fashions an anchor at the bottom of the ocean
buries it in sandy floor, beyond light or air
deep in darkness, deep in silence
makes each heavy link of the chain
she climbs, breathe held, weight of
water pressing against her lungs,
muscles straining for air. not yet not
rises through the layers, frigid, heavy
thickening with life, desperate with
gives up hope halfway through the
climb, but continues; grieves at
wasted dreams, but still climbs;
embraces despair, dies, is reborn,
fails, dreams again, grows old,
grows senile, grows young again.
until, impossibly, a writer
breaks the surface and builds
on the chain’s high end
a keel, a hull, a ship, a sail
a long string of flags.
The following are lines mined by my mind rather randomly from journal passages I’ve written during the past couple of years. An experiment in the essayistic. An inquiry into what I might divine.
“How can I be out of danger if I’m not dead?”
I have a simple problem that requires a drastic solution. You could think of it as a relationship, this connection between language and me, probably the central relationship of my life in that without it, I have no real way to see and know myself. Some people have other avenues to self awareness and peace: some learn about themselves by moving their bodies, some by making music, some by creating images by pencil or pastel, by carving stone or wielding a camera or a scalpel. But when I want to know by own mind, I have to wrestle with words, and when I don’t, I drift in a landscape I can’t identify or name.
Writing is that thing I cannot cease doing without losing myself. It looks like a world unfolding itself on the page in response to my fingers on the keys. It looks like a line dangling from the end of my pencil point as it glides over a smooth blank page.
With words I conduct experiments in social reality, the same way scientists experiment with material reality. Each statement I make offers a proposition, a theory about the reality we share.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I say.
My neighbor confirms or questions my theory. We bond over a shared truth, a common view confirmed, or I leave the encounter chastened, seeking to test my view again.
I’m trying to learn how to pray again: always a request for presence—whose matters less than the request, the invocation. I’m trying not to press where it leads, to move away from results. So difficult in a world and culture that tabulates everything, that measures by quantity, where more of “good” always means “better.” Let it fall away from me. Let me release these words—not my words—to become what they will be. Let me enter the joy of that exploration. I could claim that Argument attaches itself to me. But, no. The intention comes from me, from a desire for certainty, or at least safety.
Let me drift, onto the rocks, if need be. Onto the sandbars. Let me sink only to float on the next tide, any tide that will find me, that will wash me to where I’m supposed to be.
I’ll start with the small: this moment, this letter, this word. Resist the call of the overarching, of the complete. There will be time for leaning into the future to try to grow what needs to grow.
Start with here: a room in a community center where my son practices soccer while he plays at being who he might be. Let me run run run across this page and feel the speed of risk blow over my skin, see the cinder block walls around me, the television blaring La Liga, the high angled wooden beams and ceiling climbing high toward a skylight leaking gray sky. Battered brown furniture. Flickering fluorescent lights humming. Let a presence to all these be my attempt. Let me in these find a self to occupy this moment.
Strange. How sweet and terrifying the releasing of yearning for results can be.
I have a collection of postcards, a couple hundred.
Conceived of as postcards, I should say, because I’ve never used them for that. I keep them in a red plastic box, the kind used for 5×8 index cards, the kind students used to use, in the days before computers (and maybe even after) as note cards for recording quotations and sources for the research papers they used to write in typewriters, like the Sears manual portable that my mother bought for me when I was in high school. The typewriter I hauled through college and still have tucked under my desk in the bedroom upstairs.
But the cards.
They’re photographs. All but one or two depict people. Faces. Most of them famous. Artists. Writers. Actors. Singers. Jazz musicians. Philosophers and scientists. Dancers. Athletes too, a few. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but almost all the people in them are dead now. Past.
I started collecting them more than twenty years ago, and I don’t think I ever really knew why. I told myself it was because I love photography and images, which is true. I told myself it was because some of the images are of artists of one stripe or another that I admired, and that’s true too.
But that all feels too easy now. More accurate to say that I was looking for something in these postcards that I either found (so I kept collecting them) or I didn’t find (so I kept collecting them).
