If You Don't Keep Score You'll Never Lose

When I was on tour with the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, in September of 2003, one of the papers that did a write-up on us referred to me as a “punk poetess.” The punk part, I didn’t mind, but I balked at the poetess part. Though I wrote poetry, I didn’t want to be a Poet. I thought of Poets as black-clad people who hung out in coffee shops and smoked cigarettes and thought they were deep because they’d read some Baudelaire. (I did all those things, myself - minus the ‘thinking I was deep’ - and maybe what I hated about Poets was what I hated about myself.) “Also,” I wrote in a zine piece about the tour, “if you’re gonna call me a poet, just call me a fucking poet, don’t tack the -ess on there.” I felt that was condescending, a needless way to feminize the act of writing poetry.

These days, the word poetess doesn’t scare me so much. I don’t feel it’s condescending; it actually sounds powerful and witchy, to me. Poetess. Goddess.

But I still don’t always think of myself as a poet(ess). Not because of any stigma against poets, either. I struggle with thinking of myself as a poet for the same reasons I struggle with thinking of myself as a writer, period: because I am not a ‘successful’ writer. Because most of my stuff is self-published (via blog or zine). Because I don’t have an MFA, because I don’t yet earn a full living off my writing, because the stuff I have had ‘legitimately’ published hasn’t gotten me all of the accolades I hoped it would, because I get more rejections than I do acceptances, because I’ve never been a writer-in-residence. Forget that I don’t actually like the mainstream publishing world, I think that self-publishing and small presses are the best, and I don’t want an MFA in Creative Writing - it has nothing to do with that. It’s entirely internal, and I’m pretty sure that even if I got an MFA and three residencies and published a New York Times bestseller, I’d still feel like a fraud.

I feel like a fraud in other ways, too.

The other day, Adam Gnade called me his favorite Zine Chronicler of the Current True-Life Punk Rock Experience, and that made me really happy, and then I got sad. “Am I really punk?” I wondered. “Maybe I was once, but I’m not anymore.” I’ve always had these stupid worries that I’m Not Really Punk, and they’ve only intensified as I’ve gotten older. It’s not because of anyone calling me a poser - at this point, I couldn’t care less about things like that - it’s more that I’ve built up this Ideal Punk Rocker in my head, and noticed all the ways in which I fall short of my ideal.

My imaginary ideal punk is someone who always looks Punk (weird haircut and/or unnatural hair color; vest covered in studs and patches the bare minimum of punk clothing always on their person), who goes to shows at least every other night, and who, when they’re not at a show, is either playing shows with their band, going to protests, fucking shit up, getting fucked up, or traveling. They barely have any interests outside of those things. They certainly don’t listen to any music that falls outside of the Punk Umbrella; they certainly don’t care about things like paying the bills or raising a family. The thing is, I have met people that fit my Ideal Punk Rocker prototype, and they are usually either really awful people, or just really boring people. But when I’m measuring myself against this prototype, the reality doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I don’t live up to my ideal.

These days, I only go to a show once every couple of months. I still fuck shit up and go on adventures and travel, but I travel less often and most of my adventures are of the quieter, closer-to-home variety. I don’t always ‘look punk’ because I’m growing my hair out, it’s not a funny color, and I enjoy wearing pretty sundresses as much as I enjoy wearing my battle vest. My main priority is taking care of my little one; everything else comes second. And now, it is August, which means I have swung back into the season where I listen less to punk and hardcore and more to country, folk, blues, and jazz.

Punk is everything to me, but it’s not everything to me, and I try to remind myself that I am still punk, no matter what I’m doing. It’s in everything I do, like when I drink my coffee in the morning. I’m still punk when I’m playing with Baby D. I am punk when I’m harvesting fresh basil from the garden. I’m punk when I’m sitting quietly, reading a book. I’m punk when I’m listening to Bessie Smith.

I have also always had a hard time thinking of myself as a Real Traveler. I never thought I was because I have almost always had a home base, a place I paid rent on and could return to at the end of my travels; I have only ever lived the full-time traveler kid lifestyle for a couple months, here and there. And, you know, I did more car-traveling than I did freight-hopping, there was that, too. (My imaginary real traveler is very similar to my imaginary real punk, but at least the traveler is allowed to listen to more than one kind of music.) It was the year 2007 - the year in my life when I spent the least time at home, the year when I was almost always on some road or other or at least wandering my own city, the year when I first caught out - when I accepted that I was truly a traveler, and two things helped me. In March of that year I read A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit, and there is a passage where she writes:

nomads, contrary to current popular imagination, have fixed circuits and stable relationships to places; they are far from being the drifters and dharma bums that the word nomad often connotes nowadays

And then in September, I met Sinclair, my freight-hopping south wind boy, and he said: “What makes you think yer not a real traveller? Cos you have an apartment you pay rent on and sometimes yer there for a couple months at a time? Jesus, everyone needs ta rest sometimes. ‘Sides, yer more of a traveller than those kids who’ll only hop trains or hitchhike, out of some damn notion that’s the only way to go - cos yeah, you’ll hop trains or hitch or walk or ride yer bike, but yer also not opposed to driving or flying or whatever - you’ll take whichever mode of transport is available to you, just to fuckin’ go.”

