In This Episode
Welcome to Covid’s Groundhog Day. Every day’s the same and we constantly have six weeks to go before it’s over. But school’s open, traffic is back, and it’s time to start thinking about what the world looks like on the other side. Here to talk to Phill about reentering a very changed and very similar world are writers Michael Arcenaux and Aminatou Sow. They chat about the challenges of creating through disaster, seeing old injustices through new eyes, creating boundaries, and finding god in memes.
Aminatou Sow: One, the change that has happened for me is I will never forget and forgive the level of selfishness that I saw displayed. And I don’t mean by like certain people, I mean by like society. Obviously, I was like my work is writing about power dynamics. I know about the haves and the have nots. You know what I mean? I get how the system works. To see it in action like this in a sustained crisis around the world, it broke my heart and then I broke my brain. And I just don’t know that I personally will ever recover from what I learned about humanity this like, this last year.
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media. This is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardy. OK, y’all. Today we have a show that is all about reemergence now. We are recording this for full disclosure, right around the same time that we’re getting some reports about the Delta variant, so it’s kind of like we’re in this limbo between are we actually reemerging or are we potentially going to have a couple of more weeks of semi pseudo freedom before we all have to go back inside? And it’s a kind of tricky thing to balance, but not one that should necessarily be unexpected, right? This is a pandemic. It is a virus, and this is kind of how these things go. That doesn’t mean, however, that today’s episode and today’s guests don’t have a lot to offer for us as we consider what reemergence looks like and what we kind of want to bring forward with us and also what we want to leave behind. Now, I don’t have to tell anyone who’s listening that this past year to year and a half has been painful, excruciating, full of grief, full of sorrow, and full of loss for so many people, and I think that many people used some of this tragedy as fertile ground to imagine a world after the pandemic, right? Many people were able to see this tragedy as it was and fully absorb just kind of the immensity of all of it, and then also decide maybe life is short and maybe we don’t know what the future holds, so maybe I’m going to do the thing I said I was never going to do, and maybe I’m going to change a career path, or maybe I need to reevaluate my friendships or my relationships to my family or to my intimate partner, right? We know so many folks who have gone through dramatic transformations, and we’ll be exploring more of those transformations and those kind of renaissance as the season unfolds. But today, you know, I really wanted to actually just talk about the logistics and the spiritual kind of tension and feelings and conflict around reentering this world, especially as we reenter a world where many of the inequities that we first pointed out from the coronavirus pandemic still have not been sufficiently addressed by the systems that are in place, right? And so it’s been on us to determine with our own autonomy and our own varying levels of privilege what kinds of people we want to be moving forward. I really didn’t feel like there were two people I could have looked towards more during the pandemic than my friends for inspiration here. And this isn’t necessarily a religious conversation, and I think that’s kind of what’s great about it. But I have two friends who made big life changes, and you know, they might disagree with me with that assessment, and you’ll hear more about that later. The first is Aminatou Sow, who is the author of “Big Friendship” and also host the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend”. Amina and I have been friends for years, and I’ve looked at to her as a mentor, as a role model, as a guide, and I’ve really admired her ability to make changes and transformations during the pandemic that also have informed what her life is going to look like afterwards, and you’ll hear more about that from her. And then the second is my friend Michael Arceneaux. I met Michael when I was editing Teen Vogue. Michael wrote for us at Teen Vogue. But of course, Michael is a very celebrated and acclaimed author. You will know his book called “I Can’t Date Jesus” and then his follow up, “I Don’t Want to Die Poor.” Very funny titles for books that are, of course, very funny, but just have so many layers to them in terms of the emotional life lessons that Michael has learned during his time. And Michael’s own metamorphosis had a lot to do with going back to Houston, where his first book takes place, where he first reconciled and kind of grappled with Catholicism and also family trauma, and healing some of that family trauma over the past year. So I hope you enjoy this conversation. It’s a bunch of friends talking, and talking about our own hesitations and excitement and trepidations about reemergence, and I hope that by the time you hear this, we are in a world where we are still unfolding and coming into ourselves, and hopefully we are doing so with a sense of optimism and compassion for one another and also a sense of what we need to make better in the world. Hope you enjoy.
Phillip Picardi: Hello, beautiful people.
Aminatou Sow: Thank you for having us.
Michael Arcenaux: Thank you for having me, fellow Catholic
Phillip Picardi: Fellow, yeah, fellow Catholic. We will dive into that.
Michael Arcenaux: And recovering Catholic.
Aminatou Sow: I’m already feeling outgunned over here. Oh my God.
Phillip Picardi: We love our Muslim sister also.
Aminatou Sow: I mean, we’ll talk about it.
Phillip Picardi: We’ll talk about it.
Michael Arcenaux: Guilt bonds us.
Phillip Picardi: We may not all have religion in common, but one thing you both have in common is that over the pandemic, you both published beautiful, amazing books. Congratulations.
Michael Arcenaux: How kind. Thank you.
Michael Arcenaux: Thank you.
Phillip Picardi: I can only imagine that that was not exactly the vision that y’all had for your 2020 book tours.
Michael Arcenaux: It was not.
Phillip Picardi: How did it go anyway? Because I mean, it felt like it was a warm reception across the board.
