1. Mbird speaker emeritus Oliver Burkeman has a new twice-a-month newsletter with a great name, The Imperfectionist, which you can sign up for if you’d like. In his inaugural edition of the newsletter, Burkeman has an uncanny insight into the unpayable debt of the cosmic to-do list:

What if — and personally I find this thought almost unthinkable in is radicalism, but still, here goes — what if there’s nothing you ever have to do to earn your spot on the planet? What if everything you actually get around to doing, on any given day, is in some important sense surplus to minimum requirements?

There’s an obvious objection here, which is that to achieve certain outcomes, there clearly are certain things you “have to” do. In order to get this email to you, I had to write it; in order to have a clean kitchen, I have to clean the kitchen, or else passive-aggressively comment on the disastrous state of the kitchen until my partner cleans it. In order to keep paying the mortgage, I have to generate an income. This is where inequality enters the picture, too, because of course some people have to do a lot more than others simply to stay afloat.

But I think many of us overlay this instrumental sense of obligation — “in order to have this, you’ll need to do that” — with the existential one described above: the feeling that you must get things done, not merely to achieve certain ends, but because it’s a cosmic duty you’ve somehow incurred in exchange for being alive.

This is why I’m such an enthusiastic proponent of keeping a “done list,” which starts empty, first thing in the morning, and which you then gradually fill with whatever you accomplish through the day. Each entry is a cheering reminder that you could, after all, have spent the day doing nothing constructive — yet look what you did instead! (If you’re in a serious psychological rut, just lower the bar for what gets to count as an accomplishment: nobody else need ever know that you added “brushed teeth” or “made coffee” to the list.) […]

And make no mistake: paying off your imaginary productivity debt completely — in other words, working so hard and so efficiently that you no longer feel like you’re falling behind — is literally impossible, not just grueling and unpleasant. In the modern world of work, there’s no limit to the number of emails you might receive, the demands your boss might make, the ambitions you might have for your career, etcetera — so there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever get to the end of them. Meanwhile, modern media, especially social media, is a giant machine for exposing you to a bottomless newsfeed of far more suffering than St Francis of Assisi himself was ever asked to care about.

Whenever I manage to remember that this is just the way things are — that the cosmic debt I seem to imagine I must pay off is in fact inherently impossible to pay off — I find I’m far better able to relax in the midst of having too much to do, as opposed to making relaxation dependent on first getting on top of it all (which I never will). Crucially, I’m also far better placed to actually do things — the productive and good-citizen things that were the focus of all this angst in the first place. Look: there they are, on the done list! Not many of them, perhaps, at least by comparison to the immeasurable galaxy of “things that need doing.” Still, there are generally quite a few more than zero items there, by the time 6pm rolls around. At which point I usually mix a gin and tonic, though I tend not to add that to the list.

Say it with me friends:

2. The newest episode of the Mockingcast is now up now and one of the essays they discuss is this gem from writer/actor/newsletter-composer Mo Perry. Her observation about shame, social media, and what we’re sharing about during COVID are particularly relevant to the Mockingbird crowd:

As I was prepping to write this newsletter, I posed the question on Facebook and Twitter: “Do you feel like you have to hide (or are less inclined to share) pleasurable or fun activities you do outside your home?” The answers were striking. The folks who said no all explained that they’re not doing anything risky, so they have nothing to hide.

A lot of other folks said yes. And the reasons they gave were only partially about COVID risk shaming; they also mentioned wanting to be seen as appropriately somber in this dark time of civil unrest.

All this seems to add up to a new relationship we’ve communally developed with social media. It’s a place we go to demonstrate our goodness, display our adherence to the rules, and show our fealty to the approved positions on social issues.

Our real lives — the parts that are messy, fun, joyful, playful, morally ambiguous, less than perfectly ethically vetted — stay in the shadows.

This is certainly true for me. Earlier this month I flew to California for a few days to visit one of my best friends. She picked me up at LAX and we drove to Palm Springs, where we had an Airbnb for two nights. We stopped at the grocery store on our way to the house, stocked up for the weekend, and other than a morning hike on Saturday, we spent the whole time hanging out at the house until she dropped me off at the Palm Springs airport on Sunday afternoon. (I feel I need to tell you that I got tested for COVID four days after returning home; the results were negative.)

We didn’t share a single picture or post about the trip online. Not on Instagram, not on Facebook, not on Twitter. On the one hand, it felt like a naughty indulgence — something we had to do on the DL to keep from getting in trouble. On the other, it was a revelation: This chance to rediscover privacy. To inhabit my experience without broadcasting it or framing it for public consumption. 

I wonder if that’s one of the gifts embedded in this wild pendulum swing away from packaging our lives for constant digital consumption, toward a wariness of the judgement of others. I don’t love that shame and fear are the driving forces, but maybe those things will self-correct a bit as the pendulum settles. And we’ll be able to keep this new immediacy, this direct experience of reality, this full-bodied inhabiting of our complex offline lives.

