Saturday, June 30, 2012

Essay on Shame #29

This is the last day of my essays in shame. I was secretly hoping to transform myself, to shed my shame through writing about it; for mistake-free me to lay down her arms and melt into me like we were two drops of water and for the new waterdrop, the new larger and more united person, to dance in the streets and tell the truth always. Or at least that shame would become less compelling to me, less of a compulsion and a draw.

None of this happened. I was methodical, and earnest, and met the commitments I made. For that, I give students in graded classes a B. I tell them, "B from me is a good grade. It means you did everything I asked you to." What I give them an A for is moving beyond what I asked them to do into a new insight, or a harder question, or a greater degree of complexity. This almost only ever happens when they care about the thing they're doing, itself, with the grade, the outside judgment, as a pleasant side effect. They have to attach their worries, their excitement and even their standards and judgments, to their actions--what they do to make the the thing, and how it comes out--rather than their invisible intentions and clamorous selves.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Essay on Shame #28

Last night there was a march/parade/dance party downtown to honor the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. I don't know how it was, because I didn't go.

I love the idea of public engagement, vivid, raucous, explosive. To protest, to celebrate, to reclaim, to activate public and free spaces. I recognize its power and beauty, its ability to help people feel close, alive and brave ...

... but I hate doing it. I hate chanting and I'm not crazy about dressing up. I imagine myself judged for doing it and judged for not doing it. I don't want to stay the same and I don't want to change. I stay in the house of shame.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Essay on Shame #27

When I was 20, I went to teach for Summerbridge (now called Breakthrough, I believe) San Francisco. I was an immature 20; I didn't look for housing on my own, opting instead to do a homestay with the family of a kid in the program. After about two weeks, the head of this household told the program that I needed to leave because I had a negative attitude.

I'm ashamed of how I behaved that summer. I was whiny and dependent, instead of taking responsibility for my living situation. I was also a bad teacher -- impatient, volatile, unmethodical, bad at prioritizing, taking everything too personally. Teaching badly is particularly shameful and horrible because of the power differential and because the harm a bad teacher can do can be so lasting--think of bad teachers you've had. Some teachers may be great at it from the moment they step into the classroom. I learned to be a good teacher from being a bad one, feeling terrible, fixing what I was doing wrong, and then building beyond problem-solving and troubleshooting to include the real work of teaching and learning--spurring each other to greater and more complex understandings, getting more flexible and more precise with what you know and what you can do.

I'm a pretty good teacher now, and I know how to get better at it -- I know what I want to reach for next -- and I learned that partly from being bad at it. Being bad at it was, in that sense, good for me: it was a part of my development.

But it wasn't a part of my students' development, or it was a bitter one, even if the bitterness was fleeting. I think I did some good things with and for them, but I also think I wasted their time, confused them and made them feel bad. I used them in my arc, and I'm not convinced the use was mutual enough. This is one situation in which, rather than being a paralytic or a tourniquet, (my) shame really has acted as a spur for (my) improvement -- it's worth it to me. I love teaching and I love being good at it. But I have trouble saying it's worth it, period, when the way I learned to do it better meant embittering someone else's days and confirming their suspicions of learning.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Essay on Shame #26

Actions: I've been thinking more and more that any sense of who I am needs to come from what I do. Not what do I intend, but what do I actually do? Not just because that's what other humans see or know, but because that's what actually reaches them, directly or dilutedly. If anything has an effect in the world, good or bad or energizing or corrosive, it's my actions, not my intentions or thoughts or even standards.

