I haven’t been here in a while. I haven’t been here consistently in a very long while. I don’t post much on Instagram, my blog’s Facebook. I don’t even tweet much anymore. Horrors.
Some of you have messaged me asking if I’m okay. Thank you so much. I’m always floored when I see those messages. People thinking of me. It’s so fucking kind.
Here it is: I miss you. I have no idea what the fuck to say to you.
That came out harsher than I wanted, probably because I’m frustrated. With myself, with my confusion and silence. It’s been months, maybe a year?
I’ve been trying to break my way out of it with positive self-talk like: Look, you moron, these are your friends! Your readers! The same people you’ve been writing to for years! WHY ARE YOU MALFUNCTIONING?
Why? Because everything I think about saying feels irrelevant, deeply annoying, or both.
I am the picture of security right now, folks. If I ever gave the impression I’m over here grounded in my being, I apologize.
Or maybe I am. I don’t really know what that means.
I always talk in my writing classes about not focusing on externalities when you write. As in, not writing for praise or money or fame, from that place of “Will people like this?” or “Will they get mad at me?” Not because we have to be “better” than that, but because it creates an unsustainable situation.
Sure, if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets launched into the NYT Bestseller list five minutes after you start writing into the cold, dark night—who knows, maybe you’ll be the next Girl wash your face lady and you’ll be lining the walls of Target in no time by repeating tired cliches and plagiarizing (don’t let me kill your dreams!)—but for the rest of us, that shit won’t deliver.
As in, if that’s what’s driving us, as soon as nobody gives a shit what we’re writing, or we get attacked by an angry mob calling us “commie cunts” (Thank you, Dan from Indiana), or our Twitter numbers just won’t budge no matter how clever we are (AND WE ARE), and also at the same time we’re annoyed that we even care about Twitter followers (are we not more advanced than that?)–we’ll quit.
In other words, everything external is a massive clusterfuck and just leads to more confusion. Our motivation and purpose must come from within if we’re gonna last in this game. Or maybe any game. I don’t know. I don’t know many games. I suck at sports.
And yet here I am swimming in NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY FROM DISNEYLAND, JANELLE.
I’m not afraid of the world getting angry at me, god knows I’ve said enough enraging things to kill that concern, but also, I don’t write in a void. And I don’t know what to write in friends in a crumbling empire during a pandemic and wildfires and civil unrest and autocracy at the doorstep while I sit in a café sipping a cappuccino watching my kids play in front of a building from the 17th century.
I’m over here in a country that has largely returned to normal (for now, numbers are going up) while my friends and family in the States are posting “first day of school” pictures with their child grinning in front of a table in the living room. I’m not knocking that. I understand. But what do I say?
“IT SURE IS NICE THE WAY THE HAVE HEALTHCARE HERE AND NO PRISON-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX AND ALSO ISN’T THIS CANAL PRETTY?”
Yes, I could write about all that I’m learning about America standing on a different continent and witnessing it from afar, but I feel right now like it’s irrelevant. Like I need to read the room. Like I don’t understand what you’re going through. Like I’m a coward for leaving. Like I’m so glad I left.
I feel separate.
I want to see you and know you can see me. I don’t want to write from some otherworldly place and become detached and off the ground with you.
This is not a feeling I anticipated when I moved here. I had visions of endless things to write about, the adventures, the new experiences, the culture. But I feel I’ve walked away from an injured friend. I feel I left them bleeding on the ground.
And the truth is I am so happy here I sometimes just start grinning. The truth is I feel a knot unwinding in my gut, like I am returned to a place I’ve been craving my whole life but never knew existed. The truth is I am so fucking grateful and awestruck that I get to live in a place like this that I sometimes feel a strange panic that they may kick me out, some lingering notion that it can’t possibly be real, that I won’t actually get to stay, that it all really has been a dream that will be ripped from my hands one day.
I walk around in a state of awe and rage. Awe that people actually live this way; rage that people actually live this way.
And America is what it is.
We are inexcusable. The “richest nation on earth,” but we cannot provide basic human rights or a social welfare net of any substance. It’s a lie. It’s a fucking lie and I live every day in a spotlight on that lie.
It is not normal to live the way we live in America.
I’m guessing any Dutchie reading this is laughing her ass off right now, conveying this place as some sort of utopian fever dream that it is not. And to them, I would have to explain that they may not understand what it feels like to come from a place like America in its current condition to this.
