against silence, for light
I wanted to say fuck 2016, but I just couldn’t. It was a hard fucking year, both in my life and in the world at large. Hate crimes, environmental destruction, broke as shit, loved ones dying, cherished artists dying, ACAB, depression, mania, anxiety, relationship issues, the election from hell, loneliness, suicidal thoughts, crying all the fucking time, etc., etc., and part of me wanted to say fuck this entire year in its face, it cannot do this to me.
But then, a memory:
At midnight on New Year’s Day, 2005, in a crowd of friends and lovers and sweet strangers, I shouted fuck 2004. Everyone did. It had been a hard year, an exhausting year, and at that moment I was looking back on only the bad things. Election from hell, broke as shit, abortion, art school dropout, drinking too much, loneliness, crying all the fucking time (same as it ever was, same as it ever was)… I thought of all that and I joined everyone in saying fuck 2004. And then I spent pretty much the entirety of 2005 wishing it was 2004 again.
I know you can’t get any year back, whether you tell it to go fuck itself or not, but what I’m saying is—when you focus on the bad stuff, you throw the good stuff out with it. By you I mean me. I’m not telling anyone else what to do. You can say fuck off to every year if that’s what works for you.
Let me start again. If I look at 2016 one way, focusing only on the negative aspects, it is easy to say it was The Worst Year Ever. But if I look at it another way, and focus on the good: people joining together to fight the good fight, art & music & poetry, move to a new house, (re)connection with old friends and new friends, wanders in nature & cities, kisses, hugs from the kidlet, zines, cross-country road trip, see what I mean? That’s life (that’s what all the people say), the good all mixed in with the bad and the weird and the mundane. One aspect can’t exist without the others, at least not for long.
The other reason I can’t dismiss the entire year is that the older I get, the less I want to wish time away. I don’t want to dismiss an entire year, or even an entire day, because this is all we get. I don’t mean that in a sucky things will stay sucky forever sense, I simply mean that I’m not going to spend my life being upset because a moment or a day or a year didn’t turn out perfectly. There’s no such thing as Perfect, anyway, and I don’t want to be so busy shaking my fist at the past that I ignore the present. Because this moment is all we’re promised.
David Wojnarowicz came up for me a lot in 2016. Every couple months, his name popped up in something I read. When a person or topic comes up over and over, I usually assume there’s some kind of message or inspiration I’m supposed to be getting from it/them, because I am into all that whoo-whoo synchronous magic shit. Sometimes I get it right away, other times it takes a while—it took a while to suss out what message David was trying to beam at me. I finally got it in December. I read The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (which is maybe my favorite book I read in 2016, I highly recommend it), and David Wojnarowicz is all over that book. I learned more about him than I'd ever known before, and got a little obsessed—I looked up more of his art, more of his writing, I even tracked down the archives of his journals that The Fales Library digitized and put online. During one of my searches, I came upon this quote:
To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions in the preinvented world. The government has the job of maintaining the day-to-day illusion of the ONE-TRIBE NATION. Each public disclosure of a private reality becomes something of a magnet that can attract others with a similar frame of reference; thus each public disclosure of a fragment of private reality serves as a dismantling tool against the illusion of ONE-TRIBE NATION; it lifts the curtains for a brief peek and reveals the probable existence of literally millions of tribes. The term “general public” disintegrates. What happens next is the possibility of an X-ray of Civilization, an examination of its foundations. To turn our private grief for the loss of friends, family, lovers and strangers into something public would serve as another powerful dismantling tool.
-David Wojnarowicz, from Close to the Knives
I read that, and then I thought about his Rimbaud in New York photo series—specifically the photograph of the ghostly, Xeroxed Rimbaud standing in front of a peeling wall among the glorious shambles of the Hudson piers. A wall on which Wojnarowicz had spray-painted, in tribute to Joseph Beuys, THE SILENCE OF MARCEL DUCHAMP IS OVERRATED. I thought, also, of his AIDS activism, and of the most famous slogan of the AIDS activism era: SILENCE = DEATH.
And then I thought of other quotes about being silent vs. speaking your truth, like this one:
I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…. What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.
I began to ask each time: “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, “disappeared” or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.
Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.
And this one:
If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.
-Zora Neale Hurston
There it was. That had been the message all along.
One of my biggest struggles during the past 3/4 of a year or so has been a struggle against silence. A struggle with wanting to write, with having so much to say, but facing up against that internal voice that continues to come at me with some variation of there’s no point, you should just quit.
