Listening to Joni Mitchell’s River.
I listen to this song even when it’s not the Christmas season. They’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Oh, Joni. I recently read a profile about her early songwriting in the New York Times and then drifted over to read another piece in The New Yorker from 2012 by Zadie Smith about becoming a Joni convert. I’d already read the Zadie Smith essay, maybe when it was originally published, but I read it again. The internet will give you so many windows and doors to open, chasing ideas that you might tell yourself are inspirational or aspirational, when really, you just want to be as original and seemingly free as Joni Mitchell. But it’s okay just being you. Isn’t it?
I’ve started a new project that I’m planning to do every day in December, and possibly beyond. It’s a way of crossing the threshold from the every day into the imagination, a daily portrait and caption, created in about 20 minutes or so, while listening to music. I draw a portrait on an index card in pen, then colour it with crayons (an important part of the playful process!), then write a few lines about whatever’s on my mind, giving myself no more than 3 minutes for the text so I don’t start sweating over it. Like this:
Here are a few other good things and random thoughts, on this Friday afternoon when I’ve run out of steam and am about to turn to fun videos on youtube while doing my stretching routine on the office floor, which isn’t a half-bad way to spend half an hour, truth be told — maybe I’ll count that as one of the random good things going on right now. I’m also attempting to do sets of 10 burpees whenever I think of it throughout the day. While waiting for lunch to heat in the microwave, for example. Before bed. The goal is to raise my heart rate in spurts throughout the day, maybe to compensate for not running right now (though I do ride the spin bike pretty frequently). Whatever. It lifts my spirits every time. I finish my burpee set and throw my hands in the air in victory! Yes! (I should draw that.)
Other daily goals: Go outside! Every day.
And: Flip my current pattern of writing in a frantic panic late in the afternoon, and write in the mornings instead (answer email only after I’m all written-out). The daily portrait and caption kickstarts this goal, and so far it’s worked wonders. Start with something fun and easy, something I look forward to doing, and suddenly I’m pitched into writing new material without even thinking twice.
Also: Work harder. (Weird, I originally wrote “Word harder.” That works too.) Work/word harder is my main life goal. But I mean that only insofar as I mean work harder to dig in, commit, finish projects, even if I don’t know what will happen to them. Hard things are hard. Curiosity is my fuel. Patience is a gift but also can be a weakness if it turns into numb acceptance. Grit is necessary. Add it to your breakfast. Relish and savour what you’re doing because you never know what you’re making. Or what will stick, what will matter, what others will appreciate.
For example: A student sent me a message this week, writing: “I also wanted to tell you that as a graduate, I still appreciate your class. I’ve read books a little differently since, with more compassion, and more interest in the beauty of the work.” How could I guess that a student would come away from a writing class with a new lens on reading? What a gift. I love thinking about the accident of connections, about the things we keep that perhaps someone else has given us, but they don’t know.
Okay, one more goal: Reach out with appreciation for the gifts received from others. I might also add, if there’s a teacher who’s helped you in some way, let her know. Especially now. Any teacher who can engage her students through the screen or the mask is working at a level of commitment and energy and preparation that is almost impossible to understate.
In conclusion, as this seems to be a post that has brought up boundless wells of inner gratitude, I’m grateful for a friend’s idea to create our own collectively brainstormed advent calendar of family activities. As a family of six, each of us contributed four ideas which were randomly sprinkled into the calendar’s pockets. Day 1: decorate Christmas cookies (made by F); Day 2: breakfast for dinner (waffles, made by me); Day 3: ice cream delivery to grandparents; Day 4: games night. (Days 1 and 2 shifted the responsibility to the baker and the cook, and both of us were slightly crusty about this; as a result, we’ve also created a bunch of back-up activities to be accessed should one idea not work out on a particular day).
I’m grateful for a little surprise to look forward to every day of advent.
And I’m grateful to you, my friends who read this blog. It gives me a little boost knowing you’re out there. Connections. They’re harder to come by right now, and I cherish them all the more for that.
Meditation, using a circle. What’s inside, what’s outside. Where am I?
I stand inside a circle made of pieces of cloth, knotted together. A wide circle. Five knots. I step to the knot that seems to be at the “top” and wait. Hands at sides. Feet planted. Close my eyes.