I've been reading P.W. Martin on Jung (I should probably just go ahead and read Jung) and he says that the Shadow is more frequently expressed in inaction, in omission, in the things we don't do. In my mental vocabulary, what I don't do is the province of guilt, not shame -- but it's often the fear of shame that drives me back, both the fear of attracting negative attention and the fear of actually hurting someone. It does hold me back from actions that might produce beautiful or useful sparks.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Essay on Shame #25

I talked on the phone yesterday with both my sisters and we talked about shame, though we didn't use the word. In one conversation we talked about the mean mistake-free self (although she visualizes either Edward Cullen, from Twilight, or a bunch of weasels) and how badly it wants her to stay in the past and focus on things she can't change or do differently -- to trap her in time with her mistakes. This takes that divide, that split, to an additional level of malevolence -- the mistake-free self is actually trying to destroy the mistake-making self, to remain alone, hollow and sterile, cold-blooded and chattering and sparkly, in the world, half-dead and half-alive.

With my other sister I talked about reducing the amount of time between flailing and realizing the flail -- making the mistake of unkindness, of misinterpretation, of violence -- to seconds and hopefully to negative seconds. To know what selves, what impulses, may be lying in wait in the very near future in this complex of thoughts filled with enemy actions.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Essay on Shame #24

Shame as deterrent, tourniquet, deflector, screeching brake: as far as that goes, it can work. If it doesn't provoke me to be more of an ass to prove that I was right to be an ass in the first place, I will probably stop -- as previous essays have shown -- doing whatever it is, whether it is genuinely harmful, just unsuave ("You liked X?", also known as every conversation I had in high school), or -- and this is where the blur begins -- just not liked by the person I'm talking to.

But it doesn't just stop the thing I'm doing. It stops everything I'm doing. I sit still and my brain churns and steam comes from the gears, as aforesaid. I'm thinking now about the kid I want to have: what I will do when I need her to stop doing whatever it is (or think I do) and what I will do to get her brain moving again. If I could figure that out, maybe I could do it for myself too.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Essay on Shame #23

I searched the memory banks for times I tried to make others feel shame -- wish fervently they could go back in time -- and I came up with two main things.

One: times that people have said something homophobic around me. My responses have ranged from, "Could you please modify your language?" (to a couple of guys behind me on the bus) to, "You know being gay isn't bad, right?" or--if it's the second time or more--"You know I don't like that" (to people, younger than me, that I know fairly well).* My goal is immediate and, at least in my mind, clear: I want them to stop, and I want feeling bad to be part of what makes them stop. I am using shame as a pressure point, or maybe as a tourniquet. This seems all right to me: I don't have time to have a slow and reasoned conversation with them, because I need to stem the flow of aggression and spite. I hope, too, that next time they're tempted, they'll remember that they got grief for it last time and think, "Maybe it isn't worth it." Not a change of heart, but a change of surface.

Two: times that someone has asked me for something I do not want to give. Instead of just saying, "I don't want to do that," I try to make the person feel bad for asking me in the first place. This works in exactly the same way. It works as a tourniquet. Next time, maybe they won't tell me what they want. Not a change of heart, but a change of surface.

*I know these don't sound all that harsh or weapon-like. One reason for this is that I am not very brave. The other, related reason is that Option 2 for responding to shame--trying to find reasons why it was really okay to do whatever it was, and thus no shame is necessary--is a particularly common, and aggressive, response to this kind of assholery.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Essay on Shame #22

A book I haven't read by a writer I admire has been on my mind yesterday and today, since I saw a review of it in The Rumpus: Joyelle McSweeney's Percussion Grenade. The section of the review that stood out to me, which is also featured on Montevidayo, reads thus:

"The violence we throw on the human body and the shame we expect of one another are all endlessly reflecting in language. McSweeney asks us to inhabit the conflicting edges of that reality, mouthing the power and joy that come with degeneracy. She does not let us read for beauty or lyricism, but makes us active participants, tongue-tied by our own culture."