Aminatou Sow: I, unlike Michael, I am a first-time author, so I really had nothing to compare this experience to. And so I didn’t have really high expectations. I try to foster a life where you don’t hold on so tightly to events that when they don’t happen, you’re, it just really devastates you. So in that regard, like, yeah, the pandemic book tour was, it was not ideal, but it was also, I don’t know what else it could have looked like.
Phillip Picardi: Interesting. Michael, what did you feel?
Michael Arcenaux: I have to be honest. I am very proud of that book. It’s actually more personal, well it’s not more personal to me, but it just was deeply personal to write and hard for me to write. Harder than the virus. I’m very proud of what the book did and what it’s done, and it’s continuing to do in the midst of a lot of challenges, and me being very cognizant of the fact that as like someone who grew up like me, someone with my type of voice, someone who writes and communicates the way that I do, there have only so many spaces usually readily available to me which are usually nonexistant. And then that was magnified by the fact that there was a plague and a depression at the same time, and that my book was about student loan debt, particularly how there’s a specific type of debt burdening Black people, which literally most of the people who buy my book or who would immediately be more inclined to support it, who are the people challenged the most financially. So I was very cognizant of that at the same time. So there’s a lot of unique challenges. But that said, I did get a lot of support. People would really try to be helpful, but it was a really frustrating time. And then the plague happened and then I just kind of found myself personally stuck in a place all around that I didn’t think I would be in at that point.
Phillip Picardi: Right. In a way, it’s interesting because the two books that you published Amina and Anne Friedman’s book was about friendship. And Michael, your book was, as you said, partially about the student loan crisis and of course, the challenges of just like upward mobility in this society, capitalist society that we’re all living in. All of that stuff was laid in such stark relief. You know, the coronavirus kind of amplified the issues that both of you were talking about in this book, which I found to be really interesting. Like you couldn’t have predicted it, but at the same time, what a balm these books were able to offer people when they needed them the most, right?
Aminatou Sow: I think that you’re correct about how, yeah, obviously, like no one could have predicted that we were going to be living in just these challenge times of, you know, like in a plague, it truly. And I think that it really amplified, I think for me personally like, scarcity. You know, it was like, what do I, what do I feel like? I’m lacking, what do I have, what do I not have, who has more of it, who has none of it? And I think that when you know there is a kind of scarcity mentality that you can have about your relationships. The student loan crisis is literally about how money is fake and about how we like, uphold, like we literally oppress some people to the benefit of other people. And so I think that, you know, I’m not one of those like a silver-lining-of-the-pandemic people. Absolutely not. If I could go back and do it, I would not do it. I was like, if we could rewind the clock and not like—
Phillip Picardi: Absolutely.
Aminatou Sow: I didn’t learn anything in this time or do anything in this time that I feel like I needed a pandemic for. But so, yeah, so I don’t—
Phillip Picardi: Wait, wait, can I challenge that, actually?
Aminatou Sow: Or maybe let me restate it. What I’m saying is that like, I did not need millions of people around the world to die for me to feel—
Phillip Picardi: Absolutely.
Aminatou Sow: —that I encountered like a particular blessing in my life. Like, that’s wants to reframe that. So, yeah, so we couldn’t have predicted the moment, but I think that it’s definitely like one of the ways that our work is in conversation, but it’s also, I think it’s the conversation that everybody is having right now. It’s truly like, who has enough, who has more, who has none, and how do we live in a fair way and how do we get to choose how we want to show up in the world? And you know, and how do we challenge the systems that we are all surrounded by?
Phillip Picardi: Yeah. The question that I kept asking myself, especially as I try to write or create things or to any sort of work over the pandemic, is why, and who am I doing this for, and where did all of it go? Like I did not realize how much my creativity was tied to my environment, the people I love and care about, but also like the rhythm of the world as it was. And on the one hand, I was grateful to have that kind of shown to me. On the other hand, I was like, Yeah, and also, what an asshole I must have been to not see all of these things so clearly before. Do you know what I mean? It was just like, it was hard to feel like anything I could publish at that time was relevant or important, you know?
Michael Arcenaux: Yeah, no, I get it. I don’t really romanticize art in that way. I mean, I wrote my first two books under duress. I was paid very little for the first book because they didn’t believe in me. And then I got paid what I deserved, at least, for the second, but I was still having to do a lot of other work at the same time. But no, I get that. What I was trying to tell people, when I tried to communicate online, or if anyone ever asked me, you don’t have to force yourself to do or create if it really doesn’t pay your bottom line. Like, I think a lot of times people romanticize working this idea, if you do all of this, then you get some kind of result. Like, no, it’s a plague, people are dying, things are really stressful, times are really hard, a lot of people are lonely—it’s perfectly fine to sit still. I think it’s like a luxury to actually be able to be still and at least try to have some reflection. I work throughout the plague and I was actually fortunate and blessed for that. But at the same time, I really did use those moments when I didn’t have to do anything, to not do anything. To kind of sit in like my feelings good, bad, or sad, or angry, or whatever to really [unclear] the whole process because then I think the art will come. And honestly, certain things that I waited to do, to me already been fruitful. Like, I don’t even, I still write a lot, too much because I still have, you know, some loans to take care of, but we are almost there, really.
Phillip Picardi: [laughs] Good, I’m glad to hear it.
Michael Arcenaux: Very close. Yeah, but you know, because government loans are a scam.
Phillip Picardi: They are.
Michael Arcenaux: That’s all. But no, I just think I really I wanted more people to kind of pause and stop, but I guess we weren’t really allowed that anyway.
