UNDONE (THE SWEATER SONG)

after Weezer

Give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals. 

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale


On our way out of the Roseland, we are pushing through the crowd to get to the exit and dancing to the post-show music. This is one of my favorite things about concerts: hearing people sing together. I worship even those moments before the opener comes on, when some playlist of alt-rock hits asserts its comforting familiarity over the speakers and everyone latches on to a particular song. It’s always something like Wish you could step off of that ledge my friend or I’m gonna fight em all or If you want to destroy my sweater, hold this thread as I walk away. Dear Portland chorus: I love you, I swear. All of that simultaneous joy makes my heart lurch with a kind of productive, forward-moving energy, like I’ve had too much coffee. It feels like relief and like waiting for something. I can’t describe its holiness like Hanif Abdurraqib but I know that it’s very much like waiting for something.

In fact, it occurs to me that in these United States, the sheer variety of religious and spiritual affiliation is such that in the event of an apocalypse, we wouldn’t say the Lord’s prayer together like they do in the movies. If, during those final moments, we truly wanted to be in communion with one another, we would sing the words to a song we all love as the asteroid careens toward the Earth.


One night, at a bar in Granada, I was feeling out of place among so many silk blouses and six inch high heels, among a sea of dancers repeating the same elegant salsa step over and over again, when “Mr. Brightside” came on and all of the Americans started singing with so little hesitation and such perfect synchronicity that I almost cried. I loved their laughing eyes and their wild gestures, how they clutched their chests when they sang, I just can’t look, it’s killing me. The well-dressed Spanish folks smoked their cigarettes and giggled at us, at the people who were my family for 3 minutes and 42 seconds. I’m surprised to find that I’m not actually ashamed of the sentimentality of all this. Probably because it, too, was near perfect to me. 


A few years ago, I watched a video of the rapper Post Malone– who I admittedly find kind of off-putting in a number of ways– singing “I Fall Apart” to a smallish crowd in a bar for some kind of collaborative tour with Budweiser. The song is about a devastating breakup in his younger years. In the video, by way of introduction, he says, This song is dedicated to the nasty girl who broke my heart. One grim detail: I’ve heard versions of this song where the audience starts chanting Fuck that bitch over and over again before he starts singing, which I gather is some sort of fan tradition acknowledging the degree of suffering expressed in the lyrics; there are echoes of that chanting here, too. Though the aggressive misogyny of the words is unsettling, I find myself drawn to the audience members as they sing along. Though some are smiling, lifting their hands and waving them like any headdress-wearing sorority girl at Coachella, a few look quite different. Their faces are solemn and strained, almost religious with empathy. When I watch the most passionate of these singers, it’s like I can see them reckon with a specific heartbreak as they mouth the words, the residue of a heavy and perennial anger. 


This is the last one, and then I’ll be quiet: Talib Kweli’s Blackstar reunion tour in Portland. A night crisp as printer paper. When Talib sang “Just to Get By” and everyone sang “Just to Get By.”

This morning I woke up, feeling brand new. I jumped up. Feeling my highs and my lows. In my soul and my goals. Just to stop smoking and stop drinking. And I’ve been thinking, I’ve got my reasons…

I don’t mean to collapse our identities, our unique experiences, when I say that we all sounded the same that night. I just mean to say that I could hear the choke of a sob in nearly everyone’s throat.


As Lucas and I continue pushing toward the back of the venue, I turn my camera toward him and hit record. Though I feel superficial for pulling out my phone so quickly, I swear to myself that I need the footage for later, for my hoard, for when I’m alone in my bed in the dark and I need to remember that I was once vital and breathing.

When Lucas turns to me and sees the camera, his eyes widen and his face opens up. I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, he shouts along with the crowd, moving his hips in a little circle. Right over here. Why can’t you see me? 


Three years later, I drive to Portland with E., who I’ve just started dating, to meet Lucas at a show. I haven’t seen him in a long time.

