Learning to care

Graphic by Haewon Ma

Lately, I’ve been calling my mom a lot, which is unusual because talking to her often makes me feel more stressed than relaxed. Tensions between us have been running especially high since the election. After it became clear that Trump had won, all she said to me was, “we survived Reagan. I have faith that you can survive Trump.” Holding back tears, I told her that I’d talk to her later. Besides talking to my mom, I’ve spent most of my time outside of class reading in bed or watching RuPaul’s Drag Race—anything to take my mind off of defunded Planned Parenthood, the Muslim ban or any other egregious, coded act of violence against marginalized peoples. In fact, though I’ve wanted to be a more engaged participant in campus activism—something that I know would make me feel stronger—sometimes attending talks, marches, and teach-ins can seem like a grab at social capital. When you feel compelled to attend everything, the rhetoric of “you’re not doing enough” can permeate activist spaces to the point that what ought to be an activity aimed toward benefitting the community feels more like a clamor to prove yourself. When I felt these things, I grew more and more cynical, which, in turn, only furthered my sense of apathy. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Moreover, it shouldn’t: being involved in community organizing should be empowering, not detrimental to your mental health.

There’s no doubt that occupying activist spaces at Yale can make you scrutinize the behavior and motives of those around you. In times of great grief, we experience deep collective hurt, and sometimes that hurt manifests itself as elitism and ostracization. We love to say that “self care is a radical act,” but when we constantly ask ourselves questions like, ‘Who’s going to the most demonstrations? Staying in bed, depressed, the longest? Talking the most during resistance meetings?’ we ignore the fact that taking the time to take care of ourselves necessitates different paths and timeframes for different people. Many of us are still navigating the border of self-care and coping mechanisms. I have thought disparaging thoughts and harbored negative energy toward those whom I didn’t feel were doing enough. I noted those who didn’t show up to protests, were skipping teach-ins, weren’t reposting important information about water protectors and instances of racism and sexism on campus. I viewed showing up to activist spaces more as a means of proving one’s willingness to sacrifice than as representative of genuine concern for what was at stake.

Attending campus resistance events has also made me analyze my own relationship with activism. Although I don’t advertise it, most people know that I have depression. My mother, however, doesn’t. When I tell her I’m sad—which is the word I use because depressed is too heavy on the ears—she tells me God is working. Sometimes it hurts to hear such a vague response, but often the vagueness can turn out to be liberating. Since our last conversation, when I tried to disguise the fact that I was wickedly hungover, I’ve been carrying these words she shared with me: “find the joy in the small things.”

To me, this means finding significance in what I am doing–not questioning who’s paying attention or whom I’m paying attention to, but rather simply immersing myself in what I have always loved to do. That means writing Black queer girl poetry because my art is my salvation. That means planning poetry workshops for New Haven middle school students. That means supporting the organizations that inspired my growth. My work at the Yale Women’s Center, despite all its flaws and a problematic background, has emboldened me to do more.

But I also take breaks. I drink Arizona tea to calm my nerves before going to class where problematic white students nod at the problematic things my problematic professor says; I go home to loving suitemates who listen to me complain and help me find tangible ways of enacting resistance in class. I read Zadie Smith religiously and repeat whole poems from Sandra Cisneros’ My Wicked, Wicked Ways in the shower at 7:30 in the morning. I try to balance the good with the bad, and when the world gets too rough I take stock of every friendship and love I have to keep me going. I’ve begun to not just understand but accept that oftentimes we are limited by our own bodies and our own abilities to be present. I’ve learned to let my love transcend that boundary when my brain cannot command my legs to move.

Activism isn’t about gaining social standing within a marginalized community. It’s about actually effecting change. We talk a lot about mobility of movements, about tiredness and cynicism, the feeling that we are constantly dropping things and picking them back up in a never-ending cycle of red light/green light. We are rightfully suspicious of the good things in our lives. We critique not because we are invested in just making something problematic less so, but because we feel betrayed by the fact of its existence. We tell our friends that our circles are growing smaller and smaller because the borders of our trust grow thinner and thinner with every heartbreak and new law and overworked love. Our lives are dynamic; we exude resistance in classrooms, in coffee shops, even at parties, when our black bodies are demonized against the “Black” music playing in the background. So I take joy in the small things. I reaffirm that God is working. One of my best friends shows me a video on how to have sex with a wig on. Another introduces me to a new musician. A girl tells me she saw my doppleganger, but I look better. It is another day and I am ready to love.

One Response

  1. Hey, thanks for the shout out. Glad to hear someone still appreciates poems from my youth.

    Adelante always

    Sandra Cisneros

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