Garrets of Dissent and other Thoughts on Activism

I am not an activist.  First of all, I hate meetings.  I know this sounds funny, since I lived for three years in a co-op where we had a lot of house meetings.  Meetings that went on for hours, meetings where I just never knew who would cry or when it would happen.  Would it be over crumbs on the counter? Or the chickens’ bedtime?  Would I be the one in tears?  Now that I write this, it doesn’t sound funny at all.  But the thing is, I already hated meetings.  So why did I move into that house? Friends and cheap rent.  $188.50 a month.  And that was 2010 Seattle.  Cheap rent = time.  Friends who are housemates= an automatic social life.  Both pretty good things when you’re spending much of your time up in a garret, daydreaming and scribbling about imaginary people.  Besides, I lived in a garret.  One might have called it an attic, and most did, but I knew better.

There are three kinds of people who live in garrets: a)poor writers, b) mad Brontean wives, and c) anarchists.  (Sources: a) author’s personal notes, b) Jane Eyre, and c) common knowledge — see below.)  Before I lived in a garret, my bike-punk friends in Missoula used to sing this song, before relieving themselves of their Carhartts in unheated winter basements.  Even the most hard-core of them, it seems, eschewed garrets.


In an anarchist’s garret, so lowly and so mean
Oh, smell the pungent odor of nitro-glycerine.
They’re busy making fuses, and filling cans with nails
And the little Slavic children set up this mournful wail.
Oh, its Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb;
The last one it was thrown by Brother Thom.
Poor Mamma’s aim is bad and the Copskys all know Dad,
So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb.

Sister Jenny took the bomb and started off.
“Oh, mind you now,” said Mamma, “to blow up Templehoff.”
And so the party waited, while the dawn turned into day,
And the little Slavic children set up this mournful lay
Oh it’s Brother Ivanovitch’s turn to throw the bomb.
Sister Jenny’s gone the way of Brother Thom;
Poor Mamma’s aim is bad and the Copsky’s all know Dad,
So it’s Brother Ivanovitch’s turn to throw the bomb.

Which gets us, in a sardonic way, back to activism.  Because that’s exactly it — not only does classic activism involve more meetings than a co-op, it brings out the harshness in me, and not in a useful way.  I used to struggle with this.  I have many friends who are committed activists, and I share most of their convictions.  I really, really care about helping the world be beautiful, healthy, happy, wild, and alive.  I just don’t want to go to a lot of meetings about it.

I have been thinking about all of this all day, ever since I watched a beautiful video of Arundhati Roy giving a speech in a New York church for Occupy Wall Street.  She says a lot of pertinent stuff, eloquently (and there’s a typed out copy of her speech at that link, too, for those who like quick info).  The speech was not electronically miked.  Instead they were doing a human mike — she spoke phrase by phrase, and everyone who could hear echoed it out to the people farther back.  It is slow, but the words gather power, and it has the effect of being a religious ceremony.  In a way it is, just as everything that is deeply human is spiritual.  She speaks hard truths passionately, but without the swinging, harsh grief and anger that I struggle with in many political/activist things.  She is sad, and she is angry, but it is grounded in beauty.  I think it is no coincidence she does both art and activism.  Not, of course, that that is the only way.

One thing that she said struck me particularly.  She said that this in not a “battle for territory.  We’re not fighting for the right to occupy a park here and there.  We are fighting for Justice.”  In other words, the protests in the parks and streets are a tool, serving a larger purpose.  And there are other ways to work towards justice, that are symbiotic with the protests.  Justice is an idea.  It has endless physical manifestations.  But it starts inside us, like all ideas.  It comes through our heads and our hearts into our hands and words.  If it doesn’t get grounded in actual actions, it’s just some high-flown philosophy.  Abstraction.  And don’t get me started on those — just pop the word in anywhere I said “meeting” earlier, and you’ll get the idea.

