In spite of it all, we are not failures
There are so many reasons why we should be really bad at being in relationship with each other. And yet...
Hello all! Is it a huge mistake to send this on a Friday afternoon, what with all of us being in “close down this inbox at all cost” mode? Maybe? But for some reason or another, I wasn’t going to feel closure on my week if I didn’t press send, so thanks for your grace.
Also: Registration for Barnraisers fall organizing cohorts is currently closed (we have a wonderful, wonderful group). Because of the book, I haven’t decided when the next one will be. Definitely not until sometime in 2022, but I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I will be highlighting other trainings that I love and respect.. such as this one, on anti-racist parenting through art, from the wildly talented Jen Bloomer of Radici Studios. There are only a few sessions… all next week… so get on that! Oh, and if you want to support my work or Barnraisers and also get a tote bag, you can do that here. The White Pages, as always, will remain free.
School started here in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago. It is my four-year-old’s first year. The first few days, barely anybody in her Pre-K class cried at drop-off. Since then, mornings on their corner of the playground have been a symphony of separation anxiety, a collective howling against the grave injustice of their respective grown-ups leaving them in this miraculous but unfamiliar new place. The wailing is over by the time they sit down to breakfast, and even if that wasn’t the case, every day seems to get a little bit better. They’ll get there. Together.
My eight-year-old is very excited to be back. His third-grade cohort knows each other pretty well right now, and as has been the case every year, the vibe is chill and supportive. We still have a ways to go before puberty, self-consciousness and the sudden emergence of coolness and castes. We are still in the era where you still hug and kiss your grown-up at drop-off. We are still in the era where everybody wears shirts with pictures of animals wearing sunglasses and riding surfboards. My son is feeling pretty good. For a couple of days, a few other kids were talking too much when they shouldn’t have been and so the whole class lost seven minutes of recess… but that appears to be in the rear-view. Plus, team soccer has started and there is no purer love in this world than my son’s love for soccer. I have no idea if he’s good or bad, but damn if he isn’t enthusiastic- just a happy cloud of my blond hair and gangly limbs and his mother’s sophisticated understanding of the offside rule.
Our kids go to an absolutely lovely Title I school that we love fiercely and which Greatschools.org’s cursed rating system hates with an equal passion. We think they’re learning! We aren’t super concerned as to how much or how little. They are both White kids, the children of a doctor mother and a father who does whatever-it-is-I-do (if my editor or agent is reading this, yes, I know that what I’m supposed to be doing right now is writing a book… it’s coming great, I promise!). That is to say, they have the exact combination of racial/class/educational privilege that makes for relatively low academic stakes, but relatively high “oh damn if they grow up internalizing a philosophy of selfishness rather than interdependence, they can cause a ton of harm” stakes. When it comes to inoculating your four-and-eight-year-old selves from that particular risk, I have immense trust both in my extremely kind children and their warm, accepting school home. The only variable I don’t fully trust is myself.
I’m neither four nor eight. I’m 40, which is a pretty good age to look back at your life thus far and be able to see the patterns in the trail pretty darn clearly. And for me, it’s embarrassing how little mystery or nuance there is to those patterns. The moments in my life where I have been most focused on personal achievement and individual distinction have not only been consistently the emptiest but also most likely to be littered with broken relationships, mistakes, and regret. By contrast, those moments when I most delighted in my connections with others and my responsibility to my immediate community are those that are most filled with joy, pride and discovery.
Geez if that’s not the most self-evident, “Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten” paragraph possible. But it’s true! Maddeningly true! It’s true in spite of the fact that I knew all this far before I got to 40. It’s true in spite of the fact that my own parents have always been such beautiful counter-points to a larger culture of vanity and competitiveness. Montanans today don’t know that our state’s largest-ever increase in K-12 funding came because my Dad quietly plugged a whole lot of corporate tax loopholes, nor do current Missoulians know my Mom’s role in creating that little city’s still-vibrant and nationally unique Neighborhood Council system. There are far worse role models for humility and collective responsibility than Jane and Dan Bucks.
Why then, if my parents never steered me towards gifted classes (and never really micro-managed my school experience in general), did I internalize the need not just to love learning but to be perceived by others as being smart and successful?
Why, if the anti-globalization movement in which I cut my teeth as a college student offered so many interesting case studies of decentralization and outside-of-the-spotlight community-building, did I still find myself gravitating towards the big names and big voices with the megaphones? Why was I always interested more in the big spectacle of a protest than the life-long work of sustaining your and others’ efforts?
Why, if my family’s only expectations for me post-graduation were to find a way to pay off my student loans without working someplace evil, did I find myself on a nearly-fifteen-year journey hungrily climbing a very specific nonprofit ladder? Why wasn’t I satisfied with a job that paid my bills but instead gravitated towards jobs with very big titles and increasingly large salaries and more access to meetings where I got to make more decisions for other people? Why did it take so long for any of it to be “enough?” Why was I always able to find a faster speed on my hedonic treadmill? Why and how did so many things that weren’t actually about being a better, kinder neighbor suddenly become important stand-ins for “impact?”
Why, if I claimed increasingly over the years to care about “collective liberation,” did my expression of that care so frequently rely on show-offy displays of individual exceptionalism (“Look at how many Black authors I’m reading!”; ”Did you notice I remembered to do a land acknowledgment before a meeting?”; “Ah, you read and enjoyed White Fragility? let me tell you how my analysis is actually MUCH more sophisticated!” “Oh, you’re for police reform… well I’M an abolitionist!”)?