Phillip Picardi: Right.
Michael Arcenaux: But I just I wanted more people to see that there is life beyond work. And I really have, as ambitious as I am, I really kind of have—not disconnected from my work—but like, I have more of a balance. But also I’m privileged too now.
Phillip Picardi: I’ve been watching you guys make big moves in your lives. Michael, you’re making a literal move to L.A., right? Amina, mean you entered a writers room, you know what I mean? Like all sorts of stuff happened for the two of you during this moment.
Michael Arcenaux: I didn’t know that. Yes, writer’s room.
Aminatou Sow: Yeah.
Michael Arcenaux: Sorry though.
Aminatou Sow: Listen, we’re writing for TV now. You know, you know what Phill though, something that you and Michael are saying is really just striking me that, one of the things in the pandemic, I think that was really hard was the sense of distortion of time. Like you know, every day for me was a Monday or Friday, like truly every single day and it, like time just didn’t make any sense. You would get to the end of the day and you were like, what are you, like, yeah, it was like a month—I couldn’t tell you the difference between a month and 18 months and five minutes. Just time, time has been elastic in a different way. And that has been really challenging. But the reason I bring it up is because I think that even hearing you say like, oh, you guys are making big moves. I don’t know that they’re big, I think that we are all moving in the direction that we, you know, like that were going, but I think that it’s the observing from the outside. You know, like people, and it’s again, this ties into the book tour idea for me, where everyone watches when the thing is done, but who is in the trenches with you when you’re making every single step to get there? You know? And we are such like people that we love, like, I’m here for like, congratulations Twitter 100%. Like nobody is happier for other people than me. Like, I love that. I love watching my friends succeed. I love watching them make announcements. Especially in the pandemic, getting good news, I was like, that’s my heroine. Like, someone would get good news and I barely knew them, I was like, I can go on for 48 more hours, give me the news. But I really, like a thing that I really want to make normal, especially for people who are peers or people like us who are like colleagues and we’re friends, it is also like just celebrating in that quiet, hard work because it doesn’t feel like a big move to you if like you know that like Michael wrote like 80,000 words under duress, you know, and he’s showed up every single day to do that. Like he did it despite all of the life circumstances. You, like applied to school and you’re going like, that application didn’t happen out of nowhere. You like, got your materials ready and you did all the steps. We are doing all of the steps. The celebration is amazing and wonderful. But I just really want to, I just want to acknowledge that like we, you know, like we are people who work hard.
Phillip Picardi: Oh sure.
Aminatou Sow: And it’s ok, like it’s like we work hard, we like put in the time. And it’s such a, and it’s so lonely. I think that that’s what the pandemic brought up for me is just that, and writing a book, honestly, is also a very lonely process, and I did it with another person and we would both comment about how lonely we were, and there were two of us. So I cannot even imagine what it’s like to be one person doing it alone. I care so much that, like my friend is being nurtured every day by their work and that they’re showing up under like hard circumstances to make.
Michael Arcenaux: Could I actually, something Phill that you mentioned a few minutes ago just about, just about, the fact that you’re even making an effort to change—and I really don’t mean it’s in a patronizing way—probably sets you apart from most people because one thing I kind of just noticed kind of early on and it’s consistent is that most people have really taken this entire year and change, and nothing has changed for them. And I guess in some ways, maybe that’s OK, but in a lot of ways, one thing I thought was really disappointing early on was a lot of people really had no idea where they lived, and it was disappointing. Even people who are Black and should know better, like even in Harlem, I was very cognizant of the fact that when they say half of Americans don’t have $400 in their savings, that’s half Americans don’t have $400 in their savings and when people were missing checks very early, you could see it like literally within days on the streets. And then there already was an addiction problem. People look through a lot of people was my point. There are people out, you know, see all the time in the street, go out, they either hung out with who would say, hey, did you know that there was like a methadone clinic around the corner? Like that’s been there this entire time. It’s only became more apparent because it was, I guess, literally right in front of you, but you should, first you should be aware of your surroundings, but that’s just the hood in me from Houston. But another thing is that, or just some of the same people, like you got COVID, and nearly the next week I saw you just without a mask just floating about. There just a lot of, there was a pervasiveness of selfishness that a lot of people kind of jargoned up to me, wellness, of self-this, blah blah blah, but ultimately it was just as being selfish. And I mean, American—not saying it too existential—but I know Americans would be inherently selfish, but I just thought, there are so many people dying around you, there have been so many people suffering literally right by you, and you can’t even see it when it’s virtually right in front of you. And I find that disappointing for a lot, in a lot of people. Because I don’t by no means I mean to be perfect, but I guess growing up the way that I did and growing up poor and growing up, you know, abused and having these kind of like, I understand how easy is to overlook people, but it was quite remarkable to see, even in this. I was like, it’s literally comparable to like the footage from like the Spanish flu, kind of like the wheels just kept going and people didn’t care. So that was a lot to endure. But it’s fine.
Aminatou Sow: I mean you are really hitting me so hard in the feels because like one thing that I will, I feel like one thing that has changed me forever, and it’s not in a good way, but one change that has happened for me is I will never forget and forgive the level of selfishness that I saw displayed.
Michael Arcenaux: Right.
Aminatou Sow: Like that has just been, and I don’t mean by like certain people.
Michael Arcenaux: No, I understand. Yeah.
