on listening as a political act

 

I will try to keep this short.

Friends, I am feeling the darkness. I first noticed it in the summer, the day the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling hit social media. After I got out of the shower, I stayed on my bed for hours, wrapped in a towel, scrolling endlessly on my phone, feeling paralyzed, powerless. In September, I couldn’t sleep well. I felt a vague, persistent sadness. One day I cry-chopped an entire dinner because I’d had a tiny argument with my partner over groceries. “I don’t feel like myself,” I told him later. “But I don’t know why.” Then I got canker sores and acne and a pain below my right shoulder blade that has not gone away.

I think a good name for this feeling is existential sadness.

This is certainly not the first time I’ve had the thought that goes: Oh, the world does not work the way my parents told me it did.* I get it: I recognize my privilege.

But also I don’t. I had–up until last week–the luxury of believing that despite the very real existence of hate, there were enough decent people and there was enough moral outrage that someone who embodied that hate could never win a presidential election.

And yet I was wrong.

I got this wrong because though I have witnessed hate (especially growing up in the South but also here in Vancouver in regular if more subtle ways) I have rarely been the target of that hate. I have allowed hate to be an abstraction in my life. Continue reading

Attending to the small

I’m not getting much writing done these days. Partly this is because I’m back to work and teaching can be demanding. But my classes are new—new material and new approaches and new conversations—and after a year spent sitting alone in front of a computer, I’m happy to turn my attention outward, away from myself and my preoccupations and toward a room full of young, thoughtful people. Students get a lot of flack these days but the think pieces I read about them almost never match up with my experiences in the classroom. And right now, I’m having a really good time there.

The other reason I’m struggling to write is that writing feels trivial compared to the ongoing injustices that are consuming all my attention. Writing itself isn’t trivial; it’s a necessary tool for speaking to and about those very injustices. But still, writing about love when all I can think about is systemic racism and police brutality feels disingenuous.

I’ve been thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement in particular and more broadly about who gets a voice in the world. Today I learned that two writers I really admire—Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson—were just awarded MacArthur genius grants! Rankine writes about race and Nelson writes about queer identity. Winning one of these grants means five years of generous funding to keep doing the work they do. Here is some progress, I think, some important voices being amplified. But the reality is that well-educated white writers (people like me) have a disproportionally large voice in the world.

Recently I told someone I love that I make an effort to ensure my students’ reading materials are diverse and represent of a wide range of writers.

“Well that’s fine as long as you’re still teaching good writing,” she said.

I got really defensive.

I was angry that she didn’t seem to think I could choose appropriate materials for students to read. And self-righteous about the implicit assumption that filling my course with women and queer writers and writers of color meant teaching lower quality writing. There I was taking such great pains to do my job well, and there she was implying that I was doing the opposite.

As I tried to point out the value of exposing students to all these different voices, I could see myself in her eyes: a caricature of an over-zealous liberal who sacrifices professionalism for ideology.

But I love this person, I thought.

And she’s right in a way: I am willing to cut something well-written from the list and replace it with something I like a little bit less. I have spent years thinking about the responsibilities of teaching and the value of any given reading assignment; she’d never thought about it until that moment. I shouldn’t expect her to just congratulate me for taking that Pulitzer winner off my syllabus. And I know feeling self-righteous can alienate me from the people I love—but sometimes I can’t resist. Continue reading

What’s mine, what’s ours: the fierce triumph of cohabitation

I thought I was two months behind on writing a blog post, but it turns out I’m three months behind. But I’m still here! Still writing. It’s just that most of the writing I’ve been doing has been elsewhere. Like over at The Walrus and an e-mail interview that wound up in this thoughtful article, but mostly in the giant, many-filed document that is my book manuscript. And now that manuscript is in editing purgatory and I am here, researching, reading, pizza-eating, and probing the depths of my own impatience. Waiting.

I have a lot of skills, but waiting for edits is not one of them.

So it’s a good time to write a blog post and the fact is that I have plenty to write about. Most significantly, the person I’ve been in a relationship with for the past year and a half now lives in my home. Our home. Ours. I’m working on that switch.

We first started talking about living together a year ago. My roommate was moving out and I was panicked. And he (my boyfriend) offered himself as a potential solution to the problem of the empty room. Then he wavered.

