”
I’m interpreting and appending the data here, but it sounds like what we want is to get back to center, where we think we can feel a sense of steadiness and control. But I wonder if we actually prefer the final moments of awaiting that potential relief to actually getting there, because — as my friend, colleague, and coaching mentor Amy recently reminded me — there’s no there there, where we think the resolution happens. The itch cannot be scratched away. One small, sated curiosity reveals the larger ones that remain beneath it.
We can try to avoid it, this perpetual presence of what’s unknown, or we can dance with it in small, consistent, and intentional ways. We can recover agency and freedom in creative play. We can give curiosity back to our bodies by tilting forward towards the screen as we listen harder during Zoom conversations, by attempting to distinguish one bird call from another just beyond the office window, by inviting ourselves to notice ten specific details around the room — the slight lean of the picture frame, the curved folds of a dish towel, how the glass vase supports the wilting flower — before we open Instagram. That last one is a practice of mine right now. It’s helping me to understand the complex triggers that drive me to open and reopen and reopen the addictive app again. What do I think I’m going to find? I am itching for answers, but I am not asking specific or interesting enough questions. I am not choosing the questions myself.
Here’s another new practice of mine: taking cold showers every morning. I’ve heard all about the health benefits of cold showers at least eleventy-trillion times. But I have always thought, No, thank you. Too harsh. Too uncomfortable. I am allowed the cozy warmth of hot steam.
But isn’t there harsh discomfort everywhere? Is comfort always the answer? The real reason I’m experimenting with cold showers is because Tim Ferris talked about them (again) on this recent podcast episode with Brene Brown, about how he has experienced cold water therapy as a profound antidepressant and energy booster, and I thought, I wonder.
Tim also mentioned that his girlfriend used to always be chilly, but cold showers have helped with her internal temperature regulation. I heard this as a metaphor. We recalibrate to tolerate what we choose to engage and allow.
And so, every morning, after a few minutes under the hot steam, I now take a deep breath and turn the faucet to the far left before I can change my mind. The cold comes gushing down around me as I stay at the center. It is hard to be quiet; I make sounds (Ahh! Hooh!) that Lauren can hear from the other side of the door. I hop around on tiptoes, twist and turn like I’m dancing. In the dancing, I am choosing to stay. I am choosing to move within the constraint, instead of seeking to evade it.
Just one minute. For now, I am calling one minute enough. And I emerge a little bit euphoric. At least more awake. More vital.