Aminatou Sow: I mean by like society. Like I, like I, obviously I was like my work is writing about power dynamics. I know, I know about the haves and the have nots. I know that, you know what I mean, I get how the system works. To see it in action like this in a crisis, like in a sustained crisis around the world, it has, it broke my heart and then it broke my brain. And it’s just been, yeah, I just don’t know that I personally will ever recover from what I learned about humanity this like this last year. And sometimes it scares me because I don’t, I really resist like feeling cynical about it but in some ways like that, it has brought immense depths of sadness.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah.
Aminatou Sow: Like my, like similarly to Michael, like I grew up, like very much in crisis, you know, like I grew up in West Africa in crisis and grew up like abused, all kinds of ways. And so like, none of this is a surprise to me. It’s not a, like I was not one of those people that it was, it opened my eyes. Nothing was opened to me. I was like this is predictable. What my eyes were opened to was that there is no low that we will not sink to or that when it really came, this was a moment where like we were in a real crisis and we had to bunker down, like emotionally, physically, financially. The ways that we chose to do that as a people are really disgusting to me and the ways that we communicated about it were awful. And then I’m also afraid that we’re just going to this, you know, Miss Delta is definitely tear through the country at some point, but after she’s done with her tour—
Phillip Picardi: She’s already on it.
Aminatou Sow: I, like what I’m really afraid of is that we are going to move on from this moment and never pause to reflect on, I was like, it’s not just that six million people died, the people, there are people who did not die, who are barely surviving. And we are, and we’re living with them. There are relationships that will never recover. There are just all kinds, yeah, it’s like all of that. And we’re just going to move on.
Phillip Picardi: I mean, yeah, we still don’t have affordable health care for Americans. You know what I mean? Like, it’s like it’s—
Michael Arcenaux: As more people will need it as they recover from—
Aminatou Sow: Or we made we, you know, like, I love science. I love that we made a COVID vaccine, like, I love it. We still, we still don’t have a vaccine for AIDS, another plague that’s going on. We, we like made shelters for restaurants. They look very cute. I’m obsessed with them. Like, I love that all of the restaurants my neighborhood have survived. We refuse to use the architecture to help unhoused people.
Phillip Picardi: Unhoused people. Yes.
Aminatou Sow: You know, like we like, what are we doing here?
Phillip Picardi: Yes.
Aminatou Sow: So that, it’s that has also been really hard to be like? Yes, like two of those things can be true. Like, I love for small businesses to survive, I don’t love that in living in capitalism, we decide that some people’s lives are more important than others.
Phillip Picardi: Right. No, that’s it’s all extremely valid. You know, I watched my fiancée go from hospitals in queens and flattening the curve in New York to doing the same thing in L.A. as soon as we touched down here. And it was immensely heartbreaking to see the disparities in health care and to hear him come home and just be worried sick about any Black patient who had COVID because he was terrified about their prognosis versus the wealthy white folks who were able to access health care when they needed it. And it was one of those things where so many things were laid in such stark contrast here that you know you, it was very easy to give in to despair and to give in to hopelessness, but what I did see a lot of people do—and Amina, I would actually count you in this group—was I did see a lot of people really batten down the hatches and get closer to the people who they wanted to be closer to and build bonds that felt stronger than ever and create boundaries about even the way that we all interact together or in community with one another, that I personally found some hope in. Just because it felt like some things, you know, the smartest among us or the good hearted among us are not going to let go back to normal. And I just thought that was, I thought that was really interesting. I thought your social media boundaries that you placed were really amazing, and I thought the way that you chose to speak up and what you spoke up about and also how you chose to and to not engage in conversation about some of those things was really, really great. Like it was, it was just good to see. I felt like there was a kind of switch that went off for you somehow.
Aminatou Sow: Yeah, I’m just really, I’m not really int—like it’s funny that we are all people whose work is consumed very publicly. I have a very conflicted relationship with the public in that I have no desire to be known. Like none whatsoever. But also in the digital economy that we all work in—.
Phillip Picardi: I didn’t know that about you.
Aminatou Sow: Oh, no. If I could be a hermit, and like I chose everything wrong. I was like, I should have had a pen name and just never shared my picture on the internet. And also, I’m like, I have an anxiety disorder. I’m like, I’m a highly anxious person. I have like a very serious ADD and like a very serious like depression as well. So my boundaries for me are all about mental health in that I am highly prone to overwhelm and highly prone to, like, completely disengage from society. There are a lot of things that we are expected to do, especially early on in career, and I say this to the three of us because we’re all people who have worked in and around media where, you know, it’s almost accidentally that we have these careers that involve a degree of social media. I just personally, for me, I don’t believe that we should have that much input in our lives. I was like, literally that many people should not have access to you, and you should not have access to them.
Phillip Picardi: That’s so true.
Aminatou Sow: And I, yeah, and I’m just like, I know that the promise of social media is that everyone has a voice and it’s like the Roman town square or whatever, and I’m like, I’m sorry. Like, I just cannot hear that many people talk and I cannot talk to that many people. Like, it’s just, you know, it’s like if someone comes up to you on the bus and just starts talking to you, you would think that person was not altogether there, but online, we do that to each other all day.
Phillip Picardi: Yes.
