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.

10 comments:

  1. Oh, I really needed this today. Thank you, Ana. <3

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  2. "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 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."

    Yes! This is really wonderful, the whole post is wonderful. Your thoughtfulness and clarity are marvelous and I really want to hug you right now.

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  3. Thank you. I needed this yesterday. I needed this today. I will need this tomorrow. I expect I'll be back to read this over and over and over again.
    Love you. Love you so much.

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  4. Thank you for giving me phrases to repeat to myself. Thank you.

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  5. Thanks. I especially appreciated the sentence: "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 am not among those made most vulnerable by the recent US election results, but I still feel distressed by it all.

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  6. I know that some of my students think I tend towards "cruel" optimism. I think of it as ignorant or naive and sometimes disingenuous optimism. So my goal is to open my eyes more and wish it were different less.

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  7. Ana, this post is so perfect. And addresses so much of what I have been feeling more or less diorectly over the past months and perhaps more so during the past weeks. Your blog and your incredibly thoughtfulness have come to mean so much to me, and I'm sure to many of us. You might not see it yourself, but you have also really grown and while your blog has always been a really thoughtful, friendly, open and helpful space I think you have started to really outdo yourself these past months. Thank you for that.

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  8. <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

    In a way, I love that we are going through this together. But, I wish we didn't have to go through this together. I wish the world was better than it is, but if it is not, at least there are people like you in it.

    I agree with your comment about the joy you get from some things making it possible to fight for the other things. I think I am doing much of the same. It's important to find pleasure in life, still, in the midst of the despair.

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  9. You've spoken so much truth in this post - thank you. I needed to read it. I can tell (from the other comments) that I'm not alone in that.

    This bit struck me especially, "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 think that's what I've been trying (poorly) to communicate for months...

    It also sounds as though I need to read Sarah Schulman's book. So I'm off to the library website to see if I can get it there.

    Thank you again.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.