The cathedral of Notre Dame burned yesterday, which was also the day that I learned that Gene Wolfe had died. Juliette and I talked about both in the evening, and she asked me if I felt sad. I said that "sad" wasn't quite the right word for what I felt—both felt profound and tragic, both felt like losses. But I wasn't sad, exactly. Perhaps it all felt too big to be contained in an emotion as simple as sadness.
In Wolfe's most famous series, The Book of the New Sun, we see an Earth millions of years in the future, an Earth in which most of the details have evolved to the point of being almost unrecognizable. But it's that almost that gets me. In these books you see deserts where the glittering sand is made of the eroded glass from the windows of a long-dead city, you see continents having shifted, coastlines changed. Even the sun has started to fade. But a close reader can see the echoes of our own time in Wolfe's distant future, and in any case the basic forms of human connection remain.
Still, reading those books, I can't help but think about what remains and what doesn't. How permanence is ultimately an illusion. Or maybe even a lie. Yesterday I saw someone tweet something to the effect that watching something ancient and beautiful burn felt like an encapsulation of our time. Yesterday I watched the cathedral spire fall. I watched and watched again, like so many people did. Construction on the cathedral began in 1160, and wasn't finished for a hundred years. I imagine what it must have felt like to start building something, knowing that you'd never live to see its completion. What it means to have faith that the work would be taken up by someone else. Though, I suppose in some way I do know something of that faith, because what else sustains anyone who works toward social justice? People have been working on that project for longer than a century already, and I still don't expect to see it achieved. But what a cathedral that would be.
It feels like right now, all of our cathedrals are burning, that we are all watching helplessly while our edifices burn. If we didn't set the fires ourselves. And I'm thinking about how hopeless it so often feels, how powerless I feel to stop anything. But also how fires, unopposed, spread. It feels too pat to end an email like this with a call to arms. It feels perhaps even disrespectful. But I guess what I'm thinking is that everything ends, that I and you will end, but that we still spend our lives building anyway. In my worse moments, this seems futile; in my best, it's beautiful. I don't know exactly where I am today, but I'm thinking about what the world has lost, about the impossibility of replacing anyone or anything once it's gone, about the need to keep moving into an unknown future.
Scattered, Vol. 3 — Post-AWP Edition
Last week I spent four days in Portland, Oregon, at the annual AWP Conference. If you don't know what AWP is, it's the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and the conference is the largest writers conference in the US. This was my first time attending and I'm still sort of mulling the experience over, two days after arriving home.
At the "Literary Podcasting: The Good, the Bad, and the Books" panel, David Naimon talked about how he prepares for an interview, and how when he's reading with the expectation that he will be talking with the author, he's never completely "immersed in the fictive spell," but rather always keeps an eye toward how the book is constructed. Even after having had more than 30 conversations with writers on my own show, I still find that I tend to get drawn fully into many books. It's with photographs and podcasts that I'm able to maintain that critical distance, and I wonder what that says about me.
I got to see Danez Smith, Franny Choi, and Rachel Zucker—three of my favorite podcasters—in conversation for the "Art of the Interview" panel. I think the thing that most stayed with me was during the conversation about the use of silence in an interview. Rachel Zucker talked about the cadences of a person's voice, how every pause is part of that person's personal rhythm, how editing those silences out is like changing the meter of a poem. I've always attempted to strike a balance between maintaining the integrity of my guests' voices and making sure that my listeners get clean audio, but this is something I have to think about more.
José Olivarez was one of the co-hosts of the podcast The Poetry Gods, an old favorite of mine that was influential in how I conceived of my own show. I got to hear him speak at the "Digital Denzines: Five Approaches to Poetry Podcasts" panel, where he talked about starting his show because there weren't any shows beforehand that sounded like the conversations he was having about poetry with his friends. I think that's something a lot of artists do: make the thing they want to see in the world. Activists do it, too. And I'm wondering what the things are that I want to see that nobody has made yet.
Between Twitter and my podcast, I've gotten to know and even become friends with a lot of writers and editors. But for the most part I hadn't met any of them in person. I finally got the opportunity to meet many of them at the conference last week, which was lovely but also had an amusing rhythm to it. In almost every case, when I first introduced myself—saying "Hi, I'm Mike,"—there would be this moment of hesitation or confusion. But then as soon as they saw the last name on my badge, their whole demeanor would change and their faces would break into a big smile.
