Crisis, Emotion, and Intention
Depending on where you live, we're about a week or so into our period of isolation and social distancing. Maybe a bit more. I hope not much less. It’s been interesting to me to see the different ways people are responding to this crisis. I don’t mean official responses by government or opinions from media, mind you. I just mean how individual people are feeling, and what they’re saying. It’s interesting to note who is responding by turning toward togetherness and who is responding by lashing out.
I don’t mean any judgment here. It’s a stressful time, and stress brings out a lot of emotions that we’re not always equipped to deal with. I just think it’s interesting. A lot of people are reacting in ways that are unsurprising—people I think of as kind being kind, people I think of as angry being angry, and so on. But it’s not all what I expected.
I don’t know that it’s exactly that crisis shows you who you are. There’s some truth to that, of course—for example, times of deprivation can help you see what’s important to you by showing what you miss and what you don’t. But I don’t know that it’s exactly correct that the “real” you comes out when you’re stressed. Stress can make certain emotions feel more urgent, and can lower certain inhibitions we have about expressing those emotions. But I don’t think that’s more real, necessarily. In part, I think that who you want to be is part of who you authentically are. I think your aspirations are an expression of what you value, and that’s real.
Still, I do think we sometimes find out things about ourselves when we’re in crisis, things that may surprise us in ways we find gratifying or unsettling, or perhaps confusing. Sometimes we might find ourselves behaving in ways that we don’t like, and that can make us feel bad about ourselves. That’s natural, too, but what I hope is that we can take the opportunity to reflect on our emotional processes, instead of just flagellating ourselves.
In crisis, we tend to seek a feeling of safety or control, and this can manifest in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it means turning inward, sometimes turning outward, and either way it can help or hurt others. I think that recognizing our behaviors as safety-seeking can be illuminating. Identifying the emotion without judgment and seeing the underlying need can help us get out of the moment where the emotion is controlling, and instead it becomes clarifying. That is, it can clarify what your desire is and what your need is, and how those aren’t always the same thing. Seeing our emotions and desires and needs with clarity gives us the opportunity to understand what our values are. Once we understand what our values are, we can then make intentional choices to act in ways that align with those values.
Remember, though, that it’s hard to act with intention when we are still inside that emotion. Emotions aren’t a bad thing. Emotions are the way your body tells you that you need something. So it’s important to pay attention to what your emotions are telling you about your needs. But your emotional mind isn’t as good at things like making informed choices, planning, analyzing, weighing options. You need your intellectual mind for that. Neither “side” here is better or worse. Both are performing important functions.
All this is just to say, I hope that you can take some time today—or at least soon—to slow down, to feel your feelings, and to be kind to yourself. I think that’s the way you can end up being able to be kind to others.
The Outer Banks
This morning on the drive to work I picked an old and relatively long playlist, and set it to shuffle. Just before I got to the office, "The Outer Banks," by the Album Leaf came on.
Back in the mid-2000s, my brother started making mix CDs for me. He's always been a lot more in the know about music than I have, and while I can't remember if he just started making them or if I asked him to help me find new music, those CDs formed the foundations of my music tastes for a decade. That song, "The Outer Banks," was on one of the first CDs he made me, and for several years that's what it made me think of. The CD, the other songs on the CD, and him.
A few years later, my son was born. On his first birthday, I made a slideshow of photographs and video clips from his year—a practice that has become a birthday tradition for each of my children. They look forward to it, and I enjoy it.
I've used a lot of different music for my kids' birthday slideshows, and I honestly can't really remember most of them, or which one I used for which year. Especially because after the first few, I started using music that I could pay to license, instead of just ripping CD tracks. The music I use now fits its purpose and, most importantly, it's legal, but it's fairly generic-sounding and forgettable. I do remember that first one, though. I remember many of the images, most of the video clips, and how I cut it together with the music. I used "The Outer Banks" for that one. And now that's what I associate that song with.
