Walking in a blizzard down empty highway parallel to the old wall, four in the morning. This part is called the East Side Gallery: the mile or two of retained wall now covered in murals. The snow sticks to my leather jacket and the front of my green fishnets like moss grows on one side of a tree and that old Leonard Cohen feeling comes to mind, “you’re living for nothing now, I hope you’re keeping some kind of record.” But as soon as I think it, I recognize its inaccuracy. I mean to say … the world is wide open, busted apart and nothing is frightening. Then I’m singing at the top of my lungs to ward off the cold and I’m going for naught. No one likes me and everyone likes me—that’s the feeling … no one contains me. I walk forward; no one knows where I am. I keep walking forward all alone, it’s four in the morning and I could just walk right off the edge. That’s the feeling. It’s real freedom and if it weren’t so beautiful it would be terrifying.
I look back at my life and it contains nothing but a mountain of love. The feeling of it is so profound that my body dances a flamenco dance it seems to know innately. My face is full of the joy of it. Even if I were to remember some instance of sadness it would instantly evaporate in the face of this mountain—this mountain is what I re-remember, forget and re-remember. How quickly we forget—from one angle or another—the unhappiness, or when we are unhappy—the happiness. Though for some reason it is always the joy that overpowers the dark, at least in my head. I often think even if I were to die today it would be enough, it would have been more than beautiful enough. This has been a reoccurring thought since the first time I fell in love when I was 16.
For some reason, (which baffles me in an existential way) I still find myself saying the all-encompassing statement I love life not only despite the cruelty and violence and pain but because of it. I’m not sure how other heads work, I know that I have constant run-ins with people who, if you asked them, would say, the world is mostly sad, or the world is mostly bad, or people are mostly evil. Its like we’re the inverse of each other, these people and I; virtually the same in many ways, like on the outside there is absolutely no difference between what we do from day to day, though we describe the world differently. And it is not that I don’t know the violence they’re referring to, just somehow the choice is different.
I have found myself twice now—I can scarcely believe it—defending the merits of American culture against the European backlash. Once was at a meeting of Amnesty International. I started going to Amnesty International meetings because I found an English-speaking chapter in Berlin and I thought it would be a means of staying politically active. Though I suppose I still have these tugs of doubt as to whether we do anything by writing the letters and yet, like the paragraph above—there is fault in everything and is it not better to engage than to simply be absent? I perked my ears when I heard the larger group talking about the women’s subgroup—they would be creating a quiz to be passed out on the street on International Women’s Day. The quiz questions will highlight the work of women who fight for women’s rights.
When they said they were looking for women to highlight, several women came to mind immediately. I showed up at the first subgroup meeting with a list of several women, most of them from the Bay Area, because that is my frame of reference. I suppose most of them are relatively unknown, but I believe that is precisely the point. I feel lucky to have seen them in my community—for example the many artists at the Mission Cultural Center making these alters and other installation pieces to bring attention to the women murdered and disappeared in Juarez, or Karen Musalo, the gender-based asylum lawyer at Hastings that we worked with through EBSC. Perhaps I have a skewed view of American culture by having lived in San Francisco for the past seven years, or because of whom I surround myself with, but does it really matter? It’s not as if these women don’t exist—they do! And if I have been lucky enough to see so many women and men doing incredible social justice work, should I not raise awareness that they exist?
First of all, the women’s subgroup met at the three bedroom live/work apartment of a felter—a woman who makes art and clothing out of felt—and her walls were covered to the max with artsty-farsty art and her coffee table was crowded with a lavish spread of bread and cheese and two kinds of tea and chocolates and a large bowl of tangerines. I mean, really, it looked so nice, but it was so bizarre to step into her world because it looks so different from most of what I’ve been exposed to so far here in Berlin. So after she had us take off our shoes and gave us each slippers and we made small talk and poured our tea and all these politenesses … I discover that no one could come up with women to honor! It was so ridiculous (and maddening!) listening to the members of the women’s group discuss how difficult it was to write quiz questions about a particular woman, or how hard it was to find a woman that was fighting for women’s rights specifically and not human rights in general. I sat there getting more frustrated by the moment thinking—gender based political asylum advocates, anti-fgm activists, women’s studies professors, social workers, domestic violence counselors, rape crisis counselors, a whole range of lawyers, teachers, sex worker advocates, feminist writers, artists, public health workers. … the list goes on and on …
In times like this I find myself on shaky grounds with my own identity—do I fit more in a place of “theory,” like a university, or in a place of direct action, like “the art world” or “the nonprofit world.” Must I choose? If I don’t choose, what will I do with my life, etcetera … these kinds of tiring questions … In any case, this world, this one of Amnesty International, this tone of voice, I know it so well, I grew up around it, I could navigate it, I could use their language, I could be successful within it. One woman says, “well we have to make sure not to have such long sentences … our language must be … accessible …” another answers, “oh, yes, and it’s so difficult, you know, people like us just tend to make these long sentences … it’s like I can’t help it” … “yes we don’t want to alienate people by giving them quiz questions that are just too hard” … “no, we really don’t, perhaps we should start with a simple question, such as, for instance, what do Sandra Bullock and Mariah Carey have in common … you know, something people can really identify with.” And I’m thinking I know I live in a bubble and I’m out of touch with pop culture but … who are they (we) kidding?