I was thinking, later, that it might be a good idea to change my profile pic to something less obscure but, on the other hand, then I might not get to see that moment of recognition.
I'm not really used to the experience of people being happy or excited to meet me. I find, so far, that it's quite pleasant but also induces in me an anxiety about not living up to expectations.
Something that became somewhat clear to me at this conference is that the literary community has a certain stratification to it. Critically acclaimed or bestselling writers and important editors and publishing people seem to have a completely different experience of conferences from people who might be published but are more obscure. They, in turn, have a different experience from emerging writers.
For me, this produced rather a lot of discomfort, but not because of the differences themselves. In my experience, most writers are not prima donnas and are just as interested in having normal human interactions as anyone else. But the demands on literary stars are just different—I could sit in an audience or have a conversation with a friend without drawing a crowd, but that's not true when tens or hundreds of thousands of people have read and loved your books. I think it's actually both reasonable and necessary for people at that level to have healthy boundaries.
Rather, my discomfort is mainly a product of not knowing where I fit in. As a writer I'm about as emerging as you can get—I only have one real published piece so far, and next to no one knows who I am. As a podcaster I've had intimate and length conversations with a number of writers I admire, but my show is small enough that I'm not well-known there either. I have friends with whom I've talked extensively online, but it's not the sort of friendship where anyone is asking me to help them move or babysit their kids. So when I meet someone and they say they'd like to hang out, I believe them, but I just don't know how to follow up on it. I don't feel comfortable imposing, and when your time is already spoken for then it is an imposition for someone to ask for any of it, even with good intentions.
Time, time, it's always a matter of time. I got to meet so many people, and I'm legitimately grateful for that opportunity. But I got to actually spend time with very few. What time I did get to hang out and actually talk with people felt like a gift, but I also spent most of the conference on my own. Perhaps that might have been different if I hadn't gotten sick, or if I'd had my own events or panels to keep me occupied. I'm not sure. But it's on my mind as I consider how to approach the conference in the future.
If you were at AWP this year, I hope that you enjoyed yourself. I'd love to hear about it, either way.
Art vs. Revolution
Last week I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast Commonplace, featuring a conversation between host Rachel Zucker and poet and activist Juliana Spahr (if you don’t already listen to Commonplace, I highly recommend it). I always find Zucker’s conversations interesting and enlightening, but this one has stuck with me a bit more than usual because a large part of the conversation had to do with something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about for the past two years: the limitations of art as a means of protest or activism.
Almost exactly two years ago, just before the inauguration, I found myself distraught, feeling helpless and looking around for anything to do. I’d always had strong opinions about, well, everything, but I’d never been motivated to do more than just talk about the ills of the world. Talk and, I suppose, vote every other year. But suddenly I was faced with the reality of a Trump presidency and all I could think was that my life of complacency had in some way contributed to the horror we were now in. That just talking or writing or making photographs about injustice wasn’t enough. I ended up joining a grassroots organization and becoming something I never thought I’d be, something I’d even explicitly disdained in my youth: an activist.
Two years in, I’m still an activist. I’m also still an artist. (I’m also tired, all the time.) Often times I feel a tension between these two roles—any time spent on one is time not spent on the other, and I nearly always feel that loss. I want to do both, and more besides, but it’s just not physically possible. And so I wonder, over and over again, what can my contribution be? What ought it be? What must it be?
In an interview in 2003, Kurt Vonnegut talked about this very question. His response—delivered with all the sardonic wit that we expect from Vonnegut—has since become famous: “When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.”
Is he right about that? Well, yes and no—at least, that’s my opinion. If I’ve learned anything in the past two years it is that there is no substitute for actual organizing. Less than an hour before I sat down to write this, the Senate passed a bill to re-open the government after the President finally backed down. The only reason that this happened is because of two years of consistent progressive activism, two years of marches and phone banks and visits to Congressional offices and voter registration and community outreach and knocking doors and getting out the vote. It happened because people got up and made it happen, flipping the House of Representatives and holding their elected officials accountable and never letting up the pressure. And there is simply no way that art, alone, could have accomplished that.
But it’s also not true that art has no place or function in activism. To paraphrase something that I once heard activist Mariame Kaba say, if politics is about achieving what’s possible, then activism is about changing the limits of what’s possible. Or, if you prefer, “rebellions are built on hope.” Art and literature are engines for building empathy, giving us opportunities to understand and feel an emotional connection to people whose life experiences are different from our own. It’s that connection that allows us to expand the boundaries of what we imagine for the world. It’s that understanding that tells us what to fight for and why.