He is much thinner, so tiny as to be almost childlike, an image magnified by the fact that he’s wearing an undersized t-shirt and a small plastic backpack. His eyes are ringed in thick black liner, making them appear even more sunken. He looks unhealthy and unfed, like the sun has leaked right out of him. His hair, once the color of black tourmaline, is now a stark white-blond, a shade close to the color of his skin. This contributes to my sense that the pigment has drained from his body.

We smile and hug. I wrap my arms around his grass blade of a waist. I squeeze him once. Twice. He nuzzles my temple like a horse and I laugh. We make small talk, and his eyes keep darting toward the door as I speak, lamely describing my graduate program, my first year of teaching. It’s clear that he’s not focused on anything I’m saying. He bounces up and down in his seat.

When it’s his turn, Lucas says he’s in between jobs and living situations. He shrugs. He has a new boyfriend and I pretend I don’t know this already from social media. He keeps tapping his fingernails on the bar. They are painted black and chipping. He reminds me of some old mechanical toy. His neck on a swivel. His body shaking like a drummer boy’s. His fingers tap tap tap tap tap.

Well, he says, after less than ten minutes, sighing loudly and stretching as if he has completed some great herculean task. I’m sorry, baby girl. I know you drove all this way. But I can’t actually stay for the show. 

Oh, I say. Why? But he is evasive, and makes an excuse about needing to help a friend with something. I’ve been here before. I’m intimate with the sounds that a mouth makes as it forms a lie, especially one made to obscure the shape of a small and shameful thing.

We hug again. This time to say goodbye, I guess. As I wrap my fingers around his shoulders, I think his thin arms and clammy skin might be trying to say something to me, but I don’t really want to listen. I’m afraid that along with telling me he’s changed, they are also saying that I don’t fit among the changes. And I’m just not ready to grieve that yet.


Selfish as ever, I play the filmic montage of our friendship in my head as I push the bar door open and head out to the car. I hate how I do this. It’s so cloyingly predictable, but like most of my vices, it feels more compulsive than anything else. 

So we’re eating grilled cheese in the cafeteria in college. His face is bent over lines of chemical symbols; my face is bent over Beloved. He’s dancing with silly, jerking movements to a Major Lazer song in a living room lit by Christmas lights. Don’t tell them I’m like this on the internet! He shouts, and points at me from across the room. I raise my palms, laughing. I promise. He’s dragging an Ikea mattress through the door of my garage apartment, the one coated in dust and black mold. Bitch! he says, wiping sweat off his forehead, I was not built for this!


I should clarify something: I have never, before this night, longed for a man I did not desire. But I can’t describe what I felt like as anything but longing. 

I’m always reading things online about how much more beautiful and complex the phrase “I miss you” sounds in other languages. Tu me manques. You are missing to me. I suppose this is true. But this feeling was nothing like a lack. Instead, it was more like extrañar. In Spanish, extrañar means to miss, but it’s also a relative of the word extraño, or strange. And this is just how I felt. I miss you. I’m estranged from you. To me, you’ve become strange.


In my junior year of college, Sasha told me that she found it hard to be around me because I had changed since freshman year.

One bright Saturday, my housemates and I hosted Boozy Brunch, an annual tradition, at the small gray house on Princeton St. We got dressed up and made Irish whiskeys and plates of fresh fruit and waffles with burnt edges and my housemates didn’t really like me but they pulled me outside for photos anyway. I couldn’t find the shoes that went with my silver sequined party dress, and I couldn’t be bothered to look for them, so I yanked on my rain boots and clip-clopped outside like a sparkling Quarter Horse. That whole time, I was supposed to be writing a paper on speech acts in Troilus and Criseyde, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was just too angry. And what I mean by angry is that I was graduating college a year early in a handful of months, and I felt nothing. I already suspected that I had set myself up for a life of scrapping together a meager income, probably mostly from retail, and who would care about Chaucer and Ferdinand de Saussure then? What good would The Awakening do except to give me instructions for dying? I was forcing myself to fall out of love with all of it then, and the only way I could expel the bitterness that increasingly lived on my tongue was through a vaguely cynical flatness. Through long nights waiting in line at the North Lombard Taco Bell and finally getting everything I wanted. And I was still lonely.