Aside from my total jealousy that I did not write this book, and my fear that reading it would make me feel terrible (I'll probably still read it though, because apparently I love to feel terrible), the phrase "the shame we expect of one another" is what made me focus on that excerpt. I've been writing about my own shame throughout this series, but I'm also part of "people" and "one another"--I also have a seat in the stadium of shame (possibly more than one)--and maybe it's time I started thinking about the shame I expect from others as well as myself.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Essay on Shame #21

I thought of a nice phrase to describe what I'd like to achieve: forgiveness without erasure. A way to hold steady and full the understanding of Jerk Move #798 without seeking or even craving absolution (who would absolve me, anyway? The injured party? Yeah, that's a great idea -- stomp on someone's fingers and then ask them to tell you it's okay). Just a bowl, even if it's a full and kind of spilly bowl, to carry my mess in. Without questions of whether I deserve one and who else gets one and whether or not it's too much to ask. That bowl, that container for shame, that forgiveness without erasure, is something I want.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Essay on Shame #20

Today I can't even remember who I talked to recently in a way that I should be ashamed of, a savage withholding. The erasing machinery's already at work, and this is what I fear when I put down the flathead screwdriver of keeping the gap open and shame activated: that I don't deserve to forget what I did. It's too terrible and I'm too terrible.

Let's do an experiment together, mistake-free me. You can be my lab partner who's embarrassed to work with me. Here's the hypothesis our science teacher gave us, the one we're stuck with, just like we're stuck with each other: what if what I did is too terrible and I am too terrible?

Someone else's being will be eroded.

Everyone else who knows will love me less.

What experiment can we set up to test whether this actually happens? We would need to stick around and watch that person and their being for a long time. We would need to pay close, anxious attention. We would also need to watch the people who know with sickening, diamond-bright precision. What would we be able to see, even with the finest instrumentation and greatest degree of panting awareness? A change, a shutting-down, a falling-off?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Soft Place is available at SPD!

For those of you who prefer to order from SPD, or would like to teach The Soft Place, it's up for sale there now! Follow this link or click on the cover at right. (If you'd like to review it, let me know.)

This has been a busy week, fun in some ways (trip to Chicago with CAKE for James and a reading for me) and infuriating in others (we're trying to buy a house and are at the infuriating stage). Last night I sat on the couch and held my box of books in my arms for a few minutes. It helped. I'm proud of this work, delighted by the book, and honored to be in the Horse Less Press flotilla.

Here's a piece of the book's first section, "The Beginnings of Generosity":

The smell of taking care
dwells in the starred sections,
hangs over the very most giving
territories in the hotly disputed map.
Disembark there to find a crystal region
dotted with abandoned prostheses,
empty bottles, misinformed genitals.
Reflections of beings of pure light
circulate landing oddly and cyclically like
the reflections of hazard lights,
emergencies, alarms, arrests. Because there are
no bodies, there are no lines.

Essay on Shame #19

Of course it's fine to make a promise, but if I don't keep it I'm setting myself up for shame: Remember that time I tried and failed? Remember that time I made that promise into a lie? Or sometimes I say "you", twisting the flathead screwdriver into the gap between who I actually am and who I want to be: at that moment, I'm speaking as the person I want to be (mistake-free) to the person I actually am (riddled with mistakes).

But when I say "you", I'm speaking cruelly. Mistake-free me, with her glowing skin and her perfect pitch for clothing, is a mean jerk. She calls mistaken-me a stupid whore, a useless cunt, a vile piece of shit. My impulse was to say, "I don't talk to anybody like that," but of course I do. I talk to myself like that. The urge, the rage, to talk to someone like that is present in me. It is me, and periodically, it fills me entirely.

It occurs to me that mistake-free me is a somewhat high school version of a perfect person, like a puppet with really long, smooth hair. What does she want the shame of others for? Why is it so important to her for me to be someone else?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Soft Place available at Horse Less Press!

I am delighted to announce that my new book, The Soft Place, is available for sale over at Horse Less Press. You can order it now and save on shipping!

If you're wondering why it looks so good that I can't stop caressing it, it's the cover art by Agata Michalowska and the cover design by HR Hegnauer.

I'm proud of this work and glad that it's in the world.

