Just coping (an imperfect how-to guide)

God, what a miserable few weeks it has been! Post-holiday doldrums followed hard by start of term, and then…

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I’d offer a trigger warning – but what’s the point?

Well, we know what then. Anyone who cares about progressive, inclusive education, human rights and social justice, LGBT+ rights, the United Nations, environmental protection and food security, and myriad other things that many of us in the Anglosphere have been taking for granted for some time now has, I wager, been feeling rather down since Friday, 20 January. Things have been bumpy, to say the least.

My Facebook feed has been filled with friends and colleagues talking about the many things we can all do right now to help support those left especially vulnerable in the wake of Trump et al. (Marching is good; please also send your money.) I’ve taken much inspiration from them. But I also know that I’ve struggled to keep my own head above water these last few weeks. Not because I am anything like as vulnerable as those most affected by the chaotic death spiral of “executive orders” and gross cabinet appointees swirling steadily toward armageddon in Washington, but because, well… It’s the middle of term and the middle of winter and things kind of already sucked, without the Trump-ocalypse turning up to further fuck my S.A.D. vibe.

This time last year I was in real trouble. I was buried under a heavy administrative load as I, along with one of my colleagues in Theatre Studies, juggled multiple new recruitment initiatives and the planning of a splashy program launch party alongside our teaching labour and research projects. I was finishing an edited book, which meant intellectual work plus the palaver of wrangling colleagues/friends whose contributions were behind schedule, while also fending off my increasingly anxious publisher. And I had made the mistake of jumping head-first into a relationship with someone who looked mighty great on paper, but who turned out, in the fullness of time, to be utterly unsuited to me.

Imagine if I’d known then that Donald Trump was going to win the damn election!

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Thanks to my dear friends and my outstanding department chair I made it through February and March 2016, realised I needed a better work-life balance plan, decided to cut out work emails on weekends and over holiday periods, and generally set about paying better attention to my life. I feel a lot better now; in fact, I feel well enough that in the weeks since Mr Trump Went To Washington I’ve been doing a number of things designed, simply, to help me cope with the pool of heavy affect that has settled over my heart.

As it turns out, these are also things that, in normal times, could help those of us who teach and support young people for a living to care for our own emotional wellbeing and sustain our forward momentum.

So I thought I’d share them.

Take a friend out for lunch. My office neighbour, Kate, is a wonderful human being and sometimes I see her when we are both on campus for teaching. But we are busy and she lives in Toronto and we are busy and did I mention how busy we are? So a couple of weeks ago, when I was planning a day of work in the city, I emailed her and asked her if we could have lunch together while I was there. She was totally game – but then her book deadline got in the way. So I said: fear not! I will come to you and I will bring the lunch! We ended up having burgers and deep friend pickles (OMG SO GOOD!!!) and milkshakes and sharing our news in the sunny front window of Rudy’s on College. What bliss.

Have a drink over Skype with someone you love. Most of my friends aren’t in the town where I work; they are in London, England or Toronto or Berlin or San Diego or Brisbane or Halifax or… you get the picture. Academics live a nomadic life, leaving waves of loved ones behind at each career turn. I don’t see enough of my folks, so at the suggestion of my dear pal Jen Harvie I’ve started to make Skype/Facetime dates with friends abroad. Recently I’ve had two, both with chums in Toronto when I couldn’t make it to the city. Sure, we might talk a bit about work, but mostly we gossip about boys (at my instigation; I’m single, straight, and on the internet…). A drink in hand makes it all the more fun.

Go for a long walk, maybe with an animal. My dog Emma provides a built in excuse for long walks; she’s portable, so sometimes I throw her in the car with me and we travel to friends and their trails elsewhere. We had a fantastic, nourishing time walking on the glorious Niagara Escarpment with our friends Susan (human) and Shelby (canine) a couple of weeks ago; you can read more about that adventure here.

Have some sex. Oh yes, I’m quite serious! It’s a gesture of care for your body, a reminder of your beautiful, flawed, awkward, delightful humanity, and a chance to be held, supported by, and connected to another human being for a moment, just when that kind of holding, support and connection are lacking in the wider world. It also totally counts as exercise.

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Emma the dog. You didn’t think I’d share a photo of the sex, did you?

