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How Singing Lauryn Hill With Strangers Reminded Me to Stay Hopeful—Even in 2017

A quiet moment of unexpected connection briefly softened the year's noise

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The wind felt oddly warm on my face. In early December, Southern California was burning, and in a single day there were three earthquakes along the San Andreas fault. It certainly felt like the end times.

I’d forgotten to eat, and past the general need for food, I realized I wanted a grilled cheese. Badly enough to pay for it, though not nearly enough to make it myself. So I went to the 24-hour diner a single block from my apartment—this has been huge for me—and sat down to order the sandwich, a cup of tomato-basil soup, and some chamomile tea, without looking at the menu. At 10:30 p.m., it’s too late for dinner and too early for any last-ditch attempt at soaking up a whole evening’s worth of booze. The diner was mostly occupied by people keeping to themselves. There were a few open books, fewer open laptops, and still fewer actual groups of diners. But all of us, people who didn’t care to know each other, this one night in early December, briefly snapped into sync. I say “briefly” because it was exactly 50 seconds. That’s how long the breakdown in Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” is.

You’ve heard it, right? If you haven’t, it’s a song about two people who, after all the bumps they’ve gotten over together, no longer want, but may still need each other. Perhaps it’s the other way around. In either case, it’s sad, and the bridge is sadder than the rest of a sad song. But “Ex-Factor” is the kind of sad that’s incidentally beautiful. The sort of open-vein art we at least should feel selfish for wanting more of. At this point in the song, a distraught Ms. Hill hasn’t decided if she’ll give up on this broken, bruised, hopeless relationship. She definitely hasn’t finished yelling:

Care for me, care for me!
I know you care for me!

Before the moment happened, I’d been numbly scrolling through my phone, forgetting most of everything I was reading, per usual. Something about men no longer feeling safe giving hugs to female coworkers—hah— or President Trump continuing his trend of choosing the worst available course of action at any given moment, I think. The worst part of real-life evil, aside from its implications on real, human lives, is that it’s stupid and mundane. It is also relentless, and there are days when it seems well and truly unbeatable. If 2016 was indeed the year the internet became real life, then 2017 has been a barrage of disposable horrors that tuck you in at night and greet you every morning when you wake up. It has been depressing. It has been constant. It has been noisy. I have been re-wired to think that whatever has just happened is now the Most Important Thing, and that being on, however useless being on feels or may be, still outweighs the importance of caring for myself. It’s tough to remember to steal back little pieces of your composure whenever you can. It’s especially tough to remember that doing so isn’t always a 100 percent active thing that requires planning and forethought. Sometimes you just need to let balance happen to you.

Hunched over the diner counter, I wore a vacant expression and mindlessly sang the bridge to myself, beginning to feel a little better. Scholarly people who hate adjectives and unspecific expressions say that improvement in mood may have to do with endorphins, or maybe oxytocin. They are smarter than I am, so I’d guess they’re right, but what usually rescues me from the edge of despair is other people. Wherever I happen to find them or wherever they happen to find me.

There for me, there for me!
Said you’d be there for me!

Three seats to my left, an impossibly cool woman somewhere around my age paging through a book. She wore a tattered military jacket over a sundress; her hair was buzzed short, and it was orange. Four more seats to her left was a couple who hadn’t spoken much to each other since I’d sat down—he was eating dinner, and she was eating breakfast; she was dressed appropriately for the weather, and he was in a half-zip and shorts. There was another woman my age in head-to-toe red velvet who, while wondering aloud if they were killing the chicken for her club sandwich back there in the kitchen, was also expressing her impatience by shifting around in her seat. She also had keyboard clicks enabled on her phone. I remember thinking only serial killers do that. But I also remember that casual shittiness to service workers is often not really about the service, or the worker. Just at the beginning of Lauryn’s second verse, a man walked in wearing a backpack. He was short and winded, his face reddened from some kind of physical exertion. No one asked which kind, but he asked for a beer. “So what? A Lager? A pilsner?” “It literally does not matter.”

Was Lauryn talking about Wyclef? I always assumed she was talking about Wyclef.

Cry for me, cry for me!
You said you die for me!

A year before the Fugees, and nearly five years before Miseducation, Hill starred in Sister Act 2 as Rita Louise Watson, an evidently churlish teenager. In the movie she acts out, but she’s young, and talented, and a co-lead, so we’re meant to wonder why. In one scene she sits in a chapel at the piano, improvising all over “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Her voice goes from booming to soft and back again, misty then suddenly solid. The context of these vocal runs is Rita’s mother, who angrily calls Rita by her full name a lot. Rita’s mother isn’t cruel for cruelty’s sake, she’s just protective over Rita, and doesn’t think there’s any stable future in music. Music is the only thing that makes Rita truly happy, though, and her mother wants to take that away from her. That repression manifests as eye rolls and bad grades, like it does in every coming-of-age movie. It’s tough when the people closest to you don’t support you in quite the way you want. It’s also tough to fake this kind of longing.

Mind, not everyone can hit these notes, but the notes themselves are sort of secondary. What matters is that everyone feels as though they can, because they’ve felt some version of these feelings. Whether it’s in the way that her voice flutters as if it can’t touch the ground when she confesses that she sings because she’s happy, or when she demands on “Ex-Factor” where were you when I needed you, it’s real, tangible. So much so that you can almost reach out and grab it for yourself. So you try.

Give to me, give to me!
Why won’t you live for me?!

My tea had gone cold, and I noticed that we were, all of us in the diner, singing just the slightest bit. Some were even dancing a little. Someone, somewhere, before me, has to have said that experiencing a song you love with a stranger is like being naked in front of them. I’m sure they meant that, as I do now, in the best, most innocent possible way. But there we were, an unlikely collection of people alone, naked together, and none of us acknowledged that, or each other. We didn’t need to.

This year seemed to bring newer, deeper, more profound lows. There was no shortage of things to be livid or confused or aggrieved about. It will be that way for at least the immediate future. But when life hands you a small, simple moment of happiness, I want you to promise me you’ll accept it, and try not to think too hard about it. Cool? Cool.