Ah. I see a big decision before me. A change that means letting go of responsibilities, letting go of relationships. Letting go. I’m invaded by hard emotions, painful; I don’t resist feeling these things. Sadness, vulnerability, loss of power and influence. I name some unflattering parts of myself, humble human motivations: How I want to be liked, admired, respected! Feel this. Emotions flood me, wash through. Easier to bear, when felt.
Isn’t that a strange truth?
I step clockwise. Knot two. My hands cupped at my heart. I’m laughing. I see conflict between loved ones, I’m at the edge of the argument, it’s not my argument, I want to fix it, but it’s not fixable, not by me; if at all. Is conflict only ever a bad thing? Or am I being asked to love the conflict, too, to let the people I love be who they are, even if it means conflict.
Next knot, third stop. I crouch low to examine a little gathering of stones in the shape of a smaller circle, outside of mine. I see someone I want to help and support. Our languages of love are different. To show her love, I need to speak her language; and not impose on her my own. Isn’t that the truth?
Fourth knot, and I stand and find my hands at my heart again, cupped, and I think — my writing! — and as soon as I’ve thought it, my hands fling themselves away from my body and throw the writing out of the circle. Oh no! But it’s mine! I’m wracked with fear and regret, even horror. I try to pretend it didn’t happen, I try pulling my hands back in, but I can’t undo what’s been done. And then I laugh. Of course, that is its purpose — my writing! stories, books, even this post — to be sparked into being, then released, sent away. The thoughtless motion of my hands — cupped close, then opened out, then close again — is the whole process. Make, finish making. Hold, let go.
Fifth stop, last knot. Eyes open, standing, calm, wondering. Sky is a marvellous clear colour, nearing night. I see: Dead tree, bare branches, oh, and the sharp profile of a funny, fat, little bird perched at the very top, as if waiting to be seen. It does not fly away. I watch for a long time. The bird is the world, I think. There it is, outside my circle. How I love the world, need it, need to bring it into my circle, invite the images to flow through me, through mind and body, and back out again.
(With thanks to my friend Jen for leading us through this meditation.)
Like many of you, my days — their very substance — have changed. And I’m finding comfort in a daily drawing and writing session, the results of which I’ve been sharing here. Will it last? I don’t know, but I’m debating whether these cartoons and poems should replace the ordinary content of my blog, which is more like this … more like me talking to you (rather than me talking to my notebook), more conversational, a little more “newsy.” The writing I’ve been doing in my notebook is closer to fiction or poetry; and its tone might not fit the blog’s, perfectly.
But, still. I’m making it, and I enjoy sharing it. I will keep sharing it for the time being, and perhaps find another way to do so, in order to preserve this space for, well, this.
How are you? I hope you’re finding ways to enjoy your days, which may feel extra-long and extra-slow; the stretched-out passage of time, in the absence of much happening, reminds me of my days spent parenting small children.
We are good, here. Our eldest returned from his trip to Montreal (where the city had shut down around them); he’s restless, and has yet to settle in to the strangely calm routine the rest of us have invented for ourselves. Kevin is our designated leave-the-house-for-supplies-person. We are grateful for our big back yard. There’s room to kick a soccer ball. Room to refinish a coffee table. My office is an oasis of peace. I’m mainlining meditation, and have been tuning in every evening at 8PM to my friend Kasia’s livestream kundalini session on Facebook. At some point this week, I baked a double batch of cinnamon raisin bread that was divine. Yesterday, I wiped down every major surface with a bleach solution, a tedious and wearying project that opened my heart with gratitude and amazement for everyone whose job it is to wipe down surfaces, to keep us safe. My admiration and thanks are with each and every worker on the front-lines, putting themselves at risk, doctors and nurses, and also cashiers and cleaners. My job by comparison is ridiculously easy: stay home, stay calm. I think often of those who have lost work, who fear the immediate future, the basics of survival. A couple of weeks ago, I was mercifully awarded a major grant from the Canada Council for a novel I’m working on, the timing of which has been a major relief; I’m certain we’ll be okay even if the kids can’t work their summer jobs, even if Kevin’s business shrinks in the near-term. I feel fortunate, too, to share my home with five other people, plus dog. We might irritate each other from time to time; but we also have close companionship. Staying connected, generally, has taken on increased significance. I enjoyed tuning in to my church’s virtual service this morning. Last week, my sibs and I met for drinks via Zoom.