Essay on Shame #18

This weekend I sat on a backstairs porch on a hot summer night with two people I like a lot, two people I don't know very well but like fine, and one person I adore (James), who made one great joke but otherwise didn't talk much in the conversation I'm about to respond to. Everybody else joked about incest, told stories about shitting in plastic bags, offered to shit on each other's chests and disapproved vehemently and profanely of things I needed explained. I couldn't always tell whether they were being sarcastic or serious (one of the two I like a lot has the best line in deadpans of anyone I've ever met). I got increasingly uncomfortable and squirmy and eventually went inside to go to sleep.

All four of the talking people are anti-status-quo in a wide range of ways, most of which I admire, and I bring this up because the shame I was feeling was partly status-quo shame, societal shame -- "People don't talk about that stuff!" even though of course they do and anyway, if something really is harmful, it's not talking about it that makes it so. It was also partly my high school shame, which comes from the fear of being insufficient, revealed as inadequate, and which is the source of a good 40% of the lies I have told in my life. As of this moment, I vow to say at least 40% more often: "I don't know what that is. Tell me about it."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Essay on Shame #17

Shame is a restraint, a check, a negative reinforcement, a trap. It happens in the borderland, the place where the boundary between my I and the I or we of others is most permeable and smoky and mutually contaminated -- the I that feels shame and the I that commits the shameful act are shaped by others, or at least our ideas of others, individual people with names and bleachers full of a giant social and cultural other-than-me, or in-addition-to-me, that blurs together. People who have decided for me, without anyone making any individual decision, that one act is shameful and another is admirable. I caught it from them. Their shame, their admiration, is mine.

But the blur isn't total. It's not just a case of me flinching back from the mob or being swept up in it, as if by the moral and emotional equivalents of football hooligans. Historically, I have resisted situations, like shows and protests, where this could happen. I prefer not to be swept up; I want to be able to extricate myself, to withdraw my participation, at will. This makes me wonder if I'm also trapping shame, clinging to it, as well as the other way around.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Essay on Shame #16

I feel embarrassment and shame on the behalf of someone (not me) performing when their performance is bad in one or more of a few possible ways, most of which have to do with what I perceive as trying and failing. I also sometimes feel embarrassment and shame when a performance is good -- when it exposes something that people don't usually expose in public, like lust or misery, or crosses a threshold of intensity.

That second kind of embarrassment and shame is mine, on my own behalf, for being present and unable to "handle it". I'm disappointed in myself for not being able to manage, to reduce, something unmanageable, something that's the more powerful the less leashed it is, something that gains power through its very public-ness or publication of something that is usually private --

-- something I usually do by myself and am not ashamed of it there. Or something I usually do by myself and am ashamed of it, because I'm not really by myself, I'm imagining the stadium and that the people in the stands are in the same position that I, watching this performer, am in: wishing they were somewhere else because this is just too much.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Essay on Shame #15

My friend Darcie Dennigan wrote a poem called "You're an Embarrassment to the Void." The tenor of this poem is that any affirmation, any firm ground, any texture or pleasure or even interest, is a disgusting affront to ... well ... the absence of all of those things. A void is the absence of all things, but some things, Darcie suggests, are worse for it than others, more repulsive to total ending and the aftermath of dissolution. She writes, "Go ahead and add your own tale of the void's shame here," and leaves some blank lines for us to do that.

I love thinking about and probing the physics of poems (and Darcie's poems give great physics), although I rarely do this publicly (see: fear of being wrong / putting my leg in a position that's not weird enough). The poem's language ("the void's shame") suggests that the void is embarrassed or ashamed on its own behalf, not embarrassed for anyone or anything in the way I sometimes get when I'm watching a really bad performance. If the void can feel shame, there must be a self there -- and a fragile, irritable self, since it's so easily shamed; if the void can feel shame, it must be able to do something, to do something wrong. Every time something exists, the void has failed. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Essay on Shame #14

If something is solved, I can stop thinking about it. If something is solved, that means it was a problem. If something is solved, that means I don't have to change anything I'm doing. It means I'm okay. It means the Stadium of Shame is quiet, if not empty.  And if a solution worked, that means I can just keep doing it, right?

