“How many times have I wondered if it is really possible to forge links with a mass of people when one has never had strong feelings for anyone, not even one’s own parents: if it is possible to have a collectivity when one has not been deeply loved oneself by individual human creatures. Hasn’t this had some effect on my life as a militant–has it not tended to make me sterile and reduce my quality as a revolutionary by making everything a matter of pure intellect, of pure mathematical calculation?” –Antonio Gramsci
I was so struck by this quote when I first read it in 1999, that I remember just wanting to envelope dear old Antonio in a great, warm hug. I wanted to embrace him in a way that could communicate my soul deep recognition of what he was expressing. I wished dearly, regardless of the distance of time, language, place, and mortality, that we could be best friends. I felt, at that time, that he was speaking words that I couldn’t dare to admit to myself, but which I felt and was acting out to disastrous effect in all of my relationships.
Now 12 years later, I re-read the quote in AK Thompson’s Black Block, White Riot (that’s gonna have to be a subject of another, post), and I am struck by something else: I have changed so much as a social and emotional person, that the quote no longer feels like it speaks to me at all. Though elements remain, I am not the loner kid that I once was. And, even though it’s pure geeky fantasy, I smile a little imagining that my good comrade Tony Gramsci has been evolving alongside me as well.
How did this happen? What shifted and at what speed? Truth is, I hadn’t even realized the change until I thought about this quote. I assumed that I was still the same socially awkward person I’ve always been, and that’s still I how talk about it most of the time. But that’s less and less my reality. In fact, increasingly over the last, what, maybe 8 years, I feel like I’ve been so full of love for the people–even the enemies and strangers–around me that…well… like this:
“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.”–From American Beauty
I’d like to take a few paragraphs here to investigate this wonderfully gradual transformation of pretty much the core of who I am.
The Hermit Who Got Radical
As far back as I can remember, I’ve preferred to be alone. Growing up, I so loved talking to myself and pacing around my back yard, weaving my own narratives with my own characters, that I had very little interest in friends. Even until 11 or 12 years old, I remember there were school kids who wanted to be my friends and who I’d have slumber parties with and stuff, but I also distinctly remember getting to a point after an hour or two of playing that I’d just send them home, so that I could let the game unfold how I wanted it to by myself.
It was at that time, at 12 in 7th grade, that I started making up my imaginary stories about the utopian hidden islands where there was no money, no poverty and homelessness, and no destructive technology. My first hint of anti-capitalist thought.
By 13 and 14, I was pretty sure that I was going to be a hermit…running away to the woods in my favorite park at McHugh Creek in Alaska, living in a cabin with a typewriter, Thoreau style. At Steller Secondary School, I got introduced to Eastern philosophy, and I decided instead that I wanted to be some kind of monk, a Siddhartha. Enter the critique of the material world, add a few readings about capitalism and the destruction of the soul, and soon I’m getting into socialism and anarchism.
And thinking back about my social life and my early radicalism, it’s so humorously sad the way I thought about it: the people all around me felt so boring and shallow and mean, so dull and uninspiring…but if only we could have a revolution, then maybe everyone would be into poetry and philosophy, imagination and learning like I was. In short it was, “I’ll finally have people worth being friends with after the revolution.”
Yet from middle school through high school I did have friends, and some really great ones. I have lifelong memories, and deep appreciations for all that we shared together. But back then I so rarely had them over to my house, I so rarely thought about their emotional realities, and I didn’t really think of myself as having them in my life forever. It was just gonna be until I ran away or moved on. Girlfriends and crushes just the same, or even worse.
And when tragedy struck, when an ex-student died, when my mentor was exiled away after serious scandal, when a member of our friend group committed suicide, even after my grandma died until the moment of her funeral…my tears wouldn’t come. I’d try to convince myself of the importance, of the ethics of crying, but it didn’t happen. I didn’t know for sure if I even cared. I was really quite terrified that I didn’t care at all. And it also often annoyed me that other people seemed to cry and care so openly.
