Painful Moments Make the Sharpest Memories. Is That a Good Thing?

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 26, 2016

In recent years, for work on a book, I’ve sat with two South African men, one black and one white, for dozens of hours as they pieced through memories of their earlier lives. One, C., had spent his young life never imagining white minority rule could ever collapse in the African country. The other, E., spent his childhood fantasizing about what would happen when it did.

Our memories of our lives are funny things. Ask people to remember their houses from childhood, their birthday parties, their happy recollections, and the details are vague. The moments we remember most powerfully are those of shock. Though E., the black man, spent his youth wondering what would happen if and when black people liberated themselves from their long oppression, he struggled to recall April 27, 1994, the day it did. He’d been 17, nearly old enough to vote. What had he done? What had his father and mother done that day?

But the morning his beloved elder brother, Sam, died? He remembered exactly how it had rained, the soft, soaking rain his people called medupi, also a beloved name for women. And then it had cleared, and the leaves of the giant fig tree from which Sam had fallen had dripped and lifted, and a certain type of bird had sung in the branches. Read more ...

Home -- the Idea of a Stable, Settled Existence -- Is a Fantasy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 22, 2016

Once, a therapist asked me what my “inner blocks” were against “becoming the person I really wanted to be”: settled, a homebody. The question was kindhearted, an observation of a yearning that, at the time, gave me pain.

I’d been on the road for months, my suitcase my most intimate companion, and I would cry when I thought of a house, the shelves for books, the dirt of many shoes on the doormat, the well-worn pans.

We buy so much into this philosophy of becoming — that, through effort, we can arrive in ourselves. We take Myers-Briggs tests to pin down our ephemeral natures. We read “The Purpose-Driven Life.” “How to find yourself” is the most-input Google search following the words “how to find …” Read more ...

Students of Art Can Find the Art Gets to Know Them, Too

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 18, 2016

When I was 12, I read a poem by Robert Frost called “To Earthward.” “When I was young … The petal of the rose it was that stung,” he wrote. “Now no joy but lacks salt, that is not dashed with pain and weariness and fault.” Reading it felt like peeping through a keyhole into the dimmer, holier room that would be adult life, a room whose wood was distressed, whose shadows were deep and whose silvers were tarnished, yet glowed; a magical place where salt became sweetness and pain could turn, through alchemy, into love.

Coming into my 20s, I came across it again. Instead of mysterious, it seemed to me bright and beautiful, so sweet I could almost taste it: Its description of youthful happiness, “the swirl and ache from sprays of honeysuckle,” was perfect to that time. And then, 10 years later, again. The poem’s cadences seemed jerkier than I’d remembered them, grittier, defiant.

This is art: a supposedly dead thing, letters on a page or pigment on a canvas, that, miraculously, seems to change its shape as we do. Read more  ...

The Reason We're All Horrible at Taking Good Advice

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 13, 2016

Seven years ago, a beloved friend gave me a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” The short book collects Rilke’s advice to an acquaintance, a 19-year-old would-be artist overwhelmed by self-doubt, artistic confusion and inchoate longings for greatness. Speaking from his own mistakes, Rilke counsels patience with yourself, solitude and listening to your own heart rather than the demands of the market.

I think my friend gave me the book as a gentle way of communicating the same messages to me. I was burdened by the same anxieties as the young poet: that I would never be satisfied with others, that I would never live up to a talent. But although the letters were aimed at me, I didn’t get them at all. There were some beautiful phrases in there, but they didn’t land. I left the book to gather dust at the bottom of that tucked-away bookshelf where you keep books you never intend to read again.

Seven years later, a few days ago, packing to move, I found it again. It was a completely different book; as if it had secretly rewritten itself in the dust and the quiet of the years. Read more ...

