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.

How I Got From My Not-baby to Everyone Else

1.

My desire to have a baby and to not have a baby are what make me feel sorry for Donald Trump.

Babies do the best they can because first, more than any other fact of their identity, all they care about is survival. They learn to survive and then, much later, they learn to care, in broader as well as more specified directions. They’re trying. Little essays written in flesh.

Donald Trump the baby survived and for that I am grateful. No, that’s not true. But in some fleeting and fraught moments I can achieve at least a passive, observational stance on Donald Trump the baby’s survival.

When my period comes, I tell myself to appreciate this pain: that my body, already emotionally and mentally tripled and quadrupled, will not double. But I almost always immediately forget my gratitude, curled up like a newborn, the Hollywood version of a little baby body on its happy side, anxious to come out and greet the world. Me on the bed, perfectly sideways as if on cue. Anxious for nothing, curled into myself and trying to forget about my pain by thinking about Donald Trump—rage creates context—and then trying to forget about Donald Trump and succeeding only by the thin membrane of my hallucinations of Donald Trump the baby.

He must’ve been a baby, at least once.

His problem is singular and so is mine.

 

2.

At the coffee shop, I sit on my phone to avoid feeling stupid and lonely. There are women talking around a long table adjacent to my own. Their hair sits on their shoulders. Their words, however various, repeat—these I can’t remember. I made a note on a piece of scratch paper, thinking I’d be able to trace the condensed record back to the entire moment, as if empathy were not spontaneous but conjurable, always designed. “Oh motherhood.” “Oh fixable body.” Not that but something like it, words they said to themselves and each other, words that make joy feel tangible. But the moment is gone, and the empathy with it.

What was I thinking? Sometimes it’s a genuine question, not criticism but memory. Trying to locate a previous intensity of feeling, pulled in some direction by a body that didn’t ask for much. Why would I say that? Bodies aren’t born out of their own desire, and there’s something about this fact that I forgot to write down, sitting on my phone, listening to the women around me, an observing island.

What does intimacy look like? This one’s more loaded.

I just mean it’s hard to be a person. What is our responsibility toward each other in this regard? Our production and our repetition, our differences in tone and desire and scope.

 

3.

Why do we pretend that the opposite of not having a baby is having a baby?

 

Some days, I feel different and new at every stroke of the hour.

 

4.

I do not have a baby because of a sense of responsibility.

I do not have a baby because of a sense of social and personal and generational insanity.

I do not have a baby because of a lot of hungry sad people, even those held in my aloof imagination.

I do not have a baby because of privilege that isn’t acknowledged.

I do not have a baby because of privilege even now, safe uterus.

I wish my uterus was at least made of paper money.

I wish my uterus had a better exchange rate.

 

I wish I could exchange my uterus for a baby and then back again.

 

5.

I thought if I wrote down the original sentence, even just one note, one correct use of overheard punctuation, I could retrace my thoughts back to their empathetic creation. But even now, I can’t get away from the word, “retract.” I have always assumed, as a smart and capable person, that I could follow my way back to something so long as I wanted to. It feels so far away from me now, that initial moment when my stomach started filling up with not-baby ideals, when I saw the outline of my belly pointed at everyone other than the duplication of me.

I guess my not-baby has something to do with expanses.

And I guess my not-baby has something to do with agriculture.

And I guess my not-baby is itself a fertile landscape, so long as I remember the sadness of my own mother, and remember how angry I can sometimes be, and remember my small unwanted body turned bigger, and remember my mother’s sadness throughout the whole act of turning; only to remember, in a culmination of memories, that people are probably a lot alike.

 

6.

Why can’t I carry these words with me everywhere I go, put them to better use, bear them, as leverage, for hoisting up a better public space? Or hold them in the frame through which I encounter every person, so that I may find myself wondering about the circumstances of their own cells and making. I could even baby them—the words, the person—I could help them be more or less like me.

 

7.

I cannot trace my original sentence back to its initial point of empathy, can’t remember why I trusted that I would, but I know I once believed it possible. Is motherhood its own stark line? Or blind faith? Would I be different? I scatter notes all over my house: in purses, on nightstands, under rocks on dirty counters. I never remember what was meant by the short words and phrases, can never retrace that initial moment of desire. And yet I made it: here are the words, haunting me. With their need and their confidence. With their longing to record something new: how words hold possibilities that can be sown into scratch paper, marinating until ready for the world. I return to the seed and find miracles or junk. Mostly junk.

 

8.

Had I been feeling empathy for mothers? For my own? For the irresponsible choices women do and don’t make? Women, who first began as bodies, out of control, born into or at least from a desire not of their own making.

I can hardly believe that bodies come from each other, one after another; that there was a time where I may have been fastened to another person’s body, outside their head.

I used to tell my mother where my body went, where it came from, all the various places a hand might linger or escape.

Did my mother ask to be born? Did she confuse my own tiny growing limbs with something medicinal? Was my mother born a mother?

Made and unmade—my mother had no preferences between singular and doubling. Here I am perpetuating a familial lack of control, just by existing.

 

9.

That feeling at the edge of your ribcage, in the center of your stomach—pure, tumbling weight. I used to tell my mother about every single feeling that passed through me, and I thought myself a good daughter through confession and revelation, through clean words and limited intrusions. Through small defined bubbles that I could see wholly and define entirely at any given moment, the clear translucent space of girl desire. Some of my feelings revolved around intimacy. I defined my feelings against each other, sure of their potential for excess. I was the clear translucent space of a girlbody, parroting the outside world.

Sometimes survival means defining yourself against the very stuff you came from.

People used to tell us, over and over again, how much we looked alike, and this was understood as a compliment for my mother. How we must be sisters, born not of each other but from the same source. Words make the difference sound smaller than it felt.

I carried the feelings and the words until I couldn’t, until they’d grown large enough to exist outside the privacy of my womb. I mean brain. The writer’s dilemma—where do our babies come from?

 

10.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but of what?

 

11.

There are so many people alive that I take them all for granted, invisibility born of too-much-ness. There are so many songs on Spotify that I never know how to handle myself.

I repeat the same things because I know the comfort of familiarity. Isn’t there some semblance of danger in imagining that my not-baby would become a baby and would be, through the act of my own body discharging itself forward into my arms, my arms in which I tell myself only good things will end up, that my not-baby turned baby would be, somehow, a familiar thing?

And what of treating an unfamiliar thing as something you already know?

And what of treating a familiar thing with unfamiliarity? (most people, certain kinds)

And what of the moment when one’s familiar grasp is challenged and you give up?

What is the relationship between giving up and baby <—-> not-baby?

 

12.

I worry about my not-baby because of my own instability as a person, my fluid desires, my complicated feelings, my highs and middles and lows. I worry about my not-baby because I secretly mean that I’m worried about myself. What if my not-baby became a baby during a high and then was followed by a middle? What if my not-baby became a baby and I became low?

I care so much about my not-baby, openly and otherwise. Just imagine this care turned real (all care). I strum my not-baby like an air guitar melting into a song that goes, baby, oh baby. Just imagine if the song made real sound. These are the questions I never let myself ask outright, my body slowly beginning to wonder why it has never been beach-ready, baby-ready.

When I imagine following the desire to have a baby—already such a fleeting and limp thing in me, only in parts of me, close to my skin but never quite landing on it—my imagination floods with all the real bodies I see and turn away from and drive past angrily and order food from resentfully and sympathetically and in turns: miserable, then ok, then miserable, then ok. Me, or you? From where are such lines habitually drawn? How long ago were you just a baby, too?

 

13.

And why shouldn’t I till the landscape of my own dirt in order to reproduce something more contained, something less damaging? If I plant my not-baby in the ground of me, if I refuse to be afraid of letting things g/r/o/w in me.

And the swelling of my heart as it imagines life, even the life of my not-baby, how my heart bubbles out it swells it gets big and bumpy, why aren’t more strangers asking if they can hold her?

If I can remember that people sometimes want to have babies, I can remember, too, that those people exist in the first place.

For years, neither my mother nor I could turn toward each other with any kind of consistency, with any sense of a shared perimeter. And though my focus and my patience toward my not-baby is more resolved and more consistent, my not-baby, in some sense, barely exists.

 

14.

I am naked in front of my mother every time I am in front of my mother, do you know what I mean?

 

15.

It’s hard to have a baby though I admit I have never tried.

My not-baby gets to listen to all the music that I love, and learn all my idiosyncrasies, and see my face the way I hold it, and curl her body in the tunnel of my own turn.

My not-baby pretends to be everyone else and I, on my best days, take such good care of her. Not even a train could replicate our spilling.

 

A Rectangle is Always a Photo But a Camera is Not Always a Poem

The camera conjures as much as it contains, photography being an always-pointing medium. In this way, cameras and words are actually quite similar.

I’m only two sentences in and I’ve already messed up, conflating tool with outcome. A camera makes photos but they remain two separate things, machine and picture. Words, on the other hand, make more words, vehicle and product all wrapped up in the same gesture. Words are not pens, pieces of paper, typewriters, laptops. How to compare words to cameras with any hope for sense by the end of this? You don’t even really need any of those objects to make a poem. I can make a poem in my head and you simply have to trust me that it’s there. In this way, poems are like relationships: easily built of things you may never have access to.

Poems do not rely on tools, machines. “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” said William Carlos Williams, in the 40s. I am only one person in a long history of people conflating tool with outcome for the sake of the writing. Just give me a rock and a stone and I’ll show you a poem. A rock and a heart and a thinking mind, full of memory. A rock and a hard place. Poems are everywhere! I can make one out of anything—this shampoo bottle, this sleeping cat—and so, too, with the photograph. I could photograph anything I might possibly hope to contain. And there it exists: contained! Frame, sprocket hole, negative. Or else I put it in the poem, let it seed.

Playground

Do poems have sprocket holes? What’s the relationship between film negative and white space? And what of duplication, cropping, or auto enhance?

With words in my hands, I make more words. They self-reproduce—parthenogenesis, if you want to be technical about it. On the heels of these other words I produce more and newer ones, turning one thought into many, contradicting my meaning as if the act itself is how I pump oxygen directly into my brain. My body functions through contradiction, through conjuring and containment. I take a picture of myself and then I age beyond it. “Every picture is of you when you were younger” (Mitch Hedberg). I conjure my self in the poem. I contain my thoughts in words and the white space in between. I look at my negatives and translate them, miraculously, into positives.

The linear progression of time is an inherent factor. But on the page, I sometimes feel the true feeling of being young forever, that I am writing directly into the future from a body that remains, as if language were a vehicle that could opt out of time directly, could simply just go in another direction. Words can always go in another direction!

Drive Thru Open.jpg

Once, I had a film camera with a built-in fisheye lens. This camera took all manner of pictures: the sun peeking out from behind a fire hydrant, double exposures of street signs and random fences, poorly lit indoor shots of my cats. I would soon expand to include other film cameras, cross-processing, self-development, scanning at home, exploring things like texture and expired film. But the Fisheye was where it started, taking precious selfies before the word was a category, blurry shots of someone’s leg, a car driving by a little too slowly for a slow shutter. Always get closer to the object, or whatever they say. So I, the subject, would try, regardless of circumstance.

I used my Fisheye camera to make photos, sometimes with a lot of intention, sometimes without. I would line up the lens directly in front of a brick wall, click the shutter, flip a manual switch and take another photo, creating the illusion that flowers could grow not just before the wall but inside its top layer. With this camera I became a surgeon. Aren’t all artists trying to infiltrate our organs, working from the inside out, disrupting the safety of forms?

Then again, form gives you something to bounce off of, containers sometimes providing a method for setting aside dedicated space in which to invent. In a truly free, formless space, it would be very difficult to get close to anything. You would just float, pained and unsure of yourself, unsure of where you’re going or why.

With that Fisheye camera I became a doctor. Sometimes, I was so overwhelmed with my power to create that I did not even think twice—click, click—just walked around my town, my neighborhood, my place of employment—click, click—as if I couldn’t be bothered with details, lighting, angles, outcomes. I was in love with the process. I was in love as if I’d made a baby. Every word that came out of her mouth, every new shaking of her chubby little baby arms, every diaper change was enough to blow my heart wide open: this didn’t exist, and now it does. I built albums and albums of photos, including the bad ones, made scrapbooks, the occasional larger print. It was the act of making that I couldn’t get enough of, the dynamic relationship between tool and product, this little machine nestled in my hearthands. Creation transforming into nourishment. In parental terms it was a total disaster, me wanting and needing my babe so much more than it could ever need me. But when your baby is art, it’s okay to not be careful.

Kids portrait (Fisheye).jpg

The surgeries grew more and more laborious, and I soon switched tools. I took less photos and I wrote and wrote and wrote instead, filling up my time with my language, forcing the two to meet in the middle. Aren’t all poets folding language into time, creating the sense that you’ve aged, that you’ve transported, that you’ve grown shorter or taller in the space of a few lines, a space in which it is difficult to take change for granted? Poems, too, can shift organs, can induce electric shock, can resuscitate the sick, unwell, starving body that reads them.

For a long time, I made my poems in the same vigorous way that I made my photos. Have I stopped? Have I grown satiated, tired, burned out? Have I found new ways to perpetuate abandonment? Conjured and then contained so much of me that I no longer recognize myself beyond the page, no longer have anything to write about, no life to translate into words and empty spaces. Am I living all the white space already, the occasional Oh and metaphor shaping my small life, getting smaller? And what about my own organs? Do I need medical help?

Like teeth (2008)

Fisheye

Fisheye - Portland

It is hard, in case you haven’t noticed, for me to think about my relationship to tools and making without also thinking about my relationship to myself. I’m talking about an attention that is pre-selfcare industry, just a girl and her body, not getting along. Wishing each other were different, trying so hard to synchronize tool with result. Trying to conjure the most photogenic parts. To contain, to write past, all the overdeveloped stuff.

Fisheye double (2008).jpg

The space between taking a photo and developing the film, seeing the result—there is this period of time in which you are forced to not know. You are allowed to not know. What relief! Like the space right after the interview, the submission, the attempt: that momentary feeling of having nothing to do because you’ve already done it. A contentedness born despite, or is it precisely through, unknowing.

I will tell you a secret: this is the same content found in writing. No matter how the words grow and double on the page before you, the poet learns to be comfortable with the act of seeing words and still not knowing. Writing is itself a gesture of reaching, whether in panic or to pass the time, to make sense of things but never so much that you bypass all waiting, all development. There is always more, and you have to continue writing regardless. You have to get used to not knowing ahead of time, as they say, even when “ahead of time” really just means you’re in the muck of writing writing writing, when ahead is entirely in the middle and the only way out is through.

It does not always come out correctly from the start. You don’t always get the shot on the first click. You wouldn’t blame the camera—so, too, you must bring a spirit of generosity to language, acknowledging the downside of such expansiveness, its ability to contain nonsense without shame.

I could just as easily be suspicious of words instead of pouring all this time into defending them. Often enough I’ve held a light up to their shiny scared faces, wondering where they’ve really been; wanting desperately, as if I could solve the heartache of the world, to just get to the bottom of their intentions.

I began taking less photos not through some active decision or profound refusal. I just became less interested in that kind of building. Through words, one directly discovers, in a way that simultaneously suggests invention. Was it there or did I make it? I began to search for some greater form of equity through the bypassing of visual consumption. I had become exhausted by visual consumption, having grown so accustomed to certain public discourses, to common descriptions of my own female trajectories, visual-based value, misogyny seeping out of all the cracks and corners, in fact I still sometimes struggle to recognize myself at all. This is an image of me when I was younger, except I’m still there now, waving at the camera, hoping my eyes aren’t closed when I swore I had them open. This is me on the page, happily confusing my body with something else. Say it enough and the thing becomes true, or at least becomes history.

Like MM.jpg

In the kitchen the other night, I peeled and roasted beet after beet, in the mess of it and without a proper vegetable peeler, only to come away slightly deflated when I saw the purple-red wash off my hands instantly and entirely. I wanted to come away stained. I’d already started imagining how money would look being passed from my hands, though first I’d have to get some. This is what I’m talking about: I am exhausted! By looking and by paying for things. Some days I just want to write a poem, the body within it, gendered or not, seen but mostly through metaphor. Metaphor is a lovely way to give your eyes a much-needed rest. Metaphor is like a hammock. It represents so much more than what it is, just string and netting and some available trees. Some days I want to close my eyes and write until my hands hurt. Some days I want to push the lens directly onto the paper, trace its perfect roundness with a pen, spend the afternoon looking at the world one page at a time while the trees hold me up. It is the thinnest of filters, poetry. It is a good method for getting close.

Playing

Shortcake

Boots 3