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.

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

In Defense of Infiltration

[Note: a revised, slightly expanded version of this essay can be found in ASAP/J.]

 

It’s been on my mind much longer than it has lived in my mouth as an articulated idea. Usually, it takes the visceral shape of, How do I get what I’m here for? or How can my all-the-time needs be fulfilled while on-the-clock? Or, most simply, How do I make this my thing? From waiting tables to performing cheap university labor to working at small disorganized non-profits, I cannot deny the years-long existence of this tendency in me, practically from the moment I entered the workforce, to infiltrate. I’ve done it for selfish purposes (finishing a task early and sneakily writing a poem). I’ve done it in socially agreed upon capacities (no customers = no better time to get some reading done). And I’ve done it toward political, by which I mean personal, ends (if I’ve already got these teens making collage postcards, I might as well leave our Senators’ mailing addresses in an encouraging location, might as well teach them about the wage gap).

Infiltration implies resistance, that one cannot accomplish one’s needs or desires through a purely transparent or accepted method. Or else it implies a disconnect between what two different people determine as valuable. I would be hard pressed to try and convince my boss that if I can just get these last few lines written down, these last few pages read, I would be in a much better capacity to take that family’s order.

Perhaps this makes me a bad employee. Perhaps I merely have yet to find a job that will let me feel truly fulfilled, holistically present, one that won’t demand that I compartmentalize these diverse capacities so presumably at odds within me. Poet. Care worker. Has-to-pay-rent-monthly person. Add to this the fact that I swing wildly between manic motivation and a sluggishness that any grown woman should be ashamed of, and it’s no surprise that my obligations and my intentions can sometimes feel slippery and interchangeable. But the fact is that I’ve found myself, repeatedly, in situations where I’ve felt driven to infiltrate, either to accomplish what I see as most beneficial and responsible or, less glamorously, to try and remain a somewhat sane person, one whose time could be used in a manner reflective of the value of such finite resources.

This situation is nothing new or rare, my insights entirely standard ones. But this is the context that shaped my reception of “In Defense of Imagination,” a conversation recently published in Guernica between Ada Limón and Matthew Zapruder, on the occasion of the latter’s newest book of prose. It’s a sweet interaction, one that veers from poetry’s distilled powers to Dickinson’s feminist trailblazing to descriptions of classroom teaching that give Dead Poets Society a run for its money, and I found it both useful and inspiring, these two accomplished writers paying such genuine attention to all the different ways a word can hold things like acceptance, or grief. Zapruder’s new book, Why Poetry, sounds like a thoughtful, well-researched and self-reflexive read, and the excerpts popping up online prove this. Every time I write that title down, I have to backspace and delete the question mark that I automatically insert at the end, and this seems important: though Zapruder seems wholly invested in the way that questions can shape and deepen one’s love of a thing, his aim with this book is also to give readers some justification, some support, an expansive explanation: not why poetry? but here’s why poetry.

I like Limón’s distinctions between useful and necessary, and I like the way Zapruder says “neat” to show admiration. And I’m most certainly always happier to read this type of exchange, an optimistic and sweeping battle cry on behalf of the generic Poetry world, than to read the clever and pointless attacks and insults—poetry is dead!—that seem to pop up with embarrassing regularity.

I can always manage to quickly forget about those harsh, self-serving criticisms, usually after a brief period of rowdy commiseration and beer drinking. And yet it’s the optimistic defenses—Limón and Zapruder’s conversation, the love letters, the impassioned and straight up happy appraisals of the poet’s life and purpose—that sometimes keep me up at night, leave me feeling as if I’m doing something wrong, as if I must have misunderstood some key component of success somewhere along the way. As if maybe my own version of public rallying would not revolve around a wholly committed defense of Poetry and Poetics. Feelings are feelings, but where in the world does this one come from? Me, a poet, wanting to infiltrate my own love of a thing with suspicion and privacy, with the cold truth of its actual limitations and perhaps even a healthy dose of believing that, at the end of the day, poemdoing is utterly not the same thing as any other form of doing. An awareness that I stubbornly insist on voicing even when contexts are made clear: poetry is simply a space for a certain kind of thinking—“anarchic,” even, as Zapruder describes it at one point—and nobody here is trying to claim that it prevents oppression, or that it campaigns, or that it legislates.

It is an awareness of purpose—the actual vulnerable heart of these kinds of discussions, I suspect—that felt uncomfortably poked as I read through Limón and Zapruder’s conversation. Almost immediately, Limón points out the invigoration that can be felt at belonging to an occupation so regularly misunderstood or deemed pointless and therefore requiring defense; after all, she cites, nobody questions lawyers and their practice of law, or waiters and the validity or usefulness or reasoning behind why they do what they do.