This is why I reject the notion that we have to make a choice between art and revolution. We need both. We need art and literature and creativity to teach us, to stoke our passion, and to keep us going when we get discouraged. But once we’re motivated, we have to follow it up with action to actually achieve the changes we want to see in the world.
Now, some people are going to have the time and resources and ability to do more than one thing, and to the extent that you’re able to be both an artist and an activist, that’s great. But it’s also important to recognize that movements are bigger than any one person, that no one should or even can do everything themselves, that we all have a role to play. Not everyone can grab a bullhorn and lead a rally. Not everyone can write a poem that makes the reader understand our shared humanity. None of us should be complacent, but all of us have specific strengths and skills we can offer. I believe we can change the world, each of us, and all of us together.
Word for 2019
Last January I chose the word Grace as my word for the year. I had spent much of the previous year pushing myself to do more, more, more—the world was in crisis and I had worn myself out trying to fight, to resist, to endure. I knew that what I had been doing was not sustainable, that I wasn't built for rage or conflict, that I needed more flex and more give in my life and my approach and my interactions with other people. I needed to find more acceptance, of the world and of others and of myself.
I returned to that word, Grace, over and over again throughout the year. And really, as a guiding principle it was a successful one. I think that I spent more of my time being present and aware, being kind and generous—really, being the kind of person that I want to be. Keeping that word close to me is something that I want to continue doing for the rest of my life.
Still, in thinking about where I was at the beginning of 2018, I can't help but wonder how much of my choice to orient myself toward acceptance and even a certain passivity was driven by fear. By the fear that no matter how hard I struggled, it would not be enough to effect the change that I felt I needed. That perhaps obscurity, invisibility, was what I'd end up with, and indeed what I deserved.
This past fall at a photography festival, I was talking with a friend after we'd both finished having our portfolios reviewed. She asked me how I thought they went, and I said something like "Oh, they went well, but then they usually go well. People were very complimentary about the work, but nothing's going to happen with it. And that's OK. Maybe I don't even want anything to happen with it." It's not the first time I've said something like that. For a lot of my life, I've struggled with a fear of success. The thing is, I know just how lucky I've been, how much of what we think of traditionally as "success" is mostly a matter of having an advantage that you didn't earn. Growing up, neither I nor most of my friends had a lot, and the fact that I now live a fairly comfortable life has at times struck me as something shameful, not because I haven't worked hard but because I know how little hard work matters without opportunity. My wife calls it survivor's guilt, and perhaps she's not far off there.
Looking back at where I was a year ago, I think about how much time I've spent trying to convince myself to want less. I might dress it up in language to make it seem profound—noting, for example, that Buddhism teaches that desire is the root of suffering. Or I might chalk it up to something culture, perhaps the Japanese idea of the tall nail being hammered down. But if I'm being honest, it has a lot more to do with that shame than with anything else.
Looking forward to 2019, I'm realizing that I have desires and ambitions, and that I want to engage with them instead of trying to ignore or disavow them. It is and always will be important to me to be of service to others, to maintain a sense of humility and gratitude and grace. And I never want my success to come at anyone else's expense, nor to make anyone else smaller by my taking up more space in the room. But in my best moments I believe that it's possible for me to help make the room bigger so that all of us can breathe more easily, that if I had a bigger platform I could use it to do more for other people than what I'm able to do now, and that as long as I know what my values are and remember to live by them, there's nothing that need be shameful about success. The word I'm choosing for 2019 is a reminder of all of that.
My word for 2019 is Growth.
In Other Lands (But Mostly My Own Insecurity)
(Just a quick note: there will be some spoilers for Sarah Rees Brennan’s novel In Other Lands in this post.)
I finished reading Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands last night, a novel that made me just radiantly happy. That was not, however, the reaction I expected when I started the book.
About twenty pages in, I took to Twitter to ask the two friends who’d recommended the book to me whether the protagonist would get less obnoxious, or whether I’d be stuck for the entire story reading about a character I hated. Said character, Elliot, is a snide, condescending teen boy, instantly and needlessly cruel to those around him, constantly pitying himself while simultaneously telling himself (and others) how much better he is than everyone else. Both of them told me that his arc would wind up being satisfying, so I stuck with it. I was skeptical, though, because I was fairly certain by that point that I already knew what his arc would be—Elliot would be shown to harbor a deep pain, his abrasive behavior would turn out to be a defense mechanism, and he would ultimately be redeemed, learning to become vulnerable and to be a good friend. And that is, indeed, more or less what happens.
