Five Unexplored Ideas

 

I am learning to tell the difference between writing and wishing.

 

*

 

A biggest fear: someone other than me not feeling understood.

My default setting: persistently nod along.

 

*

 

It is one of the most tragic banalities of human existence that everything you are not can be a significant factor in everything that you are.

 

*

 

These little unrelated pebbles, dropped randomly on the ground or in the water, it doesn’t matter where: I jump to avoid them and am changed.

 

*

 

I understand anything in this world by pushing it away. I mean by writing it down.

Writing: a checkpoint

The ‘too’ of a woman produces violent male reactions and, in addition, the enmity of other women, who every day are obliged to fight among themselves for the crumbs left by men. The ‘too’ of men produces general admiration and positions of power.”

Elena Ferrante

 

I am my better, more thoughtful self in the writing, and for a long time I wore this fact like a medal.

*

 

Language can be good and still mean nothing.

But the very purpose of language is to convey, to express, to pass through so as to unite—in other words, to mean. Language means. Girls are mean. This is why artists separate from their bodies over time, why poets walk away, why philosophers who have built something of themselves through language are sometimes unable to stay raveled after being submerged in the medium for too long. Words let you misplace yourself onto them and before you know it you’ve turned away from yourself entirely, the very thing your body was supposed to be—self—replaced by a sense of failure: words. Ghosts. Language and meaning made total strangers to each other. Bodies and lives, buried under sheets.

*

 

There’s no such thing as separating the art from the artist, so shut up about it. It is a myth. It is the boogey man. It is a dream trying to interfere with your waking life, but only while you sleep. It is a bad movie made by an even worse director. It is a lie. It is popular nonetheless.

Think about the artists you love, the work you love through them.

Now think about the thin, thin fabric that distinguishes love from hate.

Think about the things your body comes into contact with. Think about the things you put your body near.

Now think about the things you consume throughout your daily life without knowing where they came from. Stop consuming those things or change your relationship to their production immediately. Leave the country if you must.

Too much writing may separate me from myself, but that has no bearing on my public reception, nor the poorest of bad choices I choose to make. Words over here, mistakes over there, but somewhere, deep in the middle, they do touch. Everything touches, so be prepared.

*

 

I write in order to prove to myself that I have been a person, at least once.

I want writing that accounts for lives unlived. But there is a wide chasm of difference between “unspoken” and “unlived.” I forget that. Words make me feel as if I can skip the process entirely and go straight to the product, that I could write my way into perfectly crafted living and then pop my head up and join the world from there.

I write because writing is the best way I know of to consistently achieve the dizzying state of changed perspective: how to see new places (in your head), new shapes in which knowledge can be housed (in your head), new ways of looking at the same old thing (your head). Fiona Apple: “he said it’s all in your head / and I said so is everything / but he didn’t get it.” That thing you’ve spent countless hours staring at as if through; thing you’ve gently placed on shelves or in boxes or in new rooms in new apartments, stuff that’s accompanied your every move, legal documents, muscle & bone, everything fundamental to your social existence but which does not ask to be seen on a regular basis: your brain. And then you see it, lit with recognition, your strong writer’s body discovering a new way of looking at itself as a metaphor, because writing is always a metaphor, is always a translation, the words and sentences constituting most of what’s being seen, most of what you’re so worked up about, just language on a page that used to be not there. Writing makes much of little, makes little of too much.

What I mean to say is that I write in order to see my brain, and what I see instead are words. Then the process repeats. I am a girl trying to write her way into life, when words should instead be a natural extension of what’s already happening, what can truly be said to exist.

Writing can never truly exist, it can only be said to exist.

*

 

Girls exist like the act of writing: we move along the surface of things, always paying such close attention to the deeper feelings and needs and comforts, stuff we gesture toward but do not always contain (why should we have to contain everything?). Straddling, stuck in the middle. Not as valued as the original, nor the final product. A girl is a process that is never finished, only abandoned. Girls are expected to look left and then right and then left again, to shift and to backspace. How do we know when it’s safe to cross? It is never safe to cross when you are a girl walking down the street, owner of girl parts and dreams and compassion, everything soft. When can my insides be more than just my outsides beckoning?

*

 

Ferrante again: “Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water.”

What you perfect in privacy will never translate into the public sphere until you first spend some time messing up there, out in the open, in front of others. My writer’s instinct created a life of mostly waiting to bypass embarrassment (a girl’s instinct?), bypass too-much-ness, and my ideas and my imagination fed that delusion, again and again. Figure things out, then turn toward the world, she said. A girl’s extinction?

*

 

Language gets in the way of talking.