Make a beautiful dinner for yourself, and for someone you love. We are busy professionals and too busy to cook a lot of the time, I know. But cooking a proper meal, as my horrendously failed relationship from last winter reminded me, is the best gift we can give to ourselves and to one another. So book off some time (mark it on your calendar!) and go for it. Make the thing you most love in the world, and share it with somebody. Open wine, if that’s your thing, or open whatever your thing might be.

And then raise your glass to the struggles ahead. Remember that if you embrace the other humans around you, and fortify yourself, you can be ready for anything.

Kim

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 2

It’s a two-hour drive to Detroit from where I live. It’s as easy as getting to Toronto, really; sure, there’s an international border, but the queues aren’t huge (and Toronto traffic is worse by far). So I go more and more often that way – usually to the airport in Wayne County, but increasingly to the city, where incredible new creative worlds are blooming amid the ruin porn.

Detroit offers an amazing case study for thinking about spatial privilege and its lack: it’s today a largely African-American city, with an incredible history that spans both Indigenous cultivation and Fordist exploitation, as well as black and mixed race experiences of all kinds. Post-Fordism, Detroit famously went bankrupt: huge swaths of the old industrial city fell to decay and the hulks and shells of former factories make the skyline seem apocalyptic to me as I shoot across the I94, through its scarred belly. It’s both harsh and beautiful.

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But Detroit isn’t a ruin any more; today it’s a blossom. Artists have flocked from Brooklyn. Urban farms are popping up all over. Middle-class people are returning to the core. I know this thanks to smart writers like Rebecca Solnit, whose “Detroit Arcadia” (published in Harper’s in 2007; read it here) investigates the city’s history as well as its potential through an eco-critical lens. I first felt it watching Jim Jarmusch’s glorious Only Lovers Left Alive (watch for the sequence in which Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton [as vampires!] drive through the night-washed city). And then I got to feel it again, most powerfully, when I took my graduate seminar, 10 students studying performance and the global city, to Detroit for a day of cultural encounters on 4 November 2016 (three days before the US Presidential election. Yup).

We went to Culture Source, a new networking organisation that links a variety of arts groups across Detroit and its adjacent counties (and that is run by smart, arts-forward women with business experience. Good combo that). We went to MOCAD, and played with stunning metal creatures built by Juan Martinez and Gizmo for Dave Eggers’s The Spirit of the Animal is in the Wheels – an exhibit that offered young people an opportunity to think about urban transportation as fun, creative, and kid-friendly.

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And we went to the Lightbox.

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Lightbox is located in the part of Detroit, north of the I94 and the Piquette corridor, that still lies in part in ruin. Corey Gearhart and Stefanie Cohen bought the building from the Baptist church that had converted it from the bank it used to be. Its main space is a wide-open room with a lovely new sprung floor; there are chairs, toilets, and living space on site for Steph and Corey, and others as needed. It’s an artist-run community space now: that means that it’s available for those in the local community as well as those in the artistic community to use as a place to come together, try out new ways of being together, explore shared interests, and share imaginings about a stronger and more inclusive future.

I learned about Lightbox from my colleague Petra Kuppers, a disability artist, scholar and activist from the University of Michigan. I contacted Stef and Corey and they welcomed the class on our field trip day with the warmth of longtime neighbours. We settled on the floor in the main space, on cushions as desired, drank tea and learned about the evolution of the room, as well as the vision Stef and Corey hold for it. Unlike so many of the spaces we’d been studying – or had visited during our day in Detroit – Lightbox read as entirely up-for-grabs: a space where individual or group stakeholders might determine, day to day, week to week, or month to month, what it could be. And it could be multiple things.

Basically, Lightbox is the spirit of Detroit in bloom. Detroit as space-in-the-making.

Stef and Corey inspired the hell out of us; students’ reflection papers demonstrated how completely they had encouraged us to recognise, and believe in, alternative models to the “creative city” – urban theorist Richard Florida’s popular, neoliberal paradigm for hipster-driven new city-worlds. So when I got an email from Lightbox a few weeks on, telling of a workshop in early December on “the politics of space” with noted dance artist Barak adé Soleil, I shared it with the whole class and offered space in my car to all comers.