The funny thing is, I remember the process of making that slideshow. I remember listening to the music over and over, looking at these images and videos, all of which depicted scenes from the very recent past. My son wasn't quite a year old yet, but I was already nostalgic. I remember looking at these pictures and listening to this song—which, admittedly, builds in a pretty dramatic and emotive way, something that would be completely appropriate for a montage or climactic scene in an early 2000's indie movie. And I remember feeling the time slipping away already. I remember feeling how fast it was all going. How it was objectively silly for these moments to feel far away already, but that they did feel that way, and some day they actually would be distant in a real way. I remember feeling the weight of that, of being in between my current memory and the memory that I knew I'd have in the future. How it felt poignant, but I knew it would be even more so later, and how I could already feel the echoes of those future feelings.
Listening to that song this morning, yes, I did think of the pictures. I did think of my son as a baby, my son who is already as tall as his mom now. And that was poignant, in a way that I both expected back then and that I didn't understand and couldn't have been ready for. But perhaps just as acute, maybe even more so, was the feeling of distance from myself at that age. Of being a person who'd never made a birthday slideshow for his kids yet. A person who didn't know what it was like to have two kids, or three. Listening to this song, that self felt very far away, and it also felt very close, like I could lay the feeling of today right on top of the feeling from then, overlapping so closely that I couldn't tell the difference.
Looking back, life seemed simpler then—though, it only looks that way from here. Then, nothing seemed simple. Maybe it seemed simpler because so much in my life was new. Last weekend, J and I went out for dinner and stopped for coffee afterwards. I remarked how different it tasted from the coffee I usually drink, and how all coffee tastes mostly like coffee, how your first cup of coffee when you're young just tastes like that, like coffee, but how after decades now, you're used to it, all you notice is the small differences, the nuances. Life is like that, too.
There are times when I wish I could go back. Or maybe I just wish I could be as young and energetic and resilient and sure as I didn't know I was then. Maybe what I wish is for this, now, not to end, because I know, always, that it will—I knew it then, too. Mostly what I want is just more time. Things are nuanced and complicated now, but they are new and simple, too. Things are always newer and older than they seem.
Life is strange, and short, and long. It's beautiful, too. I hope you're well.
You're not a problem to be solved, you're a person
Recently I’ve been listening to the podcast Finding Fred, in which writer Carvell Wallace talks about Mr. Rogers’ life and work, and wrestles with how to apply Mr. Rogers’ ideas as an adult in 2019. It’s a wonderful show, one that I’ve been enjoying and which has been making me get choked up regularly. More than that, though, I’ve been realizing lately just how much Mr. Rogers’ approach to children aligns very much with the way I've come to see just about every human interaction. Earlier this week I was listening to episode 9 of Finding Fred, and this quotation from child development researcher Junlei Li jumped out at me:
“One of the things that Fred taught is that, in a child, every behavior is a way the child communicates an underlying need. If we were to apply that not just to children but to grown-ups, we may find a behavior objectionable, or we may find something that someone says objectionable, we may find another person's opinion objectionable, but if we look deeper and see what is the human need behind that, it doesn't mean we have to agree with their opinions and actions and words, but it does mean that we should and can have empathy and have a connection with the underlying human need.”
Let me back up a bit. Over the past few years I have gone through what feels to me to have been a radical change in how I understand myself and how I exist in relation to other people. Back in 2016 I was going through a difficult and stressful period, and in particular I was having a lot of trouble managing the anxiety and anger and shame I felt around my interactions with other people, whether that be my wife or my family of origin or just the people I talked to online. I started seeing a therapist, which led to a profound shift in how I understood the concepts of obligation, expectation, responsibility, and generosity.
In one of our early sessions, my therapist encouraged me to seek out a video showing a workshop on nonviolent communication by the late Marshall Rosenberg. The video is over three hours long, so she said I could just watch parts of it to get the idea, but I ended up watching the whole thing over the course of several days of breakfasts and lunch breaks and down time before bed. In the workshop, Rosenberg covers a lot about nonviolent communication, what it is, how to apply it, and so on. But it all rests on the same idea that Junlei Li expressed in the above quotation: that everything people do is an expression of some underlying need. More than that, our behaviors are ultimately attempts to get our needs met, but most of us go about trying to get our needs met in ways that don’t actually work. When our kids act out, when we judge or criticize, when we act in anger, when we are violent, when we exclude or even oppress, all of those are what Rosenberg describes as “tragic expressions of unmet needs.” The tragedy is, of course, that we inflict suffering on others in order to try to meet our needs, but in the end those needs remain unmet.
