It’s been a fews weeks since my last post, and that’s because work got busy while I also happened to be nearly immobile on the couch trying to get through the exhaustion and nausea of the first trimester of pregnancy. I’m happy to say that today marks twelve weeks. If you were reading this blog a year ago when I wrote about what led to my long-term writer’s block, you’ll know how much that milestone means.
We’re still adjusting to this new reality, which is thrilling and terrifying. Now that I no longer feel like an alien is sucking the life force out of me (thought IT IS), I’m happy to get back to feeling the wind in my hair as I run or bike, the soil on my fingers as I pull up dying tomato plants (not really because I have to wear gloves to avoid toxoplasmosis, but you know what I mean), and the spark of a new creative idea.
Many years ago, when a good friend had her first child, she said that pregnancy made her extra creative. She wrote and wrote and wrote.Until recently, I cursed her blissful experience because I was so tired that even my brain didn’t want to function, but now I’m starting to get it.
I’ve noticed that I started thinking about my grandparents a lot, which I suppose makes sense because I’m adding to a new generation in the family. My dad’s parents, both deceased, kept showing up in my dreams. Apparently, dreaming of people dying and people already dead is a thing that can happen in pregnancy. (Other things no one told you: stuffy nose, leg cramps, blurred vision that, oh, no problem, will clear up two months after the baby is born! I haven’t had the last yet, just got freaked out when I read about it the other day.)
Dreams get weird in pregnancy, and I’m a little nervous because I already have weird dreams. But apparently dreams about birthing animals instead of humans and bizarre things happening to the baby are totally normal. The other night I dreamt that my husband had drunkenly stashed the baby in a drawer, and we opened every drawer frantically searching for it, only to discover the baby in a pile of drawers we were throwing out. Whatever that means.
Anyway, death dreams. They make sense because death symbolizes major life changes, rebirth, etc. In one dream, my deceased grandmother was taking me through her old house and showing me all this antique furniture that had been passed down through her family. She said, “Here this is for you,” and pointed to a crib.
So my grandparents have been on my mind, and all sorts of memories have been leaking into my daydreams. I found myself writing poems about them, conjuring up the feeling of my grandmother’s smooth cheek against mine and my grandfather’s generous smile and the comforting smell of their house. I discovered a poem I wrote in grad school about a visit to my great-grandmother, the last time I saw her, when the refrigerator door kept bouncing off of her as she dug around inside for the jam cake she had made. I spent some time with the poem and made it better, and it felt like, in some magical way, I was connecting her to this little peanut (that’s what it looked like on the ultrasound) that has some of her in its blood and skin and bones but will never her know her except through words and pictures.
I’ve already had to pass up two amazing work trips (to Turkey and South Africa. Really? They couldn’t have asked me before this?), but I feel like I’m on an adventure that doesn’t end when the plane lands. Every day I learn new things about my body and this creature it’s growing, and my mind is like a cauldron brewing with ideas and dreams. A dream is an idea, no? An idea, a dream.
Take this: there is a heart beating in my body that doesn’t belong to me! And suddenly I’m thinking of Edgar Allen Poe and floorboards and all the places hearts could be secretly thump-thumping.
I know that women have been having babies forever, but it’s like I’m the only person who has ever been pregnant. The other day I was reading a book about it and said out loud to no one, “This thing is going to pee inside me?! Wait, how many pounds am I going to gain?”
I mean, how can these things not get your wheels turning? No wonder when I went to look at monsters on Wikipedia to find a costume idea for my parents’ monster-themed Halloween party, I was bombarded with a disturbing list of birth defects that long ago inspired the idea behind a lot of monsters and demons. (Seriously, Wikipedia, thanks for ruining my day. I just needed something more creative than a vampire.)
But my point is that pregnancy is a weird and wild time, so there’s bound to be a lot of weird and wild notions that come out of it.
A few nights ago we watched David Lynch’s Eraserhead, whose meaning people are constantly debating, and my partner said, “I watched this so many times as a kid. But watching it now, I’m realizing it’s about parenthood.”
