My dad quotes poems. He knows whole, long poems by heart, and, at the perfect moment, he’ll say a line or a stanza:
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.1
My mind remembers scenes in movies, and, at the moment, the replay is this single line from The Bourne Identity:
When I first watched the film, that line destroyed the spy-vs-spy – or, rightly, assassin-vs-assassin – world I’d been immersed in for the previous hour-and-a-half. ‘Look at what they make you give.’ Suddenly, a finger pointed outside the movie frame, past the theatre walls, beyond the world I share with my loved ones, to an invisible ‘they’ who, ultimately, wield power over what the rest of us give. The movie is well-directed, so by the next scene, I was once again in its universe and not my sinister own.
But days and weeks and months and years later, now, when I’m here exhausted and alone, I hear that line. ‘Look at what they make you give.’
I’m teaching my students to write. They’ve yet to write a word of the essay that they’re to deliver, but already, I’m burned out because in order to write, they have to read, and to read, they have to question, and to question, they have to be engaged. So, I’m taking them, line by line, argument by argument, historical point by historical point, present-day implication by present-day implication through MLKs Vietnam speech. We’ll do it again next week with Thomas Paine’s The Crisis #1 and Patrick Henry’s Speech at the Virginia Convention and again the week after with Baldwin’s Letter to his nephew and with Morrison’s Rootedness and with Hurston’s How it Feels… Weeks of break down and analysis and synthesis just so that they have the foundation to write critically. It’s what has to be done for my job to be done correctly.
But I have seven classes (what’s 25 x 7?) and many students in serious crisis. I don’t have a break during the day. I do have a life of my own that I want to lead. I did fall asleep for an hour before I had the wherewithal to finish this post. The system I’m in could be reconfigured to make the above process healthier – for everyone involved. However, it is designed to be as untenable, as cruel as possible.
I always wonder if others pick up on similar things. I’ve never assumed I was the only one, but rarely do I get confirmation. Recently, however, reading one of the many higher education newsletters to which I subscribe, I came across a reference to this scene. The writer, Elizabeth Rodwell, is also in education:
I wrote in my field notes while living in Japan: “I am no longer willing to sacrifice my family and relationships for my work. This is a transformation, a reversal of my priorities.” And as I cried to a friend: “It’s not worth it to me to put so much into my career that when I come home at night it’s only to the clinking of my keys in the bowl by the door, my own voice echoing in the silence.”
At first, I was going to write that this ‘look at what they make you give’ phenomenon is true across many lives in contemporary American society, and I’m still convinced that it is. But now I am fascinated – and a bit terrified – of its implications on students’ lives and educators’ lives. Why would ‘they’ require ‘this’ of ‘us’?2 It still feels sinister.3
It’s Black History Month, yo.
I’ve became obsessed with two music videos. Neither is particularly new; albums with both songs were released in 2014 and 2015 respectively. And, although I came across them this past summer, sometimes it takes a while for things to take root. So, it wasn’t until the fall, when culture revives, that these songs became my referents. Fall in South Florida is verdant, bright, humid.1 These songs are stark. Both videos deal with space, technology, and feature blank whiteness and voids of black. Both videos have a solitary man as protagonist. It was a strange fall, to say the least. It haunts me. Sometime around the autumnal equinox, something slipped/tripped/stumbled, changed course.
That’s why, I think, I gravitated toward Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color and its corresponding video:
An error in programming and, poof! trapped alone, adrift. How must it feel to face the universe with no tangible connection to generative life but a wedding band?
I know this story. It’s Space Oddity, it’s Moon, it’s Captain America.2 And yet, I’m obsessed with the shape of this man’s fingernails, the way the light catches his eyes and reminds me of my own eyes. And when his wife and son, swings and the beach, a sunset, a playground, birthday cake and candles flash across his mind and across my screen, I think about the history that made those moments possible for us. And I think about the mission that asked him to risk it all.
The song that anchors the video is analog warm and unflinching; in its opening notes, I hear strains of Nearer My God to Thee, and then, toward the end, Brittany Howard sings I want to touch a human being. Yeah. I wish I never gave it all away…
I am on the ocean sailing adjacent to the North American continent, sailing northeast, sailing home. Distance isn’t what I thought it was. On this trip, I learned you have to go there to know there. Or, rather, you have to go there to know here. I understand now why the hero must journey away for a time only to eventually return home. I also understand that home is a collective project.