Which meant, of course, that if I had changed, it was hardly monumental. I still got bronchitis in the springtime. Still fielded jokes at parties about my black tights and ballet shoes. Still blushed when Elliott Myers asked if I wanted to do coke with him in the garage. Still walked home from class listening to Mahler and wondering just what about life I seemed to be getting so wrong.

As I tripped on the porch steps on my way to the front yard, late already–and mostly intentionally–for the first few pictures in the yard, I thought about Sasha’s words more deeply, and considered the possibility she may have been right. But in the blunt orange of the afternoon, forcing my lips to part into a smile over and over again, I ultimately decided that she was wrong. I’m only coping, I thought, no, reacting to what I had been given. What the world looked like around me and what I thought it looked like ahead.

I wondered then, as I sometimes do now, if when we think we are getting closer to ourselves, we are really just finding a new way to survive. A temporary one, even, that has much less to do with identity than adaptation. Sasha was smart. Why didn’t she see all that? Wasn’t it obvious to anyone who met my eyes? 


A few weeks ago I came across the Jewish story of Zusha, a revered Hasidic master, on Facebook. The wording is different everywhere I look at the story online, but most versions go something like this: Zusha is crying on his deathbed, and his students ask him why. After all the mitzvahs and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!

Because I am afraid, Zusha explains, Because when I get to heaven, I know God’s not going to ask me “Why weren’t you more like Moses?” or “Why weren’t you more like King David?” I’m afraid that God will ask “Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?” And then what will I say?


Isn’t it funny how you’re different now can be an act of praising, an acknowledgment of some kind of personal growth, but you’ve changed is almost always an accusation?


But then again, I should be wary of what I say here. There are dangers in giving directions to others as they stumble on the paths toward themselves.


By the time E. has slid into the driver’s side and shut the door my eyes are already welling. 

Well, fuck. E. says. 

Yeah, I whisper. I know. And though I’m normally the type to speak my pain aloud, I don’t say much more for the rest of the ride. Instead, slightly drunk and still damp from the rain, I try to identify each bridge we pass by in the city. I used to think that their shapes were so distinctive, but now I can’t remember a single one of their names.

ESTUARY/ ARS POETICA

The Handbook of Australian, New Zealand, and Antarctic Birds calls the pelican “an eclectic and opportunistic scavenger.” It hunts for food alone in deep water, takes what it can from trash cans and landfills, eats anything from “insects and small crustaceans to ducks and small dogs.”

If hungry enough, the pelican will take fish from another bird’s mouth. In captivity, it will eat the whole bodies, bones and all, of other birds of prey. When I think about the hollow of this bird’s insatiate beak, how its very shape speaks the words I covet, I can’t help but to think about how the poem arrives as a stranger, how I catch and cradle it in my mouth as if to preserve it for all of us and for myself alone, this analeptic and unremarkable sustenance. 

I can’t help but to think about how every space, every life I’ve lived in is a kind of estuary, a blending of salt and cool fresh water. The salt of illness, of absence, of forgetting. Of cars pulling out of the driveway, walls coated in dish fragments and pancake syrup, voices raised in the hallway that once belonged to my parents and now somehow are my own.

The gentle push of fresh water: my bare feet on hot cobblestones as I walk alone in Granada at night, wiping my face as I become more and more lost on those purple winding streets near the old part of the city. 

Fresh water when a man from Sinaloa, also a traveler, finds me in the dark and doesn’t touch me once. Doesn’t touch me at all except to wipe the tears from my eyes and describe the way home in an accent I remember. Quick and warm, split from the Andalusian, perfect, hesitant, careful and desalinated–

The poem is that man in the dark of the street. His thumbs resting on each of my tear ducts, his face lit up by the last remaining orange of those wrought-iron street lamps from the final years of Franco, their bulbs still humming all wide and faintly on the pathless outer edge of the Albaicín.