The forced presence and stillness suits me, at least for now. But, as you’ll see from my “poems” below, I’m also aware of underlying anxiety, of uncertainty, of the fear of the unknown that seems to be floating through the atmosphere, bubbling up from the depths.
Below, you’ll find samples of my drawing and writing from the past couple of days. Feel free to read, or skip, as you wish. Sending you presence, light, hope, stillness, and, in place of anxiety, free-floating poetry.
PS Add this to your recommended reading list: Washington Post article about a poet in Southern Italy who shared his personal cellphone number on social media, offering to talk to anyone who wanted to call. As Seth Meyers would say: this is the kind of story we need right now.
Thursday’s cartoon was drawn to Lindi Ortega’s “Fires.” I think it’s a double self-portrait, of me, right now, waving to me, from a time before coronavirus. But who knows? These portraits seem to draw themselves.
What’s on your mind?
Today’s poem comes to you from a land of uncertainty where nothing and everything has changed from one moment to the next, and the landscape looks the same, only bleaker, and the world is windswept and bleary, all crispness reduced to the edges of dried grass rustling as we shuffle past, keeping a safe distance from one another. When our hands brush briefly, accidentally, before parting, I flinch as if I’ve touched fire, fever, the source of fever — or is it I who am a danger to you? Either way, I bear responsibility for the possibility of infection, and this reminds me that we must be guarded and vigilant, we must restrict our children’s movement and our own.
Is twenty seconds long enough to thoroughly clean my hands?
The pressure in my chest expands. I sneak into the bathroom to take my temperature again, momentary reassurance that I am well. But is this well? I stand in the bathroom looking at the number that presents itself to me, a neutral number, on a neutral device of measurement, and I ask, what about the invisible suffering parts of us, how can we measure and assess those fevers and chills and aches?
There is so much surface that needs to be disinfected, vast and spreading; what’s underneath must be even vaster, almost infinite, the darkness we fall into, the anxious pain that presses against the ribs, trying to get out. I see it everywhere, written on everyone, muted, uneasy, restlessly awake now.
We knew we would die one day.
We thought we would know better what we had dominion over, what we could control. These depths bubbling like lava, like an eruption at the bottom of the sea, like rumour — are not the message we’d been awaiting. We want instruction. A six-step undertaking to cleanse our surroundings. A bleach solution (9 parts to 1).
A tincture, an inoculation. A cure.
Friday’s cartoon was drawn to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” A friend observed that the past two portraits seem to be expressing a fractured self; in any case, the figures are all boxed up and separated, though some of them are reaching out.
What’s on your mind?
My mind empties out and I see behind the overcast grey sky a clean-swept blue; now hidden, but still there, and I imagine the wind pushing at the clouds and opening a smear of light; the clouds torn like paper, ripped like fabric.
Experience has the same effect, working on my mind to rub away the clouds of certainty. In its place, a frayed understanding — that nothing holds, and that certainty is less desirable than I’d imagined, that instead I am happy to settle for being useful, for finding myself, occasionally, in the right place at the right time.
I see that vulnerability is like an invitation, while certainty silences. The rip in the massing clouds reveals the sky, blue, which was always there, if I’d known to open myself, frayed, worn, fragile, as I’ve always been, whether I knew it or not. I let myself be seen. And in return, I see you.
Saturday’s cartoon was drawn to Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream.” I drew it with my eyes closed. I took the theme rather too literally, which is why I’m running, sort of, though I couldn’t visualize what dream, exactly, I was running down. So I drew a few little star-like flowers that can be seen near my right elbow, like the flowers I noticed on the spider fern whose tendrils are hanging over our sink (pictured at the top of this post).
What’s on your mind?
This time is this time is this time of now and now and now and it is almost impossible to be anywhere else or with anything else but what’s before me.
I notice the spider fern is flowering, tiny delicate blooms hanging over the sink.
I notice my son’s head smells like sweat, and my daughter’s head smells like coconut oil. I touch their hair.
My hands smell of bleach, though I used gloves, and I wonder if the smell is real or remembered, is it in my nostrils or just the memory of it, the way I can smell cigarette smoke from someone else’s car even after I’ve rolled up my window and driven away, even after I’ve left my car in the parking lot to sit outside the door of my daughter’s piano lesson, how even here I think I can smell the stranger’s cigarette smoke in my hair — and by extension, her poor decisions and regrets and longing; which are, of course, my own.
The piano studio has locked its doors.
We live inside.
