I’ve been lobster-ing this season.
Not to be confused with lobstering, which is a vocation that hasn’t yet piqued my interest.
I’ve been lobster-like, I suppose one could say, in that I’ve been burrowing during a period of transition.
This is one of my favorite metaphors from nature, and one I used in the introduction of my last book. Allow me to quote myself:
About twice a year, lobsters begin outgrowing their shells. The signal that they’re growing: they get really uncomfortable. But they know what to do when their shells begin feeling tight and their limbs get awkwardly long:
They go into hiding.
I imagine a lobster saying to its friends, “Hey guys, I’m going to be out of the office for a couple weeks. Busy growing a new shell, nothing personal.” And then it goes into a burrow, puts up a Do Not Disturb sign, and, I don’t know, catches up on all five seasons of The Wire or something. The lobster knows it’s going to be vulnerable during this time, unprotected and getting used to a new shape. The time hiding by itself is not only a poetic period of self-reflection, but necessary for its survival.
As the lobster does when growing into a new shell, I felt very uncomfortable recently: like I was wearing a too-tight sweater that was itchy and snug and annoying. This is a common feeling for me right before a transition begins, as I prepare for a new outer layer. So I begin hibernating.
I haven’t been socializing a lot, but I haven’t been hiding as a way to avoid people so much as a way to protect and grow as a new me emerges.
In the meantime, I’ve been keeping my ears open. It’s been a good season for me to welcome in words—from books, podcasts, songs, and conversations—and then allow them to find a home in my brain. Some stick, some don’t.
But the nice thing about a slow, inward-facing season is that ideas and images have more time to linger around my mind, taking on more meaning throughout the walks and days. My brain often fixates on unnecessary thoughts that disturb me, but it also fixates on unnecessary thoughts that delight me: a mental photograph of a pastel blue house I saw on vacation, or the chorus of a new song.
So, not socializing, but listening. Lots of listening. I’ve been writing down words I overhear that catch my curiosity, and I’ll list some favorites here:
It’s not for her to understand.
“I love your tattoo—that’s so beautiful.”
“Thank you; I actually designed it.”
“Wow, it’s really special. It looks so nice on you.”
“Can you tell that to my mom?” [laughs]
[smiles] “It’s not for her to understand.”
This interaction in line at a coffee shop made me smile for a minute, though the last sentence thrummed on my spirit for several days. It became an easy “mind anchor” (a word or phrase that brings me closer to the truth) whenever I felt bruised by misunderstanding:
Mean comment? It’s not for her to understand.
Unappreciated outfit? It's not for them to understand.
Questioned decision? It's not for him to understand.
It also gave me humbling relief when I was struggling to investigate why I didn’t like the movie that was repeatedly recommended to me: Maybe it’s just not for me to understand. Maybe this painting isn't for me to understand. Maybe their choice isn't for me to understand.
During times of transition, I find myself quick to defend my identity: both the one I'm growing out of and the one I'm growing into. I recently read a book that talks about how most arguments between couples are about defending identity, and that's not a way I'd like to communicate with anyone.
That's another reason why it makes sense to retreat during periods of change: I'm on the defense while I'm growing my shell, but once I emerge I'll be more open. In the meantime, misunderstanding isn't always a conflict to solve.
Fear halts more dreams than failure ever will.
There are particularly porous times of life when even a peppy cliche written in flouncy script on the cover of an on-sale planner at a cheesy gift shop will actually, mysteriously alter my thinking for the day. “START TODAY” a pink journal with a daisy border is screaming at me. “OKAY I WILL!” I think, momentarily jolted with inspiration.
These are rare, nice moments.
I had one of those moments recently while listening to a laid-back summery song that sang to me a familiar sentiment that has been said many times before: “Fear halts more dreams than failure ever will.”
“Wow!!” I thought, with renewed and earnest awe, “You’re right!”
I realized that those moments of earnest revelation usually accompany a period of loneliness or isolation. I feel much more mushy toward the world when I feel distant from it, as though I'm clinging to any connection to it I can find.
Until I heard this lyric, said in this way, at this time, I didn’t know how much gunk I’d been accumulating with regard to fear and failure in my work. It’s been a tender time (the past, uh, two years) and I’ve felt frail, more susceptible to fears than ever before.