Aminatou Sow: For me, I was like, you know, and it’s not, and it’s really not like throwing shade or being whatever. I’m really like, I just can’t do it. I was like my brain, the way that my brain is, I cannot do this, and it brings me, like it brings me so much agita if I’m like here too much and so again, I was like, I disengage. You lose a lot by disengaging because it sucks to not to be—
Phillip Picardi: Yeah.
Michael Arcenaux: Yeah.
Aminatou Sow: You know, like I have a friend who is older, who is an author and like, kind of like a famous author, and she always says, when I asked her about like leaving the internet, she was like, well, there’s a mood that everyone is swimming in and you’re definitely not swimming in the mood anymore and it takes a while to get used to it. Like you’re removed, right? And it’s like a, it’s a degree of irrelevance they have to contend with. But there is also a part of me where I’m like, wow, I love how my day unfolds. I love not knowing the Twitter gos—
Phillip Picardi: Yes!
Aminatou Sow: I love, you know, like, I love that I get to workout. I love that I just can, like, walk to the, like, yeah, I was like, I don’t need to know all of this because my brain cannot take in all this information. So that’s my plug for unplugging.
Michael Arcenaux: Unfortunately, I have to do that until I, I don’t—I mean, I have to be online, I mean, I actually took a break for me. I know when I don’t tweet every few days, people think I’ve died or fell into a hole or something. I find Twitter, I mean, generally annoying because people are just wound up to fight and argue, and I really don’t care and it test’s my I’m trying to be in a place of Zen. That said, I have to be more online, at least for me, because a lot of my break and butter is still determined by maintaining some level of like social media activity.
Phillip Picardi: Influence.
Michael Arcenaux: When I am free from that, I would like to exercise it more often, but I’ve already tried within reason to be like, I don’t care, and just kind of scroll by it or not scroll at all. But, I just, Twitter often reminds me of a bunch of people who were never called in class for a reason, and—.
Michael Arcenaux: And, I can’t take it.
Aminatou Sow: Wow. The truth comes out.
Michael Arcenaux: And I generally don’t like if I tweet something and it’s literally like the simplest, most innocuous thing.
Phillip Picardi: I know.
Michael Arcenaux: And it’s like, this is a [unclear] well, I’m different because I’m like, I don’t have anything to give you, love. I don’t care. And like, I wish you well and peace but like it’s 6 in the morning. I’m literally, I just turned off Morning Joe because Joe done said something like, Give me 15 minutes, I gotta bop to [clear] or something. Then I go on Twitter, thinking I’m taking a break and this is like this. I’m like see this is why [unclear].
Aminatou Sow: The most shocking thing you’ve said today is that you watch Morning Joe.
Phillip Picardi: I was just going to say, that is a curveball!
Aminatou Sow: That is like the number one way for me, if I want to have a bad day, that’s how I start my day.
Michael Arcenaux: Trump happened. I think that’s what got it. I think Trump got into it midway and I just wanted someone to yell with in the, well actually watch them yell for me. Now I’m getting antsy so I’m like I can’t do it. So I just go back to bopping. But no, Twitter it’s just like, put your hand down. I don’t care. God bless you though.
Phillip Picardi: It’s so interesting, too, because Michael, I mean, like I look at Amina’s journey as this like very internal thing and obviously her relationship to the public. I mean, that’s what I at least observed, like third-party friends vibes, right? But Michael, you went home, you know, like you were with family again and—
Michael Arcenaux: Not in the house, though.
Phillip Picardi: Not in the house.
Aminatou Sow: Good for you.
Michael Arcenaux: I had my own space. That wasn’t going to work.
Phillip Picardi: That must have been quite the experience to like recontextualize and to be living through in the middle of a pandemic.
Michael Arcenaux: Um, well, I only really planned to be home for like a month or two but California’s rates were too high. And so I mean, I didn’t want to be in New York anymore because I deeply hated my apartment. Harlem got too loud between the fireworks, the sirens signaling death, and just I couldn’t deal with that, and it was going to get cold. So then I ended up in Texas. The rates were too high. I just kind of, I allowed myself fluidity. I think everyone was kind of like pressuring me should you move here already, should you do this? Like, I can’t do Nomadland. I’m Black. But if I could spend a few months, ideally like in Houston and going through Airbnb and the like, that’s like, OK, I’m practicing paying L.A. rent. I’m fine. It just allowed me the freedom, like, if I really don’t like this, I can go. I will say some things happen. Like my father had an injury at work, it was really serious. He nearly died.
Phillip Picardi: I’m so sorry.
Aminatou Sow: Sorry to hear about.
Michael Arcenaux: He’s, thank you, he’s he’s fine. But at the same time, family, to your point, is triggering. I am, I was reminded of my triggers. But at the same time, I would say a lot of my books, while I think, I like to think I’m funny, they’re are a lot about identity, a lot about finding peace and joy and loving yourself in spite of certain things that are honestly, either you’re born into either like, economic standing, your sexuality, whatever, or just like these projections being threatening on you by like a wider society. And I only say that to say, you know, I’ve made a certain peace, or at least I told myself that this was a test. But I’m also very cognizant as I write in my books, that your problem is follow you everywhere.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah.
Michael Arcenaux: I enjoy New York, but I didn’t go to New York trying to find an identity there, and that’s [unclear]. I knew who I was, that was a, that was a means to an end.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah.
