[music]
automated narration

Voice message received from J Wortham —

[BEEP] Hawaii —

[BEEP]

December 2021 —

[BEEP]

j wortham

And, also, I had desperately wanted to paddle to an island since I’ve been here because it’s the thing that people often do. And you can anchor the boat and snorkel. And I totally get it.

And at the same time, I also often read the news. And so I just how many people are swept away into the ocean every year. But my man, he was like, just — he said, let me see your phone. He said, put a dot on this map in the middle the ocean, and was like, swim — paddle towards that.

Sometimes no is also the best answer, despite how amazing what needs to happen looks like. I came back. I said, Kevin. He said, y’all didn’t make it?

I said, Kevin, has anybody made it? That’s the riddle I want to leave you with. Has anybody made it that you have sent out there?

Anyway, my dear, my beans are so good. My greens are cleaned. I made soil this year for the first time. So that is steeping, and I’m feeling pretty good. What are you doing tonight?

[music]
wesley morris

J. Wortham?

j wortham

Yes?

wesley morris

You sent me that voice note from Hawaii, while you were gone for a long ass time, writing a book!

j wortham

[LAUGHS] I did.

wesley morris

And now you are sitting across from me in New York City in a studio!

j wortham

I am here —

wesley morris

You are.

j wortham

— dressed like a vision in cream. Confirm?

wesley morris

Parfait.

j wortham

Thank you.

wesley morris

Absolute parfait.

j wortham

[LAUGHS] Thank you.

wesley morris

So I think we should just start.

[music]
wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris.

j wortham

And I’m — ooh, sorry. [COUGHS]

[CLEARS THROAT] You never know what’s going to come out of there.

wesley morris

Who’s that?

j wortham

I don’t know. Some cobwebs are in there.

wesley morris

[LAUGHS]

j wortham

[CLEARS THROAT] Woo.

[music]
wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris.

j wortham

I’m J. Wortham.

wesley morris

We’re two culture writers at The New York Times.

j wortham

This is “Still Processing,” the original blend.

wesley morris

[LAUGHS] And today, on the show, we’re going to talk about how we stayed connected while we were so far apart.

[music]
j wortham

Wesley.

wesley morris

Yes?

j wortham

Good to be with you. I’ve been away —

wesley morris

Oh, it feels great.

j wortham

— for eight months, working on this book that’s called “Work of Body” because it’s about the work of the body. It’s about dissociation. It’s about, oh, my gosh, life.

It’s about trauma. It’s about embodiment. It’s about trying to figure out how to live in one’s skin, which now I acutely understand, in coming back to New York, because the whole ride on the subway [LAUGHS] here, I was just fighting. Like, where is my body? Where is my body in space and time right now?

wesley morris

[LAUGHS] No.

j wortham

I don’t know.

wesley morris

The subway will do that.

j wortham

But I left the city. I left my apartment. I was upstate for a while, at a residency. I swam in a lake every day. And then I was invited out to the beautiful islands in Hawaii by family friends. And I’ve been thinking so much about friendships. I’ve never left New York for that much time. So it felt inevitable, at some point, that the day-to-day communication or the week-to-week communication, whatever it looked like, was going to break down.

wesley morris

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

j wortham

On my side, too, I knew I wanted to disappear. I wanted to take Michaela Cole’s advice, and I wanted to not be afraid to disappear and see what would happen. And I have these two little niblings in my life, these two toddlers —

wesley morris

Yes.

j wortham

— that I love so very much. And we would FaceTime. And I could see that they were changing. I could see them acquiring more language and having more mobility. And just, I’m like, are they going to remember me? A fundamental part of childhood is that you forget things.

wesley morris

Yeah.

j wortham

And I had to really reckon with how it would feel if I was a part of their past, that they had been jettisoned. Right? There was something about losing the years I spent feeding these children beans and rice, holding them when they wouldn’t stop crying, helping them get ready for bed, taking them to the park. If they forgot all those things, it would just feel like I had lost a fundamental part of my life, too. But I had to accept that that was a possibility because that is human nature.

wesley morris

Yes.

j wortham

So I knew re-entry was going to be tough. But even though I was in this period of acclimation, I was like, I got to see these babies. So I roll up, and as I’m walking down the street, it’s like my pulse is racing. I can see them. And at this moment, the 4-year-old looks up and sees me and just starts bouncing in her chair.

wesley morris

Yes!

j wortham

And then the little one just starts running in that Gumby kid way, where their hands are flailing and their legs are flailing. And she just barrels into me. She’s like, I missed you!

