This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
One of the things that’s been helping ME as I’ve been self-isolating over the past few weeks has been checking in with some of the people I’ve talked to on the show over the years to see how they’re doing. And to inspire you for this weekend’s homework assignment, we wanted to share a check-in call I recently had with writer Tayari Jones the author of the bestselling novel, An American Marriage.
She and I first talked a few years ago, as was getting ready to move from New York down to Atlanta, where she grew up. She wanted to be closer to her aging parents, and she had gotten a job on the faculty at Emory University.
Now, like most universities, Emory has moved to online instruction for the rest of the semester. So Tayari is leading an undergraduate writing seminar from home, over Zoom with mixed success.
TAYARI JONES: We're doing our best, and I think that we're bonding over our effort to do our best. But I feel that something's lost, and my biggest sadness is that I didn't get to say bye to them when I saw them last before their spring break. I was like, be careful, everybody, see you week after next, and then we won't ever gather again.
ANNA SALE: Are you staying mostly home now where you are?
TJ: I'm staying home. I am staying home. I take a daily walk around the block, but otherwise I stay home.
AS: What have you noticed about it so far?
AS: Well, one thing I've learned is that I enjoy my own company. I'm grateful for that, But I've also—I've learned a lot of things. I feel that I'm living more for myself because I'm alone in my house. I have my own audience for my life right now, and I think that is the positive thing that I'm learning about who I am. I'll be 50 years old. This is my 50th year, I'll be 50 on my birthday and this is the first time since I was a child that I can remember not worrying about how I look.
That has been really--I keep a journal and I'm just writing about all the ways that my life is changing right now and what that has taught me about the life I used to lead. And I didn't realize how many hours of any day I spend serving other people, all kinds of other people.
AS: Mmhmm. What's something that you've had time to do that you, you wouldn't have?
TJ: This is a, this is a little, uh, thing that I always do, but I'm doing it more now: I love greeting cards. I love greeting cards. I buy them in huge lots off of eBay. And I have hundreds of greeting cards in my--I have cards for every holiday.
AS: Why ebay and why not a card store?
TJ: Well, you know, cards are really expensive, like the really nice ones with the glitter and staff, but on eBay, I don't know where the people get them from. I don't ask questions, but you can buy, like, a mix lot of 100 Papyrus cards!
TJ: The only problem is you don't know what you're gonna get. And a lot of times you get weird holidays that normal people don't send cards for.
AS: Yeah. Yeah.
TJ: But yeah, like St. Patrick's Day cards, I have so many Halloween cards, but I've been making a point to send, um, lots of cards to people. People love to receive cards and I have so many of them and I just imagine that if people are at home alone, feeling isolated, wouldn't it be nice to get a card even if it's the wrong holiday? 'Cause I told you I have all these Halloween cards. I've been sending those out.
AS: Yeah. That's awe—
TJ: Yeah, like you open them and a bat kind of jumps out and goes boo! [laughs] But these are things I do to cheer myself because in the daytime, like right now, it's morning when we're talking. I'm in good spirits. In the daytime, I'm full of optimism. I have lots of ideas. When the sun sets is when the gravity of the situation hits me. Around 7:30, 8 o'clock, sometimes I'm all the way down to despairing. And when that happens, I read. I like to read a novel that I like to read a novel that I already know how it's going to end, because I have enough uncertainty in my life right now.
AS: That's a good tip. Yeah.
TJ: But I like a novel that has a hard-won happy ending. Like The Color Purple, you know it--they work at these people in the color purple or in this impossible situation, and they work it out through hard work. Like it's--I feel like Alice Walker puts you through it. But she rewards you for all you went through. As someone said to me, you know, to get, if you want to get to freedom, you got to cross the river. So we cross the river with these characters and we get to freedom. So, I've been reading, have that book by my bed table, and then I read a few pages of it at night because I feel like if there's a book--some people like to read novels where you can just escape into a world where everything's happy, but that doesn't, that doesn't comfort me because that's not--to me that doesn't feel real. But something like The Color Purple where you, where you struggle and then are victorious, that is encouraging to me because I feel like we are, we are gearing up for the fight of our lives, whether we know it or not.
AS: And what do you mean by that? How are you conceptualizing that right now?
TJ: First off, I know so many people already who are looking at financial catastrophe. So, so many people we know are going to be in really living hand to mouth. Like, we're going to have to find new ways that you can help the people you know in real life. Like if I write a check to an organization that does good work, that's important. But I also just know there's so many people that I know who need help with groceries. So I can give someone I know $100 for groceries and that I know where that's going and how it's helping. And it takes more emotional work to give money to someone you know, because if I give $100 to someone I know, I'm telling that person that I know that they're in trouble. And that is a lot of emotional heavy lifting because it also changes your relationship in a way, but it's important work that must be done.
AS: Can you tell me how you've broached that conversation with someone in your life?
TJ: Well, one thing I did, um, there's an older woman I know, and you know, we're in touch. We write letters all the time. I know... I just, I, I'm, I'm observant. I can do math. I know she's in trouble. And so I, um, put some money in a card to her. I said, "With all this going on, I thought you just might like some extra money to do something nice for yourself."
AS: That's nice.
TJ: Even though I expect she'll use it for groceries or something, but there, so I try to think about the, I think about the person. I think it's important that you allow people to have, um, to let people have pride if they want it. You know, the people in your life are smart enough to know what to do with the money you sent.
TJ: And if people live so close to the edge anyway, so only the people you know who were making it, but barely, they need a little extra help now. And there's probably not people who are accustomed to asking.
AS: Yeah. I think that that intention and saying like, "Oh, I'm going to send this card or I'm going to send this check today before the person asks." Because it, everything has changed so quickly. So there's something so loving about you thinking about who in your life might need extra. And doing that reaching out.
TJ: Well, I do believe that if the tables were, they would help me. When I was a kiddo in college, my aunt would send me 20 bucks in a card about four or five times a year, and it was significant for her to send me that 20 bucks. So, now that she's so much older and I'm, you know, an adult, I'm established, then I'm going to send something to her.
That’s Tayari Jones. A couple of weeks after we talked, she sent us an email to say, “I told you that I love the mail and greeting cards. It didn’t occur to me that I would need to order sympathy cards. I only had four or five in my stash and I have used them all."
This weekend, inspired by Tayari, we want to invite you to send a card—or a letter, or an email—to someone in your life who could use a little checking in on. We’d love to see what you end up sending: take a photo and email it to us, at firstname.lastname@example.org. There's a picture of Tayari and all her greeting cards at our website at deathsexmoney.org. Have a restful weekend.