Phillip Picardi: This is for me, home is complicated. I really had to accept it always will be. But at the same time, it’s like, I for me, at least, I learned that some things aren’t going to change, and that is truly OK. All you can do is love everyone the best that you can. And set boundaries and like, really stick to them. But that said, it was an interesting experience. I love my parents, I love my family. I’m not going back to Houston to live anytime soon, but I will visit often for various reasons. Yeah, it was, it was interesting. I didn’t plan to be there six months, but I knew I couldn’t do hurricane season because, no.
Phillip Picardi: I guess the reason I really wanted to talk to you two, and as we wind down the conversation, I feel like this feels apt, is I looked at the both of you as real—and I don’t mean to say this in a way that feels like trite or anything—but it did feel like both of you were going through some soul searching that at least part of it was happening in public, and it was really healing for me to watch it. Because Michael, you being back home, even not with, you know, literally in home with family, again, that’s something I’m about to be experiencing, right, going back to Boston.
Michael Arcenaux: Thoughts and prayers.
Aminatou Sow: Thoughts and prayers, chaos. You’re going into hurricane season.
Phillip Picardi: Exactly. And Amina, you know, your relationship to public and stuff was all stuff I had to grapple with as I left magazine world and tried to like chart a path for myself that felt very different than what I was used to. And so I’ve looked to both of you and admired both of you for the processing that you’ve done and what you’ve shared about it, and also how it’s been restorative for you. And because this is a spiritual show, you know, I will say it did, It did feel very spiritual in nature. Both of these journeys that you guys have been on. And as you reenter the world, it’s just something I’m keen to continue following. So I guess the last thing I just want to hit on is like, did this at all, did this experience, or did what you’re bringing into the world now, did it change at all your relationship to soul-searching, to your spirituality, or to how you view the role that spirituality plays for either of you? And is that something you’re open to continuing to explore moving forward?
Aminatou Sow: I mean, Phill, I remember when you told me that you were doing this podcast and it was like, you could have told me that you were an alien and that would have been more relatable. You know, like, I was truly like, I was like, what!? And they were like, yeah, I’m Catholic, and I’m like, I’ve known you all these years. Like, I mean, I knew it, but I didn’t know how spiritual you were because it had never really been a dimension of our, of our relationship. And I remember like leaving that conversation feeling very like, oh, wow, like, this is someone I like I love and I know, and he’s my friend, and I’m learning this new dimension of you. But then, of course, it made sense. You know, like, you were never someone who, like, beat down spirituality down my throat or whatever, but I was like, oh, yeah, like it, actually, yes. Also, Catholicism is the gayest religion.
Phillip Picardi: It really is.
Aminatou Sow: I was like, the pageantry is unsurpassed! You know, like.
Phillip Picardi: Homosexuals.
Aminatou Sow: Oh, I don’t even understand how that church is homophobic. I was like, you guys invented the the like, the pageantry.
I get it because I’m gay and a little homophobic, so I get it.
Aminatou Sow: No, it’s wild. But anyway, like all of that, to say that, like in our relationship, you starting this podcast and the early conversations I had with you about it really made me kind of rethink my own like moral center. I always say I grew up Muslim, but Muslim people hate that. Like, you don’t grow up Muslim, you’re always Muslim. It’s like even when you leave, you’re still. Like anytime, like—
Phillip Picardi: Oh, how funny.
Aminatou Sow: It happened, like, you’re not allowed to leave.
Phillip Picardi: I didn’t realize that.
Aminatou Sow: So you can be like, hi, I converted to something else. And they’re like, what you lost your way? Like, you’re like, you’re, people, people are just Muslim. People are just Muslim. And I don’t know if it’s like maybe the particular family I grew up in, or maybe it was like this particular like West African context I was in, but for, or maybe it’s my own personality of like, I am such a rule follower, it had never occurred to me that you could just be like very loosely doing a religion. Like, I thought that you either had to be like the priest or the imam, or you’re like walking so tightly. What I’m saying is that I am the Pharisee like, I am a Pharisee. Like, you either do it or you don’t do it. So I grew up in this very Muslim home and like, and my childhood was like very hard and like, not, you know, like some parts of it were great, some parts of it were not great, but one of the people who abused me sexually was the person who was in charge of my Quran education.
Phillip Picardi: Oh, honey.
Aminatou Sow: And so, but that like, I never connected that dot to the dot of like me being disinterested with religion. Because I grew up in this like Muslim home, then I go to a very evangelical high school, it’s run by like missionaries. My mom was like, you know, she’s like, Christians are wack, but their schools are like, iconic. So we’re doing the school, but like, don’t listen to anything else they tell you. So it’s like, as far as I was concerned, I was like, I’ve done major religions, like I’ve done the like you gotta go to church five days a week. I did the like were Ramadaning every day of the year. Like I done it and so the result was that like I became this adult who was very much I, I think of myself as a true agnostic. I was like, I’m not, I’m not an atheist. I just really am disinterested [unclear] and it wasn’t until, like, you know, meeting you and a couple of our New York friends, it was like, what!? Like, you’re, like, what!? You’re what!? You’re like, your religion and you’re into it, but also you live a modern like life that, you know, that’s appealing. And I think that it really did something for me where it challenged me to one, not be dismissive of people who are either spiritual or like actually religious, because it’s a bias that I recognize in myself like so much. And it’s again, like colored by these like childhood experiences. And also, yeah, don’t let evangelical people raise you. You’ll never believe [unclear], you know? But it’s like, but I really had to like work within myself to be like, Oh, like when someone when I know this information about someone I automatically like, you know, like, different things are happening in my brain. But I think also it’s just been a journey of, as our friend Cleo Wade says, “healing your inner child.”
