Every Sunday, a podcast saves my little life—at least for the past two Sundays it has. The pod in question is “Sugar Calling” and it is a follow-up, or rather an evolution of, the “Dear Sugars” podcast (and former column), transposed so that the one-time advice-giver (author Cheryl Strayed) has now become the advice-seeker. The format is simple: Every week, Strayed calls a literary elder and asks them how to think and feel and cope right now. The episodes are released each Wednesday, but I wait till Sunday to listen when I have more mental space.
On week one, she called George Saunders, and during their conversation, he read part of an email he’d sent to his students about the Covid-19 crisis (which was also published by The New Yorker). Here’s a part I really liked:
Are you keeping records of the e-mails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important. Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened (or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us something about some crazy thing that happened in 1970). What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this, and what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now, and what records you keep.
Also, I think, with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, “Ah, so this is happening now,” or “Hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth. Did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker.”
And then I real quick try to pretend that I didn’t just call the universe a “stinker.”
While listening to the episode, I felt the same sensation I feel every time I hear, watch, or read something I desperately need: Thank god—a silky wave of gratitude. After I listened once, I put on my nearly-retired ‘outside clothes’ and took a walk to listen again. Same feeling: Thank god. As I headed back home, I viewed my surroundings differently, thanks to George and Cheryl. First I passed a red barn so rickety you can see flashes of the sky through its wooden slats. I’d noticed this feature a few times already this week, but only then did I catch the metaphor–there’s some kind of life on the other side of this, even if I can’t see it clearly yet. I let the wave wash me all the way back to my front door.
The following Sunday’s guest on Sugar Calling was a little less tender: Margaret Atwood, with a stern directive: “Roll up your sleeves, girls.” Atwood recounted for Strayed how she was spending her time in self-isolation with the unflappable resolve one might expect from the woman who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. Where Saunders’s episode left me feeling like a softer version of myself, Atwood’s encouraged me to toughen up and restabilize, even as the 80-year-old author made me smile while recounting her exploits scurrying around on the roof of her house because of a “squirrel problem.” (Strayed cautioned against this quarantine activity.) Pico Iyer is featured on this week’s episode and I am rubbing my Airpods together in anticipation.
When self-isolation began, I thought it would be good news for podcasts, but it seems it’s actually been the opposite in large part, with many people’s commuting and exercise routines now disrupted. I’ve personally always listened in the morning as I get ready for work or during other routines that busy my hands, like cooking or folding laundry. Still, I’ve been listening less often.
So, I want to know: What podcasts are you still listening to? Are there any new ones that have broken through? Are you using them as a news source or as an escape? What feels really worth it right now? In addition to Sugar Calling, I’ve continued listening to The Daily, have enjoyed Leandra’s micro-Monocycles, and have also loved comedian Megan Stalter’s new show “Confronting Demons” when I’m feeling a little more unhinged-in-a-good-way. I’m also looking forward to Karley Sciortino’s new podcast, about love in quarantine, which is coming out next week.
Okay, all ears for yours!