The best thing is the way we seep into each other’s lives. One day you’ve been friends long enough to make a tree…
And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up in her throat. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.”
It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” ― Toni Morrison, Sula
I love teaching. I’m a decent instructor and a good guide. And, any success I have had as a teacher, I attribute to two things: 1.) I like and am interested in people, and, 2.) I enjoy figuring things out and sharing what I know. With both literature and art, I delight in the inner workings and the larger implications of “the text”, and I sincerely believe that “the text” can — must — come to bear in significant ways in our daily lives. Which is a little sad, come to think of it, as it has been years since I’ve read or seen something that I’ve enjoyed without pulling at it even a little bit. Alas.
Maybe I was born this way, but I don’t think so. See? Even now I’m tugging at the edges of my being (navel-gazing, I think they call this). I think it happened at the piano. Me now at this keyboard is me then, alone, supposed to be practicing but instead playing a high note over and over and over again listening for something. My piano teacher, Ms. Harriet, she was a great teacher: she told me stories about the composers until I started to dream of them (Beethoven and Bach and Mozart came to me in a nightmare once), she would replay what I asked her to soft and then loud and then fast and then slow to let me try out my ideas, she would listen to what I was doing when I tried something new with a piece. She was very present. And then she moved to Scotland. My other piano teachers were interesting in and of themselves, but Ms. Harriet did a great job of listening along with me. Maybe, at times, I emulate her. No… it’s not emulation. It is an echo.
I don’t know how to do through the computer what is best done one-on-one with a pencil and a whiteboard and digressions and smiles and a dictionary and a quick internet search or a library… It’s hard. I try. I know that my father has great respect for independent thinking and that my mother does not tolerate anything half-assed. I know that Mrs. Stroup laughed at naive Billy Budd and that my Shakespeare professor in college said, with body shaking enthusiasm, that Invisible Man is the Great American Novel (taking British Lit. from Black professors is a superior experience).
All of this circles my mind because I’ve been listening to Glenn Gould play Beethoven and compared two of his interpretations to the “more faithful” less “self-important” versions that I find too sentimental, too much of this world and too little of what is and can be. I don’t play piano anymore, so I can only listen as an artist who has an artist’s memory of the piano. It occurred to me last night that Gould was — in particular — interested in the piano as an instrument and in music as a phenomenon as connected to that instrument. I can imagine being terribly annoyed with someone who comes in to do one thing and then does his own thing that is a semblance of the one thing but is ultimately an experiment. This world doesn’t tolerate too much of that sort of thing. Oh, well, I enjoy listening for what he adjusted between those two versions of his. There’s an aching in the one that I prefer…
Variations on a theme isn’t always about winning, though. This week, coincidentally, or not, given the pandemic, my friend and I read three essays on grief by Black women writers. Each essay is a _ vantage point on void. What is the “_”? “Essential”? “Honest”? “Raw”. Immaculately polished because that is their work and raw. Each essay is a raw vantage point on void. Not “the void” left in the wake of the loss of a loved one, not “the void” that is there waiting, gaping until we turn to face it. Void. We hurtle through space.
Yesterday, my brilliant friend and I were talking about a certain Midwestern photographer, who, in my opinion, while exceedingly good at the thing he does, does that thing in the most entitled way possible. There’s very little critical reflection apparent in his work, and that allows him to go to places and make photographs that, if one were prone to critical reflection, might give one pause for thought. That’s convoluted. His position in the world as a white American man has, for his whole life, allowed him to go anywhere and photograph anything however he likes without any sort of hesitation. I would even guess that he approaches the logistics of working as a photographer as part of the fun of his work rather than legitimate points of sociopolitical tension in the world we share. That’s less convoluted, no?