Problem/solution is a closed system, and there's no such animal. Open systems eat, excrete, exchange parts of themselves with their environments, things like them and things different from them. You can't solve an animal except by killing it. When I die, I will no longer make any mistakes.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Daniela Olszewska, Kate Schapira, Luis Humberto Valdez at Myopic Books!

So excited to be reading with these fine poets in Chicago!

Daniela Olszewksa
Kate Schapira
Luis Humberto Valdez

Saturday, June 16th, at 7 pm
Myopic Books (1564 North Milwaukee Ave.)

Also: Come visit cartoonist James McShane (and me) (and some of the other best cartoonists working today) at CAKE earlier in the day. The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo is in Columbia College's Ludington Building (1104 South Wabash) from 11-6 on Saturday, June 16th and Sunday, June 17th.

Essay on Shame #13

I was reading a Montevidayo post in which Lucas de Lima writes that self-determination "promotes values as stifling as enlightenment, individualism, and restraint" and I became extremely irritated and aggressive-defensive, like a ferret. The negation of restraint--and of agency, which the post also condemns--troubles me in particular because it seems like one of its quick descendants is, "It's not my fault that I hurt you" or "I couldn't help hurting you." Ugh, that's terrible. I'm ashamed to have typed that, even in quotation marks.

But then I thought about my life as a person participating in the money-world and in relationships with other people. The money-world sets it up so that I can't help hurting people by proxy. Some would argue that because it distributes damage so widely (the poisonous equivalent of, say, voting or donating to charity) and draws from so many sources my participation in it is actually worse than, say, punching someone in the face. I can see the logical and emotional truth of that.

And I do believe it's possible to hurt someone you're close to "by mistake" or "by accident" in the sense that hurting them was not a self-determined plan, but a side effect of misplaced or incomplete attention. In some ways, I'm more aghast when I do this kind of damage. But mostly, when I (individualism) do something* (agency) on purpose (self-determination) to hurt someone, I feel the worst about it. I may be mistaken about that. While trying to protect what's directly in front of me from my terrible self, I may be leaving a wake of carnage. But I'm not sure the solution is to remove the self.**

*This doing is usually saying. I haven't taken any other kind of deliberately harmful or vengeful action in a long time.

**The self -- my sense of self -- not myself. Don't worry.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Transmission from JUPITER 88!

CAConrad's video journal, JUPITER 88, offers up short readings by poets writing now. My video is up today and I'm so pleased to be a cell in the honeycomb!

We did this video before our reading together (with Michelle Taransky and Adam Roberts) in Albany, NY for the Yes! series, at the dining room table of co-organizer and friend Matthew Klane.

This is a particularly great project for those who prefer to hear poetry. Go look and listen -- and then check out some of the other delights. Just before me were Sara Larsen, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy ...

Essay on Shame #12

Shame, the stuck time machine, keeps me in the mistake state, at the scene of the crime. It makes everything I do to mend the mistake into damage control -- damage to me.

How about this for an anti-shame reminder? "How other people feel is important, but how other people feel about me is not important."

But what if I really get behind that and push, and it turns out to be a mistake?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Essay on Shame #11

A little while ago, someone suggested that I take a yoga class -- a suggestion I met with a visceral "Hell no." I made my usual, widely-accepted excuses for not doing things (I don't have time! It costs too much money!). What I really meant was that I didn't want to put my legs in a weird position and have a stranger tell me that it wasn't weird enough while other strangers looked at me.

