(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.