🌻 state of exception

on paradise and pandemic retreats

From January to March, I moved to Cancun with two friends and six strangers.

I nearly didn't go: I was scared of catching COVID from the tourists, and had the equally appealing option to live in New York City with a few close friends from school. But some combination of the glorious weather and a desire to choose the more exciting, scary thing led me to commit.

In Cancun, our group all worked remotely, the majority were tech founders, and despite an average age hovering around 22 or 23, we shared just one bachelor's degree among the nine of us. (Jasmine, I keep forgetting that you have a normal job.) My housemates were the type of people to believe that they could do absolutely anything: get a pandemic visa to Taiwan, retire rich by 30, invent the metaverse with zero-knowledge cryptography and GPT-3. One person had arrived without knowing anyone else: he flew in from rural Belgium after a quick message exchange and short video chat with the house organizer. Do first, think later, was the norm.

We had a house ritual of "Do Something Saturdays," which mostly meant waking up at 5am after a late night of poker, loud music, and heavy drinking to take a day trip to some tiny faraway island. We never managed to bring enough cash or sunscreen, and our group shared the combined Spanish abilities of an overconfident toddler. When we were extorted out of 65 USD by the local police, the nerve-racking experience quickly converted into an amusing story for the next Zoom meeting. And to be honest, the beaches weren't necessarily better after driving four hours out, but that didn’t matter. Are you sure it'll be worth the trip? I asked. Come on, let's fucking do it! And we'd pile into the bus and head out.

I tried my best to internalize my housemates’ self-efficacy, to borrow their god complexes. I worried a lot: about where to live, what job to take. To me, life — career paths, relationships, places to live — seemed to be full of trade-offs. To them, opportunity costs were something like a myth. Why can't you do both? I was always asked. You can have everything you could ever want. What an empowering idea that was! And drenched in the golden Mexico sunshine and a salty sea breeze, I was soothed into believing my dreams could come true.

Once, for a housemate's birthday brunch, we bought 20 different tiny pastries. Cheesecakes, fruit tarts, almond croissants. They were sweet and glossy and filled with all kinds of indulgences: pistachios, mousse, dulce de leche. Though we got full after just a bite or two of each, it was more about the symbolism. You're a real adult once you realize no one's stopping you from eating cake for breakfast. We joked about being Marie Antoinette, about living a real-life Masque of the Red Death, and as fun as it was, I felt a lingering unease about celebrating so lavishly. We had won the privilege lottery. We were a bunch of young 20-somethings working remote tech jobs from a tropical paradise while the rest of the world overflowed hospital ICUs. We certainly did not deserve to be so carefree and confident.

Two of my housemates met in Cancun, fell in love, and got married within the month. How did this happen? I asked, incredulous. We're the type of people to "yes, and" our way to the moon, my friend responded. When I thought about it, it wasn't so surprising. They were both experience maximalists, lovers of beauty and art, always marching to the beat of their own steady drum. My friend continued, We asked ourselves: what if we optimized for the most magical decision? What would we do? And thus they sealed their love into law.

When I was living in Cancun, one of my housemates asked me to imagine the best, most ideal way I could spend my next few months. For this, I was not allowed to consider feasibility. The question was an exercise in selfishness — in self-belief — in forcing myself to articulate the life I wanted without excuses.

I thought back. In January 2020, she and I had briefly bounced around the idea of a hackathon-slash-retreat for young writers: 'MagazineLodge' was our inelegant name. Now, a year and some later, I had Reboot, an ostensible purpose; there was a global pandemic, rendering many peers temporarily nomadic; and the two of us were in Cancun together with no plans for the spring. Maybe, I mused, we could actually do it?

I'd be keen, my friend replied, and that day, we decided to make it happen. It was mid-March when we began planning, so I thought we should aim for June. I anticipated a long list of administrative tasks: we first needed to persuade people, find a house, secure subsidies for food and rent and scholarships. But she wanted to do the start of April — she was thinking about leaving the country by summer. Besides, other people might have also have plans by then. I was skeptical, but said we could give it a shot.

Two weeks, 50 emails, and countless DMs later, it was happening. We'd convinced a group of real-life and internet friends to move to a lodge in Asheville, North Carolina from April 12 to May 12 to work on tech-related writing projects together. (Neither of us knew where Asheville was, but the property was large, well-priced, and outfitted with six goats and tap water from a mountain well.) We'd convinced two organizations to provide us with funding for not only living costs, but also to book private workshops with our favorite writers (shoutout Ken Liu). With zero actual publishing experience, we declared that we were creating our own print magazine, we were kicking off a movement, and it was going to be incredible.

Our house in Asheville was affectionately named the Bend of Ivy Lodge, and it was stunningly beautiful. The hosts had decorated each room and floor with embroidered cushions and books on meditation and artifacts collected from around the world. A massive two-story window streamed natural light and views of mountain greenery into the sofas in the common space. The 60-acre property was dotted with little trailheads, partially obscured by flora, from the "Birds and the Bees Trail" to "Hound Dog Hill." I remember stepping into the space for the first time and feeling overcome with joy, falling onto the couch, looking up at the sloped ceiling, thinking, I simply have never been happier.