Occupying physical Wall Street is important, but largely because it is a voice for something bigger.  It is important because it captures our imaginations, and perhaps the bad dreams of the good ol’ one percent.  It helps this something bigger to come through us, light us up, make us wriggle a little, excited, uncomfortable.  It helps shift our calculations and decisions, our actions, the bravery of our dreams, which in turn can shift the course of the world.  Or something big like that.  Exciting, yes.  I can hardly put it into words.  For starters, work this big needs to happen in many forms, and not all of them involve meetings.



A Tense, Polite Distance

I nanny in Columbia City, an area in South Seattle that is supposedly the most diverse zip code in the northwest.  I have nannied there for years, first for two boys, then for their neighbors, a family with three girls.  It’s the kind of neighborhood where people know the kids by name and if we go to the playground we always see people we know.  At the girls’ house, we can hear chickens from three directions.  There is a booming farmer’s market that does not feel too swanky and a park where we see eagles, kingfishers, and salmon.  And of course, there are all sorts of people.  Having grown up in North Seattle, where there were more children of lesbian couples in my school than there were black kids, the diversity in Columbia City is a revelation to me.

Yet at the same time, when I nannied the boys, the neighborhood always had a little bit of an oil-and-water feel to me.  There were lots of different people there, and everyone was generally friendly, but they mostly stuck to their own race.  Yes, one of the boys was one of just a couple of white kids in his class and had friends from Mexico and East Africa, but his brother, in the Montessori track of the elementary school, was in a class of nearly all white kids — clearly there was some kind of safety-valve segregation happening.  Mixed in to that was the classic Seattle link between money and elevation.  Richer people live on hills; poorer people live in hollows.  Columbia City is steep, therefore it is class-diverse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people mix up and down those hills.

But since I’ve started nannying the girls, my experience of the neighborhood has changed.  Sometimes it really feels like one big happy soup of people.

So, I should explain, that the boys, as well as the family I nannied before them, look just like me.  Not only are they white, they are blue-eyed, dirty-blond, small featured, compact kids.  Except that they aren’t, they look like they are mine.  The girls, on the other hand, look nothing like me.  First of all, they are black.  And tall and limby.  Hypothetically, my straight-haired, sunburnable genetics could be buried somewhere in there, but it isn’t most people’s first read of the situation.  (Though when I walk around with the baby, people do often think she is mine.  No one flirts with you when you have a baby on your chest.  Just saying.)

This all means that I am not constantly negotiating people’s impression that I am the kids’ mom.  But beyond that, something really interesting has happened.  My interactions in the neighborhood have shifted.  When I interact with people of other races, sort of tense, polite distance has lifted.

Some of it is probably — hopefully — a continued shift in myself as I become more comfortable with the spectrum of humanity.  It’s a continually resurfacing thing, this uncomfortableness I find inside myself.  Mostly, I think, it’s a fear of offending someone.  A fear of being hated, of being hate worthy. Of being one unconscious, entitled asshole in a long line of unconscious, entitled assholes.  It makes me, sometimes, completely unable to discuss race.  Look at my first novel, for instance: there is a Cuban ex-revolutionary and a Native mayor, but other than that, no one has a race that I mention.  Which of course somehow makes them white.  I don’t even picture all the characters as white, but damned if I could communicate that in the book. My own need to be seen as a non-racist person keeps me from actually dealing with race. Mix that awkwardness in with some doubt in my own ability to filter out passed-down cultural fears from genuine dangerous situations, and what do you get?  Tense, polite distance. Sometimes — maybe even more and more — I can get past this, but it’s not gone yet.

When I am out with the girls, other people treat me differently.  It’s like because the girls’ parents trust me, I can be trusted.  Or because I love these kids, I pass some test. I’m on the same side of some invisible thing. People of color nod at me, smile at me, talk to me, and there is this relaxedness, this benevolence, to the interactions that is only sometimes there when I am on my own.  And it’s frickin cool to feel.  It gives me this hopeful lovey-human-family feeling.  More than that, it gives me a sense of what is possible.  A reason to roll up my sleeves and really grapple with my feelings about race.  I can’t do anyone else’s part, but I might be able to get past my own awkwardness.  At the least, it will help me write truer fiction.