While my friend and I were talking, I said, several times, that this man’s work is good, very good, but that he comes across as dick to me. It’s a feeling that I can’t shake. I also said that, because he’s established in a very particular way in a very particular city, that it doesn’t really matter that he’s a dick. If confronted with the possibility of his dickishness (he won’t be; he’s too available and amiable), it wouldn’t even register, so unassailable is the fortress of his solid guy rightness. I ran down a list of photographers working in a similar vein to juxtapose his work. The internet is fantastic when you’re looking to put your finger on a thing that irks you. After considering one of his projects, I said, this is like Diane Arbus without the sex. My friend said, like in Manhattan, “Diane Arbus with none of the wit”. That led us to Woody Allen’s Match Point – the movie that made me realize that Woody Allen, like the photographer in question, is only sophisticated to a very particular kind of American guy and those who would characterize that guy as sophisticated.
My friend and I exchange articles and essays. We rove the internet looking for pieces of ourselves. For me, that means hidden Grenadians and Jamaicans and Canadians, Francophone Caribbeans and Africans, Black people with British New Wave fetishes and strong opinions on Joy Division, unapologetically goth Latinos, artists and designers in turmoil over the point of their work, people at war with the things they “do”. At Howard, it dawned on me that there is a whole universe of history, of thinking that one must work diligently to know. It isn’t lesser, it isn’t slim, it isn’t an “alternative”, you don’t do it to be cutting-edge. When I came to that awareness, I decided I would have to do the proverbial “twice-the-work” to engage with things I’d have to work to know and simultaneously handle information that is widely propagated.
There is humility in this kind of working to know. It is a humbling process. But it isn’t humbling in the way that learning a camera is humbling. It isn’t you and the machine, you and the moment wherein you create the image. It humbles you in the face of your forebearers and the people with whom you share the world today. I think that’s the part that’s missing from this photographer’s work; to my eye, he’s clearly in conversation with the “greats” of photographic history, but he doesn’t really give a shit about the people with whom he currently shares the world.
I’m prone to lectures because I’m a teacher. But before I was a teacher I was a photographer at war with my medium. And, after I became a teacher, I became an artist. I am all of these things at once, and wrestle constantly with how each one exists in community. I hesitate to say it’s a better way to be in the world, but it’s a better way to be in the world. (I have a friend who says I’m an asshole; I don’t know how different that is from being a dick, it might not be too far. I do know I’m self-righteous, but only because I’m right.)
I’d had the article open for three days. I waited until the weekend to read it. I didn’t read it yesterday as my friend and I were having so much fun talking shit about our “betters”. I had no idea it was a photo essay until I opened the article today. And I know exactly how that Editor’s Note happened.
- I don’t think it matters anymore that “they” see “us” because we see them;
- #1 is why there are suddenly (well, not suddenly if you’ve been paying attention) attacks on the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory;
- My wonderful friend made a point about that particular city and its art scene: “So much is at stake in being on top of things; if you’re not on the cutting edge, you’ve already lost.”
- Imagine thinking that – even after a tour de force like The Case for Reparations – no one in Chicago, Chicago! had come up with a way to visually interrogate that city’s inequalities. The arrogance! How incurious.
- (My mother thinks it’s pure plagiarism.)
My studio is starting to feel cozy, fertile, more and more like Jasper and Janice’s house in the 2006 film Children of Men (minus the abundant plant life). In that world, a 2008 flu pandemic has rendered humanity infertile. Nearly 20 years later, refugees pour across England’s borders only to be trapped in cages and camps. Agitators clash with militarized forces. Pollution scars the landscape. Schools rot. The rich live as they always have. Kee, miraculously, is pregnant, and Theo is charged by his (ex-?)wife Julian with shepherding Kee to The Human Project. Standard dystopian fare, but so good right now!
In 2011’s Contagion, there aren’t any Jasper’s houses, only paper doll suburbs and artificially lit institutions juxtaposed with radioactively colored Asian casinos, open-air markets, landscapes. Although sanitized, self-interested, and ghastly dull like the protagonist Mitch,1 the United States is singular in its desire to avoid/cure the bat-pig plague — at everyone else’s expense, of course.
Smashed between Children of Men and Contagion, we’re the stupid version of the of stories. In these movies, humanity is either overwhelmed by disease that moves too fast or the consequences of disease deliver a global blindside. We, however, ugh… have no excuses.