This song, which I might have skipped over on any other day, offered a meaningful reminder that failure is a sign of effort: so much so that I heard of a family who asks their children nightly over dinner What did you fail at today? in order to build resilience and cultivate the belief that failure is a side effect of trying.
Be cheerful, be on time, say thank you.
Have you read the Proust Questionnaire? I love reading answers in the back of Vanity Fair, and fill out the questionnaire myself every year or so.
I don’t have any particular interest in Kenneth Branagh, but I loved his answer to ‘What’s your motto?’ In his recent questionnaire: Be early, be cheerful, say thank you.
As soon as I read it, I thought YEP THAT’S IT.
I assume this motto comes from years of work in movies (“Be cheerful” may apply less to a root canal appointment), but I was thinking about it: People who are cheerful, on time, and gracious are my favorite types of people.
Of course: I’ve been late, you’ve been late, but promptness is a trait that seems to speak to something greater that I really value in a person. I haven’t put my finger on it exactly, but maybe it’s less about a Type-A rigidness around scheduling and perhaps more of a chronic awareness of surroundings, which is a trait that tends to make people more lively and interesting, attentive and interested.
When I emerge into the world post-lobstering, this is the spirit I want to carry around with me: awareness, cheer, gratitude.
When you start comparing yourself, clean your room.
My friend Henry and I were discussing the common affliction of comparing ourselves to our friends (or worse, people we barely know) and he noted that you care less about what’s going on with them when your self-esteem is in stable shape.
I’ve never felt particularly confident when awarded with external validation (my book launch caused an internal tornado of insecurities rather than an ego swell), but I feel most confident when I'm simply living my life in alignment with my values. I thiiiink it was Tim Ferriss who said that self-esteem is built by doing things that nobody sees. (So if you want to feel EXTREMELY GOOD about yourself, run a marathon in secret. That’s not my personal journey but maybe it’s yours.)
I do find that I feel good about myself when my home is clean and organized, my to do list is healthy and not brimming with chores that make me wince, and when I’m getting up early and doing the things I know make me feel centered: cooking, walking, reading.
I’m much less bothered by arbitrary measuring sticks that don’t apply to me when I’m doing simple things that enhance my confidence: putting the dishes away, buying groceries for the next few days, texting back, putting that special little oil on my face at night.
The parasite of envy/resentment that lives in my brain won't ever go away, but it calms down when I'm doing things I really enjoy. I'm not ruminating on others' accomplishments or vacation photos so much when I'm writing here at a tidy desk with my jasmine candle aflame.
Actually, people are thinking about you.
I happened upon this article which affirms something I’ve been suspecting for years: People think about you MORE than you think, not less.
At the top of the article, the writer Shayla Love quotes Big Magic, in which Elizabeth Gilbert says: “Nobody was ever thinking about you. They aren’t. They weren’t. They never were. People are mostly just thinking about themselves. People don't have time to worry about what you’re doing, or how well you’re doing it, because they’re all caught up in their own dramas.”
As much of a Big Magic Head as I am, that struck me as viscerally and totally untrue. I think about people all the time! I’m constantly re-living conversations, wondering about acquaintances from the far far past (whom I assume have forgotten me completely), imagining the lives of my neighbors and other regular figures in my local coffee shops and dry cleaners, spending abundant brain space on the current troubles and joys of my friends.
On social media I still follow people I crossed paths with once long ago, and I could tell you the names of their siblings. I LOVE harmless gossiping and missed it desperately during lockdown. I’m curious about everyone on my flight at this exact moment, as much as I’m curious about the singer of the song I’m listening to and the stock photo model on this airline magazine. I want to hear every detail about a friend's friend I'll never meet. I'm mad when a memoir only scratches the surface of a minor side character.
But don’t panic: As the article concludes, they’re likely thinking about you more favorably than you assume.
There’s liberation in “Nobody’s thinking about you,” but there’s liberation in a communal “holding of thought” too. I like thinking that someone might be holding me in their head as though I’m in a teeny tiny beach hammock, supported and swaying in a mind I’ll never travel to.
It actually makes my failures less scary to think that someone might witness them, consider them, and then let them go—right along with me. Especially in months of lobster-ing, I hope that I wander into the minds of people who are held securely in mine, so when we see each other again it will feel like not so much time has passed at all.