I’m fascinated by the things Dutchies complain about. They complain about what to Americans would be an unfathomable improvement, incredible generosity, a sense of humanity we’ve long forgotten–if we ever had it.
And you know what? I’m glad they complain. I’m glad they see these things as the goddamn human rights OWED to them, paid for BY THEM. I’m glad they want something back for their tax dollars beyond drones to kill people in the Middle East.
I’m glad they know their lives and their kids’ lives are more than human capital. That they deserve and in fact will live and enjoy their single chance on earth as opposed to scrambling desperately in a pool of scarcity while wearing the stars & stripes on a Made-in-China hat, sure the next big screen TV on Black Friday clearance will soothe the meaninglessness, isolation, and suffering predatory capitalism has created.
I’m so angry. I’m so angry at what America has taught us “freedom” looks like, that we have somehow equated individualism, those notorious bootstraps, with bravery, patriotism, the American way.
Why do we wear our suffering like a badge of American honor?
I’m glad they are indignant and firmly rooted in a sense of their own worth, and the network of responsibility the state must secure, reinforce, and fund. Because if they don’t stay mad, if they forget that they are entitled to these things through their very birth, the dignity afforded them as human beings, they will have them taken.
If they don’t stay mad, they may find themselves with entire generations of college grads starting their lives with $80k in debt that will accrue at 6.8%, a debt they’ll never pay back.
They may find themselves with sprawling tent cities beneath one-bedroom apartments that sell for $1.5 million and they may find themselves bankrupt over a cancer diagnosis and they may find themselves working two full-time jobs to barely pay rent and send their kids to underfunded schools where they will hide under desks for active shooter drills. They may find themselves funneled to a private prison because they are worth more to the state in prison than free in the world. They may find themselves without a pension, without paid sick leave, without vacation. They may find themselves without a livable wage while the top three richest people in the country accrue more wealth than the bottom 50%.
But what is the point of saying any of this? How must it feel coming from me? A coward who left. A person who looked around and said, “I’m sorry, I’m out.”
Just to keep with the fucking metaphors, I feel like I’ve survived a sinking ship and now I’m yelling from land, “Hey, Hi. Your boat sucks.” As if (most) Americans don’t fucking know this by now.
I have no interest in telling you, people I love, people who are suffering, what you already know, what we all already know—what good does it do?
I guess in that sense we are the same, navigating an incomprehensible nation facing incomprehensible uncertainty: grief, bone-level anxiety, a gut-level cognition that something is really, really wrong. I’m just doing it from a place of safety, which makes me think I have no place to speak.
Fuck it, ya know? I don’t understand any of this. I’ve lost the storyline.
Recently I read an essay called “Old Body Not Writing” by Ursula K. Le Guin in her book The Wave in the Mind about her inability to write fiction at the time. She could write essays (such as the one I read) because they are “in the head,” and “Any string of meaningfully connected words is better than none.” But her characters had abandoned her. Stories were gone.
She has always said that her books begin when characters begin to speak to her. She hears their voices. She becomes them. They become her. And from a silent zone, she explains: “When I have nothing to write I have nothing to escape to, nothing to compensate with, nothing to give control to, no power to share in, and no satisfaction. I have to just be here being old and worried and muddling and afraid that nothing makes sense.”
She goes on to say how writers call “any period of silence” a “block.”
Then adds: “Would it not be better to look on it as a clearing? A way to go till you get where you need to be?”
When I read this last part, I closed my eyes and took a breath and felt a deep relaxing around my shoulders, because I had gone to her looking for answers. And when I go looking, I look to my elders, women of the past who are my grandmothers and great-grandmothers but don’t know it. Or maybe they do.
I understood this clearing, thought about it as time passing and the guts and heart and head being rinsed out by life, by nothing, to make room for the new.
How can characters enter a cluttered room? How can ideas make their way into the thick mud of old thoughts? What good is my forcefully filling the space? Why am I angrily, impatiently, willfully cramming that space with topics and panic?
Because, as Ursula says, it’s “silent and lonely.”
“So, my search for a story, when I get impatient, is not so much looking for a topic or subject…as casting about in my head for a stranger.”
Maybe this is all a clearing. Maybe this is all of us washing it all out to find a new way of existing in this world together. Maybe we are all casting about for a stranger.
She knows “they answer silence,” that one day they’ll speak to her again, that the day will come when some new voice will echo in the brain she was sure abandoned her, some new world whispering itself into existence in the chambers of her imagination.
She’ll spin something beautiful from the clearing, from the void that felt a little like death.
Maybe we will too.