In the end he didn’t move in and, looking back, I’m glad about it. A year ago I had this incredible sense of intimacy. I had an idea of our closeness. But now I think: I barely knew him.

That process—the consideration of whether to live together and the decision not to, not right then at least—was the first real challenge of our relationship. I was anxious about finding a new roommate, and about whether or not I’d find someone to publish my book, but mostly about what it meant that my boyfriend wasn’t ready to live with me. We couldn’t commit to living together at the same time people were asking us for help making a tv show about using 36 questions to fall in love. The disparity between the idea of our relationship as a pop-science artifact and our own internal sense of doubt was strange, to say the least.

So this time around we gave the decision a lot of thought. I mean weeks and weeks of contemplation. There were late night conversations with long, uncomfortable pauses. Friends counseled that maybe we were taking our decision a little too seriously. Again and again we enumerated the pros and cons of cohabitation. Even after we’d made the decision to do it, we wanted to go into it will our best intentions, so we drew up a contract. This idea, which I borrowed from this smart book, turned out to be the thing that gave us a sense of control over the process of merging our lives. Our contract covers everything from cleaning to dog walking, expense-splitting and sex. It isn’t legally binding or particularly technical, but it’s intentional, it makes the nuances of sharing a life more explicit.  Continue reading

A failed attempt at rejecting true love

When I teach memoir writing we spend a lot of time talking about truth and Truth. Memoir, unlike some other forms of nonfiction, allows for a bit of negotiation between verifiable facts (truth) and larger, more abstract notions of How the World Works and What it Can Mean to Be Human (Truth).

Because memoir is based almost entirely on memory, things can sometimes be True without being verifiable. If I’m writing, for example, about a conversation I had with my mom when I was ten, I’m aiming to accurately capture the spirit of that conversation even if the dialogue can’t possibly be exact. But even when the class gets to a pretty good working definition of these two concepts, truth still feels a little slippery. Even in a genre nominally and practically dedicated to the investigation of truth, creative nonfiction, it still isn’t always obvious what qualifies as true. And maybe this is why I find myself increasingly resistant to notions of Truth in Love.

We throw around references to “true love” pretty casually, but what exactly is it? Seriously. I do not pose this as a rhetorical question. I’d love to know how people define true love and how(/if) they separate it from other forms of romantic love.

In my own efforts to process the idea, here’s what I’ve come up with in terms of our collective notion of true love: it happens once and with one person; it’s mutual; it lasts “forever”; it’s selfless. But when I investigate these ideas they all break down pretty quickly.

  • True love happens once: Often the phrase “true love” is preceded by the word “one.” We are, at best, a serially monogamous species. Most of us will love (in ways that are deep and devoted and serious) more than one person in our lives. Which of those experiences is the one true love? The person you were with the longest? The one you had the most intense feelings about? The one you’re with now?
  • True love is mutual: If you have never been in love with someone who did not love you back, you’re missing out on a profound (and profoundly miserable) human experience. Most of us would agree that unrequited love feels far from trivial. Many people have made major life decisions based on feelings that weren’t wholly reciprocated. It seems short-sighted to dismiss those feelings as less legitimate than feelings that were returned. And even in mutually-loving relationships, individual investment in the relationship is not always perfectly equal.
  • True love lasts forever: I put “forever” in quotes earlier because I find this concept as shaky as “Truth.” Not to be a total literalist but nothing lasts forever, not the earth or the sun or the universe or your feelings. I don’t mean to imply that love isn’t valuable or even sometimes profound. I just want to point out that the ways that we fetishize love in our culture don’t always make sense. Endowing love with mysticism requires putting ourselves in positions of willful ignorance and passivity. In general I am annoyed by willful ignorance, in love I am particularly annoyed.
  • True love is selfless: Can anything requiring reciprocity to be legitimate still be selfless? (again, not a rhetorical question.)

I’ve been thinking about this idea of true love as I’ve been catching up on all the Valentine’s-related stuff I ignored while on vacation last week. A lot of the criticism of Valentine’s Day (at least on my various social media streams) is that it’s too commercial. And, yeah, advertisers definitely use the holiday as a way to equate expressions of love with giving material gifts, but it’s pretty easy to reject the consumerism of the holiday while still acknowledging the sentiment. I really like the idea of having a built-in reason to tell the people you love that you love them—and of extending the celebration of love beyond romantic love. This year I spent the holiday eating mahi-mahi and drinking beer with twelve of my closest friends and I had this abundant, totally joyful feeling of love (though I acknowledge this is an easy feeling to summon while slightly sunburnt and totally tipsy and very far from rainy Vancouver.)

