Oct 19, 2016

Hope, revisited

I started drafting this post before a series of recent events, both personal and political, further complicated my relationship with what I was trying to say. I want to finish it anyway, though, because I’m interested in the difficulties of sustaining this feeling I’ve been trying to capture, whatever it might be, in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

I’m not at all a cynical person, but I find it hard not to interrogate the concept of happiness, at least in the form that’s generally presented to us. I do want to live well, with meaning and with joy, as far as that’s possible in a world that’s in so many ways unjust. But the most common understanding of what makes for a meaningful life feels both at odds with my preferences and values and increasingly impossible to realise under current social and political conditions — particularly if you don’t want your comfort to come at the expense of other living beings.

So how does one carry on?

A little over year ago, an unexpected act of kindness brought me a sense of hope and possibility that ripples to this day. The specifics are important, as is the wider context in which this happened, but at the moment I don’t feel up to elaborating on them. I apologise for being vague and speaking in generalities, which is something I increasingly mistrust, but hopefully just saying “something happened, and it was important” will be enough for the rest of what I’m saying to make sense. I don’t want to make this sound like a simple story about a transformative moment, because I’m also suspicious of those. And yet this suspicion coexists with a deep belief in the ability of certain moments to sustain us, and with a desire to embrace and cherish that without fear or shame. This is the first of many ambivalences I hope to be able to express.

I’ve been reading Ann Cvetkovich lately, and a lot of what she has to say about cultivating everyday habits that work as a counterbalance to political despair resonates with me. When describing a trip she took during a dark period of her life, she says, “One moment of relief lifted the seamless web of anxiety and allowed me to get outside of myself enough to remember that things could be different.” This has been important to me too: enjoying moments of interruption that nudge me away from my only half articulated belief that a constant low-level despair is inevitable and inescapable. At its core, this is also not too different from what Laurie Penny says regarding the cultural legacy of Occupy five years on: “Such moments of intensity give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life. You can’t stay up on the roof forever—but things have changed, shifts and integrations have occurred—a difference is made.”

How do you sustain that sense of meaning, though, especially when you’re sceptical about instant and permanent transformation? I suppose it all depends on what we mean when we say “things have changed” and “a difference is made”. Cvetkovich defines transformation as “a slow and painstaking process, open-ended and marked by struggle, not by magic bullet solutions or happy endings”. The everyday habits of living she finds helpful are “not the stuff of heroic or instantaneous transformation”, “but instead must be integrated through the ongoing activity that forms a life story”. These words are of use to me, but of course one vital question remains: what does this translate into, when it comes to my own everyday habits of living?

I know what I want, more or less. I want to be in the world more, and to form and sustain ties of community and love. I want to live according to my values, or at least in ways that are not unbearably at odds with them. But that’s putting it too abstractly — the question of how to realise this in more concrete terms remains unresolved. It’s difficult for so many reasons: because of winter, because of life’s precarity, because of the limits of the everyday, which are also the limits of existence under capitalism. At least I’ve learned to manage, I think, the half-punitive, half-defeatist streak that sometimes comes with inertia; with the gravitational pull of sadness. To give you one small but telling example, last winter I went through a few weeks when, at the height of my Hamilton obsession, I stopped listening to it completely and deliberately cut myself off from the joy it brought into my life.

I don’t want to do that anymore. But I also don’t want to be punitive about my own need to live with bad feelings whenever they seem proportionate to my reality, which is a lot of the time. I want to be better at ambivalence, and to spend less time feeling bad about feeling bad. Lately I’ve found it helpful to think of hope and despair as phases, as cycles with value rather than as a simplistic narrative of progress where I transition from one to the other once and for all. Whatever I learn about living well during those moments of heightened intensity isn’t wasted if I don’t manage to sustain it forever. It comes and goes, and it leaves something behind.

When I say I need hope, then, I think what I mean I that need a feeling that embraces both ambiguity and possibility — a hope capacious enough to accommodate bad feelings without them negating the good. I mean an “embrace of the unknown”, as Rebecca Solnit puts it. I mean a hope that’s not facile or relentlessly optimistic, but is reparative all the same. I mean a hope that is both about the possibility of change and about making everyday existence not only bearable but joyful. This is what I’m struggling to sustain, both personally and politically, and perhaps it helps to be armed with the knowledge that these two facets are one and the same.