Two students (and one partner) jumped on the chance, and off we went on 3 December. The event started at 6pm and was potluck, so we all brought some food to share (yummy salad; tortilla crisps with cinnamon; fruit; celebration bread: we did not share this information at the border, OF COURSE). Things started gently: Barak was our host, but we didn’t start talking until everyone had eaten. (All good hosts need to learn this trick!) All we needed to do to prepare for the “workshop” portion of the event was to write a different thing on three pieces of card stock: how we saw ourselves in terms of “race”, in terms of “queerness”, and in terms of “disability”. We also had to make dinner conversation with our neighbours. The prompt: how did we get here tonight?

The slow start made me skeptical. As a teacher, my first urge is always to over-program EVERYTHING. That way everyone knows I’m prepared, right? But Barak’s a trickster and his plan was cunning. He knew that if he honoured our slow opening up, let our pieces of paper do the talking, we’d get there. We’d get someplace nobody expected.

After the food, and a bit more food, and a bit of talking, we moved dinner things out of the way and left just a small table in the middle of the space. Participants were sat in a huge circle around the room; Barak was at the central table. He then shifted the mood of the space and the tenor of the conversation by getting a table cloth out of his bag, moving his bits and pieces out of the way, heaving himself out of his wheelchair and onto the table, and arranging it just so. This was the first time I saw the extent of his disability – and I’m going to say here (even though I am ashamed of this) – that I was glad to bear witness to it. He is so entirely able in his body that I had perceived him as not really disabled (not disabled “enough”?…) up to this point. I wonder how many of us do this every day when we encounter those who live in differently abled bodies.

What Barak did next was remarkable. He put on a scarf that covered his entire face, heavy black gloves, and rendered himself essentially lumpen, not-quite-human. He gently, with grace and control, fell to the floor. Then he began to move around our circle, pushing and pulling and rolling his body from chair to chair, person to person. He groaned and gasped as needed. He laboured his body. He touched almost everyone.

This performance of struggling mobility, of limited access in a world of “ability”, changed everything about the night. After Barak returned to his chair, took off the hood and gloves, and resumed his place as host, our conversation could begin, really begin. We explored everyone’s writing. We talked about the many ways that “race” signifies for each of us in the room, how it shapes our daily encounters, interactions, and even basic imaginings about what and who we are. We talked about who (and how) we imagine ourselves to be, over and against how others perceive us to be – and about how that changes what we say, how we move, what we assume about each other, each day. We talked about the assumptions we had made about each other before the performance, and about how the performance, and our listening to our pieces of paper afterward, revealed complexities we couldn’t on our own imagine about who was in the room.

(These images are from Barak’s blog, linked above. I do not have photos of his stunning performance, alas.)

We talked about how many of us feared identifying as “just white”. We talked about how hard it is for so many of us to see ourselves reflected in normative sexual labels. We talked about how many, varied, experiences of colour, desire, and ability adhered in our bodies in the room. We recognised how complex identity in the body is, in practice, day-to-day.

In all these ways this evening of powerful, strange encounters coalesced into a politics of space. It marked my first trip to the US since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the elevation of Donald Trump, and it reminded me that all movement in space, always, is political – that is to say, it is always about relations of power among bodies moving together.

We have been thinking in terms of embodied hierarchies an awful lot recently: you’re either in or out (Brexit); you’re either with us or against us (Bush, Isis, Trump, Syria…); you’re either in the “right” body, possess the “right” sexuality, live in the “right” sexual body… or you risk losing access to marriage rights, abortion rights, the freedom to travel. Barak’s black, queer, disabled body operated as a crucible of all of these stakes in our shared space. Coming into the workshop I thought his disability principally would shape our conversation: what barriers to physical and mental access do humans face, in Detroit and beyond? But we ventured far afield, and I realised by night’s end that “disability” is a term we need to embrace as powerful as we plan our activism in the face of current exclusions.

What if we recognized disability as a basic human condition, not an exceptional one? As something that affects far more human beings than we at first glance might recognise? That is not lodged necessarily in body or brain, but also in community, in identification, in nation? What if disability – the challenge of mobility, of safety and security of person both in place and in movement – could be understood as a condition we all share, to varying degrees, and therefore all must take seriously for everybody?