Phillip Picardi: Oh, yes.
Aminatou Sow: And really just like going back to like, OK, like you can disentangle like some of this, you know, like they always say at church, you know, like the church is very different than the people or whatever. Every religion has their version of that, but I think that I have had a really good journey of, I’m not saying that I’m going to identify as a Muslim, but I have a really greatly enjoyed like reclaiming some parts of my childhood because some of it, they were great. I was like my mom was a deeply religious person who is dead now, but I miss a lot. But I remember that like her, the way that she practiced her religion, I was really into, you know, and I was like, and she was a good person. I was like, You’re a good person because you like this stuff. And also, the internet and memes has changed my relationship to Islam. Like truly, if the internet had existed when I was 13, I would fully be running a Muslim meme account. And I was like, Oh!
Phillip Picardi: I know! These TikTok kids make religion look so fun.
Aminatou Sow: No, so fun. The memes are iconic. The like Muslim memes are so good, I was like, they’re so good, I’m ready to join again, you know, I’m like, sign me up. But again, I think that so much of it has been an unlearning of, I don’t want to be someone who is rigid. And I think that when you grow up in a lot of religion, you think that rigidity only comes from religion. And truly, I was like, you can carry that mindset even if you are not someone who like, believes in organized religion and God and just really be not open to just taking people, you know, like where they’re at or letting them figure it out. And I was like, you know what, religion, it’s complicated, everyone is figuring it out, and for me, it has been like deeply healing to dabble, but it’s, the community of it has been really nice and talking to people about it. So, so thank you for bringing that into my life.
Phillip Picardi: Oh my gosh, I can’t even take credit for that because that was so beautiful. And yeah, there is something about like acknowledging the scars from childhood and basically trying to make something of them, right? Like what we can turn scars into is really powerful. Michael, I’m sure as a fellow ex-Catholic, you can relate somewhat.
Michael Arcenaux: Right. I’m not particularly religious, but I do literally every night before I go to sleep, pray, starting off with my family and friends and then myself. Generally, I’m just kind of looking for peace. I’ve always been kind of looking for that my entire life. I don’t really think the plague really changed that, but I do think before it was happening, I did feel for the first time in my life, I wasn’t going to be defined so much by what were struggles for me, and that I was going to come here not necessarily fantasizing the location, but just the sense of space that I was coming here really to try to reset and to kind of fix everything I don’t like about myself in like, a really kind of a peaceful way. I just want to feel completely comfortable with who I am in and out. I think what happened last year really just kind of got in a lot of ways to face things that would always be there. I really wish none of that happened. Like most people, I take no joy in it. I just feel grateful that I was fortunate enough to not be able to struggle financially. But, I [unclear] to really be able to give myself time and space to be OK. Please keep on my books, people. But no, that said, I really want, I try to, my idea of God is just kind of love and being kind and good to people and also being kind of like kind to yourself. I really am not, I know some of my friends that have seen me this month say there’s like a difference about me. I will say within the last week, I have been tested and triggered. So I’m always going to be—[unclear] this religious thing, I was going to use a term—I’m always going to be just a little bit with it. But at the same time, I really do want to be calm and be good to people. I really just looking for calm and peace, and I think I’m getting closer to it, but I am being reminded that it is a daily process. I’m always going to be triggered by certain things, some people are just unfortunately not born with the fairest shake but you have to accept that, you have to accept what’s happened to you, you have to move on, you have to learn to forgive, and you have to just be kind to people. I try to let that kind of guide me through each day, and I do think that’s taken me ultimately to like a better space in life, and I’m glad for that, I’m grateful for that.
Aminatou Sow: That thing that you said about like forgiveness is also just hitting me really hard, you know, and it was like listening to you talk and I think that’s something that’s true for people who are traumatized in any way, shape or form, or if your life has not been charmed. There—and I feel this the most acutely when I’m having a depressive episode—is that you also realize that the only way that your life will change is if you change it. It’s like no one is like, no one’s going to give you the thing. Its not going to drop from the,lLike, nothing. Like, the sea will not part. The only person who will change that for you is you.
Phillip Picardi: Yes.
Aminatou Sow: And that, some part of it makes me really angry because I’m just like, oh, why can’t life be easy, you know, because my idea of an easy life is someone facilitating that for me. That’s never been my life. But at the same time, like, there is a hopefulness to that. And then I’m like, you know what? Like, I am like mentally ill, you know, I’m always like, anytime someone asked me how I’m doing, I’m like, I’m losing my mind, but I’m fine, you know? Like, I’m fine, but I am losing my mind. But there is a part of that that it almost makes me feel hopeful in that like, you can always count on yourself. Like I was like, I’ve never had anyone to count on. I never, I did not have a safety net growing up, I don’t have a safety net of money. I don’t have a like, whatever all of those things. But there is something that is like, I don’t know. I try to remember, and you know, speaking of healing inner child, is like going back to those memories and just being like, you know what, Like this [unclear] person really tried their best with the cards that they were dealt with, and there is something just like, you know, we’re going to be OK. Like, it’s not going to be nice, it’s not going to be fine, but there’s just something, that’s a quality of human life that I want is that anything can change with a little bit of luck and a lot of willpower. You know? Lke, I’m just like, we can change, but it is truly it is really a privilege not to, not to suffer, and to still be alive in this moment.