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Oct 16, 2016

Sunday Links: October Again

stag at Richmond Park
The past few weeks have been hard. I watched the news with a mounting sense of dread, which the leftover good feelings from last July could no longer insulate me from. I faced unexpected personal hurdles, of the kind you try to learn to live with rather than resolve. I said goodbye to summer, and to my newfound habit of stopping in the park for at least a few minutes after work. I watched the nights draw in. I also went to Richmond Park and saw the deer, and watched Björk play an amazing show. I had the better part of a week off work, which means I finally got to meet my parents’ new kitten, and I fell in love with her. I read about ambivalence, and thought about it, and drafted a post that might be Too Much even for me. We’ll see how I feel in a few days’ time.

Here are some links for today. It’s been a while since I last did one of these posts, which means they’ve piled up a bit. Apologies for that.

  • This is a good follow-up to some of my library links from last time: “A report looking into the role of volunteers in the running of community library services conducted by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) has found that in many cases, volunteers are being left without adequate support to deliver services previously supplied by professional staff.”

  • Citizens of the world, look out by Dawn Foster. There are names for rampant xenophobia combined with economic populism, but ‘centrism’ isn’t one of them.

  • Liz McCausland on Story-telling and Trauma, and the limitations of narrative.

  • By now this is old news, but I was very happy to see Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine among this year’s MacArthur Grant winners. Here’s an LA Times interview with Maggie Nelson, and a conversation with Claudia Rankine at Buzzfeed. Hooray for Gene Luen Yang and Lauren Redniss, too.

  • Angela Davis and the Black Radical Tradition in the Era of Black Lives Matter.

  • The European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance reports on the British press and racist and xenophobic attacks in the UK.

  • This interview with Leslie Jamison is not new, but it’s new to me and I enjoyed reading it.

  • City of Women by Rebecca Solnit:
    I can’t imagine how I might have conceived of myself and my possibili­ties if, in my formative years, I had moved through a city where most things were named after women and many or most of the monuments were of powerful, successful, honored women. Of course, these sites commemorate only those who were allowed to hold power and live in public; most American cities are, by their nomenclature, mostly white as well as mostly male. Still, you can imagine.
  • Think libraries are obsolete? Think again.

  • A Pound of Flesh by Katherine Angel: The crime that Ferrante has committed, in Gatti’s eyes, is that of witholding the signs by which he might read her as a “woman writer”.

  • Frank Ocean and the Black Male Body.

  • The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin by Julie Phillips. (I had Nobel hopes for Le Guin this year. Alas.)

  • Rebecca Hussey lists 25 Great Essay Collections from 2016 and does much damage to my wishlist.

  • A few entries I enjoyed from The Guardian’s Books to give you hope series: Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

  • The most beautiful libraries in America — in pictures. Destinations for my next visit?

  • Sharon Olds Sings the Body Electric by Alexandra Schwartz.

    I’ll finish with a few pictures of Flora, which you might have seen already if you follow me elsewhere on social media. But no such thing as too much kitten, right?

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    Sep 22, 2016

    “This is the world I want to live in”: Poetry Links

    Page with Mary Oliver poem Dogfish
    The other day I asked my Twitter friends for poetry recommendations, and in the conversation that followed I was reminded of how much I appreciate being in touch with such knowledgeable, generous people. I love my online bookish circle: between you you’ve read everything, and you’re very good at coming up with suggestions that are perfect for my taste, interests and sensibility.

    That conversation was a gift, so in return I wanted to share a collection of poems I love and which are available online. I’ve been reading more poetry this year, for no particular reason other than that I’ve been remembering to. The links that follow are to old favourites as well as to more recent discoveries, and the one thing they have in common is that they make me feel something.
    Is there a poem that moves you that you could link to? Don’t feel that you have to, of course, but if you can think of anything I would be very grateful if you were to share it in the comments.