Language is a mark of education. Is a commotion. Is a thing that you can talk about with some people and not others. Some people will understand where you’re coming from. And others won’t. Language is the least and the most of what’s in the way, at all times.

 

Everything I write feels like the last thing I will write. Exhausted, hard-fought, entirely distorted.

*

 

Shania Twain was born in 1946 to a small immigrant family. Shania Twain was burned at the stake for dressing as a man, among other travesties. Shania Twain graced the TV right as I began to calculate my own intrusions, my interests, the shape of my being a female-daughter-person. My dad stared at the screen in awe while my mother joked about Shania’s dancing, the denim costume, her wild hair, the way she moved, her symmetrical face. My dad practically left the room when women like that came on TV and my mother and I could still manage to laugh even if we were alone in the room with him, too, like artifacts.

I spent so long feeling stuck in the middle of things, school and divorce and weight and influence. Too-much-ness, and the way your own invisibility can be too much, too. I longed for adulthood so that I could begin skipping some of the bad experiences. Skip the process and go straight to the product. I was a child accidentally defining her own death. I was a monster spoiled by her own thirst for blood.

Whatever’s in front of me at any given moment: that’s what I assume I am supposed to be. A newspaper, an impulse, a costume, a music video.

Shania Twain, you’re part of the reason I’ve come to feel the way I do. You even show up in the writing.

There’s no center, just circle after circle after circle of mimicry. A lot like dancing.

*

 

I know what’s best for me, the writer says. So she writes. Cropped hair, less jewelry, a body unusually at rest. In my head, the medicine swerves and tunnels through each synapse, makes thought seem tangible. If I can touch it with my hand, with my headhand, who’s to tell me I’m wrong? So I smash any two ideas right up next to each other, as if ideas were as malleable as words, and wait for them to merge. Done. I make something new, I pretend it’s me. Write and write and write and write. Make assumptions about the few people I come in contact with. Always assume the worst. Pretend nothing has anything to do with me. And so, it doesn’t.

There is meat on my bones. I leave it there, for once.

I am delirious with hunger until I suddenly remember the tide, as if memory constitutes reality. Standing still, the ocean waves at me like I mean something to it, the shells and seagulls bob in and out of frame. Everything is a frame; everything is held by everything else. I pretend to know where things start and where they end. I punch a hole in the fabric of living and call what falls out an essay.

The monstrosity of a woman expressing her wants, her hopes, having any expectations at all.

Surely I can’t be the monster. Not a small embarrassing girl like me, pretending to write.

Writing allows you to pretend almost anything.

I want to be so many things but I end up a body folded into a paragraph. I won’t even open my mouth. What if something falls out?

I’m not good at pretending things don’t matter. Everything matters, which leads to good writing and poor friendships.

When did I learn that it was best to hide my problems, to protect my struggling as if it were the most intimate version of me?

Appearances. I don’t take myself seriously but I expect everyone else to, and that is the worst type of writer to be.

*

 

You want the life to be big and the writing to be condensed from it, so that all the details are important and true without needing to be quite thorough, which words will never be. If the living is small, even a small amount of words becomes an amount too large for the life, incomparable, so that your body is down here and the words are up there, expanding outward, like padding. Life shouldn’t be padded. Words shouldn’t be the place where your life gets bigger. Life should be a large one and then, in the small occasional moments, you write. There should be too much to fit on the page.

*

 

This girl thinks she can think her way through anything if she’s not careful. Unless she’s too careful. This girl will end up in a ditch, or behind an invisible screen, or turned into a frog, depending on the amount of care she produces.

If the screen is invisible, wouldn’t you see right through to her?

You’d think so.

*

 

Writing is the space between birth and death. Sometimes it’s awful.

Anything can be a surface if there’s more beneath it.

Language is always a surface. On good days, I press my hands down flat on it and try to hold still, tell Shania I forgive her.

Sir,

an elderly woman called out to me, what she thought was me, and indeed it was except I was no sir. Could you help me with something heavy? I said yes and brought my boyfriend out instead, as if supplying her with the more accurate version of her request, the sir she wanted. Are greetings just floating signifiers, or made of actual content? I suppose it depends on the context of interpretation: artist or viewer. If the woman’s intention was to produce invitation through contact, then it worked: I understood her request immediately, didn’t look over my shoulder for the others, would not have benefitted from clarification. Who, me? A few sentences ago, I almost wrote something about, “polite contact.” Is it ever polite to misunderstand someone? To brand them with your personal expectations of how the world works? The question assumes a superficiality antithetical to community, forcing “inclusion” to revolve around sight, the status quo of all human senses. Understanding demands space for difference and curiosity, which flower with appearances, sure, but only by firmly hidden roots, all the grounded stuff you can’t expect to see. To understand someone is to know that there will be truths both contradictory and unwitnessable. The only way out into the broad arena of true recognition is therefore through questioning and apprehending, and the elderly woman did both. She suggested a world in which my gender presentation and my biological sex may not reinforce each other, and she was polite to me regardless of the potential affront that stalks such incongruities. But by now, I am mistaking the viewer’s reception with the artist’s intent, imbuing her words with stance and premeditation. She simply thought I was a boy.