How Some of Your Ugliest Feelings Help You Experience Joy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 20, 2016

For the past six years I’ve traveled nearly incessantly: by car all over southern Africa; by plane to South America and the Middle East, through Wyoming by bicycle. Lately, though, every trip has felt harder. There’s the exhaustion of living out of a suitcase, developing rituals to keep track of my things that are so fastidious they’re almost religious, and which, like faith, inevitably fail. The fear of getting sick on the plane. The never knowing what I’m going to eat. The unpacking, which is worse than packing, and the never-fully-unpacking, which is easier but, like sweets on the physique, has a bad long-term effect on the spirit.

And yet, sometimes, the morning I get ready for travel, I feel all that lift. It’s as if the reluctance is a mist that miraculously dissolves, leaving pure eagerness. And I think: Doesn’t this happen so often? Read more ...

The Effect You Have on People Is Profound -- and Unseen

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 11, 2016 

A few weeks ago, I saw a jazz bassist play. I’d seen him before in a different venue, with a different, smaller audience. That crowd sat stony-faced as he coaxed his beats out of the belly of the instrument; he tried laughing and howling and crooning as he played, but we remained unmoved.

This recent night, though, he had younger, looser fans, who screamed as he screamed, playfully batted back his smiles like tennis balls, swiveled and danced between tables. And they brought forth a completely different man.

In front of the dead crowd, the bassist had seemed old, low-energy. His eyes were visibly cloudy with cataracts, his brow sagged, his fingers slowed as the night wore on. Yesterday evening, though, he was 15 years younger, lithe, jumpy, radiating grins.

He seemed like another person entirely, and he was. How thoroughly we are made by the intercourse we have with the people around us! Read more ...

Why South African Students Have Turned On Their Parents' Generation

The Guardian Long Read, November 18, 2015

One of Chumani Maxwele’s stronger childhood memories is of an aeroplane. Not one he rode, but one he heard flying over his dusty village in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, not far from Nelson Mandela’s birthplace. Maxwele, the son of a poor miner, used to play football with his friends in a field behind his house. One morning in 1994, when he was not yet 10 years old, he was startled in the middle of a game by an unfamiliar noise from above – somewhere between a rumble and a drone. He let the ball dribble away and tilted his head to the sky. Maxwele had heard rumours that the African National Congress (ANC) was flying planes around the country: in a few months, South Africa would have its first elections in which black people could vote, and the planes were dropping campaign leaflets decorated in the ANC’s black, yellow and gold, urging people to vote for Mandela.

The sound of the plane transmitted an impression Maxwele never forgot – one of motion and power. Read more ...


My Favorite Writing Tool: The Facebook Status-Update Window

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The Los Angeles Times, August 23, 2015

When I started college in the early 2000s, late at night, as my will to finish another paragraph of Foucault evaporated, I signed onto LiveJournal, the blog host beloved by teenage girls. I trolled strangers' "journals." These weren't blogs like this paper's Company Town or Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. They were, especially in the site's early days, simply a glimpse into somebody's real life, raw and vulnerable: fights with mothers, angst and awe at changing bodies, fantasies of R&B stardom, fears of moving through life unseen.

I could read those posts for hours, until the sun came up, the way some kids play video games. The writers just spoke — to friends, to strangers, and to the nebulous and thrilling sense of an audience somewhere out there. They were more transfixing than the Faulkner, T.S. Eliot and David Foster Wallace I had to read in my English courses.

But my habit embarrassed me. Read more ...

Why What Gives Our Lives Meaning Doesn't Necessarily Make Us Happy

The Washington Post, October 20, 2015

Sometimes I think the greatest source of human unhappiness is the gap between what we dream of doing and being and what we’re actually capable of. This gap we name “pain”: the longing, the sense of failure when we fall short.

On the face of it, it seems like the solutions are things like accepting ourselves or “living in the moment.” But is it quite so simple? Read more ...

To Make Love Last, What If We Should Stop Working So Hard?

The Washington Post, October 5, 2015

I used to treat every wound. Pimples got one cream, eczema another. On trips, I carried a freezer bag full of medications: for flu, for cramps, for sleeplessness. Any bodily event somewhat out of the ordinary warranted a doctor’s appointment. Infections made me anxious. What if the antibiotic didn’t work? I sensed my body a fragile thing entrusted to the pharmacy aisle.