I suppose if COVID-19 killed swiftly without regard for age and underlying conditions or rendered us barren, we’d have no choice but to take it seriously.
On the other hand, since the outbreak started not even a year ago, globally, it has killed almost 650,000 and infected upwards of 16 million people. In the States alone, we’ve lost more than 145,000 people and have more than 4 million infections. Here in Florida, things are particularly dismal: we were doing SO WELL right up until the week before Memorial Day when we reopened, so now we have over 6,000 dead and more than 440,000 infections with no end in sight unless we go back to widespread shutdown.
There’s a theory from Fredric Jamison that intrigues me. My interpretation is thin, I know it, likely simplistically off the mark, but he suggests that science fiction, rather than speculating about or predicting it, writes the future.
Let’s tell some better stories, eh?
- Matt Damon to his credit, is as good being sanitized, self-interested, and ghastly dull here he was a thrilling, grasping quick study in The Talented Mr. Ripley ↩︎
It occurs to me that when one has invested a great deal of time and effort into a thing, should that thing suddenly become obsolete, one can be reluctant to let it go.
Patterns of behavior that I’d devised for a world where white supremacy is an open secret suddenly feel obsolete because “white supremacy” can be said without only conjuring images of white-cloaked hooded ghouls. And I find myself looking a touch wistfully at some of the (perhaps) now needless but clever ways I’d devised for dealing with that specific form of white supremacist oppression.
The idea of going “incognegro”, taking care my Black business but stealthily so, was such fun! Knowing that the structure and many of the people in it didn’t take into account that we could have understandings or agendas beyond the obvious meant that there was quiet space to operate below awareness. There’s liberty in being underestimated and freedom if one can live happily without needing a certain type of acknowledgement.
But with many of our understandings and agendas now out in the open, that’s all changed. I could continue as before; I suppose it’d keep them guessing — because they are looking now. Are they seeing? Does it matter? Hmm! New questions…
In any case, my “old” way no longer feels like living, no matter how shrewd.
Time for new strategies.
Two very strange things, the same thing, but different things, are happening. 1. I find myself starting to imagine living my life without making a certain type of calculation. 2. I see that every decision I have made has taken into account a white supremacist reality — even my choices that have come down on the side of life, I have weighed in acknowledgment of this racist system.
You know, I’ve known that DuBois’ double-consciousness — rather than a gift like second sight — is a strategy, but I didn’t realize how much weight I carry because I “understood” that this system just “is”.
Several years ago, it occurred to me that there’s no winning at this; since then, I’ve said it to myself and others over and over and over again. There is no winning at this. When I say it to myself, it’s an admonition to find real things, to cut through the plastic. Now I see that I assumed that the plastic would be, always. Even though I had my own little theory about what could happen, I lived according to it with no expectation of it coming to pass in any obvious way.
What is clear to me now is that the work does bear fruit — has borne fruit — and must continue.
This morning begins the same as March 14; I’m watching the reflection of the sunrise in the leaves and branches of the laurel oak tree.
These days, there are more cars out on the roads and fewer people walk the neighborhood paths. I remain, however, hunkered down because each time I weigh the consequences of doing things as I’d done vs. not doing anything at all, I come down on the side of stillness. At this moment, in my estimation, staying still is both a luxury and a service and a determination I’m curious to know if, how many, and for how long others’ have calculated the same.
This is the point in the crisis where clear thinking leaders are supposed to articulate a way forward. That is not going to happen. What, I think, is actually happening is that masses of people are desperate for things to return to normal and are thus thoughtlessly moving in that direction. But, normal is over. The ground has, globally, shifted under our feet.
Two friends and I were talking last night in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It was clear that we, immigrants all, Latino and Asian and Black, have always had the ground shift under our feet for various reasons. Normal never really is a thing for us. There have always been unknowns and tricks, dangers and threats. We’ve managed our individual terrain differently to one another, but thoughtful awareness, solid reads of our situations, and tenacity seem to have kept the three of us steady.
