In Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, the residents of an unnamed island suffer the ritual disappearance of objects big and small. Flowers. Lemons. Perfume. Calendars. These erasures are enforced by a surveillance state that deforms the lives of its citizens a little more each day. First published twenty-five years ago, Ogawa’s meditations feel incredibly urgent in today’s atmosphere of attention hijacking, digital disorientation, and alternate realities:

But in a world turned upside down, things I thought were mine and mine alone can be taken away much more easily than I would have imagined. If my body were cut up in pieces and those pieces mixed with those of other bodies, and then if someone told me, “Find your left eye,” I suppose it would be difficult to do so.

This is a haunted fable with secret rooms and voices trapped in typewriters. Although the surreal metaphors of Kōbō Abe or the eerily arid writing of Albert Camus come to mind, Ogawa’s writing draws you into new territory that feels like you’re struggling to recall an evaporating dream.

Sooner or later, any story about loss becomes a story about normalization, and The Memory Police captures the ways we adjust ourselves to fit the cruel logic of the world, whether it is delivered by the power of the state or the cosmic inevitability of death. We can become accustomed to terrible things. Because what’s the alternative? Ogawa provides an answer through moments of kindness, grace, and devotion to the truth—and its final pages are devastating. I can’t remember the last time I cried while reading.

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Penguin Random House, 2019)

An artist led us across boulders covered with electric green moss and worried about the lack of snow this season, something she hasn’t seen after living on this island for thirty years. “Usually we have some snow in November, December, and certainly January.” In Finland they call it a black winter when it doesn’t snow. Snow has psychological importance here: it reflects the light and makes the long hours of Nordic darkness less oppressive. Instead there is only rain and mist. The town’s priest also apologized for the warm weather. “This new climate is beyond me,” he said.


Rafael Anton Irisarri – Coastal Trapped Disturbance

From Solastalgia | Room 40, 2019 | Bandcamp

Symphonic ambience that sounds like an elegy for snow fields and decaying glaciers. This album introduced me to the defining word for this new decade: solastalgia, the mental or existential distress caused by environmental change.

Saint Michael’s church on the island of Korppoo

In the Aeneid, the hero contemplates the tragedy of war. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: There are tears for things and mortal thoughts touch the mind. In the centuries that followed, the phrase lacrimae rerum escaped the lines of Virgil’s poem and took on a life of its own. It appears in sermons, symphonies, and epitaphs, and it has been etched into countless memorials and tombstones. The exact meaning of lacrimae rerum continues to inspire debate among linguists and classicists, for sometimes it is translated as “tears for things,” other times as “tears of things.” Although it’s only a matter of a single letter, the distinction between for and of is crucial—and instructive.

Weeping for something implies that each of us privately mourns the loss of the things we cherish—a person, a relationship, a dream—and that we grieve alone. The tears of things, however, suggests the world weeps with us. Are we alone in our heads with our personal sorrows, or is melancholia as pervasive as sunlight or air?

The tears of things. If I squint at this phrase a certain way, I catch a glimpse of how I might better relate to grief. Maybe the universe is sympathetic, after all. Perhaps the cosmos is aware of the absurdity of our flickering lives. Seen in this light, the devastation I felt after losing my parents is no longer an aberration, but an intrinsic element of the world, as necessary as gravity or air. There is powerful alchemy in this simple thought, even if it is fleeting. Lacrimae rerum reminds me that I am surrounded by compassion while I mourn. This may be a sentimental way of thinking that relies on the romantic notion that the wind, rain, and clouds can somehow mirror my state of mind, but it makes me feel less alone. This can be enough to carry someone through the dark forest of grief. And it might become an organizing principle as the world continues to heat up and unwind.

Further reading: the Aeneid; lacrimae rerum; the pathetic fallacy.


Reverberated Crying

From American Decay | 2015 | Download

Original song performed by Roy Orbison in 1962. This track appears on American Decay, a collection of loops and reverberations that I recorded between 2009 and 2014.