And although I had provided a list of almost seven, albeit relatively unknown women, they seemed uninterested in any of them with the exception of the women’s groups active against the murders in Juarez—because they found out that Amnesty International already had an official brochure on the topic (therefore it was “legitimate”?). Then one of them said, jokingly, “yeah, we should honor an American that actually is politically left” … and everyone started laughing uproariously, as though that were a complete anomaly. Then one woman in the room sort of motioned towards me, like, oh … now don’t offend her, she’s an American. I was stone-faced, not because I was offended, I was just shocked. And suddenly felt that I’d been completely captured in a cultural gap.
I’m not angry about the misunderstanding … Follow this train of thought for a moment, but I actually think that we can’t operate with this “I’ll believe it when I see it” mantra, because our vision is far too limited, blocked beyond our control, and rather we must assume even when we do not see it … I mean to say, we must assume that within every hegemonic system of power and control there are sites of resistance, no matter how subtle; there are women constantly subverting the dominant paradigm even in these tiny ways—in Afghanistan, in Kenya, in Nicaragua. That is not to say systems of power that keep women subjugated shouldn’t be tackled overtly, but it is not only women at the top that have the power to subvert and it is not only women at the top that have a wide scope of vision. And sometimes they seem to have less scope.
I know that Americans have misunderstandings of Europeans as well, so I don’t even want to further any cultural stereotyping, other than to say that this moment reinforced what I might even call twinges of patriotism, a word I detest, and rebel against, but there was most certainly a sudden spurt of love and respect for the political activists that have informed my life as an American.
But more interesting than this for me personally is the realization—and I think I realize it more as I get older—there is something I love about Americana, even as I detest it … that is harder to describe exactly. Now, I would have to be careful who I said that to, especially here I would get laughed at, as though to say I love Americana I mean, McDonalds and Coke and exploitation—rightly they would assume this. But there is something about American culture that I love, and I would think perhaps it’s because I’ve joined the ranks of the ex-pat—but I felt this way before I left. When I say American culture I’m talking about an entire host of traditions, as it should be, since America is far larger than Europe, and cannot be generalized just as Europe cannot be generalized (why some Europeans can’t seem to understand this I don’t know … that L.A. is as different from San Francisco as London is from Paris).
… In reality, and perhaps I’m going out on a limb to say this, I’m not just talking about all the things that are politically correct or trendy to have an appreciation for about Americana, or a Putomayo recording of (you know what I mean?)—bluegrass Appalachia, Midwestern farmers, Newyoricans, the Latino mission, Jewish orthodox communities—but also the gritty steel of highway overpasses, American “red state” Christianity, the ugly America and trendy America and fake plastic tits America, all these things that are artistically … not trendy. [I am thinking about this idea of artistic reclamation a lot lately, i.e., it’s popular to be an urban cowboy but not popular to be a gun-toting redneck with the confederate flag. I think at times this reclamation serves to smooth over or deny the contradictions or misbehavior of any one member of a “trendified” group] Somehow I have this love for all this shit that in reality I hate and fight against and want to change, maybe because of its artifice—like suburbia, big coolers and SUVs, L.A. traffic and plastic, McDonalds trash bags thrown out of the window of some 18 year old homophobic boys, like ignorant policemen. Aesthetically “they” create a texture. Emotionally “they” create an anger and a passion. Somehow even as I hate them they’re still manifestations of humanity that is more similar than different. On the face of it we all seem so different and yet underneath we all have joy in their lives, people we love, contradictions, moments of insanity, moments of clarity.
