Justice

Each day, I rise early in the morning while the rest of the household still sleeps, and go walking in my neighborhood. Half an hour. Forty-five minutes. As long as and hour and a half.

More and more I see signs in people’s windows and yards: Black Live Matter. Hate Has No Home Here. Justice for George Floyd.

I see the signs and briefly they lift my spirits. Briefly.

Because in the next moment, I realize that George Floyd will never receive justice. He is beyond justice’s reach.

No consequence meted out to his killers—though consequences are deserved and have to happen—will bring him back. Nothing will restore him to his loved ones. Nothing will erase the way he was taken. Nothing will replace who he would have been and what he would have given.

The same is true of all the names on the long list of people who’ve died at the specific hands of police and the collective, indifferent hands of our social structures. Our hands.

George Floyd can’t receive justice because justice is a condition, not a single act. He never got to live in that condition, and conditions aren’t retroactive.

How can we give justice to George Floyd, who is gone, when we still aren’t providing justice for the living?

I’m a person of words; they’re my stock in trade. I believe in their power. But I also understand that words by themselves aren’t nearly enough.

Because the words on the signs, on clothes, on people’s lips haven’t changed anything yet. Even the statues now being torn down are only the smallest steps, only the beginning. And sometimes, they’re even less.

Words have been used to do nothing, or to cover over doing wrong.

“We don’t discriminate in hiring,” the university says, “because we have a non-discrimination statement.”

“We can’t be racist,” the business, “because we’ve put anti-racist language into our mission statement.”

“We don’t condone chokeholds and we engage in de-escalation and have rooted out bias because our training says so,” says law enforcement.

Justice is a way of being in the world. It’s words, yes, but also actions and practices and programs and policies and structures and attitudes. Justice is an embodied, living condition.

And nothing that’s happened since George Floyd’s death has embodied justice.

Police are still herding and beating and tear-gassing protesters. We still aren’t spending the money it will take to make marginalized communities whole. At out borders and throughout the country, we are still putting people in cages. We keep putting the people with the fewest resources at the greatest risk in this pandemic.

I don’t mean to say that all the events happening don’t matter. The shifts in hearts and minds are wonderful.

But justice lives in practices.

I’m moved to say this because I’m old enough to have been here before. I was a child in the late 1960s and a teen in the 1970s. I remember the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. I remember the gains affirmative action programs made. I remember the early stirrings of the LGBT movement.

And attitudes changed, but too few of them remained as concrete changes in our social structure and in the way this country operates. That’s why people of color and trans people and people with mental health issues are still dying. It’s why income inequality has grown. It’s why as a nation we’ve disastrously degraded our environment and mismanaged this pandemic. It’s why we’re where we are today.

Justice will not pat us on the head for looking at the long list of the dead and finally saying, “You know, those people shouldn’t be dead. Something is wrong.” Justice won’t congratulate us for having “good hearts.” It doesn’t give a shit how woke we are.

We need to remember that there’s nothing inevitable about how this will turn out. The arc of history only bends toward justice when that’s the way people bend it.

So keep holding up the signs, and keep saying the words. But remember that we’re only at the beginning of the struggle for justice, and we’ve been here again and again throughout out history only to drop the ball.

To create real justice, we—all of us—are going to have to change in uncomfortable ways. The work we face going forward will be harder, not easier. We haven’t achieved anything yet; we’re just getting started.

The Social Body

You may have seen the story about a white couple so disturbed to see a certain kind of body in their neighborhood—what they considered their space—that they challenged his right to be there. And when he wouldn’t answer their demands, they called police, as if his mere presence constituted a crime.

Because the responding officers knew him, he came to no harm, but we know that it could have ended otherwise.

What makes a body’s presence unbearable in such specific ways?

This body’s shape or size. That person’s facial features. The other person’s skin or hair.

People judge which bodies fit the gender designation they’ve been assigned. People moralize about which bodies should be allowed to interact with which, and in what ways.

People note and judge how, and how easily, a body moves through space, aided or unaided.