3. Our resident expert in #Seculosity says that “everyone” sent him this long read from the Atlantic on niche sports and college admissions. Lacrosse, fencing, squash, water polo, crew — if you could excel at these upper-crust athletics, doors would open into elite universities. Rather than a fun game to play and  enjoy, rich parents view these sports as an instrumental investment to get their child into an elite college. Or at least that was the case before the pandemic. The article outlines the insane amount of time and money spent on an ever shrinking number of these prestigious sports admissions slots, cataloguing how this avenue to the Ivy league has destroyed the mental and physical health of a generation of young athletes. Hard to pick out just one anecdote, but here’s my favorite of the bunch:

One Greenwich parent told me she believes that, far from being a glide path to the Ivies, lacrosse had actually hurt her older son’s college prospects. As team captain and a straight‑A student with stellar test scores, he would have been a credible applicant to NYU or Columbia — but these schools lack varsity-lacrosse programs, and he’d fallen in love with his sport. “There were eight or 10 strong academic schools we couldn’t even look at, because they didn’t have varsity lacrosse,” she said.

Her kid just completed his freshman year at a not-so-fancy college in the South, and, according to his mom, he’s happy enough. But she feels bitter, and wonders if her younger boy should quit club lacrosse. “The guys who get recruited to the Ivies — it turns out these guys are beasts,” she said. “I saw them at showcases. They were like stallions.”

She and her husband feel hoodwinked by the directors of her son’s club-lacrosse program, which happily stoked her fantasies while stockpiling her money: $10,000 a year for 11 years. “They were talking Notre Dame for him,” she said. “Our eyes were glistening […] We went to 16 showcases last year. I can’t believe the money we spent to see our son rejected 16 times.”

Similar tales of woe flowed through neighborhood gossip channels and chat boards across Fairfield County. The junior-Olympic fencing champion and straight-A student who was recruited by Notre Dame and signed a National Letter of Intent, only to have his application rejected at the last minute because he didn’t take enough AP classes. A top-25 squash player with a perfect SAT score who didn’t even get a reach-out from Amherst. The rower who committed to Yale without properly decommitting from Brown — and was dropped by both. Were elite youth sports working out for anyone? Or was it all a regatta to nowhere?

It’s the #Seculosity of parenting on, er, steroids. DZ suggests that college admissions officers are the high priests of this pseudo-religion, and we might wryly add that student-athlete parents are among their acolytes.

4. Talking music this week, Julien Baker’s new song and music video caught our attention. The track, called “Faith Healer,” hits the right notes. Says Baker about the new song, via Pitchfork:

There are so many channels and behaviors that we use to placate discomfort unhealthily which exist outside the formal definition of addiction. I (and so many other people) are willing to believe whomever — a political pundit, a preacher, a drug dealer, an energy healer — when they promise healing, and how that willingness, however genuine, might actually impede healing.

Staying on the music front, Nick Cave’s The Red Hand Files delivers a beautiful note of repentance this week. A fan asked about comments Cave made in ’97 on how suffering produces creativity. Cave’s response was humble:

When I read the quote from a younger Nick Cave saying he needs catastrophes in his life to create, these words sound somewhat like the indulgent posturing of a man yet to discover the devastating effect true suffering can have on our ability to function, let alone to create. I am not only talking about personal grief, but also global grief, as the world is plunged deeper into this wretched pandemic […]

Hyun, if you are living a life that is content my advice is to learn to live inside it, examine it, relish it, and most of all remember it — this extraordinary thing, a happy life — because there may come a time when something will present itself in the form of a misfortune, a transgression, an abuse, a failure, a humiliation, a loss, or, indeed, a global crisis where your life will turn, in an instant, from easy comfort to total chaos. It is happening all around us.

On one level, some of this incoming despair is the routine devastation of ordinary life — suffering is always with us. Still, I pray that, ultimately, we will step beyond this extraordinary harrowing of our time to a new way, a different way, a better way. I hope we will be afforded that opportunity.

Good words for anyone feeling unproductive and uncreative in this pandemic season.

5. In entertainment news, Ron Howard’s cinematic retelling of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is due out in November, and this interview with David French over at The Dispatch has a lot to commend. If the film’s treatment of addiction and family dysfunction is as sympathetic as they say, it may be worth a masked trip to the cinema.

Ron Howard: It’s really a rescue and survival story. It’s not exactly about self-actualization, which J. D. is very open about. Of course he had to have the strength, ultimately [to] make decisions, and [had to] have the ability to pull himself out of some patterns within his family and culture which could’ve entrapped him. But he didn’t do it alone.

David French: The actor, Owen Asztalos who played young J. D., did just a really great job portraying him as a kid with a good heart and instincts. However, this is not an up-from-the-bootstraps story, because of that rescue element you mentioned, Ron. It’s kind of like he was yanked up by Mamaw and, and sustained by [J. D.’s sister] Lindsay and [J. D.’s wife] Usha. It was an incredibly true-to-life-portrayal about how lives are really changed. It’s not that there’s a huge number of kids who have this incredible ability to withstand all of these headwinds.  Somebody’s got to reach in and yank them out. 