I think that kindness, generosity, compassion, and empathy are natural impulses common to all people. But, by and large, we cannot be kind, generous, compassionate, or empathetic unless our own needs are sufficiently met, and not just our physical needs—air, food, water, shelter—but also our emotional needs. Everyone needs to feel safe. Everyone needs to feel connection. Everyone needs to feel some sense of belonging. It’s only once those needs are met that we have the energy and awareness to spare to truly consider other people’s needs. But here’s the thing: if our needs are met, by and large, we do start considering other people more. We do get kinder and more generous and compassionate.
If I have any kind of philosophy or manifesto for life these days, it’s this: people are not problems to be solved, they are people. It goes into everything. Parenting: your children are not problems to be solved, they are people. Marriage: your spouse is not a problem to be solved, they are a person. Career: your coworkers or employees are not problems to be solved, they are people. It even, as I see it, goes into activism. That is to say, the ills of the world—bigotry, exploitation, oppression—these are ultimately the same “tragic expressions of unmet needs” as a toddler’s meltdown. People have needs, and when they’re not taught how to go about meeting those needs, they try to get them met in ways that hurt other people. But when a person’s needs are sufficiently fulfilled, they’re able to think past themselves and care about other people, and, by and large, they do.
Seeing the need behind people’s behavior helps me feel less anxious, less judged, less resentful. It helps me set boundaries without shame. It helps me be more giving, more compassionate, more kind. But, and this is important: compassion and kindness aren’t the same as condoning harmful behavior. Acknowledging the human need underneath someone else’s harmful behavior doesn’t make that behavior acceptable. If anything, it’s just the opposite—by seeing the need, we can see how that need remains unmet, how ineffective and counterproductive the harmful behavior is at meeting the true need.
In the Finding Fred podcast, Carvell Wallace spends a lot of time on the question of whether we ought to have empathy for bad people. He and his guests talk about how Mr. Rogers always said “I like you just the way you are,” and wonder whether they have to like, for example, white supremacists just the way they are. But I think this is the wrong way to frame this question, because empathy is not about excusing or condoning harm. Rather, I believe—as Marshall Rosenberg believes—that it is possible for us all to get our actual needs met, and it is only through empathy for both ourselves and others that we can understand what those needs are, and then go about the work of meeting our own needs. It’s only when everyone’s needs are met that we’ll be in a just, compassionate, and sustainable human world.
I know that it’s a big, difficult thing, to have empathy for everyone, to let go of judgment and anger and fear. It’s no less difficult for me, and I am far from perfect at it. I understand, too, how much it’s asking, to ask someone who is already suffering to do even harder work. I understand how that might seem unjust—how it might actually be unjust. And I absolutely understand how much more the burden of empathy ought to fall on the oppressor than it does on the oppressed. But I just can’t get away from the idea that the real answer to injustice is empathy. I don’t how or if we’ll ever get there. But I hope we do.
Ocean Storm, Bayberry Moon
One of my best friends from college died about three weeks ago. I only found out yesterday. I was attending an art event—a gallery tour in Tijuana—and happened to check my email in between stops. At first, not recognizing the sender's name, I thought it was spam, but it turned out to be an ex-girlfriend of his, a woman I'd heard about many times but had never met. It's a strange, isolating experience to receive terrible news while you're surrounded by friends who are having a good time. My impulse was not to ruin everyone else's day, but of course I couldn't entirely keep my feelings to myself. A few people checked in with me, sensing my distress. I demurred.