Thinking about that character arc made me viscerally uncomfortable there at the beginning of the story. I wanted to put it down and go read something else. The thing is, we've had so many stories about the inner struggle and ultimate redemption of misunderstood young men. Misunderstood men of all ages, really. And this is both a consequence and a reinforcement of how privilege and power work. Through the choices of which stories we tell and which perspectives we tell them from, we are given every opportunity to empathize with and understand characters who represent the mainstream, the privileged, the default. The people who most need more empathy, those who are kept at the margins of our society, are the people whose stories are less often told, and certainly not in their own voices.
Do we really need another story about a shitty boy? I asked myself. Yes, he has his pain, but so does everyone, and not everyone chooses to deal with their pain by inflicting it on those around them. I didn't want to empathize with this kid. I just wanted to read about somebody else.
I'm glad I didn't, though. In Other Lands turned out to be a sweet and tender story, one that surprised me in how maturely it presented sexuality and boundaries and consent and violence, all while being fun and funny, too. The day before I started reading In Other Lands I tweeted “I want to read something happy. Or beautiful in a way that isn't painful. Or at least in a way in which the pain is not enraging or despairing.” And it was that. And I was happy reading it.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, it occurred to me to look at my initial reaction more closely. Not because the reasons for my discomfort were invalid, but I wondered if they were incomplete. I wondered if it might have to do not only with my desire for justice in the world and in art, but also for my unwillingness to let my younger self off the hook. At the beginning of the book, Elliot is thirteen years old. At thirteen, he is wounded and sad, and he hurts the people around him in order not to let them hurt him. He treats everyone like they're stupid, all the while also telling himself that he is fundamentally unlovable. It's not too far off from how I was at thirteen.
Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is my relationship to success and ambition. Over the past couple of years of therapy, I've come to realize that being of service is one of the most important things to me, that I want to be able to help others. And in the past month or so I've had the thought that if I had a bigger platform, I'd be able to do more for more people. But this is a thought that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
It's not that I think that in a fair world, no straight, cisgender, able-bodied men would be successful or powerful. It's just that in the real world, such men have had such a disproportionately large share of success and power that any time a man says “Yes, but I'm different,” I become skeptical. And that includes myself. The privileged classes take up so much room in the world, and maybe the best or even the only way to make more space for marginalized people is for those who have privilege to choose to step aside.
I think this is all valid reasoning. Yet, here again, I have to pause and wonder how much of my feelings are driven by a positive desire for justice and how much is just sublimated self-loathing. I think it's important and necessary to be willing to look at oneself honestly and critically. But it's also worth considering that beating yourself up can also be a form of narcissism.
Here's where I'm trying to get toward: that I can make room for others and lift them up and be helpful and useful, and I can do that while also pursuing my own successes. That I can recognize and atone for past mistakes without letting those mistakes define who I am and who I will be. That it's good for me to remember I don't deserve more than anyone else, but that's not the same as saying that I deserve less. That everyone can have their needs met, including me. I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it.
Last week I was talking to a coworker about the books the two of us had read so far this year. He had mostly been reading historical nonfiction and contemporary political biographies. I admitted that nonfiction has, for the most part, been too much for me lately. This isn't entirely true—I've actually read quite a bit more nonfiction this year than I usually do, much of it relevant in one way or another to the times we're living through right now. But for the most part, what I've found myself longing for is fiction, which I suspect is motivated in large part by a desire for escape.
It's interesting, because even the fiction I've been reading this year has often touched on the very same social and political issues that I spend so much of my time on, and which I am ostensibly trying to get away from during my down time. Somehow, though, presenting the same ideas in fiction makes them feel less stressful, or perhaps less threatening. The fact that it's something that might happen instead of something that did happen provides enough of a remove that I'm able to interface with them more easily. I'm not quite sure what to make of that, really.
The last book I read—which I finished this past Wednesday—was the fifth and final chapter of an epic fantasy series that I started reading eight years ago, when it was recommended to me by the same coworker I mentioned above. Since then, I've learned a lot about representation and literary tropes, which is to say that I noticed things about this story that were most likely problematic in one way or another, which I wouldn't have noticed before. I couldn't enjoy it in an uncomplicated way anymore, which on balance I think is a good thing—I'd rather be more aware than less. Even so, there was something seductive about the experience, something that brought me back to my youth in a way that I found familiar and comfortable, which makes me think there's something worth interrogating there.
