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On Privacy

On Privacy
By Lilly Milman • Issue #3 • View online
The pandemic completely changed my relationship with privacy — as evidenced by this newsletter.

I’ve always considered myself a private person. Not in the I-don’t-use-social-media way, but more in the… I-use-vagueness-to-dodge-personal-questions way. I’ve used what’s public — my social media, my journalism — as a way of hiding what’s private — mostly anything about my immediate family, my financial burdens and professional struggles, the lonely feeling of beginning young adulthood several states away from home.
But the isolation of the pandemic has begun smudging the line I’ve kept between the personal and the public.
For as long as I’ve been a writer, I’ve wanted to write a memoir. And for that same length of time, I’ve kept diaries — of poems with lines crossed out and rewritten, taped in photographs, drawings. In my teenage years: thoughts on fights with friends, on how I need to leave Long Island, on things my family just didn’t understand, and (in rougher moments) on whether or not I’d ever have a boyfriend. 
The problem was: None of it could ever be seen. Not because I was embarrassed, but because it felt wrong. It wasn’t all mine. Growing up in my extremely Russian home, family loyalty was valued above almost all else. And to prove loyalty was to refuse to air out any dirty laundry. To let anyone — even a close friend — see you sweat was to betray your blood, and to value anything or anyone above your blood was beyond forgiveness. (“Your family is the only people you have in this world. Friends are meaningless.”Every older member of my family, on multiple occasions.)
Russians (myself included) have a flair for the dramatic, and I did not want to be on the other side of any of them if I accidentally let the wrong thing slip (like when I accidentally told my first grade class that my parents smoked cigarettes and was later told, “While you’re in school: No. We. Don’t.”) So I held on to all of it, with white-knuckled fists.
In my writing program in college, I concentrated on literature and fiction. In my short stories, I mainly wrote about male characters. In my one non-fiction class, I wrote my final personal essay about the band ABBA. When I presented a thesis on homelessness and welfare to my class, I did not mention that I had been on welfare myself. And when I entered the world of media post-grad, I did not pitch stories with a personal angle. 
This worked, right up until things started to fall apart. In April 2020, I was on the job hunt. The roommates I was friendly with moved out of my apartment, while two, a couple I didn’t know, stayed, and my boyfriend moved in. The four of us never left the house, keeping to our respective couples, rarely bumping into each other. And for the first few months, I did what I always do when I’m stressed: I turned into myself, deeply, and tried not to let the cracks show through. I all but disappeared from my group chats, and ignored calls from family. I leaned on my boyfriend when I felt able, letting no one else know that I felt like I was spending weeks-turned-months just treading water. 
Eventually, summer came, and things looked up. I was adjusted to a new remote job. I was going outside again and even seeing small groups of friends. I remembered what it was like to be seen and share things. 
The thing about staying inside for a year is: You begin to forget what it means to feel real, to exist outside of just your own world and be a part of someone else’s. To be a part of strangers’ lives, of routes, the background noise of regular haunts. It took me a long time to realize how necessary that feeling is. 
There have been times during the past year where I’ve tried to become so small, to package up my life so neatly in a box labeled “private” that it would barely be shared with anyone besides my boyfriend and myself at all. In this perfect tiny world, I’d be satisfied and never need anything else.
Other times, I miss being out there so painfully much that I’m willing to share any mundanity with someone who’ll listen. Do you want my bread recipe? This is what my half-drank coffee mug looks like in mid-morning. Here’s my new work from home set-up! We bought groceries today! 
I’ve found that the only antidote to this unique restlessness is — you guessed it — writing. I find myself thinking back to a quote from Susan Orlean, whose keynote speech at a writer’s retreat in Skagway, AK I covered for the local paper:
“Are you a communicator or are you a navel gazer? Nothing that I’ve ever written couldn’t have used 10 more times in the typewriter, a hundred more times. It doesn’t matter to anyone if I’m sitting alone in an office tweaking.”
So, today (and I hope many other days), I’m choosing to be a communicator. 
As always, thank you for reading.
P.S. Have you ever wondered what happened to the dining room table? Why don’t young families cherish them the same way their parents did? Read my wonderful friend Melinda Fakuade’s deep dive into the dining room table for Vox here!
For when you don’t feel like sharing, something small and individual:
For the cakes:
  • ½ stick melted butter, cooled
  • 3 large eggs, separated into whites and yolks 
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup buttermilk
  • 1 tbsp. lemon zest
  • ½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ⅓ cup flour
  • 1 cup raspberries
  • 1 cup blackberries
  • 1 cup blueberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, butter 4 to 5 ramekins, and sprinkle the insides with sugar. Place them in a deep baking pan. Mix together butter, egg yolks, ½ cup sugar, buttermilk, lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt. Whisk in flour until smooth. Using a mixer (or whisk if you’re brave), beat egg whites until they are very foamy. When they are thicker and foamy, gradually add ¼ cup sugar and beat until eggs form stiff, glossy peaks. With a rubber spatula, gradually fold egg whites into lemon mixture until very little white streaks remain. Spoon mixture into ramekins, filling them nearly all the way to the top. Place baking pan with ramekins inside on oven rack, and pour hot water into the baking pan until the water level is about halfway up the ramekins. Bake for 35 minutes, until the tops are light brown. While they are in the oven, put fruit in separate bowls, sprinkle two to three pinches of sugar into each, and mash with a fork to release juices. Carefully remove ramekins from baking pan when finished, and let cool for 15 minutes. Pour berries and their syrup (either separately, or a mixture) over cakes. Serve warm. 
For when you can finally cook for more than one, something shareable:
Focaccia Garden
For the bread:
  • 500 g bread flour
  • 5 tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 6 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1¾ tsp. salt
Options for the garden:
  • Fresh rosemary sprigs
  • Fresh parsley
  • Red onion, sliced
  • Red pepper, sliced
Mix dry ingredients in a stand mixer with dough hook until combined. Gradually pour in water, and mix on medium speed for about 5 minutes. Turn off the mixer, cover bowl, and wait 10 minutes. Sprinkle 1 tsp. salt over dough, and mix on medium speed for another 5 minutes. Cover the insides of the biggest bowl you have with 2 tbsp. olive oil. Using a rubber spatula, scrape dough into bowl, and use your fingers to cover the dough with the oil pooling in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and wait 6 hours. Cover a 9 by 13 inch baking pan with 2 tbsp. oil. Pour/scrape the dough into the pan with a rubber spatula and wait until it settles into an even layer (don’t force it, it’ll mostly spread on its own). Dip any herbs in a mixture of lemon juice and water. Use the prepared vegetables and herbs to create a garden scene with flowers. Sprinkle the entire focaccia with flaky salt. Let stand uncovered for 20 minutes. Drizzle the dough with remaining olive oil. Bake about 25 minutes. Cool on a rack before serving.
For a breakfast sandwich the next morning: Slice a few pieces of bread, and cut them in half down horizontally, in the middle. Put in the toaster oven for about five minutes, then top with a few slices of fresh mozzarella. Continue toasting while you melt some butter in a skillet, and crack an egg or two. Fry uncovered on medium-low heat for a few minutes, then cover for a few minutes. When the mozzarella is melted, remove bread from toaster and sprinkle flaky salt over it. Add a slice of prosciutto, top with the egg.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Lilly Milman

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