They create social rules about which bodies belong where; which bodies are acceptable and which we’re meant to fear.

And, most importantly, society selects what the bodies look like that will decide these matters.

Why do some react so fearfully to something as essential and ubiquitous as human bodies?

Bodies surround and ground us. They’re the first sensations we feel. Their scent. The texture of flesh. The sight and sound of the body that holds us. The taste of the nipple in a newborn’s mouth. The intervention of the bodies of others determines whether we survive infancy and childhood.

What happens between that early attachment and acceptance and the fences and walls, between that childhood craving and the later contempt for bodies that deviate from social expectations?

Does it begin with their own bodies? Do people find their own bodies suspect because they intellectually and emotionally confuse, because hormones and other inner and outer stimuli trick us so easily? Does that give rise to people’s first desire to police and discipline them?

Do bodies anger people because they decay? Does fear and the anticipated betrayal of old age engender distrust and cause some to distance themselves from the physical?

We could blame it on strangeness; we could identify fear of the unfamiliar as the culprit.

But children seem as apt to turn toward unfamiliar bodies as they are to turn away. So often parents have to teach their children to avert their gaze in the face of the strange. Children’s natural reactions tend more toward attention and curiosity. They want to engage. They want to explore and ask and understand.

But adults tell children to look away and not interrogate.

“Mommy, why is that man’s skin—?“

“Shhhhh, dear. Not so loud. And don’t stare.”

Our culture tells us that dialogue with and about different bodies is something to fear.

It teaches which bodies belong where, which ones are suspect and which ones safe, and which to respond to with terror and which with disgust.

What’s been done to you, and what have we done to yourself, that the very presence of certain bodies renders them criminal in your eyes? When the presence alone of a body in a public space justifies demeaning, fearing, and even destroying it?

What will it take for people to see every kind of body as equally human to their own?

These questions have to be answered. Those filled with this fear need to understand why they look at bodies—their own and those of others—as they do.

But how can they begin to answer questions that so many of them are still afraid to ask?

Traces

Last summer, my mother fell seriously ill. We thought, for several days, that she was dying. My four brothers and I gathered at the regional hospital in the small city where she lives, preparing for the worst. We said our goodbyes. But that time we were fortunate; eventually she rallied and survived, and she’s still with us. The crisis passed.

I woke at about 4 the other morning, thinking about my brown daughter and my brown sons, about the dangers they’ll face. The fear I feel is different, of course, from what I experienced with my mother. I wonder whether my children will ever find a place in this world where they can be safe. And by safe, I don’t mean free from any possibility of harm. No one has that. I only wonder whether they’ll they find a community that accepts and encourages them for who they are, a place without a thousand large and small indicators telling them they are less than.

I awoke thinking of all the ways the world can harm the ones I love, and all the suffering people and creatures on this planet that I don’t even know. I woke up feeling useless; I woke up feeling out of control.

One night during my mother’s illness, one of my brothers and I sat in the hospital room with her as she slept. He and I hadn’t really spoken in depth for a long time. Generally when we get together for holidays we see sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews; we argue over sports and whatever‘s happening in the world; and, of course, we tell stories about one another and the trouble we got into as boys. We laugh, recounting who did what to whom. But this time, between my brother and me, there wasn’t much of that.

I try to live in such a way that I leave less suffering in the world. I think about the effects of my actions. With whom do I interact? In what ways do I use my words? How do my thoughts and feelings influence the way I treat others? How consciously do I reflect on and decide what products I buy or what I watch on TV? What are the things I take into and put from me?

But my sense of helplessness about my effect on the world persists because the uncertainty about it is real. I don’t control the long-term results of my actions. I don’t know how my decisions will turn out. Given that, how much change can I bring about in the world? What good can this single, limited self do? It’s tempting to say, “Well, if I can’t be sure that it’ll do any good, why bother? Why face reality if I don’t know whether I can change it?”

That night at my mother’s bedside, the conversation between my brother and I took an unusual turn. We ended up talking less about our memories of what the other had done and more about who the other had been. Instead of recounting events, we each shared our impressions of the other—character and temperament and personality—and how the other’s way of being had made deep marks on each of us that we still carried.