Those of you who’ve seen the movie surely know what he means. If you’ve never seen it, well, don’t watch Eraserhead while pregnant. I was worried about the crazy dreams it would give me, but somehow my slumber remained free of skinned dinosaur babies. The lesson, Lynch might say, is to just stop being fearful, right? The difference between wonder and worry.
Here’s to letting go of fear, even in dreams.
A lot of the stuff I think about, however, is really normal and pleasant. Like how much I miss my deceased grandparents and wish I could know them now, adult to adult, and see the joy in their faces at the news of this pregnancy. How people who barely know us react so delightfully when they find out we’re having a baby. How wonderful the world can be when you’re pregnant with a child you want and nothing has gone wrong so far and you read that it already wriggles around in response to your hand on your belly and all your tears are happy tears and outside the weather is glorious and everything you love about fall is on its way and feels like it was made especially for you.
Today is Malala Day, the birthday celebration of Malala Yousafzai, the girl the Taliban shot in the head because she wanted to go to school. That was two years ago, and I am still moved by everything she does. It’s so easy to let life unravel in the face of horrible circumstances, and yet she kept going, keeps going. Her continued existence would have been enough to fight back. Going back to school would have been enough. But Malala skyrocketed, becoming an advocate for girls’ education and a role model for girls all over the world.
Her brave yet peaceful response to the Taliban, and to all who try to hold girls back, is a great lesson for our warmongering leaders, if they took the time to really listen to girls. She doesn’t fight violence with violence; she fights it with education and, more precisely, books. Check out this new video where she explains how books are stronger than bullets.
Malala just turned seventeen. My niece is going on fourteen, and the night before she came to visit us last week my partner and I watched The Punk Singer, the movie about Kathleen Hanna. It got me all fired up about making a mix CD for my niece. (Side note: since the 80s and 90s are back in, will kids start making mix tapes again? Pretty please?) My partner and I started talking about how so much of our values and world views came from the books we found at the library or borrowed from friends, the records we collected from thrift stores and out-of-the way shops, and the zines we traded when we were kids.
My feminist life, for instance, started when I cracked open The Bell Jar and discovered that someone had put my feelings into words. The Color Purple started me on the path to racial and economic justice. When I listened to “Rebel Girl,” Kathleen Hanna was the queen of my world. I devoured these books and records and then I learned about the women behind them, and I finally had an image of the kind of woman I wanted to be.
I wanted to create, to agitate, to express myself. Each book or record was like a window to what could be.
By the end of my niece’s visit, we walked out of a used bookstore, arms piled high with books and CDs. Malala had to face gunmen to get to books; we only had to stroll into a shop the size of a warehouse and take our pick.
Though we in the US are lucky to have access to free public schools, there are a lot of arguments about the state of education here today. Teachers have their hands tied by nonsensical standardized tests that leave children of color further and further behind. To make matters worse, attendance and performance here are affected by everything from street violence and school attacks to dating violence and bullying.
But there is one way we can help young people get at least a little of the education they need. For Malala Day, think about the things that helped you find your way when you were younger, that helped to define who you are today–a book, record, print, poem–and give a copy to a kid.
Books are #strongerthan bullets.
I’ve written before about the need to do something creative every day. It’s how I take care of myself, how I keep from getting stuck. If I’m creating something — whether writing an essay or singing while making dinner, knitting a scarf or turning an old drawer into a nightstand — I’m giving instead of taking, building instead of wasting or wallowing, meditating instead of worrying. What I create might be for someone else or for myself, but the time I spend working on it is all for me. I’m giving back to myself.
The current issue of TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism features Monica J. Casper writing about exhaustion in “Toward a Theory and Praxis of Sustainable Feminism.” We work and tend and advocate, and even when faced with grief and disappointment and health problems, we keep working and tending and advocating. We keep going because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. We take care of everyone but ourselves. There are women in my life who are unable to slow down even though they are getting older. They aren’t interested in humoring the increasing limitations of their bodies because they’ve spent their lives taking care of everyone, so they push through.
