Note: this Weekly Update is offered to all free subscribers. To get access to all past and future updates, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Hi everyone -
I just got back from Falmouth, MA, where my partner and I were visiting an old friend. He and I originally met each other kitesurfing, and as it happened the conditions for a kiting session were as good as we could have hoped for in an early November day near the Cape. Which is to say, they were brilliant. About 18 knots of wind, 55 degrees in the air and maybe a few degrees warmer in the water.
My friend took the day off from work and the two of us drove out to Chapoquoit Beach, where we spent a few hours in our wetsuits and the wind and surf, flying through the Autumn air. If climbing for me is about a struggle with inner demons, then kitesurfing is simple, pure, unadulterated joy. (I wrote about kitesurfing from the Dominican Republic in one of my earliest weekly updates if you’re interested).
Life as narrative
As I was driving back from this trip to my home in New Hampshire I couldn’t shake the thought that I had to form the trip into a story, mold it, place it within a broader arc of my month, this year, or maybe an entire life. In fact, Instagram had provided me with precisely the tool to do this and distribute it to whomever cared to watch. The feature is unsurprisingly called Stories.
Perhaps it’s because I had just finished re-watching (for the third time) Breaking Bad, which is the greatest show ever made, great because every single detail matters, and everything that happens has consequences to the overall story. The five-season arc in which Walter White goes from high school chemistry drug teacher to drug kingpin is visual narrative at its best. All the pieces are there, but most of all it’s the writing. And writing is storytelling.
Yet as I drove I had to stop and remember: my life is not a story.
In fact, life is more like another show, one I love almost as much as Breaking Bad, but which takes the precise opposite view of the events of one’s life: Mad Men. In Mad Men, the events of its characters’ lives unfold just like that - as discrete events. Nothing matters necessarily. The things that happen are only significant if we assign significance to them. In Mad Men, after it does not mean because of it.
Setting myself in opposition
I think life is more like Mad Men than Breaking Bad, but to think that and to remember it and to embrace it as core to existence is, in a way, to set myself in opposition to much of how we humans function.
The world is complicated and scary, and so we tell stories. As Joan Didion said, we tell stories in order to live. We need them to make sense of the world and to explain our place in it. Otherwise it’s all just a bit… pointless.
Why did I go to Falmouth? What role does kitesurfing play in my life? What is the meaning of the friendship I have with my kiting buddy? Did the perfect November day happen there just for us, so that, after so many years of friendship, we could reconnect over the the very thing that brought us together in the first place?
Of course not. But sometimes we tell ourselves the story anyway. Not only that, in today’s world we can both invent our personal story and distribute it to the world, with a few touches of a button and a few flourishes of a Snapchat filter or a carefully chosen GIF, or a quirky font. The tools of technology have enabled us to do the thing that is most human - tell stories - and also the thing that is most narcissistic.
Events happen, seasons turn
I like to remember, as I did in those moments driving back to New Hampshire, that my life is not a story. Outside my window now the leaves are gone from the trees. Yesterday, a light snow dusted the town in a scattered white. In the afternoon, I fixed a hole in the drywall in the bathroom, and in the evening we stayed out past midnight drinking wine with friends.
Events happen and seasons turn, but they are only a narrative if I choose to make them into one. They only have significance that I attribute. And, as is often the case, the truths I like to remind myself of are as liberating as they are scary.
On that somber note -
- Russell Max Simon