We realized each of us often saw himself in terms of what he had (or hadn’t) done. But our thoughts of the other brother centered on who he had been. While each had, over the years, preoccupied himself with his own flaws, what I spoke to him and he spoke to me was admiration for what we had represented to one another. The love between us didn’t rest in doing but in being. And I know there have been times that simply remembering the kind of person he was had encouraged and strengthened me.

The memory of our conversation reminds me that not just my actions but my being itself matters. I make the choices I make not just because of what they might achieve, but because of the person I want to be: the kind who faces reality, the kind who, at the end, can truthfully say, “Well, at least I looked life in the face and didn’t look away.”

My conversation with my brother reminded me that who I am leaves traces on those I encounter. I have no idea what others will do with those traces. I have no idea what differences, if any, they’ll make. Despite what our culture encourages us to pretend, no one knows that. Our play at certainty may be our deepest make-believe.

However limited my ability to shape my children’s world, the way I choose to exist can give them a sense of how to be themselves. I feel so much fear for these human beings I‘ve helped make and raise and will someday turn over to the world. But in the end, the only—and the most important—thing I can send with them is who and how I’ve been. All I can teach them is the way I try to embody my values, the memory of my questions, the memory of my words.

So when I write, I consider what kinds of words will come from me, not only because of their effect on the reader but even more because those words will speak the truth about me to those I love. Words are one of the most fundamental ways I exist. And I can only hope the words my children take away from me will be enough.

Signal and Noise

Somehow the jazz drummer weaves a way through the percussive explosion and finds the beat; they find the signal in the midst of what we perceive as chaos.

Right now, I’m generating text. I know signals exist among the words I’ve been setting down, but you know what? I’m also afraid that’s not true. I’m afraid I’ve only composed a pile of nothing. The problem—or really the opportunity—lies in diving down into the words; no, in moving with them. Because this is, as in so many situations, a dialogue I enter into with the environment in which I find myself.

A tracker sees the marks that indicate someone or something has passed through the terrain. What look like random scratches to the rest of us the tracker sees as pattern, and in that pattern finds meaning, finds consistency, finds a story of a living being’s journey.

How often in the writing or literature courses I taught did my students read an assigned text and decide it was meaningless, consider it random jibberish? I tried to get them to find a path in what they perceived as a trackless wilderness.

I’m talking, or course, about discernment; I’m talking about sifting through sensations to find structure.

I look at a tree and see a mass of leaves, but a botanist looks at that same tree and sees order in the shape of the plant; in when and where the tree branches part from the trunk; in the shape of the crown—whether it soars or sits squat and low to the ground; whether and how it widens; where it tops out. In all of these, where I see only a blurred wall of perception and sensation, the botanist discerns order, finds the signal in what I consider noise.

I can break through my perceptual limitations in various ways. Sometimes I get new information that puts what I’ve considered ordinary in a new light. It allows the structure to appear, as when I find the missing piece of a puzzle, the squiggle that fits into a larger shape with those four or five or six pieces that had fallen on the floor and been kicked under the table. Without that discovery, I never could have known how that section fit together; I had to gather more details for the gaps to become a continuous outline.

But other times, the insight arises from how I look at the puzzle pieces. Sometimes all the pieces have rested in my hands forever, then I turn the right piece in the right way and the structure suddenly explodes into view; the nonsense becomes a pattern. The noise turns into a signal clear as Caribbean water, and everything from the surface all the way down to the bottom becomes visible.

You can call those “leaps of insight,” but they amount to finding the order that was always there. It happened because I turned my mind loose; I stopped insisting on the view I’ve held and allowed myself to consider significant what I once thought insignificant (“not a sign,” not something capable of bearing information that matters).

Creativity starts there. Creativity starts in the willingness to go beyond my mind’s conventional response to information, to sensation, to data. To reach around my mind’s tendency to distinguish, in predictable ways, what holds meaning from what clutters up the scenery. My willingness to release the ordinary way of naming the structures around me and letting my mind build structures anew or at least new compared to how we’ve looked at them before.

Sometimes the structures I suddenly “discover” have existed for eons but were discarded by the current culture. Sometimes the signal isn’t new at all, just a way of looking that we’ve forgotten or disrespected. Sometimes structures get buried and have to be excavated in the same way archaeologists uncover a site that seemed only a random feature; and at that site we find what others or nature had buried a long time ago.

This is how and why creativity disrupts the literal view we’ve held. This is what makes creativity dangerous and exciting and frightening and hopeful. It reminds us that our sensations and our brains get trained; it reminds us that under the structures we’ve been taught to see lie treasures of perception that can rewrite us, and the universe.

Over and over again as a writer, I make this journey. At the outset of each excursion I have moments when the signal seems completely lost, when I despair that I’ll ever find it, or even that a signal ever existed. I can easily convince myself that I’ve been chasing nothing buy noise. At these points, faith or patience or stubbornness—or a practice that coaxes them from—holds me together.

Sometimes the trail peters out and only noise remains, but he world is thick with signals unheard, undiscerned, and forgotten. And the search for signals always matters because when I stop searching, I encase myself in habit and static.

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Maintenance

I sat on our enclosed front porch early yesterday morning. I had done my timed writing meditation, 15 minutes of putting down what crossed my mind, and then I had to consider next what to do with the rest of that part of my day when everyone else remains asleep. With that quiet.

A large part of me sorted through all the ways to be productive: I could start the next piece of writing; I could get in my exercise while the morning was still cool, the sky still overcast and the wind blowing intermittent puffs of breath through the trees; I could flip through my journal, marking and sorting ideas.

But then, I became preoccupied with my fingernails.

They’d grown longer than I liked, as things that have been unattended tend to do. Early on, when they first seem just a little long, I tell myself that now is the best time to get to them, and then, of course, I forget.

They grow a little longer, and I almost come to regard them as cool and pale and elegant crescent moons at my fingertips. I tell myself that maybe just a little long–just like this–is almost perfect. It makes it easier to, oh, open envelopes, or scratch an itch, or peel the sticky labels from the skin of fresh fruit before I wash it. Besides their style, these slightly longish nails could actually be convenient.

Then they reach the stage—and it’s probably different for everyone—where they become annoying. If I’m not careful, I can accidentally scratch one of the children when I go to hug them. The nails catch on this or that. They begin to get in the way. I start to remember the rumors about an aging Howard Hughes and how his nails sometimes grew so long they started to curl.

Not a good look. Not for me, anyway.

And in the morning’s cool green and gray, I decide that clipping my nails has its own urgency. I choose to set aside the writing and the exercise and the reading that will help me generate new ideas. I choose to set aside the pull of all the obvious productivity and turn toward maintenance.

“Self care” is the phrase that’s been riding a wave of popularity for a while. Self care has become a branding tool, a concept that’s used to sell products from stationary bikes and exercise programs costing thousands of dollars, to lotion and hair dye, to spas and massages and nail polish, to expensive vacation escapes, to chocolate treats, to guilty-pleasure TV programs.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of those.

But my maintenance takes simpler forms. Partly that’s because I’m just cheap. Mostly it’s because I’m so boring that the small things recharge me most effectively: a shower and lotioning on my dark skin to glowing; sitting quietly; going for a walk or run on quiet streets; listening to Ruben Blades or Astor Piazzolla or Cesaria Evora; doing the dishes and seeing the clean counter and kitchen at the end. Fixing the bed. Meditating. Writing in my journal. Trimming my hair with my clippers, or shaving my face.

Maintenance. Nothing fancy. Just attending to myself so that I don’t break down from neglect.

And it works best when I don’t expect—or at least don’t think about—any practical, productive payoff. When I just let myself take time–or “let time go” would probably better express it. Instead of clutching at time and trying to squeeze every millisecond of doing and achieving from it, maintenance is just the time I release to set myself right.

When I belonged to a formal religion, maintenance was, in a way, how I thought of prayer. And maybe what I call maintenance now is the way that I still pray. Presence. Calm attention to myself and where I am.

These times are heavy with action and movement and choosing and struggle, and necessarily so. We’ve spent too long indulging in distractions and diverting ourselves from painful realities around—and within—us. We’ve told ourselves that everything’s find while we sit in the middle of the building as it burns.

But as any accomplished athlete will tell you, doing the work, if anything, increases the need for maintenance. It matters more that I tend to myself when I’m under stress, because it humbles me and reminds me of my humanity, reminds me of how easily we each can break.

So yesterday morning, I turned myself over to that: The click and snap of the clippers against my nails. The gathering them up and throwing them away. And then the satisfaction as I step back into the day.

Asking For the Manager

Police whip with batons an unarmed Black woman standing in the street.

A police vehicle suddenly accelerates into a crowd.

A group of police set upon two young Black adults in a car; they drag one of them out and taze the other.

Police push an elderly man backwards; he falls and hits his head, bleeding from the ear.

An officer fires a rubber bullet into a photographer’s face, permanently rendering her partially blind.

People seize on a range of names to categorize these acts, a label that makes sense so we can solve the problem. They diagnose it as hatred, fear, poor training, malice, evil, a few bad apples, systemic flaws, even institutional racism. They believe that finding the right name will identify the answer. I hear that expectation in so much of the public complaint: That the extent and visibility of this behavior will certainly force a change.

So many people seem to believe this works like poor service at a restaurant, like returning the shoddy product you got at the store. The waiter or the person at the checkout counter may not listen, and now they want to speak to the manager. Right now everything’s confused; employees aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. But if people complain loudly enough, the manager will straighten out the situation.

They say this because they think they know this establishment. It’s familiar, a place they come daily. They’ve always been able to count on the service, or in a pinch to count on the manager coming to their rescue and making the situation right.

Occasionally, it’s true, they’ve seen other customers make complaints and come away dissatisfied. They’ve even seen some beg and weep and scream and have to be escorted to the door. And sometimes that appeared a tad unfair.

And the regular customers have clucked their tongues, shaken their heads, and said it all must be some misunderstanding. It couldn’t have been what the customer thought happened or what they thought they heard. And anyway, if they’d behaved more calmly, surely the manager would have been more sympathetic, because that’s how the manager has always treated them.

But they’ve seen incidents now that disturb them. They believe that surely if enough people make complaints, the manager will have to make some changes. And well he may, well he may.

It might be time, though, to consider that the manager isn’t who they thought he was. It might be time to consider what those folks whose complaints were always turned away faced a long time ago: What if the manager doesn’t actually give a shit?

The irony is that many of the newly aware have thought they were owners, so that if push came to shove came to battering someone’s head in, they would be in control.

I suspect that many will need a mental readjustment. Because after the gasps and shock have passed, after they demand answers and it happens again, they’ll have to contend with something they’ve never considered before. They’ll have to contend with power unaccountable to them; they’ll look, for the first time, in its naked face.

They won’t see a deferential smile, or hear a stammered apology. They’ll only be told, “We’ll look into it.” Then next they’ll be told, “It might take a while.” And then they’ll be told, “There’s nothing we can do for you.” They can’t command the manager the way they thought they could, and there’s no one else to take their business to.

For the first time, they’ll recognize that the people swinging the sticks are swinging for the fences, because no one’s ever watched or made them stop before. They’re swinging for their lives because they’re being chastised for doing the only thing they’ve really ever been asked to do.

Then the real question will arrive for those who’ve trusted the manager up until now: How long will they be willing to fight, given what unaccountable power can do to them, when all they have to do to make it end is just go home. When all they have to do to make it stop is just keep walking by. Just walk in the indicated direction, and look the other way, and comply.

And how long, and how strongly, and how many will keep coming back when it’s made plain that they may have to face this day after day. Indefinitely. The way it’s been faced by the people who’ve been trying to tell them and whom they’ve ignored.

