there are only tethers

I think a lot of white writers see lineage as a trap—which could be true, you know, but it becomes a prescriptive gaze on lineage in which some people (often men) say, “Lineage, who cares about lineage. I don’t see a line—I see a sort of soup of influence.” And they don’t want to be pinned down to schools. All that is valuable—for you, right? But writers of color do need a lineage because sometimes the thin, narrow bridge is the only place we can use to cross, to access when everything else is precariously dangerous. When you can walk freely where you wish, lineage is not necessary—and perhaps it shouldn’t be. But for othered bodies, the fostering of elders, the seeking of paths, the linking from one word to another, to further and nurture our own voices, is vital. Although it seems nice as an artistic practice to shatter a linear trajectory of influence, POCs don’t have the luxury of throwing lineage out the window. The institution of erasure was not built with democratic intent; it cannot be dismantled using democratic ideals. It sounds nice, and I hope we can get there. But not yet.

Perhaps lineage is less pressing for white writers because the foundation is already solid: Whitman and Dickinson, not to mention the European canon, whereas for writers of color the foundation is not solid. There is no ground. There are only tethers. Those tethers need to be fostered, and I think we’re getting there. And its just not POCs—white writers are playing an important part in realizing that a future of inclusion is one that benefits and enriches all of us who care for this work, for each other.

From this interview with poet Ocean Vuong

 

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return

I’ve been away for a while.

2016 has been tough, but I’m still here, still keeping a fire burning.

I am writing and reading more than I have in a long time. This is partly due to an involuntary Facebook exile, five months of which have passed as the Southern California sun has cranked up it’s intrusive, uncomfortable intensity — perhaps mimicking Donald Trump.

One thing I still have access to is Goodreads, so that gets much more attention these days. I burn through Amazon wish lists, research for my own writing, and friends’ recommendations while sitting in my apartment courtyard eating roasted Mexican peanuts by the pound and drinking Anchor Steam.

Since last fall, I’ve been researching and writing a novel, my first attempt at anything like this. The work has been an anchor and a motivation for me in a season when many other things in my life have been in upheaval.

Speaking of upheaval, I’ve missed being able to be a part of the conversation about the election. O, for the the lively Facebook debates of 2015, a kinder and simpler time. I’m not sure who follows or reads this blog, but if it is of any interest to you, my thinking on the Trump phenomenon (and the election as a whole) has shifted this year. My harshest criticism, which I hope to articulate in future posts, would be for liberal camp, the SJWs with whom I most identify.

My younger brother just texted me to tell me that he accidentally shit his pants while working at Subway and was fired a week later for “entirely unrelated reasons.” He only worked there for one month. It’s too bad he got fired, that that is damn funny. And the the coolness with which he seems to be taking the whole situation just made my whole day a lot brighter.

I’ve been paying close attention to a friend of mine , a relatively newer guy friend that I seem to have a lot in common with. I think I have come to view him as a sort of analog to me, the “control” sample in the study. I’ve been struck by his growing confidence, the focus and assuredness of his habits and goals. I notice the unabashed way in which he is himself, takes joy in the things he likes, and does so thoughtfully and publicly. He’s been strikingly honest about his flaws and his weaknesses, confiding feelings and thoughts about his marriage, for example, that would make my own inner censors gasp in shock were I to ever express them myself.

I look at him and see a man — though flawed and struggling — who is genuine, has a good heart, and is seeking to improve and be at peace with himself.

I contrast that with who I see myself to be: a flawed, broken man who has rarely been honest with himself or anyone, who is submerged in shame and self pity much of the time, who has a really hard time embracing the wholeness of who he is and sharing that with others.

So, what does this comparison accomplish, what is the outcome of these insights? Can they motivate me? Can I identify steps to change? Will I ever be more assured of my own worth in the world? Will I reach a point where I am not hurting those who love me through my fear and dishonesty?

The good news is, I am finally doing some of the emotional work to get me to that place. It is for that reason that I’d ask you, readers, friends, whoever still reads this out there, to continue having patience with me. Keep praying, keep asking, keep those fires burning.

a reflection on victimhood

A certain Facebook friend of mine often posts content from conservative websites. Much of it features people of color scolding or talking “common sense” to protestors, rioters and others who supposedly “blame all their problems on race.” One recent post was an article from “GOPUSA” with the title: “Tell people they’re victims — they’ll act like victims.”

This is a common line of reasoning: since “liberals” treat poor Black people like victims (blaming their problems on racism), they are somehow debilitated from improving their situation and overcoming the injustices they face. Presumably this is because they have a “victim” mindset instead of a rugged individualist one, which would enable them to just rise above their lot through hard work and perseverance. It is a seductive, misleading, half-truth of an argument, which I won’t deconstruct here.