I am also a poet, though I would not call it my vocation, not in the sense that it’s connected to how I pay my bills, and neither does it provide me with even a small source of bonus income. I have been paid a couple of times for things I have written that were not commissioned, things truly born of the soul or whatever else in me, the purpose of writing them having been a deeply and entirely personal one (which, to be clear, does not automatically apply to the content itself). How many people are truly making a living from their poems, not in the poetic sense but the IRL one: making enough money from appearances and publications and other writerly accoutrements that I don’t even have access to imagining, that they’re able to confuse their job with their passion? How many people can strictly give one answer to the infamous question, “so, what do you do?”

To compare the poet defending her work to the lawyer, the waitress, the librarian, or the barista is to suggest that the poet’s skills might be quantifiable to begin with, that one can simply decide to become a poet in a socially recognizable way and then proceed forward in the manner of their choosing: open a poem shop, or start publishing in exchange for immediate money, perhaps even become a celebrity poet in public. I’m moved and engaged by Limón and Zapruder’s discussion of what poetry is for, in a philosophical and, well, a poetic sense, but I’m made sad by the misleading comparison of jobs. I cannot support myself through my love of reading and writing poetry, not even through my skill (arguable as it may be). And though I live a sheltered life in a small town, one that affords/restricts me to my own situated perspective, I insist on claiming with full confidence that not many people are making rent through their poems. To imply anything otherwise seems ungrounded, or silly, or oblivious.

Perhaps when the job of the poet is discussed with so few footnotes, what is really being talked about is teaching. I get it: you love poetry, you obtain a degree in English or Creative Writing, and then you pursue professorship and Academia all the way. But now I’d like to make another confident claim: poetry is not, no matter what they tell you, the purview of higher education alone. It is a bastard child, or maybe an adopted one? Perhaps it’s just righteously immature. The point is that while I do understand the poet who aims to teach, whose goal is to pursue their Poethood as one stemming from or revolving around the classroom, I lament the lack of imagination that suggests there’s no other way to do it. It is, I suppose, a grief born of fact: there isn’t really any other clear way to be a poet, not professionally. You can write and publish and read and submit, enter contests and attend AWPs, network, do the obligatory social dances of recognition and branding, and maybe one day you will publish a book, maybe even a few. But you will probably, even then, still have a day job.

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge this comment from Zapruder, occurring about a third of the way into the conversation:

Some people have seen [prior remarks about the definition of poetry] as the mark of privilege, as if only someone who is magically free of all societal and personal pressures (oh, how I wish!) could ‘afford’ to think in such a way…I hope anyone who reads the book will see that if freedom in the imagination is a privilege, it’s one I believe everyone should have, as a basic human right.”

I love this: the acknowledgment, the advocacy, the sincerity. I’d just like to call a spade a spade, a poem a poem. Necessary and useless. Placing “Poet” amongst other occupations is like positioning this baby doll as my offspring. We’re all just playing around! That’s why we’re good at poems. We shouldn’t stop writing them, but maybe we should think twice about calling it our job?

*

What we call things matters (see: whatever Trump recently said on Twitter), as they direct our sense-making. Some people look around and say, biology, psychology, accident. Others, magic, meant-to-be, or perfection. Most of us, all of us, fly back and forth between such poles, our reason and our desire and our imagination all sharing the same bed regardless of their different or competing sleep schedules. And some people choose, in the face of harsh realities and limited abilities, in the face of explanation and fact, to leave a little space open in them for optimism and hope, for the birth of a spirit animal, for the way providence sheds a slightly different light on the object before you than does coincidence. It is, undoubtedly, the poet’s choice: you infiltrate reality with meaning. You write the poem regardless.

Here are some things I do want: more generosity stemming from deep within myself, more confidence in how and when and for whom I define my boundaries, more play, more money, more stability, more responsibility in tandem with the constantly growing amounts of more complicity; to write more poems, to read more poems, to vary when and where and for whom I write those poems; to sneak more creativity into boring jobs, to sneak more political engagement into daily activities, to sneak more vegetables into my boyfriend’s food, to sneak more gratitude and acceptance into my engagements with difference, with poets unlike me, with people who do different jobs than me or even the same jobs but to different ends. To sneak some vulnerability into every single engagement between myself and the page. To sneak the poem into the essay and vice versa.

Poetry is its own form of infiltration: it breaks into language and steals meaning, steals utility, lays bare a wealth of behind-the-scenes linguistic functioning and inserts all manner of happenstance and coincidence and prank where none existed before. Could it ever truly be an occupation when it revolves around infiltrating the means of production themselves? It is always about getting away with something, and often some form of robbery. Though most people choose a better getaway vehicle than words.

Pure infiltration. What other medium, what other linguistic shape or form of communication could allow its own angst to intrude upon its defenses, could allow or even encourage the subordinate to both betray her responsibilities and question the enterprise itself? Perhaps the real job of the poet is to write regardless of circumstance, to pretend for once in this capitalist-centric world that money might be what it actually is: beside the point. As Dickinson might say, the prose in which we are all shut up.