balance and stealth
It is autumn, finally, thank the gods.
This summer was relentless. From June through mid-September, I was pretty much always manic or depressed or anxious, or some combination thereof. I felt completely rubbed raw. I couldn’t distance myself from the news of the world (and it’s been a hell of a year for bad news, hasn’t it?), or from my own personal sufferings. Most days, I’d wake up in the morning feeling like I was gonna kick the day’s ass, but by afternoon I’d feel like the day had kicked my ass and I’d wind up lying in bed, crying. And I drank a little too much this summer, to try and anesthetize myself, even though I know from experience that never does work. A drink or two takes the edges off my anxiety, but if I’m already feeling overemotional and I over-drink, all that happens is that I have an even harder time reigning my emotions in. And then I wind up doing things like locking myself in the bathroom at the bar or a friend’s house to cry.
Yeah, this summer was rough, and I wasn’t good at taking care of myself, either.
But now it is autumn and I’m feeling better. I’m not sure if I’m feeling better because it’s autumn, or if I’m feeling better and it’s autumn, but either way…
Autumn is the best season in the part of the world I live in. The trees changing color, cooler temperatures (hoodie weather!), time for ghost stories and backyard hangouts by the fire pit, time for hot coffee and good whiskey. And in autumn, my melancholic, nostalgic tendencies make more sense, and so does my penchant for dressing mostly in black and grey. I make more sense in autumn.
And magic is easier to access in autumn. These past few weeks have been full of signs and synchronicity. I keep hearing new songs that express things I’ve been feeling or thinking about. I’ve been thinking about people I once knew, whom I haven’t heard from in years, and a few of them have contacted me out of the blue. That’s not entirely a good thing, because I have, shall we say, complicated histories with a lot of people—but still, it is definitely synchronous, definitely magic.
Other recent moments of synchronicity include:
—Last week, in the car, listening to the radio, I thought: “I wanna hear some Iggy Pop, right fuckin’ now,” and the next song the DJ played was “Real Wild Child.”
—A couple nights later, I had a dream about Jean-Michel Basquiat. He wasn’t in the dream, but it involved him, and I woke up in the morning thinking about Basquiat and the dream and started jotting down notes for a story idea based on it. Then I logged on to Tumblr, and the first thing that appeared on my dashboard was a photograph of Basquiat.
—A couple days after that, I was having feelings about the Three of Swords and writing something about it, and then I visited Sarah McCarry’s blog…and the first paragraph on the first page was about the Three of Swords.
—The day before yesterday, I was thinking about Lou Reed, and when I got in the car and turned on the radio, the next song the DJ played was “Walk on the Wild Side.”
Like I said—synchronicity. And please don’t tell me it’s all mere coincidence. I don’t care if it is coincidence, because magic is where you find it, and coincidence or not, all these synchronous moments and small signs have chinked some important things together in my mind.
And it’s autumn and I’m feeling better. I weathered the storm that was this summer and I feel calmer, more balanced. There are still just as many horrible things going on in the world, and my own sorrows and frustrations are still there, but for right now I am better able to let it all bounce off me rather than get under my skin and turn me into a ball of raw nerves and hot tears. Part of it is that I’m getting better at self-care. I think that a lot of what I thought of as “self-care” in the past was an empty version of self-care, or a performative version of it. For a while I thought that because I was no longer self-destructing in the ways I used to, that meant I was taking care of myself. Like—well, I’m no longer doing drugs and fucking strangers and blowing the rent money on road trips! I’m doing great! But “not self-destructing” does not equal “trying to help yourself thrive.” I realized that I had mistaken denying myself “bad” things for giving myself good things. I also realized that I had been thinking of self-care as just doing the bare minimum of stuff I need to survive. You know, I’d feel like shit (physically or mentally or both), and I’d think: But I took my vitamins and drank plenty of water today! Why do I still feel like shit?
But I’ve begun to realize that denying myself pleasure is the opposite of self-care. That doesn’t mean I’m going to start living as a promiscuous party-kid again—what I mean is, I’m taking note of what brings me pleasure now, and trying to have more of it in my life. And I’ve also begun to realize that basic survival stuff is not self-care, either. Oh sure, it’s important, but I don’t want to just survive, god damn it, I want to thrive. A lot of what self-care means for me, right now, is allowing myself the time to do nice things for myself. To take time just for me, where I’m not writing, or doing housework, or taking care of my son, or on my way to a meeting, or running errands. It means boiling water in a kettle and making myself a pot of tea, instead of just microwaving a mug full of water. It means making myself breakfast, poaching eggs and toasting bread, instead of just shoving a handful of cashews in my mouth and pretending that counts. It means some mornings, when my son is at school, choosing not to use that time to write but rather to get out of the house—to take a long walk, or go visit a museum. It means some evenings, rather than trying to get an extra hour or two of writing in, choosing instead to watch a movie or light some candles and listen to music. (Until recently, I couldn’t remember the last time I played an album all the way through and sat there and listened to it, rather than just having it be background noise for something else I was doing—and oh my god, I forgot what an experience that can be.)
