There’s this moment in American Beauty — a movie that now seems so incredibly 1999 I want to put it under glass next to Santana’s “Smooth” and a pair of American Eagle low rise jeans — where Annette Bening wakes up and prepares herself to sell a house.
I will sell this house today, she repeats like a mantra, going through the checklist of things that would, theoretically, help her sell the house: she grooms and fits herself into the power suit of feminine house-selling, down to the perfectly styled chunky proto-Karen cut. She strips off the uniform to deep clean the house in her slip. She does all of the things as she’s been told to do in order to be successful, including giving herself a pep talk of positive thinking.
Spoiler alert, but Annette Bening does not sell that house today! Her subsequent breakdown is cathartic and monstrous — a clear metaphor (perhaps too clear, like the rest of American Beauty) for the festering mess below all that positivity-focused feminine cheer.
I thought of that scene earlier this week as I tried to power through the last hard day at the end of a series of hard days. I knew I could figure it out, I just needed to make enough lists and not get distracted by TikTok and go to sleep when I said I was going to go to sleep and complete the things on the lists.
The privileges of self-employment mean that I rarely wake up and shower and put myself together, but on this day, I had to give a talk, and I was fully in charge of the dogs, and I had to prep the house for a repair, and I had to file a piece and make sure I responded to at least 20 separate pressing and ever-expanding inquiries in my inbox and complete the latest ride in my Peloton PZ Challenge and put the duvet cover on the comforter because seven days is probably long to sleep without a duvet. I had to find the dog vaccine records and empty the dehumidifier and reschedule a dentist appointment. I had to drop off a return before the 30-day window closed. I had to record for NPR. I had to write the Tuesday thread. You know what I’m talking about, even if you’ve never had to do one of these specific things. It was one of those days where you wonder how modern life amassed this many steps, this many parts.
I set the coffee maker on a timer the night before. I woke up at the time I needed to wake up. I walked the dogs in the dark. I dutifully blow-dried my hair for the first time in weeks. I put on my eyeliner. I found good Zoom earrings. I gave my talk. I definitely fiddle-faddled around on the internet too long in a daytime version of revenge sleep procrastination, I did the workout. I actually said the words you can do this Annie. I showed up early to the ferry line, and then, as I was about to leave the island (yes I live on an island now), a guy walked up to the car and said YOU KNOW THAT YOUR REAR TIRE IS TOTALLY FLAT, RIGHT?
Reader, I did not. I did not sell this house today. I kinda wanted to take the dogs out of the car and torch it. But unlike Annette Bening, I was not trying to sell a house that was also a metaphor for my performance of suburban femininity. I was just trying to get through this particularly overflowing day at the conclusion of an overflowing week and wind my way back to some sort of balance.
So I didn’t torch the car. The bad thing about living on an island with fewer than 1000 people is that people spend a lot of time arguing about whether you should feed the deer (no) or pick up your own dog poop (yes) on NextDoor. The good thing is that the guy who tells you that your rear tire is flat is also the chief of the volunteer fire department, and helps you put on the spare in the rain and tells you exactly the place he trusts to go get it patched quickly. I tried to ask him what I could do to repay him, and he just told me to think about joining the volunteer fire department.
Left to my own devices, I would’ve figured out a solution. I always have, whenever I’ve been faced with similarly (momentarily) dire situations. But it felt like such a gift, to be caught mid-fall.
Part of the reason Bening loses her shit so completely after failing to sell the house is that she has no one and nothing other than her ability to sell it. Even if you haven’t seen the movie in years you remember that everyone in this movie actively loathes each other and themselves. Collapse feels existential because there’s no there, there — just the echoing, hollow chasm of self.
Today, I’m thinking of that moment alongside Kathryn Jezer-Morton’s excellent take on the Instagram aesthetic of cozy. As she puts it:
Instagram representations of coziness are primarily about safety and comfort, but they are also about order and control. Everything in its right place. The house is cleaned, the candles lit. No unexpected intrusions can disturb the feeling. Just as important as what we see -- the couch, the socks, the candle -- are the things we don’t see: Mess, disorder, the unpredictable reality of the world outside.
We create cozy, she argues, to combat the precariousness of the larger world. Look at this handy little diagram she made for us:
American Beauty is obviously pre-cozy IG, but what is Bening trying to with that house, and her hair, and her job, and her life if not control the aesthetics? Bening has said she based her performance on memories of babysitting for women from church, and the divide between their public, performative self, always on full display in and around the church, and their private selves. The perfect church outfit, the perfect kid’s birthday party, the perfect holiday card, all of it becomes a coping mechanism for larger life instability. That instability might be rooted in the marriage, the larger family, finances, the workplace, the body, or all of the above, but aesthetics — cozy, cute, chill, or otherwise — become a means to organize, contain, repaint, and rename the cause.
Bear with me here, but you know what happens when you don’t actually scrape the peeling paint or clean off the mold or use primer? It doesn’t matter how expensive that new paint is, it’ll start to peel or rot, and you’ll have even more of a disaster on your hands than you did in the first place. Listen, I’m not saying aesthetics aren’t fun. But when they’re a response, in one way or another, to a much larger sadnesses — they simply cannot save us.
I think most of us can sense the moments when an experience — whether parenting, a wedding, a hike, even a meal — has been aestheticized in this way. It feels like all the blood has been drained from the image, even if the actual saturation has been cranked up. I’m not talking about “authenticity” or “realness” here — those things can be manufactured in bloodless ways, too. Sometimes you get this feeling from a turn of a head in an image, a certain style of caption, a particular emoji or hashtag. It’s something that makes the moment feel like this person’s version of I Will Sell This Life Today. Because if they can sell it to whoever in their world is scrolling through Instagram, maybe they can avoid the thought that given the choice, they’d never buy it themselves.
When the fire chief asked me if I wanted him to help me change the tire, my first response was: Oh I think I can figure it out!, with the exclamation point there to emphasize just how genial I was trying to be.
And I would’ve. We have a weird jack, and I probably would’ve fiddled with it for awhile, and then I would’ve called Triple-A. I could rely on myself and my ability to pay people to do things and it would’ve been fine. But there was something about the way he asked that reminded me that allowing yourself to rely on others isn’t a source of weakness, but a real fucking strength.
What rescued me at the end of my long day of self-sufficiency wasn’t my best laid plans or my organized planner or my to-do lists. It was actual community and ethos of care. And after so many years of refining self-reliance amidst uncertainty —after my parents’ divorce, at college, in those first confusing years post-grad, in those prolonged confusing years in the academy and then digital journalism — it feels wild, wild!, to gradually and willingly rely on others.
Actual community isn’t like Triple-A — you can’t buy a membership. But it’s more likely to happen if you cultivate circumstances for it to flourish.
You can show up for others, which can mean so many different things. You can talk to people you don’t know, which can take many other different forms. You can give alms willingly and without expectations. But most of these things involve taking time away from the concentration on your own to-do list. Community is showing up to weed the library garden even though it’s on a Saturday and you like a certain routine for your Saturday. It is actually joining the volunteer fire department. It is committing to a two-hour-a-week volunteer spot even though it feels weird because you’ve learned to dedicate all hours to work, and then blocking it off the same way you would block off any other commitment. It is offering assistance before it is asked for, even if it means camoflaging it in the form of “I’m going to the store, can I pick anything up for you?” It is having conversations that go nowhere even when you have dinner to start. It is unlearning so much of what many of us have taught ourselves about making every moment of our lives as efficient and optimized as possible.
To be clear: I am struggling, even on this little island where we have moved with the intention of doing this, to actually do this. Community is inefficient and inconvenient as shit. But then you get a flat tire and there’s community, showing up for no reason other than because you are there, reminding you: you do not need to sell this life today. You are you, and you are here, and that is enough.
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