Sometimes I thought I was looking for the story within each image. Who were these people? Where had they come from? What had they been through? What was happening in their lives when the photo was taken? What were they living with, yearning for, gaining, losing, wrestling with?
Right now, as I write this, the couple hundred photo postcards are lying in a pile at my feet on the bedroom carpet. A pile of moments. A pile of frozen presence.
And I realize that I’ve acquired each of these images not, mainly, for what lies beyond them, not for the universe that surrounded the creation of each one.
They hold me because of the elements that met within the instant that the shutter snapped. They interest me as something complete sliced from the torrent of life. I don’t mean theoretically or historically or biographically or even artistically complete. I mean complete by virtue of their meeting in that moment. A moment bounded and contained by the frame.
The years have made me weary and wary of arguments and histories and narratives and theories. I understand their necessity; I recognize the perspective they give us, which can arm us, in their way, for what may come next. I don’t think them unimportant or useless.
I only mean that I need more of the small, instantaneous meeting of elements: light shadow color object face person scene expression tension motion stillness.
I mean that a kid knows how to perceive, even if not to understand or interpret always the complexity of the moment. And grown-ups know how to leap from inference to inference, how to categorize experiences before they even have them, how to know, how to make, how to own, how to build or break. But grown-ups forget how to perceive. How to experience–sometimes painfully, sometimes helplessly, sometimes gloriously and gratefully, sometimes in stupid awe, sometimes beyond any sense of what we might be feeling—a given moment.
And when I pick up a postcard, I begin to remember what it was like to be caught in a moment that feels as powerful as the big bang. That can give birth to a universe.
I keep the postcards because I want that feeling back. I want to look a moment in the face, and in the sensation, of whatever kind, that it arouses know that I exist. Because sometimes, I’m not sure.
Pick up the deck.
Throw them high.
Examine each mirror, one by one.
The Republican Party’s current presidential nominee has given us a number of unique gifts, but as a lifelong sufferer of mental illness (depression, anxiety), I’m especially drawn to the discourse he’s generated around mental illness. Not a day—or even an hour—passes that some clever wag on Twitter or in the mainstream media questions the nominee’s mental health. Various diagnoses fly. I imagine people hunched over desks, flipping rapidly through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (edition 5, I hope; we need to stay current), searching through lists of symptoms, trying to nail down his specific malady.
But most folks are pretty imprecise. They fall back on the usual generic terms: “unhinged,” “insane,” or, my favorite, “crazy.” And because, as a mentally ill person, I have something of a rooting interest in this discussion, I’ve tried to identify the various meanings of “crazy” that people to exploit (almost always implicitly) as they go about their denigration of mental illness.
The list that follows is not, of course, comprehensive:
Crazy means abnormal.
Crazy means unqualified.
Crazy means entertaining—from a comfortable distance.
Crazy means beneath us.
Crazy means unable to function.
Crazy means you can dismissable because the mentally ill are unmoored from the truth.
Crazy means “liar,” which means we can ignore their claims of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, though also, ironically,
Crazy means “victim.”
Crazy means untrustworthy.
Crazy means unreliable.
Crazy means, at best, someone should be put away because she’s helpless and can’t protect herself.
Crazy means, at worst, someone should be put away because he’s dangerous and we have to protect ourselves.
Crazy lets up pretend that mental illness is always—and only—an internal “problem,” a flaw in the wiring of a given individual, never a sign of our social dysfunction.
Crazy lets us ignore that our culture daily visits mental and emotional trauma on millions of people: the trauma of poverty on individuals, families, especially children; the trauma of sexism and sexual violence on women (straight, lesbian, bisexual, trans, white, and of color), on gay and trans men (white and of color); the trauma of racism on people of color, male and female; the trauma of toxic masculinity; the trauma of ableism.
Crazy excuses Old Aunt Harriet for using the N-word at Christmas get-togethers, even though we all know she’s been talking that way all of her adult life.
Crazy means we don’t have to do anything.
Crazy means we never have to alter our own perspective, our comfort with the world.
Crazy means broken.
Crazy means useless.
Crazy sometimes means uniquely gifted, but with the gift paid for in the form of some sad, irreparable damage. (See the detective series Monk, or numerous depictions of artists.)
Crazy means erratic, unpredictable.