Despite the idyllic surroundings, I found myself spending most of my days working at my laptop, headphones on. Once, for thirty minutes in the middle of a Thursday, the internet went down. I hurried downstairs in a mild panic, asking my housemates if they were having the same issues. Are you using your hotspot? Should we text the hosts? But my calls went unanswered; they were wrapping up a group lunch on the patio and planning to head to the river to wade. Who has the speaker? Jasmine, want to come? Another time, I told a housemate that I'd scheduled my second Moderna dose for a Friday in order to give myself the weekend to rest. Wait, you should've picked a Wednesday so you could call in sick. Clearly, the world was not working as it should, she seemed to imply. Why should we work as if it did?

I ended up deciding to take three weeks off between my internship and full-time job — one more than I'd initially planned. I saw my friends spending sunny afternoons reading on the lawn and evenings playing frenetic games of Overcooked and Just Dance. You need to come down and have fun with us. Do you want a glass of wine? I was on vacation, so I conceded. I cooked more, took van rides into town, draped myself in a blanket to read poetry around the fire pit. I spent hours reading books about people who believed in utopia, and hours more envisioning my own.

I had my nitpicks about living in a co-op. I need my own room; I almost always sleep before 1am; I don't love knowing which of my friends are tidier and which tend to shirk their chores. Could y’all please do your fucking dishes? I once asked at a house meeting, still smiling sweetly as the f-bomb tumbled off my tongue and revealed the worst of my inner dialogue.

But there were also the little things: shared bookshelves (Dark Forest was a favorite in Cancun, How To Do Nothing in Asheville), morning coffee runs, the nights when we stayed outside talking until the sky turned dark and then slowly bright again. Through games of poker and rounds of dishwashing, I discovered who couldn't cook and who obsessively prepped every perfect meal, who had five younger siblings and who had none. I found friends to consult when I needed leadership advice, a second eye on my essay, or just an external voice to validate my inner one — giving me the go-ahead to trust myself more. The Asheville house was 30 minutes from town, so one generous housemate volunteered to run a makeshift shuttle service four days a week, stopping by the gym, groceries, or vaccine drive-through.

The most valuable part of living with others was learning their value functions. In my housemates, I saw many ways to live a joyous and purposeful life. You could be unflinchingly authentic in every fiber of your being. You could do not 1.2x, but 5x your share of housework, and still find time to read and write and take long walks outside. You could laugh infectiously and seek every opportunity to do so. You could spend hours puzzling apart very hard math problems or dense philosophy texts; you could create experimental music and vegan recipes; you could build not just companies, but proofs of concept of worlds far better and bolder than our own.

The whole experience felt as surreal and hazy as a dream. Several times, my housemates and I would halt mid-conversation and say, I can't believe this is happening; I can't believe we're actually here. Sand the color of white gold; lush meadows speckled with wildflowers like confetti; great winged birds soaring across clear blue skies. We were working, yes, but from paradise, and it was easy to see that paradise was as much a place as a mindset as the material conditions that made freedom possible. Life felt unfairly beautiful, and I knew it was.

When I returned home and told a friend about my trips, he said, These people must feel very secure to feel in control of their happiness, rather than subject to their environment. On the other hand, most Americans have been wearing hard pants all year. I wondered, what would it take for everyone to get to experience this? Not only the Airbnbs and the tropical excursions, but also the peace of mind, the control over one's labor and time? To see potential rooms and roommates as growth opportunities, not costs and constraints? After all, having the confidence to believe one's passions are worthwhile is one thing; being valued by the cold hand of the market is another. Everyone deserved, as Jenny Odell wrote, the chance to do nothing at all.

When I went through full-time job negotiations in early May, it was the first time I'd been forced to quantify my worth — to slap a dollar sign on my selfhood and hope HR didn't consider me too overpriced. Exhausted, I read about postcapitalism during my time off. The People’s Policy Project and The Gravel Institute made the economic case for "the leisure agenda." Political theorists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams proposed a version of "fully automated luxury communism," leveraging new technology to replace human labor and redistribute its profits, freeing ourselves from wage-work once and for all. Most opulently, the socialist magazine Current Affairs called for a "luxury leftism": When we say let them eat cake, we are serious: there must be cake, it must be good cake, and it must be had by all. The reason Marie Antoinette needed beheading was not that she wished cake on the poor, but that she never actually gave them any.

Sci-fi writer William Gibson famously wrote: The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed. In Cancun and Asheville, I had tasted utopia and wanted everyone to share. That’s not to say things were perfect; rainy days and minor squabbles did not disappear. But in the time-boxed, space-boxed, artificially constrained social environment of a group house during a global pandemic, we were able to create a place outside of normal — a psychological state of exception — where we let our anxieties and assumptions go malleable, where I could break down my nervous preconceptions and build new confidences in their place.

I came home refreshed but not relaxed; I felt a renewed sense of urgency to scope out a different, better future than the one we’d been handed. Down with nine-to-five jobs and 12-month leases and four-year graduations. Down with rugged individualism and linear career paths and tight jeans and stable WiFi. Long live squad wealth, collective storytelling, and turning daydreams into reality. Long live youthful naiveté and stubborn optimism and unfounded belief in ourselves and each other. Someday, we'll all have our cake and eat it too.

🌱 quick life updates

  • I recently signed a full-time offer to work at Substack, the platform you’re reading this newsletter on (read more on why I joined here).

  • From mid-June to mid-August, I’ll be living in Brooklyn with just one of my oldest and closest friends. Much less fantastical, but I’m ready to live in the real world again.

— jasmine