I brought my boyfriend out instead, without asking for his availability, having translated question into obligation. This woman needs your help. In the face of misunderstanding—was I embarrassed? feeling defensive?—I brought a man to solve what was then reinforced as a man’s problem. Why didn’t I just help her? Because I am no sir, and my drive in that moment to establish the few attributes I lack overpowered the possibility of the many I could contain—strength, fluidity, playfulness, understanding (the woman was, after all, quite old), or just being a good neighbor. I picked up all the implications of her greeting and found a way to carry both much more and much less than the situation asked of me.

Men have always turned “weight” into opportunity: muscles tasked with function, they rectify absences, fill holes, provide height when gravity bullies and receive praise through their lifted objects without having to become them. Weight, a woman’s problem that demands modification and restraint, becomes, in the context of dudes, a thing to absorb or pick up. I am engulfed by manly distinctions, a flame too close to my back. If words sometimes stick to the wrong body, which is modified by which? Why did I say wrong body instead of wrong words? Perhaps I could only prove I was not a sir through comparison and contrast, by taking the woman’s question seriously enough to insist I could only supply, but not become, the answer. When born of insecurity, need sometimes does nothing but highlight its own relativity: if I must find a man in order to establish my own lack of manhood, what does it mean to be a woman? I am not a sir, but perhaps not inherently a she, either.

Even landscapes can be made of habit and instruction. Land goes here, sky there, keep the horizontal median plush and predictable. But gender is pure context. Things weird or new look out of place against the backdrop of all that’s already been established as what is. Trace a line far back enough and you eventually find an initial point of contact between pencil and paper, context of the origin. Is it ever polite to misunderstand someone’s gender? If things are made up, and the social world is constructed, and humans are capable of change and growth, then the question is nonsense. Only when misunderstanding morphs into insistence does confusion become dangerous. But in the context of an elderly woman wearing thick glasses, crossing the street near our lilac bush and discovering my young, accessible body: it is simple reflex gone mildly rogue.

When people ask me questions, I sometimes wish to know their long-term expectation before answering. As if truth requires context or carries a faltering sense of responsibility. By truth I mean gender. Full of holes, defining itself against others and itself and the new day.

How To Raise Kids Without Having Any

Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject…All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.”

~Susan Sontag

 

How are you supposed to be a person before you’ve become yourself?

When you’re 9, 10, 11 years old, handcuffed by the impending sea change of hormones and the inevitability of messing up, it’s hard to overemphasize the value in looking at everything that exists outside your boundaries and then making some hard choices about where to cross over. Do you hear what I’m saying? One becomes oneself by first loitering and failing, by drinking the strange potion of doing bad things and making what will eventually be seen as, in one context or many, mistakes. Bad because not allowed, mistakes because never again. You prank people, you send a neighbor’s trash can barreling down the street, you reveal words to friends told to you by other friends and find yourself, by the end of the week, lonely and speechless and bored. You judge people and turn away from opportunities. You hang out with peers you’re “not supposed to” and drink things you’re “not supposed to.” You do little at school, and then even less; you do bad in life on purpose. If the greatest thing about being 70, as May Sarton once told a stunned crowd, is that you are more of yourself than you’ve ever been before, then the shared truth of that fact is that you are hardly so when you’re young.

So what is the job of a parent? And how do we ensure that the duties are fulfilled when the nuclear unit, already so treacherous a shape, has exploded, leaving kids parentless, and single parents stretched beyond the thin membrane of their already tapering selves, and children vulnerable to the strange spectrum of homeless <—-> home after home after home, the displacement caused by hyper-placement, the unraveling of home from a house to a street, a street to a city, or one couch to another, night after night? Kids bounce, or they run, or they are placed elsewhere; or else they share space with numerous others and find themselves shuttled back and forth between visitations and conflicting schedules, their lives unfolding not in bedrooms and classrooms—the privilege of clearly defined, designated spaces—but filling up whatever empty cracks and corners they can sneak into. Bouncing and rebounding, running and shuttling: all those gerunds are the side-effect of unintentional splitting, whether it be sudden death or the earth opening up around a couple’s previous commitment, how we adults can sometimes change our minds, or leave our minds perfectly still for too long, only to find younger generations swallowed whole by the consequences. Abuse, neglect, or things simply catching up with us, which happens a lot, in my experience of being an adult: one day I’m doing the chasing, the next day I’m being chased. And while I never moved through foster care myself and, with a few minor exceptions, generally knew where I’d be sleeping each night, I was nevertheless a child of divorce, unwellness, and adults who refused agreement and compromise; of the shattering of normality, how we all pretended, according to our ages, that we could function through to the other side of whatever it was that consumed our household for all those years.