And then, one long journey deep into the wilderness, I forgot the freezer bag — and promptly got a cut on my cheek that festered. I had absolutely nothing to treat it besides time. It’s a testament to how alienated we are from the body’s own healing capacities that I was astonished when the infection, in a few days, resolved itself. Read more ...

Love in the Age of Big Data

The Huffington Post Highline, August 17, 2015

Once upon a time, in the Pony Expresso cafe in Seattle, a man and a woman began to experience the long-mysterious but increasingly scientifically investigated thing we call love. The first stage is called "limerence." This is the spine-tingling, heart-twisting, can't-stop-staring feeling, when it seems as though the world stops whirling and time itself bows down and pauses before the force of your longing. The man, a then-44-year-old University of Washington research psychologist named John Gottman, was drawn to the woman's wild mane of black curly hair and her creativity: She was an amateur musician and painter as well as a psychologist like himself. The woman, a then-35-year-old named Julie Schwartz, who'd placed a personal ad in the Seattle Weekly that John had answered, was turned on by John's humble little car—voted the ugliest vehicle in the University of Washington faculty parking lot—and his expansive curiosity. He read physics and math and history and kept a little spiral-bound notebook in his pocket that he used to jot down things his companions said that captivated him.

They talked avidly; it felt as if they'd known each other forever. Read more ...

Why We Should Look at Ruins Like They're in Technicolor

The Washington Post, June 24, 2015

The past exists in our memory in gray, in marble. Greek temples, once painted, have been bleached by time. Old photographs are in black-and-white.

Because of this, we tend to imagine our forebears were more serious than we are, applying themselves dutifully to family and faith and the contemplation of eternal questions while we skitter around reading each other’s Facebook overshares and nurse hangovers and lose hours we’ll never get back watching E! TV. We always suspect modernity constitutes a decline from the past. We experience inner conflict: Drawn to silliness, to “pokes” and Buzzfeed and tiaras and dancing ’til the room blurs, we also hate the silliness in our natures, call it childish, seek to conquer it.

But is the contrast we imagine between the present and the past true? Or is it a trick? Read more ...

Think Traveling in Foreign Countries Is Getting Less Interesting? Try Nature Instead

The Washington Post, June 17

Traveling recently in the Istanbul airport, I saw a lone man in a fez. In a day’s walk in Tbilisi, the capital of the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, I spotted one man in a fantastical Orthodox monk’s habit, a black cape cantilevered away from his shoulders like a vampire’s cloak. To see these solitary figures was like glimpsing ghosts haunting the uniform present from a queer, costumed past, a mysterious time when different people actually wore different styles of dress and didn’t all carry cell phones.

How the same the world has become, and how fast. Every time I travel, more downtowns I visit look like airport departure lounges, the same Burberry shops and Cadbury bars; more taxis play Katy Perry; more restaurants serve pizza and fajitas; more people wear hipster glasses and distressed jeans. Read more ...

How a Generation of Overachievers Finally Learned Some Humility

The Washington Post, June 10, 2015

College reunions are wonderful things, organic studies of how a generation ages in five-year increments. My generation has long been known for being “programmed,” Achievement Kids obsessed with racking up accomplishments within an at once kaleidoscopic and unimaginative framework of success: the law clerkship, the magazine internship, the McKinsey gig, the summer trip clothing orphans in Malawi.

Ten years later, our jobs — at least for those of us pulled back to campus to reminisce about a high point of the Achievement Kid fantasy — are still pretty bourgeois, anticipated: “I’m a litigator,” was the sentence I heard the most at my college reunion.

And yet it was usually offered in a quiet, even sheepish voice, not one strengthened by pride. Read more ...

The Real Reason Airports Depress Us

The Washington Post, June 3, 2015

It’s the start of summer in the northern hemisphere, and thus the season for a million stories about air travel: the record numbers of people moving by air, the delays, the guy who stripped nude to protest the TSA, the tips on how to travel with a terrier or which on-board wine to pair with your foil-wrapped chicken marsala.