We do not drive anywhere. We are in a time of plague and even yesterday seems very far from today, estranged from today.
Now. Now. Now. The sound of my pen scratching — too fast, sloppily — across the page. I’ve only just noticed that I grip it as near to the tip, the nib, as is possible. I only just see it — my pen — as an instrument I am playing, an extension of my body, a tool encircled by five tips of fingers, each with a half-moon circle of curved, opaque nail. There are no straight lines on my hand. The pen is straight and hard and useful to me, it is made for this task and nothing more; but I am made for bending, praying, curling, holding, I am made for giving way. I am made for praise. For contorting myself anew.
I am made for change and ever-change, evermore, now, as before.
Yesterday’s cartoon was drawn to Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want.”
I wrote: I guess it’s not so impossible to imagine myself writing out of this pandemic and finding myself on the other side. I guess it’s not impossible to imagine the world spinning on its axis, the sun rising, the night, the moon. It’s not impossible to imagine the unimaginable, a different world where we do for each other unusual kindnesses and in return ask only for the chance to record what is beautiful, what mattered in that moment. We came together, apart, and it’s not impossible to imagine we were changed in ways we could not guess, when looking out the window at the barren street and silent passersby, their dogs keeping them from falling out of love entirely, in this waitful watchful time of suspense and drudgery, a quietness which once we’d named fear; and now, unnamed.
I often set myself a project that spans the full year. This year, I’m considering chronicling my daily writing life, but I haven’t figured out how best to frame it. Should I keep it short, as in a daily tweet? Today’s would read something like …
Tired, late night @ Edna King’s show in Guelph. Writing group cancelled this AM; I miss them, we haven’t met in a month. Fell asleep on couch reading Song of Achilles. Drew self-portrait, wrote What’s on Your Mind + blog post. Next, continue revising new novel. #writinglife
But in all honesty, one day is going to look a lot like the next, and a tweet has limited space for the animating details.
The long-form version of today’s chronicle goes something like this …
Today, I’ve been staggering around like a zombie after getting 4 hours of sleep last night; not conducive to clear-headed composition. I went to my sister’s show last night, an intense experience (EDM) that sent me into a form of dance/trance, which I spent thinking about my character, Bess, from the new novel I’m writing, set in the 16th century. My eyes were closed much of the time, and I kept gazing into my mind’s eye for Bess, trying to see what she was seeing: the image of darkness and enclosure, the image of an open night sky.
I’m reading Song of Achilles, historical fiction, and this morning, I fell asleep within ten minutes of picking up the book.
I was disappointed that my writing group meeting was cancelled again, as we’ve struggled to find time to meet this year. Our aspiration is to meet every other week, but we’ve only gotten together once in 2020 due to illness, travel, and other meetings and complications. I look forward to those mornings so much. It’s one of the only spaces where I have neither need nor compulsion to explain anything about #writinglife. We’re all in the industry, struggling, staying hopeful, doing the work, and encouraging and believing in each other. I’m missing that medicine.
While walking the dog, I thought about this blog post. I thought: what if I were honest, publicly, about this path I’m on? I’m giving myself a year; one year, in which to research and write with full commitment. January was blissful. I spent many hours of many days simply sitting and writing. It was blissful and it was filled with anxiety. I also sent out six grant applications at the beginning of last month, and four were rejected earlier this week. Truth! Ugh! Painful! Shameful! Humiliating!
But, on the other hand, also in January, I learned that my short story, “16-Century Girl,” published last winter by The New Quarterly, had been submitted for a National Magazine Award.
And, I filled another notebook! I’m working on two separate and very different fiction projects. One is historical fiction, and I’m close to completing a first draft (“close to completing” could mean 6 weeks or 6 months, or even longer). The other project is very new, and I’ve only been working on it for a few months; too new to discuss, though it does have a name: I’m calling it Two Women. I work on Two Women by hand, composing with pen and paper, and I’ve filled three notebooks so far. I’m working on Bess in Scrivener, and I’m composing it as if amassing a great heap of loose scraps, writing forward until I reach the end.
This week, I reached an end, of sorts, for Bess, and started back at the beginning, preparing for a slow, careful, thorough revision by setting up the Scrivener file beside a Word doc with the same text, and going through line by line, scene by scene, deleting, rewriting, composing new scenes. Don’t ask me why I’m taking this route. I’m writing this novel completely on gut instinct and dream-like visualization. The manuscript is short but dense. I’m curious to see whether it wants to be fleshed out further, or whether its structure and tone demands that it remain short and dense.
