lightness of being charlotte dijkgraaf

Illustration by Charlotte Dijkgraaf

During the four tempestuous years Donald Trump bestrode the world stage, my news-eating habits changed. Before then, politics was an essential but not so tasty side dish. Like, say, a tray of Brussels sprouts. Not a favorite dish, but healthy and therefore necessary. Or a polenta casserole. Something I don’t like, but, hey, my host went through all this trouble, so at least I took a few bites of it.

I was never a big eater, more of a news grazer. My eyes often bigger than my stomach. Here and there I picked up some facts and figures, stories and background stuff. My main newspaper provided what I needed, mostly. So when discussions turned to politics, I knew enough to participate, to feel like a knowledgeable member of society.

But the populist movements, with their huge range in voices, their octaves, falsettos, and vocal fries, gave me a renewed hunger. I sensed danger in every breath I took. So, as a way of understanding, I wanted to know what threatened me. Instead of two newspapers, I read three, then four, and still felt I was missing out. I watched TV, something I had not done since my teens. Not one news outlet, no, within days I became skilled at surfing channels. I was on a sugar high for news. “Wildly erratic,” my son called my TV watching behavior. I took it as a joke. Then.

I discovered the endless possibilities of Twitter, with its constant new-newer-newest news items. The trending topics, the breaking news, the just-for-me selections. Believe me, I know things about the wife and eldest daughter of the former president I would rather have not known. When all that did not abate my hunger, I turned to Facebook, Instagram, and, to the bemusement of the kids in my household, to TikToc.

The more I ate, the more I wanted. The side dishes became the main dishes, and I asked for second and third helpings of whatever they fed me. I pigged out on junk news. Consuming news became the purpose of life. Soon my days turned out to be too short. There always was a place on earth where news was breaking. Before I turned out the light, I took a last look at my phone, then another one, and a final one. Several times at night, I checked, just to see if something new had happened

I had turned into a junkie. I knew more than I wanted to know, needed to know. I had hoped the information would give me a sense of control, but quite the opposite was true. I felt more helpless than ever before. Then, quite unexpectedly, I was saved by the bell.

I am a juror of a Dutch poetry prize. We select the most promising debut poet of the year. Our meeting was coming up, but I was overdue reading the 40 small books on my side table. I sighed and picked up one.

I read the first stanzas, struck by how carefully the words were chosen. I read the poem again, then again. There was a lightness about the words, an efficiency of purpose. I rolled them around in my mouth. They were savory, a taste I had not noticed in a long time.

Reading the poems was very satisfying. I had found a new diet. Words that lift my spirits and give me a comfortable lightness of being.

Bon appetit!

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.