At 22, I was at a young women’s leadership workshop in Seattle, and I remember one of the other attendees reacting negatively to the idea of self-care. She said it felt wrong to spend time on herself — get a massage, say, or buy a special dress — when there were people who needed her time and could make better use of the money she would have spent. She didn’t think social justice had room for self-care. Doing something for herself made her feel guilty.
In a world where women have been taught from a young age to tend to the needs of others at all times, self-care is a radical act. And it’s certainly a feminist act.
Likewise, I know people who think creativity is a luxury. They feel guilty spending time on things like writing poetry because it’s something that’s just for them and not anyone else. But that’s self-care, and we truly can do more for others when we have taken care of ourselves.
I’ve been active in the feminist movement for nearly twenty years, and I definitely feel exhausted sometimes. I get tired of politics and want to run away to the mountains to never hear another word about legislation and demonstration. In these moments, diving into a creative project is like finding sanctuary. If I don’t do it, I can’t go back to work. My work is emotionally draining; at some point, the tide goes out. To make it sustainable, I have to find a way to pull the tide back in. My way is art.
In a captivating interview in The Paris Review, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says, “One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense—as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost.”
Take some time this week to think about the ways you reenergize or heal or reclaim yourself. I’m not talking about drinking a bottle of wine and slurping down a pint of ice cream, although those things are enjoyable (until the next day). If you don’t have healthier ways of dealing, try a new creative pursuit. Sketch what you see from your window, go to a salsa dance class, start a journal, make something.
Do something creative every day. Keep it to yourself or share it with others, but keep doing it. Make time for yourself. Cultivate serenity and carry it with you. Be radical.
Sometimes I get in a serious crafting mood, like if I don’t make something with my hands soon, my overloaded brain will collapse. This happens when I’ve been spending too much time on work that’s based on analysis, problem-solving, and decision-making, when my eyes are bugging out from typing and reading spreadsheets or marginalia, and when my neck is nearly frozen from stress and intense focus. My brain feels like it’s made up of all hard lines and sharp edges that will keep filling up my skull like Tetris pieces until my head explodes.
Because I wrote my undergraduate thesis on goddess archetypes in the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker (and, clearly, am a little bit of a dork), I like to think of this kind of experience as my Athena problem. The Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena appears to be all about the mind and the shield, and she even sprang fully formed and covered in armor from the head of Zeus. So when I feel her dragging her sword around in my head, I have to subdue her before she busts out with that Gorgon-covered shield and I’m stuck with her battles forever.
What most people don’t know, however, is that she’s also the goddess of weaving. Yep, wisdom, war, and weaving. She invented the horse-driven chariot but also the loom, which is a reminder that one shouldn’t just be an archetype but a well-rounded, multi-dimensional person. So I subdue her by pulling out her spinning wheel, and next thing I know the armor’s hidden under a pile of warm, smelly wool and she’s humming along to her tapping foot.
I taught myself to knit from a book about ten years ago when feminists were starting to reclaim the crafts of their grandmothers as a way to redefine what had always been seen as “women’s work.” I’d never really been into crafting before that; it was easy to write it off as an old-fashioned activity for housewives or something. But crafts like knitting were real work. Women knitted and sewed to provide clothing for their families, and they often stitched in groups, where they would support, empower, and inspire each other. If only someone would unearth an old text describing the cultural revolutions that sprouted in stitching circles. For some, of course, crafting was, and is, a livelihood.
I was the laziest knitter for a long time, making only simple projects and leaving them half-finished on a shelf for months. But then I discovered what an antidote knitting is to over-thinking, so now I dig my hands into soft skeins of yarn in many colors and feel sufficiently soothed. There’s something very zen about knitting: the measured click of bamboo needles, slow unraveling of a ball of yarn, trance-like feeling of falling into a pattern.
