I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I listen to podcasts to keep my mind from catastrophizing at the end of the day in bed. I’m not one of those people who falls asleep when my head hits the pillow. Lying down and turning out the light are cues to my brain to commence the doomsday scenarios of climate change, gun violence, the death of democracy (such as it is), and the next pandemic wave. Some nights the scenarios are more personal and revolve around family relationships, my apparent parental failures, my flaws as a human being in general. All of it keeps me from sleep, and I am greeted regularly in the mirror by my insomnia face.
If life is a five-act play, I’m in the fifth act of my life. I’m turning seventy this year and my mind boggles at how quickly that number can blink to eighty. In this last act, I want to minimize the scolding, lecturing voices, and the looming menaces that are particularly shrill and present at night.
So I fill my ears with a podcast. A favorite has been Hidden Brain. I find the voice of the host, Shankar Vedantam, soothing and utterly compelling, and the topics are exactly what I need. Here’s the podcast’s statement of purpose:
“Hidden Brain explores the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior and questions that lie at the heart of our complex and changing world.”
What I’m really after, aside from distraction from the ills of the world, are insights into human behavior—insights into myself and those around me to help cope with personal conflicts, and insights into the actions and emotions of the fictional characters I write, all of which can help address or at least aid in understaning what’s behind the ills of the world. Ah, if only I could make sense of it all.
Usually, I fall asleep during the episode I begin with and wake up an hour or so later to a different one, which I listen to for a while before falling asleep again. It’s a pattern repeated several times during the night. In the morning, my brain is a mishmash of the various episodes and the dreams fashioning themselves deep inside my temporal lobe. I am unrested, but still in better shape had I not had the podcast running all night and instead flopped around hopelessly from insomnia.
When I exhausted all available episodes of Hidden Brain, I switched to The Happiness Lab, then Deeply Human, and then dabbled in How to Be a Better Human and then How to Build a Happy Life. Do you sense a pattern here?
Lately, I’ve been listening to Good Life Project. The host is Jonathan Fields and like Shankar Vedantam, he has a soothing and compelling voice. “We’re on a quest to help you live a more meaningful, connected and vital life,” says the webpage. Yes, I’m all ears!
But rather than lull me to sleep, three episodes I listened to recently kept me awake because they were extra enthralling. So, hello, there again, sleepless nights.
But, please, be enthralled by these stories in your awake hours.
Sabaa Tahir on “All My Rage,” 7 Aug 22
A best-selling author of fantasy for young adults following a career as a journalist, Sabaa Tahir grew up in her family’s 18-room motel in China Lake, a naval weapons base in the Mojave Desert. Her parents emigrated from Pakistan to Great Britain and then to this desert town in the United States, where it was normal to see little mushroom clouds in the distance and feel the tremor of sonic booms.
She and her family were one of the few South Asian families in the town and were reminded regularly that they were not like the rest of its residents. Once, her father called the police for help and they arrested him. It is among the incidents that shaped Tahir’s multifarious view of the place where she grew up.
“Even though this town treated us like garbage a lot of the times, I still have a love for it. It’s okay to feel two things at once. Or three. Or five.”
She used storytelling to face the ghosts of that time and place and “access emotions like rage.” Her most recent book is All My Rage, winner of the 2022 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
“All My Rage is a love story, a tragedy and an infectious teenage fever dream about what home means when you feel you don’t fit in.” — New York Times Book Review
In the podcast episode, Tahir says, “Telling these stories, my hope is to let people feel witnessed, to let them feel they’re not alone, and to share something that on the surface seems very specific but to find the universal in that, to find the humanity in that because ultimately that is what we are looking for in each other in the art that we create, in the art that we consume.
Tahir’s voice exudes warmth and humor, which in no way negates the rage and hurt she felt while growing up. It’s very much worth a listen.
Jerry Saltz on “How Art Changes Us (and is being changed by us),” 23 Oct 22
In his twenties, Jerry Saltz was an artist living a Bohemian existence first in Chicago and then New York until the demons of self-doubt descended on him. He left art behind and drove a truck for ten years, though he never stopped reading Art Forum. At age forty, with no formal education or degree, Saltz decided to become an art critic. He is now senior art critic at New York magazine, the author of four books, and a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
Here are a few favorite lines from the episode:
“Art is a kind of channeled voice of human experience, a necessary window into our times.”
“Art echoes out into everything.”
“My idea of art is you embed thought into material.”
This is one I can especially relate to and goes to the emotional and instinctual aspects of our selves when making art:
“Art is a creative force that is using all of us to reproduce itself and as it reproduces itself, it changes us, the mainframe, which then changes it and none of us knows where our work comes from. We just know how to do it even though we don’t know what we’re doing.”
And then there’s this, which captures the making and experiencing of art:
“The sublime, the big feeling, the buzz that you get from it all, is in each other. The sublime is in you.”
Irreverent, voluble, and in love with art, Saltz is a delight to listen to in this episode.
Angus Fletcher on “Sparking Creativity with the Power of Storytelling,” 6 Jul 22
After receiving his degree in neuroscience and while studying the brain with some colleagues, Angus Fletcher had an epiphany. The human brain was much more than a receiver and processor of data. It was much more than a computer. It was emotion, too.
“The greatest mystery and the greatest marvel on earth is other humans. “Where was all the magic coming from and where was all the horror coming from? As humans we create worlds, we destroy worlds.”
Fletcher left neuroscience to study Shakespeare at Yale. He wanted to “go somewhere where people really understand emotion and where they understand creativity. That was literature.” He is now professor of story science at Ohio State University’s Project Narrative and is, in his words, “the world’s leading expert on the psychological effects of narrative and literature.” His latest book is Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.
He says, “A lot of resilience, optimism and anti-fragility is baked into literature and philosophy.”
Listen to this episode and what Fletcher says about the healing aspects of literature, about what happens to kids’ levels of creativity in a system of standardized tests, about what happens when we prioritize logic over emotion.
“Creativity allows you to embrace change, embrace chaos,” he says.
“We live in a moment when there’s a lot of negativity, a lot of despair, a lot of burnout, a lot of exhaustion, a lot of anger, but to me there’s just this underlying sense that we can do anything because we have done things that seemed impossible.”
There’s so much energy and excitement and optimism in this man’s voice. His voice and his words were what I needed to hear to give me hope for this world. They were worth losing sleep over that night. Worth another insomnia face.