Alone in This, Together
November 23, 2012
For those who know me, for those who've read my Anarchism and Its Aspirations, you'll know that I'm fond of putting "self-" in front of a whole lot of words that, as a constellation, begin to constitute what seem the foundation of a free society. My favorites were long "self-governance" and "self-organization," and I definitely tilted toward the structural side of things in terms of how I saw our forms of freedom unfolding.
Then some four or so years ago now, I and my longtime ex-partner -- skeptical rationalist intellectuals that we both were -- decided to start a lengthy process of figuring out whether or not we wanted to stay "in relationship" (an intriguing term, or way of thinking, that I discovered a year or so after we broke up, from the most insightful and magical of people I dated in the Bay Area). We had, from the start of being in relationship, agreed to honesty, communication, and dynamism, which included voluntary association -- self-chosen love -- and reevaluating that from time to time. When it felt like things really weren't working, we took that process of voluntary disassociation and being good to each through it seriously (we were also both serious people), and turned to resources outside ourselves -- friends but also a therapist, who ended up seeing both of us separately too (something she never did), since she observed, "You aren't mad at each other; you're both trying to do the best thing for each other and yourselves." I remember the first visit with her, when she asked both of us to "feel." We looked at each other, with one of those shared glances that people who know each other so well engage in, and both of us again described our feelings. "You two are too smart and too articulate for your own good," our therapist laughed. "You can both intellectualize your feelings; but you're not feeling them!"
What I discovered through the process of shifting, through hard work, those "feelings" from my mind to my body -- and then putting the two in good relationship -- among so many things she mentored me into self-discovering, was that I could and did learn to self-manage my self, my emotions, my internal life. Not to say I'm perfect at it, or always succeed. I feel, in fact, like I'm failing pretty miserably at it this week. But suddenly that little and yet huge "self-" of mine was nonstructural too. Therapy was a gift -- of watching my "self" unfold so that I could better understand and have empathy for it, better self-manage it, and thus better become and keep becoming the person I want to be. (Emphasis on: work in process for whole of one's life.) This lead to another unfolding: I really felt the necessity of why anarchism's aspiration, writ large, had to be aimed toward free individuals for/in a free society -- both need to be in a clear-eyed, processual relationship if we've any hope of social transformation.
Of late, I kept getting kind messages urging me to remember "self-care" -- another use of "self-" that has more widely emerged within our milieus and movements within the past couple years. (A note here, in case it's not self-evident: all these "selves-" are social, not some atomized, estranged, or egoistic being.)
All these many anarchic selves -- from self-determination to self-discipline, from self-direction to self-governance, from self-management to self-care, etc. -- are all, I fear, crying out for better commons within which to commune. Without that -- without places and spaces, physical and otherwise, in which to experiment with these selves as we learn to use, share, and enjoy our world -- my little "self-" is a sorry shadow of what it could be, hard as we all try. We've seen how hard that can be through our valiant experiments within, say, Occupy last year and now Occupy Sandy Relief. But it's also the stuff of pointing us past this present, letting us begin to feel, really feel -- deep within our minds and bodies -- what that new world already could be, if only temporarily, fleetingly.
I'm a bundle of feelings these days, and my own ability to self-organize them is being unusually challenged. My therapist often used the word "curious." She'd always ask me to stay present with a feeling or thought and be curious about it. To take a feeling, especially a difficult or painful one, set it on a chair next to me, and be curious about it, get to know it, understand its perspective and why it was there visiting me. Then self-manage it, incorporate it back into my self, in a way that felt self-chosen and balanced. Healthy. And so in the future, also, I will be able to recognize it when it first knocks at my door and deal with it in a friendly, homey way. It's a silly thought experiment (says my rationalist self), but it's worked for me many times.
And so this morning, I woke with one of those old feeling-friends hovering above me, pressing its hand on my chest, heavily. "Wake up! You forgot about me! I'm back to bother you!" It's a feeling I don't like, and one that I thought I'd thoroughly self-incorporated or better yet self-banished long ago. "Wake up! You're all alone in this world, and I'm not going to let you forget it!" It's the feeling that comes from my earliest biography and winds it way through my life. When I sat it down in the past for a good long chat with it, I realized that it has also served me well -- rather than "alone," I can find traits of strength, autonomy, independence of conviction, responsibility, etc., or perhaps best of all, the spirit of anarchism: self-authority. Seeing its good side was, in fact, what sent that feeling packing.