How long and how strongly and how many will keep coming back when it’s made plain that it’s not just the police or the politicians or the institutions that need to change?

How many will keep coming back to change themselves too?

When they realize just how long this haul could be, what are they going to choose to do then?

Every Body

It begins when I think I can do an end run around my body.

I know, right? But I try, don’t I, all the same.

Most of the time, I act as though this bag of blood and bones and organs will pulse along no matter what I do to it, no matter how I fuel it or drive it or ignore it, no matter how minimally I maintain it. All the things I do while I subconsciously tell myself, “The body won’t mind. We’re friends; we’ve been together forever. We’ve always gotten along. No problem.”

Most days I go through life this way. Sleepwalking.

Pretty bad, yes? But then the waking is worse.

This morning I rolled out of bed, slipped out of my sleeping clothes (let’s not pretend and call them “pajamas” or anything that fancy; they’re mostly looser, more comfortable day clothes like sweat pants and t-shirts and underwear, because what will the body care?). And then I begin to dress.

And then I become aware. This body is not what it used to be.

Let’s not talk about the hair that’s thinned to the point where I’d rather keep it short and expose the dome than let it grow to its current version of “long” and reveal how much and how unevenly it’s thinned. Let’s ignore for now the neck that sags just a bit. We’ll even go past the skinny arms because I can tell myself, “Well, they were always thin.”

Everyone’s got their spot (or spots), I suppose, that tell the tale of their neglect. Mine is the belly, distended, that every now and then I look at as though it has betrayed me. As though, of it’s own, it decided to rebel and expose me for the slacker that I am. I look at it, wondering why it did this to me. I move from despair to dreaming of making it taut like Willem Defoe’s. (I mean, have you seen that guy? He has the physique of a sentient collections of ropes.)

And this is how I swing: from neglect to obsession; from luxuriating in license to wallowing in judgment.

As if my body is some separate entity that I entered, that exists independently of me. When and how did my body become it’s own being to either be ignored or disciplined and dominated? When did I separate my self from my flesh?

It seems this is how so many of us live, at a distance not only from our own bodies from bodies generally. I know, there are the so-called “beautiful” ones that others have, the ones that we admire and desire, and there are the other ones that we denigrate. But either way we judge. In either case, we weigh them on our internal and cultural moral scales.

This becomes more than a matter of who we ogle and who we shame, though it certainly matters in that way as well. As far as I can tell, culturally we have no idea what to do with bodies. We treat them as empty vessels; we treat them as status symbols; we shape and we carve them as though they were clay or stone; pamper them as though they were pets; we discipline and scold them as though they there wayward children.

But through all our responses, we seem to forget: They are us.

My body isn’t a possession; it’s not a tool. It contains—no, it embodies my humanity. It’s the very manifestation of me. And I can’t treat myself or any other human with the compassion and care and respect we each and all deserve if I won’t embrace and love all human physicality.

Embrace every way a body does or doesn’t look like mine. Embrace it in its health and its infirmity. Embrace it whether damaged or whole; embrace it whatever its level of functioning. Embrace it in its youth and its maturity and oldest age. Embrace it as it changes. Embrace its right to exist; embrace its beauty in whatever form it takes.

A great late 20th and early 21st century philosopher encapsulated this sentiment, as he did all of his insights, into a silly ditty. Like all of his work, and all great insights, it grows increasingly profound the more you fully you contemplate and accept it: “Every body’s fancy; every body’s fine. Your body’s fancy, and so is mine.”

Imagine for a moment if we took those statements literally. What would our nation look like at this moment if we had ever embodied this belief in our policies, our institutions, and our laws? If they determined the way we deal with whatever kinds of bodies we encounter?

Because right now, on the streets of our cities, in the halls of power, judgments about bodies are literally killing us. People are dying because of where they fall on the hierarchy, because we find some bodies more unacceptable than others.

So now, I’m looking at this body of mine—I’m looking at me—embodied in deep brown skin, thinning hair, distended belly, noodlie arms an all. And, damn it, I am fancy and fine. And so are you.