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See what I mean?

So I don’t want to reject Valentine’s Day but I do want to rethink the concept of true love. Still, I get that it’s difficult to separate the practice of loving someone from the mythos of love. I just spent an hour listening to love songs on YouTube as I’ve been writing this and I’ll be the first to admit the mythos of love—that insistence on mystery and ineffable Truth—is seductive. I love the way I feel Continue reading

skin thickening

A few days ago I decided I needed to develop a thicker skin. I thought that since I’m writing a book I should get more comfortable with criticism. And the way I would do this would be to read all of the YouTube comments on my last TED talk.

I don’t have to tell you that this was a stupid idea. Because everyone already knows that YouTube comments are the lowest form of internet discourse. (A favorite, in case you’re curious: “Why fall in love if you can fall asleep?”) I’d just listened to Lindy West’s amazing story of forging a weird sort of friendship with an internet troll on This American Life, so maybe I was just in the mood for meanness. If so, I found what I was looking or.

The fact is that anyone who’s participated in more than a handful of writing workshops, or anyone who’s ever worked with an editor, should be pretty comfortable with criticism. I like criticism–as long as it’s thoughtful and helps make my writing better. In fact, I’m skeptical of any editor who seems too easily satisfied. But YouTube comments are far from editorial, so I’m not going to read any in the near future.

I am going link to my second TEDx talk. I don’t know why I thought it would be easier the second time around. It’s not. I feel no less weird about sharing this one than I did about sharing the first one. But, self-consciousness aside, it turns out that I like public speaking. I hope I can keep doing it. (Call me! I’ll come talk to your friends/organization/class about writing or love or the love of writing.)

And I really do think we’re all doing a terrible job at talking about love. Or, at the very least, framing our experiences of love thoughtfully. So here’s my attempt at changing that.

 

Or follow this link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWaxi4H2xPU

smart and humble

Like every other writer I know, I read Claire Vaye Watkins’ “On Pandering” last week. It inspired long conversations with my friends and my partner. Who* do you write for? Who do you read? Whose view of the world are you pandering to?

There are a lot of great passages in the article, but this is the part that hit close to home for me:

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember…nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.

This part really struck me because I was, at the time, writing an essay on romance. By romance I mean the baggage of love. The cultural weight of it. All the ideology that comes with loving someone…especially when you are young.

For a long time all of my romantic ideology was connected to a particularly fairy-tale-ish passivity. I waited, I watched. When I was a teenager I showed boys that I was likable by watching their crappy band rehearse or listening to long guitar solos on the phone late at night or going to their ballgames. I waited for those boys to like me back. It never occurred to me that I could be likable because of my own interests, not in spite of them.

I spent much of my last long-term relationship watching my partner do things. Continue reading

On anniversaries

“Are you disappointed?” he said, as we heaped pineapple fried rice onto our plates. “Do you feel like this is not special enough?”

My partner and I celebrated our first relationship anniversary last weekend. I’d never celebrated an anniversary before, and, while it did not feel particularly special to be sitting at my kitchen table in yoga pants eating Thai food, I wasn’t sure that I really cared about specialness. “What’s really the point of an anniversary anyway?” I asked through a mouthful of pad see ew, “To say we managed not to break up this year?”

“No. It’s like: ‘Hey, you’re special to me. Let’s celebrate this thing we created,'” he said.

It’s not that I needed him to defend the idea of an anniversary to me (though I appreciated his willingness to do so), it’s that sometimes I feel it’s my job to maintain skepticism when it comes to the rituals we associate with romance. We all seem to have a lot of ideas about what you’re supposed to say or do in love and these ideas have the power to make us feel either smug or inadequate–or, absurdly, both at once. And I just wanted to tread thoughtfully toward the anniversary celebration.

“I think I should write something about anniversaries,” I said. “People don’t really talk about how weird they are.”

“Are you gonna write about this?” my partner asked, glancing around at the takeout containers propped between haphazard stacks of books. Continue reading