Monday, July 21, 2014

I took (and am still taking) some time to live my life: Learning to 'hold' the line (or something like that)

Note: this post probably never would have gotten finished if Kate Wadkins hadn't asked me to read something at this event she curated featuring some other incredible women music journalists. Forever grateful to her for being a thoughtful and supportive colleague.

Shut it behind you when you walk out that door

Keep reminding yourself, "If you're not now, you never were"

-- Worriers, "Never Were" (Cruel Optimist, 2013, Don Giovanni Records)

On December 31st, 2013, I published a post on this blog that contained the following paragraph:

"So, I really did plan to post here this year, I wanted to, but, I didn't, obviously. Instead of pouring a lot of time and energy that I didn't really have to spare into this blog, I took some time to live my life, to borrow some Beyoncé lyrics. (This might sound like an ironic reference, but it isn't, the more I think about it, the more I realize that that's exactly what I did this year.) I worked on personal life stuff, which meant asking myself why I do the work I do, and if I really want to be doing it."

Six months later, this is still an accurate summary of how I sometimes feel about blogging. I still wonder why I write about music, specifically why I blog about my experiences with it, and if it's something I still really want to do. On a pretty regular basis, I wonder if I even have anything to say anymore.

Which is only weird to me because right now, I'm in graduate school, working on a dissertation on that which I allegedly have nothing to say: the so-called 'punk' community and what can loosely be described as its internal social organization and politics. I've never thought that I should drop out of school because I have nothing more to say about how punks treat each other, and how the music they produce and social behaviors and practices influence each other. I literally work on this project and write about studying music and subculture every single day.

So, I do have 'something to say' about it. I participate in punk subculture regularly, I go to shows, buy demos, and I listen to my friends talk about their zines and bands and visual art and I listen to their 'gossip', i.e., have private conversations, especially with my lady, genderqueer, and poc punk friends about other punks' questionable, sometimes violent, sometimes entitled, sometimes thoughtless behavior. I wake up every day and I think about these things.

But, I haven't wanted to talk extensively, or write about them in a very public space, and for a little while now. I've started to think that my issue isn't so much about not having anything to say as it is about not being sure that I have the energy to say it.

I find lately that I'm much more able to deal with getting my research and school work done than I am able to journal or blog about my thoughts and feelings on local bands and happenings, thought that hasn't always been the case. I've vented, cried, and complained on many occasions about how repressive, exploitative, and inherently classist academia is, but at the moment, I think I get more out of writing about these things for school.

I think that this might be, at least in part, because I have unequivocal support for my academic endeavors, not in the form of university funding (lol), but at least from my adviser and my dissertation committee, all of whom are women, all of whom have families, and all of whom have always treated me like a human being, which is more than I can say for a lot of the academics I've met over the years, and more than I can say for some punks. I get to have ideas, explore them, and write them down, for people who want to read them, and who want to push me to think them through as fully and as conscientiously as I can. I get to have some ownership and authorship over those ideas, and be proud of how I've been able work out and explain the things happening around me. I get to operate by myself, as a researcher, and I get to feel like maybe I might know something, like my experience might be valuable if I take the time to examine it and describe it.

Participating in punk doesn't seem to come with any of these luxuries. Or, not if the experience you want to share and ideas you want to circulate are critical of punk's notions of whiteness, masculinity, and complete and unchecked liberty to do whatever you feel like doing without any sort of consequences. Everyone I know seems to have internalized some of these values, either from punk or general U.S.-American society, and everyone I choose to spend time with seems to be working really hard to unlearn and externalize them. But there are no easy answers, and there don't seem to be advisers or elders to turn to when dealing with these issues; pretty much all of us are relatively young, uncertain, and overextended, and that's usually on top of being overworked and underpaid at day jobs.

The reality is that punk, which can be and has been a gratifying, liberating thing shared by a supportive community, is also a collection of relationships and networks that are alarmingly delicate, often involving people who are shockingly insensitive, if not willfully bigoted. When you go just beyond your immediate circle, you're liable to run right into a wall of violent, jeering, reactionary douchebags -- and that's when you can get beyond your own circle, without being derailed by some interpersonal debacle that somehow reveals that a person or persons super close to you are harboring destructive ideas about trans people, or people of color, or women, or queer and gender queer people, or about intersectionality, privilege, and marginalization, and what those words actually mean.

Having conversations about what those words actually mean, and things like hierarchy, identity politics, assault, and boundaries, is exhausting, and having them over and over again, which is what seems to happen in wider punk and underground diy culture, doesn't really do anything but deplete you. Burnout is a real thing, and it's not so much the creative, cultural, and generally sacrificial labor that you contribute to your community that wears you down. It's the emotional labor of having to have these conversations, and manage your own emotions, especially when you're feeling unsafe or uncomfortable or scared or even just let down, that drain you.

Burnout: for anyone who isn't familiar with it. (source) [Image: a white square with blue text on it that reads, "What is Burnout? Burnout is the gradual process by which a person, in response to prolonged stress and physical, mental, and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion…a feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give."]

The cycle of emotional depletion and disillusionment is difficult to break or exit. After a certain point, it starts to feel inevitable, especially if you're a participant in punk subculture with any sort of minoritarian identity. After you become conscious of that identity and how it's affected your life, and also your experience with punk, you can't turn it off. Your sensitivity and attention to micro and not so microaggressions is always there. That might sound intense or extreme. But if this sounds foreign to you, and if you are somehow involved with punk and haven't felt the need to defend your humanity, or even a friend's identity and humanity to some other punk, then you should consider yourself very lucky.

If there's anything I've learned from my involvement with punk, it's that you really, really can't change people. You also can't really set or enforce parameters on what we call community. You can respond to a bro's rape joke or light-skinned punk's tasteless appropriation of AAVE or some jerk defending their right to mosh aggressively by saying "yeah well whatever, you're not punk. And I'm TELLING EVERYONE!" but it won't really accomplish anything, or keep them from doing it again. All you can really do is learn to avoid people who annoy or aggravate you and hope for the best.

All of which sounds negative, but, I've begun to understand that it isn't, or not entirely. Learning to weed out people and punks who don't understand where you're coming from, what's important to you, and what 'punk' or whatever it is that you do means to you is an important exercise in boundary setting. It frees up space in your life for you to find people who do care about the same things as you. And more than anything, it's a way to divert all the energy spent on the aforementioned cycle of emotional depletion and disillusionment back to yourself.

In yet another previous post, written in January of 2013, I wrote about some of these same issues, in regards to an incident in which a relatively well-known band chose to name their tour the 'Raping the East' tour, and then defended their decision with the same old tired 'freedom of speech' fallacy. The post was mostly about my own complete unwillingness to indulge any of it -- the wanton perpetuation of rape culture, the defense of those actions, the band's whiny crybaby attitude, their apparent feelings of entitlement -- but it also about how we all needed to draw a line with this type of thing. It was teaching ourselves to unapologetically draw a line with this sort of behavior, and learning to not work, under any circumstances with anyone who doesn't take assault, consent, and boundaries seriously.

In the months after I wrote that post I found myself having unexpected problems with my friends, the people in my local community and personal life who I'd written about in that post as being on my side. Not around issues of assault or rape culture, but around issues of listening and attention to each others emotional needs. I was surprised by how these problems in my relationships were completely about gender, race, and ability, and totally affected by the punk hierarchy that none of us seem to want to talk about. And so I started a long and on-going process of reviewing my relationships and also my relationship to punk, including how I write about it. I took some time to live my life, and I took some time to re-evaluate the people in my life, and the space they take up in my life.

Going though this with friends, or in some cases people who I thought were friends, hasn't been easy or particularly enjoyable, but I'm glad that I did it. I've learned a lot in this process, and probably the most important thing that I've learned is that 'the line' I was just talking about isn't between 'us' and 'them'. It's between me and you. Whether you're someone I just met, one of my oldest friends, or someone in a band I really like. (Or, really hate.) It's not selfishness or callousness, it's how it has to be, and how it is. Because I can't contribute or work with other people in my community unless my personal boundaries, and health and sanity, are properly maintained. None of us can accomplish anything unless we learn to take care of ourselves properly.

At this point in the process, I'm finally starting to become more comfortable with this. I'm starting to feel comfortable talking about it, and I'm starting to learn how many people feel similarly, and who my true friends and allies are. I'm starting to feel like there might even be some kind of audience for this kind of perspective and writing on 'punk'. Talking with those allies and friends, and the finally getting to have the conversations I've been wanting to have, make me feel like it might be useful to document and share these discussions, and like my efforts aren't totally wasted. There are still times when I wonder what I'm even doing, and worry about the future, and think that maybe I should just give up. But after all of this time and hard work and processing, I finally feel like I have some kind of community that I actually belong to, and friends who I trust and want to be accountable to. And even on days where I think I don't have anything to say, that community and that feeling of belonging seem like they're worth writing, and even blogging, for.

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