That voice kept coming up while I wrote Reckless Chants #23. It said, You’re not an expert on any of this, so no one cares what you have to say. I tried to counter that by saying, Well, no, I’m not an expert on grief or tears, that’s why I’m researching these topics or I am an expert on my own grief, my own tears, my own trauma and mental illness. But then it came back and said, No one cares about your traumas or your tears. Stop whining. Shut up. And I said, I need to finish it for my own sake, and furthermore it might help someone else who’s gone through something similar.
I managed to ignore it for long enough to finish the issue, but it never went away. And there have been other forces, other voices, trying to keep me silent.
Just before the election, I started on issue #24 of Reckless Chants. I wrote pages and pages every day for a week, words flowed from me in a way they hadn’t in a while. But then the election happened. And I couldn’t work on my zine, or anything else. If I attempted to work on my zine, there was that voice, Why are you writing this? It’s just a collection of short pieces, memories of music and girls, lovers and cafes. In the face of everything going on, this doesn’t matter one bit. So I tried to work on something more political; something with a message of resistance or hope, but there was that voice, Why bother? Nothing you write could ever change anything.
I haven’t been able to get back into a writing flow since then. I have made lists and lists of things I want to write, but completing anything other than throwaway poems and short blog posts has felt like a Sisyphean task. Even trying to finish this piece has been so much harder than it has any right to be. There is the what does it matter/no one cares voice, and there is also—you’re not making any money off this, so it’s pointless. Money isn’t why I write, but money worries often prevent me from writing. I start to write, the voice reminds me how broke I am and makes me feel shitty about it, and then I wind up staring at the computer screen or blank page worrying about money, which is about the most pointless thing in the world but I can’t seem to stop doing it.
No matter what that voice says, it boils down to the same thing: Stop writing. Shut up. Be silent.
So I am weaving all those words together, Wojnarowicz, Lorde, Hurston, others, myself. Weaving a mantra: The very act of telling my stories is political, is important. To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions in the preinvented world. Your silences will not protect you. My silence—our silence—is what they want. If we let ourselves go silent in the face of this, they have already won. If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it. SILENCE = DEATH.
On December 30th, I went to Chicago to see Patti Smith in concert. It was her 70th birthday, the night before my 35th birthday, and seeing one of my hero(in)es on stage was exactly what I needed at the end of such a hard year. It was one of those rare concerts that I would say was a spiritual, transcendental experience. And Patti reiterated the anti-silence message—at the beginning of “Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer,” she went off-script from the poem-rant as appears on the record. I don’t remember exactly what she said, I felt high (on rebellion) and was writing my own poem in my head; some of her words mixed in with my own, in my trance I heard Patti say:
Johnny saw, in the hallway,
light on stained glass, forming
into roses, each one with its thorn
We are a generation of thorns and we will
prick them until they fucking bleed
We will not be silent
We will not be good
WE WILL NOT BEHAVE
I raised my fist into the sea of fists, shrieked a righteous noise, then I wept, wept, wept. A release of everything I’d been keeping inside for so long.
On my birthday, New Year’s Eve, I did a cleansing ritual. The first part of the ritual involved lighting a black candle and giving it all the suffering of 2016. Thinking of every mistake, every regret, every sorrow, every trauma, everything that was inflicted on me or that I inflicted on others, and focusing it into the candle, then getting into a hot bath and washing my body while imagining washing my heart and soul. Washing off all the negativity and refusing to bring it with me into 2017.
On New Year’s Day, I woke to light. That brilliant winter sunlight which is harsher and shorter than summerlight, but somehow also clearer. So clear it’s almost painful.
There is pain and sorrow ahead, but there is also joy and freedom. There is always already both things, all things. There is a long fight ahead, with many battles, many losses and victories. Here is my prayer for all of us in 2017:
We will appreciate each moment for what it is.
We will acknowledge our sufferings, and know that they’re valid.
We will also acknowledge our joys, and know they’re just as important.
We will arm ourselves for battle with the things that inspire and fortify our souls, with the words and actions of artists and activists that have come before and those that stand beside us.
We will shine like light on stained glass, prick the bastards with our glorious thorns.
We will fight, fight, fight—fight oppressors, fight the voices in our own heads that tell us to give up, fight any pessimism internal or external that says we should shut up, give up, that what we do doesn’t matter.
And we will not be good—we will be great.
We will not be silent.
We will not behave.