We also got trailers this week for The Mandalorian, the new Animaniacs reboot, and a video where (St.) Dolly Parton makes (St.) Stephen Colbert cry (5:02 in the embed above). So, you know …

6. … add them to the list? Another great vid from Julie Nolke, my pandemic YouTube channel find. (Note: language). Also in humor this week: A hearty assent to this Onion gem: Nation Glad To See Baseball Players Still Have Names Like Mookie Betts. Another piece of big news this week: The Woman from Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin” Would Like to Clear a Few Things Up.

I’ll tell you the truth: Tom never got to know me well enough. He liked the idea of me, of the “girl next door” who loves her boyfriend and blah blah blah. But he swung and missed on all the nuances of my personality.

Like he didn’t mention that I am severely allergic to dust. That’s not fun or a particularly cool thing to write a rock anthem about, but it’s accurate. If I forget to take a Zyrtec, I am toast.

One time I drove to Reno on a dare. I had just got laid-off and figured what the hell, dare me to go, Aunt Judy. And Aunt Judy did. Reno is nice. Had the best waffle in my life there. Write that one up!

I also have a Mason jar filled with Barbie heads in my junk drawer. It started as a prank, but then I just kind of liked the aesthetic. Nothing rhymes with that, but it’s who I am …

And to all those “bad boys” out there thinking that the “good girls are home with broken hearts.” We’re not. We’re totally fine. I’ve got a whole back catalog of Steinbeck novels to read. And none of them are about horses. Except for The Red Pony.

7. Lots of news this week on Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and I wasn’t expecting a thoughtful, devotional, Protestant take on the Catholic-mother-of-seven-who-seems-to-have-it-all. Jen Pollock Michel at Christianity Today warns that “The trope of mother as superparent is a resounding rejection of grace,” which bears out as true in Barrett’s daily family life. We’ll let Michel have the last word today:

What myths do we perpetuate by assuming that Barrett (and women like her) are doing it all and doing it all by themselves?

One of the first articles I read about Barrett cited the early morning hour (between 4 and 5 a.m.) at which she rises to exercise before ferrying some of her children to and from swimming practice. To see her maternal form against the dark sky, the sun cradled beneath the horizon, reads like epic poetry — or even biblical verse. As Proverbs 31 details, the virtuous woman is one who “gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.” As the story takes shape in our Western, modern, individualist mind, the solitary heroine rises before the house rouses.

This is a picture of virtue performed alone — one requiring a cape, not the cadre of “friends and fearless babysitters” whom Barrett thanked in her 2017 confirmation hearing for her appointment to the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Indeed, when her name was suggested as a potential replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy when he retired in 2018, Pat Robertson named misgivings that other conservatives surely shared: “That’s going to be tough, to be a judge and take care of all those kids, won’t it?”

The default assumption in Robertson’s words is that family is not a shared project: It’s women’s work and work that is single-handed and done in seclusion.

However, we know that this picture of motherhood is far more recent than historical (and hardly biblical). Furthermore, Barrett herself has debunked this myth. She has always been clear to say that hers is more than a one-woman band. In addition to crediting her flexible work arrangements, she’s thanked her husband, Jesse, a private practice attorney, whom she’s described as a “selfless and wonderful partner.” Friends attest that he’s the one responsible for carpool and cooking.

Barrett is managing it all, at least in part, because someone else is making the dentist appointments. She’s living less like a superhero and more like a human being. She isn’t to be admired for performing tightrope acts of courage all by herself, as if she can defy time as one might try defying gravity. Instead, she is dependent on a larger social body, something she was clear to acknowledge in her opening statement at this week’s confirmation hearing and which bears out in her participation in the faith group People of Praise.

In other words, if there is heroism in Barrett’s story, it’s the heroism of teamwork. […]

As Katelyn Beaty put it in the New York Times, “If a generation of girls is to follow in Judge Barrett’s footsteps, they will need explicit support from religious leaders. As such, evangelical and traditional Catholic communities must find ways to honor and affirm the ambitions of half their members.”

But perhaps even more than permission is needed. So long as women are admired for doing it all, as if all by themselves, we miss the invitation of the gospel: that we get to be a needy people. As the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 make clear, we’re made for relationship with God and with one another. Our work, whether domestic or professional, is always a co-labor. Mothers — like fathers, like children, like every human being — aren’t made for autonomy, even the autonomy that parades like courage and selflessness.

Heroism is not required for making life work. Dependence is.


  • Our 1517 friends had their virtual “Here We Still Stand” gathering this weekend and included a couple of Mockingbirds. See Jacob Smith’s devotional above.
  • Long time readers of Mbird will know of our deep appreciation for Robert Downey, Jr.’s gracious, recovery-minded spirituality. He was, after all, the man who taught us how to hug the cactus. Here he is weighing in on a relative non-story from this week about the faith of his Avengers: Endgame co-star Chris Pratt.
  • Some of us lucky folks got to see the NYC premiere of the documentary Normie at the 2019 Mbird NYC gathering — if you haven’t had a chance, the amazing film is streaming this week as a part of the Twin Cities Film Fest.
  • An excerpt from Alan Jacob’s new book Breaking Bread With the Dead is up on Harper’s.