You’re not going to go as far, but it will be more true.
I heard this in barre class as my foot was extended backwards and in my mind I looked just like a prima ballerina. I even dreamed that my teacher would notice, exclaiming in front of the whole class, "You must be a dancer!" and therefore confirming my belief that I'd somehow won at barre, something that does not actually have prizes.
But no. The teacher actually came over to adjust my foot. The coronation ceremony would have to wait.
"You actually want your leg to go directly behind you," she said. "You won't go as far, but it will be more true."
She slightly hesitated as she searched for the word "true," but I knew what she meant. In my previous leg situation, I wasn't targeting any muscle in particular. In this new arrangement, I felt my whole body tense and light up.
"You won't go as far, but it will be more true" has been stuck in my head ever since, especially as I've been wondering what it means to be in integrity and harmony with my work. I could extend myself in order to go farther, but it would be less true—less aligned.
So, I adjust here and there, centering myself in accordance with my inner knowing, and choose truth instead of extension.
Everything is a bonus.
As usual, this came from my genius friend Madeleine, a soulful philosopher with whom I speak almost daily even though we are separated by an ocean and 11 time zones. Thank you, Person Who Invented Voice Notes. Madeleine reminded me:
Everything's a bonus.
Nothing is owed to us. When will we get that in our heads? It’s the ultimate life hack—the only thing we need to know—and yet we avoid, question, and forget it at every turn.
If my vacation is cut short, it’s a bonus that I got to go there anyway. I GOT to go for three days, I didn’t miss out on two more days.
I GOT to have this job. I GET to live in this house. I GET to live this day. I GET to walk underground and get on a train that will take me to my dentist's office so they can use fancy tools to clean the only part of my skeleton that I see on a regular basis. I GET to know this other person because we happen to live on this pale blue dot for a brief period at the same time. They owe me nothing. None of this was promised.
It's a miracle that this universe exists, this planet exists, and that you exist, and that at this moment you might be drinking a beverage that came into existence because someone once thought to pick some bright-colored tangy berries and dry out their seeds and then grind those dried seeds and then pour some hot water over the dried seed grounds to miraculously create a warm brown beverage that caffeinates us and tastes good with milk as our planet twirls around the star that dried out the seeds. It's all extremely wild.
Humans are so good at adapting that we can only really marvel at this miracle for a few seconds before going back to our taxes, but it’s worth repeating in some form every day: Today is a bonus. And nothing is owed to us.
My capacity is different.
I heard this in a yoga class: “Your lung capacity might be different from your neighbor’s.”
Indeed: age, gender, body type, and ethnicity affect lung capacity.
Where else might this concept be applied—that we all have varying capacities? Oh, hm, I don’t know, maybe EVERYWHERE?
Some people can go on five dates a week. Some people need nine hours of sleep. Some people (moi) need a full day of recovery after traveling because the overstimulation of a flight knocks me out. Some people can watch scary movies. Some people can tolerate a lot of noise. Some people can tolerate punk music. Some people can sit still. Some people can run for a long time.
During my lobster-ing session, I need to go a bit slower. A bit introvert-er. A bit quieter. And I tend to get a little sadder. My capacity will be different when I grow my new shell. But I will never have the capacity for scary movies.
You just are something that changes.
I took a long walk in the park the other day and listened to this interview with Rowan Williams, which was so full of gems that my ears felt shiny when it was finished. I loved this especially:
“One of the things which I think any spiritual tradition worth its salt has to say to you at some point is, ‘Get used to it. You are a material being. You just are something that changes, something that grows, something that can be hurt. Get used to it.’ Because anything else is going to be a really dangerous myth.”
This has been particularly helpful while lobster-ing. I am just something that changes. I am as material, tough, and fragile as the trees in the park, who are constantly shifting and strengthening and decaying and sprouting spring leaves anyway.
If you sign up to become a human, you sign up for being hurt, for being stronger than you think you are, and being weaker than you think you are. ESPECIALLY during your lobster era when you are both toughening up and losing your protective shell at the exact same time.
We are born for change, and our capacities will evolve over time. It may not be for them to understand. But what a bonus that we got here in the first place.