A (Very) Brief Chronology of Anger, Writing & Activism
I don't know how to describe the feeling I get when people in positions of power make bold moves to police and oppress entire groups of people. Right now, I'm talking about Mike Pence and Co. signing the most restrictive anti-abortion legislation in the country into Indiana law. I'm also talking about Pat McCrory and Co. passing sweeping anti-LGBT legislature in North Carolina.
(These are not the only things I'm thinking about, but if I were to name every last thing that's on my mind every single day, there would be no time to do anything but name and name and name.)
When I hear about this shit, I get exhausted. Physically and spiritually and emotionally exhausted.
When I was a young gun in my early 20s and learned the vocabulary for all the things that were oppressing me (patriarchy, racism, misogyny, colonialism, etc.), I got pissed. More than that, actually; I was fucking angry. I wanted to (and occasionally did) mouth off to paternalistic white men, I wanted to protest, I wanted to burn everything down and start all over again.
I became a member of the leadership team of the feminist club on campus. And even though I was actively doing things like raising awareness, I was angry all the time. I was angry about the ignorant things people said in class. I was angry about all the colonizing missionary work to which my fellow students devoted their lives. I was exhausted all the time, but my anger fueled me. I often thought things like, there are people in the world who don't have the privilege that I do -- I have to keep working and If I don't do this -- if I don't speak up -- who will? Between my more-than-full class load, my part-time jobs, and my campus activist work, I often found myself physically ill. I once got so sick (but still tried to soldier through it) that the health center had to prescribe (read: force me into) bedrest for 2 weeks.
My creative writing classes were the only places where I could calm down for a minute. I could write about going to the Philippines to visit my family, and I could write about my trip to study human trafficking in Thailand, and I could write about romantic relationships without letting my anger and despair take over. My emotions were the fuel, but the words were the most important. They were the only way I could clearly articulate my emotions, my experiences, and the things I had witnessed.
I had long talks with my poetry professor in her office after class had finished. We talked about poetry, (in)justice, witness, and, yes, my anger. On more than one occasion, she told me, "You can't live at this volume. If you do, you will burn out."
I knew what she meant, and I agreed with her. But I didn't know how to not live at that volume. I didn't know how to stop working myself into the ground. I felt that if I didn't work as much as I did, I wasn't doing enough. It was a privilege to rest, and I didn't know how to rest without feeling guilty.
Flash forward to graduate school, where social justice and poetry were siloed. It was as if our workshops existed in a vacuum, and no one was equipped or wanted to have conversations about representations of race or gender as it applied to our own work.
My MFA program and the university were so isolated from the local community that I worked hard to find ways to feel like I was doing something. When I taught, I taught to show my students that they had voices and experiences that mattered. I tried to teach them to value their own voices and to truly listen to voices speaking experiences they had never heard before.
When I stopped teaching, I volunteered at an after-school program for girls. And somewhere in between finishing my thesis and being a camp counselor at a summer camp for girls, I became disillusioned with writing and academia. From what I had seen, there was no point in pretending that writing poetry within academia could spark significant change.
So I gave up on poetry as activism.
And then came Wendy Davis and her epic filibuster in Texas. And all the anti-choice legislation that came after, and that continues to step forward.
And then comes the old, familiar anger once again. The anger that fills my chest, squeezes my lungs in one large fist, and crunches my heart in its other. The anger that forces me to close my eyes and breathe deep, to keep my feet on the ground and my mind on what I can control.
These days, my day job is activism. I don't know if I would be able to say that my anger isn't at the volume it used to be. I'm still pretty fucking angry. My anger and my desire to work for a world where every person has the right and access to resources to make the choices that are best for them and their families are what fuel me.
And, at the end of the day, writing is still the only thing that calms me. It remains the only way for me to articulate my emotions, my experiences, and the things I witness every day.
I'm still skeptical of academia as a place where true change can ever happen. But I know so many poet-activists who are in academia and not in academia that do amazing work and write incredible poetry.
Slowly, but surely, I'm figuring out what poetry and writing as revolution look like for me. I'm going to figure this out. I'm a late bloomer.
I was going to finish there, but as I did a final read-through, it became really obvious that I need to talk about self-care. Self-care is clearly something I haven't been good at, hence the constant exhaustion, prescribed bedrest, and burnout.
I'm just as angry, but I'm much better at self-care. I'm better at listening to my body, knowing when I'm nearing the end of my shit, and being able to take a few steps back. It took Audre Lorde saying, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare" for me to take self-care seriously.
So, to all you activists out there who, like me, have a tendency to spread yourselves thin -- be good and kind to yourself. Take good care of yourself. Treat yourself. The fight will still be there tomorrow.