In the last week or so I have fired my agent, quit my job, and scheduled euthanasia for my dog. So if you’re wondering why there wasn’t a newsletter last week, well.
The dog has inoperable osteosarcoma and we’ve known for a while that we were on borrowed time; in February we were not expecting him to make it to May. Still, there’s a big difference between knowing something will happen and knowing when. (Next week.) The other two were also a long time coming, although they’re different in almost every other way, bittersweet at worst instead of tragic. What they have in common is a sense of transition: a time before, a time after, and between them, a moment of change.
A lot of people have said “it’s the end of an era” about me leaving my job as editor-in-chief of an online magazine. If I know them, I have usually said some version of “yes, that’s the point.” Publications should have eras. If the editor-in-chief has enough power—and I did, primarily because we were so small—then their preferences become the magazine’s preferences, their sensibilities become the magazine’s sensibilities, their areas of ignorance become the magazine’s areas of ignorance, their biases become the magazine’s biases. That’s okay for a while—it’s how you get that “consistent editorial voice” people like to rhapsodize about—but it also means there’s a limit to how much the magazine can grow, or at least there is if you’re relatively old and ossified like me. At this point, I’m simply not going to change that much, or at least not if I keep doing the same thing. So we have this period of breaking down in order to breathe new life: a new era for me and a new era for this thing I helped build and have taken as far as I can. The old era and the new era, and the turbulent moment between.
I’m reading a galley of Leigh Cowart’s book Hurts So Good, which is out in September and is gonna be big, y’all. It’s about masochism, not just sexual masochism (though that too) but all the ways that people, against their best instincts, court pain: religious penitents, hot sauce enthusiasts, ultramarathoners, body modification fans. I know a certain amount about how pain works in the body and brain—I wrote about it last year—but I’m also learning a lot. One concept that falls into both those categories—something I already knew and something I learned—is the idea that pain makes ritual meaningful. It’s not always physical pain, though it is sometimes; there are coming-of-age rituals that involve being stung by bullet ants and coming-of-age rituals that involve reading Hebrew in front of an audience, and the pain is not the same in quality or quantity but it’s there. You mark out a threshold with this intense and difficult experience, and then you step through. Leigh* quotes psychologist Brock Bastian: “One thing we know… is that pain is often used in rituals in general because it signifies something meaningful. It leads people to connect around something important.”
This is an idea I remember from anthropology class in college, but I worried it was outdated, since I graduated 20 years ago. I’m pleased to hear Bastian repeat it based on research from the last few years, so I can keep citing it—because I cite it a surprising amount for a concept I vaguely remember from one class outside my major two literal decades ago. It’s been especially handy the two times I’ve planned a wedding, when I’ve reminded myself that the occasional stressful or overwrought moment was actually a necessary part of the experience, that it wouldn’t feel like it counted if it were easy. But it’s also come back around in the last few months, as each of my friends in turn has suffered through our second vaccine. Personally I had a real Eleusinian mysteries initiation of a time, sweating and shivering and fasting through a mildly delirious fever. It wasn’t fun, per se, but I don’t know that I would have wanted it otherwise. Would I have felt like vaccination was something real, something that mattered, if I didn’t mark the threshold with a little pain before I stepped through?
So this is my letter from the doorway: the space after a lot of Befores and before a lot of Afters, the space where it hurts because it has to. (Someday I’ll write about the dog, but not today.) If something is hurting today, ask yourself if it marks a passage. Ask yourself if it’s the pain of an old era dying off, a new one being born.
*We are online friends; always cite authors by their last names if you don’t know them personally, even if they are women! It really grinds my gears when people call men/male-coded authors by their last names and women/female-coded authors by their first names and it happens all the time