The two students who came with me to Lightbox were in the process of preparing their final project for my class; they were planning a festival of creative women for our city that would be driven by an interest in inclusion and accessibility. At one point in the evening Barak noted that, as strong and genuine as many peoples’ intentions toward accessibility are these days, “accessibility” meets reality when he turns up at a space and can, or cannot, actually get into it, actually participate in the thing on offer. Accessibility is about his body, forcefully, in a space, asking questions about who that space is for. It can be planned for… but it also needs to be understood as an ongoing conversation.

Mobility is moment to moment; access is context-dependent. Some days the US border guards really want me to explain what I do for a living, ask a lot of probing questions, and some days they don’t care and wave me through. Some days Barak finds himself in a welcoming space with no physical and few other barriers to discovery, and other days there’s a step nobody noticed. That’s frustrating. But it’s also when things get interesting.

This might sound a bit utopic, but I think I learned at Lightbox that contingent access and precarious mobility are actually conditions full of potential – if we harness them fairly and honestly. Because it means we can all do stuff, little things, all the time, to support each other’s mobility, strengthen our rootedness in place, and that can just be normal. It might be as hard as crossing an international border, or as simple as writing a few words on a piece of paper. But either way, it’s actually totally doable.

That’s what I learned, three weeks after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, from the once ruined, now blossoming, city of Detroit.

Kim

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 1

I’ve been traveling in England this week, seeing friends I don’t often see. Such a pleasure! But a strange thing keeps happening: many of them have followed our hello hugs and smiles with questions about how I am doing, and queries about what they sense has been a very hard term for me. This is strange because I actually feel like my term was totally good; I’m in a pretty good place right now. Huh?

Their reactions have made me realise that I’ve been whinging a lot here, and on Facebook (which I use to keep up with far-flung friends, NOT for news purposes!), and probably unreasonably so. FB in particular is a platform that encourages catastrophic highs and damaging lows: hit “like” and its cognates to celebrate my totally amazing wins and my horrible devastations in equal measure! When things cook along normally that’s pretty boring, social-media wise; we don’t post that shit, because it would sink like a stone. No wonder all our lives seem like roller coasters now.

So, having to explain (a bit bashfully) to my dear pals that I’m actually doing pretty well has reminded me of how true that is, and in this year of years how lucky I am to be able to say that. I hold a very stable, well paid job in a stable democracy. I have access to free health care, and functional insurance if I get sick. I have my own, safe home. I have a strong support network. I hold two G7 passports, which means I get to move around the world virtually seamlessly, often without having to talk to any border guards when I do.

This morning, while walking along the South Bank on a rare sunny day, gazing over the millennium bridge at St Paul’s and watching the light dance on the dirty river, I totted up this good fortune. And I realised that my current well-being is rooted entirely in my spatial privilege. It is based, on one hand, on my total stability, my firm sense of self-in-place, and on the other on my mobility, my freedom to walk anywhere, fly anywhere, go anywhere I choose, when I choose. Here, I hasten to add that such mobility always relies first of all on that firm sense of em-placedness (my comfort and safety at home, my salary, my passports that root me in two nation-states): one cannot be without the other, even if you’re the fancy-free, nomad type.

It’s the end-of-year holiday season, which makes a perfect excuse for me to give thanks for the above spatial good fortune. I’d like to do that, here with all of you, by engaging in some critical thinking about space and movement over the next two weeks.

Regular readers know that I care about space a great deal as part of my teaching; for example, I’ve reflected before on how women (teachers and students) are and are not encouraged to take up spaces of authority in the classroom and beyond, as well as on how teaching spaces themselves affect the way we communicate and learn in class. As a preface to the posts to come, I want to claim that, just as being-in-space (safely, unencumbered) is a privilege we share as part of a community but enjoy largely individually, the way we as teachers make space for students – for their experiences, for their differences, as we encourage them to take up space in ways they might not previously have felt able to do – forms a core part of their learning process. It therefore should be central to our teaching practice.

Now seems an acute time to think about matters to do with space and movement in other ways, too: between the ongoing civil war and refugee crisis emanating from Syria, Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union, and the US’s election of Donald Trump to the White House (to name just three events), lots of us who previously enjoyed both mobility in space and security of place are now seeing those privileges radically curtailed. Many of us have been broken, and equal numbers of us empowered, by recent votes; those feelings, too, translate into spatial practice. In the US and the UK, instants of violence against racial, religious, and sexual minorities have been on the rise; those who believe such violence to be a public good clearly feel empowered to move and behave differently now, compared to six months ago. On the flip side, migrants and minorities in both countries are feeling much less safe in the very places they previously called home, and much less able to move around with the freedom (safety, security) the most privileged among us rarely think about.