Here is what I did write (with minor edits):

This article says that we shouldn’t see ourselves or others as victims. But what about when you actually are a victim, in the most literal sense of the word? When you’ve been gunned down in the street and denied due process, you are the very definition of a victim. The message that I’ve heard over and over in much of the coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore and #BlackLivesMatter is that even then, you’re not allowed to be a victim. As your body lies lifeless and your family mourns you, the justifications pour in: you were a “thug,” or you should have pulled your pants up, or your father didn’t raise you right. The narrative of aggression and victimhood is inverted — -you must have deserved to die that way, and so you cannot be a victim.

But there are a lot of people who somehow are allowed to be victims all the time and expect to be seen as such. The Christian business owners angry about the government denying them the right to discriminate against gay couples seem to have no trouble gaining access to national media to air their victimhood. The rich, those forlorn and unfortunate victims of government over-reach and taxation, so distressed by their victimhood that they can’t even appear in public to tell you of their oppression, but instead have to pay Congressmen to do it for them. What injustice.

So I am asking: why are these “victims of government tyranny” allowed to be victims, when the men and boys and women who lay in the streets literally dead from government overreach and misconduct are never allowed the same, but rather, blamed for their own demise? To many, the answer is clear. What do those victims all have in common? They are Black and come from communities that have been made vulnerable by generations of disinvestment, segregation, and government and corporate policies ranging from neglectful to predatory. In America, to acknowledge the “victims” of such systemic and historical malice would mean acknowledging a cause of said malice. But this almost never happens because, in America, that malice cannot be pinpointed to the level of the individual racist. the vulnerable have to bear responsibility for what has happened to them and where they find themselves. They themselves are the cause. Everyone else was just looking.

This is the point people are trying to make with #BlackLivesMatter. It is painfully simple, and a shame that it even needs to be said: “Let us just have our humanity. Let us not be killed in the street by those sworn to protect us, and if we are, let us still be treated like humans.” Part of being treated like a human is to be allowed to be a victim when you actually are one (and thus worthy of justice), and to have your unjust death provoke more compassion and outrage than the burning down of a convenience store.

“It’s dueling MLK quote season again.”

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I’m keeping up with what’s being written on the events in Baltimore and will post a selection later on this week in my link roundup.

This has become a familiar ritual, and one I feel more and more unsettled about:

The nation is jolted to attention by another police killing of an unarmed person of color (usually a man). A small number of Americans take to the streets. Their skin is in the game. They march, protest, riot. An even smaller number of Americans take to their keyboards, cameras, and microphones to report on and write about these events. How this is done can and often does make for something beautiful or horrible in it’s own right, often profoundly shaping how the rest of us view and understand the events (I’ll write about this more in a future post).

Most Americans, however, myself included, take to their screens and feeds and timelines. Right now I’m talking about those of us who have an opinion one way or another. We have to remember that there are vast swaths of the population who don’t care enough to know or know enough to care.

But there are those of us who are thoughtful, concerned, afraid, angry, indignant or feel any number of emotions about what is going on. When something happens, we are activated. Some of us seek to learn more, and we look to our timelines for those among our friends who always seem to be “in the know.” Some of us are zealous “laptop partisans,” scanning our feeds and bookmarks for morsels of information that will be used—like pulp in the mouths of bees—to build up the walls of our hive, the collective edifice that houses our “tribe” and announces to the world: “Here is where I stand on this issue!”

Frederick de Boer, a scholar and blogger I’ve recently discovered, penned a brief blog post this last week in which he observed, “It’s dueling MLK quote season again.” Something about this rang uncomfortably true.

I’m sure you’ve seen this phenomenon. Impassioned and concerned folks of all stripes post the isolated quotes solemnly paired on inspirational JPEG files with Dr. King’s saintly image. Whatever argument you’re making, MLK said something that supports you, and his, of course, is the final word (especially in all matters race related).

This is not just limited to MLK quotes. Social media is flooded with poignant and seemingly incontrovertible “last word”-type memes, quotes, images, cartoons, video clips, and rants that proclaim to friends, family, and the random girl you knew in high school: “See this? This is what I believe, and it’s true. How can you not also see it’s truth, now that I’ve shared it here??”

Here is where de Boer articulates why this kind of environment has become so unsettling to me.

He writes:

Both sides are making accusations of selective reading at the other, and given that many people on either side have probably read very little of his words that don’t appear on a poster, both sets of accusations are perennially accurate. We might make a policy of saying that if you haven’t read Strength to Love cover to cover, you shouldn’t be commenting on what King would want. Or, more sensibly, we should just admit that the views of a man who died in 1968 cannot do our moral work for us.