I suppose it’s slightly confusing, (or embarrassing to admit?) that I would love some ugliness, and yet at the same time there are a lot of different types of love for the ugly, and most certainly there is the reclamation of the ugly into the soft spots of our hearts and labeled camp or kitsch and then a whole host of alternative bands get their pictures taken with these artifacts of our ugliness captured in the backgrounds of their aloof expression looking in ten different directions … yes, there is something and it is not just me.
I look down at my very hands just now. I wake up at 8 am these days, even my body feels it naturally, and for the first time in my life since leaving high school, I wake up at eight am, get out of my bed, make breakfast, eat it and then start working. I sleep now at midnight, this entire month of February has been very regular for me, which means no more insomnia, not even depression, which is unusual because I always think of February as the month for depression. In any case I look down at my hands just now, they are covered in gloves, it is cold in my room. I wake up and it’s cold. I didn’t bother refilling the coal last night, I let it burn down, and now my room is cold. I am typing in gloves and a hat and three layers of sweatshirts. I would talk about the coal and the coal cellar and how it is killing me slowly, poisoning my entire body and I feel it at night when I sleep and I wake in the night with panic attacks of suffocating, how much I hate it and every time I go into the cellar I think how I must describe it to you, if I could, but each time I go to write I cannot do it justice … so I can only paint it over in sarcastic humor I tried to illustrate in those photographs …
I look down at my gloves and I think what is it about aesthetic appreciation, this love of some kind image or look: what are these things, I mean, how and why do we decide we love some kind of aesthetic over another … where do these kinds of trends arrive from (and of course it’s not just ads) and why do they change? Our hearts are so easily swayed—mine is anyway, from one aesthetic to another—I used to love Guatemalan printed fabric, for instance, and now I love it for existing, yet I personally detest it. What are these strange aesthetic loves, like the way I might say I loved that Russian Star Search/“Evening at the Apollo” kind of television show I saw at the restaurant in Brighton Beach with my girlfriends from high school. How do these items gain and lose and regain their various symbolisms … Can I say with this kind of whimsical love: Ah! I love those conservative rich people who buy huge houses in the Fairfax suburbs and voted for George Bush, god I just love something about them—they are the fabric of Americana just as I am.
If I just let myself step outside of it all for a single moment, I recognize the arbitrariness of what has been reclaimed aesthetically and at times it is nothing more than a momentary popularity contest, that gangsters and pimps should be venerated as the bad love of popular culture and conservative soccer moms should be so terribly unpopular within one set of culture … or that pop culture should momentarily lift up bohemian artists and Che Guevarra and Hunter S. but not homeless people or street prostitutes or this or that unknown poet or different kinds of homeless people are more or less “okay” to this or that other person … I suppose this is all to say that I think somehow I’m not sure that any one person is any different than any other … or more similar than different … and then, I think of Marguerite Duras … at this point I am done, I cannot go on, I’ve exhausted all possibilities … all writing stops because judgment becomes so misguided, if nothing is really better than any other how do we decide where to put our energy?
Then I think, no, perhaps it is possible to walk this line where one works not from a place of judgment, rather works entirely from a place of love and follows love rather than hatred. But perhaps this is merely a point of view, “Way of seeing,” and while at once these are the most profound differences on the other hand they are the most subtle. Tommy from Fuck for Forest hates humankind, hates Americana, says openly that he hates people, and yet has revolutionized the way people might be able to think about sex and activism … who is to say … who is to say …
I look down at my hands. This, too, is what I’m talking about: this strange self-love of my ugliest parts, sometimes waking in the morning here, sometimes not waking but still awake. I am riding my bike across Berlin the wind is fighting with me it takes me nearly an hour to get home I am fighting with it, there is wasteland to my left I am going home it is four-thirty in the morning, my makeup is smearing across my face, snow or rain or whatever it is sticking to my jacket feet are cold I still have a ways to go. I could never ever give this up. These moments are the most precious, these alone moments that feel somehow reckless like I could disappear at any moment, get buried in snow, be picked up and killed, no one would know, these are the kinds of thoughts that scare family members and people who love you and yet I think, aren’t they distinctly human? Is it not distinctly human to become comfortably with the idea of one’s own death and less so with the idea of someone else’s?
As independents, when we forget about all the people we owe our lives to, when we do not have to worry if we scare our family members, we become really candid with ourselves, this kind of strange acceptance to want to step off the very edge of time and it strikes me how many morbid thoughts I’ve be having since coming to Berlin. I say this not to be frightening, but it is a very honest truth. How amazing that feeling is when no one at all knows where you are and no one sees you are walking along the Berlin Wall for miles and not a soul in the world has tabs on you or would know if you weren’t to return to your room that night as usual and lie in your bed and do it all the next day and I think … I always imagined myself living a long life and being an old lady in a garden who lives by the sea and distributes lupine seeds along the grassy cliffs … but what if instead I am destined rather to die tonight?