Pinterest has helped me branch out into other crafts. I’ve fashioned beaded bracelets and necklaces with rope, embroidery floss, and hex nuts. I’ve found new uses for the fabric scraps and triangles left over from my great grandmother’s quilting bin. I’ve recycled old seed catalogues by decoupaging magnets and boxes. I’m a little obsessed with Pinterest. I get ravenous for ideas on how to craft with random things found around my house and in my yard, and it makes me feel very self-sustainable and accomplished. Also, as a writer who has written so much that no one will ever see, it’s a relief to finish a project that’s meant to be shared, and it’s particularly satisfying in an ever-pixelated world.
In fact, crafting is very much about community. I love feeling more connected to history, to the women who came before me, to a handmade life. Crafting, especially with materials found in nature or repurposed from thrift stores or your home, can be a good antidote to corporate industry and overconsumption. There’s a book called In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World, which chronicles the stories of women in twelve countries who turned their lives around by making and selling traditional handicrafts. Then there’s Knitting Behind Bars, which started knitting circles with male prisoners in Maryland, a project that transformed how the men saw themselves and each other. Reading about it will fill your crusty, old heart with joy.
I propose we draw up a new Athena. Perhaps she’s got a skein of yarn attached to her belt or a pair of needles stuffed in the Gorgon’s mouth. We need some way to remember that sometimes she takes off her armor and settles down with a mug of nettle tea and a basket of wool. Sometimes she drops her sword and just crafts the revolution.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the US, so I want to point you to some excellent creative work being done to change power relations in different parts of the world. King was adamant about recognizing how injustices around the world are connected, reminding us that the “destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.”
No matter where you are in the world, decide today to make your work less insular. Find similar groups in other countries, explore art from a different continent, and notice how the same themes resonate. Paying attention to what people are doing on the ground thousands of miles away can change the way you see your community, your work, and the world.
First, reconciliation through music! Drumming is traditionally a male activity in Rwanda, but twenty women, both Hutu and Tutsi, came together to form Ingoma Nshya, a powerful drum ensemble spreading a message of healing. These are women who lived through the Rwandan genocide, and they came to the group with no musical background. Now they play all over the world and have even performed in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo several times.
Next, Mary Sibande is a South African artist working in Johannesburg. Her mixed media installations feature Sophie, Sibande’s alter ego, a domestic worker whose fantasy world reveals the queen inside. In numerous countries, women of color are seen primarily as domestic workers, but Sophie shows us layers and depths that cannot be ignored. Full of life and energy, Sibande’s work demands attention, and Sophie’s shocking blue dress stays with me, as though printed right on the brain. I love them all, but particularly Her Majesty Queen Sophie and I’m a Lady.
Finally, New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas‘s paintings explore female identity and redefine beauty. Her colorful, pulsing work makes me want to dance, and, in fact, she did the cover art for Solange’s EP True. She’s inspired by the kind of women she grew up around, especially her mother, saying, “It’s what I know and what I respect—someone who believes in herself and stands her ground, who doesn’t act according to what society deems as acceptable and expresses herself, her sexuality, her femininity.” Thomas uses the afro to represent that kind of empowered energy and rhinestones to question beauty standards. I love her 2008 album; A Moment’s Pleasure Number 2 and Tamika Sur Une Chaise Longue are standouts.
So whose work are you celebrating today? What other artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, crafters, and the like infuse their work with themes of justice, equality, freedom, peace, and love? How are you growing your beloved community?
A fellow poet and friend once said to me, “For the sake of your writing, I hope you’re as miserable as I am.” This was a few years after college, and, thankfully, I had matured enough not to feel the need to spend late nights holed up in my room, smoking cigarettes and scribbling as though it would save my life. (Though writing did, and still does, contribute to my sanity.)
Indeed, when I was younger, my creative thrust seemed to come from life’s trials, which led me to glamorize the tumultuous and desperately sad lives of writers like Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Jack Kerouac. I accepted the popular image of the writer’s life–a constant zigzag of madness, inspiration, misery, success, loneliness, and celebration. All the bad things were simply the price of creativity.