This is the question I want to ask. When things are going on in our country and our community that demand serious thought, empathy, compassion, and mature, moral action, who or what do we look to to do that work for us? Have slogans, hashtags, a certain savvy sensibility, or the correct vocabulary taken the place of a deeply rooted political and moral worldview?

I’m not sure I know the answer. I am sure that my own motivations are often mixed. I’ll admit that I engage in this activity. Most of the time I’m trying to share things that will provoke thought and deeper engagement and learning. And to be fair, much of what I see on friends’ timelines is thoughtful, challenging, and insightful. But I know that I have been guilty of feeling self-satisfied that my thought-provoking posts on social media are all the proof that is needed of my  progressive credentials.

But this bothers me, and increasingly so. Who is doing my moral work for me? We can thank the Internet that Martin Luther King Jr.’s quotes will always be a click away. So will the supply of articles and images from like-minded friends or websites we’re loyal to. My fear is that at a time when events require from us  true thoughtfulness, moral courage, and honesty,  that we will outsource that work to “content.”

Which leads to another question: What is the nature of the content with which we surround ourselves?

The New York Times recently published a piece on social media and the 2016 election season. It discusses a trend that I think we’ve all observed:

With the presidential race heating up, a torrent of politically charged commentary has flooded Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site, with some users deploying their “unfollow” buttons like a television remote to silence distasteful political views. Coupled with the algorithm now powering Facebook’s news feed, the unfollowing is creating a more homogenized political experience of like-minded users, resulting in the kind of polarization more often associated with MSNBC or Fox News. And it may ultimately deflate a central promise of the Internet: Instead of offering people a diverse marketplace of challenging ideas, the web is becoming just another self-perpetuating echo chamber.

When I post the video of the city councilman explaining structural racism to a disinterested reporter, or the photo of boy passing out water bottles to police in riot gear, or the 11 Stunning Images Highlight the Double Standard of Reactions to Riots Like Baltimore article, do those “shares” constitute moral work, a genuine progressive or radical politics? And if they do, who is the audience for them?

Maybe it’s just me, but the number of people I engage with on social media who  disagree with me consistently (small to begin with) has dwindled. Either that or they stay silent.  Or, more troubling still, Facebook is keeping them off my feed.

I see this as a bad thing, but not just because of some vague commitment to being balanced and “understanding the other side.” Engaging inside the echo chamber makes it a lot easier for me to be lazy

1. in developing my own holistic political and spiritual worldview and

2. in critiquing the methods and agendas of the media I consume.

I don’t get angry when my aunt in Albuquerque posts something to share her dislike of Obama. By all means, dislike him. Disagree with me on all the issues. What makes me angry is the way in which media–on both sides of the political spectrum–do not take readers’ intelligence seriously. My favorite websites cultivate a very particular worldview and throw out red meat to keep the readers satisfied. Right-wing media does the same thing.

Politics, then, becomes more about entrenching one’s self deeper into a set of cultural and semantic symbols and images and proclamations. As de Boer writes, we engage in “t-shirt radicalism,” and we police and curate our timelines accordingly (or algorithms do it for us).

I guess what I’d end with (this conversation will never truly end), is that I want to challenge myself to develop a politics that is complex, resilient, and above all, loving. My politics (a shame that the word itself has become dirty) ought to be a genuine reflection of my values, my experiences, my faith as I understand it, and an honest and nuanced understanding of communities’ relationships and obligations to each other and to God. If you’ve read enough of my posts on social media or on this blog, I hope I’ve begun to leave a coherent sense of what my politics are. They are always a work in progress, but my hope is that I will have the courage to actually do that work, instead of letting MLK do it for me.

 

 

 

 

 

on writing

This comes from a piece by Chris Abani, a writer and contributor to the Voices of Our Nation (VONA) Workshop, a writers’ community started by Junot Diaz in 1999. An anthology of VONA writers’ work, called Dismantle, was published last year. This excerpt comes from there.

The central question: Why do you write? Why? This is the crux of craft. Until you know why you write, you often will never know what your moral and ethical dilemmas really are, you will never know how to shape characters and stories that live outside of your own neurosis.

While not every writer can phrase the exact reason, they can approximate the shape of the wound, because, yes, we are talking about wounds. These wounds are often nothing more than the narratives we have built up over the years around an imagined or real hurt. But having a wound is not the same as being wounded. The former shapes the desire of expression while the latter merely creates silence.

What matters is that the knowledge of the infection allows the work to shift away from selfish interior gazing into a world that is bigger than itself. It is the vulnerability that allows us even to contemplate the world so the wound is what lends the work its direction, its outer thrust.