Traces of frost in the moss. Ice on the rocks. Will it finally snow? There has been no snow yet in the Finnish archipelago, which is unusual even though it’s likely the new normal. Walking through the forest, I try to forget my dumb tics and habits. I want to commune with nature but I do not know how. Some lizard-brained part of me wants to pull out my telephone and look for new headlines, new information.

Strange being someplace so remote while the familiar static of American dysfunction continues to wallpaper my day, thanks to my compulsion to check the news, refresh my feeds, and tune in to today’s two-minute hate. I’ve spent the best years of my life in thrall to the idiot logic of the internet. A sobering thought. At some point while I wasn’t paying attention, my screen became the real world. Online eclipsed offline. The internet’s noise and exhaust tints every thought like a window left open in the back of the mind. Perhaps the physical world exists solely to support our digital habits now that most of us move through space either staring into screens or thinking about our virtual personas and obligations. Maybe deep down we just want to be alone with our phones.

Social media has pushed everything to extremes, a binary choice of like or don’t like, follow or unfollow, send or delete. The way we speak about technology itself mirrors the raw logic of the addict: use or don’t use. Nobody says, “I’ll only look at Twitter on weekends.” Sometimes it feels like an ultimatum: Embrace the pixellated noise of the future without complaint or grieve for the textures of the past. And I’m stuck in the familiar stage of addiction where I know it’s not good for me yet I do it anyway. I do my best to stare at a tree for a few minutes before returning to the ferry house to check my email.


Various Artists – Erosion 2

Decay Product | Chain Reaction, 1997 | Hardwax

Elegant reverberations from the days when techno was served in metal cases by anonymous producers with intentionally obtuse monikers such as Various Artists.

Korpo-Nauvo ferry, Finland

Woke from a dream in which I discovered my consciousness was powered by someone else forced to run on a treadmill. Low sun and a warm wind today. Still no snow. Massive freighters in the Baltic drift towards Russia. A man from Spain who runs the local newspaper visited our studio for an interview. He talked about the mental hygiene of living on an island, how nature helps him think better. “Because each day we want to turn on the news and get intoxicated by dramas and conflict,” he said. Intoxicated is such a good word for describing the effect of transforming the inherent messiness of democracy into manufactured dramas of us versus them.

For years I’ve nursed elaborate fantasies of living in a remote cabin or better yet a double-wide in the Mojave desert. But would isolation make me more sensible? Perhaps someday it will. After two weeks on this island, however, I’m beginning to crave the neon and heat of a city to energize my thinking—even if it will quickly leave me wanting the sobriety of silence and sky.

A road through the Finnish archipelago

Walking along the empty road of a remote island in the Baltic Sea, I remember driving down Interstate 75 twenty years ago with the Detroit skyline on my left while a cassette tape filled the car with drums. I remember believing the world would make sense when I grew older. But it never did and it probably won’t. This is a painful lesson, one that finds each of us in its own way. For me, it arrived in hospital corridors, envelopes with death certificates, and an attic filled with my parents’ belongings. There is no figuring out the logic of the world.

These days I notice another childlike conviction, one that is stubbornly waiting for things to go back to normal. Although my rational mind knows otherwise, part of me wants to believe these strange days are a blip, that someday I will return to a life when I wasn’t mortified by my government or worrying about the strange weather or trying to fight the idiotic craving to stare into my telephone.

“We are choked with news and starved of history,” said the historian Will Durant in 1926. The poet Ovid mourned the loss of the days when humankind was “good and true,” fearing that “every kind of wickedness” marked his times. He wrote this in the year 8. There is no lost golden age.

Nostalgia might be another form of grief, which requires working our way towards acceptance and, if we’re lucky, a little bit of grace. I’m doing my best to accept that things will never return to “normal”, that there was never any such thing. The world is speeding up. The weather is changing. Life is only going to get weirder, coarser, and more unstable. This is unsettling, but it could also be liberating.


Basic Channel – Inversion

Inversion/Presence | Basic Channel, 1994 | Spotify | More information

Twenty-five years later, Basic Channel’s Inversion remains the most melancholy machine music I’ve ever heard. This is the sound of industrial decay twinned with a very human longing for faith. A beautiful piece of winterized nostalgia for your dashboard.

Island studio scene with anonymous responses projected on the wall

Calm water on the Baltic Sea and a low January sun at noon. For a moment I can feel the warmth on my cheek. She pulled an all-nighter last night because time does not exist here. Darkness falls before you get used to the light. If you listen closely, you can hear the thrum of the ferry engine in the walls. More news from America, none of it good. Drone strikes, tantrums, and hijacked democracy.

Meanwhile, we began organizing the three thousand responses we received from our Light the Barricades project, preparing them for a book. Here’s a small sample of these anonymous handwritten dispatches, each one a lone voice joining a chorus: I’m tired of having to be resilient. I don’t like the wall blocking Mexico because I can’t see my cousin. I feel guilty for surviving. I don’t know if I belong. I’m not setting a good example for my daughter. I keep looking for healing in the place that broke me. Sometimes I wonder what the effect will be in the long run, bearing witness to so much handwritten pain. “First let this be consolation,” she says. “Then let it be courage.” I think about the meditative practice of tonglen, of breathing in the anger and suffering of others and exhaling kindness. Perhaps, in some small way, this project can become something like that.


Leyland Kirby – Consolation

We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives | More

Here comes a heartbeat drum, thumping in the distance like a half-remembered b-side by The Ronettes or The Crystals, a vintage rhythm slowly falling to pieces while plaintive strings rise. Like a heavily sedated love song from the hit parade of a more dignified age, Leyland Kirby’s We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives is a reassuring soundtrack for these undignified times. It’s a reminder that music can harmonize with—and perhaps even momentarily sooth—the crazy thoughts we’re forced to carry these days, if only for a moment or two.

After my mother died, my father spent his days wandering through discount department stores, fixated on tracking down the correct size, exact model, or shade of color for something he thought he needed, usually a household item for the little apartment he rented after selling the house. Non-slip adhesives for the bathtub shaped like starfish. Mechanical pencils. A childlike table for his car keys that required hours spent cursing over a tiny wrench. He carried a small notepad in the back pocket of his khakis, diligently making lists with items like living room lampshade needs repair and oil bathroom door hinges and eggs are good for protein.

My father died four years ago today. Lately I’ve been thinking about his quiet notepads. They feel like a balm against these days when everything seems to be happening at once. Institutional decay. Angry weather. Homegrown terror. The energies of war. I click and scroll even though I know it’s trashing my mind, all of this information commingling with fury and performance. Our screens have mangled the decent impulse to bear witness.

I try to see the world through my father’s eyes, his sense that everything looked like science fiction: people dressed like children and swerving into one another while staring at little handheld pieces of glass. He didn’t understand how the world had become so interlinked, how all of its information could live on a screen. It felt like an optical illusion, a cheap bit of sleight-of-hand. Information was supposed to be earned through experience, through a combination of tough luck and scribbling into your notepad. Information required effort and my father craved the human contact required to get it. The sales clerks would check their stock and make calls to other locations for a linen drum lampshade or a pair of loafers with tassels. He’d eventually find the item but he would not purchase it, deciding he didn’t need it after all.


Datacide – Flashback Signal

from Flowerhead | Asphodel/Rather Interesting, 1995 | More info

A nearly perfect ambient album, Flowerhead has been a reliable sleepy-time companion since its release twenty-something years ago. Atom Heart and Tetsuo Inoue’s collaboration merges the organic with the electric, yielding a blurry soundtrack for nostalgia. The whole album just sounds right, as if you’d heard it before, back when you were four or five.

Sunset in the Finnish forest

Alone on an island and the silence is like walking into a wall. These short winter days feel like a permanent sunset, the way the sun rolls along the horizon for a few hours before returning beneath the earth, as if it’s too exhausted to go any higher. I sympathize. Today I came across the phrase “algo-seance scene” and realized I’m losing track of not only the future but the present.

We took a bus to the neighboring island to buy some coffee and eggs and salmiakki. Then we sat in a gas station diner waiting for the last bus back to our flat by the sea. Ancient couples with yellow-white hair slurped coffee and murmured to one another while reading the local newspaper, their voices stained with decades of cigarette smoke. Sometimes it’s nice to find a place where time stands still.

The island of Korpo

When we landed in Helsinki in January 2009, Candy and I watched the inauguration of Obama from our hotel room at one o’clock in the morning. Then came a bizarre decade spent roaming between New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York again. Ten years later, we returned to Helsinki before heading to a remote island in the Finnish archipelago. Flipping on the television in our hotel on December 18, 2019, we caught the final vote tally as the House impeached Donald Trump.

I try to imagine my reaction if someone had described the decade to come while we watched Obama wave from his motorcade. That a vicious game show host would become president. That propaganda and Nazis would return and objective truth would disappear. Or that Britain would leave the European Union and seemingly pointless technologies like Facebook and Twitter would rip society apart. I did not see any of these things around the corner, just as I never could have imagined I would lose my parents or that I would grapple with so much dark psychological terrain in the years to come.

Looking back on the optimism I felt a decade ago, it’s impossible for me to determine whether my sense of the world today is naturally rooted in growing older and reckoning with the upheavals and disappointments of life—or if my mood truly reflects the seemingly perilous state of society, technology, and the weather. Regardless of the causes, my project this year is to recover some degree of optimism and perhaps even something resembling faith.

Wandering through Turku’s streets and museums, I cannot stop marveling at the low-hanging sun: an endless magic hour that casts everything in Caravaggio light. After savoring the concrete, neon, and hum of the city, we took a bus and two ferries into the Finnish archipelago where we are living in a flat by the Baltic sea. This building once housed ferry operators. Now it’s an artist residency. We have come here to finish a book that collects the thousands of responses we collected from visitors to a public installation we created last year. Instead we spent the night projecting movies on the wall while the winter darkness covered the windows.

“The bottom line is we’re all prisoners of the universe,” says a man on a train that speeds across China’s rapidly developing landscape. This becomes the coda for Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White, where a dangerous romance downshifts into existential longing that bleeds across seventeen years of dance halls, prison yards, trains, mahjong tables, and disorienting change. The final shot has lingered in my mind for days.

Now begins the season of Arvo Pärt, of private hymns and gloom and trees that look like old gentlemen. On New Year’s Day, I sat in the pews of a medieval cathedral in Turku, Finland. Completed in 1300, its tower featured the first public clock in Finland and it standardized the time for the entire region. Since 1944, the cathedral’s chiming bells have been broadcast on the radio each day at noon. There is something deeply reassuring about this ritual, knowing that a sound with a traceable source of stone and bronze has unified listeners for so many years.

I studied the painting of the Transfiguration over the apse, a scene that depicts the moment Jesus became radiant after traveling to a mountaintop to pray with Peter, Paul, and John. The prophets Moses and Elijah appeared in the clouds and a voice from the sky called him son. Why would Jesus not think he’d gone crazy?

My mind drifts into deep time, a time beyond church bells and paintings and desert prophets. Standing in line at the supermarket the other day, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the idea that the world existed long before there were eyes to see it. This nervy sensation found me again in this cathedral: The realization that evolution might provide us with new, unimaginable senses tens of thousands of years into the future. That I will never know how this story ends or why it was written.

Only a few days into the new decade and we’re overwhelmed by headlines about missiles, fires, drones, government paralysis, and dangerous weather. America is circling the drain. Australia is burning. A craving for new spiritual paths shaped the 1960s before boomeranging into the materialism of the 1980s. Is this need resurfacing in our gilded age of digital alienation and climate crises? I worry the future will become a breeding ground for religious extremism, cults promising to restore our screen-addled brains, and faith-dealers peddling solace in a scary new climate of floods and fire. In the meantime, I bow my head and try my best to pray to god knows what.

Further reading: Turun tuomiokirkko; Transfiguration of Jesus, painted in 1836 by Fredrik Westin.


Arvo Pärt – De Profundis (Psalm 129)

Harmonia Mundi, 1997 | More
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