Then I grew up and realized I didn’t actually like wallowing in despair. I stared down some pretty tough things I hadn’t expected to happen and found that I only wanted to get through them and move on. And in my work and my travels, I saw a kind of poverty and despair far worse than anything I’d ever experienced, which is something I remind myself of from time to time. I’m not living in a war zone. I’m not starving. I’ve got warmth and love and organic tomatoes fresh from the garden (well, not at the moment since it’s winter, but I’ve got holly cut from the trees in the back yard). Things aren’t that bad.
Over time, I learned to write when I was happy and when I was bored and when I was just whatever. I realized I didn’t need to use writing like a drug; it could be a normal part of my life, like buying groceries or taking a shower. And still something really wonderful could come out of it.
Two weeks ago I wrote about my apartment block in Poland, which was a concrete box. What I didn’t tell you is that it was one of the nicer places to live. What I didn’t tell you is that my pay as an ESL teacher, though certainly not much in US dollars, was higher than the average Polish salary. So while I felt a bit trapped in concrete painted in soothing pastels, I didn’t mention that my life was pretty comfortable despite the lack of aesthetic.
And that got me thinking about how much creativity comes out of poverty, how if you look at the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet, you’ll see some pretty inventive ways to get by. But how is the need to be creative different from the luxury to be creative?
I said in that post that I’ve always needed creativity. But that’s more of a mental thing than a physical thing. As I said above and have said in other posts, it has been a part of my survival strategy, but that’s about my mental health, not about trying to put food on the table or keep a roof over my head. I did spend most of my twenties living in relative poverty, however, so I know how “making do” makes you a special kind of artist. I made do for so long that I was well into reasonable comfort before I realized I could just replace the things in my house that I’d rigged to keep working.
So what’s the difference between creative solutions to one’s own poverty and masterpieces created in prosperity?
Much of the art we cherish most has come from times of struggle, but we have to refrain from glamorizing that struggle. I think we need to recognize creativity as a necessary part of life but also think about what fear does to creativity. Sometimes fear sharpens it and sometimes it erases it.
I think we need to emphasize the important role creativity can play in helping people overcome struggle. But we also need to remember that creativity doesn’t require pain. Creativity can come out of poverty, but it can also come out of pleasure. And, more importantly, it can come from somewhere in between.
On any average day. The sky’s a little cloudy, but the weather isn’t too cool. The neighbor’s dog is barking at the recycling truck. I had some work to do today, but I’ve got the rest of the day off. I’ll mop the floors later and do a load of laundry. I’m thinking about lunch, but instead of the kitchen, I head to my desk. I don’t have anything particular to say, but I’ll start writing and see what comes out.
I do this even when I don’t need to figure anything out or make a statement or feel some specific kind of release. I do it because it’s part of my day. It’s a normal part of life.
As we delve into winter and the holiday season, it’s important to remember what poverty means for so many people in the world. I think about people whose lives are full of fear instead of good things and how that affects their inner world as well as their outer world. We all need self-expression even when we are our own audience.
Even when profound art comes out of struggle, we shouldn’t let that justify poverty and pain. I’ve had good things come out of horrible experiences, but I’d still choose to keep the horrible experiences from happening in the first place. Instead, we should imagine what that artist could have achieved with everything they needed, learn the lesson they are sharing, and resolve to make things better for the next generation. Because my average day would be a blessing for many.
I have a guest blogger today! Elizabeth Wright is a social worker, musician, writer, and non-profit consultant based in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is the co-founder of KnowHow and serves on the board of Jobs with Justice of East Tennessee in addition to teaching grant writing at the University of Tennessee. Elizabeth previously served as the executive director of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation and the editor of Knoxville Voice.
Synchronicity is happening with the intersection of feminism and creativity: the same day Sara invited me to write a guest blog post, a reporter from the University of Tennessee’s Daily Beacon student newspaper requested an interview for an article she’s writing on women in music. I also just saw The Pinklets play a show, and was inspired by these three girls under the age of 12 who write their own songs, play their own instruments, and sing songs with lyrics like, “We are entitled to our own opinions” and “You don’t have to tell me I’m beautiful, it’s in my heart and soul.” Feminism, creativity, and discourse are in the air.