In some ways, I suppose this friend was already gone from my life. It had been a couple of years since the last time we saw each other, or even really spoke. We had grown apart, and in some ways I had already grieved that loss. But in the back of my mind I guess I thought things might turn around. He'd had some changes in his life recently, and was engaged to be married. I was happy for him, and part of me thought that we might reconnect some day. That won't happen now.
I've thought so much about this man over the past few years, so often with sadness or worry. I met him the first day of college, and still, more than two decades later, that is how I remember him. He was slender and energetic, enthusiastic and outgoing in a way I've seldom seen, before or since. He laughed loudly and often. He hugged with his whole body. He was utterly un-self-conscious in telling his friends that he loved them, a rare thing for men of my generation. And that was something he gave to me—a willingness to say it back without feeling strange.
He was a man of big appetites and a passion for pleasure unlike anyone else I've ever known. He carried around a recipe for cheesecake in his wallet, and happily took every opportunity to make one and share it with you, even—usually—on the spur of the moment. Back then we all drank too much, ate poorly, failed to care for our bodies. A few of my friends drank like they were punishing themselves, but for him drinking and substances were always and only about pleasure. It took him to some dark places, eventually. I don't know how or why he died, but for some time now I have feared and maybe even expected the worst. I still thought we'd have more time.
And this is the thing that has haunted me, saddened me, worried me about our friendship as we got older. Some of the things that make us fun or funny or endearing when we are young become less and less excusable as we age. And, hopefully, as we learn. Some things he never learned. Some of the things that made us laugh at nineteen make me cringe now. Some of the things we said and did then are things that hurt people, or hurt ourselves. We were ignorant then, or maybe we were innocent. Maybe we should have known better then. Maybe somewhere inside some of us did. Either way, we should know better now. The fact that he couldn't or wouldn't learn to be better made it hard for me to be around him. Increasingly, in mixed company I found myself having to make excuses for him, or apologizing for him afterwards—something I'm sure he didn't want and certainly never asked for. He was sure of himself, even when he was wrong, even when the horribleness of what he said was evident to everyone but himself. When he dropped away from me I was sad, but part of me was also relieved.
I wonder if he was confused about why we stopped connecting. I wonder if he was angry with me. If he was, he never said so. As much of a pain in the ass as he could be, he was also one of the most unfailingly generous people I knew. He took genuine pleasure in seeing his friends enjoy things. Maybe in distancing myself, I was unfair to him. Maybe I was justified in doing what I needed to do. Did I cut him off, or did he move along on his own? I don't know how he saw it. Now he's gone, and I have to live with the fact that that's where we left things.
I try to take comfort in knowing that he was unafraid of dying. Neither of us believed in an afterlife, which terrified me and comforted him. Once—perhaps twelve, thirteen years ago—I was working myself up into a panic attack about my impending nonexistence. He just said to me, calmly, "It's nothing to be afraid of." I try to remember that, but of course the pain I feel now is about the hole he's left in my life. An absence that, yes, I will some day get used to, but which will never be filled. This is the thing about life: the longer you live, the larger and more numerous the holes become. Eventually everyone goes away, or we do.
And yet I cannot think about my friend without thinking about all the ways that he pursued his pleasures. The landscapes of our souls become furrowed and holed by loss, and new joy and new love cannot fill those voids. But what they can do is expand the boundaries of our emotional territory, giving us someplace new to stand.
I remember my friend smiling. It's all I can do.
• • •
I do have updates on my projects and my work, but I'm going to let them sit for now. It can wait.
I hope you're well, and that whatever you need, be it joy, peace, nourishment, or anything at all, finds its way to you soon.
I noticed a lot of people talking about kindness yesterday because of a video that was going around in which a celebrity was talking about being kind to everyone. It probably won't surprise you to know that I do believe we should be kind to everyone. I don't always live up to that ideal, but I try. But I think it's worth thinking about what kindness actually is, and what it does.
