A few months ago, I began to think about care, grief, and justice. Now, in these huge sets of crises: hundreds of thousands of people dying without ceremony from the coronavirus. And police brutality drawing attention to systemic racism in America. I wanted to dig as far down as I could into the ontological ground of my little corner and find out what I believed about all of this. I asked some friends to tell me what care means to them and how it related to their engagement with writing, art, or somatic performance. This is what I heard.
Silence and survey help me to nourish myself and others. Time to clear mind-fully and review what is in my gravity helps me to locate calm in times of acute stress. This is one of those ever-virulent times of danger, when bodies like mine are at stake, and when bodies like that of my father, brother, partner, and friends are in peril. It is certainly too much too bear, but the role of Blacks in America has always been to bear. Too bare.
To care about is to be invested in. To care for is to tend, to give attention that is focused on what is needed. To be invested in and attendant to the questions raised by the work, to be committed to the tensions and the outcome of pulling the strings of those tensions. So you care into the work, even though to do so can make you vulnerable, because underlying the construct of the work are the very real, real in the world, tensions that the work explores.
Listening to the silence that is not silence, of the dead.
Care for a wounded part of the body. A trauma. Listening to the loss that will come, to care for words and humans. I am thinking of Cavafy: go firmly to the window/ and listen with deep/ emotion, but not/ with the whining, the pleas of a coward;/ listen—your final/ delectation—to the voices/ to the exquisite music of that strange procession...
Creative expression is an invitation to care. As if to say, with movement, with a guitar chord, or line of charcoal on the page, here is something worth caring about. Another idea is the conservation of care. The care that goes into a daily practice, over years. By the time you see me practicing slowly in the yard with the wooden sword, countless hours of my own care have sculpted the movements. The movement is an invitation to participate in that caring. What if we imagine care as not a penance or an apology, but a way of reaching through neglect or indifference towards self or others in the world?
To me, care is about acknowledging the illusory nature of the idea that suffering = isolation. By this I don’t mean to deny that suffering often results in people being isolated… What I mean is: We fear suffering (pain, sorrow, loss, etc.) because we fear that it will set us apart somehow, will separate us from the community of people. When I think about bad things that could happen to me, I’m usually more fearful of how that thing might cut me off from my fellow humans than I am fearful of the thing itself. And so we begin to fear people who suffer, and we attempt to protect ourselves by thinking of those people as somehow set-apart (which really makes our own sense of wellbeing that much more fragile). To care is to acknowledge, instead, that suffering (pain, sorrow, loss, and eventually, of course, death) is actually what we all share. Although our particular sufferings are all different; that we suffer is universal. Someone who fails to acknowledge this may be capable of pitying others, but not truly caring for/about them. For me it’s about taking those moments when I myself am suffering and trying to be present with that suffering (not to run away from it) and to think of it as something that, on some level, connects me to (rather than isolates me from) other people (whether those other people themselves acknowledge it or not). I like to think this could help me be more present with other people’s suffering as well. But it’s tough.
Do I want to be understood? No, because I can’t be, and I’m okay with that (because I am a complicated human being, and that’s fine). Do I want care? Yes. And I will accept it in all forms as long as I can detect the good intentions in it, and I’ll do my best not to taint it with my anger. I don’t know what ethics of care are. I don’t know who comes up with these ethics. But I am grateful for people who try to reach out to me, even when they fail. When I reach out to others, if they are not grateful but critical because what I did wasn’t enough, I don’t have the energy (or desire) to try again.
Care demands we ask how phantasms – and population phantasms – function as a tacit even unconscious extension of our moral values. There is a differential production of the human, who counts as human; of the vulnerable, who counts as vulnerable; and of the grievable, who counts as grievable. Who is included within the category of the human? And who is partially or fully excluded?
We need a critical patience in which phantasmagoria that deny our mutual dependency are allowed to scatter. This life is not separable from other lives no matter what walls are built between them.
Where an ethics of care is devalued by a mass denial of its necessity, the knots of unbelonging are too often left to those of us who are systematically excluded to loosen. So that the war for freedom, the struggle for access and ability, the cry for understanding, are efforts sustained by those of us who have not and may never fully enjoy those ideals.
Better law is obligatory. But what is the relation between violence and law? Violence is not overcome by law—there are fascist and racist legal regimes that legalize violence. We do not leave a lawless world of violence to operate in a legal world without violence.
The way forward is with a broken heart.
Mamma, mamma, he calls out with his last breath, his murderer’s knee on his neck. He was 46 years old and he knew he was about to die. I have been watching the video that a witness took, watching closely although it makes me want to look away, to turn it off, it makes me sick, it makes me cry. Especially those whispered words, mamma, mamma, which he summons with the last of his breath like a prayer. He remembers the safety of her, the love of her. White hate barrels down on him in the shape of that officer’s knee, renders him object, inert. But no, as he dies, he resists by remembering love and he calls out for her, mamma, mamma I think about how she has feared this moment ever since she saw his face for the first time, the wrinkled skin around the eyes. Holding him and loving him, even then she feared the moment when she would learn that her son had been murdered for being Black in America. Will she think of all the talks they’d had when he was young about how to behave when arrested? All I will ever know of him is this video. And I know that, although it wasn’t my knee on his neck, I have benefitted from the forces that put that knee there. That my white body protects me more than all his mother’s prayers protected him. I think about how we must grieve not just all those murdered by police in this regime of racist terror, but the mothers who loved them, and the fathers, and the lovers, past, present, and future, and the children, the words they’ll never speak or write or sing again, the gentle touches they’ll never give or feel. How insufficient and yet necessary that we say their names in protest. Breonna Taylor. Tony McDade. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd.