My self-care right now also means spending more time doing housework. Living in squalor didn’t used to bother me. It was like: Yeah, my fridge is infested with maggots and where’s that weird smell coming from? Whatever. It’s PUNK ROCK. Or it fit into some bohemian ideal I had, some romanticized idea that having a living space filled with overflowing ashtrays and half-empty bottles of wine and half-empty cups of coffee and a fine layer of dust on everything meant that I was a true artiste—I had no time to clean, I was in service of the Muse. Ha. Sometimes I think about some ideas I used to have and want to smack my younger self. In recent years, particularly since moving to a new house back in May, I’ve found that I cannot tolerate mess and grime the way I used to. Forget “having no time to clean because I’m too busy making art,” I now cannot focus on making art if my living space is too filthy or cluttered. I am still not the cleanest, neatest person, ever—I am never going to spend every spare moment of my time cleaning, and there will always be some clutter in my house, like stacks of books and notebooks and papers. But I’ve discovered that if I keep the clutter down to a level where I can find what I’m looking for without having to ransack the whole house, and if I keep the filth down to maybe a little dust and some crumbs on the floor, my living space is more pleasant to be in and I’m happier being in it. I’ve even discovered that I no longer hate doing dishes, which were always my least favorite household chore. Now, if I have a cup of coffee and some good tunes playing, I find dishwashing somewhat comforting and meditative. I know. What the fuck.
But. My self-care also means not berating myself when I don’t check every single thing off my to do list on any given day/week. I am notorious for thinking I can do all of the things, and getting mad at myself when I fail. I am also notorious for attempting to do all of the things—I’m gonna spend three hours writing then two hours playing with my son then two hours cleaning then go to this event or hang out with my friends and not get home ’til 3 a.m. then wake up again at 7, repeat ad nauseam—and then wondering why I’ve gotten sick or am having a nervous breakdown. Fun times. Not.
Another thing self-care means for me, right now, is drinking less. Since autumn has begun, I’ve cut way back on my drinking. Most nights, I have two drinks, max—and I savor those drinks, because I am not drinking to get drunk. Many nights, I don’t drink at all—I make myself a pot of tea, instead. But if there’s a night I feel like having three drinks, or a night I hang out with my bestie and end up getting so drunk I have to crash at her place, that’s okay, too. Because, as I said above, it’s not about denying myself things. It’s also not about berating myself. The last thing I need is to set up stringent rules and then get down on myself for failing to keep them. So if I sometimes have a drunken night, or sometimes get so deep in writing that I forget to eat, I’m not going to beat myself up for it.
Most of all, self-care is about balance. I’m doing a divination challenge this month, and the question for October 1st was How can I untangle my life this month? I drew Temperance.
Temperance is a card of balance—it’s all about not going to one extreme or the other. If you’ve been partying all the time or slacking on work, it tells you to cut back on the partying and get back to work. If you’ve been working too hard or not letting yourself experience pleasure, it tells you to relax and enjoy life. So I’m keeping that in mind, and I’m trying to trust myself to know what I need, when I need it. Sometimes I need to write all day and let the dirty dishes sit in the sink. Sometimes I need to not write, and spend the day cleaning. Sometimes I need to not write or clean, and instead go to the bookstore or take a long drive. Some nights I need to drink a cup of tea and go to bed early, and some nights I need to stay up late drinking whiskey with friends.
Speaking of trusting myself to know what I need when I need it—I’m currently looking for a therapist. I’ve left my mental illnesses untreated for years now, and I’ve muddled through, but this summer was so bad that I realized I can’t do this alone anymore. It’s kind of scary seeking outside help when you haven’t done it in so long, so wish me luck.
And speaking of balance… I went through a period of time this summer when I missed my old, wild life, and thought with fondness of my self-destructive ways. I was so fucked up this summer, and I thought about how Back in the Day when I felt that way I’d go out and get wasted and find some cute stranger to go home with, or I’d say fuck everything and hop a train with no real idea of where I was going or how I would get home. I thought: I may have felt just as shitty, but I had more fun. And I wished I could still justify doing things like that. But now, I’m thinking: Okay, but was I really having fun back then? No, I wasn’t. I got a lot of great stories from that time in my life, but that whole “always drunk or high, on the constant verge of eviction or actually homeless, oh shit I might be pregnant and I don’t even know who the father is, where did I sleep last night and where am I gonna sleep tonight” thing wasn’t fun at all. It was exhausting and awful. It’s just that I spent so much time romanticizing that life, and again, it all fell into my bullshit idea of what it meant to be a punk or an artist. I’d say things like: Well, I’m broke and homeless, but it’s PUNK ROCK. Or Every artist needs scandalous love affairs and too much pills and liquor. Or I am not built for contentment or stability. (See what I mean about wanting to smack my younger self?)