Why is it, if I can currently hold all these truths to be self-evident, that the path I’ve currently chosen for myself is still chock full of ego gratification and public-facing aspiration (one does not, for example, sell a book project to a major publisher or start-up a national organizing effort if they are actually tired of the sound of their own voice)?
There are lots of answers to these questions, of course, many of them unique to my own particular combination of strengths, neuroses, love and narcissism. And yes, I’ll keep working on myself.
There is also a single, very-correct-but-also-glib answer, one that myself and every other smarty-pants liberal arts graduate with a bookshelf full of Gerda Lerner, Audre Lorde, Frantz Fanon, Nell Irving Painter and David Harvey know to prattle off for occasions such as this. It’s a good answer! Well trod, but good! But still, it’s worth repeating, for reasons that I hope will be clear in a second!
[Takes deep breath]
Why am I so selfish? Well, for one thing, many thousands of years ago human beings started trading goods with each other, and then for very crude, birth-rate-based reasons they wanted to also start trading women and so they invented patriarchy to justify what would otherwise be unjustifiable… and then, years later, there were great empires and those great empires started enslaving members of other societies and so racism was invented to justify all that… and then all that trading and mercantilism became something more organized, and we called that capitalism… and around that time white men invented a whole country whose central value was “individual liberty for white men” and so, OF COURSE that country in particular got very good at the business of capitalism… but then after a while there were more goods and services to be sold than we needed, so the whole affair became a game of marketing and artiface rather than just making and trading stuff… and if this is the world into which you’ve been born, you learn over and over again that the most important unit of society is you, the singular person (particularly if you are a white and/or male person, since the maintenance of your rarified place in society is particularly important to this whole mess), and that means, in turn, that you also learn that any emptiness or loneliness you feel can be cured through some combination of consumption, competition, external recognition and/or matriculation into if-not-an-Ivy-League-school-then-at-least-Oberlin. I mean, it’s a lot! And I haven’t even mentioned that we currently spend most of our days on two-to-four websites with the same venture capital-backed mission to starve all our good wolves and feed all our bad wolves!
None of this is news, of course! I have written about quite a bit of it in this newsletter, in fact! The reason for pouring it into an IMMENSELY sweaty sentence, though, is to make it unmistakably clear that there are such powerful forces aligned to try to make us primarily concerned about ourselves! The forces of our own weirdo brains, of course… but then so many other forces! The weight of history! The malfeasance of capital! The perpetuation of empires! The damned ‘like’ button!
I don’t know about you, but when I see all those forces laid out in front of me like that, what I’m left with is something completely unexpected and delightful… a bit of grace! Of course I’ve struggled so mightily to turn off the parts of my brain that say “me/me/me” and turn up the volume on the parts that say “us/us/us!” And if that’s all the case, then the much more interesting question isn’t “damnit Garrett, why are you so bad at this?” but “holy cow, what do you notice about the moments in which you’ve done a bit better?”
And then, I start remembering…
-I remember all the moments when my judgment of some other friend/colleague/neighbor/enemy (by which I mean, of course, my judgment of what I thought the other person was thinking about me) turned out to be delightfully and wonderfully wrong.
-I remember all the times that I lost myself in somebody else’s virtuosity and genius— the first paragraph of The White Album especially the part about the fireman in priest’s clothing; the way Lil’ Kim delivers the line “We the best, still there’s room for improvement/our presence is felt like a Black Panther movement” in “The Jump Off”; Jrue Holiday stripping the ball from Devin Booker and delivering a perfect alley-oop pass to a suddenly-levitating Giannis Antetokounmpo.
-I remember the hundreds of rooms I’ve entered over the years— from Ms. Sal-Perlinger’s Merry Mouse Kindergarten classroom in Clancy, MT to Methodist youth groups to my in-laws’ living room— where my initial nervousness and fear was allayed by warmth and welcome.
-I remember the thousands of times throughout history that other human beings made (flawed, tentative, but still very beautiful) stabs at building something different from that overarchingly cursed narrative: the Underground Railroad safe houses, the small town prairie electrical co-ops, the Panthers and Young Lords serving free breakfasts, the Occupiers in Zuccotti Park repeating sentence after sentence to amplify each other’s voices; the young people in Ferguson coming out night after night when there were no accolades to be gained, only tear gas to choke through.
And then, after a little bit of that remembering, I realize that my kids already have all the lessons they need in front of them, regardless of their dad’s continued fumbling and false starts. My son trusts and is trusted by a bunch of eight-year-olds who do try to chill out with the talking so that their peers don’t lose recess. My daughter is part of a little community that doesn’t judge each other for tearfully clinging to their grown-ups’ legs and demanding JUST ONE LAST HUG. My job is merely to delight in their noticing, to encourage it, to give it a little bit of proud parental sunlight and watering. My job is to be ready for them to fail at all this, just as I’m ready for more of my own failures. My job is to trust, after the failure, that we’re all going to keep trying.
This week’s song: The Mustangs “The Time For Loving Is Now”
I really needed this essay today. When all week I’ve been so overwhelmed with the thoughts of “WHY are we like this and how can we NOT be?” you brought me back to the basics of history, space for grace and more patience to walk alongside my efforts. Thank you!!
Tangentially I'd like to give a shout-out to that Barnraisers tote bag mentioned way up above. Mine has started a fair number of conversations. Last week the checker at the grocery store pulled out her camera to snap a pic so she'd remember to look it up later on. Cheers. And happy Friday, Garrett.