But precious little is written about airports themselves. They’re such fascinating spaces. It’s easy not to notice that, not even to think about them, because they’re fundamentally so similar to each other. We tend to notice difference. The air when we step off the plane in Los Angeles or Beijing, the architecture in Stockholm or Morocco. But it’s the sameness of airports that’s precisely their intrigue. Read more ...

Why We Should Relish Endings

The Washington Post, May 13, 2015

Many years ago, living in Boston but in love with a man in New York, I took the train down the Eastern Seaboard twice a month. Five or ten minutes before the ride ended, the train would begin to slow. This was my favorite part of the ride: the whizz of goldenrod yellow, asphalt blue, indiscernibly shadowy backyards, town squares popping up into view and then vanishing fast as the backs of cresting dolphins disappearing down into the deep — all this suddenly started to resolve into detail, to piece itself together into identifiable things. I savored the chance to pick out the shape of a single purple tricycle in someone’s open car-port, the lettering on the street signs, the different wildflowers genuflecting at the edge of the gravel railway track, the face of a child in a window. What had been imperceptible became knowable through the very different rhythm of the journey’s ending.

I’ve been thinking about these train rides lately. Read more ...

How Your Last Boyfriend Helps Your Next One

The Washington Post, April 20, 2015

A long time ago, a man and I, in love with each other, argued about his lack of curiosity about the world. It seemed to me that more interest in others could make us happier, and more important, make him happier. He said no: he was happy as the homebody he was; this trait was elemental; it could never change. We each dug into our positions. The conflict swelled. We parted.

Eight months later, though, he returned to me. “I’ve become the person you thought I could be,” he said, with surprise and pleasure in his voice. Read more ...

Why Change Can Be Better Than Constancy

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The Washington Post, April 13, 2015

Every morning before I sit down to write I go look at the sky above Nairobi, where I live part-time. I’ve got a big picture window facing north, wide enough to frame great masses of clouds and a half-dozen falcons playing in thermals as if life is nothing but joy. What I love about this view is it’s always different. Nairobi almost never has blue skies nor gray skies, but always a mix of the two: heavy thunderclouds laboring with bellyfuls of rain and fringed at the top with ice-blue from the sun behind, or soft eraser-marks of cirrus clouds over a mat of turquoise, or cumulus clouds as perfectly-shaped as a flock of sheep marching north towards some heavenly pasture.

And yet I simultaneously associate the sight of this particular sky with constancy. It’s always different, but it’s always there. Read more ...

What If We Can't Know What Makes Us Happy?

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, April 1, 2015

Like many people, I have a period in my life I recall as unusually happy. The further I recede from it, the more definitive a glow it acquires, just as a ragged swirl of cosmic plasma transforms, from a great distance, into the single, bright point of the northern star. I wonder sometimes what made it so happy. Often it seems obvious to me: I’d just moved overseas; I was literally being paid to learn and explore rather than to produce work; I was falling in love.

But occasionally I suspect it could have been something totally different than those conspicuous answers. I close my eyes, in bed at night, and re-inhabit my body during that time. The new city where I’d moved was set amongst hills, and every day I walked inclines: these long, difficult rambles dissolved my daily cares. Perhaps it was the air itself, damp and laced with salt, drifting in from the nearby sea. Read more ...

The Battle to Be Israel's Conscience

By Eve Fairbanks, The Guardian, March 12, 2015

On 15 August last year, five weeks into the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Hagai El-Ad, the director of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, appeared on a morning radio show to discuss the conflict. Throughout the fighting, B’Tselem did what it has done for 25 years since it was founded during the first Palestinian intifada: document human rights violations by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. It compiled film and testimony gathered by volunteer field researchers on the ground, tallied daily casualty figures that were used by the local and international press, and released names of individual Palestinians killed by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

B’Tselem’s founders intended it to serve a purpose unlike any other organisation in Israel’s fractious political atmosphere: to provide pure information about the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians, without commentary or political agenda. But by last summer, this stance had become a source of controversy. Read more ...