And I’m like, I missed you, too! I scoop her up. And I’m swinging her around. I’m all this emotion, all this energy. The baby’s looking at me, and she’s getting swept up and reaching up towards me, and grabbing at me.

And I’m just like, woo, trying to catch my breath. And the baby tilts her head up at me. It looks at me and goes, wait, what’s your name again? And I was like, wow!

wesley morris

[LAUGHS]

j wortham

Really? And it was just so — wow, this is the spirit of the city humbling me, letting me know don’t ever get too big for your britches. So I looked at her.

And I said, I am your Tita, Jenna. Don’t forget it. And she was like, OK. Welcome home.

wesley morris

Yeah. Welcome home.

j wortham

It was perfect.

wesley morris

Yeah.

j wortham

It was so perfect.

wesley morris

Well, if I’m being honest, I was a little nervous that when you left, I wouldn’t feel connected to you.

j wortham

Ooh.

wesley morris

I was really interested in what could change, right? What would the disruption of our daily, weekly, hourly —

j wortham

Right.

wesley morris

— by-the-minute [LAUGHS] relationship be like? So I don’t delete any of our communications because their gold to me. And you sent me a video that I will cherish forever.

j wortham

What was it?

wesley morris

Well, it’s about nine seconds long. You sent it from upstate New York, while you were at the beginning of your leave. And I’m just going to ask you. Do you remember the day you turned into Jack Nicholson at the end of “The Shining” and picked up an ax?

j wortham

[LAUGHS] 100 percent.

wesley morris

So, basically, you’ve got this ax. And you’re in your short shorts and your tank.

j wortham

And Crocs.

wesley morris

And Crocs —

— because you didn’t change.

j wortham

No.

wesley morris

And the wood was stuck to the ax.

j wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

And you just kept taking the ax —

j wortham

That’s right.

wesley morris

— and swinging until the ax —

j wortham’s video

[BANG]

wesley morris

— went all the way through that log —

j wortham’s video

[BANG]

wesley morris

— that was stuck to the ax. It was —

j wortham’s video

[BANG]

wesley morris

— amazing.

j wortham

Ugh! Ah!

That was dyke history. That was deep — a deep moment. I was preparing the firewood.

wesley morris

All right, P. Bunyan.

j wortham

I loved it. That’s right, P. Bunyan. That was a moment too of just having been inside for two years, you know? Like, really just having rode out the peaks of the panini. So to get outside and to be able to be that physical after so much stasis —

wesley morris

Yeah.

j wortham

— was so invigorating.

wesley morris

Like, it just seems hard, and to watch you do that and hear people cheer, it just felt like the release of an amazing energy. But I’m curious. Like, why did you share that with me?

j wortham

Because that was the beginning of the departure. I had just left. And because I knew this year of rest and relaxation and book deadlines was going to be transformative, it felt like the beginning material evidence of what that transformation might look like. And I sent the video to you specifically, because I wanted you to witness this transformation, so we could keep talking about it.

But I also knew that would know I wasn’t trying to brag. And I also wasn’t trying to show off. That you would get it and know me and know that it’s coming from a place of triumph. Yeah, just being mindful of the luxury of being able to take a sabbatical and not wanting to flex it.

wesley morris

All I got from that video — I mean, one of the many things actually — was we need to call HGTV, because move over “Property Brothers.”

j wortham

I know.

wesley morris

I would just love to see you in a cabin with an ax.

j wortham

Me too.

wesley morris

And now that I know more about what it meant, I kind of love it even more.

j wortham

Oh. But I have to say, Wesley, I love your text messages too. I save them all, like, this exchange we had after Sidney Poitier’s home going. Oh. January 8, 2022, you wrote, “Did I ever tell you that Oprah and Denzel and Halle and Will and Jamie and a bunch of other people like that would go and sit with him over the years?”

I replied, “I’m glad to hear this. Too often we die in isolation without community. It brings me a lot of joy to think about that love and that support system. | wish I could invite you over for a meal. I feel like you really need it right now. Just know my door slash table is always open, no matter where I am in the world.”

wesley morris

That’s kind of what — I mean, I don’t know what the end of my life is going to be like. But I do kind of hope people are coming through to say, we love you. Do you want some pudding?