 

 

“I mean in general”

stories-bookstore-m

I’m in an Echo Park bookstore slash coffee shop, writing. With my New Balance running shoes and Target t-shirt, I look like I don’t fit in, but most of the people around me are too busy looking wistful and serious to give me a glance that would let me know for sure. Anarchist stickers don’t adorn my Apple laptop.

Overheard:

(girl with velvet boots and bright red lipstick): Ugh, why are you so lackadaisical?

(very skinny guy with disheveled hair and old-man sweater tied around waist): I’m sorry, I’m trying to look up places to eat—

(girl): I mean in general. We need to get your energy up.

(guy): I’m sorry. My energy’s gone.

*two minutes later*

(girl): Do you moisturize your face?

(guy): *glances sidelong at me, nervously. lowers voice* Not today, but I usually do.

 

 

the daily

Four days out of the week, I ride the 733 Metro bus down Venice Blvd to my job in Santa Monica. The terrain (human and otherwise) of this commute has been my regular point of contact between with Los Angeles during my eight month-old life here.

I board at Venice and Motor, an intersection about as nondescript as they come in West L.A. There is a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (Southern California’s inferior answer to Starbucks), a donut shop, “King Vape and Liquor,” and a pair of well-regarded Indian restaurants. Venice Blvd itself, as it turns out, is a good example of the perpetual griminess of most L.A. thoroughfares. The sidewalk around the bus stop is covered in stains and spills of unknown origin. Garbage overflows two green-painted municipal bins, which, together with a newspaper dispenser and a beleaguered phone booth, serve as canvases for layers of crude graffiti.

The bus is one of those long, accordion-like things, a giant red and grey caterpillar. There are usually no empty seats by the time it pulls up to my stop (between 7am and 7:30am). I step up and join the few dozen other tired souls slouched in tackily upholstered seats or clinging to the upright poles or overhead loops.

More than half the riders are teenagers (mostly black and Mexican) on their way to Venice High School. Half have headphones in and look half asleep. The other half gossip and clown.  Vans, Chucks, Keds, and tight colored jeans are common. This morning I leaned against a railing toward the back of the bus and listened to two black students–they must have been seniors–talk about their weekend. One was bulky with a big smile and his hair cut into a high flat-topped fade, early 90s style. He held a Han Solo skateboard and laughed frequently. The other was tall and thin with thick- rimmed glasses and a sharp-looking flannel shirt. Because I had to be on my phone for an unusual early morning work call, I was only able to hear a smattering of their conversation, but I cursed that phone call because I would much rather have listened to those guys.

The other regulars: Latina girls checking their Instagram accounts, clutching bright colored Jansports; the occasional weathered old white man in a brown tweed or wool coat much too heavy for the weather;  Japanese girls (exchange students, tourists?) who seem to all live in the same area between Mar Vista and Venice and are a fixture on the Promenade in Santa Monica, with their clunky platform boots, guidebooks, and skinny, pale legs; Mexican ladies, short and conservatively dressed, looking tired but determined heading toward who-knows-how-many-hours-long days serving and cleaning up after wealthy beach-obsessed tourists.

A third of the way into my commute, the bus passes under the 405 freeway, where a collection of tents are pitched on the sidewalk under the bridge. The bus speeds by and I watch men emerge from these tents, stretching and inspecting improvised clothes lines. Some are still lying inert in sleeping bags outside the tents, surrounded by belongings, provisions. I wonder what their day will be like, and whether they’ll be there when the bus passes this way again in the evening.

Approaching Venice, most of the teenagers disembark. This is when I take a seat, and the bus becomes much quieter. The environment outside the bus also seems to get quieter as it turns northward, transitioning into the environs of Abbot Kinney, and what seems to be another country entirely. This part of L.A. contains opulence designed to not look like opulence. Mercedes and bicycles are both equally at home here. Liquor stores and Oaxacan restaurants give way to juice bars and high end espresso shops, vintage thrift stores and too-cool gastro pubs. Hipsters with money live here. Tanned, ranging from 20-somethings to 50-somethings, with indiscernible employment, disheveled hair, and $500 wardrobes worn to appear as if they were assembled from thrift store finds. But they could also actually be thrift store finds.

This is where it begins to feel like the bus is passing through, but no longer belongs here. Those of us who remain either work or study in Santa Monica or will be filling a languid day with shopping, selfies, and ocean-gazing.

The whole ride lasts about 45 minutes. It’s a short window into this city, but I am always grateful for the chance it allows me to feel a part of its life in a way that would be impossible from within four car doors.