What aspects of our spatial privilege do we take for granted? What aspects of others’ lack of this privilege do we simply ignore, or choose not to see? My claim here is that space isn’t just a non-thing, or an abstract thing: it is key to our human wellbeing, and its fracture is the beginning of human end. How might we, then, imagine a different, better way to be in, and move through, space together? (…Especially now that Mr Trump’s cabinet-elect appears uniformly to believe that our shared earth is not in a fundamental state of crisis, and that space is a thing to be conquered, not held and cherished.)

I’ll put some pressure on these questions and the issues surrounding them in the three posts to come this holiday period. On Friday, I’ll offer a reflection on a wonderful, inspiring workshop on “the politics of space”, which I attended two weeks ago at the Lightbox community arts hub in Detroit and which was led by the incomparable dance artist Barak adé Soleil. Next week, I’ll publish my reflections on Phyllida Lloyd and Clean Break theatre’s extraordinary Shakespeare Trilogy, performed by a mixed-race all-female cast at London’s Donmar Warehouse, which I saw last Saturday.

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Barak adé Soleil

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Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar

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Jade Anouka as Hotspur in Henry IV

Finally, I’ll start the new year with some thoughts on stuff I’ve learned this year – to my surprise, I have to admit – about the ways in which I lack mobility, and about the spaces in which I don’t feel free. There aren’t that many of them, but they exist; my encountering them this past year has been a blessing, because they’ve really got me thinking. I hope the resulting posts will help you think a bit more about your own experiences of space and mobility, too.

Meanwhile, a happy start to the holiday season, wherever it finds or takes you.

Kim

You are, in yourself, wonderful. Even in the darkest months, it’s true!

END OF TERM. Oh god. I could not be more tired and I think I’ve cried enough in the past week that I may be accidentally mistaken for a hormonal 12-year-old. But nope, still an adult: just an adult under maximum end of semester stress. AAGGHH!!!

If I think I’m in trouble, though, just imagine my poor students! I have 42 years of figuring out how to be resilient, eat well, manage stress, get enough sleep. And still I’m a weepy mess! Which makes me think, as I walk into my classrooms in these last few days of the term and look into their eyes, how hard it must be for all of them to be keeping their shit together right now.

(Indeed, on Tuesday, our “performance action” showcase day in my undergraduate class, I learned that one of the students had just lost a loved one on the weekend. Still this student showed up and pulled out a great performance. THAT is resilience; it’s also really hard, when you’re, like, 19. HUGE kudos.)

All this to say I was both delighted and relieved to see, this morning in my daily blog digest, an uplifting and inspiring post by the amazing Carly, who also writes with me at Fit is a Feminist Issue, about student mental and sexual health.

I’m linking the post HERE; it’s called “all bodies are good bodies, my body is a good body: affirmation as a path to better health”. Please have a read, especially if there are young people in your life who may be struggling with identity issues and/or issues of shame and fear around their gender and sexuality right now. (I’m 42 and totally [ok, mostly] clear on who I am as a sexual human, but STILL I felt much, much better about myself and my own choices after reading this moving, tender post.)

What’s it about? Carly writes of an amazing project she was involved with at Planned Parenthood Toronto, creating affirmation postcards with young people for wide distribution among centres and constituencies where those in need could find them and take strength and solace from them. The best part? If you feel inspired – for your students, your kids, the kids around your neighbourhood, the kids who hang out at the community centre on the corner of your street, the kids in trouble who live in the ravine near your house (that’s me)… – you can download the PDF of the postcards the team made, print them out, and share them on your own, near and far and wide.

What a wonderful gift, this first day of Advent 2016.

(PLUS: this is a terrific opportunity to support Planned Parenthood in kind, if you cannot afford to make a donation, at this precarious time for this incredibly important organisation.)

Enjoy, be strong, feel complete in yourself!

Kim

What Women Weigh

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This gallery contains 6 photos.

Originally posted on Fit Is a Feminist Issue:
The morning after the presidential election I had my regular quarterly checkup with my rheumatologist, a wonderful south Asian-Canadian woman who treats my Ankylosing Spondylitis. I was already reeling from exhaustion and…