Premarital Counseling I

This is a simple poem I wrote about how terrified I am that my marriage will turn out at all like the ones in Revolutionary Road and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and any number of novels about domesticity in suburbia (not because of who my fiancé is, but because of the simple fact that I am embarking upon a long-term commitment known to produce long-term bitterness). It’s sort of an abstract piece, but it’s not entirely metaphorical. I do, in fact, have a sheep. In case you were wondering, his name is Lenny.

Kate Brown Reads Mean Tweets: The Coronavirus Screenshots

 

“10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.”

– Susan Sontag


“If I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister’s oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy.”

– Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger”


“Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the/ houses, we’ll both be lonely.”

– Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”


In light of the comments above, I would like to make an apparently radical proposition: maybe we should not speak about other human beings with such decisive cruelty. 

Because I am making this claim in light of conversations about Governor Kate Brown, you are probably thinking that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, but I’m really not (are millennials dyed-in-the-wool about anything except for the disturbing specter of student loans?). Though I have voted in every election since I turned 18, I’ve maintained a thorough distrust in the two-party system, nursing all the while a comparatively strong faith in both community organizing and mutual aid work as the real nexus of care in American communities. 

Considering all this, I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I am not exactly Kate Brown’s most enthusiastic supporter. In point of fact, my ideal governor is some kind of cross between America’s most beloved honorary librarian, Dolly Rebecca Parton, and Admiral Bill Adama from Battlestar Galactica. Because I am rational enough to know that this dreamy hybrid candidate is unlikely to run during my lifetime, I usually end up somewhat reluctantly voting for someone who actually appears on the ballot. 

Like you, perhaps, I’m not certain about much at the moment, but I am confident about this: people are angry and scared right now. Not knowing where to put their anger and fear, they are letting these ugly feelings ferment into bitterness and spite. This is probably obvious to most people, especially anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at the comments section of any article on any topic published on any platform at all lately. But still, when I see words like the ones I’ve posted above, I find myself wondering, especially as I consider the sheer brutality of the language that these commenters have chosen, if we are really thinking enough about what this sticky miasma of toxicity really signifies about our ability to see one another as complex human beings– people just as likely hurting as they are prone to inflicting hurt. 

KATE BROWN READS MEAN TWEETS

Have you ever seen those “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” videos? I love those. The original series, which aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live, features actors, singers, athletes, and politicians reading things that people have written about them online. Not only are these clips usually funny, but they’re also often bizarre. There is something about hearing mean tweets read aloud by the targets of the comments themselves that makes the words with which they’re composed seem especially foolish and irrational.* The sheer scale of the comments’ cruelty is exposed by adding something more human– the voice and face of the person the commenter is speaking about–to a scene that depends on so many digital layers: the smartphone of the commenter, the film camera for the show, and the device the viewer uses to watch it all happen.

Sometimes, especially lately, I think about Governor Brown staring at the wall in bed at night, unable to sleep. She watches the headlights from cars passing by. They shine briefly through her window, then disappear slowly as they move past her house. She does this over and over again. Maybe she is feeling emptier than usual. Maybe it’s the worst night of her life. Maybe she doesn’t watch the headlights at all, but instead has to take a sleeping pill or two just to quiet the nerves and the sadness. I don’t know what she does. But I try to think about her as the kind of person that I believe most of us are inside: insecure and lonely and deserving of care. And then I think about her pulling out her phone and sitting up to read comments like this. The words in front of her aren’t funny like the ones on Jimmy Kimmel Live. They seethe and they bite. They shake with simple rage.


“Kate Brown is an evil bitch with evil on her mind,” she reads aloud to the large, dark bedroom.

“Anyone who really believes that Kate Brown is a good governor–or even a good person–is delusional. What a bitch.”