But feelings are like traveling anarchists: you'll always see them again, just when you lest expect it, especially the ones you hoped you wouldn't! It makes sense that old feelings are trotting after me as I'm facing a new, excruciating decision and trying to make it through a consensual, clear-eyed process so it will feel good for everyone (because as a good anarchist, I'm trying my damnest to use the tools I think I've learned), and having each process I devise fall apart until it feels -- even if it isn't wholly true -- that I'm "alone in this world" again as final arbiter in my bio-family for a decision that no one wants to make -- a role I was given, played, or accepted, or as bad combination of all those and more, for as long as I can remember.
I've been doing good "self-care" for weeks now, as my mom struggles through chemo side effects and my dad battles (like Don Quixote -- a figure that pretty much describes everyone in my bio-family) a virus that has taken away most of who he is and was . . . or the self-care I think most of us mean: drink lots of fluids, try to eat vegetables, relax, exercise, sleep, and so on. Now we need to decide the impossible: put my dad in a "nursing home" an hour's distance from my mom, in a town we have no relationship to, a town we don't want to be in relationship with, or go the hospice route. As the days tick away on our deadline to decide -- a deadline decided for us by the medical-industrial complex -- all those notions of self-care seem hollow without that commons I mentioned above.
To some degree, yes, these self-care tricks work, like this afternoon when I took an invigorating "power walk" (as two teenage boys in my path playful noted to me when I walked by them) and simply noticed, simply was curious about, all the many visceral joys around me: boxes of free books (even if all were trashy and trashed), still-lingering pumpkins on Brooklyn stoops with now-droopy grins, and piles of shimmery-delicate yellow leaves to run my feet through, among other things. Life, joy, or the stuff of it anyway.
But it struck me how I -- that is, how we -- all need so much more when it comes to self-care. For one, as a friend is fond of astutely observing, communal self-care and caring shouldn't be something special, reserved for the most awful events in our lives; it should be the fabric of our lives, through the sorrow and joys, through the whole spectrum of human feelings and experiences. In the absence of that, as I'm seeing, we are reduced to individualistic-care in times of individual crises. And as self-compassionate as that may be, it does indeed leave us feeling alone in this world, in the way that Marx talks about capitalism estranging us from a world of our own making, that then seems like a monster controlling us. They aren't coequivalent; but they are, I fear, in relationship.
This become sharply clear to me today when I quietly -- with deep curiosity afterward -- took in two other, quite different kinds of self-care, within micro-commons where my use, sharing, and enjoyment is truly possible due to a multiplicity of ways that forms of collective self-freedom are linked to them. One was simply working on various projects alongside a friend, with music in the background and a whole lot less conversation than we usually engage in, within a collectively created space. A simple act, as simple as walking through autumn leaves and noticing the quiet beauty of it. The other was one of my sisters, also a close friend, really listening to me on the phone, really hearing that triggered "I'm alone" feeling, and calmly offering a simple, elegant "solution" to the process of making our impossible family decision. As comforting as a few pumpkins perched on a porch. In each case, my self-care became about social relations, embedded within self-forged social organization: better ways of doing political projects, friendships, family.
My morning "wake-up" friend seems to have grabbed its patch-covered backpack and moved on to another city -- at least for now. After my power walk, quiet workday, and phone call with my sister, I responded to a call from the hospital where my dad is still housed, tethered by tubes to illness and a bed. Apparently he'd gotten agitated a few hours earlier, and his heart rate had gone up. A nurse got him to use his one good hand/arm in his near-immobilized body to indicate what he wanted, using his finger to point to letters on an alphabet card. A breathing tube and weakness keep him from speaking (and he was a really talker, which goes some way to explaining a part of me too -- especially the public part most people see). He wanted my mom. He wanted her to be there, to be with him. She'd been there the day before, on Thanksgiving, on what was a good visit. I didn't hear details of yesterday, but on her visit the day before Thanksgiving, she'd put her head on his tummy, and he'd patted her hair lovingly for an hour or so with his one good hand, in silence together. The nurse tried to call me early this evening, the bio-family "decision maker," to get my mom there. I'm in Brooklyn; my mom's only about four miles from my dad in Michigan (ah yes, family dynamics die hard; I'm listed as the one to call for medical stuff/decisions.) By the time I checked my cell phone and called the nurse back, they'd calmed my dad down, he was sleeping, and it was too late to call my mom, plus too late for her to get a ride to see him anyway; she gets dizzy from the chemo so often can't drive herself.