I read a lot as a kid, and the overwhelming majority of my reading was science fiction and fantasy, and really a lot more fantasy than science fiction. Books like The Lord of the Rings and Michael Ende's The Neverending Story are probably two of the most foundational texts of my life. There are a lot of reasons I've come back to those stories over and over again throughout my life, but something I've been thinking about for the past few days is how fantasy, especially epic fantasy, is a genre in which stories are built around a certain fundamental conservatism.
Epic fantasy is, for the most part, a genre about war. The stories are usually set in a world that is some mythical analogue of a real historical period—often, but not always, European. There's usually some sort of a hero's journey, and the central conflict usually pits a few heroic individuals against some ancient evil in order to decide the fate of the world. There are exceptions to all of these, of course, even in just the examples I named before—in The Neverending Story the "villain" of the first half is more or less human disillusionment, and in the second half it's the protagonist's vanity. But genres are more defined by their centers than by their boundaries, and for the most part we recognize fantasy by its most common tropes: swords, sorcery, and a battle between good and evil.
Lately when I read epic fantasy, whether it's a contemporary novel or a classic of the genre, I find it an intensely nostalgic experience. And I think this is something that's kind of built in to the genre, perhaps in a way that wouldn't have been as potent for me when I was a child. There's something seductive about a simple story with clear, simple morals. And even though fantasy authors have for decades found interesting ways to complicate their heroes or villains or conflicts, ultimately most of these stories still come down to a fairly uncomplicated moral binary. It's comforting, being able to read a story and just go along for the ride, without thinking too deeply about whether or not we really want the heroes to win. Or whether scenarios with clear winners and losers are even something we ought to be rooting for in the first place.
I suppose the easy thing to do here would be to turn this into some sort of sermon about this kind of nostalgia and escapism being bad for us, but I'm not going to do that. We all talk all the time about self-care, and choosing to spend your leisure time reading comfortable adventure stories is as legitimate a way to unwind as most other methods we might come up with. Still, it's on my mind that tomorrow we will be deciding again how we wish to be governed, and that the rhetoric we use to talk about elections is generally one of binaries, of good and evil, of winners and losers.
I guess what I'm saying is this: we all love stories that comfort us and tell us the things we want to believe, especially the things we want to believe about ourselves. And in and of itself, there's nothing really wrong with that. But I think we have to be willing to look more deeply at our stories and ourselves if we wish to live in a real world that's just, and that works for everyone. I think we have to be willing to be uncomfortable sometimes.
In about two hours I’ll have my final portfolio review of the weekend. I can never help feeling apprehensive ahead of these things, a bit anxious. I think that’s more instinct, impulse than anything else, though—at this point I’ve shown my work enough not to take it personally when someone doesn’t like it. Some people may find a piece boring, others may find it resonant. It’s the same work; the only variable there is the viewer.
I should back up a bit, I suppose. I’m attending the Medium Festival of Photography, part of which involves a sort of art speed-dating. Eight times over the course of two days, I get twenty minutes to show my work to some curator or gallerist or publisher, introduce myself and my work and hope that it lands. It doesn’t always, of course. Reviewers are like anyone else, they have their tastes. The main difference is that a reviewer has the vocabulary to tell you why it doesn’t land. Usually.
It’s sort of a fraught relationship, really. As emotionally and physically exhausting as it is on the artist’s side of the table, the reviewers are doing a lot of work as well. And, of course, they have their own agenda. They have their own businesses and projects they need to support, so of course it will be on their minds what you can do for them. I think asking otherwise is kind of unreasonable.
Still, there are good reviewers and bad reviewers. I always appreciate when a reviewer will take the time, not just to look, but to understand at a deeper level than what’s immediately obvious. That’s actually surprisingly difficult given the format—some work just doesn’t reveal itself in twenty minutes, and if you’re trying to show more than one body of work, the difficulties only increase. Getting depth from this sort of review requires either a lot of effort or an unusually high degree of perceptiveness and ability to articulate on the part of the reviewer. But you do get that sometimes. The best thing a reviewer ever told me was in my second year reviewing. After a full day of hearing, at best, “This isn’t ready yet,” I asked him what he thought I should do differently. To which he replied, “It’s not for me to say what your work should be, or how to make it be what I would like it to be. All I can do is tell you what I see in it.”