“Kate Brown is the worst. She is taxing our stimulus checks. Piece of shit she is.”

“I hope your kids put you in a nursing home when you’re old and a pandemic hits so you’re isolated from your family…You deserve nothing you heartless witch.”

“You are scum. A day of reckoning is coming for you.”

“Because of you kids are killing themselves and you don’t give a fuck.”

“How does it feel to wake up every morning and realize that you’re the most hated woman in Oregon?”


I think that Kate’s most committed detractors would say that she’d feel nothing at all if she read comments like this. Especially the ones who describe her as heartless, and who have taken the remarkable cognitive leap of placing the blame of every youth suicide in Oregon from 2020-2021 directly on her shoulders. Or perhaps some of her critics would concede that words this brutal would surely hurt anybody, but that “Aunt Kate” will soon forget them, and more than likely end up laughing all the way to the bank.

I find both of these outcomes improbable, though. I really do.

POT/KETTLE CONSIDERATIONS

Don’t worry, dear Republican reader. I know you’re thinking that it’s surely easy enough for me to practice my saintly brand of empathy on folks nestled comfortably on my own side of the political spectrum. But, rest assured, I am practicing this with your people, too. 

For example, I saw a handful of tweets the other day expressing the hope that Mitch McConnell dies an excruciatingly painful death. While it’s indeed true that McConnell’s beliefs are directly opposite of my own in nearly every way, I find neither satisfaction nor utility in praying for him to suffer. He is certainly not the only politician that has advocated for an expensive, authoritarian border wall intended to keep refugees from pursuing better lives for themselves and their families (to provide just one McConnell position I find heinous). Moreover, the event of his suffering, especially at this point in his rather long life, is unlikely to convince him of his moral failings. After all, we do not live in the plot of A Christmas Carol, and most of us are not visited by literal specters of our wrongdoings. It is also highly improbable, given the proliferation of hateful xenophobes in this country, that upon McConnell’s death, a man with his values won’t simply arise in his place, making any hate that I harbor for him, at least from a utilitarian perspective, a genuine waste of cerebral real estate.**

Because I am a deeply flawed human myself, I do occasionally slip into incoherent, Internet-induced fits of ill temper, my blood pressure rising from some Twitter headline worded in just such a way to make me bristle at the latest antics of the Grand Old Party. But before I touch a single laptop key, I try to pause my rabid scrolling, take a few deep breaths, and remind myself of that useful saying–often attributed to Buddha– about the act of holding onto anger being like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die.

AUDRE LORDE & THE USES OF ANGER

Hello, activists and academic types: I do know about “The Uses of Anger.” Thank you for providing the occasion for my second counterargument. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the writer/librarian//activist Audre Lorde wrote this really important essay about how white people’s fear of (or distaste for) her anger not only silenced her voice in public fora and revealed harmful racist attitudes, but also kept meaningful dialogue and social progress from occurring. Though Lorde speaks a great deal about the nature and power of anger in this piece, she just as often speaks about the idea that it must have its “uses”– that essential second noun in the title. She says, “We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect nor seduce us into anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty” (emphasis my own). She also makes an important distinction between anger and hatred. “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.”***

I believe that the comments that I’ve shared about Kate Brown reflect hatred more clearly than they reflect anger, particularly because they seek to wound rather than grow something real from the ashes of grief.

Indignation is undoubtedly a vital catalyst of activism as well as an essential means of articulating the nature and consequences of injustice in this country. And there are undoubtedly folks right now, as you saw above, who believe that their own indignation serves the same function. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m pretty sure that calling people “communist whores” on social media and rather baselessly accusing them of everything from Satanism to child abuse isn’t quite the same as what Lorde means here. I think you’ll agree, but let me know if you don’t. I’m still thinking through it. 