Because kindness isn't the same as politeness. It's not the same as non-confrontation. It's not the same as forgiveness, which is itself not the same as forgetting, or a lack of accountability. Kindness is not, at its root, about reducing tension. Kindness is, I think, about giving people what they need. When we focus on removing tension from our interactions, it may be more comfortable in the moment, but it doesn't necessarily feed us in the long run. Often, focusing on reducing tension merely delays a reckoning. It allows us to ignore harm, which often compounds that harm. That is not kind, I don't think.
I do think that difference is something that should be tolerated, even celebrated in many instances. But I think it's also important to recognize that not all differences are benign. Some differences of belief result in people choosing to harm other people. I think that using the language of kindness and tolerance to ignore and erase past harms is, itself, a harmful thing. It enables current and future harms. And it is therefore not kind.
We can have compassion for everyone, I think. Because everyone is in some way suffering—indeed, it's often because someone is suffering that they choose to harm others. And I think we can with kindness mitigate that suffering and enable people to be kind and generous to others. But I think it is important to understand that having compassion for someone's suffering does not mean that we must condone their actions. Neither does kindness mean that we must always make people comfortable.
Kindness is not amoral. It does not require us to eliminate our emotional or ethical boundaries. Indeed, I find it is just the opposite: it is only through understanding the difference between right and wrong that we can be truly kind. Kindness is not simple. It is not easy. It requires us to look at each other and ourselves clearly, to understand deeply, to overcome our own very natural urges toward seeking our own comfort or lashing out against others. Kindness is not safe. In order to be kind, we must be willing to see and understand our own shortcomings and complicities. We must be willing to make ourselves vulnerable, over and over again.
So, yes, let us be kind to everyone. Let us be kind across difference. Let us be kind also to ourselves. But let us not mistake deference or niceness or comfort for kindness. If we are going to commit to kindness, let us do so with the understanding that kindness and healing and justice are all of a piece, they go hand in hand, that none of them have meaning without the others.
Love, Care, Responsibility
Recently I was listening to an episode of Carrie Fountain's podcast This Is Just to Say, which was a tribute panel to poet Tony Hoagland, who died last year at the age of 64, due to pancreatic cancer. I don't really know Hoagland's work—it's possible that this podcast was the first time I'd ever heard one of his poems. What awareness I had of him came from some references some of my poet friends had made to his problematic public exchange with poet Claudia Rankine.
If you're not much involved with the world of poetry—which, to be fair, most people aren't—then you might not be familiar with that incident. To summarize: In his 2003 book What Narcissism Means to Me, Hoagland—who is white—included a poem called "The Change," in which the speaker of the poem (which Hoagland may or may not have intended to be himself) describes a tennis match between a white woman and a black woman, and his reaction to it, and does so in language that is, to say the least, problematic. In 2011, Claudia Rankine—an acclaimed and important African-American poet, and a former colleague of Hoagland's—gave a talk at the AWP Conference in which she read Hoagland's poem and then presented an open letter in which she described the dismay she felt upon reading the poem, and talked about why it was hurtful. About a month later, Hoagland responded with his own open letter, which was... not great. Subsequently, Hoagland was pretty widely criticized for both his poem and his letter—and rightly so, in my opinion.
I had known all of this before but had mostly forgotten about it by the time I started listening to that This Is Just to Say episode, though as the episode progressed my memory was refreshed. I found the episode to be an interesting and nuanced discussion about a person and poet all of the panelists loved, but who they acknowledged also said and did problematic things. Interesting because I think it's interesting and necessary to consider what it means to love someone who has flaws, and what our responsibilities are to the ones we love, and how to keep loving someone even when they are wrong or shitty.
I don't want to say "We all have our flaws" or "We are all problematic" because that flattens the discussion and draws the kind of false equivalence that we cannot afford in this political climate. Because there are lines that shouldn't be crossed, which have been crossed, and which continue to be crossed, often with real and terrible consequences. To simplify the world we live in by saying "we all have our flaws" is to engage in the kind of both-sides-ism that has plagued our political discourse for years.
