Hello dear friends.
[A brief disclaimer before I dive into this: the internet is awash in fast-moving, thought-provoking, emotion-stirring content right now. Check in with yourself. If you want to read some musings about creative practice and activism, by all means read on, but I also want to give you permission to stand up and take a stroll around your block if that's what feels right instead. Okay? Okay.]
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
It's the start of the month, which means I'm looking at an automated reminder to scan and post everything I've drawn in my sketchbook over the past 30 days for my $15 Patrons.
I get the same reminder every month, but the fact is: I haven't been drawing in my sketchbook at all. Not for a while now.
I'm sure it's the same for many of you. Our rubric for productivity has been shifting dramatically over the course of the COVID-19 crisis. My limited attention has gone to keeping my body fed and my home cared for, to meeting the few freelance deadlines I can still sustain, and to acclimating to a new global norm.
But that version of normalcy has shifted suddenly, vibrantly, enormously over the past week. We went from drawing in and slowing down to bursting forth and speaking out—months of frustration and loneliness and fear catalyzing into a global movement for racial justice and community transformation.
Six months of pandemic living is in no way comparable to the centuries of oppression and inequality visited upon Black Americans, or on communities of color around the world. The fire behind these protests stretches back far beyond the origins of the pandemic. But as a well-intentioned, imperfect white ally, I know I am engaging differently in this moment because of what I've been doing over the past few months. Quieting. Listening. Witnessing.
I am engaging differently because since March 14th I have experienced new ways of connecting with people in my neighborhood—and wondered what's become of the people who don't have access to that stability in this moment. I have seen mutual aid networks in action—and felt furious that we live in a society where they're necessary at all. I have felt a sense of solidarity and camaraderie with the entire world because we're all facing a threat at the same time—and seen how that same threat is disproportionately impacting certain groups.
Most importantly, I have been forcibly distanced from the habits and behaviors that make me feel rushed and overwhelmed and incapable of engaging in sustainable ways. As my friend Ken said, this moment shows us "how many people are able and willing to do something about their world when not burdened by capitalism."
Which brings me back to the thing I've been chewing on all week.
If you've been listening to my intermittent Rambles, you'll know I've been doing the 100 Day Project this year, but...quietly. I've done a drawing every day for the past sixty-five days (some of them are featured at the top of this post), but I've largely kept them to myself.
It's got me wondering about the significance of unshared creative work. Does this project matter if I'm not posting it online?
Social Media asks this of us so often. Capitalism, too. What have you been doing? What do you have to show for yourself?
When I started What She Knows (the loose title of the project) it felt liberating to create in silence. But I still missed the ritual of photographing and posting an entry every day, writing a little something to go with the image, elaborating, inviting. I missed the validation of sharing and receiving feedback. I missed feeling connected—in conversation.
And now I find myself caught up in the momentum of a global movement for justice, and that question is back with a different sort of urgency. What are you doing? And furthermore, how are you doing it? If you're not talking or posting about it, are you even doing anything at all?
The impulse to fix fix fix work work work shout shout shout until it all gets done in one breathless swoop is strong. But I think it's the same impulse that tells me I can only draw a graphic novel if I sit down on a Monday and refuse to lift my backside from the chair until I've drawn 250 pages in a single go. It won't end well.
The lesson I've learned in my creative practice is that my "success" is far more reliant on the systems I use to gently hold myself accountable over time. Staying in it for the long haul requires an ongoing sense of accomplishment—however miniscule. It also requires restraint. Only then, gradually and in an entirely un-linear fashion, can it grow into something transformative.
I've worked on this drawing project on the days when I felt too uninspired, too exhausted, and too unrewarded. I've also worked on it on days when I couldn't wait to pick up my pencil. If I miss a day, which does happen, I do two entries the following day. I don't even really know what it's about. Not yet. That usually comes many months after the thing is finished. The important thing has been sitting down to do it regardless of how I feel about the act in the moment because it affirms that I believe in it. I haven't always, but these days I have a growing body of evidence that something will come of it, and I orient myself towards that when I start to falter.
In situations where I lack that evidence or that experience (as with sustainable anti-racist activism), I often look outside myself for guidance. The trouble is, this movement is not monolithic, nor are the voices behind it. There are calls to speak up and to be silent. To elevate others and do the work ourselves. To learn in public and carry difficult conversations forward in private. Paralysis, especially for an anxious perfectionist like yours truly, is the inevitable outcome.
Until I realize that this paradoxical dance is not so different from the themes I'm drawn to explore time and time again in my own work—successful-but-poor, productive-but-doing less, vulnerable-but-private. I'm a stranger to some parts of the conversation, but not this one.
I know that I am deeply motivated by daily practice. I know that I am organized. I know that I am good at encouraging others. I know that I have a knack for sharing vulnerable and occasionally uncomfortable truths in a way that invites people to open up and feel less alone. The skills I've cultivated in my creative life are inextricable from what it means to make anti-racism and activism a practice in myself and in my community. Why haven't I connected these things more explicitly before now?
I'm susceptible to the same fears and pitfalls in my activism as I am in my creative work—more, probably, owing to a heaping dose of white fragility and privilege on the side. In therapy this week I talked about doing "enough," and my wise therapist asked "enough to what?" There are two answers—one noble, one less so. The noble part wants to say "to do right by the people I love," but the other part says "to avoid criticism, guilt, and pain."
In my more foolish moments I'm tempted to believe the lie that by writing a book about the shadow self I have somehow vanquished it. But the shadow is wily. It moves around. It used to be scary to share the kinds of deeply personal fears I explored in Demon Dialogues, but I practiced and learned and got braver. So the shadow decided to take up residence at the next vacant address.
When I answer my therapist honestly, the lie comes out: the misguided belief that any of us can ever possibly do "enough" to avoid doing any harm or feeling any bad feelings for the rest of time. It links arms with the Buddhist texts I've been reading, and reminds me of the Five Remembrances, chanted regularly by practitioners:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
The question I'm left with is not "am I doing enough?" but "am I doing anything?" Because doing something consistently is the only way I know for sure I can truly change. So if I keep this 100 Day Project to myself for now, or if I decide not to post the very nerdy spreadsheet I've made to track my own activism for now, I can sit with the knowledge that whether or not I share these actions (my only true belongings) online, I know they are changing me.
It's not the online-ness of the action that lends it legitimacy, but the paper trail. The pattern. The incremental growth toward something better. I can't always be seeking approval and validation from an external audience, but neither can I sustain this work without accountability and joy.
I think that's enough to believe in for now.