Knowing when to stop having a come undone
As my spring break started, I found myself in a new apartment in a new borough and with a new need to do some intense soul-searching about my life and what to do with the rest of it. It made me recall this post from a few years ago which I wrote after deciding to go back and get my masters in English and Creative Writing.
There are times in life when in the place of epiphanies there are these intense points of sinking in, when things I thought I knew become things I know. Things that I realize I will never be able to escape from. In trying to find a way forward these last few days, I am beginning to understand in a more fundamental way that I am moving toward something that has a magnetic pull which becomes stronger as I get closer. The following, from Camus, says it all.
In the center of our work, dark though it may be, shines an inexhaustible sun, the same sun that shouts today across the hills and plain.
After this, the flaxen fire can burn; who cares what we appear to be and what we usurp? What we are, what we have to be, are enough to fill our lives and occupy our strength. Paris is a wondrous cave, and its inhabitants, seeing their own shadows reflected on the far wall, take them for the only reality there is. The same is true of the strange, fleeting renown this town dispenses. But we have learned, far from Paris, that there is a light behind us, that we must turn around and cast off our chains in order to face it directly, and that our task before we die is to seek through any words to identify it. Every artist is undoubtedly pursuing his truth. If he is a great artist, each work brings him nearer to it, or, at least, swings still closer toward this center, this buried sun where everything must one day burn. If he is mediocre, each work takes him further from it, the center is then everywhere, the light disintegrates.
Being a student at Cuny Journalism has been an experience of extremes. I have never been so challenged, have never had to challenge myself in these particular ways, never felt so lucky and honored to have such opportunities especially when it comes to the journalists I am learning from and the other students I am learning with. But it has also been extraordinarily frustrating in ways I have never had to confront before.
Trying to find a place for myself in journalism has been very different from anything I’ve done before. I expected some of this, but woefully underestimated the extent of it and the toll it would take on me.
With being an entrepreneur I only had to put my shoulder into the rock and move it until I had a place for it. With poetry and then fiction, anyone can find a place as long as you are a writer and write the words. But now, I bring a lot of former activism and always passion into a world where that is not absorbed very effectively. In many important ways I have learned why that is and agree with much of it. But in other ways I do not agree. And this has caused problems for me and affected my ability to do my best work.
Back to Camus, and spring break, I’ve realized I have been trying to do something I was never successful at. I’ve been trying to change stuff that is fundamental to who I am. And I cannot do that. Coming out of the chaos of my childhood with no tethers to hold or any help with direction — the way of survival for me has always been a return to my truth, my core, and to live there no matter the costs. This isn’t brave, by the way, it is simply the way a girl survives when everyone neglected to hand her a compass.
It is my inner-compass which must always guid me no matter the cost.
And all this leads to my current decision to go all in on being an advocacy journalist in the vein of Tarbell and Sinclair. A writer always striving for Steinbeck and Baldwin. Using both fiction and journalism to speak for the poor and the most vulnerable.
I am not a Democrat or a Republican. I belong to no political party.
I am certain the world is bought and paid for at the expense of the rest of us — and so my compass points to being fully committed to transparent work that is first rooted in fact and always, always, putting integrity above ego and the needs of the less fortunate above my own.
Again, that’s not a selfless statement.
It is the only way I can live in any peace myself.
This is an amazing, and dark, time in history and I am able to bear witness to much in the way of people fighting for what is right and against those who care nothing about any of our lives. The organizing and activism I have been a part of feels real, like true, solid, and growing. So I am stepping up to cover it by telling the stories of these movements and the people who make up the movements.
But I will also be transparent in my desire to not stop there and to keep my eye on the people who are too poor or busy or vulnerable to be a part of the very movements which are working to help them. My solid oath is to never put any group about the individuals who are in the most need of representation.
For the past few days I not only returned to Camus, and the progressive era of journalism and those amazing muckrakers, I went back to the writer who in some ways *is* my compass. I have been reading Steinbeck — which if you see me posting a lot of his words on twitter and changing my bio you pretty much know some longwinded post is about to go down.
Well this is it. It is about my mission in life to write as close to Steinbeck as I can until I move on from this world.
Here is a portion of a letter he wrote and when I came across it the other day it helped me remember some things.
I must go over into the interior valleys. … There are five thousand families starving to death over there, not just hungry but actually starving. The government is trying to feed them and get medical attention to them, with the Fascist group of utilities and banks and huge growers sabotaging the thing all along the line, and yelling for a balanced budget. In one tent there were twenty people quarantined for small pox and two of the women are to have babies in that tent this week. I’ve tied into the thing from the first and I must get down there and see it and see if I can do something to knock these murderers on the heads.
Do you know what they’re afraid of? They think that if these people are allowed to live in camps with proper sanitary facilities they will organize, and that is the bugbear of the large landowner and the corporate farmer. The states and counties will give them nothing because they are outsiders. But the crops of any part of this state could not be harvested without them. … The death of children by starvation in our valleys is simply staggering. … I’ll do what I can. … Funny how mean and little books become in the face of such tragedies.
Letter to Elizabeth Otis (1938), as quoted in Conversations with John Steinbeck (1988) edited by Thomas Fensch, p. 37
I mean, my god, we are still there. And we are still allowing ourselves to be pitted against each other and against our own interests.
The fascist elites will win until we tell them the game is over and take control of our lives again.
That’s radical, I know. I’m a radical journalist based in truth fighting for people who live in poverty. That is my truth. That is what I will walk towards again. And again, and again.
I’ll close with the words I closed my Camus post with a few years ago.
But I can say that whether we are creating a painting, a piece of furniture, a poem, a story, a song, an ad, a syllabus, a computer game, a photo, stained glass, a building, or the day we have been gifted with, we should be trying to move toward the buried sun, even when we want nothing more than to look away.
Looking away right now would be the easy thing.
But it is not the right thing for me.