Crazy means sociopathic, psychopathic, psychotic, and therefore evil.
Crazy means immoral.
Crazy means undisciplined.
Crazy means less than human.
Crazy means physically superhuman and therefore frightening.
Crazy means deeply, fundamentally, irredeemably wrong.
Given this list above, let me suggest something.
Let me ask you to imagine an average, ordinary person with mental illness, someone who is a parent, partner, citizen, taxpayer, professional or worker in the trades. Imagine such a person who labors each day to balance all of these elements with medication and/or therapy. Or imagine such a person who struggles alone with mental illness, afraid to reveal himself to family, friends, employer, even life partner as “crazy.”
Imagine the impact on such people when their condition, their mental illness, gets treated as a punchline, a joke, an insult to be hurled at bigots and the morally reprehensible, randomly associated with criminals.
Imagine moving through the world, working as hard as you can to be the best person you can, to function as well as you can, and having your face rubbed in the stigma you know people have toward people like yourself.
Imagine the fear of being known as someone who is “crazy.” Imagine the burden of living with the definitions above.
In short, I’m asking you to engage in a simple experiment of empathy. Not that I’d know anything about that personally, of course. After all, I’m crazy.
“You’re such a slut.”
“He’s white trash.”
“What a retard.”
In a key part of Blackboard Jungle—a film that retains much of its power 60 years after its release—the white teacher at a working class, inner city, “technical” high school urges caution to his multi-ethnic class about directing ethnic slurs at one another, even in jest. What begins in good-natured joking among friends can easily escalate, he tells them, into hostility and even violence.
I mention this to explain why my central takeaway from more than 20 years in academia comes down to a single word: context.
From the meta level (for example, a nonsense word in English is thick with meaning in French) to the most intimate (“Fross,” my brothers’ nickname for me, conflated a TV character’s name with the surname of my 7th grade best friend), words draw their significance from the context in which they’re used.
Quite literally, words never speak for themselves. Their meaning depends on the audience’s and the speaker’s relation to one another, and on the cultural situation in which they interact.
In fact, context seems most irrelevant only when it operates most successfully—that is, when writer/speaker and audience share the same contextual assumptions.
So people who claim that their words can’t be oppressive (because they lacked oppressive intent) reveal not only an ignorance about the nature of racism (prejudice plus power), but about the nature of language.
The meaning of language never belongs only to the speaker.
If no audience finds a word meaningful, that word ceases to be language in any socially functional sense.
And again, the meaning an audience draws always involves the immediate and wider context in which the speaker/writer and audience live.
By any objective measure, race exists as a key context in American culture. Even accounting for other social factors, race clearly influences health, income, education, home ownership, mental health, even sleep.
In the context of racism’s fundamental presence in our culture, what can seem to the speaker like innocuous comments can constitute micro-aggressions, racism by a thousand cuts. See this excellent piece by Andrea Plaid for a list of examples of the many forms micro-aggressions can take.
As in so many cases, the cover-up can exacerbate—or even exceed—the original crime. For examples of that, see the comments accompanying the article mentioned above.
It occurred to me this morning to think of each micro-aggression as a kind of mini cross burning on my daily consciousness.
Of course, I realize that the term “cross burning” itself is inflammatory (pun intended; I’m all for bringing at least gallows humor to the discussion), so let me clarify that I don’t mean the 25-foot cross with the folks in white sheets gathered around. Just a small, marshmallow-roasting size cross. Individually they don’t amount to much. But you might be surprised how, over a lifetime as a person of color (or woman, LGBTQ person, disabled person), the accumulation of thousands of these small fires can generate an enormous amount of spiritual and emotional heat.
Because ultimately micro-aggressions function to minimize the full humanity of the person subject to them. Here are some examples of what they, and the denial of micro-aggressions themselves, communicate:
- I get to decide what’s harmful to you and what’s not.
- I get to decide what should and shouldn’t offend you.
- I get to denigrate and dismiss your feelings when you share with me how my words have affected you.
- I get to question your honesty, your sincerity, your motives, even your sanity just because what you tell me about your feelings makes me uncomfortable.