Damon Albarn has a gift for melody, for melancholy. He gets credit for his abilities, but I don’t think it’s respect: his music is so pretty! his adoration of other cultures’ music is too unabashed. For the well-informed, liking a guy like him too much is dangerous as he’s liable – at any moment – to be too popular or to transgress and offend. With the song Everyday Robots, however, he manages to pull off Semitic-sounding strings, Global South percussion, Hip-Hop’s looping, and a vernacular sample of a stand-up comedian. There are echoes, too, of Radiohead, his arch rivals for respect, in the title and in the piano that anchors the song. Yes, Albarn wears his influences on his sleeves, but he’s fearlessly earnest, and I respect that.
Even before seeing the completed 3D model at the end, the watcher knows that the head that’s being generated throughout the video for the song is Albarn’s. It’s a gesture that doesn’t seem hubristically self-involved; in the way that, or, more rightly, because white men and their images have been made to define ‘human’, the watcher knows that the head is Albarn’s and symbolically – perhaps potentially – the watcher’s as well.
The video is hypnotic. It follows rhythms within the song. It answers questions like, ‘Do you want to see this side? Inside? How does this look to you?’ I can almost feel my hand on the mouse or stylus or keypad pointing and clicking bones into place and smoothing lips and fingering hair. The video is seductive.
It is also, obviously, a speculative death mask for everyday robots getting old…
And I find myself generally unconscious of it for the vast majority of the video, but when I am aware of Albarn’s voice and the lyrics, the child-like legibility of his singing is heartbreaking.3
- As opposed to our overgrown, blinding, sweltering summers or our winters that bloom and glow and breeze or our springs when the earth smells fresh and trees are ripe with mangoes. We do have four seasons. ↩︎
- Its absurdly optimistic opposite is Gravity. ↩︎
- This is where, I think, Albarn bests Thom Yorke: Yorke’s Expressionist singing only works when the listener is in whatever mood the song conveys; although his writing is too straightforward, Albarn’s voice is always lovely and compelling and always perfectly accompanied. ↩︎
REDACTED and REDACTED were in line at the Canadian border for six hours trying to cross into the US. They weren’t going to the Women’s March, but their slow crossing was because US border officials were looking for and identifying, finger printing and then turning away potential protestors – regardless of their citizenship status.
REDACTED said that Women’s March in DC was different to stereotypical protests: the mood was ‘authentic’ not sensational; there was a wide variety of protesters including women and men of color; but, yes, protesters were primarily white women of different ages and backgrounds.1
- I’m recording as much anecdotal history as I think of as we make it through however long this lasts. We’re going to have to remember what happened. Who knows what the ‘official’ record will look like… ↩︎
I’m burned out. For reasons too mundane to go into, I haven’t left the house. But, from my screens, I watched the Women’s March unfold across the world.1 And. I am so thankful! I’m sure I’m not the only one too tired, too burdened to get up and do much these days beyond ruminate, plan, vision, and meet the demands of my regular routine. I’m so thankful for the multitudes of people who moved their bodies in a show of solidarity with each other and the vulnerable and against the forces of white supremacy and oppressive patriarchy.
The things I’ve learned and seen in the last 48 hours alone… have served to confirm for me that we are in a terrible, terrible, terrible position.
The things I’ve learned and seen in the last 48 hours alone… have served to confirm for me that we are very powerful.
Let us carry the image of all of these people gathered against the forces of fascism; we, the people, are so atomized that in our daily lives, that when it is incumbent upon us to stand up as individuals, the image of those who gathered to protest will energize us.
Let us to talk to each other, listen to each other, and tell the truth of our experiences.
I didn’t cut my hair – I washed it. I didn’t wear a black tent dress – I wore my yellow and black skull sneakers. I did light a candle. I did yoga.1 I didn’t take the day off. Actually doing the thing, meeting the day, is rarely, if ever, as imagined. And so it goes.
Without tv broadcasts, without seeing plumes of smoke through my window, this morning felt to me very much like 9/11, and my conclusions about how we’ve arrived at this moment are, interestingly, very similar to the ones I arrived at then.
I’ve been thinking of the town’s reaction to Sula’s return:
Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst.2
In Sula, this excerpt describes a specific group’s reaction to a specific character. The passages leading up to and away from it detail the Bottom’s suspicions of Sula and give insight into who Sula actually is and why. But, forget that for a moment; for my purposes, this quote describes what I see happening on ‘the Left’. We’re straightening up and flying right3 now that we are outnumbered in every branch of the Federal government – and in many State and local governments, too. What were we doing before? What does it even mean to be ‘on the Left’?
It’s not that I abdicated my civic responsibilities – I’m a public high school teacher, for crying out loud, ideas of community ground my art practice. But I could have done more. I know it. In all honesty, I figured that I’d teach public high school at a ‘school like REDACTED‘ and focus on getting the message of higher education to as many first generation kids as possible. In my art practice, I work with community-sourced narratives and embed my work in community. I explicitly said to myself, ‘My job is my civic engagement’. I explicitly said to myself, ‘I am a community-based artist’. One person can only do so much.
For the last eight years, when terrible things happened, I knew that President Obama’s response would be researched, thoughtful, measured, respectful. I took solace knowing that the public face of the nation projected ideals that I as an individual hold dear. Because he did the public job of showing up, reflecting, explaining, and comforting with humanity, I didn’t have to do anything beyond my work as an educator and artist and feel my pain and outrage.
But now, I don’t think that’s enough.
I’ve had a creeping suspicion that without targeted community dialogue and involvement, the students I send to college, give or take an extraordinary few, will go off and do what’s been done before. They’ll get jobs, have families, be decent people. But, as a teacher and mentor, I have never set as an explicit expectation or mandate ‘We – you included – need to work toward expanding to others the opportunities we’ve had.’ I have a sinking suspicion that colleges are no longer reliably the bastions of ranging thought and idealistic possibility that I remember. Rather, they’re becoming more like public K12 schools that are now hosts to special-interests, standardized testing, corporate influence, the demand for ever-increasing revenue, and entities that seek to dismember and reconfigure them entirely. As an Alum, I didn’t give back and I am certainly not involved in any conversation about how Howard, FAU, or MCAD should move forward.
I should have been more strategic.
There is a part of me that thinks that holding it down right where I am, being excellent at these things that I do – where ‘excellence’ includes wrestling with the importance of and extending my own civic engagement – might be a way forward.
And, of course, for me, ‘the Left’ is where ‘a way forward’ is shaped.4 Very simply, to be conservative is to reserve, to hold on to, to hold back, and, to be liberal is to share, to consider, to flex. Sharing is important to me. The things I’ve learned have made my life so rich that I cannot help but share them with others. As a teacher, I would rather work with other teachers rather than compete – and if you don’t think we compete… As an artist, I would rather work in the same room if not always collaboratively than hide my work until it’s ready for the world in fear that my ideas will be stolen. Competition is what happens in a capitalist environment. We implicitly teach capitalism to toddlers even as we explicitly teach them to share. But some of us have to share in order to survive. Our communities exist through sharing, through flexing at the edges to let people who want in in and those who want out out, through consideration of perspectives other than our own to make it for another generation.
No matter how center-Left President Obama is, notions of sharing, of considering, and flexing are the heart that guides him as a public servant. It is obvious. It is undeniable. And now he is gone from the most powerful office in the world. So, for anyone who is interested in the wonderful sharing that can happen in public schools, in the consideration and dynamism that art nurtures in communities, we no longer have in that space someone who fundamentally gets it – regardless of his approach. We have to do it ourselves now. And I think, perhaps, should we ever have a representative like him in that place/space again, we should remember that we have to do it ourselves, we should remember what he exhorted us to do at the beginning and at the end of his time in office:
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.
- Interesting thing about yoga: I can do the same movement every morning for years and, yet, inevitably, one morning – as I did this morning -, I discover something new about that movement. ↩︎
- I really wish she’d used an Oxford Comma here. ↩︎
- Puns intended ↩︎
- I refuse to go into the cutesy history of the Left and Right in Parliament during the French Revolution. I just assume it’s now common knowledge – or should be to anyone who uses the term. ↩︎
Let’s take care our ourselves – our health and well-being, our minds. Let’s be excellent to each other. Let’s be mindful stewards of the world around us.