The Very Best of the Activist’s Muse

As I started submitting fewer and fewer posts to The Activist’s Muse, a blog I published through The Fruition Coalition for about  year, I also started to think about preserving what I had written so that I would have a way to recant those moments in my old age. So with a bit of sadness for what has ended, at least for now, but also with great optimism for what is to come in the future, I have put together The Best of The Activist’s Muse, an archive of the blog’s highlights from 2012 to 2013.

Letters to a Young Activist: Anger

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We live in a world full of injustice and despair. I suspect that, at least in part, your anger has led you to conceptualize and co-create a different kind of world, one in which all people are valued and have opportunities to flourish.

Anger is indeed a useful, but sometimes deceptive, emotion. It can create awareness, provoke creative thought, and lead to transformation — but it can also destroy all that might be good in this world. While anger is a useful provocateur, it is usually short-sighted when employed as a tactic. Deep, lasting change can only emerge when hearts and minds are enlightened and united in a spirit of growth and universal harmony.

I ask you not to extinguish or ignore your anger, but to nurture it. Feed it with the bountiful blossoms of hope and love. Allow it to transform into something graceful, something that will inspire the creation of a better world. Do not let your anger overwhelm your good intentions, and share only the most beautiful parts of yourself with others so that they may see what is possible.

40 for 40 #1: Joan Osborne

Last summer, when listening to various tracks on my MP3 player while on a road trip, my mother mentioned that she loved Joan Osborne’s Right Hand Man and One of Us which she had never heard before. When I first heard her Relish album at 20 years old, I fell in love Joan’s almost paradoxical combination of soulful stirring and playful irreverence — something with which I could deeply relate. So this spring, I decided to see Joan in concert, and I took my mother with me. It is interesting that there comes a time when it is acceptable, even desirable, to share remnants of youthful rebellion with a parent.

There we sat, in the front row of the balcony in a small, intimate venue, after nearly another 20 years of my life had passed. Needless to say, she was amazing as was her musical partner Keith Cotton. It was there that I was introduced to Raga (inspired by Dorianne Laux’s equally beautiful poem, The Shipfitter’s Wife), the best working class love song written since Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, during which I broke down and wept — and to my second favorite new song on her newest album, Work on Me. I felt as though I had neglected an old friend with whom I grew up, as I had not listened to her music much in those almost 20 years, and was so grateful that we had the chance to become reconnected. My appreciation for her work has truly blossomed as much as I have over the years.

I Was Happier When I Was Depressed

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I sometimes think that I was happier when I was depressed. I recently found a journal from 2006 and 2008, with an almost two-year gap in-between. The pages contained subtle and not so subtle expressions of sadness, rage, loss, obsession, and shame. While I read my desperate words with compassion for the promising young woman who couldn’t see past her, my, immediate challenges, I also felt a sense of loss for the person I once was. Who knew that I would someday long for those dreary days with a sense of sentimental pride.

At the time, I knew exactly who I was — or so it appears on the page. My mental health diagnosis was enmeshed with my identity. It was who I was; it explained why I felt what I felt and did what I did. I defined myself through my diagnosis with religious rigor. Resistance to recovery is often rooted in attachment to our sense of self at a particular time in our lives — a self that we have, necessarily so, learned to understand, manage, and control.

But I really only knew one part of myself, and now I have opened up to so many other possibilities for my life. I am happy, or I should say happier, but not consistently so. And that is unquestionably good. But at the same time, I feel that my writing, a reflection of how I feel about life at the moment, has become, at times, fake, sterile, and dull despite moments of restless rumination. I fear that if I do not suffer, then my art will on my behalf.

I didn’t originally have the opportunity to self-identify as a person who experiences mental illness, pervasive emotional distress. From a young age, I was told you’re this. You’re that. I was medicated. I received harmful treatment that fractured my already fragile self-esteem and identity. Without realizing it, I conformed to those various labels that were attached to me and implicitly complied with the related assumptions about my feelings and behavior. In my heart of hearts, I never fully accepted other people’s interpretations of me, particularly those that were based on a simplistic diagnosis — because I am a unique, complex, dynamic human being— as we all are.

No, I really don’t want to go back to those more difficult days, but I wouldn’t change them either. I am grateful for what they, both at the time and in retrospect, have revealed and taught me about myself and about life. They have made me a stronger, more empathetic, and more resilient person.

The Lonely Life of a Writer

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Writing is a solitary enterprise and that, overall, suits me just fine. After a day at work surrounded by other people, love them though I may, I long for some time alone where I can think, reflect, and just be without interruption or diversion.

To be a writer is to selflessly shed the blood of one’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, along with otherwise underutilized charm and wit, only to, for the most part, suffer the subtle rejection of silence. It is to always be on the verge of the unknown, to throw out ideas and not to know where they may land.

Reading too is a solitary endeavor. Readers sit in blessed silence, submerging themselves into another world that opens them up — intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally — and enlivens them. It makes their daily existence in the tangible material world even more meaningful as the two worlds become forever intertwined through the conscience of the reader.

But writing is also a conversation between writer and reader — and one in which the reader too often remains silent. Written text is a private conversation that takes place in a hidden world full of secrets that neither reader nor writer will ever fully visualize or understand. Each retains their own perception of the text and the vivid worlds they have created together remain distinct in many ways. The world of the author and reader too often do not connect in authentic or purposeful ways.

Readers unfortunately most often respond to the writer (at least to this writer) when they are in disagreement, when what has been written somehow violates the social, cultural, economic, political, intellectual, and/or emotional arrangements they have made for the world in which they live. Like when a reader responded to my kind offer to share a copy of Ashley and Tiana by writing a long-winded, scathing review in a way that only a bitter middle-age man could. The world I created did not in any way intersect with his — and in addition to that, I had the nerve to use an en dash instead of an em dash.

Several years ago, Public Enemy engaged their fans in the process of writing a song. While I chose not to participate at the time, and rap music historians thank me, I really appreciated both the intent of this project and the process that surely unfolded. But opening yourself up in such a way as an artist also brings a great deal of risk — especially of destroying the sacred pristine expression of all that is good and true to you. It takes a lot of courage to co-create with others, particularly when those others are able to self-select.

Yes, vanity likes on social media are nice, and validation of my ideas is also sincerely valued. It is heartwarming to know that there are other people in the world who notice, understand, and appreciate my perspective. But it seems shallow to not desire more, like provocation of life-changing self-realizations and inspiration of ideas that positively transform the world. Or maybe that is just selfish.