- I get the luxury of pretending that hundreds of years of racism and cultural oppression have had no impact on me, that I am immune to their effects.
- (This is analogous to the drunk driver pulled over by the highway patrol who insists a few drinks haven’t impaired his driving, forgetting that the first thing alcohol affects is his perception and judgment.)
- I get to dismiss them from history because they don’t harm me, or my children, or my loved ones (unless, of course, you insist on beating that old, dead oppression horse over and over and over again).
I carry that heat around with me more and more each day. You might think that after 54 years it would have diminished, but you would be wrong. And I think about the energy of that heat when I hear criticisms of the aggressive tactics of Black Lives Matters protesters, the inconveniences they cause, the lack of “politeness.”
I think about how those criticisms echo attacks on ACT UP during the worst days of the AIDS epidemic; I recall how the same was said about feminist protests and the migrant farm workers movements of the 60s and 70s, and the antiwar movements. And always the same question: “What are they so angry about?”
The answer is simple: We’re angry about what you can’t see, what you refuse to see. All the little crosses burning in our consciousness. The small crosses you lit and continue lighting. Burning.
A novel doesn’t belong to the writer; a novel belongs to the narrator, whatever point of view the narration employs (single first person, multiple first person, second person, third person limited, third person omniscient). Those who don’t know the difference between the writer and the narrator are often the same people who hunt through a novel in search of the writer’s “meaning.”
When my writing works best, it isn’t because I’ve landed on a meaning. It works because I’ve found a narrator worth listening to, and I gather together what s/he says. I revise to make the narrator’s utterances into as compelling an experience as I can.
As far as plot, the protagonist is the hero of the novel. But as far as the reader’s experience, the narrator is the hero. We only find Gatsby compelling (if we do) because of what and how Nick tells us about him; we can only want to be the Sherlock Holmes that Watson has presented to us. Every part of the world of a novel that works does so because of what the narrator gives us.
There is no such thing as a reliable narrator. There is only that narrator which a particular reader finds trustworthy.
At best, the narrator is only as reliable to me as her world view (which is one reason that, artistically and experientially, I cannot abide Ayn Rand’s narrators). At worst, the narrator is only as reliable to me as his motivations—conscious or unconscious. Again, this applies no matter the point of view.
Reliability, then, is never intrinsic to the work. It is a trick the narrator attempts to play on the reader. Some narrators play this trick badly. The narrator in Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” is one example; so is the narrator of the novel Flowers for Algernon. Most are much more polished in their attempts. But mainly the reliability of the narrator comes down to a judgment on my part as a reader: To what extent do I choose to trust this narrator? And why?
Fortunately, I don’t have to trust the narrator to be engaged by the novel or story. In Poe’s story, I begin to suspect early on that this narrator is unhinged; in Flowers for Algernon, I know that Charley’s limited intellect keeps him from fully understanding the world around him.
I was put in mind of this while considering our country’s current racial strife. The tensions often pivot on the differences between reliability and trust in the judgments we make. It appears to me that many whites—including many white liberals—conflate the terms: They “put their trust” in those they consider “reliable.” These are often those in authority, those who establish and maintain order.
But for many blacks, it can be the very “reliability” of authority figures that renders them untrustworthy. Because that reliability, that consistency, has produced unjust outcomes. Reliable standardized test scores consistently tell us that black intellectual achievement trails that of whites. But those results only hold if I trust certain definitions of learning and certain ways of measuring it, if I trust that the whole range of intellectual ability is being considered, if I trust that the factors that might limit black students’ expression of their ability are being addressed, if I trust that schools are appropriately structured, if I trust that the system is not founded on inequality.
Similarly, my trust in market capitalism, the criminal justice system, the chance for economic mobility, presentations of American history, the government, and various political candidates determines my sense of how reliable they are. Not the other way around. Thus I may find my local police more or less generally reliable, but trust the word of an individual citizen or even a criminal over that of a police officer.
Many whites still believe that we should assume trust in people and structures they consider inherently reliable. But like many blacks, I have come to realize that reliability can be manufactured through the same narrative manipulation that we find in novels and other works of art. We can be induced to find consistency and equity where none exists.
But for us, no more. From now on, my trust will have to be earned.