I am aware that ...
1) A yoga class is a class. By definition, you don't go to a class because you are already perfect at the thing the class is teaching.
1a) When I teach a class, I don't shame my students for not already being perfect at writing. I assume the same would be true in a yoga class, only with yoga.
2) The other strangers in the class would be trying to get their legs into weird positions and would not be worrying about mine.
3) If I were worrying about their legs, I would be the one who was the jerk, with a new source of shame.

 I didn't sign up for a yoga class. I've started doing sit-ups and push-ups and a few stretches in my own apartment, where no one can tell me I'm doing it wrong. And if I could be doing it in a way that's better for me, no one knows -- including me. I don't ever have to change what I'm doing because of someone else -- even though, by exercising in my apartment and in my apartment only, I'm changing what I'm doing because of someone else.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Essay on Shame #10

Mistake-free me! She looks just like me, except she doesn't pick at her skin as much, and she doesn't have that vertical line at the inside corner of her left eyebrow. That line comes from fretting, and she never frets because she just naturally never makes a mistake. Never wants to. She only wants what's right, what she approves of. There's no stadium in her head; she fits right into herself, her brain fills her entire skull, like the nut in a nutshell. Packed full, nutritionally sound, synonymous: she's all self, all satisfied.

I would like to be her. It would mean never changing, never learning, never striving, being already perfected, sort of like the human version of the poem C.D. Wright refers to in Cooling Time, "the poem that would in effect allow me to stop writing." I don't have a clear sense of how she'd deal with other people, since her borders would be so snug and firmly set, so unlikely to ever impinge. It would mean sitting in the center. Right now it sounds very appealing.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Essay on Shame #9

The Stadium of Shame: it has a grand, pompous sound to it, like something from Monty Python. The seats line the interior of my head. I'd like to get a closer look at the people in them: who are "they" in "If they knew ..."?

One of the provocations for this series of essays was a response from James to an offhand comment I made. He pointed out that it was unfair and untrue, and he was perfectly right. I spent the rest of the day moving very slowly and in small amounts, as if I were afraid to break something. It was the offhandedness that made me so ashamed -- I knew that if he hadn't called my attention to it, I would have gone on thinking it was okay. Walking around like I was a fair, kind and generous person instead of an ignorant bigot.

James didn't call me an ignorant bigot. It wasn't him in the stadium seats, or other people whose opinion of me I value -- they weren't there. It wasn't even the people I was talking about, who weren't there either, even though they might have the best right to those seats. It would be tidy to say that the stadium is filled with me, like the scene when John Malkevich goes inside his own head and everyone there is him, but I don't think it's true enough. I think the stadium is filled with people who never make mistakes -- who are always fair, always kind, always generous. Not me, but the person I pretend to be -- a stadium's worth of them.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Essay on Shame #8

If what I want is not who I am, that could mean I don't have to do anything about it, to get it, and can steer away from shame that way.

It could mean that I can do whatever I want, without being ashamed that I want it, got caught wanting it.

If shame makes the self more important -- puts the self at the center and drools over it with passionate reminiscence of the last terrible mistake and anticipation of the next terrible mistake -- this division could displace it, could put wanting at the center instead.

There's a sexual gospel that does just this. You can find it on the internet. It fascinates me, in theory. Who cares who I am, as long as I yearn, beg and am satisfied? It replaces a static self with a mutable cycle of longing and relief.

The late Mark Aguhar, whom I'm ashamed to say I only learned about after they died, wrote on their blog calloutqueen, "Aren't simple desires dead yet? Are we still so obsessed with the hegemonic body? ... Why are things like pleasure and bodyfluid still so predominant in discussions about ecstasy and emotion and love and lust? ... Where are the tricksters, and the sneaks, marked by illusion and deception and joy and glamour and transformation?"

I read "hegemonic" there as a cross between "absolute" and "approved".  Who does the approving? A vast stadium of faceless mainly white people that arises, in a vision, around people having sex. My mind goes, "It's a problem! Solve it! Repopulate the stands with more fabulous and loving people! Stop caring about them! Keep everything in extreme privacy!"

