Last night I went on a long walk by myself–one of those things that I’ve been doing a lot more of since I started playing my little game. It was just wonderful, my head just galloping through creative idea after creative idea, reflecting and expanding on dozens of thoughts and memories, all punctuated by loud and soulful music on my headphones. I made it through my neighborhood and all the way through the Seattle arboretum, where the plants and the mud and the blossoms gave tangibility to the coming spring. And on my way back, waiting there at a crosswalk for a light to change, I developed this big, childish grin. I had just this grand, warm smile, standing there all alone on the street.
And there was something revelatory about smiling like that. It felt so familiar, so comfortable, like something that had been aloof had finally settled into place. It felt like me. It felt like me putting on my own face again. And that’s when I started to cry, out there on the street. Huge, gasping sobs.
See, I had realized then how important the simple act of smiling is to me, to my relationships, to my history, and to my politics. And I realized also how rare it’s been to smile so naturally over the past 10+ years.
I was thinking about how many relationships I’ve built just starting with my smile, and how many awkward situations I’ve made more comfortable. I thought about the trust I’ve built with friends and family ever since childhood, and how many people I’ve made feel heard and recognized, just with my grin.
This is not about being boastful, or exaggerating my strengths, but I think I have enough experience in this world to know that my smile is a gift, and with it the ability to make people feel seen and validated, to be inspired with creative and wild dreams, to connect with a playfulness that they often feel unable to access in other spaces. And, honestly, I believe that it’s helped me win a fair share of people over to radical politics–it’s a powerful revolutionary tool. But it’s not just a gift. It feels more like a critical piece of who I am inside, my identity. If there is an archetypical form of me, a “platonic,” perfect form of me, it would have disheveled hair, bad posture, and that huge, silly smile with crooked teeth.
But that’s also what felt so wrong about the whole thing, how much I’d missed the feeling. Over the last 10 years or more, I’ve gone from project to project and group to group, even across the country in the process, and consistently the predominant memories, the most visceral lessons, have been negative. Scathing political critiques leading to dissolutions and splits. Entire groups of friends who no longer speak to each other. Actions and projects that blossom with tremendous progress, and end up condemned publicly and retold as cautionary tales. Those places in Anchorage, Bellingham, Seattle where it still stings to walk by. And lately, more personally, just the stone-heavy, dull, steady crushing of capitalism, xenophobia, corruption, and disease that is rolling over our family members one by one.
In all of this, my smile only surfaces briefly, and too often as a veneer for much more stormy thoughts beneath. And here is where I have learned to put in the self-criticism of my privilege and sense of entitlement–that really this negativity is how the majority of people are made to feel, so I should be careful about lamenting too much. And that is true enough, that’s a fair point. But it’s not my point. My point is that my disconnection from my own smile, my alienation from that deep and authentic pool of creativity and happiness that I have known since I was 4, has been a tremendous blow to my revolutionary potential. And any strategies that I may be trying to develop about being a better organizer had better have a priority on reuniting me with my smile!
If there is a role for radical scholars, skilled campaign planners, tireless fighters, fierce poets…then there is a role for making people feel happy and for encouraging them to imagine outlandish things. I think that’s a role I’d like to fit again. And I plan on doing just that.
Aint nothing going to break my stride
Nobody´s going to slow me down
Oh no, I have got to keep on moving