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    Sep 18, 2016

    Words that have been of use

    Page from The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
    The other day, while I was looking through my list of books I’ve read so far this year, I started thinking about how if there’s one thing I miss about reviewing, it’s how it made it so much easier to remember the details of what I read. I have no regrets about the amount or the kind of writing I’m doing these days — it’s what’s possible for me at this moment in time — but this still feels like a loss. I miss the act of delving deep into a book, and I miss what I discovered in the process. It’s not so much that writing down my thoughts helped cement them into memory — it’s more that without that exploratory act of writing, a lot of the time I never arrive at them in the first place. Still, this isn’t to say the way I read these days is shallow, or that I’m getting nothing out of my reading; it’s different than it’s been for the past decade, that’s all. I find myself returning to things more often than I used to, both in my mind and through the act of rereading. It takes me longer to feel done with a book, or a paragraph, or even just a particular sentence, and sometimes there’s value in that incompleteness, in the way it keeps tugging at my attention.

    Today I wanted to write about words that have been of particular use to me this year, but part of me worries that by doing so, I’ll reduce them to snippets devoid of context, when really it was their context that made it possible for them to affect me the way they did. The ideas conveyed by these words are important to me, but there is, I hope, no facile moral to them. They’re things I keep going over, sometimes arguing with them, sometimes finding solace in where they take me, sometimes adding a “but”, sometimes an “and”. They’re words that keep me company, words that help me become. They’re one of the main reasons why I read.

    In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit explores the act of writing, the process of organising the world and our lives into narratives. She describes the danger, shared by novelists and essayists alike, of “betraying the complexity of what came before” through a too-neat ending, “that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wider sea”. Still, she believes that writing can make it possible to communicate truths that are too long, too subtle and too nuanced to do justice to otherwise. This idea resonates with me (I think it’s what I’ve been trying to do all my life), and at the same time it makes me want to be cautious when writing about words I’ve found helpful without the full benefit of their context. The context is my own, as much as it is the texts’.

    The other day I mentioned in a discussion that I favour the kind of writing that allows us to articulate ambiguity and then inhabit it. I like writing that makes room for loose ends; writing that, in Leslie Jamison’s excellent articulation, “allow[s] the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged”. I find value in the tentative conclusion we reached together at Liz’s blog: that narrative has limitations we may never fully countervail, but there’s still something of worth in the attempt, especially when the alternative may well be cognitive chaos. There’s something of that in The Faraway Nearby, something I keep coming back to.

    This brings me to what is, to me, a parallel idea: it’s one that Maggie Nelson develops in The Art of Cruelty, whose opening section is titled “Styles of Imprisonment”. I’m no stranger to the particular anguish of feeling trapped between two propositions, none of which seem to do full justice to my thoughts, my feelings, or the reality of my life. I’ve experienced this in reading, in politics, in everyday existence, and every time I felt crushed by it, or boxed in, or forced to betray a complexity I feel in my bones. Nelson calls this the pressure to “choose between binary oppositions that are not of one’s making, and for which one has no appetite”, but she reminds us that resistance is possible. It brings me such intense relief, this idea: to think that I can take my time to be still, to exist between extremes; that I get to reclaim “it’s complicated” not as an evasion, but as a place in which to live — that it’s possible to, as Nelson says (in an evocation of Barthes): “live according to nuance”. I come back to this a lot when I feel the pull of imprisonment, which is not always external but sometimes of my own making.

    So far there’s been a logical thread uniting all these thoughts; the last two items on my notes depart from that, and I want to shy away from them both for that reason and because they’re a little rawer. To go back to Rebecca Solnit, I’ve been dwelling a lot on the following paragraph, from A Field Guide to Getting Lost:
    We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed?
    There’s a whole post in here waiting for me to be ready to write it, probably; I’m not done with this idea, not by any stretch of the imagination, and I can only get at it obliquely even now. Still, I suppose that’s a start. Much of this past year has been about learning to withstand need (social, political, interpersonal) without feeling diminished by it. It’s also been about rejecting the patriarchal notion that incompleteness or dependency weaken us, and exploring its full ramifications in private and public life (there’s a reason why Upheavals of Thought is the most useful book I read this year). I’m now able to say that I want to be more of the world, in many senses, and not be undone by this desire or the act of articulating it (Maggie Nelson again: “the fraught apprehension of our dependency (…), the radical undone-ness that can attend both loss and communion”). In my moments of greatest impatience with the confines of my life and the weight of unsatisfied need, I find a certain degree of relief in at least sitting with this feeling without shame, and with as little fear as is possible for me. It’s a work in progress, but once again I find that there’s value in the attempt.