A simple moment in a string of poignant moments in an awful now-thirteen-weeks of moments. I hung up from the nurse's report, promising I'd call my mom first thing in the morning and urge her to figure out a ride quickly to see my dad. I turned on a song I'd been hearing in my head all day for some reason -- The Weakerthans' "Left and Leaving" -- a good-bad choice, and cried. I've cried a lot the past couple days, more than I have in the near-thirteen-weeks now, as that "I'm alone" feeling came closer and closer to the surface, until it fully appeared this morning. Tonight, this last batch of tears felt oh so different: self-soothing ones, for the necessary sorrow that is good to feel, made OK because I'm not only back to being able to self-manage my emotions -- to really feel them and be curious about them -- but also able to do that within a newfound understanding of what self-care could and should be. A fabric of being in relationship with oneself, one's emotions, and the ongoing caring community of others, through thin, thick, and joy.
I've no idea what decision my family will come to, soon, or how intentional or resolute it will be. Maybe it'll be just as messy and beautiful as all those Occupy decisions and nondecisions. We are none of us really good at this process stuff yet, in a world where "self-" is far more frequently attached to "self-made man" than "self-organized society." Yet it really does feel OK. Neither good nor bad, but fine, as in "we'll get through this" -- life, death, joy, sorrow, beginnings, and endings -- yet with better selves that have further unfolded in the process. I can feel myself being "undone," in the Judith Butler sense, where during those times when pieces of us necessarily fall apart and we become vulnerable, let ourselves be vulnerable, there's a chance to remake ourselves through collective processes and thereby glimpse bits of a remade world too. Not cause-and-effect, but a curiosity to the unfoldings that take place when we keep ourselves open to the wholeness of all that life involves, from start to finish, and when we remain in relationship with everything that makes us human.
Maybe none of us will ever live to see a day when we truly achieve "a free society of free individuals," but there are so many everyday ways we prefigure qualitative fragments of it, so many ways that we feel and practice it, as this sticker I ran across in Brooklyn a few weeks ago captures for me: "Alone In This, Together." (That's a good thing in my book, even if the book I'm currently reading got a little damp with tears tonight.)
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I posted a few "word-photos" (my new genre) on my Facebook page, as homage to my dad and as a way to process some of my feelings through putting written words into the world. I figured I'd paste them here, below, as further fragments, perhaps, of prefigurative social-self-care.
November 17, 2012:
I'm trying so hard today to be ok. So hard. I'm trying not to think or stress or tear up; not to focus on that nagging feeling in the background of my body that I might actually be getting sick; and instead to get lost in reading, walking, and especially catching up on my paid copyediting work -- distractions. But the book I just started to work on is about Jewish humor, and that makes it impossible not to think about my dad. Telling puns and jokes, especially ones making fun of his own (cultural) Judaism, has always been just about his favorite thing to do -- to the point of driving me crazy at times. Each and every joke, which he frequently repeated multiple times over the years, always grew longer and more embellished, with the Jewish characters taking on increasingly detailed attributes and lengthier explanations before the punch line arrived. Now, of course, as he lies in a hospital bed with various life-support tubes, making it impossible to speak, I sorely miss his verbal wit, often backed up by his physical silliness, as in this photo I took of him over two years ago when my mom was then in a hospital, seriously ill.
"A man is hit by a car. A paramedic on the scene asks, 'Are you comfortable?' The Jew answers (in a Yiddish accent), 'I make a living.'”
If you've run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/. Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.
(Photos by Cindy Milstein)