The good ones do that. They take the time to understand what you want to do, point out where you’re doing it well, help guide you through the places where you lose your way. (We all lose our way from time to time.) Many people will prefer to tell you what they would have done, though. It’s not a particularly useful form of feedback, but it also doesn’t accomplish much to take it personally.
The thing is, the deeper a connection you make with your artistic community, the more you will find yourself in a position to dispense advice. That is, in a position where people will ask for your opinions. (Unsolicited opinions are rarely useful.) And in these situations, you kind of have to decide who you want to be. I always have an easier time offering praise for the parts I appreciate, even if I don’t particularly like the work overall. But often people want more, and so what I always try to ask is, “How can this work become more itself? More what it needs to be?” I don’t know that I’m always successful at this, but I try.
I guess it’s just on my mind, what it means to be a good artistic citizen. What it means to be a good friend. There are people who feel that not being blunt is a failure of honesty, but to me this often feels unnecessarily cruel—no less so when I’ve done it, myself. You can be honest and offer critique, and still be kind.
In any case, right now I’m in a pretty good place with my work and my creative life. I feel at peace. I hope you do, too.
Scattered, vol. 2
- There’s a period at the beginning of a story where I am, as a reader, lost. This is just how sequential narratives work—at first, I don’t have any context for the events and characters I’m experiencing, and it takes a little while to get there. Sometimes more, sometimes less, and I nearly always find it a bit unsettling, like being adrift. I haven’t wanted to admit to myself that I enjoy novels more than short stories, but I do, and I think this is part of why. I get more time before I have to feel that floating sensation again.
- Last week, a friend of mine commented on one of my Instagram photos (a high-contrast black-and-white image) that he “liked my high-con work.” It’s nice to get compliments, of course, but it’s that word “work” that caught me. I tend not to think of what I put on Instagram as my “work.” Rather, I think of it as “the screwing around I do instead of my actual work.”
- I had a similar thought about my podcast about a month ago. I spend far more of my time far more regularly recording and producing my show than any other creative endeavor I’m engaged with, but I always think of it as something I do on the side, rather than my actual work. Part of that, I think, is that I don’t know how I would feel about thinking of myself primarily as a podcaster, instead of a photographer or writer.
- I’m attending a portfolio review next week, and I’m bringing five bodies of work. (That’s too many, but that’s another conversation.) All of them began as images that I found without looking, without intending to turn them into anything. Just by letting myself follow my natural instincts and interests. With two of them, I realized that I had something after a while and then started shooting intentionally toward developing the project further. Three of them, though, are series I didn’t realize were “work” until I was done.
- Nearly every “studio” photograph I’ve ever attempted has wound up feeling forced, obvious, or just clunky. They feel like a shout, but good photographs usually whisper. At least, my good ones usually do. And those ones almost never happen when I’m trying to make them happen.
- Writing, though. Writing is always a chore. Writing always starts with an idea of where I am and where I want to get. This works alright with an essay—you can be louder in an essay than you can with a photograph without it feeling didactic. My poems never satisfy me, though, and perhaps this is why. What would it mean to write something accidentally?
- Perhaps the most difficult thing for me, as an artist and just as a person, has been to accept that the things that come easily to me have value. That validity doesn’t have to come from struggle. That play can be as profound as work. That even though it’s good for me to stretch myself and try to improve, the way I am, already, is enough.
- What would it be like if I accepted that, for the most part, my process is observation over invention, presence over planning, play over work? What would my work be like? What would my life be like? What would I be like?
From time to time, people close to me have asked me why I decided to get involved with politics, and what I've told them is that after the 2016 election I was upset and angry and depressed. I was upset with the outcome, of course, but even more than that, I was upset because I knew I hadn't done anything to prevent it from happening. I didn't want to some day be on my death bed regretting not having done something.
As I write this, it seems all but assured that a rapist is going to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, and what I keep coming back to is that idea of leaving it all on the field. The idea that you can feel comforted in defeat by the knowledge that you did everything you could. It's that "everything" that gets me, because I know that whatever I have done, I could have done more.