    (Also of use: to think of personal and political despair as a form of impatience, an idea I can trace to both Hope in the Dark and Fans of the Impossible Life — not because it was new to me when I read them, but because both works articulate it in a way that made it hit me anew. This doesn’t mean I berate myself for feeling despair — impatience is only human, after all, and there’s plenty to be impatient about at the best of times — but it does sometimes allow me to step away from the feeling when I need to the most.)

    Lastly, I wanted to write about some lines from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Splittings”: “I believe I am choosing something new / not to suffer uselessly / yet still to feel”. This is an idea Rich returns to several times throughout the poem, saying in a later stanza, “I refuse these givens the splitting / between love and action I am choosing / not to suffer uselessly and not use her / I choose to love this time for once / with all my intelligence”. There are “buts” here as well as “ands”, mostly to do with the circumstances in which we are or are not able to choose to turn away from suffering; the extent to which relief can be an act of will; the times when it applies and the times when it causes us greater harm to think that it might.

    Still, these lines have been like a mantra to me these past few months — a mantra about accepting help, whatever shape it might take in each particular life; a mantra about hope; a rejection of inevitability. I like Rich’s use of the word “uselessly”, as opposed to “needlessly”. It seems to me gentler, devoid of blame or reproach; and it seems to hint at the kind of suffering that exhausts you because you’ve gone over it so often in your mind. There’s no lesson in the act of overcoming it, no facile insight — there’s only repetitive toil, which sometimes seems too daunting to go through again. This is why there’s such immense relief in thinking it’s possible to move past this suffering “yet still to feel” — without numbing, without loss, without rejecting love or human need, but with hope and openness instead. Regardless of whether or not I manage to make them true, these words have been a beacon.

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    Sep 11, 2016

    Sunday Links, Mostly

    Book pile: Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful by Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens by Alice Walker, Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison, The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde
    I wanted to check in this Sunday, even though I don’t have a whole lot to say that is of any real substance. I’ve been reading, slowly but excitedly, probably too many books at once. Last week Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby floored me; now I’m reading Jo Walton’s Necessity, and keep accidentally starting new non-fiction titles alongside it. I’m also reading Karen Brodine’s poetry collection Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking, about which I suspect I’ll have a lot more to say. Other than that, I’m mostly still thinking about this summer and all that it signified, and enjoying the last of the warm, golden evenings with stops at the park after work. My life has changed a lot in the past year or so; I want to make sense of it through books and then perhaps write about it, but it’s been a slow process.

    Yesterday a friend and I went to a used bookshop I’d only been to once before, right after I moved here four years ago. It’s slightly out of the way from where I live and work, so I never happen to just wander past, and somehow I never made the effort to stop by again. I walked out with what just might be the greatest pile of used bookshop finds in my life, which leaves me wondering if visiting more often would be a terrible or an excellent idea. In all seriousness, I’m so excited that I found all these books. Then I came home and spotted a black squirrel in my garden as I was cooking dinner. It was a good day.

    Things I’ve been reading:

  • Like so much of the rest of the world, I’ve been obsessed with Blonde these past few weeks. This NPR discussion has some interesting bits about how the album grapples with hegemonic masculinity.

  • V for Volunteer — a dystopian reality. No surprises here, but it’s still dire reading.

  • Dawn Foster’s piece on zero-hours contracts is not new, but it’s still a good antidote to all the rhetoric of context-free “choice” I keep seeing floating around.

  • Sandra Gilbert writes about Adrienne Rich for The American Scholar.

  • Laurie Penny on work:
    Our cultural insistence that paid work is the surest route to well-being and dignity has little basis in fact. For many millions of people, the modern workplace is a blunt insult to both body and soul, but we are invited by our bosses and leaders to agree that exhaustion is a sign of weakness and that despair is a mark of moral deficiency. It should not take a spate of suicides for us to begin to question that logic.
    Mine is fortunately a healthy work environment, for the most part, but still: yes.

  • I really enjoy Briallen Hopper’s writing, and can’t wait for her forthcoming essay collection. Here’s what she wrote about Girls on Fire.

  • This moved me: What Remains: Remembering Michelle Cliff, Beth Brant, and Stephania Byrd by Julie R. Enszer.

    More words soon, I hope.

    Sunset in the park
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