I offer suggestions on ways forward:
- Think in terms of being connected to people not systems;
- Test ideas from multiple perspectives;
- Live with ideas for a long, long time before laying claim to them;
- Identify and challenge the values that hold together systems and groups of people;
- Be honest about feelings and desires;
- Extrapolate worst-case and best-case scenarios seven years back and seven years forward;
- If this time feels like an opportunity to take stock of and shore up material and intangible resources, act accordingly;
- If this time feels like a massive obstacle to carefully crafted plans, decide what moving ahead under these circumstances really requires;
- If this time has rendered plans obsolete, mourn;
- Acknowledge the futility and meaninglessness of most things;
- Respect life and living;
- Recognize — really understand — that things did not have to go down like this at all;
- Make and enact a plan to participate in civic life.
As I reread Fitzgerald’s magnum opus The Great Gatsby to prepare my lesson plans for our second week of online learning, it occurs to me that, at some point, an artist has to stop taking in information and start shaping what is felt and known into their own articulation. At some point, the artist has to admit, accept that what is unknown must — for just a while — remain so.
This is not a first world country. Too many of the markers of what makes a nation’s standard of living top-tier are only available for purchase at very high cost for the United States to be awarded a blue ribbon for our quality of life. Potential is not actuality. And the thing that stymies American greatness — again and again, year in and decade out — is the notion that greatness lies in an individual’s ability to exhibit superiority.
Here we are. Without healthcare in the middle of a pandemic and too ill-informed and disconnected to act accordingly when we are being misled by woefully unprepared and shockingly uninterested leaders.
There is potential. Our diversity of experience and perspective, our multiple drives to self-actualize, if they existed within a civic framework built around the interconnected nature of life rather than scarcity and competition, could take us very far. I know that it’s possible.
Already — 11 days into this — my mother predicts that people worldwide are going to change how we interact with one another. This is a terrifying idea to me.
I spent my childhood in English-speaking Canada in an Anglo-Caribbean family. While friendly (the Canadians) and expressive (the Caribbeans), we maintain our space. We’re ace talkers and most of us like to socialize, but we don’t typically hug; we’re pat on the shoulder people with our closest friends.
Americans are VERY different. When I moved here, holy, you guys! Americans are huggy and pokey and bumpy!!! Back when we were in college, my best friend said she wished my family gave me more hugs, and I was perplexed. I felt fine. It’s only now, after 15 years of teaching in an American high school filled with students who have grown up in physically demonstrative families and communities that I understand that my friend associated belonging and care and support and love not just with enduring presence but with touch. It’s another way of being, and, if my mother is right, its alteration will be a huge loss for human culture.
I have a few prognostications of my own:
- The office park is dead. I can’t see any business that’s trying to save money keeping cubicle farms as overhead if they’re able to operate with cubicle farmers farming from home. They’ll eventually streamline and maintain space for actual working meetings;
- The mall is deader;
- Long live the actual grocery store! My neighborhood Publix is KICKING the local Whole Foods’ ASS in terms of stock because it is in ONE LINE OF BUSINESS;
- Amazon, on the other hand, has human resources and logistics problems…;
- White, and now, middle-class Other flight. Should mismanaged pandemics become the norm, and there’s little indication that that’s not the case, who wants to be cooped up in an overpriced two-by-two alone or with others for days, weeks, months on end? This will be especially true for those who work from home. People are going to move from cities to suburbs in droves;
- People will feather the fuck out of their nests;
- To the detriment of older teachers, adjunct professors of all ages, and students’ mental health and learning, high schools and colleges will offer more courses online.
These things are obvious, but, as in the past, I don’t see we Americans on a whole making adjustments to account for what the above eventualities will mean beyond immediate, individual impulses that lead in those directions. We may be, at the moment, warm and fuzzy, but deep reflection isn’t an American cultural norm.
Full-on dystopia is listening to The Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” on YouTube at 1:30 AM after hearing it (and whistling and dancing along) the morning before at Publix (and then coming home for a long, hot shower…)