Untold

Within a day or so, I’m posting a new piece on my Patreon site. It describes a practice in my writing process I call “examining,” which I use to move from drafting to organizing what I’ve written.

But working on it has started me thinking more generally about examination, because what I think that means—and the ways I go about it—say so much about my view of the world and my level of self awareness.

For all my writing life, I’ve used writing as a place for revelation. From the beginning, putting words down on a page also has had a visceral appeal, the exciting magic of creating where only moments before there was only a blank space. The visual appeal of the letters themselves. The solitude and quiet focus it affords me. And I’d be lying if I denied that part of that appeal comes from the power to possibly move others.

But along with those sensations, writing has helped me perceive emotions or ideas or beliefs I hadn’t been aware of before I wrote them down. No other activity serves that purpose as well, and I find it incredibly satisfying. When I write, I can say what a moment before had been unsayable, even to me.

My drafting about examination over the past week or so, though, made me realize that writing also offers a convenient place to hide.

Isn’t that part of why I revise? When I look at what I’ve written and find I’ve let too much of myself show. When I say too directly what my audience might not like to hear. When I decide to preserve the readers’ comfort over telling a crucial truth.

But let’s be fair. I’ve done that as much for myself as for the reader. I’ve done that because I haven’t wanted to confront how much the reader’s approval has all too often meant to me. I’ve done it because being more direct meant showing something about myself that might diminish me in some readers’ eyes. I’ve done to hide aspects of my identity. I’ve done it because I have truths that I don’t want to see to closely, that I’m not ready to wrestle with.

Any given piece of writing offers a thousand places to hide. A writer can disappear behind a certain level of diction, either high or low. I can circle around the tender spots of a subject, the places where people most heatedly disagree, creating a common ground that everyone can stand, but which also hides that solving the problem will mean someone will have to move.

And when you get good at that dance, it can become a hard habit to break. The longer I pull it off, the more can be at stake.

It makes me wonder about the writers who experience success and become permanently blocked or who never publish again. The conventional explanation is that the “well has run dry,” that they can no longer come up with ideas they trust they can execute successfully.

But there’s another possibility: that saying any more would take them—and/or their readers—too close to the core of who they are. That it might strip them too bare. Maybe it’s not that they have nothing more to say, but that they’re unwilling to risk the costs.

As much as writing can free me, it can also become a minefield.

Eugene O’Neill, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, wrote one of his most powerful works, Long Day’s Journey into Night, then directed that it not be produced until after he was dead. I wonder whether, as a writer, he couldn’t find it in himself to bury his truth, but as a son and brother, he also couldn’t bear to face what the world would have to say about something that literally struck so close to home.

My recent examination has revealed a new level of what I already knew, but that age has changed my way of understanding. Writing conceals at least as much as it reveals; it keeps secrets even while confessing. When I examine my writing, I’m not just delving into the world of words and syntax and subject and structure; I’m delving into myself. And writing is about coming to terms with, and sometimes silencing, what I find.

Distemper

Yesterday I realized that without noticing it I’d fallen again into a fever. As usual, I’d been this way for days before I knew it. When this happens, my spirit descends into disarray. Bits of reality leak away.

Between sitting up in bed and walking to the chest of draws, I can easily misplace half the nation before I even dress. When I turn out the pockets of the pants I’ve worn the previous day, bits of my history tumble out into the laundry bin. Pieces of awareness slip with the water down the drain of the kitchen sink. I read the news and instantly feel I’ve lost whole segments of the population; epochs of history evaporate.

I also lose closer and more tangible possessions: pleasure in the presence of my children; gratitude for how fortunate I am; connection with what normally gives me joy; even belief that I am or can be desired or loved.

I think I’ve always been this way. It comes from lifelong dissonance between what the culture has told me to keep and discard, and the things that bring me life.

Since childhood, I’ve heard the culture instruct me on which questions and elements of myself to lose. At home it was the wondering about my parents’ discord, about their bursts of anger and the boundaries that arbitrarily rose and fell. In reading and TV, it was about the nature of the war and social discord that flashed across the screen. And about why virtually none of the good guys I encountered in the culture looked like me. In church, I learned to keep a certain deity, but throw any questions about his temperament and rules away.