Also while walking the dog, I had a thought about the auto-fiction short story collection I’ve mostly completed; could each story be punctuated by one of my 4-panel cartoons, as a way of creating a breath between the stories, which are heavy and kind of demanding, and I don’t think anyone would want to sit down and read them all at once? Something needs to ease the transition between stories; maybe the meditative cartoons I’ve been drawing would fit there?
So that’s today, as of 2:03PM. As soon as I press publish on this blog post (if I do indeed decide to publish it), I’m setting up Bess in the side-by-side format, to work through whatever scene comes next. I have to pick up kids at 2:45, but I can return home and keep working on Bess till it’s time to make supper.
The other writing I’ve done today was in my notebook. As is my habit, I answered the question: What’s On Your Mind? as a means of dumping out surface anxieties before getting to work. I also drew a self-portrait — dancing last night — to Lizzo’s “Juice”.
Lastly, I will report that I continue to wait, with seemingly perpetual hope, patience, and possibly delusional optimism, to hear from my agent about two completed manuscripts (one for children, one for adults). Would you like to wait with me? We could be here awhile. But in the meantime, while I wait, I’ll be writing and dreaming and writing and dreaming, in full-on bliss, stealth-attacked by anxieties, and holding dear to prayers and visions. Truth.
Choice is power. But the illusion of choice renders us vulnerable to exploitation. I woke from this morning’s 20-minute nap with this thought clear in my mind.
I’d been reading an article in The New York Times (a very long-read, as this manifesto before you threatens to be), called “You Are Now Remotely Controlled.” Upon waking, I sat down with my notebook and began to write. “I’m having an important idea,” I told my youngest, home from school today because his teachers are striking in support of strong public education. “When will you be done with your idea?” he asked, at last. He wanted me to pour him a bowl of cereal. “It’s turning into a very big idea,” I said. He poured his own bowl of cereal.
I want to use this reflection to pull together a number of disparate thoughts / observations / concerns about choice, autonomy, responsibility and shame. I want to reflect on how the illusion of choice shames us into believing that we are willing participants in our own exploitation, that we’ve willingly consented to give away our private lives, and that we deserve what we get. We might even believe that we prefer it this way. Anyone with a car can drive Uber or Skip the Dishes to earn a bit of extra cash; anyone with a room can rent it out at their convenience; anyone with an internet connection can publish a blog for free; anyone with a cellphone can become an “influencer.”
But it’s this illusion of choice, this illusion of independence and personal autonomy, that makes us vulnerable. It is only when we know we are oppressed that we can fight back. If we are kept in a state of confused distraction, if we feel shame about our personal choices (which may in fact be “choices”), we will remain disorganized, overwhelmed, stressed out, and isolated, even while believing ourselves to be ever more connected. Sure, we’re connected — but to what, and by whom?
I can’t stop thinking about something Trump said while still a candidate for the presidency: “I love the uneducated.” I think he instinctively understands the moment in which we’re living, which makes him especially dangerous. We think he’s joking when we says things like this, but he’s actually incredibly transparent: he’s stating his game plan (and it’s not just his). As citizens of democratic countries, we not only want to imagine ourselves free, our identity relies on it. Paradoxically, this makes us vulnerable to manipulation too; when identity is at stake, recognition of a different version of reality can be too painful to accept. The less we know, the less equipped we are to understand and interpret our triggers, which are attached to our pain, let alone to distinguish between facts and “fake news.”
It’s my observation that the gig economy is a function of this moment in time, too. We’ve been sold the idea that contract employees are willingly trading security for independence. But the gig economy only makes sense if those employed by contract can earn enough to live at a similar standard to those employed in traditional jobs. And it’s clear we can’t. Also clear that the gig economy puts pressure on the individual to support themselves in ways that go beyond their capacity as individuals to fulfill — to negotiate higher wages, save for retirement, etc. Further, the gig economy has the effect of eroding traditional jobs — with labour so cheap, and labourers so plentiful, who can afford tenured professors, for example?
