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For a good chunk of last year, me and my friend Zoya would FaceTime every Friday night. Since we graduated in May, I’ve been writing non stop and Zoya’s spent nearly every day studying for her MCAT. We were tired. Throughout the week we would send each other pep talks, quick notes of appreciation, fun articles, cute songs. The sporadic texts would culminate on Fridays, when we’d really catch up. Though Zoya is a student of neuroscience and will eventually enter medicine, a field that I am both completely ignorant of and intimidated by, she’s always been, maybe more than any of my other friends, a lover of literature, and had a real way with words. The girl can chat. And I mean about anything. Whenever we FaceTimed, I would often find myself reaching for my journal to write down some insightful or funny thing she said. A couple months ago I asked her if she could ever read two novels at once. Zoya said no. “I’m a purist,” she told me. I had never heard the word used that way before, and I remember chuckling at her innovation as I scribbled it down. Zoya continued: “When I’m reading a book I want to completely enter the world of the novel.”
I suppose in that way, I would not be a purist. I have kept a journal since I was eight years old, and I still have every single one. Until a year ago, these notebooks were filled with almost exclusively my thoughts and musings: the steady I,I,I of a woman self assured in her needs and her future. But this year, the pages look different. Every entry is a weird, unintentional collection of thoughts I picked up from other people: smart lines from books, sweet texts from friends, good song lyrics, tweets that made me laugh. It occurs to me that throughout this year that I’ve spent more time alone than any other period of my life, my journal, the most accurate and potentially only physical representation of the inside of my brain, has become a collection of other people’s thoughts and musings, a written anthology of ideas that, in another, sweeter lifetime, would have been shared in person over late night white claws and homemade charcuterie boards.
Though I’ve only started grappling with this question more recently, people across all cultures and disciplines have long wondered where the self ends and the other begins. Even now, we haven’t reached many definitive conclusions. Many Buddhists believe in the principle Anattā, which roughly translates to “non-self.” The doctrine states that there is no unchanging, permanent self, that we as humans should be defined by the “four noble truths” of suffering, and spend our days investigating the people and causes behind it. In 1979, Polish psychologist Henri Tajfel proposed the social identity theory, which similarly states that a person’s sense of who they are is determined by what groups they belong to. These groups can be predetermined-–such as your family, hometown, or racial identity––or self ascribed, like a college or a favorite sports team. According to Tajfel, these communities are an important source of pride and self esteem. They provide people with an important sense of belonging. In this way, both spiritualists and scientists would agree: we cannot be ourselves alone.
Groupthink is often defined as a social phenomenon where people are swayed to change their beliefs to match a larger, particular agenda. It usually has a negative connotation, like you’re being pressured to join a cult. I know that this is sometimes true. But strangely, after being in social isolation for ten months, I’m kind of starting to miss the gentle groupthink that occurs when you live in community with people who will share and affirm your weird beliefs and ideas. Since the onset of the pandemic in March, I’ve felt this deep impatience to know myself, become myself at an accelerated rate that I was convinced solitude would provide me. And as time goes on, I’ve been oddly disappointed in my inability to grow or evolve in the ways that I expected. I’ve certainly changed this year, but it’s felt different, because time is moving different, and it mostly has not felt good. I think this is because Tajfel was right; hard as I try, I am only one component of myself.
In 2020 I heard the words “self care” more than I had ever heard them in my entire life. People in power love to tell us to practice self care, especially during times of complete and utter chaos, because it’s a way to put the onus on individuals for not thriving under circumstances of violence or scarcity. But in order to truly grow and live fulfilling lives as individuals, we need not only self care but community care: networks and relationships that allow space for joy, rest, and comfort that is shared, always shared. I would not be writing this essay right now, and you wouldn’t be reading it, were it not for my community who supported and encouraged me. To sit with that realization––that you would not be yourself if it were not for another, that you become more you by loving someone else––is a humbling and powerful thing.
I’ve spent the last several weeks tearing through Black Futures, a 2020 anthology of Black art, writing, and other creative work curated by two Black writers and best friends, Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew. The book holds so much between its pages including old newspaper clippings, stunning photographs, screenshots from social media, and family recipes that come together to tell this beautiful, tactile story about Black art and life that feels just as personal as it is curational. My favorite aspect of Black Futures is it’s surprising modernity; though it’s an anthology that I know will hold up for years to come, you can still tell it was carefully curated by young, queer Black people who paid attention to aesthetic, color, and vibe, who ensured that the collection preserved a feeling of community and friendship. One of the book’s first pages, for example, is an illustration of the first conversation between the two authors, which took place over Instagram DM. “It must be said that I love your Instagram and you are a DREAM QUEEN,” Jenna said, to which Kimberly replied, “Ah you are a dream queen! Thanks for messaging.” And so it began. Every page in Black Futures is stunning, but this was the passage I was stuck on. It’s so wild to me that Instagram could be the impetus for this beautiful work of Black art.
The poet Grace Dunham once said: “Talking with friends is also a form of writing.” Kimberly and Jenna can attest to this, and I can too. When my friend Zoya says something funny over FaceTime, when my pal Maimuna texts me their latest Spotify playlist, this too is writing, and it informs my work. There are many things that make writing good, and some of them we speak of often: reading more, writing more, and I suppose, as a byproduct, thinking more. But perhaps the most important thing that’s made my writing better is a specific sort of human connection, one where I am so understood by the people in my life that I become brave enough to share my ideas because I no longer feel alone in them.
My friend Yume is maybe the only person I feel comfortable sending things to without context. If I see a tweet I think is dumb, I’ll send it. If I hear a song I think is great, I’ll share it. No caption needed. She does the same. There’s a certain level of trust that blankets these sort of messages: i think this is weird or funny or cool for a specific reason that i know you will also share so i am sending for you but we don't need to talk about it further. love u. Because we share so many niche preferences and opinions it has become a running joke between the two of us that me and Yume have the same brain. Which made me feel better about my own brain: if I love Yume’s mind and we’re splitting a brain cell, that must mean there’s some values in my ideas, too. More recently I’ve asked Yume to look over my newsletter almost every time I put out an essay. It’s not really for grammatical or structural advice, I just love the way she affirms and furthers my ideas. Once I apologized for my almost weekly probing messages (hey sorry can u take a look at this) but Yume brushed me off. “I love this little peer review we have going,” she texted me, and I do too. She reviewed this essay that you’re reading right now, and her comments made me understand my own words more.
I have written this essay so many fucking times. I first opened the google doc maybe two months ago because I wanted to write something about new year’s resolutions, and reflecting on this hellish year, and my desire to become this better, shiny version of myself that I’m not sure even exists outside my own head. This version of me––Good Mary, let’s call her, though I’m not even sure her name would be Mary––is cool, hot, and unbothered. She goes on runs in the morning and doesn’t forget to eat lunch. She posts essays to the internet without having anxiety. I want to be this Mary, and I believe that I can. But I’m realizing I cannot be her alone.
I started this essay two months ago and now I am here. I don’t know if I’ve “grown” or “changed” in that time, except that now I’m starting to think those concepts are bullshit. A new favorite writer of mine named Durga Chew-Bose once said she’s always writing something she was thinking about five minutes ago and three years ago. As am I. Talking with friends is a form of writing and writing is a form of becoming myself.
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