Except that we all do have our flaws and we all are problematic, and we do engage in and uphold a culture in which we expect purity, which is neither reasonable nor sustainable. And we especially do that online. Online spaces are not and never have been and probably never will be good for nuance. But I feel like it should be possible to distinguish between unforgivable harm and everyday thoughtlessness. Not in a way that ignores the latter, but in a way that allows for judgment. And when I say "judgment" I mean a process. I mean an individual process of weighing and balancing and looking at as much context as possible, context that includes both the personal and the global. I mean deliberation and care rather than snap decisions. I mean to say that one's bad deeds don't erase one's good deeds, nor do their good deeds erase their bad, but each filters each, and there are more ways to hold the totality of a person than to either defend them or throw them away.
In saying this, though, it is important to understand the broader context of such rhetoric, and the instances in which it is most often deployed. It is not lost on me that the thing that is prompting me to talk about nuance and care and deep judgment is a white man's misdeed. It is important to understand how rarely the marginalized and oppressed are offered the opportunity for deliberate consideration, for care, for understanding. And it is important to understand how often white men are offered that opportunity. It is important not as a way of castigating white people or men for being white or male. It is important because we cannot work toward a world in which the humanity and dignity of all people is affirmed unless we first understand that such affirmation is not given equally now, and unless we understand why.
But I suppose I feel that the path to justice lies more in offering care and understanding and context to the vulnerable than it does in denying it to the comfortable. Again, there are lines that we cannot cross or allow to be crossed. But I think that when we love someone, or when we love the things they've done, whether that be a friend or a relative or simply someone we admire, we owe it to them and to ourselves and to each other to reckon with their misdeeds and hold them accountable. Sometimes that means walking away from them. But sometimes it means pulling them closer. And either way it doesn't necessarily mean ceasing to love them.
And, yes, those whom we love bear a responsibility as well, to listen, to learn, to do better. It's a responsibility that so often they (and we, and I) fail to live up to. But I believe we can rise to it, even if sometimes we might need to be shown how. It's not about erasing harm or giving passes. It's about trying to get past binary thinking, to get past good/bad, right/wrong, stay/leave, and to get toward care and responsibility.
As an addendum, what I am doing now is considering how much of my feeling on this is or might be driven by my own biases and privileges. And considering whether and how having and expressing these opinions might contribute to further harm.
Nothing is ever as simple as I'd like it to be. But I do my best.
• • •
Some other news:
- A couple of weeks ago I released an episode of Keep the Channel with poet Yanyi. We discussed his book The Year of Blue Water, which is part poetry, part essay, and part journal, a document of self-discovery and human connection. We also talked about Hannah Arendt's seminal book The Origins of Totalitarianism.
- On this week's episode, I talked with poet Rachel Zucker about her book The Pedestrians and about her podcast Commonplace, which is one of my favorite literary shows. It was a particularly interesting episode for me in that Rachel and I approach interviewing in very similar ways and with similar concerns (and similar anxieties).
• • •
My family has been up in Canada without me for the past week, visiting J's relatives. They're coming home tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to it. I hope that you get some time soon to be with people you love, whether that's family or friends or even yourself.
I can't get no
Two of my poems were published this week, which is the first time that’s ever happened. Shortly after announcing their release, I found myself wondering how many poems I’d have to publish before I felt comfortable calling myself a poet. The only thing I’m sure of is that the answer is greater than two.
I’ve had the great fortune to talk with a lot of poets over the past few years, whether on my show or via social media, or just the kind of private dialogue that happens between artist and audience. I think there may be something more implied by the title “poet” than merely “a person who has written poems.” Rather, it is a declaration, a statement of intent. There is implied a certain dedication to the form, such that even though a poet may write novels or essays or practice visual art in some way, some significant piece of the poet is steadfast in their devotion to poetry. I’ve been willing to call myself a writer even though my output can only generously called “modest.” And perhaps I still aspire to become a poet, one day. But I don’t feel I’m there yet.