From my mother and at school, we practiced “proper” ways to speak and write. They taught me how to dress, and how to seek success, and what that was supposed to mean for someone brown like me. And yes, I made a dutiful student; I obeyed their injunctions well and reaped the visible rewards: Good grades, the approval of the right authorities, praise, assurances that I had promise.

Of course, much of what they wanted me to lose turns out to be essential. And though I was confused, something in me knew. So while I wrote for their approval, I also kept, often involuntarily, a secret stash of bits and pieces they had told me to discard.

I still gripped tightly the stubborn non-linearity of my mind.

I still perceived as cartoonish and surreal the landscape of normality the culture pushed.

I continued to bath in the warm waters of language from wherever it flowed.

And eventually I even spit out the sweetened hope that they tried to pour down my throat, and binned their smooth, slippery arcs of history and progress.

But life surrounded by the din of values you don’t believe in also takes a toll. Especially these days, as these values have roared to the fore with deadly results: this looking-glass world that spins simple acts of safety as oppression; that puts wealth above the efforts to preserve lives; that tells me to seek salvation in selfishness; that excuses murder in the name of protection; that denies humanity to any kind of difference.

So I find myself falling, again, into the fever of these times.

I wrestle even more that usual with my depression. Anxiety accumulates in my head at night, shattering my sleep into fragments and making me, during the day, a collection of jagged edges and fear. But this much I always remember eventually: Words are my way back. Where I am now is not where I’ve always been. Today I’m trying to write my way out. In naming my dis-ease, I feel the fever break; I’m coming home to me.

Contemplations

Contemplations while waiting for the riot not to reach me

  1. Something terrible is happening somewhere in the world, even if everything is quiet and fine where I am.
  2. There are people laboring to make whatever terrible things are happening more terrible.
  3. Becoming a member of either group doesn’t happen by default. Taking action doesn’t in and of itself make me helpful or terrible; not taking action doesn’t in and of itself either.
  4. There are people trying to make the terrible things better.
  5. I need to decide which of those people I want to be.
  6. Always rest when I need to.
  7. Never forget that I need to.
  8. By myself, I can’t prevent terrible things.
  9. By myself, I can’t make things terrible happen.
  10. Darkness doesn’t make anything or worse. It’s how I approach it that matters.
  11. Light doesn’t make anything better or worse. It’s how I approach it that matters.
  12. Existence is more difficult for some people than for others.
  13. I can be a person who tries to narrow that disparity, or I can be a person who tries to exploit it.
  14. Remember to breathe slowly whenever I can.
  15. I need to stop convincing myself that I know what’s going to happen, because I don’t.
  16. If I think I know what’s going to happen and I end up being right, I need to realize that was likely just luck.
  17. Everything that happens—inside me, around me, in the farthest reaches of existence—is far more complicated that I can imagine.
  18. Each choice I make makes a difference in the world.
  19. I’ll never fully know what that difference will be. I’ll  never know how much or how little my actions matter.
  20. So let that shit go.
  21. If I make a choice and things turn out the way I want, that doesn’t mean I determined the outcome. Correlation does not equal causation.
  22. Each moment, I make the most important decision of my life, which is who I’m going to be right then and there, and why.
  23. The most important decision I make about my life does isn’t what I want to achieve.
  24. Each moment, when I make the most important decision, I need to remember again to breathe slowly.
  25. Where I end up in my life is not in my control.
  26. Who I end up being in my life is in my control.
  27. I can choose to try to do good, but if I’m dishonest–especially with myself–about who I am, my best intentions will likely go awry.
  28. When I’m sitting up at night, thinking that I can keep bad things from happening or make good things happen, I need to lighten up.
  29. I can be in the world as I truly am, or I can deform who I truly am. Neither is easy, but there’s no third way.
  30. Everything I’ve put on this list is only my best guess. I really don’t know much.
  31. Except about the breathing thing. Don’t forget that.