I’ve had a hard time seeing myself as a real traveler, but for about half my life, now, I’ve thought of myself as someone who leaves. I’ve traveled and moved around a lot over the course of my life, and I’ve had a lot of lovers and relationships, a lot of living spaces and jobs. And I am constantly restless - I have been since I was a small child, and I still am, and I don’t think that will ever end, I do believe that the restlessness is part of my identity, part of who I am - I am constantly restless. I will always long for new lovers and new horizons and new experiences even if I no longer seek them out; even when I’m relatively content with my life, there is always a nagging thought in the back of my mind about taking off, running off after some new, exciting thing. And when I have the blues, forget it - when I have the blues, it’s all I can do to stop myself from filling the gas tank in my car and driving ‘til it runs out, or from hopping on the next freight train passing by. But the thing is - I do, often, stop myself. I’ve traveled a lot, but, to quote Stacey Marie - I’ve spent more of my life trying to stop traveling than I’ve actually spent traveling.

Why do I see myself as a person who leaves? Is it because of the times I did leave people and places? Did it start the first time I expressed my restlessness to a lover and they said: “I’m afraid you’re going to leave me?” Maybe, because one thing I have learned about myself is that the harder someone tries to tamp down on my restlessness and need for new experiences, the more restless I get, and the more likely I am to leave. And I have left - people, places, parts of my life - but I have often stayed, even when I wanted to leave. And more than that, I have returned: if a person or a place is important enough to me, I don’t leave and cut all ties - I go out into the world, see some things, do what I need to do, and then I return.

And now I have been in one primary relationship for five years, and lived in one house for nearly three. So why do I still think of myself as a person who leaves? Maybe it is time to start thinking of myself as a person who returns.

I have also, for a very long time, seen myself as a bad person, as a selfish person, as a fuck-up. People close to me, and strangers, have told me that I was a bad, selfish person, that I was a fuck-up, and I internalized it. I’m a bad, selfish person because I have sometimes left. Because I have disappointed the people I love by not always doing exactly what they wanted me to do, by not always being exactly the version of me they wanted me to be. I’m a fuck-up because I took a long, circuitous route to finishing college, because I have spent a lot of time drunk or high, because I have tattoos, because I have a hard time holding down a job, because I used to have a lot of one-night stands and I had a couple abortions. But the thing is, most of the people who have told me I was selfish, bad, a fuck-up, are people who may have not done any of the ‘bad’ things I have done, but haven’t done anything particularly good, either. They’ve lived safe lives: they haven’t made many mistakes but they haven’t done anything great.

I may have made some mistakes, but I’ve learned from all of them. And I may have left, at times, but what about all the times I didn’t leave? I may not be successful in the eyes of society, but I have seen a lot of the world and met a lot of amazing people. I may not be successful in the eyes of society, but I’ve had people tell me that something I wrote changed their lives, and really, what else can a writer ask for?

Sometimes we hold onto ideas about ourselves, or onto aspects of our identities, that are no longer working for us - or that maybe never really did - because we have spent so long telling ourselves (or having other people tell us) certain stories: “This is who I am, and who I will always be.” Sometimes, we hold onto negative aspects of our identities (or ones that maybe aren’t negative, but that no longer fit us) because declaring yourself something, even something negative, is less scary than admitting: “I don’t know who I am in that regard.”

On the other hand, sometimes we tell ourselves (or let other people tell us) stories about who we are not, or we let go of aspects of our identity that we still connect to because we have ascribed some unattainable ideal to that identity, some ideal that we’ll never live up to.

I think it’s dangerous to hold so tightly onto our identities that we can’t see when parts of them don’t fit us anymore (or maybe never did) and it’s time to let them go. But I also think it’s dangerous to deny ourselves certain aspects of our identities because we think we’re not ‘doing them right,’ as though there’s only one right way to be…anything. As though there’s only one right way to be ourselves. I guess the goal is to defend our identities fiercely to the outside world, but not to latch so tightly onto the stories we tell ourselves about who we are that we can’t let go of the things that don’t fit us.

I think it’s time we start to claim our identities as things that can grow and change with us. I think it’s time we start to believe that we’re real punks and travelers, poets and writers. I think it’s time we realize that we’re good people who have made some mistakes. I think it’s time we measure success on our own terms.

As the Pine Hill Haints say: If you don’t keep score, you’ll never lose.

#prose #rustbeltjessie #identity

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