I don’t regret that time in my life. Kate Zambreno has written about it, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s like—this time in your life when you are so fucked up that you have to whirl around the world fucking your life up even more in order to survive. And she also talks about it being a time in your life when you’re living the experiences with which to create art, but you’re not yet an artist. I mean, I created back then—I painted and did performance art and burlesque and sideshow and made music and wrote zines and poems and novels and plays, and some of what I created back then was pretty good. But it wasn’t my time to be an artist, yet; I was too busy having experiences and ruining everything to dedicate myself to my work. Then was the time to collect stories, now is the time to sift through them all to see what I can use in my work. So I don’t regret my past, and it was interesting and exciting, but was it fun? No. (And I sort of knew that, somewhere deep down, even back then.) And would I want to live like that again? Hell no.
So I know that it wasn’t all romance and pleasure, and I know that it’s good I don’t do all those self-destructive things anymore. But I still have my moments, when I’m sad and restless and feeling like I don’t do anything anymore, when I long for my old life. I had one of those days the other day, and I thought: Well, it’s good that I don’t live that life anymore, but some of the old spontaneity has been lost, too. But immediately afterward, I thought: Yeah, if by spontaneity you mean overdrawing your bank account to get a tattoo, or going on a three-day bender. That’s not spontaneity, that’s plain stupidity. And then I thought: I may think before I act a little more now, so I’m less literally spontaneous, but I have gotten more fearless in my art. And then I remembered a Patti Smith quote that I’ve been carrying around with me for a long time:
In art and dream, may you proceed with abandon. In life, may you proceed with balance and stealth.
I first discovered that quote in early 2005, and I was just coming down from 2004, which was the banner year of all my Wild Years. I was tired and thought I was ready to settle down, and when I read that quote I decided it would be my new life motto. Except it didn’t work out that way. It didn’t work out because I wasn’t yet ready to hang my wild years up (and if you’re anything like me, you’ve got “Frank’s Wild Years” stuck in your head right now). And it didn’t work out because I assumed balance was just something that would happen, rather than something I would have to work on.
But when I remembered that quote the other day I realized—I am finally there. And by there I don’t mean I have achieved balance and no longer have to work on it. I have to work on it every day. Balance and Temperance don’t come easy to me. I am an all or nothing, feast or famine person; someone who feels and lives everything to extremes. I am either Up or Down. I am either So In Love With You or Ugh, Get Outta My Face. I am either In Love With Myself or wondering why I’m the Worst Person Ever. I am either On Fire With Words or Fuck It, I’m Gonna Quit Writing. I am either Living With Passionate Intensity or I am A Bored Person With a Boring Life. (Bipolar disorder or just my personality? Ah, six of one, half dozen of the other, right?) What I mean when I say I am finally there is—I have since realized that achieving balance requires work, and I’ve also developed some tools to help me in that work. And I am thankful for that quote—after I first found it, it took me five+ years to quit actively self-destructing, and another four years before I started finding any kind of balance. But now, here I am, making art with abandon and working on living my life with balance and stealth. And that quote has been there, tucked in my pocket like a talisman, for over a decade, giving me hope that I would one day make it here.
In another recent synchronous moment—
I’d been thinking about all this, my old life vs. my new life, my time of fucking up my life and disrupting everything around me vs. my time of devoting myself to art, and two days ago I read this thing Jack Terricloth wrote: …my hedonism has been tempered by a love for beauty and beauty must be tended to, sung and presented. So I only get to getting drunk and breaking stuff in between doing the important stuff. This job doesn’t have a retirement plan.
I’m still working on Reckless Chants #23. I know, I’ve been working on it for months, but there have been some hiccups. This summer, I wanted to work on it more than I did, but I spent so much of my summer going on crying jags and having panic attacks that it was difficult to focus on it. And, you know, the zine is a long-form essay about a multitude of difficult topics, tied together with thoughts about crying—but this summer I was too busy crying to sit down and write about my tears. Since I’ve started feeling better, I’ve gotten back to work on it in earnest, but then I discovered that 6,000+ words of what I’d written were so far off-topic that I couldn’t even salvage them, and I felt pretty demoralized by that, so I had to step away from it a couple days and regroup.