Michael Arcenaux: It really is.
Aminatou Sow: Because there are, you know, everyone is not shooting the shit on a podcast right now with people that they love.
Michael Arcenaux: Right.
Phillip Picardi: It’s so true. I was just doing a conversation with our friend Raquel Willis for Pride, and she started choking up because—I’m actually going to choke up now thinking about it, excuse me—where she was like, you know, Phil, imagine who we would be if we had lived in households that validated us and embraced us rather than what we had? And it’s such a, it’s such an interesting thing that I think all of us on the call, or on this podcast today grapple with, right? And then Amina, what I like about what you’re saying, too, about the healing of the inner child, is about like just being able to be that person for yourself that you didn’t necessarily have and just the empowerment that you can find from that. And that when you do the work of healing your own inner child, it’s amazing what you’re also able to do for others, whether or not it’s direct or indirect, you know? And I think there’s just so much power in that connection and in that work.
Michael Arcenaux: And there’s also something you know true about, like letting life surprise you and letting other people surprise you. Like, we’ve all talked about our challenging relationships with our parents, and I, like my parent that I did not have a challenge relationship with his dead. So that sucks. And the one that remains like we, you know, it’s been, it’s been hard—thank God he’s not going to listen to this podcast because he would not be happy about this. But, I will say this about one of the best parts about like surviving hard childhoods or like going through hard things is that even those relationships can change. Like things for me that used to be such triggers, like the phone ringing and it was someone from home, or like, they need you or they want you or, you know, just the like knowing that I would have to go home and really like it would send me to this dark place. There’s something about just being a grown up where you look around and you’re like, OK, this is not some ideal, but also I have some agency and I can decide how I want to be with someone. And you know, and yeah, I was just like, you can, like, you can take that power back in a lot of those relationships. And I’m not saying that it’s easy or that it’s charmed or that it’s good. But like, you know, Phill, like hearing you and, you know, like , say that about Raquel and you saying and you know, and thinking not even about your own family, and I’m thinking about, you know, me and Michael’s relationships with our family, there is a part of me that’s like, well, you know, like, it was really hard, but then every once in a while, you will have a nice dinner or you will have, you know, like you’ll see them as grown ups, but I’m starting to understand that my parents were also people who were my age once, and somehow it has dulled a lot of the pain because I’m just like, OK, I was like, when you were my age, you literally had three kids and no money and you were running out in these streets.
Michael Arcenaux: Yes!
Aminatou Sow: And I don’t know how you did it. You know, or you kind of start to see the calculus of like, OK, like, here are the things that, like my therapist always says that the reason that I’m in therapy or that you were in therapy is because someone else in your life won’t go. [laughter] He’s like, you’re always [laughs] because someone else won’t go. He’s like you’re here because they won’t go. And I was like, got it. And so, but you just start to see it where you’re like, OK, they’re not like monsters, like, I completely see how you get to this place of how they have hurt me. And not that I’m saying that the hurt is OK at all. It is completely unacceptable.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah! Right!
Aminatou Sow: But I don’t know, like, I’m understanding it and I don’t like, I’m not mad, but I’m still sad. And I was like, I, but I don’t have to dwell on that again. Like, no one’s going to give it to you. But you can take it.
Phillip Picardi: Yes. You’re coming from this place of like being this magnanimous, you know, figure who’s able to offer, if not forgiveness, compassion, you know? And I think either one of those things is like Michael was saying earlier, really good to to lead with. What a thing to choose to put forward and to carry into the world. You guys, this was beautiful. Amina, Michael, thank you so much for joining us. This was a lovely and surprisingly tender conversation. I adore you both.
Aminatou Sow: Thank you for making the space Phill. And thank you so much, Michael, it was really lovely to spend the last hour with you. I’m going to go cry in private now. So thanks.
Michael Arcenaux: I’m sorry, I made you cry, but it’s been so nice to see your face and hear your voice. It’s been a while.
Aminatou Sow: I know it’s been forever. Also, people who are at home cannot see it, but Michael is wearing an amazing Mary J. Blige shirt. Like truly, truly, truly, truly like—
Michael Arcenaux: We love Mary.
Aminatou Sow: You’re an ally.
Phillip Picardi: Michael’s often wearing liking a concert tee.
Aminatou Sow: He’s the number one ally to lady artists.
Phillip Picardi: Yes! Please stream her documentary on Amazon Prime.
Aminatou Sow: Oh, maybe I’ll do that instead of crying. OK, see you guys later. Bye!
Phillip Picardi: OK. That’s all for our show today, thank you so much for listening. And if you want to support my lovely friends, the authors who are on our show today, I would really appreciate it if you picked up a copy of their books. You can pick up the paperback copy of Amina’s book, “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close” everywhere that books are sold. And if you want to keep up with what she’s reading, obsessing over, or laughing at, you can follow her newsletter, Creme de la Creme. And of course, thank you to Michael. You can grab a copy of his book “I Don’t Want to Die Poor” or “I Can’t Take Jesus” which was his first book. And those are both available everywhere that books are sold. That’s again all we have for today. I’m so excited to see you next week. Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay blessed. Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is me, Phillip Picardi. Our producer is Leslie Martin, and Brian Semel is our associate producer. Our editors are Kareem [unclear]. David Greenbaum and Sara Gibble-Laska. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa.