The Secret Lives of Strangers
& a prompt on seeing the world with new eyes by Lindsay Ratowsky
When I was younger, I used to play a game with my mom, where we’d sit on a park bench, pick a person, and make up a story—about where they came from, their families and jobs, where they were in their lives. We always tended toward the absurd or outrageous, turning the kid playing dodgeball in spectacles and a helmet into a child genius who’d gotten his PhD in mathematics at age nine, or the man in the trench coat into a taxidermist who specializes in preserving people’s beloved pet parakeets, or the woman with the curly hair and leg warmers into a jazzercise instructor who nearly made it big in the 80s.
I credit my mom and these kinds of games—which she was always inventing—for turning me into a storyteller. It inspired my curiosity about the humans around me and their inner lives—not in a nosy way, but as a kind of awareness. And it seems to me that curiosity is important to cultivate, because curiosity is a prerequisite for empathy.
This hunger for stories, this cultivation of curiosity and listening and empathy, was only heightened by my first big break: writing my New York Times “Life Interrupted” column from my hospital bed when I was first diagnosed with leukemia. Every day I got letters from people whose lives I couldn’t otherwise have imagined—one morning a senator’s wife sharing about her infertility and marital struggles, the next a cancer survivor who’d become addicted to her pain meds. Through this call and response, I became keenly aware of the fact that, of course, I was not the only person suffering, and that more than that, no one gets through this life without some heartbreak, some interruption. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t even make it through childhood without one.
I think that’s why advice columns appeal so much to me, and why writing my Dear Susu column has been so powerful—because I get to consider the complexity of the human experience, to meditate on the pivotal moments, to learn what I don’t know, and most importantly, to practice extending grace. It’s like that old saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.” When you follow that dictum, it’s like a little magic trick. Suddenly you can imagine others out there who will do the same for you when you’re at your hardest moment, when you’re acting your worst—when it’s Friday the 13th and you’re in urgent care yet again for transplant complications, waiting for the morphine to arrive, and you snap at your dad for packing two pajama tops and forgetting the bottoms (highly specific example that was absolutely, certainly not at all me, cough cough).
Today we have a wonderful prompt from a truly wonderful human: my dear pal Lindsay Ratowsky. Some of you may recognize her as an original member of our Isolation Journals team—usually very behind-the-scenes, so we’re thrilled to have her front and center today. She’s written a very personal, very poignant essay and prompt about thresholds and what they can teach us, how they can shift our point of view.
Before I sign off, a quick question: Did you have any wild Friday-the-13th-while-Mercury’s-in-retrograde happenings? Let’s commiserate in the comments.
Pajama bottomlessly yours,
P.S. In case you missed it, I published the latest installment of Dear Susu, answering a question from “Cracked Vase,” who wonders if it’s selfish to ask for the commitment of marriage if she’s “broken.” I, along with my beloved Jon Batiste, weigh in on making vows, the myth of a good catch, and the source of our self-worth. Read it here!
P.P.S. Last week Carmen shared a 100-day project check-in about Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights and seeking patterns and searching for the why. You can find it here!
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Prompt 195. Crossing a Threshold
It’s a fresh afternoon in March 2022. I’m standing on the curb at Mt. Sinai West Hospital in Manhattan. The baby who had been growing in my body for the past nine months is dressed in a tiny bear suit, sleeping in a car seat at my feet. My wife opens her Lyft app and summons an SUV. She is occupied with which route we’ll take home. I’m staring at my two-day-old daughter, reflecting on what I’ve just been through, wondering about who she has made me.
The three of us load into a black minivan. The driver, a stranger in his fifties, gingerly pulls out of the hospital driveway. At a stoplight, he shows us a photo of his two grandchildren, which assures me we’re in good hands. As we head down the West Side Highway toward Brooklyn, memories of my adult life flicker in full color through my mind, cinematic, almost in slow motion. There’s 27th Street, where I spent many late nights in my early twenties, dancing on banquets. A nautical themed bar, recently closed, where I shared a first kiss with a lovely person who just wasn’t my person. Houston Street, a few blocks from the non-profit office of the job that brought me to this city, eleven years ago. Places that shaped me against the ever-changing landscape of Manhattan.
We cross the Brooklyn Bridge and stop at the traffic light. A thirty-something woman straddling a road bike on the corner awaits her light to turn. I’ve been that woman on so many days–pedaling my light blue, two-wheeled companion through these streets to a work event or dinner with friends, attention focused on whatever story is unspooling through my ear buds, oblivious to the human drama playing out around me. In cars. In apartments. Walking down the street. Completely unaware of life-altering moments they may be experiencing right then, at that very moment.
I am forever changed since the last time I crossed over the historic bridge just a week before. Now, my body in pieces and hormones running wild, I will never be the same. But the woman on the bike in front of me has no idea.
I’m struck by the enormity of life contained in every person we pass on that drive home. The enormity of the change I’ve just experienced. I feel connected to my fellow New Yorkers and I’m shocked we’re all holding it together.
Soon I will see my neighborhood with fresh eyes. I will learn that, while my daughter dozes, I find the clatter and grind of a 12-year-old on a skateboard in the park as loud as the roar of the passing subway train, and that cobblestones are not nearly as romantic while pushing a stroller. That the waterfront is windier and colder than I remembered. I will see my community with fresh eyes as well—my friends, my neighbors, my family. At this threshold, they will witness our transformation. They will help guide us through.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about a threshold you crossed—what you expected it to be like, how that differed from reality, and what it took to make it though.
Lindsay Ratowsky is a personal brand business building expert who specializes in working with influential cultural voices. She has been a fundamental driver behind the growth of public figures and projects such as Esther Perel and the Isolation Journals. She lives in Brooklyn with her wife and two-month-old daughter.
Featured Community Member of the Week
Dana Haim is a textile designer originally from Miami who now lives in San Francisco. The mother of three, she has dedicated her project to the feeling of leaning into and embracing the rhythms of parenthood. Going with the current has helped her develop reverence for and enjoy the magic, the chaos, and the monotony of having children.
Dana joined the 100-day project at the suggestion of her sister, and her project is simple: paint or put color on the page every day. “I was moved to try and capture the ephemeral nature of so many aspects of this special, fleeting, and challenging window in my life,” Dana says. “To try and put to paper with colors some of the thoughts and feelings I have on a regular basis, the things that can’t be photographed or recorded or archived, but somehow want to treasure and hold onto forever.”
Dana says it’s sometimes hard to get to the page, and sometimes it doesn’t happen until late at night when her kids are asleep, but she’s always grateful she did. “Usually, on the hardest days, when I really don’t feel like working on it—but then I do anyway—those are the days that somehow I pull out my favorite pieces or surprise myself with new techniques,” she says. “It’s been fascinating to see that unfold. I’m looking forward to seeing where this takes my creative practice.”
Learn more about the 100-day project.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
Seeking Patterns & Searching for the Why, a reflection and community discussion on the first 40 days of the 100 day project
Dear Susu #5: Marriage Vows & the Myth of the Good Catch, on the source of our self-worth
A Confession, on creative lapses and the Recommitment Pledge