TENSES

My Dear Yuna,

 

When your email arrived the other week, I wanted very badly to respond, but was inundated with more pressing and less important matters. The business of life (and the life of business) has been poked and prodded out of its spring slumber, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, your powerful words have stayed with me during this time, so this morning I felt compelled to write you.

Thank you, as always, for sharing so much of yourself with me. That you are in better spirits these days, trekking your way into the light makes me very happy! I was pleased to read that you are, as you so beautifully put it, “gathering” yourself and have “embarked on a journey of healing”. I’d love nothing more than to read your description of each waystation, of every gestation. Since your last two emails, I’d been meaning to ask how much of the deep-end part of the dive into yourself has been a direct result of the lockdown, or whether the lockdown merely brought your inner struggles to the surface and revived it like an able lifeguard? One thing is clear: it has been a time of profound reflection for you, of consequential change.

 

Your thoughts on vulnerability, how it’s empowering you today, offering sustenance, gave me much to chew on. To wilfully enter into a state of vulnerability, particularly these days when anonymous trolling on social media gives the bully a much larger playground, takes courage. And when it hasn't cowed people into wholesale retreat from the world, or degenerated into that most perverse form of neurosis, toxic machismo, vulnerability is like that delicate-appearing butterfly that crosses multiple continents during mating season— who can blame it?!

Most men I know, myself included, too often interpret what is being shared with them, particularly by women, like a puzzle to be solved, a problem that requires fixing. (I’ve come around to concluding it must be an Oedipal thing— boys who wanted to save their distressed mother but felt utterly helpless to do so.) How often have I entered an open, electric space and fidgeted with my toolkit when all I was asked to do was be present? To breathe. Listen. Commiserate. The truth is I’ve never been very good at it, which is why, I think, I often prefer letter-writing over direct communication as it affords me time to allow my responses to marinate and put the drill away. And it’s taken me years, after so many failed attempts, to see that it is the leaky pipe that needs fixing— not lovers, friends or family. My eyelids continue to slowly unfurl.

 

There is, however, a difference between “feeling vulnerable” and vulnerability. To wander alone through the African Savannah on a starlit night where hyenas and lions roam, or to set up a base camp at the bottom of an active volcano, makes one feel (deservedly) vulnerable. Nature, the whims of circumstance, and human stupidity makes it so. But this is different from the experience of vulner-ability, which requires agency, free will. You can't, for example, feel vulnerability on a desert island by yourself. You need other people to ignite it in you.

Vulnerability seems to me a human construct— a social contract that the insecure among us are always poking holes in, fearing we will lose something of value when, in fact, it's always only been worth the weight of our ego. And so it is one of the tasks we are called upon as a species to recognize as a community ideal of the highest order— possibly one of the few redemptive community ideals we have left. During this time of mass revolt, and after legitimate rage has been addressed, we, the global community, need to find a way toward a deeper awareness of this. Any form of truth and reconciliation, whether it’s in the privacy of the bedroom or in the state assembly hall, can only be reached by consciously passing through the doors of vulner-ability.  

 

As for the work of undoing narratives to "embrace our own truths", as you eloquently put it, strikes me as the right orientation. There were so many difficult experiences you described in your email that I felt the pain  in your expression, particularly around your traumas. I’m grateful to you for sharing them with me. It’s made me reflect on my own past experiences.

Self-narratives, both the false and less-false stories we tell about ourselves, have been around since the first hominids climbed down from the trees, stood on two feet, and ran for shelter in a cave. Language as we know it today was likely invented around then, in that cave, but my instincts tell me it was not invented to tease out narratives, to tell stories. That was a secondary necessity, likely born out of smelling our fingers after scratching the general vicinity of our butts and some rudimentary quest to understand death. Language was intended to be entirely practical, just another tool in the box, utilitarian in purpose. Stories about what happened (perhaps to offer contextual information) and why it happened (to create some tenuous link between cause and effect) must have been dismissed by our earliest Alpha Male ancestors as irrelevant. If stories had to be told, it was likely to transmit information about what might happen to a member of the tribe, particularly around danger. It was goal-directed, forward-looking. In other words, “If you do_____, then_____will happen.” A way to de-stress the amygdala's fight-or-flight response. It must have been of immense service to the gatherer when the hunter pointed out that there is a sabre-toothed tiger hiding behind the mulberry bush at the bend in the river, ready to pounce, and how the beast could best be avoided. At that moment, peering anxiously out from the cave’s entrance, the gatherer isn’t interested in the sabre-toothed tiger’s gender or how many years it took to grow its fangs or even how it got there behind the mulberry bush. The gatherer is interested- nay, inspired- to not become part of the tiger's paleo diet regimen. It's probably too obvious to point out that a story’s true utility (whether it’s told to others or to ourselves) lies in its forward gaze, its future orientation and not the past. What good would it do the gatherer to know that the sabre-toothed tiger was born with spots on its coat or was last seen mating three weeks ago? (I say this knowing it rattles the cage of some psychoanalysts and paleontologists, and all historians- these past-obsessed professionals whose vocations, by the way, like the sofabed, are entirely modern inventions, having arrived long after we abandoned the cave for upholstery.)

 

Whenever I hear expressions like “childhood trauma”, “internalizing guilt” etc., I feel like my inner hearing has been disrupted. Something just doesn’t sound right. Do you know Alessandro Moreschi? He was a castrato with an angelic soprano voice. It’s jarring when you see pictures of this grown man with his broad chest and then hear him sing something like Ave Maria. You feel disoriented, as though you're looking through the wrong end of a telescope or been released by kidnappers on a street corner in some foreign land. That’s what I feel when I hear people talking about their past traumas.  

This is not to say I dismiss traumas per se- yours, mine, or anyone else’s. Traumas happened, some much more intensely than others. Denying it is the neurotic's version of revisionist history. But they don’t actually exist when we are truly present. They are shadows, or better yet, carcasses we have chained to ourselves and that we feel obliged to keep dragging into this moment— and onto the next one if we can. While we push forward through time, facing backward, we gaze at the carcass and it gazes back at us, like Nietzsche's Void. Despite the mental-emotional toll it takes, we drag it along because it’s something familiar; better the carcass we know than the one we don’t, even if neither exists here-and-now.

It seems to me that trauma is about the way we orient ourselves to time, to our use of tense. The Buddhists built an entire belief system on this premise. My daily meditations teach me the same. When we are meditating or running, laughing or crying, making love or spaghetti, or writing as I am to you at this moment, traumas don’t actually exist. Whenever we are truly in a moment, any moment- and when are we actually not?- trauma is not there. It’s “behind” us in space and time, but our tendency is to eternally warp it with the gravitational equivalent of overworked cathexis. And language is essential here. Our stories matter. But tense is everything. We are not what happened to us. Nobody ever is. We are how we consciously utilize tense. Will we let it raise or decimate us? Make us feel hopeful or abject? Is it about "to done" lists or "to do"?

 

All this to say, my dear Yuna, that the work you are doing now on yourself is brave and good. I say keep charging forward, and without giving an iota of thought about whether or not it will lead to happiness, which is, like sex, empty of meaning and overrated if it's not exercised in the service of something higher. Happiness is not the goal of your journey. Your inner work is. And while you trek along this uncharted road, know that the obnoxious (and opinionated) voice you are hearing behind you is me, your lead cheerleader and blind guide!


Don't forget to write back!

 

Yours Always,

Karaoke Cowboy  

OH, CANADA

Dear Claire,

 

Forgive my late response to your email. Like you, I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed by current events that some silence and a proper distance from the world was in order. And with that as my meager apology, I want to send you this belated thanks for your stirring words and my best wishes from Ktown on this holiday.

 

The raw emotions you describe—the outrage shared with protesters on the one hand, and the COVID-induced foreboding on the other—are, of course, completely understandable. Anyone with your questions, pigmented with concern, of “what a collectively imagined future might look like” in the months and years ahead, is likely undergoing a similar experience. If the pandemic has made anything exasperatingly clear, it is that like the protests themselves- BLM, BIPOC, LGBTQ- the burden of the work, the immeasurable sacrifices, the cost of life and limb, is again being carried by the most victimized and courageous in our society. But the alarming pace of the current crises (and the wish by those it most annoys to have it over with just as quickly, as though it was one of many nightly conjugal duties) has exposed a stark contrast between those who will grudgingly accept “the new normal” (which is to say not much different from the normal of BEFORE) and those who seek a sustainable non-violent "revolution". We can only hope that there will be enough ground covered so that real positive change is both inevitable and permanent. My only fear is that the AFTER so many of us long for will arrive too soon or too late to have any lasting impact. And yet, like you, I am hopeful that "the tides are changing and people are waking up." Here's to hoping the ninja will arrive just in the nick of time. 


Your inquiry into whether any one of us, as individuals, can truly contribute to a shapeless and constantly shifting movement is something I think about all the time. The tension between all the constituent interests, the constant push-and-pull of disparate parts, feels a bit like an unpredictable but well-executed concerto. With some trust in the overall goodness of people gathered in groups, even without the aid of a conductor, I believe we can drive the whole orchestra toward something greater than the sum of our individual parts. Perhaps this is simply wishful thinking. Or naive romance. Personally, I have taken to a two-pronged approach in my daily life: to do my small part “on the ground” by allying myself with the few in my circle who have most to lose (and therefore, the most to gain) in the fight, whilst committing to the necessary inner work that will make my personal alignment to any social change meaningful. A rigorous daily routine of reading, writing, meditating and running has also been helpful. Now, more than ever, I need to balance action with mindfulness; anger with empathy; justice with self-care.

 

Your reflections as a white woman in a country built on a scaffolding of institutional racism and inequality has forced me today to interrogate my own complicity. And you are right to wonder, as I do now, whether this self-interrogation actually works since it’s nearly impossible to gauge whether we are changing while still “within a privileged standpoint.” Like a man who refers to himself as a “feminist”, in the end it's not up to him to make the final judgement.  

As an Asian man, slotted into the “model minority” drive from the moment I arrived in this country as a child, I see how my increasing participation in the status quo has buoyed so much collective suffering. I have knowingly benefited by walking along a path in my latest Adidas that other BIPOC have, for generations before me, paved in their bare feet. Over the years, from the safety of the sidewalk, I assumed the nearly-invisible role of bystander to the street fight between whites and their mismatched BIPOC opponents. And on this night, with fireworks going off outside my window and over Christie Pits, it’s less my mindless apathy and more my lack of courage that stirs shame in me. Until recently, Canada Day was always a day I celebrated unwittingly and without any moral reckoning.

 

There is the one Canada Day I will never forget. I was fifteen and my friend Mario asked me to join him to watch fireworks at Canada’s Wonderland with his “Indian girlfriend” and her cousin. His girlfriend, whom he’d met at a public swimming pool only a few days before, was visiting from Thunder Bay. At that age, the only language Mario and I were versed in was the language of stereotypes, of manufacturing Otherness. So, Alexis was “exotic-looking”; she didn’t drink beer (presumably like we, and her own people, did); she was lighter-skinned and smarter than other Indians, possibly even some white people.

     It was a day I recall as hot and still as today. Alexis and her cousin, Samantha (who never spoke much the whole day), were clad in bikinis beneath sheer dresses. Indeed, Alexis was lighter than her cousin, but she was also much smarter than Mario and I combined, multiplied by ten. At Wonderland, every lamp post was draped with a maple leaf flag. Over pizza slices, Alexis schooled us on the meaning of Canada Day, referring to it derisively as Colonial Day. With a historian’s encyclopedic knowledge and an activist’s sense of righteousness, she explained the role of both the French and English in the decimation of her people.(As Mario was Italian and I was Korean, we were pleased as pie not to be implicated in such wholesale atrocity and pretended to take it all in seriously while gawking at her bronzed body.) On that day, filled with every imaginable diversionary spectacle, I heard the terms “residential schools”, “the Sixties Scoop”, and “cultural genocide” for the very first time. Every time I hear them now, I can't help but conjure up Alexis' voice, those flinty eyes. 

     After the fireworks, we returned to Toronto on a bus in silence. I parted ways with the three of them at Yorkdale Mall. I wanted to say something to Alexis beyond "thanks, had a cool time." I wanted to tell her I could listen to her talk forever; tell her I will do something about it; tell her I would follow her all the way to Thunder Bay, wherever that was. The next time I saw him, I asked Mario if anything ever happened between him and Alexis. “Nah, she wasn’t worth it,” he’d said, “doesn’t want to give, just likes to talk”. I wished in that moment that I was Mario. I would have treated her differently. I would not have disappointed her. I would have redeemed myself. 

    But I never saw her again.


*   *   *

           

Claire, there have been many times like these, steeped in anxiety and confusion, so I take some solace in knowing this is not an isolated time, that we have been here before. But it saddens me that history often shows symptoms of dementia, forgetting where it put its keys, what day it is, what the name of its child is. And it is because this is so that little more than clichés will do to carry us lurching into the next similar time. But they are clichés nonetheless that occasionally, if sifted and clarified enough, might someday bear a truth worthy of the struggle it was borne out of. So, with the deepest kind of faith, we are being asked to imagine a world where everyone is allowed equal pursuit of meaning and happiness, with equal justice for all. We are being asked to contribute to its inevitability, its necessity. And although today is not that day when the horse is likely to drink, you and I are being asked to do our share by pulling the horse to water. I wonder now, in our mutual exhaustion, if you and I will ever find the strength. I wonder how others find it. But I take comfort from emails like yours, coming from someone like you, because I know this is at least possible: that if in a fleeting moment I can't locate it somewhere in myself, there is strength to be found in the likes of you. 

 

In any case, for now, take good care of yourself, Claire, and write soon!

 

Yours,

Karaoke Cowboy

July 1, 2020