And I mean, I keep having to set it aside for a day or two. Sometimes just so I can work on other writing, or wash the dishes, or run errands, or live my damn life, but also because—even with my improved mental state, this zine is rough going. It’s about tears and trauma and violence and loss and grief, and it’s draining, and I need to pause and recover in between bouts of writing. Many writers have said something along the lines of writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed—and oh boy, can I relate to that right now.
For a while, I was saying this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written, but I feel like I say that every time I’m working on something. Sometimes I wonder why I’m so hard on myself when it comes to writing. Like, why don’t I just write in a way that comes easily to me, or write about easy topics? Why must I always challenge myself to try something I’m not sure I can manage, or write about things that hurt to write about? But then I remember that if I didn’t push myself my writing would be mediocre at best, and that the hardest things to write are usually what I most urgently need to write about. I have to keep saying what cannot be said. This job doesn’t have a retirement plan.
So yes, I’m still working on it. In the meantime, you can listen to the soundtrack.
What else have I been up to?
I’ve been writing a ton of poetry, and I’ve started writing fiction again, too. I’ve got ideas for paintings and songs and even a film. I’m writing a couple non-fiction pieces for friends’ zines. I just published a broadside of one of my recent poems.
I first started thinking about this poem when I heard the news of Erik Petersen's passing in July. I wanted to write something for him, because he wrote so many things that inspired me. Then I started thinking of everyone I've lost in recent years, and how many of the deaths were related to mental illness and/or addiction, and how many of those I've lost have been anarchists and/or punks and/or travelers. So the poem turned into something not just for Erik, but for all of them.
You can purchase it at my Etsy shop.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Punk is still on track to be released very soon, and every dollar you spend at Pioneers Press helps push that release date even closer.
I have a lot of events coming up—I’m participating in the Poetry Aloud Recitation Challenge on October 11th (I’ll be reciting a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem). And I’ll be one of the featured poets (reading my own stuff) at BONK! on October 22nd, and I will post more information about that as I have it. I’m also attending the second day (October 15th) of this year’s Lorine Niedecker Poetry Festival, so if you’re going to be there, come and find me. I’ll be the goth-punk looking femme with the boots and the winged eyeliner.
I’m doing 31 Days of Halloween over on my blog, because—sing it with me—it’s the most wonderful time of the yeeeaarrrrr. As part of it, I uploaded a ghost story mini-zine I wrote last October to Issuu.
And what have I been into? Here’s a short list of some of the stuff I’ve been drawing inspiration from, lately—
I’ve been listening non-stop to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, Ezra Furman’s Perpetual Motion People, and Andrew Bird’s Are You Serious. I’m also digging the new Amanda Palmer/Jason Webley collaboration, Kim Gordon’s new tune “Murdered Out,” the collaborative album Iggy Pop did with Tarwater and Alva Noto (it’s Iggy reciting poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass!), and Mykki Blanco’s new album Mykki. Speaking of Mykki Blanco, you should check out his performance of Zoe Leonard’s piece “I Want A Dyke for President.” (I read the original piece only a couple years after it was first published, and I feel like this is one of those “only aging riot grrrls and old school zinesters will remember this” moments, haha; but seriously—listen to Mykki’s rendition of it, I got chills and teared up.) And while we’re on the spoken word thing, check out Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib's poem “Washington Bullets.” Book-wise, I’m currently rereading The Incantation of Frida K. by Kate Braverman, and dipping into sections of Punk Rock Warlord, because I’ve been having Joe Strummer/Clash feels again, what else is new. And I’ve been reading some stuff about self-care—I’d suggest you read Laurie Penny’s article for The Baffler, and I’d recommend signing up for Elinor Abbott’s email newsletter, “From the Choirgirl Hotel,” because right now she’s writing all about self-care.
And what else?
I’m pretty broke, but I’ve been broker than this before, and hey—if you’d like to help me be a little less broke, maybe consider becoming my patron on Patreon or buying something from my Etsy shop? I’m melancholy, but melancholy is different from depression, and as I said above, my melancholic tendencies make more sense at this time of year. And I’m always longing for someone(s) or something(s), but again, same as it ever was, and as my horoscope for September said: Luckily, you’ve reached that certain age when nothing needs to make sense anymore, and longing is itself a form of pleasure.
And I love all of you. I know things are hard. It’s hard to deal with our own personal struggles, and it’s hard to deal with the news of the world. So much of it is awful, and also, we’re constantly bombarded with information, which makes it harder to distance ourselves from it. But I love all of you, and I want all of us to survive, and to thrive. So try and take care of yourselves, whatever that means to you right now. Try and live your lives with balance and stealth. Ask for help if you need it, and if you need to talk, I’m here to listen.