Building Interpersonal Infrastructure : A Query, A Quest
How can we be more supportive of each other?
This is the question on my mind today, and I want to ask it in ways that reflect the structural underpinnings of this cultural moment, and in ways that go beyond the assumptions we make about each other’s resources.
Will you ask this question with me?
I don’t know about you, but my feedback loop often returns to me a reflection of the human I’ve created — a person in the world making and doing things, a person with seemingly boundless energy — rather than the person behind the screen: who is likely exhausted, sitting on the couch in my pajamas, wondering if I would still exist in the world if I stopped overcompensating for the lacks in my life with impossible-to-sustain levels of overwork.
I have C-PTSD, and in the last few years, the various traumas in my life have decided they cannot be ignored or pushed down anymore, manifesting somatically in life-altering ways.
Such is the way of trauma and chronic illness, both of which have been a constant in my life for nearly two decades — and if this isn’t already something you’re seeing in your immediate circle, I’d put money on a bet I’m sad to make: that in the years to come, we’ll see more of both in our friends and families, since studies show that chronic illness causes PTSD, and sustained stress and trauma causes chronic illness.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we are in a state of cultural trauma — and that this trauma ranges in severity, depending on your race, sexuality, gender, religion, mental and physical health, dis/ability, and socioeconomic status. However, I often miss the rallying cry of Occupy around the 99%, because in our current state of rolling crisis we seem to be moving away from recognizing a common enemy in the structural, tactical apparati keeping the large majority of us in a state of acute bioprecarity — which is to say that almost all of us, beyond a few elite, are aware that at any moment a change in our health (or the health of a family member) could render our lives unrecognizable.
We know that we can lose our homes, our jobs, our livelihood, and be banktrupt within a number of days. In the US, we know that our medical system, insurance, taxation, transportation, schooling, elder care are predatory, profit driven systems. Add to this that if we are black or brown we know that the criminal justice system and police state is always a looming threat. As a result, the number of decisions we are making based on safety (manifesting as a sort of cultural fight or flight mechanism, writ large) are legion.
I’ll write more specifically on this later, [and it’s the underpinning of my recent paraacademic poetics pamphlet, “In Memory of Feasible Grace,” if you’re curious] but my point in saying it this context is that I am deeply concerned that fear and exhaustion are driving us away from proactively building the connections and personal infrastructures we sorely need.
Hence, the question, “how can we be more supportive of each other?” and, in tandem, how are our current structures 1) unintentional or simply the result of falling back on a default, 2) inaccessible, 3) otherwise inadequate or even harmful?
For the last few years struggling with new levels of acute physical symptoms has meant huge changes in my energy levels, my capacity to engage, what I eat and drink, and a giant uptick in the amount of time I spend being my own caregiver, advocate, and medical research assistant — as well as, of course, on the phone with insurance, in useless doctors appointments, in waiting rooms, in the ER, and in bed.
In social circles, this means that I can no longer fall back on…what we fall back on. As the fish above, pretending to be humans, suggest: we often drink or shop when we can’t deal with our issues. Or, more accurately, in order to repress and mask what we feel we cannot face we consume, whether alone or collectively: we drink, we eat, we take drugs, we watch things, etc.
And, well, now I can’t do these things, and wow are those patterns ever in stark relief for me. To be honest, I’ve been circling these ideas about our need to build alternatives for years, but even so continued to fall into them when lonely or exhausted, so central are they to our way of mutual coping. As you do.
I believe that intentional, and in particular ritualized settings for consumption of a wide range of substances is not only good but enormously valuable, so don’t mistake this as a teetotalism — it’s simply a call for attention and intention, and for us to look, together, with compassion and honesty, at our deep need for new structures and rituals.
In particular, I have been thinking a lot about the ways the precarity of labor systems / professional life [in my case, academia] often cause us to intententionally rely on our binary relationship structures more than is healthy simply out of necessity / time / ease in a life so characterized by overwork, lack of time and resources. Others rely on their families, often choosing to fall back on and remain “in line” with familial patterns and behaviors, so fearful are they to queer expectations, if this would risk structural or financial instability. [More on this in Sara Ahmed, both in the terrific text Queer Phenomenology or in the cohesive article that proceeded it; it doesn’t refer solely to a LGBTQ sexuality definition of queer, fyi.]
Especially when we have children, our fear and sense of responsibility heightens our cultural fight or flight behaviors — and then on top of this any health struggles create additional drain on energy and time and reduce ability to engage — or to engage without feeling ‘needy’ — which many of us avoid. We don’t want to be a drain or stress on others who we know are already overwhelmed.
But is the end result us not building the emotional interpersonal infrastructures we deeply need? As a result of confronting my own trauma, I am eking out what this might look like for myself, trying to see what allies I might have in this work. Of course for me this is a necessity because I don’t really have family, but even for folks with families (or seemingly stable “networks” of friends or coworkers), that structure can be a burden or stressor more than (or as much as) a support. Or, the structure can simply be a neutral: a lack of choice, persisting out of fear that replacement or alternative is impossible, a fiction, quixotic.
I think we can do this. I think we can do better. I, well…I have to do better, as a matter of personal health and survival. Do you?
I am both interested in opening up this conversation widely, as well as personally, because on my end I know that what I have currently isn’t adequate.
For me, and for many others, ableism and privilege also play a huge role in this: how does the above shift vis-a-vis whether one is ABLE to participate in spaces of “support” or “community”? Do you have the time / physical capacity / financial resources / mental energy? And, then, do we feel welcome?
So the question I have for you is:
What do you need? how can we support each other?
and, or: if you feel like you have what you need, an infrastructure that works for you, resources to support your work and life, are you willing to recognize what a priveleged position that is, and to still work with others to build intentional infrastructure, so that our ability to support ourselves and each other isn’t such a game of roulette?
And, then, how can we specifically support each other as creative practitioners asking these questions?
I add this because a creative practitioner I think there is another layer to this struggle — having to do with your life’s work often being an additional thread of time / space / resources on top of the questions others are asking about allotting time and energy.
When one’s meaning in life is to make their art or work (which is not by nature renumerative), yet we have another job, social interactions tend to equate the time you spend on your writing or art or other making to a hobby or going to the gym or other scheduling equivalence…which of course it isn’t. There really isn’t practical social language around collectively valuing this timespace, which has all sorts of consequences.
So: I want to work on this together, not just conjecture. Are you willing?
If you’re in and around New York, we’re beginning a series of roundtable / workshops. The first will be at SOHO20 Gallery, in Brooklyn, on January 21, and is focused on these issues for women, non binary, and transgender creative practitioners. More to come!
If you’re elsewhere, but you’d like to reflect on this with and for me, there’s a number of ways: I can come and facilitate this in your community! or, you can join me in an online forum. Or perhaps you’d like to write about it? Interview prompts and questions are available here — you can submit your response for publication on The Operating System, and/or use them privately, or with your community or organization!
Ok that’s it for now. Comment, DM, let me know if you’re interested in a real conversation about this.