What “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” focuses on, though, is the power that data mining — which feeds artificial intelligence — gives to private corporations, whose interests fundamentally put them at odds with our interests, with the public good. Instead, we become consumers to be activated by “remote control.” Our phones are always with us. (Mine is plugged in beside me right now, ringer on.) We can’t imagine life without this device that only recently entered our lives — I didn’t carry a cellphone on my person till around 2010, yet I went into full-on panic when briefly separated from my phone due to a mix-up this past weekend. What would entertain me while I did chores? And what if someone needed to reach me? I was like a smoker separated from her pack of cigarettes.
Okay, so I’m addicted to my phone. I confess it. Aren’t most of us? Despite surviving the majority of my life without it, I seem convinced that my well-being depends on it. Yet it is this device, according to “You Are Now Remotely Controlled,” that makes it so easy for me to be monitored and manipulated — it is an important tool, among many other tools in the “internet of things” that is turning us into robots.
I am writing the first draft of this reflection by hand, in my notebook. The act of writing by hand becomes, in our era, an act of rebellion against the norm. A notebook cannot be surveilled. It is not connected to anything but itself. (Not to mention that my handwriting is virtually illegible, even to me.)
Surveillance capitalism traffics in prediction. The better a corporation is at predicting what we want / how we feel, the better it is at telling us what we want by understanding what we’re feeling. We are not, in fact, private autonomous individuals making multiple choices independently every day, we are highly predictable creatures with our inner lives, habits, routines and decisions being carefully monitored and collected digitally.
I’d like to connect the NYT article to a program that aired on the CBC’s Ideas on Friday evening, which was so compelling that I didn’t turn it off, even after I’d finished the dishes. It was part 2 in a series called “Why journalist Emily Bell is calling for a civic media manifesto.” Bell observes that it is legitimately becoming more difficult for us to find trustworthy news sources, especially at the local level. (Note that the two sources I’ve used for this post are The New York Times, which is probably the biggest independent newspaper in the world; and CBC radio, a public broadcaster funded by the Canadian government.) As anyone who works in journalism knows, the industry has suffered massive job losses and cuts over the past decade; we also know that bloggers are no replacement. A journalist without independence (or without adequate independent funding) is not free to do their job. “Influencers” are an example of personal journalism that is manipulated, easily and cheaply, by corporate interests. Why? Because an individual is personally vulnerable. An individual lives on a knife’s edge. She has children to feed, her reputation to protect. Freelancers need to get hired again, and again, and again.
This is what the gig economy thrives on. It’s the illusion of choice that I flagged way back when, at the beginning of this very very long essay.
An individual will sacrifice a great deal in order to feed her children, keep a roof over her head, and ensure she’ll get hired again. And she’s exhausted. There’s only one of her. How can she afford to anger the rich and powerful? When I worked as a sessional lecturer, I talked to a department chair about the insecurity built into the system: they tried to explain that I was fortunate to be given courses for two consecutive terms. That’s eight months of work. The standard for contract lecturers, in my experience, is to be given a contract for a single term (four months of work). And then you have to reapply, or perhaps, if you’re lucky, you’ll be offered a contract again, seemingly out of the blue. There is no stability. I was trying to explain, in return, that this made it very difficult to plan ahead. And they explained that the budgeting system made it impossible for them to make better offers. As I sat in their office, I thought, We are two human beings trapped in an inhumane system. How many people at the university were employed as contract lecturers, I asked them? And they said there was no data available on that. They suggested I could find the data myself, contact fellow adjuncts and contract lecturers and try to organize, to protest. I was flabbergasted. I was one person. I had limited resources, was already overstretched and underpaid. I was exhausted.
The NYT article suggests that protection for individuals requires governments to pass stronger laws, supported by the slow but certain democratic impulses of their citizens; this may be the solution. But is it too late? As Emily Bell points out, large data-mining corporations now possess more information than any single government. What would regulation look like? Who would enforce it? Who has the power? I fear totalitarianism by stealth. I fear all that we are accepting without question.
“Who will write the music, and who will dance?” writes the article’s author, Shoshanna Zuboff.
I can think of a number of policy changes that would help. A living minimum wage would go some distance toward reducing inequality. Strong public education with well-paid teachers is foundational, too. (“I love the uneducated.”)