It wasn’t until I reached my 30s that I found Nora Ephron: “…infidelity itself is small potatoes compared to the low-level brain damage that results when a whole chunk of your life turns out to have been completely different from what you thought it was.” The brain damage was, is, mine, and the infidelity my father’s, who brought a whole slew of damaged and damaging women—in image, in real life flesh—into our household, exposing me, at the earliest age I can remember, to the abusive notion that my gender could achieve value only through becoming sexually desirable to a certain type of man. Achieving, becoming—in other words, gender troubles. The thing about gerunds is that they take all the action out of the verb, they function by relinquishing their motion for the stillness of a noun; they hold still when you might’ve expected them to go forward a little, and I can’t think of a better way to describe being young and feeling out of control than that.

So what is the job of a parent, a support person, a trusted adult? You can’t help a person become themselves any faster than nature and empowerment allow. But you can help a child understand that they have options, that they can make things exist that did not exist before their making them. That they can be curious, fail broadly, try again. There’s a lot of time for trying again when you’re young. But the best way to encourage the person a child will become is to model the doing, the making, the being; in other words, the personhood. Kids see how we act and what we see, they learn through the act of witnessing. The job of the guardian is to foster spaces wherein youth may witness life’s bigness, fortified by patience and humility and, above all else, a creativity that growls over perfection’s whisper.

 

The other day, killing time in a doctor’s waiting room, my partner recounted some of his teenaged hijinks to me, spoke of how he and his friends once rearranged all the lawn décor on a series of houses a few streets from their own. The doctor hadn’t called me back yet, so I reciprocated by mentioning the time I once shot a bb gun into a school window; or how I’d stayed the night in a den with a bunch of seniors when my mom thought I was already home, how I had a man call the school and claim to be my father, excusing me from the day. Some of it worked out—by the skin of my teeth, I avoided certain natural consequences—and some of it didn’t (my mom had already called the school 30 minutes before us, looking for me, worried sick). None of this stuff has any bearing on the person I am today, beyond the simple and extraordinary fact that she was once me, and that she survived.

Posturing, denial, repression. Our adult methods for making sense of a chaotic world grow sophisticated as we fall more into ourselves, as we army crawl into the lives we’ve chosen. As you get older, you learn how to do more than just casually tiptoe across the boundaries you encounter and begin to harness the full force of your unique volition, sometimes setting new, expanded boundaries. Survival depends, at least in part, on a relationship with your younger self: that you learn to let the word “forgiveness” sit lightly on your tongue, that you understand how utterance conjures the good ideas which, in turn, become actions. But survival also depends on the experience of being young, being her, and having at least one adult who will listen to your new feelings and less good ideas and transitional states of mind and, rather than dismiss them, will take them no less seriously than what’s found in the heart of every single adult who, alive and mortal, sometimes changes their mind, too. Nobody stops growing, and that’s the shared intimacy of life and death across all generations, two sides of the same fabric—the same seam, the same pattern.

To alienate a young person in their journey toward becoming themselves is a form of abuse. To pretend their struggles are not normal, to react with shock more than curiosity and understanding, to try and replace steadiness with speed or vice versa. It is to close them up into little clamshells, to pretend they aren’t the same creatures who will one day make pearls of themselves, their feelings real in the same real world of your own.

We punish kids for not being better, yet we’re full of shock when, over time, they change. “You never used to like [fill in object here],” goes the classic parental saying, or, “you used to be so __________,” always said with a touch of ridicule. As if we want to take our little loves and freeze them in place at our own shifting will. Dear reader, how many pieces of your own comprehensive heart do you show the world, and when are they static? How often is your thought process conflicted, or full of thin holes, or not anything like what you’d once expected of it?

 

We can support youth, in professional as much as personal capacities, by showing them what it looks like to be a model of misfit survival. It is nothing short of magic to watch the walls go down when a young person reveals a dark sliver of themselves and you, adult person with power, don’t flinch. You understand, you remember, you empathize. It’s hard to make hard choices in frail circumstances, you think to yourself. Sometimes, survival is the only eligibility requirement when seeking a coping mechanism from a dark place, and you recall this by reflecting on your own once-bad choices and the ways they kept you reaching into tomorrow. Validation is a big, fraught word, but at its base, all it requires is understanding, any version of it, between two people.

What youth need from us: witnessing, contemplation. And I do mean the Sontag kind, where you recognize the worthiness of a young person to the point of momentarily forgetting about yourself; this is the reward of working with youth: an “already full” heart, how the stewardship of children and teens requires paying such complete attention that you can’t help but fill up with a tenderness bigger than yourself. And when the obstacles are larger? More and more consideration. And when young people find themselves inhabitants on the spectrum of homelessness <—-> home after home after home? Place and environment are things every young human has the right to count on, but care and open communication are places, too. Nonjudgmental language is an environment. Who is that person you could turn to all those years ago, when you were young and scared and needed someone to trust, someone whose lineage wasn’t bound up with yours? Think of that someone who kept you afloat. Now imagine under whose lifejacket you might be the ocean beneath.

Neither Tree Nor Person, But Both

Notes from a master gardener in training

Confidence. It is a thing I am working on, starting at the level of sentence. But I’m suspicious of getting there through calcified certainty alone, all those hard consonants that make it so easy to mistake the one with the others. Our culture values certainty, a gut directive that wants us believing in the knowability of unknown things, sometimes at the expense of context and lived experiences that suggest otherwise. If I let my perspective stop short at the edge of my knowing, I can muster up all the feelings of certainty and security that a western adult could ever wish for.

Yet here I am, trying to refuse them and anything else born of the same cultural command for summation, the same culture that birthed me. Perhaps what I’m after belongs to the family of characteristics that Joan Didion wrote about in her 1961 essay, “On Self-Respect:” “Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.” Confidence, in this sense, is not about knowing you are always right, but about laying down in the bed you’ve made regardless; “whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.” This form of confidence involves the recognition that belief in oneself should be no more or less valuable than trial and error, that growth occurs through the complex interactions between agency and humility. The most productive questions are the ones willing to be paired with numerous answers, arrangements that might shift from time to time, no single context carrying more weight than any other.

This framework—confidence comprised of many options—seems to be the guiding philosophy of the master gardener. In lieu of competition and lecturing, classes are full of conversation and the sharing of knowledge, something that, when done expansively, can still include a man or a woman standing at the front of the room without declaring that the rest of us are without contributions. Any sense of human power over nature is replaced instead with something more like cross-species collaboration. The language of government seems almost entirely replaced with the language of community, starting—yes, I’m going to say it—from the ground up. No self-respecting gardener would do x, y, or z! Do you hear the way all possibility shuts down through such a statement? Do you hear how, with one poor phrase, one judgmental tone, you can conflate your own preferences with someone else’s? The job of the master gardener promises not to be making decisions on behalf of others, not to reinforce the hierarchies of choice. It is instead to take one’s own wisdom—trust in your experiences (the “master” part) and humility before nature (the “gardening” part)—and encourage a similar blossoming in those you meet: whether a friend, a community partner, or a desperate client seeking advice at a plant clinic, the master gardener knows that you, too, can look at a whole slew of options and choose, with confidence, a very good one for yourself.

 

Self-respect is, nevertheless, a funny thing to pursue, especially when you’re only just beginning its coursework many years after bolting out of the womb, confidence and all its cousins having shown up late to the party that is your social, human life. Throw in any number of extenuating circumstances—difficult childhoods, too-early experiences of death, lack of outdoor play paired with a surplus of “stranger danger”—and before you know it you’re an adult plagued with inwardness and passivity, looking to assert yourself in a culture already too full of aggressive declarations.

 

[ Passive (You) ⇒ Assertive (Where you’re aiming) ⇒ Aggressive (The world) ]

Figure 1- How do we correct, but not overcorrect?

 

I look at the world around me and see a dire need for flexibility and question marks, for classrooms no longer dismissing “I don’t know” as not good enough. For vulnerability and fluidity and active listening. There is a dearth of wild movements of the mind and permissiveness of the heart, is what I’m saying. So it’s especially confusing to find myself an adult trying to own herself and her voice and her actions while staring out at the world and wishing for less rampant ownership. Another way to put it: my need for internal substance, for a crash course in assertiveness, runs head first into my sense that the world around me is too rigid and too sure of itself.

How can I want one thing for myself and another thing for the culture surrounding me? How can I be so focused on watering my plants enough that I don’t water them too much? I cannot overemphasize my seriousness: how much is the right amount of water when the wrong amounts are so close to each other that they practically touch? How can I be, all at once, a person with things to say as well as a model of quiet, attentive listening?

The best gardeners, I suspect, are both: informed and full of new questions, willing to learn and willing to give things a try. Not scared of the thin space between “not enough” and “too much” because they’re well acquainted with the wide space called good enough, said in big outward breaths, the joyful everything that grows around and through constricted boundaries. They’re not waiting for permission, nor are they ignorant of the occasional need to pause and reconsider. The best gardeners have room for wilderness and room for craft, places for growing and places for roaming, and a willingness to tend, even to value, the differences between the two, a natural philosophy otherwise known as biodiversity.

 

Still, the unproductive patterns, the ones that keep us harmfully insecure and foolishly dismissive, are difficult to unlearn, even in the most welcoming of social situations. The minute the 2018 “Pacific Northwest Plant Disease Management Handbook” landed on my table during a master gardener class, a binder so large that it practically made noise, my inner-dialogue grew nervous and judgmental: I don’t know what this is, I don’t know how to use it, I will not be able to answer the questions that will surely be asked of me, not privately, not publicly, not even in small group format with my table of lovely, nonjudgmental peers. I wished in that moment that I already knew what I was there to learn. And this is the echoing disharmony of traditional classroom spaces, that backwards thinking that most of us grew up with and some of us saw further emphasized in higher education: to succeed in a space of learning, you have to already know about the subject at hand; to be most eligible for something, you have to not need it.

Not needing what you need. My arms practically cross themselves in grumpy refusal just typing that sentence out. It’s a concept so ridiculous and so juvenile that even Nature, given a human brain and an English-speaking tongue, could not understand it. Try explaining this fear to a personified tree and he would giggle, experiencing a whole range of sympathy and pity for us self-sabotaging humans. Yes, there are days where I think even trees would make better people.

 

It’s hard to find balance in an imbalanced world, much like it’s hard to do well in a class on a subject that’s brand new to you; these are not facts meant to counter-argue confidence, but to provide the soil in which it must grow.

Once, a yoga teacher put us all in tree pose, where you balance on one leg, as a room of us students wibble-wobbled our way through thirty difficult seconds. She remarked that we were all balancing perfectly, because balance isn’t about staying stick-straight and still. It’s about wobbling and adjusting each moment so that you get stronger and find more equilibrium.”[1]

For a pest’s natural enemies to survive, they must have a pest population on which to feed.”[2]

See how the very thing you’re trying to escape is sometimes the thing you need? To do poorly because you’re learning. To lean in the very direction that feels like falling. To fight against the pose because the fighting is the pose. To be a tree poorly because that’s how we get to be trees at all: wiggling and failing, knowing the value and limitations of our not-tree-ness and laying down in our garden beds anyway.

 

[1] October 2018 new moon horoscope for Taurus, Rookie.

[2] Chapter 20—“Integrated Pest Management,” Sustainable Gardening: The Oregon-Washington Master Gardener Handbook.

Common Ground

“If there is a reason,” said Representative Greg Walden at the Wasco County town hall on March 15th, 2019. He was describing the only circumstance in which a child might still be rightfully separated from their family at the southern U.S. border, and it’s the kind of comment, devoid of information but full of stance, that turns even my most respectful impulses into immature outbursts of laughter.

There are reasons for everything: for me to care about climate change above all else, and for the gentleman across the aisle to deem national security a much greater issue. For the mother of six to refuse vaccinations that caused so much harm to her family. For me to refuse God with the same conviction through which some of my neighbors, co-workers, or friends adore him.

The point of a town hall is not, ironically, to find common ground in all this—or rather, it can’t be, not within the current set-up of how we communicate with each other in public spaces. Though Walden struck me as slightly more behaved than he was during his last trip through The Dalles, so many of his words still rang like prepared soundbites, so that listening and nodding along to each community member’s question or comment only belied his own silent crafting and culling of data. Indeed, his batch of digital slides, rather than signaling extreme preparedness, felt instead like restrictions on where the conversation was allowed to go. This created a tone of constituents needing to accommodate the representative versus the other way around, all of us shuffling over his bullet points to try and get our specific, unaddressed concern into his line of sight.

I’m not above the problem. As each citizen took to the microphone, I noticed myself examining their clothes and haircuts, who they smiled at or when they shook their heads with a heavy no, trying to figure out if they were my people or not. It’s precisely this method of judgment that keeps agreement and disagreement in little calcified boxes, separated by the illusion that people could ever naturally and wholly be just one thing or another.

Walden is a figurehead of that illusion. He must learn to listen to the diversity of his constituents the same way I must better witness my peers: as complex and multifaceted individuals, full of the same capacity for passionate, contradictory, and informed sets of reasons as my own brain and heart. We are all capable of misunderstanding; holding a position in office does not imbue such errors with authority, nor magically exempt the congressman from critical thinking and self-doubt in the face of something he doesn’t recognize or can’t explain, whether it be a species or a number or a lifestyle. The only person truly qualified to turn something away is the person who has spent time and energy desiring first to understand it. And it is this fact through which I define “hatred” as a feeling devoid of all intimacy, the easiest and laziest and least informed reaction a human being is capable of. Just look at our president.

I am sad when I leave a town hall like this one, where hatred bubbles up in little pockets of the room and stops most of us from true contemplation. The person at the front of the room has signed up for the job of surveying and advocating for the communities he represents, and his partisan refusal models one of the most insidious myths of American progress: the illusion that it is lost, not strengthened, when you consider the other side.

To embrace difference, to find a common ground that holds space for everyone’s feet, means entering territory not always accounted for by the prepared data. It means admitting when you don’t know, and owning the inevitable blind spots in your research. It means, most fundamentally, admitting humanity, which is always also an admission of mortality and which, in turn, is always also an admission of room for growth—for something other than what you and I already are.

My challenge to Walden is to model active, bipartisan listening: to not grimace at the mention of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to not deflect concerns about carbon emissions by pointing out that we’re emitting carbons “even right now, by the way.”

There is always a reason, and that means there is always a context, usually many, worth considering.

The Uses of Grumpiness

(Note: The following essay also lives in the winter 2019 issue of Culturework.)

Consider the grammar of being human—how the body infiltrates, or punctuates, or rests. Verbs and proper nouns and idealizations spin around the axis of grumpiness, shaping its signature bend, adjective turned identity, twinned self of the quiet body trying to speak up at its own sighing pace. Grumpiness is a kind of preposition, which governs the relationship between two distinct bodies. It locates, it expresses and, in the best of circumstances, it modifies. It is both form and content, shape of how I march down the page as well as my reason for showing up, a pattern for these tempered, ill-fitting days, when it’s hard not to think about negativity and pessimism and anger. The nouns pile up on my tongue, in my sentences.

These days, Audre Lorde’s name is practically a buzzword, bouncing around social media and excerpted strategically in articles and newsletters with “self-care” in the title. There’s Lorde’s poetic cry, demanding self-efficacy, arguing for the necessity of a compassion that gazes inward at its own oppressed self, even or especially in the face of racism and sexism, of blemishes and dry skin.

I have no problem with self-care, at least as a concept, even when it just means skincare—I pursue it myself, and in fact I am inclined to say that citing Lorde within discussions of lifestyle trends, just to be extra cute about it, is a lot like sneaking some romaine between layer after layer of cheese and mayonnaise and ham. It is inclusivity pursued slowly but pursued nonetheless, through the basic tenet of just being more familiar with something else, of being, at the very least, less caught off-guard by its presence. Trend-driven or otherwise, that more people know the name of a black lesbian scholar and poet-librarian is, fundamentally, a good thing.

Still, I am frustrated by appropriation and by the refusal of context, just like everyone else is.

And I am reminded that besides being a warrior for self-care—for literal survival, in her case—Audre Lorde was also a protector of anger.

And so was Andrea Dworkin: “My hatred is precious…I don’t want to waste it on those who are colluding in their own oppression.”

And so is Bhanu Kapil: “Let your fear adore you.”

And again Lorde: “My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.”

I am frustrated, too, by my own limited skills on the page, that I must co-opt anger toward racism and discrimination, must quote from poems that advocate for the voices of marginalized groups, anger dedicated to silenced women of cultures not my own, regarding circumstances I’ve not had to endure, in order to address my own obstacles. Here are the things that, as I write this, I am angry about: stupid trainings, where facilitators do not enact the things they are teaching; co-workers who talk over and interrupt and then ignore me; wages that leave me broke but not poor; rude doctors; rude rejection letters; rude people at the movie theatre who forget or never learned how to share space.

Most days, it is a privilege to be upset about such things. Yet I refuse to believe that anger exists hierarchically; in fact, add to my previous list that I am mad about one-upsmanship, mad in the face of this or that, mad when people think the quickest way to empathy is by responding with their own more or less similar story. The farthest, slowest way to empathy is through more of the same kind of talking. A world more empathetic than this one is comprised of a great deal more listening, nodding along, moving your hands and your shoulders and your head with the rhythm of absorption. Active, comprehensive listening.

In fact, it was only after I’d attended last year’s Womxn’s March, here in the small, very red, trying-so-hard-my-heart-could-crumble city of The Dalles, that I found myself full of ideas for how I could have decorated my sign, one of them being the following:

HOW TO BE AN ALLY:

#1 Shut up

#2 Listen ❤

The heart would’ve been an obligation, but it always is.

