What time is it on a plane flying across the Pacific? A flight from Seoul to Los Angeles takes 13 hours, and for those 13 hours, you exist in a sort of ephemeral limbo, neither here nor there. There’s this almost tangible connection to the world around you, so close you can swipe at it with your fingertips, but never quite close enough to reach. You can glance outside and perhaps see the distant lights of cities you may never know. Or maybe you could look around the cabin, and see hundreds of people in too-small seats, just tolerating this next stepping stone in life. A momentary breach of personal space, by people they’ve never seen, and will never see again. Who are they? What are their stories? Where are they going right now? Where are they going in life?
Civilization is made up of 7.4 billion people you’ve never met, interacted with, or even seen. Yet everyone takes that next breath, the hustle bustles, and the Earth continues its perennial slog around our life-giving star.
There’s this internet project, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, and it gives names to all those feelings everyone has but nobody talks about enough. One of those is sonder, defined as the profound feeling of realizing that everyone has a life as complex as yours, which they are constantly living despite your personal lack of awareness of it. Sort of like anti-solipsism, if that’s a thing.
In my mind, nothing embodies this more than the written word. Books, books, wonderful books, imbued with a special quality. They are magical. A thought from the unknown void of someone else’s mind made its way to you, across space and time. Maybe it’s the sign telling you not to lean on the train door. Or your favorite book, the one that gets you, lets you know you’re not alone in the big, big world out there. That there is empathy so strong it reaches into you and plucks your heartstrings, from someone you’ve never met and maybe never will.
I read an enjoyable book because it tugs on my hand and leads me on a gentle frolic to the back cover. Books that make me cry, though, those I can count on one hand. They weaken you with soft blows of emotion, a word here and a sentence there, and then deliver the knock-out punch. Some little snippet of text that sticks in your mind like glue, replaying over and over and over as you apply it to the infinite moments of life, until it brings your façade of stability crashing down. Death by a thousand cuts.
I’ve never talked to David Levithan. I might never talk to David Levithan, or see David Levithan, or know him outside that mini-biography on the dust jacket. But if I could, I’d tell him that Two Boys Kissing is, and will forever be one of my favorite books. Imagine that: a fortysomething Jewish dude in Hoboken, writing a book that resonates with a very confused, very lonely teen in his bedroom half a world away. And of all the things to hit me, it’s his portrayal of an Asian kid coming out to his parents, on pages 130-7. It’s not cheesy. It’s not insincere. It reads and feels like it could be part of my life.
Just re-reading it, as I write this, it sends chills down my spine and makes me shudder. I’ve joked that Asian parents all get connected to some hive mind when they become parents, but I’ve always found the sheer similarities uncanny. The argument reminds me of every argument I’ve had with my parents. Their ability to gloss over and ignore anything they want to. The insistence on having everything be implicit. The desperation in your search for their validation. It feels too familiar. Too close to home. He nailed it.
And yet, this was unintentional. Sure, what goes into writing does have meaning, but your meaning is unlike my meaning is unlike anyone else’s meaning. When Levithan typed those words, sent them to his editor, had them printed, bound into a book, sent to Amazon, and Amazon shipped it to me, nothing could have anticipated my reaction to those words. Everything involved was so incredibly disconnected, but at the same time, so beautifully, intricately connected. From his mind to mine, in a way. A crazy, wonderful link between two ostensibly unrelated moments.
And what is life but this fragile, shimmering chain of discrete events? Your brain can’t record everything. It doesn’t have the space or ability to. All we know and remember and act upon is a discontinuous sequence of images, or brief, imperfect scenarios with so, so many little parts lost to the abyss of time.
I suppose it goes something like this:
Your first memory. I was about one. My parents fed me very, very hot porridge. So hot it jump-started my consciousness, apparently.
I’m 5, in kindergarten. There was this cool toy that vaguely involved carrots. They fed us peanut butter sandwiches before nap time.
I’m 10. I get home from school, and my grandmother’s dead. Complications from lung cancer. I don’t even remember her having lung cancer. They played Amazing Grace at the funeral.
I’m 13. My parents announce that we’re moving across the continent to Shanghai, China. The hardwood parquet in their bedroom is still there. They’ve replaced it with pine since then.
I’m 17, planning my Common App essay in the dining room by candlelight, on the first day of school, because Typhoon Chan-hom bounced off the coast of China and flooded the city, knocking out our power for a day. We still had to get on the bus, then got told that school was cancelled 5 minutes before we arrived.
Here I am, writing this essay.
‘It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It’s called living.’ -Terry Pratchett.