I will also say, this is unconfirmed. I heard it from one of the people in that list of people. That that is what happened. It doesn’t matter, some version of that was happening for him. So speaking of such things, The New York Times, where we work, they put out a whole story about how to address people when they come into restaurants from the standpoint of gender.

j wortham

Overdue.

wesley morris

So you walk up to the host. And the host is like, sir, here’s your seat. And I thought, this thing is speaking our language.

j wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

This is a conversation we’ve been having for years.

j wortham

Ladies, ladies, ladies — more dessert, ladies? How are you doing, ladies? Look, I was a server for many, many moons. I get it. But we know better now as a culture. So let’s do better.

wesley morris

Yes. And I forwarded you this thing, fully expecting to continue our dialogue and to talk about some of the finer points in this article. But instead, what I got was this.

voice note from j wortham

Not the first restaurant being called Gay4U.

j wortham

Yes. You thought you were sending me an article that would affirm my spirit in seeing the ways that both our paper and this nation were letting go of the gender binary in ways that you know I would care about.

wesley morris

I really, really was. Yes.

j wortham

And the first image is from a restaurant called Gay4U. I’m like, we are taking over. I just got so delighted by our community. And that was as far as I got.

wesley morris

That went right by me. And you’re like, no, no, no, no, no, no. I know what you did, Wesley. You read this whole last thing, but you missed the point.

j wortham

I was laughing so hard.

wesley morris

You laughing was the thing I guess I didn’t know I needed when I sent it to you. I thought I was trying to stoke some intellectual conversation.

j wortham

Well, that too.

wesley morris

OK, let’s take a break. And when we come back, we’re going to talk about loneliness and its antidote.

[music]
j wortham

Wesley, the hardest thing about leaving for almost a year, OK, was knowing that at some point, I was going to get really, really lonely.

wesley morris

Yeah.

j wortham

And I had no way of knowing what that lonely would look like, what the texture would feel like. Would it be a bottomless pit, a spiral, devastating, exhilarating? And I honestly don’t have a lot of experience with that, right? Like, I’ve gotten very good at keeping the lonely away with all the material trappings of my life in New York.

And this very paper ran a story about how bad loneliness is for your health. I believe one of the stats in the story is that being lonely can be as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes.

wesley morris

What?

j wortham

Lonely people — yes — get sicker then not lonely people.

wesley morris

Can I ask a math question about — I’m sorry. I’m struck by this. Like, what does racism plus loneliness equal?

j wortham

I mean, read the obituary section, baby. I don’t even know what to tell you. Like, this whole year we can name them all. So I wanted to disrupt my life. I wanted to disrupt my relationship to the city, my relationship to work.

But I also know myself, what I like and what I need to feel at home. And for me, that is always a body of water. So every place I went, I made sure to be very close, and in some places, extraordinarily close — walking distance at times — to a body of water. That kind of briny smell and that sound and the sight is just familiar. It’s comfort. It’s home. It’s home.

So there were these moments when I would feel really adrift, actually, like I don’t know where I am.

wesley morris

It’s a great word.

j wortham

I don’t know what I’m doing.

wesley morris

It’s a great word.

j wortham

Why am I here? Why did I leave everything again? And I would just get to the water.

wesley morris

I mean, you sent me a lot of voice notes that had to do with water. But I was struck by how — you sent me this one particular water-oriented voice note.

voice note from j wortham

Wesley, I’ve been on this water almost every day. I have sailed on it. I have swum in it. I’ve swum across it and back several times, because a few of us were out there, just like in our little canoes or kayaks or rowboats just kind of floating — telling jokes and laughing and then kind of getting sucked back up into the moon.

It was really, really, really profound.

wesley morris

Wow, what did the water do for your sense of loneliness?

j wortham

Oh, god, it was just the ultimate reminder that I was not alone, that loneliness is for me, very fear-based. And the fear is that I’ll be alone forever, and no one cares about me, and I’m going to die. And these are all like childhood voices that pipe up in times of insecurity.