In college, the WTO protests, summit hopping, revolutionary collectives and the feeling of imminent social transformation…and it was also my lowest time, as I was a terrible friend, a cold co-organizer, and an even worse relationship partner. I was charming, inspiring, and I made lots of people want to be close to me, and I treated them all like they weren’t serious, deep, or revolutionary enough to see the best of who I was. Although there’s always been a part of me that’s been deeply sensitive and empathetic, for some reason I wasn’t really good at applying those skills in close quarters. It broke down when it involved actual one-on-one interaction and vulnerability. I remember feeling so lonely, so unappreciated…but really I was just a big jerk who didn’t see the wealth of love, intelligence and goodwill all around me.
And the Grinch’s Heart Grew Three Times Bigger That Day
I can’t believe it…really I’m almost embarrassed to realize it…but 9/11 changed everything. In the climate of repression, depression, and demobilization that followed, and the social and political vacuum that it created, something got tweaked within me. My radical community in Bellingham was torn asunder, I was depressed in my relationship, and I didn’t know or want to meet anyone in my new town of Seattle. And in the deep marginalization I felt by the right wing surge, I feared that I had lost some of the best comrades and allies that I had yet known.
It was in my first year of doing work at Tyee High School, when a young man felt the trust to come out to me for the first time in his life, that I think I noticed that my heart had changed. I remember being alone and stuck in traffic on I-5, thinking about this young man and his fears for his manhood, his future, his family, and yet his excitement at finally admitting it someone else…and I, of course, broke down crying. But I think it said as much about me as it did about him, as I remember thinking, “oh my god, other people have whole complex emotional lives and struggles just like I do…and this is what it feels like to let them in.” A raging, frackin’ beautiful torrent…cold and foamy river water just rushing over you, as you let someone else’s reality connect with yours. Oh my god…I-It becomes I-Thou. It was so sharply memorable. And I felt so much poorer for not having felt it more in earlier years.
But it was just a moment. Slowly over the next 5 years came other moments. Brief punctures through my numbed-out, computer addicted haze of 2001-2009. Guatemala, of course, and my blog were powerful forces for emotional connection. Losing vital and complicated friendships, and leaving my lovely Tyee. Finding Glendi, of course, was another one, but even there the learning came slowly. Learning to love consciously, on the daily, is a wickedly beautiful journey.
But to talk about this without talking about feminism would be a farce. Because parallel with all of this story is the story of being challenged by women in my life, by reading and organizing with other men, by seeing the realities of gender violence, and struggling with my own internalized definitions of manhood. This was an undeniable prerequisite to me being able to access and move through my emotions in these years. This is, in so many ways, a story of gender redefinition, and the discovery of new ways to be a man. That wall, that shield, that barrier that I had learned from my dad, my brother, my uncles…it was such a big part of what’s needed to come down in order for the real complexity of relationship and community to be able to rise up in me.
And here in 2011, in a life that is now dominated by supporting others, sending money to others, offering care and closeness to others, I just feel so differently than I did all those years ago. I feel immersed in a politics and identity of affection. Still, I need my time alone. Still, I flake regularly on my friends’ phone calls and emails. Still, I go off by myself and talk to myself and spin imaginary narratives. I don’t think there’s any coincidence in the fact that I do this kind of writing most when Glendi’s in Guatemala and I’m alone all night in the house. And still, my solitude is my best friend, without question. But at the same time, I feel my relationships so much more. I feel the struggles and the insecurities and the desires of those around me…like feeling the subtle thread of a spider web with your own hands, whereas before you were wearing boxing gloves.
I feel full to bursting with love, and that is now what keeps me thinking and dreaming of revolution. Where before I wanted everyone to change for me so that I could enjoy them more, now I want everything to change for us, so that we can all share in the beauty of this thing together. The mathematical calculations are still present, and valuable, but they are now knitted with intimacy and care.
And that has given me a freedom, too, to grieve for those old losses that I couldn’t tear up for back in the day. To all those I’ve lost to get this learning: I miss you and I’m sorry it’s always been taking so long.