I've had a lot of talks with people over the past year and a half as we've worked together to try to build a movement. At times we all deal with exhaustion, burnout, depression, and what I say to them is this: you have to take care of yourself if you want to be able to stay in the fight. It's not just good to take breaks and recharge, it's necessary. What matters isn't one person's effort, but the collective effort of all of us, working together. You don't have to do everything; you just have to do something. It is, of course, a lot harder to apply that advice to myself than to others.
There were plenty of times where instead of canvassing a neighborhood or registering voters or phonebanking or helping to organize a protest, I chose to read a book or work on an art project or watch TV or something else that feels frivolous on a day like today. In the abstract, I know that never taking time for myself would be self-defeating, that self-care is as important for me as it is for anybody else. I needed some of that time for myself. What eats at me is: did I need all of it?
I'm not so arrogant as to think that one hour more or one hour less of my efforts would have made much of a difference either way, not in a struggle big enough to bind up the entire country. The question is always: what's enough for me to feel OK with myself?
It feels like I'm asking you for something, but this isn't the kind of question that anybody else can answer. No one can give you permission to stop, or absolution if you do. No one can tell you what your limits are, what you're capable of, or how much you need in order to recover. You have to decide all of these things for yourself—which is to say, I have to decide for myself.
I think that being hard on myself helps me go further, but only to a point, and being clear-eyed about where that point is is difficult. I guess that what I hope is not so much that you can tell me what to do, but rather just that sharing a burden might help lighten it a bit. And I don't know everyone who receives these letters, but I've often found that these things go both ways, that when I read about someone else's struggles, I often feel better, too.
So, thank you. And take care.
Time and Tide
This past Sunday I spent a good portion of the afternoon with my newest nephew in my arms. I and my own kids were at my sister-in-law’s house for a celebration, the little guy was understandably unwilling to have to entertain himself at his own party, and I was the only adult around who wasn’t occupied with cooking or some other preparation. I didn’t mind, of course—he’s a sweet kid who smiles easily and has adorably squishy cheeks. More than that, though, it’s been a while since any of my own children were that small, a fact I’m aware of all the time.
Of course, when my father-in-law arrived and told me “That looks good on you, maybe you should think about having another,” my response was to say “Bite. Your. Tongue!” I later told my mother-in-law, truthfully, that I had just been thinking that morning how thankful I was not to have a baby right now.
I’m going to be thirty-nine next month, which is to say that for about six months now I’ve been saying “I’m almost forty.” I love my children, sometimes so powerfully that my breath literally catches in my throat and I feel like I might die from it. But the idea of being almost forty and having a newborn, having all the same midnight feedings and burpings and changings and desperate entreaties to please, just this once, just go to sleep, just give me three hours, just two, having all of that and also my almost-forty knees and my almost-forty back, and three other kids on top of it all... Well, it’s more than either my wife or I want to deal with. We decided a long time ago that three would be it.
And yet, as thankful as I feel to see my youngest out of diapers and writing her and her siblings’ names (on every loose scrap of paper that she can get a hand on), to say, aloud “I am not having another baby” is not without a certain pang, a certain feeling of loss, of grief. Holding my little nephew, I feel the weight of that decision more than I feel the small weight of his body.
Not that this is a new sensation, though perhaps the direction is different now. Four years ago, when we told our son that he was going to have another baby sister, he cried because he knew he’d never get to have a little brother. He loves both of his sisters now; he’s a great brother. He still sighs from time to time about the brother he wished he could have known. Sometimes I sigh about that, too.
What I’ve realized, though, is that what I’m mourning now is not the loss of some hypothetical future child, nor even the passing of my own children’s infancy. What I’ve actually lost, what I’m in the process of losing, is myself—the self that has young children. The self that is young enough to have young children.
Ten years ago I was about to turn twenty-nine and already thinking of myself as “almost thirty,” and my eldest was a scant two months from being born. And I was excited, of course, and anxious about what kind of parent I’d be, whether I’d be up to the task. But I also felt the nearness of the end of that period of my life, the period in which people still called my wife and I “newlyweds” or “those kids,” the period in which, yes, I had responsibilities but no one and nothing truly depended on me for life. As much as I looked forward to what was to come, I couldn’t help but mourn the life I was leaving behind.
The obvious truth is that having more children wouldn’t keep me from getting older. I had children. I am older. What’s always been harder to see beforehand is that whatever I may have left behind in entering a new phase of life, I’ve gained at least as much more. Change happens whether you will or won’t; there's neither sense nor use in swimming against the tide. It's time. I'm ready.