A Symphony of Hope
The power of community, creativity, and listening along the way
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As a subscriber to The Isolation Journals (TIJ), I had the opportunity to screen American Symphony, the new documentary about Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad, a day before its release on Netflix. Immediately following the film, the TIJ community was invited to a live Zoom conversation with the two stars of the film and director, Matthew Heineman.
Both the film and conversation moved me deeply on many levels—so much so that I’m dedicating this issue of Name Three Things to TIJ and my takeaways from that evening.
The intimacy of friendship in isolation
I’ve made no secret of my affection and admiration for Suleika Jaouad. It’s no exaggeration to say she played a pivotal role in my development as a writer. I confess to having no recollection of meeting most of the people in my life—they were quietly absorbed into my world and their importance grew organically. But I can trace everything I’ve experienced on my writing journey over the last nearly four years back to Suleika and the moment our paths intersected.
April 3, 2020, I was supposed to drive five hours to Kripalu Center in western Massachusetts for a weekend memoir-writing workshop taught by. Though I worked professionally as a healthcare copywriter, I’d never taken a writing course and had long harbored a secret dream to write my own story. Eight months earlier, I had mustered the courage to register for the workshop despite not knowing anyone else who was going. In late March, the workshop was cancelled because of COVID—but a seed had been planted. I wanted to write.
That same day in April, I came across a Facebook post about The Isolation Journals, a 30-day virtual writing project created by Suleika Jaouad and her best friend, Carmen Radley, in response to the pandemic. In Suleika’s words:
“To turn that isolation into creative solitude and connection, I asked my favorite writers, artists, and community leaders to share some words of inspiration and a prompt, and I invited my community to journal along with me.”
As I’m sure it was for many others, TIJ became my lifeline during a scary time defined by uncertainty. I was terrified of COVID affecting my daughter, whose lungs were already at risk from cystic fibrosis. To protect her, I went into full protective lockdown mode. Except for walks in our neighborhood, we rarely left home that first year. But as difficult as that was (and I say that knowing how fortunate we were to be able to remain safely at home) there was something special about that time, too.
Within the TIJ community, friendships formed around the world and I felt the intimacy of being in isolation together, sharing personal thoughts through our writing. I wrote about that feeling in a braided essay titled Permission to Speak that The Manifest-Station published a few years back. Here is an excerpt:
I begin reading people’s posts. I write an essay and upload it. Within minutes it receives a handful of likes and positive comments. Fueled, I start writing daily and interacting with others, offering feedback and support.
We begin to know each other. We remark on the safety we feel sharing intimate thoughts in this private space. Day by day, more people join. This space feels sacred. There are no trolls, political rants or snarky memes. There are raw, painful posts about grief and shame and loss. There are beautiful essays about love and life and what it feels like to blindly feel our way through the long days of quarantine. There are hilarious parodies, song lyrics and experimental poems—the talent on these pages shines brightly. We are tender with one another. We encourage and celebrate each revelation and, word by word, we build a community.
Through TIJ, I found my voice. I began writing my memoir, submitting work to literary journals, taking online courses in journalism and writing craft, and making friends in the writing community. All these years later, I now have dozens of bylines, a wonderful literary agent, countless creative ideas in various stages of development, and writer friends I count among my inner circle.
Within the TIJ community, friendships formed around the world and I felt the intimacy of being in isolation together, sharing personal thoughts through our writing.
Suleika has witnessed and cheered my writing journey from the beginning and even invited me to create an essay and writing prompt for TIJ, an honor for which I’m still so grateful.
Holding space for hope
While I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I know I’m safe in saying the TIJ community at large adores Suleika and Jon. Aside from the joy of watching his career skyrocket, we’ve had the pleasure of interacting with him virtually when he’s joined us via Zoom for conversations about creativity, life, and his slam-dunk recipe for red beans and rice (which I’ve made and it’s awesome). When they married in early 2022, we rejoiced.
Suleika’s bestselling memoir, Between Two Kingdoms, introduced her to an even wider audience than those who knew her through TIJ or her New York Times column, “Life, Interrupted,” which chronicled her days in hospital isolation battling leukemia in her early twenties.
For so many of us who came to know her through TIJ, learning that Suleika’s cancer had returned after almost 10 years in remission felt personal. We feel protective of her and are collectively holding space for her long-term health and happiness. That’s why watching American Symphony together and sharing our thoughts in a group chat also felt so personal and intimate. It reminded me that staying connected with others and treating one another with kindness and respect is essential, especially during hard times.
Three Things from American Symphony That Resonated
1) One of the things I love about Jon Batiste is his unapologetic refusal to be defined or contained by anyone else’s labels. He trusts his creative impulses and is open to exploring what moves or excites him. I applauded when he said this in the film:
“There is room for all of us to coexist. There’s a space for us all to be different and quirky and strange and beautiful together.”
As someone who’s only recently begun to explore genres beyond the corporate writing I know so well, I’m inspired by Jon’s dedication, hard work, and playful approach to making art. I don’t want to be limited by one genre or defined by my age or demographic. I want to unapologetically write from my heart and lean into what makes me different and quirky and strange and beautiful.
2) Another quote of Jon’s from the film that spoke to me was this:
“Even in life, if you’re too comfortable you don’t evolve.”
YASSSSSS. I embrace this wholeheartedly and see evidence of it in my own behavior as I push myself to go for opportunities I could easily talk myself out of and take steps toward the next phase of my life. Sometimes it’s a heavier lift than others, as I teeter between my desire for the dopamine hit of a new challenge and my wish to burrow deeper into the ease and safety of the familiar.
3) During the post-screening Zoom, director Matthew Heineman was asked about the directional turn the storyline took in his film, which was originally supposed to center on Jon as he prepared for his symphony at Carnegie Hall. Matt said he never goes into a project with a preconceived notion of what it’s about. He shared some wise words from a mentor:
“If you end up with the story you started with, you weren’t listening along the way.”
Once again, a universal lesson that can be applied to filmmaking, composing, writing, art, or life itself.
I hope you’ll watch the film and let me know your thoughts. And special thanks to, Jon Batiste, Matthew Heineman, , and the beautiful TIJ community for a special night.
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