Though some of Kate Brown’s critics have long been fans of equating her with Hitler, they have recently begun devoting even more amounts of time and energy to equating coronavirus restrictions with the laws imposed by Nazi Germany.**** I confess that I don’t have the space or motivation here to address that level of ignorance, and I doubt that the folks in question will ever read this article, anyway. I suppose I’m not addressing the people who consider public health policies intended to minimize the loss of human life equivalent to the systematic murder of more than 6 million people. Rather, I’m addressing those who realize that there are obvious differences between (even admittedly chaotic and inadequate) governmental attempts at controlling a pandemic and violent, state-sponsored genocide, but then still insist upon calling Kate Brown a “crooked bitch” and“ an abomination unto God and man.”

And I’m perhaps also talking to my friends, people who I love deeply and often agree with, but who are so focused on coming up with colorful ways to skewer Lindsey Graham on Twitter that their sentiments eclipse mindful and proactive conversations about the work we could be doing to keep people like Lindsey Graham out of office.

It may seem like I am making a “hate the sin, not the sinner” argument here. But I’m not trying to. Nor am I trying to police the emotions or reactions of others, which they of course have every right to vent– online or otherwise. What I am trying to do is show how incredibly convenient it is to make one person the embodiment of all of the sources of our anger, insecurity, and personal trauma. I am also trying to emphasize how frankly disturbing it is to see how vicious the language of Oregonians on both sides of the political spectrum has become when they talk to each other about people like Kate Brown, a human being who a) they have likely never met or spoken to, b) who they can never really know outside of the way media outlets describe her, and c) whose actual degree of agency in making the decisions that enrage them is likely much smaller than they imagine.

Also, I just know from experience that cruelty only begets more cruelty, and that after unleashing my own vitriol against the people I thought that I hated, I never once felt better. Only like there was still poison sitting in my stomach.


NOTES & FURTHER READING

* This phenomenon reminds me of the work of a now-famous TikToker named Lubalin, whose method of singing the comments of inane Facebook beefs is both hilarious and revelatory

** The Rush Limbaugh question: Rush Limbaugh, as you probably know, just died, and several major news outlets published op-eds about whether or not it was ethical to “dance on his grave.” Indeed, Rush Limbaugh has said some of the meanest and most sincerely messed up things I have ever heard spoken aloud by a political commentator, and he has succeeded in turning many of my friends’ loved ones into red-faced, Incredible-Hulk versions of their former selves–shaking their fists as they mainline Fox News and incessantly sniffing about for more evidence that millennials are spitting on the Founding Fathers with their safe spaces and their gay agendas. But again, as I read these editorials, I found myself wondering why we were spending so much time grappling with the supposed dilemma of how we should respond to Limbaugh’s death. The man died, as we all will, and those who loved him will mourn him. The more important question for someone like me, who did not love Rush Limbaugh, is not whether  I am morally “permitted” to react to his death, but rather how I can personally contribute to a society that leaves his hateful dogma in the Dark Ages *where it belongs*. After all, as I’ve noted, if I spend such a large portion of my thinking life on quandaries like this one, I won’t have the proper enthusiasm or inspiration to roast the latest drivel from the mouth of an Alex Jones or a Tomi Lahren.

*** Later, Lorde defines exactly what she means by “change” : “I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions… I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.”

**** I’m really not being hyperbolic:


On Levinas and Kate Brown’s Face

I wanted to go on a whole thing about Emmanuel Levinas and empathy and looking into the face of the Other in this article, but attention spans are short, and forgetting is long. Maybe I’ll save that essay for another day. I suppose it suffices to say that looking into the face of another human being should be an exercise in empathy, even though we know that it often is not. Interestingly enough: I have noticed that the conservative media often chooses the most unflattering photos of Kate to accompany articles about her. Not the ones where she is smiling and looking rested, reading to kids or hugging her husband, but the ones where her mouth is half-open, her face gray and drawn. It’s all old hat of course. Paint the woman in power as the shrew or the hag, and half of your rhetorical work is done for you. Call her “Aunt Kate” with that patronizing roll of the eyes and she becomes something altogether flattened, diminished.