I want to solve everything.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Essay on Shame #7

One place of shame is where we turn back from the borders of ourselves and lock them down. It's probably possible to write about shame without writing about sex and lust, but I knew that I would feel it was missing, like I was turning away from it.

Two wires intertwine: "What I want is who I am," and "What I want is not who I am."  Not just who I am to the person or people* I'm fucking with**, but to other people if they knew. In most cases, they won't know unless I tell them. If I don't tell them, I may wonder if they know, and what they'd think. Like "Buying something is doing something," this has a political dimension, but I want to look first at the turning-back place: I am the person who wants / No no no, I am not that person. Who would I be if I wanted? What would I have to do? How would I have to change, to go beyond the border? How far beyond the border would I have to go?

Shame is obsessed with the kind of person I am. That's what it drools over; that's what it clicks away from.

*As a matter of fact the relationship of "I, Kate Schapira" is monogamous, but the relationship of "I, the example human" might not be. It's tricky.

**I know this expression is usually used to mean "teasing you / lying to you / messing with your mind" and is often preceded by "Not really," but a young friend of mine used it as a synonym for "having sex with". I like the mutuality of it and would like to nudge its meaning in that direction.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Essay on Shame #6

My mind likes binaries. I'm not proud of this. It's longing to make that division between the "upstairs self" and the "basement self"--private/public, raw/cooked--even as it knows those divisions are simplistic, inadequate, dessicated. I'm constantly steering myself away from this longing and into more open waters, where all is fluid, all can change. Where the floating body loses and gains molecules to the water.

Could shame be useful? Could the fear of it be useful? Could the sick state of mind, the feeling where the water gets deep and drops off, where my sense of myself slicks out from under me on the stairs, be a reminder that the person who falls and the person who floats are the same person?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Essay on Shame #5

"I'm ashamed of all the stuff we have in our basement," my friend said the day before her yard sale. I tried to reassure her by talking about other people's basements. I asked her if when she goes to yard sales, which she does often, she thinks, "God, these people have so much crap. What idiots they are. They must be so shallow and horrible to buy all this shit." I offered that perhaps, instead, she thought, "Hey, look at this great thing I found! How exciting that I get to have this nice thing for not very much money!" Possibly not exactly in those words, but that, I suggested, would be what her neighbors were thinking too.

She agreed reluctantly. The shame of buying--really, of having bought--implies that buying is doing. People put a lot of energy into getting other people to believe that; that energy is not of interest to this inquiry, but its results are. Once you believe that your actions have meaning, that meaning can be dark and gross just as easily as it can be soothing or beautifying or ennobling. My friend's purchases, now in her basement, soon (she hoped) to be someone else's purchases, said (she feared) something shameful about her. Instead of, say, "the kind of person who would say something cruel" she was "the kind of person who would buy a cat fountain," which was fine--or maybe not fine, but bearable--or maybe not bearable, but avoidable--as long as that cat fountain stayed in her basement and nobody else knew it was there.

I don't there is anything dark or gross about having bought a cat fountain, and as I noted above, I'm less interested in all the permutations of "capitalism made me do it" (putting the responsibility on someone else is part of the shunt-and-baffle system for shame). I'm more interested in where shame lives. The basement seems like such a corny place for it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

City Change #10

Lis writes from Tahoe City, CA: "Tahoe City got a new bike path that takes you right along the lakeshore, vs. in town by the cars where we used to have to share the road. Makes my commute lovely."

Lis is also the keeper of the aforementioned postcard showcase at 28cents. Thanks!

Essay on Shame #4

I can't believe I said that corny thing about having wings. I can't believe I said that dismissive thing about working at Pizza Hut. I can't believe I said that thing about the kids in the Astor Home, or that other thing about wearing leggings as pants, or that other thing, to my class of ESL students, about men hitting women.