And so when I’m feeling lonely and I go into the water, and I’m reminded in a deep way of all that came before me and who all still walk along aside me pretty much, I’m not alone. And it brings me a lot of comfort. I’m always me here. I always know how to swim. I always know how to be in the water. I know how to learn to be in water.

wesley morris

There’s something about African-Americans and water.

j wortham

Of course. It’s always a return.

wesley morris

It’s always a return.

j wortham

It’s always a return, and it’s an honoring. And it becomes a sort of celebration, as well as a grieving moment that we get to now be on the water voluntarily, that we get to float on it. We get to have this entirely new experience of this body of water that those before us did not have the privilege of experiencing.

And when I am floating on a lake with other Black people and looking up at a full moon, it’s like, how lucky? You know, how unlucky and how lucky. And one of the biggest things that I learned while I was away was the beauty of intimacy.

I had the real grace of living in a small community and on a tiny Island where you really can’t hide. And that for me is not a safe thing, but it became very safe. And it became very lovely. And it became something that I look forward to, which is being known and letting people in.

wesley morris

I hear that. And there’s a way that you’re talking about community and intimacy and how it reminds me of what I imagine that community was like in Buffalo before that shooting happened last month.

j wortham

Right.

wesley morris

And that community that that shooter went into in Buffalo — that had been talked about as having been a food desert, where there was no place to get fresh vegetables and fresh fruit. And the community that forms around the acknowledgment of a lack, and the solution of a lack with tangible products that nourish you — the idea that this person, who is — I’ll just be extremely generous and say he was suffering from loneliness.

And I just can’t shake the idea that these people, Black people, had found something that was more than an oasis. Right? It was a source of sustenance — this little community in the store.

j wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

And so many of us live in these deserts. And it’s rare to get something like this, like a whole supermarket where there was none before.

j wortham

And you can imagine how grocery stores can also function as communal intersections, right? You get to know people who are shopping at the same time. You get snow the manager. You start to talk to the cashiers.

You start to have this knitting together and this familiarity and this intimacy. That’s also something that’s been really hard won and hard earned after the last couple of years. I mean, grocery stores used to be this place of terror. Like, we didn’t know. Like, were we going to get sick from just touching the same roll of paper towels?

And so there is this experience of being able to go back in, get what you need, say hello. And for some people, especially older folks, I mean, that might be the most —

wesley morris

Hang out.

j wortham

— interaction you have all day. That’s right.

wesley morris

I have to say, though, that when these sorts of things happen, it does make me appreciate this thing that we have, you and I. And I think that there are these moments where you have these disruptions.

And they just sort of reinforce what was already good about a place or a relationship, because you have maintained it. I mean, to overuse this water thing, we watered it. It was being tended. Because look, here we are.

j wortham

Here we are.

wesley morris

How are you feeling about being here where we are?

j wortham

Really, really tender. You know how pretty dusty and burned up I was when I left. So it’s nice to be back.

wesley morris

You’re shining.

j wortham

To be replenished.

wesley morris

Right like a diamond.

j wortham

And I will say that I do feel more open, and I feel protective over that openness, rather than being closed and protective over that “closedness.”

wesley morris

Wow Wow.

j wortham

What do you think it’s going to be like now that I’m back?

wesley morris

Oh, to quote you to you, “Buckle up, baby. It’s going to be a ride.”

[music]
j wortham

And that’s our show. “Still Processing,” is produced by Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow. It is edited by Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss.

wesley morris

The show is mixed by Marion Lozano and recorded by Maddy Masiello.

j wortham

Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Des Ibekwe.

wesley morris

And our theme music as always, is by Kindness. It’s called “World Restart” from the album “Otherness.” And we just want to thank all of the people who helped make the show —

j wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

Alex, Bill, Hanif, Margo, Carl, Isaac, Daphne Brooks.

j wortham

Thank you all for holding it down. You kept the roof over our heads. And last but not least, shout out to Gay4U, bare of untold joy and vegan delights. It was not able to survive the pandemic as a storefront. But like a beautiful gay butterfly, has transformed and is now a pop-up. Check them out. And also, come to Brooklyn.

wesley morris

Also this is our last episode for a little bit, for a while, not forever, just for a little tiny bit. We will be back in the fall.

j wortham

Thank you for listening. Thank you for loving us. Thank you for always reaching out in between seasons. We hear you. We see you. We appreciate you.

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