Still, I’m reminded of a long-standing argument I’ve had with Jeffery Saddoris, going back years since he first mentioned it on On Taking Pictures. Jeffery will call himself a painter or a photographer or a writer, but he refuses to call himself an artist or to refer to his work as art. As he puts it, it’s for the audience to decide whether or not what he makes qualifies as art, not for himself. And this is an idea that I’ve always pushed back against, because there’s a difference between “art” and “good,” and putting “art” and “artist” up on a pedestal like that can really only serve to discourage people from making art. It’s an act of elitism to tell someone else that what they make doesn’t deserve to be called “art.” It’s not less true when you tell yourself that, just more self-loathing.
You know where I’m going with this. I know. I’m working on it. Or, at least, I’m thinking about it.
I have to admit, I’ve been in a crap mood most of this week. It makes me feel like an ingrate, but I want to talk about it all the same. Last night I saw a thread from Delilah S. Dawson, talking about the weird dissociation she experiences when she has a new book launch. The part that made me sit upright was when she said this: “I think those of us who've built their career on rejection and failure know that if we put all our hopes in a book, it's going to break our heart. Most books never hit big like we dream, and if we protect ourselves from the possibility of success, it doesn't hurt so much.”
I think there’s a lot to what Dawson is saying. The most common piece of advice I’ve heard for creative types is to develop a thick skin about rejection. And, mostly, we do. We get so much practice coping with rejection. Some of us (me) come to expect rejection, even cherish our rejections as evidence that we made the attempt. Nobody really talks about how to cope with success. It’s assumed that that will be the easy part.
But it’s not. Not for me, anyway, and not only because I’ve trained myself so well to brace for disappointment. Rather, it’s that creative success, however you define it, is fleeting. It’s not that success is a moving target—though it is—it’s that success at any level isn’t really satisfying. You’d think I’d know this already—after all, my show is named for a Martha Graham quotation in which she declares that there is no satisfaction in being an artist.
As I’m writing this letter, my poems were published three days ago. One of them took me three years of writing and revising to get it right. The other took a mere 13 months. Both were rejected multiple times before finally being accepted. I’ve bookmarked every compliment and retweet those poems have gotten in the last three days, so I know how many times it’s happened: fifteen. And now, three days later, people are mostly on to other things. And rightly so—there’s so much great work out there and more coming every day. Fifteen people spent time with my work and were moved enough to say something. That is a gift. It’s more than most of us get. It’s more than what I’m accustomed to getting. I should be grateful, and I am. But part of me wants to know, now what?
I don’t doubt it would be the same no matter what the response had been, whether it was 15 comments or 15,000. I’ve never won an award for my creative work but if I keep at it I might some day, and I expect that I’d still feel this strange hollowness afterwards. It’s not that I think external validation is the reason to make art. I know that success is fleeting, that any satisfaction that can be had must come from the doing of the thing, not from how it’s received. But people expect you to feel something about success, something other than a strange, aimless, floating feeling. And so you come to expect that, too. Not feeling elation over it makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me. I don’t think that’s true—I think this is more common than we might realize. But we don’t talk about this. At least, people don’t talk about it in front of me.
I think the important thing is just to recognize (again) that life isn’t the big moments, it’s all the ones in between. Even when that high does come, it can’t last. Where you reside is in the everyday, the grind, the routine, the ordinary. I’m thinking about that moment when you come home from a fun trip. There’s always something of a letdown, I think, some sense of disappointment that the thing you’d been looking forward to has now passed. But in the best times there’s also a pleasure in coming home, in returning to the familiar. I’m trying to get back to that place.
• • •
Some other news:
- If you're in the San Diego area, I'm going to be participating in the Last Exit reading on Saturday, July 27, along with Kristen Arnett, Sarah Rose Etter, Lilliam Rivera, and Tommy Pico. (It's a hell of a line-up, and one that I'm quite overwhelmed to be included in.) The event is free, starts at 8 PM, and will be at You Belong Here. Come say hi!
- I released a new episode of Keep the Channel Open last week, a conversation with photographer Ashly Stohl. We talked about her photobooks Charth Vader and The Days & Years, about photographing your family, about the perception of motherhood in art and society, and about the difference between New York and Los Angeles.
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I hope you're well. I haven't said it recently, but I'm glad you're here.
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.