But in Shoshanna Zuboff’s words I hear something that’s already within us — it’s our capacity for creativity, our capacity to write the music, real music, not computer generated. Algorithms are inherently boring. They are designed to predict the future; in other words, they’re predicated on predictability. It’s why I find Amazon’s suggestions for books I might like so boring — what I want is a human being who loves reading, in a bookstore, handing me a selection that’s a bit off the wall and unexpected, something I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. Human beings have the capacity to surprise ourselves and others. In surprise is delight. An algorithm offers, instead, a solution. But our brains don’t necessarily want solutions and efficiencies — we want absurdity, we want to be able to laugh and to weep at what we intuitively understand is not fixable. We crave mystery, though it can be difficult to recognize that — a page-turner, I would argue, takes us toward a solution, but we read it because we love the process of getting there.
Here’s a good example: Little Women is a beloved and much-read book not because of its tacked-on happy ending, but because of its imperfections — because we know the happy ending feels tacked-on (as Greta Gerwig’s film’s version brilliantly subverts). But if Jo and Laurie had married, I doubt Little Women would still be read, and relevant, today. We love Little Women for its complexity, for the messy emotions it evokes in us, and because it reminds us of our own imperfect lives. When I was a kid, I read it over and over again, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it — how it could have turned out differently for Jo, how unfair things were, how it lit in me a longing for a different ending, and yet how I had to accept it, nevertheless. This is the pleasure, the delight of the “wrong” solution, the solution unknown to the algorithm.
Something else. When we can buy anything and receive it instantly, we are denying ourselves another pleasure, that of anticipation, of weighing our desires against our needs, of imagining what the wanted thing might give us. We have been lulled into believing that the easy path is desirable. Yet we know in our bones that everything we care about deeply is hard. Parenting is hard. Love is hard. It aches. But it brings us to life. That is what we are losing. You know that feeling when you walk into a room and everyone is staring at their screens? And they glance up and their eyes are blank and they look numb? The men who design the tech that would manipulate our every decision are very smart at efficiencies, and at making us want more and more of whatever is being sold; but what makes life worth living? There’s a basic immorality at play in the systems they create — or any system created to maximize profit: an indifference to what’s being destroyed. And what’s being destroyed is the humanity of the humans lured into and trapped in these systems.
I gave up being a contract lecturer not exactly because I didn’t like teaching, but because I despised the system, and could not support it, if I could afford to choose otherwise. So I calculated what we could afford, and I chose otherwise. But the truth is that I didn’t really want to be a tenured professor either; I could see that their roles were untenably uncomfortable too, in many ways. It makes me wonder what to wish for.
The problem with systems designed for maximum efficiency is that these systems almost invariably fail to count some losses as actual costs; the losses that count are the ones found on a ledger. The loss of an individual’s security is not counted as a cost. Nor is the loss of an individual’s creative life. Nor the loss of pleasure, relationships and community-building when an individual is stretched to the limit just to survive, or when an individual has as colleagues other individuals who are treated as second-class.
We are not machines. We can’t live like we are. We won’t thrive. Here’s my own personal proof: I’m close to completing a project that I started a year ago in February, which I call “The Hourlies.” Each month, I’ve taken a 24-hour period and drawn a cartoon depicting each waking hour. It’s laborious, time-consuming, very dear to me, and completely non-monetizable. It’s also an enormous accomplishment in which I take great pride.
Drawing a cartoon is an act of creative rebellion. And each act of creative rebellion is an antidote to the paranoia, despair and fear that we’re being fed daily.
You know, Trump is half-right in his paranoia and fears — we are being monitored and many news sources are untrustworthy; he’s tapped into real fears and that gives his message currency and power. It’s just that he’s also the logical conclusion of what happens when we let paranoia, disinformation, ignorance, gossip, fear, greed and self-interest become our guiding principles. So let’s not do that, even though we could, even though we’re being pushed to. If we become like Trump’s example, we will live only on the surface of our lives, sating our base desires, but cold to the best of ourselves, to our openness, generosity, curiosity, and our imaginations, where images live.
Images can be used to manipulate us, too, of course; Trump knows how to draw a crude portrait that calls out our basest emotional responses — disgust, envy, greed, rage and fear. But images nevertheless remain my personal source of hope.
I think we can fight images with images.
Images can become stories, poems, drawings, songs. Images can be made into something that helps us see and know that we are human, we are alive, we are not machines. Visit with your own personal imagine. Let the joy of surprise and creation pull you away from your devices and screens, at least for a little while, every day. Call it your own personal rebellion against the surveillance economy. Get a cheap composition notebook and a black pen, and let yourself be led.
Maybe our creativity will disrupt the cruelty of efficiencies. Maybe policy will follow.
Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom.