I fear that storytelling, in the most traditional sense, is dying. Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown up, or because I now devote my time to other types of entertainment, or because my family usually forgets to celebrate the story-heavy Jewish holidays. Either way, it feels like years since I’ve experienced the sacred art of storytelling. Stories are guides to living life, mechanisms for your parents and grandparents to subliminally pass down sage advice. When it’s boiled down (no pun intended), “Hansel and Gretel” isn’t really about two kids, food, and a cannibalistic witch; it’s a lesson about why you should listen to your parents and avoid strangers. If only the key to a happy, successful life could be boiled down to a simple tale!
Luckily, it can. The New York Times’ Modern Love column is a guide to adult life that comes pretty damn close to replicating the thinly veiled storybook lessons of my childhood.
Through Julia Anna Miller’s essay “Sharing a Cab, and My Toes,” I learned that dreams don’t always play out in the way you want them to. Miller discusses moving to New York in search of glamour, and then discovering little other than failure, financial troubles, and a job at a test prep company. She touches on one moment—one intimate, definitely unsanitary, toe-related moment—in which Miller spontaneously fulfills a coworker’s dream. Dreams, I’ve learned, can come true in a city that muffles them. But they often manifest in unexpected ways.
Because of Kyleigh Leddy’s essay, “Years Ago, My Sister Vanished. I See Her Whenever I Want,” I am significantly more aware of my impact on the world. Leddy discusses a family tragedy and social media as an unanticipated gift that keeps on giving. Years after her sister’s disappearance, Leddy continues to venture back to her Facebook page. Scrolling through her sister’s feed, Leddy gazes at her profile and gets to know her in a way she never did in person, through emojis and abbreviations. Social media is a relic, I now understand, that will outlive all of us. My social media presence is a tiny, insignificant slice of me at a very specific point in my life—but it may someday be the way I’m remembered. Just as Cinderella taught me to be kind, Leddy’s essay screams: “Don’t post stupid stuff on the internet! Love your sister! Nothing is permanent!”
“Nothing is permanent” should be Modern Love’s mantra. The column has reminded me time and time again of the fleetingness of everything—including life. In “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal is dying of cancer and realizes that she will soon leave behind her wonderful, perfect, devoted husband. Rosenthal uses Modern Love as a dating app and creates a profile for her husband in the hope that the right person might read the column and fall in love. If she can’t love him for the rest of his life, she figures, somebody else ought to. She sells him spectacularly, touching on his salt-and-pepper hair, impeccable music taste, and magical cooking abilities. “I want more time with Jason,” Rosenthal writes. “I want more time with my children.” Our time together is so short it’s cruel, I realized. Rosenthal used the 51 years she was given on Earth to love. Deeply. By the time I finished the essay, I was hyper aware of the fact that we are all on borrowed time. I was also ready to really live.
“When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” by Julie Margaret Hogben underscores the importance of quiet companionship. The essay, which is about the writer’s friendship with her loyal doorman, is a celebration of life’s inconspicuous gifts. Hogben’s doorman, Guzim, acts as a confidant, father figure, and bodyguard for the young single writer. When she’s out too late, Guzim worries. When she brings home a date, Guzim scrutinizes him. When she finds out she’s pregnant and wonders how, Guzim cracks a grin and says, “It’s life.” We all have a Guzim, Hogben showed me. Doorman or not, everybody has somebody in their life who looks out for them. We’d do best to keep them close.
Perhaps most importantly, Modern Love taught me that grief is the price of love. And in a year that felt like a constant hurricane of sadness (at the loss of my old life, at the emptiness of my neighborhood, at the haze of mourning that has been hanging over us every day since March) I was reminded that grieving like this means that my life was, and is, incredible. My life—just like those of Miller, Leddy, Rosenthal, and Hogben—is story-worthy. Because of Modern Love, I treat every experience as if it’s worthy of The New York Times. I’ve overcome my cynicism and learned to romanticize my own life, to the point where I walk down the street and am breathtakingly aware that everybody I pass is living in their own essay. We all experience love, and loss, and redemption, after all! Thanks to Modern Love, I’m a more loving sister, a better daughter, and a more present person. I’ve learned from the mistakes and successes of essayists, and have probably avoided some hard-learned lessons along the way. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to an instruction manual. It’s a how-to guide to living life the way it should be lived. Modern Love isn’t preachy, and it isn’t sappy. It’s a testament to the way paths cross, stories intertwined, and experiences change lives. It’s so real.
By Sophia Peyser
Illustration by Vy Nguyen