Our assumed independence of self, our ableist fantasy of the pioneer who needs no help, is what allows white complacency to yield white aggression, in turn depriving the US of its potential that could only be possible after performing justice and reparations against foundational crimes (of slavery, of indigenous genocide and displacement, to name a few). This fantasy deludes us against seeing our connections with a whole network of people and peoples.
We alone can devalue gold/ by not caring/ if it falls or rises/ in the marketplace./ Wherever there is gold/ there is a chain, you know, and if your chain/ is gold / so much the worse/ for you./Feathers, shells/ and sea-shaped stones/ are all as rare./ This could be our revolution:/ to love what is plentiful/ as much as/ what’s scarce.
We need to address policies on health, refugees, migrations, police violence, incarcerations, the death penalty, and intermittent bombardment, war, and genocide. Populations who are precarious or abandoned are not constituted as subjects with rights. We need a new language that is not the language of the subject.
An ethics of care has a different ontology: the person is relational, dependent, interdependent, embedded in caring relations. As the boundary between the public and private have appropriately broken down, the unsuitability of moral theories designed for the public sphere become apparent.
Care for myself – which sounds selfish to my ears – is something I try to ignore as self-indulgent. It may mean my writing is put aside as a selfish act, one requiring inwardness. Care for others comes naturally to me and often absorbs me to the point of loss. Loss of my own identity. It took me a long time to find a balance between my own needs – caring for them – and caring for others who I felt needed it. But my sense of humanity is reinforced by any acts of care, large or small. They are integral to our condition.
Women spend so much time caring for others that I think writing has to partly be about selfishiness, which I guess is just self-care by another name.
We are not separate. We are torn apart, but we are not separate. The task for me (partly for me as a parent) is to rebuild a community mind and community practices. I think of how little of that my parents gave me. No sense, really, of anything called community.
I think of my mother. I think of the example she set, that proper care of me meant erasing herself and ignoring what she needed or wanted, and how I sometimes had that thrown in my face (much to my surprise). I am perpetually unlearning that definition/performance of care. I have to stay conscious of what care really means to me (nuancing what you do in relation to how it impacts other people, causing help instead of harm) as I navigate my most important relationships. I remind myself that I owe care directed towards my own creative and professional pursuits.
Add yourself to yourself. / Now you have someone.
Voting is most important, daily kind gestures made and daily kind gestures received, plus very practical things: feeding the hungry, being angered by injustice, letting my voice rise when it can and can’t make a difference, and feeding stray animals. It is a drop in the ocean, it might not make a difference. Maximum effort for minimum result, but this also might be fine if we all do it.
For me, care for the self is beginning to look more and more like a rejection of the sovereign self and a willingness to be absorbed into a whole that I have rejected all my life. This is not along racial barriers, but a behavioral lonerism that has given me no language for understanding how to move together as a people, to help each other, to celebrate each other. It makes me stand rigid with the idea that I am invulnerable and perfect. My vulnerabilities become our communal strengths because they are where I realize I need help, which drives me to be with other people, and to find where they need help, and to help them. The cycle continues.
Present and attentive, slow, and still. Listening for the subtle fragrance of lilac to awaken the heart. Committed to going beyond, and beyond again, until the self is transcended into being.
I used to feel as a woman with a disability it was access, independence, and some kind of equality that I was struggling for. Then I realized that isn’t all there is to it. I’ll always be a person with visual loss in an image-obsessed world, and I don’t want to ‘overcome’ that…though I do want to negotiate and, on good days, play with it.
A non-word I find myself reaching for is “undercome”–I’m not sure if I’m ready to articulate quite what this might mean, but it feels right somehow. A response to a limitation that is the very opposite of trying to “best” or “master it.” I undercame my limitations.
Which is not to say that justice, freedom, equity, and independence are unworthy pursuits: simply that they should not and cannot be enjoyed without a caring community of mutual trust, regard, and gratitude. Not without some modicum of shared grief, humor, and affection. And none of these values are sovereign. Everybody knows that. Or at least, most women, people of color, immigrants, refugees, people of all sexual orientations and practices, people with disabilities, people who make minimum wage or live in poverty, people without insurance, people who have experienced abuse or trauma, people who have experienced combat, people who have been bullied or discriminated against, and whoever is on our sides knows that.
Why only one song, one speech, one text at a time? – When our lips speak together.
Our resistant, relentlessly impossible object is subjectless predication, subjectless escape, escape from subjection, in and through the paralegal flaw that animates and exhausts the language of ontology. Constant escape is an ode to impurity, an obliteration of the last word. An erotics of fugitivity.
The performed illusion that we are in fact not vulnerable bodies cannot be sustained. The show will not go on. Or rather, the show will go on, as it must, but we’re turning off the lights. And if you’re deaf, we’ll get you night goggles. And if you are deaf and blind, we will speak with our hands. And if you do not have hands we will find another way to communicate. All of these laments. All of these caresses.
These voices include:
Erika Weiberg, Thomas Ward, Alice Walker, Annie Wadman, Ken Taylor, Cicek Tascioglu, , A.E. Stallings, Kat Plsani, Nick Papandreou, Fred Moten, Luce Irigaray, Virginia Held, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Naomi Edwards, Lightsey Darst, Paolo Colombo, CM Burroughs, Judith Butler, Rae Armantrout, Gina Applebee, Andrea Applebee, Andri Alexandriou, Anastasis Agathos, and others.