Nov 23, 2016

Holding it together

Over the past week and a half I thought a lot about what I said at the end of my last post — that I would come back to writing more often once I was feeling more together. The more I think about it, the more I realise I don’t quite know what that means. What is “holding it together” in these times? Is it being able to function — to get up in the morning, to make breakfast, to go to work, to sit here writing these words? Is it not crying every day? Is it trusting that my life will not be full of fear and heartbreak, and buying into the false equivalence between this and a life that feels meaningful? Is it not feeling the constant low-level dread I’ve been feeling since at least June, or is it carrying on despite it, within it, alongside it? Is it finding pockets of joy amidst it all, and having them give me the heart I need to carry on fighting for a just and humane life?

Today, in the UK, a Neo-Nazi was found guilty of a political assassination, and I cried at home by myself as I remembered all over again that this is something that happened; something we have to grapple with. I can’t imagine being me and responding in any other way.

Now, as always, is the time for meaningful collective action — this is true in my country, in the countries of people I love, everywhere where there’s injustice. Everything we have, every morsel of recognition of our humanity, we owe to those who came before us and fought (Frederick Douglass’ “Power concedes nothing without a demand” keeps running through my head). I understand what my friend Clare means when she says her heartbreak is not useful; I understand and share the need for concrete action points even as we tend to our emotional wounds. At the same time, I find myself increasingly interested in making this visible — this process of being undone by politics, because politics is life. I want to rethink the implicit separation between who I am as a human in the world and my emotional life. I want to break the privatised self open, which doesn’t mean giving up access to a personal space where I get to rest and feel whole.

Last week I kept thinking that I had to somehow learn to live as if my heart was breaking all the time. A few days later I read a new post at The Rejectionist, which as always was a balm; she quoted Alice Walker’s “The way forward is with a broken heart”, the perfect line for me to be reminded of at this time. I know there are fellow human beings far more vulnerable than I am for whom life has always felt this raw. I want to find ways to acknowledge this without retreating into silence; without thinking for a second that this is not also my fight; without accepting a false dichotomy between either centring my emotions in a harmful, distracting way or presenting a functional, self-contained front to the world that doesn’t do justice to what my life feels like.

I don’t want to disentangle my feelings from my politics is what I’m trying to say. I think to do so is a lie. I’ve spent a lot of time this year giving up the illusion of control, both in a wider and in a more personal sense. This doesn’t mean giving up the knowledge that I’m capable of meaningful action within whatever constraints are externally imposed on me — on the contrary, it means taking this to heart, while at the same time giving up guilt and shame for being a breakable human being who needs the collaboration of others to live successfully. This is true politically, socially and personally, and the more I practice consciously rejecting any Ayn Randian illusions of self-sufficiency whenever they appear, the less they can get inside my head and undo me that way.

So, once again, what does it mean to hold it together? Sarah McCarry’s post also led me to this excellent essay by Jenny Zhang, which is full of quotes I keep repeating to myself. For example, “[T]his is not the time for cruel optimism and denial, this is the time for sober pragmatism and idealism as frameworks for organizing a Movement for a safe and humane future.”

I don’t want for there to be any cruel optimism in whatever hope I manage to muster — I don’t want to say “We’ll be okay” when so many people are left out of that “we”. What I do want to say is that we can live meaningfully and even joyfully, not necessarily despite this but within it. I’m going to see my friends and feed my squirrels and tell people I love them as often as I can, and carry on reading and writing as if my life depended on it, and seek out music and joy and life whenever I can. I’m also going to fight and resist with all I’ve got. These two things are not at odds; the one makes the other possible. They’re reminders of what I want to fight for — a tender world and a life of care — as well as the things that give me the strength to carry on doing it.

Last week I found additional comfort in the conclusion to Sarah Schulman’s excellent The Gentrification of the Mind, which challenges the idea that our choices are either happiness at the expense of others or unwavering despair. Again, I’m reminded of the need to resist a false binary at all costs. Schulman says, “This kind of conundrum is permitted by a cultural idea of happiness as something that requires absolute comfort. (…) We have a concept of happiness that excludes asking uncomfortable questions and saying things that are true but which might make others uncomfortable.” A life that hurts but that feels worth living is, to her, “part of the process of being a full human being.” I’ve been feeling this acutely lately, and I think if offers me the only possibility that seems feasible in these times. I say this without pointing fingers, without any sanctimonious undertones. I say this with urgency, but also with all the gentleness and humanity and understanding I have. There are days when I won’t be able to do it, and I accept this without thinking less of myself or of others. I’m going to retreat sometimes, and then emerge again, and always, always keep trying.

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Nov 13, 2016

How the light gets in

Gay's the Word bookshop, London
Hi, friends. I’ve been quiet here for longer than I intended. Thank you to those of you who were kind to me after my last post, and to all of you for simply reading and being there. If I had blogged last Sunday like I meant to, I would have told you that things were looking up — that I wasn’t feeling hopeless even if I was still finding it hard to write, that I was worried for obvious reasons but that I believed the worst wouldn’t happen. And then I woke up on Wednesday and read the news.

I’m terrified about — to call it what it is — the international rise of fascism. I’m terrified this spells the end for us when it comes to halting climate change. And I fear for the safety of people I love, who are particularly vulnerable because they’re not white or straight or male or able-bodied or any of the above. To all my friends who are affected by the outcome of this election in immediate and direct ways: I’m so, so sorry.

Yesterday I went to London to see some friends, and after that I went for a walk using this list as a field guide. I visited Bookmarks and Housmans and Gay’s The Word, and I got badges and postcards and books. I’m still devastated, but it helped a little. I got a second-hand copy of Louise Raw’s Striking a Light, which I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and I was especially thrilled to find Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science. I read it from my university library when I was a graduate student and loved it, and just the other day I was thinking about how it might be difficult to find it again if I ever wanted to reread it. And look, now I have a copy of my very own.

Striking a Light and Sexual Science
It matters a lot to me that London still has places like these.

A few links:

  • Books to make sense of this mess.

  • “Resistance is our civic duty” — the Centre for Constitutional Rights responds to Trump’s election.

  • The Southern Law Poverty Centre is asking for reports of incidents of hateful intimidation and harassment following Trump’s election.

  • A guide to encryption and online security.

  • How Best to Not-Survive.

  • “Hitler’s only kidding about the anti-Semitism” New York Times, 1932. The mainstream media’s attempts to normalise this are shameful. They’re also not new.

  • Now is a good time to reread this review: In ‘Hitler,’ an Ascent From ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue.

  • Autocracy: Rules for Survival.

  • RIP Leonard Cohen. This one hurt.

    I’ll write more when I’m feeling more together. One thing I do know is that I want to carry on writing, however little it might mean. Until then, please take care of yourselves and each other as well as you can.
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    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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