A haircut, and a chance
A little over halfway through my freshman year, almost two decades ago, I agreed to let my friend S cut my hair.
S had never cut anyone’s hair before, and didn’t quite know what she was doing. She was, however, passionate and committed to learning, and needed someone to give her a chance to test out the skills she had been working hard on to acquire.
Never one to worry too much about my hair—it grows back a bit too quickly—I volunteered to be her guinea pig.
I’ve been thinking about that haircut a lot these days because, recently, someone decided to take a chance on me.
Last week, I started a new residency at work. As part of the residency, I’m going to be doing some fieldwork, some research, and some hands-on learning on the digital product management process in government—something I don’t know much about—while also doing a bunch of research and analysis on ethics, equity, justice, decolonization, and human rights—something I’ve been learning a lot about over the past few years—and hopefully synthesizing all of that into report and recommendations on embedding an ethical framework and equity lens into the government digital product management process. And I have four months in which to do it all.
Like I did with S all those years ago, the folks running this residency are taking a chance on me: I don’t have a background in digital product management, and only a shallow understanding of the ethical and justice frameworks I’ll be researching. They are taking a chance on me that I’ll be able to learn from others and pull together something useful and valuable and honest; I am taking a chance on myself to commit to much more travel and research than I’ve done in a long time in an effort to create something that hopefully has impact.
We all need someone to take a chance on us in order for us to grow and learn and become who we want to be—and I’m lucky to have found people who are taking a chance on me, now, at this inflection point in my career and in my life.
As for the haircut, those decades ago? It was a disaster, but I wore it proudly for a few days before my friend N offered to shape it all up. Sometimes the chances we take don’t always work out, but what’s important is that we give someone that chance, anyways.
A quick public service announcement: the excellent newsletter, Pome, has returned from hiatus earlier this month and it is clearly and easily the best newsletter on the Internet, especially if you love poetry. Go subscribe now.
I See the Fire that Burns Within You
It’s one of those magical early summer sherbet skies
on a thin blue blanket on a rolling grassy knoll with
the breeze off the East river tempering the city heat
as the sun begins its dip behind the buildings and all
the little office and apartment and department store
lights begin to twinkle. A sizzle of foam on the water.
I’m listening to this Neil Degrasse Tyson podcast where
they talk about the “God Gene”—Something cellular
that makes us look up and beyond and wonder at our
creator and Stephen Hawking talks religion and science,
saying they both articulate the nature of who we are,
where we came from and why, and that though science
produces more consistent results, people will always
choose religion because it makes them feel less alone
And the debate turns to whether we’re alone in the cosmos
and the guest host says she hopes so, because if not?
if we encounter an alien civilization? They would likely
be far more technologically advanced than us, “and look,”
she says, “how that worked out for the Native Americans”
and I suck my teeth because all we ever are is a metaphor
or a cautionary tale or a spirit guide, nothing contemporary
nothing breathing, nothing alive. They had just spent the
previous half hour discussing other cellular inheritances,
saying for example that trauma could be passed down
like molecular scar tissue like DNA cavorting with wars
and displacements and your bad dad’s bad dad and what
is being indigenous but understanding a plurality of time?
That I’m here right now in this riverside park across the
water from the trunk of the city in the golden light of
the golden hour and that light, that sliver of golden light
is light unlike any other light you’ll ever encounter—
Nothing we’ve ever made can come close to that glow,
not a filter not a software not a bulb. A gathering of
circumstances, of the atmosphere buffering the dusk
light and the angle of the Earth at this time right now in
this moment on top of this continent of top of this blue
blanket I’m on top of our sacred mountain I scout from
the peak. I’m dragged to the center of town in chains.
I’m old women scattered along the creek. My little hands
squeeze my little mouth shut, drawn into nooks within
the valley like a sharp breath while shaggy men on
horseback, following the water, seek brown bodies for
target practice, strong brown back for breaking in the
name of the Church. Valle de las Viejas. Blue echoes
split the early evening split the dusk. They spit
and ride on but I’ve held my breath ever since It’s like
one minute I’m onstage and the next I’m in fifth grade
ducking behind the dash after cousin, high on something,
points a gun at my face and Onstage I’m a mess of
tremor and sweat. “The gift of panic is clarity,” my
therapist says. “Repeat the known quantities.” Today
is Wednesday. Wednesday is a turkey burger. My throat
is full of survivors. “It’s okay,” he clicks his pen, getting
ready for his next appointment. “Lots of people get stage
fright.” But that’s not what I’m talking about because what
I mean is I’ve inherited this idea to disappear. In the mid
1800’s, California would pay $5 for the head of an Indian
and $.25 per scalp—man, woman, or child. The state was
reimbursed by the feds. I am alive. This is a gathering of
circumstances. This is the golden light. But when you’re
descended from a clever self, adept at evading an
occupying force, when contact meant another swath
of sick cousins, another cosmology snuffed, another
stolen sister, and the water and the blood and the blood
and the blood, you’d panic too, exposed on the stage
under the hot lights and I can’t stand in front of the
audience in Columbus, Ohio without wondering how
the last person felt, leaving the ancestral homeland
for the Indian territory but I’m on the road and when
I’m in their home I can say their names, the Ohlone,
Costanoan, Muwekma, Duwamish, Suquamish, Muckleshoot,
Shawnee, Lenni-Lenape, Tocobaga, Pohoy, Uzita, Lumbee,
Piscataway, Nacotchtank, Multnomah, Anishinaabe,
Ojibwa, Ottawa, Pattawatomie and now on this podcast
they have a linguist saying that language tells the story
of its conquests, its champions, its admixtures, while
moving onward into new vessels. That a language is dead
when its only speakers are adult. That in a hundred
years 90% of the world’s languages will be kaput. He says
the most precise word in the world is Mamihlapinatapai,
from the indigenous Yaghan language of Tierra Del Fuego
which means something like when you leave a café
bathroom and want to tell the next person in line it
wasn’t you who took the smelliest dump in American
history but you keep walking. Aaaaay just kidding it
means something like when two people look at each
other and the look is that they both know what the
other should do, but neither wants to initiate, so they
sit in the stasis. It’s a whole caravan of meaning of
feeling in a single word like how in Kumeyaay you
say “howka” for “hi” but the translation is more like
“I see the fire that burns within you” I see the golden
light and this show goes to commercial and I make
the mistake of opening the news app in my phone
and it’s a massacre in Palestine and in Pakistan the
journalists “disappeared” and in Mogadishu a bomb
explodes in the bustling city center and ICE “loses”
thousands of migrant children and drones fly over
other countries and the quote unquote “president”
says, he literally says, “we tamed the continent” he
says, “we aren’t apologizing for America” and murdered
and missing Indigenous women never ever ever ever
ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever
ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever
ever ever get an article or a shout out or a headline
and I’ve been thinking a lot about fuel sources that
produce the heat of the fire that burns inside you
and the term “resistive circuit” and active networks
and mainly about Kirchhoff’s current law, that the
sum of all currents entering a node is equal to the
sum of all currents leaving the node by which I mean:
Imagine you are a circuit. Imagine electricity. Imagine
being fed, and feeding. Imagine getting what you
need. Imagine the fire inside you. Imagine heat.
I don’t have much of anything figured out but I do know
to be indigenous is not to be a miracle of circumstance
but to be the golden light of survival, the wit of the cunning
of the cloud of ancestors above me now, a cloud of light
from which something almost umbilical is plugged into
my back, through which they feed me and flow out of
my hands and bear with me it’s like this: My dad grows
his hair long, the black waves cascade down his back
because knives cropped the ceremony of hair of his
mother’s generation in the Indian boarding school, and
while I cut my hair short in mourning for the old life, I
grow my poems long. A dark reminder on white pages.
A new ceremony. Poems light up corridors of the mind,
like food. They call where we grew up a food desert,
a speck of dust on the map of the United States in a
valley surrounded by mountains that slice thru the
clouds like a loaf, where the average age of death is
40.7 years old. I am 34. I live in the busiest city in
America. I am about to eat an orange. Every feed
owes itself to death. Poetry is feed for the fire
within me and but what is trauma but a kind of re-
wiring as in I’m nervous where I feel most free but then
the show comes back on and now they’re talking
about what else we pass on after death and you know
what? Too much for me, so I shut it off and
I crack my neck. The air is clear, and all across
Instagram, people are posting pics of the sunset.
There’s a lot of commotion on social media about the end of the decade; what have we accomplished, what do we have to show for ten years of living, what have we carried in our hands to some arbitrary finish line? Mostly these are nostalgia exercises, or excuses to talk about ourselves, like when someone at a party tells a story and then one after another everyone piles on with their own story that only tenuously clings to the edge of the same topic, anxious to for a minute elbow their way into the spotlight. Things like decades allow us to stop and envision ourselves in a movie, filmed, framed, and curated, rather than merely in a collection of days threaded with losses and triumphs so small as to be invisible to anyone outside of their occurrence.
South Asians have long taken a hall pass for critical examination of anti-Blackness within ourselves, our families and our communities. We have allowed ourselves to accept a “model minority” identity — a myth that, in this context, casts non-Black racial minorities as harder-working, smarter or more likely to succeed than Blacks. In doing so, we have become beneficiaries and scapegoats in the perpetuation of anti-Blackness.
At the end of the day, our job as artists is to tell the truth as we see it. If telling the truth is an inherently political act, so be it. Times may change and politics may change, but if we do our best to tell the truth as specifically as possible, time will reveal those truths and reverberate beyond the era in which we created them.
There is joy in repetition partly because every human mind wanders. Consequently, we miss a substantial part of every experience.
When a thin person does something — anything — to defend or support a fat person, it’s a thunderclap, a cathartic climax in an otherwise desolate movie. I long for those moments. I imagine a thin friend talking about their fat politics, unprompted, with other thin people. I imagine them proactively bringing up fat activism, inviting other thin people into a conversation about solidarity and matching their actions to their values. Still, they come so rarely.
The most important thing to remember is that this is a journey, not a destination. I’m really happy for you that you’re taking this first step. Whether you succeed in finding a therapist or not, the act of looking for a therapist is a signal to yourself that you are worth taking care of. You are. You’ve got this.
This imperative to avoid being — even appearing — unhappy has led to a culture that rewards a performative happiness, in which people curate public-facing lives, via Instagram and its kin, composed of a string of ‘peak experiences’ — and nothing else. Sadness and disappointment are rejected, even neutral or mundane life experiences get airbrushed out of the frame. It’s as though appearing unhappy implies some kind of Protestant moral fault: as if you didn’t work hard enough or believe sufficiently in yourself.
In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. And then forgive again. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and foibles and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.
Leadership as an exercise in patriarchal macho values of domination, greed, exploitation, possession, abusiveness, rank — that age is over, even as the Trumps and Farages embody it. True leadership today, and for the next century, is about nurturing and elevating and expanding the possibilities of things — from a reef to a child to a river — with care, gentleness, defiance, courage, truth, rebellion, grace. Sure, men can do that, too. But patriarchy and capitalism and supremacy — the great systems of male violence that have run our world for millennia now — can’t.
Somehow all of the romance of food, drink and their various joys seems to go out the window when we go from eating with another person to dining with ourselves. And much of the advice available on eating alone amounts to “bring a book” (I have several hamburger-stained books that attest to this being a bad idea). Yet, there is a freedom in eating alone, even if we need a little help to relish in it: no discussions of what we should order, no small talk, no sharing.
For one thing, these changes are having deleterious consequences for our mental and physical health — not just insomnia but depression, anxiety, heart disease and cancer are all rising, in part because of sleep deprivation. We know we have a problem — we talk about sleep and stress constantly; but we tend towards short-term palliatives, sleep-tracking apps, meditation and tablets. American art critic Jonathan Crary’s cult 2013 book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep zooms out to give the crisis the perspective it deserves, describing sleep as a last-chance saloon “that cannot be colonised and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly”. But, he warns, we are rapidly losing the battle to protect it. Crary’s book is a hugely significant polemic about technology, work, urbanisation, time, light and dark, dreams, and the world we now live in. Barely 140 pages in length, it is as dense as tungsten — the kind of book you need to pull away from your face every few pages to think about, and exhale, before resuming.
And a few more:
- Big Data vs. Big Dada: Writing Poetry on Demand at a New Orleans Tech Convention
- 101 ways to live sustainably
- Avoid Burnout Before You’re Already Burned Out
- The Unmistakable Black Roots of ‘Sesame Street’
Give yourselves a chance, today, my friends. Until next time.
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