Friday, May 11, 2007

Once Upon a Time Downtown; Witches on Wall St. & Rubyfruit in the Village

I watch CSPAN the way normal people watch ESPN, complete with yelling back at my tv and the occasional drinking game. So when someone whose opinon means a lot to me says that,,when I write about politics, while he might agree with my opinions, admire the logic or the thoughts expressed, he can't find the same connection with my words he does when I write about almost any other thing, because he is not a very political person, I have a hard time understanding what it is he means,. It's something he's tells me often enough. But whenever he says it in reference to my writing, I find myself surprised, in defiance of all reason. Partly, I suppose, because being such a ridiculously political person myself, the idea of someone who isn't, is as alien to me as those people who do calculus for fun, or the ones who don't eat sugar. I know they're out there, somewhere, I've even met a few . But I still have trouble believing they exist. So there is that.

More than that though, I try to write, most of the time, about the things that matter most to me. Otherwise, really, what's the point? So when I do write about politics, the writing itself doesn't feel any different from writing about any of the other things that make their way onto my pages, from my dogs. and my relationships, to life, death, sex and sanity, and the ways they all roil around together in my head, our downtown neighborhoods, and the whole big world at large. Writing about politics, for me, is part and parcel of all of that. The work of the writing itself feels just the same. Those times it doesn't, no matter what the subject is, when it comes too hard or too easily, or from the wrong place altogether, I know something's just not right. . So, when the writing has gone more or less the way it goes when it goes well, it comes as a surprise to hear from any reader that the reading of the finished piece feels somehow different from the reading of any other, just because of what it happens to be about. Maybe what I'm trying to get at here is simply that, for me, the political doesn't exist within its own cleanly defined category, neatly cut off and held apart from the personal. For me, the political feels very personal, so much so, I can't imagine trying to tease the two apart, to figure out where one begins, the other ends.

Flip that around, and you get the old seventies feminist slogan, "the personal is political." Hearing it today, we hear a reminder of the unintended repercussions all of our small everyday can have, on the lives of people we will likely never meet, and the continued existence of our neighborhoods as we know them. Spending the extra dollar on a bag of fair trade coffee, or going a block out of my way to East West books instead of Barnes and Noble, can feel like such inconveniences, in the moment when I have to choose. It's so easy to forget, at least it is for me, that these small things matter, that I am just one person on a planet teeming with its billions, and that whatever might be easiest for me at any given moment, is not necessarily the best thing, for anybody else. Not for the Ethiopian coffee farmer, chances are, or anyone trying to keep an independent bookstore going in the West Village, in spite of all those Barnes and Nobles everywhere All of that is true. It's real and important, and much too easily forgotten. But it's not much to do with what I mean.

And even though it's what we think of when we hear that phrase these days, it isn't really what those seventies feminists meant by it in the first place either. Rita Mae Brown, racking up degrees at NYU, and writing her raucous first novel, "Rubyfruit Jungle." A group called WITCH, the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, declaring capitalism the true oppressor, and putting in a surprise appearance on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, dressed in their witchy best, one afternoon in 1969. Kate Millet in her studio on the Bowery, working away in quiet anonymity on art, life, and doctoral dissertation, until that dissertation was published as "Sexual Politics," and became possibly the least likely bestseller in the history of books. Shulabeth Firestone and Ellen Willis meeting with their Redstockings and issuing manifestoes from a lower east side apartment. All of these women, and many more besides, making their homes downtown, talking, thinking, and arguing \, about all the possibilities they saw before them for taking the world as they'd known it apart, examining it carefully and closely, piece by piece, and using everything they'd learned, trusting everything they felt along the way, to help them in the hard work of rebuilding something unimaginable, something altogether new and different from the world in which they lived. When they said, "the personal is political," questions of shopping weren't really foremost in their minds.

They were thinking more about their growing recognition that many of the problems women experienced as personal, their bad marriages, financial woes, the impossibility of finding childcare that kept them feeling trapped at home, had causes more political than personal, and so would ultimately require political, not personal, solutions. With that came an understanding of each choice made, each step taken, as in one way or another an act of acquiescence or resistance to the dominant hegemony of the day, that self-sustaining narrative of class, race, gender, and above all power, and the great lengths to which it goes in its efforts to entice us all to choose it over ourselves, and over one another.

They were right, of course, the personal is political in all of those ways too. How brave they were, to even begin asking the questions they did. And how optimistic to suppose we'd be up to the challenge. What's more terrifying, after all, than the possibility that the stories into which we fit so neatly, the options with which we've been presented for longer than we can remember, by those who truly love us best, are nothing but a fraction of what's out there in an endless universe, have perhaps been offered less for any benefit they'd bring to us, than for the sake of minimal disruption all around, and leave us not an inch to spare for taking anything apart, deciding what's unnecessary, and putting whatever's left back together in some way the world has never seen before? Terrifying most of all, because once you do start asking those questions, it's just about impossible to stop pestering yourself about them, until you've come up with some kind of answers. And the answers never turn out to be the ones you'd hoped for, never offer you an easy out. .

It's heartbreaking, really, thinking about those women, walking down sixth avenue doing their errands, sitting in Washington Square on a sunny day, and having so much faith in us, our willingness to take a step away from what feels like such solid ground beneath our feet, and find our what it's like to walk instead on something that looks thin as air.

That gets much closer to what I mean, when I say the political is personal. It has to do with willingness. Willingness to ask the scariest questions, take the riskiest chances, and take responsibility for whatever happens next. It also has to do with my Buddhist practice, undisciplined as it often is. Buddhism teaches the interdependence of all sentient beings, the illusory nature of individual identity. So long as any one of us is suffering, we all are. There are only so many options open to us, in a world so big, if we have aspirations of easing any of that suffering, and don't happen to be Bill Gates. Political engagement offers one way of acknowledging our responsibility to one another, of doing what little we can to make a world we want to live in, rather than allowing it to make us into what it needs. And that all feels very personal to me.

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