 

Anger, explains Lorde, is not just the valid and healthy feeling we are experiencing but the thing itself to which we are responding. In this sense, anger is both internal and external, dynamic and living. It is born of the body, an expression to be cradled and protected, and it also floats about you, interfering with and directing one’s movement. Address it or don’t, it will shape the air surrounding you regardless.

So much of acknowledging anger, of making space for it, is about highlighting what has remained invisible for too long, about finally putting a face to the invisible names long accumulating in our downturned mouths. Of productively challenging the notion that silence and invisibility are slim beasts of poor constitution, as if certain forms of abundance can swallow you whole and then become something else entirely, something smaller.

Anne Sexton: “Abundance is scooped from abundance yet abundance remains.”

In my reading of it, it is one of Anne’s most generous and hopeful lines, in dialogue with Lorde’s understanding of the direct and crucial relationship between anger and hope, between lived negativity and active growth.

Walking through the sad colorful streets of downtown The Dalles with the only thing I could think of at the time written on my sign—“Patriarchy Shmatriarchy”—I was overwhelmed with the comfort of being inside a temporary community that could safely and willingly hold any individual manifestation of anger, snarky comments, shouting or protesting, from any single body that felt like yelling; how easily certain forms of anger can come to look like celebration, and vice versa, within a designated, cooperative space.

Anger can be a thing worth celebrating; so too can every single instance of a name like Audre or Andrea or Anne falling out of a person’s mouth, sometimes framed by glowing, supple skin.

It is with all of this in mind that I commit finally to the page my status as an advocate for grumpiness and its many uses. There are only so many ways to express disagreement in an engaged, unrefusing manner; it is grumpiness that carves out space for such feelings. When I am grumpy about a thing, I am usually most successful in achieving authenticity. When I am grumpy, I am both gentle and blunt, both close to you and considerate, even protective, of the distinction. God knows I have lost myself in too many moments of caving in, of ultra-accommodation, of confusing love with cathexis (bell hooks), of confusing love with the soft turn of a mouth that says mmhmm and laughs at everything, in perfect horizontal reassurance. God knows I’ve had enough of unwelcome horizontal reassurances.

This is all just language, but it helps to name one’s experience in conveyable ways. For example, “mansplaining” (Rebecca Solnit). For example, the messages on every cardboard and construction paper and taped, glittered, last-minute sign I walked beneath at the Womxn’s March in The Dalles.

For example, that which I call this very precious moment of my disapproval made public, my whole entirely nameless body that says, you don’t have to be loud or distant to be upset. You can be close and intentional and full of care, bone and organ and muscle. With ease, you can pair grumpiness with intimacy.

The lack of speed which informs my grumpiness makes time and space for slower thinking, for long moments of intentional silence. For contemplating the understanding that my grumpiness demands and which, in turn, it may need to afford. To be grumpy is perhaps to be in a hurry about nothing other than the initial moment of grumpiness itself, to rip an aesthetic hole in the fabric of the polite day and refuse the social shapes collecting dust before you.

Sometimes, being grumpy is the best way I know of to be my most authentic self, in a room full of people doing things differently, maybe loudly, sometimes aggressively. Grumpy is for people who don’t want to be aggressive but still want space to be mad, people who, first of all, want space.

It’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to be engaged and okay and not okay and grumpy all at once, all those feelings that, when resisted or ignored or feared, turn the color of apathy.

An ideal morning would perhaps include coffee on the front porch, a book I am exactly in the middle of, long stretches of silence, and a grumpiness that sets its own remembering pace, chirping and squabbling along with the day.

 

At work recently, I felt so grumpy as I found myself in a room full of educated adults, snack food, and good intentions, most of us sitting in rows near the back while one or two of us stood in the front, natural leaders. Extroverts and people with authority like to ask questions with very specific answers tied to them, and sometimes when you don’t give the answer they’re looking for they proceed to help you get there. Help as in prod.

Dear extroverts, talkers, teachers, if you have the answer you’re looking for already, it’s time for a new question. If you think there’s no space for productive negativity, for healthy anger, for grumpiness in lieu of perpetual grace, then there’s no hope left for you. The irony of words is that they sometimes suggest contradictions that apply mostly to the form itself, that they can practically invent their own falsely stable definitions. In order to name my grumpiness, I will name, too, all its siblings: concern, self-doubt, resistance, imagination, embarrassment. Grumpiness is the most natural, most organic extension of my care, content directing its own form: precious, adoring rage, it’s face turned toward the day.