Believing it should be easy, because I did say all those things. Believing it should be much easier than erecting the complicated series of baffles, buffers and shunts required to redirect my mind away from the traps it laid for itself in the past. When I forget, when the buffer sequence works too well,  two things might happen: I might approve of myself too much, more than I deserve--the kind of person who would say that thing--and I might say something else.

This assigns a tremendous amount of power to my words. It believes that they can change my shape, can twist, shrivel or swell my features, the pitch of my voice, the force behind my muscles; it believes that they can set in motion series circuits and waterfalls of thought, memory and justification in other people as they do in me. I do believe that words have power; my two main forms of work have that assumption at their root.

If it doesn't matter that I said those things, words might not matter as much as I need them to. I might be making a terrible mistake.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Essay on Shame #3

From when I was about 12 to when I was about 22, I lied a lot. I didn't just tell lies, I was a liar. I lied to stay out of trouble, and in these lies I mostly got caught. I also lied to make myself seem interesting and, occasionally, to make other people look bad, and sometimes for no recognizable reason -- like the time I said I took the subway and then walked when actually I walked and then took the subway. I got caught in some of these lies, too.

When I say I "got caught", I mostly mean that grownups found out that my lie was a lie (I still thought in terms of "grownups" when I was 22) and yelled at me or explained why what I did was wrong or disapproved of me. But when no one found out, I was caught in another way, because I often kept telling people that I broke the foot of a groping man on the subway (I didn't), or that I once peed in a potted plant at a party (didn't do that either). I told those stories and many more, several times, to multiple groups of people; when I met a new group of people with whom I had a chance to be my truthful self, I ruined it as fast as I could by telling a lie. And then I was caught. If I forgot the story I'd told, and said in another conversation that I'd only hit one person in anger (true), a puzzled look, an "I thought you said ..." and the cold fog of shame were surely waiting for me.

What kind of self was I trying to make? In that imagined self, I believe shame and lies--both of the kinds I told--converge. A self who would pee in a potted plant, who would react swiftly and bravely to sexual creeping from a stranger. A self who never backed up too fast and dented the bumper on a stone wall; who was the insulted, not the insulter. A shameless self. A blameless self. A self without responsibility, who had never made a mistake, or whose mistakes stopped dead at its edge.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Hey 28cents, thanks for including my City Change postcard!

All you fans of paper mail, check out this tumblr "showcasing 28-cent correspondence".

And anyone who has a City Change postcard lying around, I'd love it if you would send that in.

Essay on Shame #2

The eyes of everyone I imagine stack up like a wolf spider's to be ashamed of me. I don't want anyone to know I did, said, thought, failed, betrayed. I want to have not done it, never done it. To be the kind of person who has never. Who would not. Whose mind it wouldn't even cross. This makes me think the solution is to become very still. If I don't move at all, maybe the wolf spider won't know I'm alive.

When I'm ashamed, I say furiously to myself, "You deserve to die." Well, I will die. So that problem has actually been solved for me. I enjoy being alive, except when I make a mistake, when shame informs me that it would be wrong for me to enjoy anything--pervades me, cold and heavy, driving all other airs away from my vicinity.

Solutions are so appealing. Like dioramas. A place, and a relation, to restore, in perfect stillness. Nothing to be ashamed of.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Essays on Shame

I'm going to write a mini-essay on shame here every day for the rest of June to try to teach myself how to make mistakes. That's the first thing to know about shame: it's a lesson, but not a lesson about what happens next. Shame is a stuck time machine and as I yank on the levers ever more furiously, as oily smoke starts to rise from the gears, the present sails majestically, sadly, with great dignity further and further away.

"Lesson" sounds good, and I ought to know, because I'm a teacher, but apparently I don't believe anything I've taught anybody else. Learning is for next time, but the magic of "next time" eludes me because I've already ruined my ability to move through time. I yank on the levers. I bite all the breath out of my words. The air inside the time machine gets worse and worse.