I have played music in loud rock bands for 18 years, and while I was comfortable singing on stage hiding behind a bass guitar, it took a long time for me to actually call myself a musician or to feel qualified to speak with authority on the topic. I suspect it’s the same for many women who clearly live with and think about issues related to feminism every day, but it takes a long time for some of us to call ourselves feminists or to feel comfortable speaking with authority about our own thoughts, lives, and experiences. Even if we are moved to speak out, there isn’t always a space where our voices are welcome and heard.
The same is true of anyone whose voice is quieted and who has to fight for equal access and power because of their sexual identity, income level, racial or ethnic background, religious beliefs, ability, or social status. Young people in particular feel the effects of all these forms of oppression and inherit a world that is built around structural inequality, but they often lack access to share their thoughts, experiences, and ideas, contributing to apathy, hopelessness, and disengagement. KnowHow is a new organization I cofounded with a thriving community of feminists, artists, musicians, and social justice advocates to support and empower young people in Knoxville to get involved and to be heard. Our mission is to support leadership development and community engagement among Knoxville’s youth, celebrating art and culture as vital tools to cultivate a deep sense of agency in youth, to amplify their voices as they engage with challenges that affect quality of life for all the city’s diverse residents, and to support them in forming lasting commitments to each other and the world at large.
In working to support youth, we also recognize the importance and necessity of working with and supporting the people, groups, and organizations that work every day to build and improve the healthy communities we all want to live in. One of our goals is to encourage young people to get involved with existing community groups and to facilitate intergenerational leadership that will grow and sustain a local culture of social justice, empowerment, and creative thought and expression.
Toward that goal, KnowHow is co-organizing a free event, “Understanding Place: A Community Dialogue on Race, Geography, and Home” on Saturday, Dec. 7, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center (124 S. Cruze Street). The workshop will provide an opportunity for Knoxvillians of all ages to explore how our city’s neighborhoods and communities have been shaped by local history, government policies, and radicalized development processes that continue to impact where we live today, who we count as neighbors, and the places we feel are “home.”
Urban renewal and gentrification have benefited some Knoxvillians over others, but many of us don’t know or understand how our sense of community is shaped by these dynamics. By coming together to learn from community leaders and each other about our neighborhoods and the places we call home, we will start the process of creating a space where diverse voices and experiences are heard, acknowledged and respected, an important building block toward creating healthier and livelier communities. We will also establish and embody a model for how KnowHow seeks to work with and support youth in Knoxville.
KnowHow will follow up with young people at and after the event to support them in researching their own neighborhoods’ histories and collecting and creating personal narratives of their families, neighbors, local business owners, and unsung community heroes and heroines. Their work and creative output will be the source material for a series of workshops throughout 2014, the KnowHow Sessions, which will delve deeper into underlying social issues they uncover and identify, supporting them in examining and sharing their experiences and ideas, and creating visual, performance, audio, and video pieces to share with the community. This work will ultimately create more opportunities for dialogue, education, and the amplification of quieted voices.
In addition to the KnowHow Sessions, KnowHow is also reviving Knoxville Girls Rock Camp in the summer of 2014 in partnership with the Joy of Music School. Rock Camp brings together girls in collaborative music exploration, encouraging them to pick up an instrument, work together, and be loud and proud in expressing themselves.
The music industry is just one aspect of a society that still sexualizes women rather than appreciates our intellect, that silences our voices or belittles our opinions rather than hearing our valid thoughts and experiences, and that denies women access to traditionally male-dominated fields. There is nothing more empowering than reclaiming spaces where our presence is typically denied or ignored and where others have defined our role and level of participation.
By supporting all young people in spaces where change can happen and by amplifying their voices through art, culture, and media, KnowHow seeks to improve quality of life for all the city’s diverse residents and communities. We hope to engage young people in creating the Knoxville we all want to live in together. We’d love to hear your voice, and we welcome your feedback, thoughts, and ideas. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.