Is it “okay” to feel that perhaps that would be “okay,” or just as “okay” as any other scenario? I think this is close to something that perplexes leftist skeptics about Christianity—the idea of putting oneself in the hands of Christ and though I cannot entirely speak in the discourse of Christianity still there is something fundamentally important about the acceptance of life and death, there is a kind of reckless and profoundly beautiful aspect to “giving oneself entirely” to fate—one has, anyway—which is, in my eyes, not so dissimilar to martyring for any cause, Christian or not … is not so very different than the recklessness of wanting to rid oneself of security and cut out of an previously organizing system of one’s life, into the woods, or away from one’s job, or to give oneself entirely to the night, or simply decide to step off the edge of the world. Though I hesitate to say that we are all the same—I get into trouble whenever I suggest this—I think we are more the same than different … and “Christian” discourse, “academic” discourse, “madman’s” discourse, the discourse of “reason” or “psychology” … these all at times seem much more similar than different though any one of the members of any one of these groups might tell me it’s blasphemous to say so …
… Or you might tell me so, and I hope that you do. Or you could say, merely, Katie, you have been saying the same thing this entire essay and I would say, I know, really I keep arriving at the same conclusions.
I look down at my hands. Sometimes I wake in the morning with this kind of recklessness. I feel recklessness that I relish but as soon as I write about it, of course the feeling dissipates and transforms. But you see it is a morning feeling where my gloves are ripped, the gloves I wear typing on this keyboard, unraveling, my legwarmers are ripped, my skirt is dirty my sweatshirt smells like smoke my shoes are pulling apart at the seams, my nails are broken and the polish is chipping and for some reason I love all of these things about myself much more than the idea of buying new clothes and surrounding myself with people who would require that I have to look clean and unripped and I wonder why exactly, what it is that I really like about it.
Maybe it is that clothing should reflect how it feels to go out in the world, like if someone were to ask, how does it feel to be female? and I would present them with a ripped glove and chipped painted fingernails and say, well it feels like this … well it feels like THIS right now, anyway ... I mean, just look at me! It feels like this, goddamn it! Or is clothing an expectation once one has learned and then they go out with a desire, that it would reflect a projection, the desire to attack life with a fervor with a vigor and I walk down the middle of the highway in a blizzard. Is this the same as that “conquering mountains” feeling—its urban counterpart? Is it that desire to put oneself in danger or to throw oneself at the pavement and lick the fucking cement—the trash of it, the very trash of urbanity and then I am back to: how is it that I could love it so very much even as I know how much evil it has done, we have done in our cities with our cities with our cement I don’t know but yet somehow I love it deeply. Still I want to lie in it and be next to the earth—the cement earth. That is what I wrote last year in a monologue and I still feel it distinctly.
Yesterday I biked past three young girls who were dressed entirely in pink and white, crossing the street under the cover of two white umbrellas. They were impeccably clean, and even more so against the gray of Berlin and the slowly revolving background of some Soviet monument. Blond, more pristinely clean than I can ever imagine being, not a single spot on their variations of baby pink sweaters, white blouses, little pink skirts, white pants little white shoes with pink laces, pink ribbons in their hair … they looked like some kind of German version of the quinceñera—a modern, pants-wearing, pop star sweet 15 or 16 and they gasped when they saw me coming, anticipating a flying mud puddle from my rusting red bicycle.
I wondered if they wondered what I love about being ripped and not clean, or what keeps them from wanting to be so, or whether they consider it one way or another. Or if rather there is no consideration about it because there is no other option other than this painfully complete control to maintain the cleanliness about their bodies and clothing. Where does that control come from, who creates it, when and do they rebel against it? And is it only I of the four of us that cares one way or the other?
At this point I’ve run myself into circles and I’ll say this. It’s a reoccurring problem in my life that I cannot find the right language to express myself and at times I attempt to remedy this by adding more and more words. This is in part what I wrote about in Senor Alfabus
(I love it when I say things like this because as soon as they leave my mouth I laugh and think sarcastically, right, Katie, now you’ve pinned it down, that thing you were writing about … because I realize the limitations in stating one thing about what it was all about anyway)
about the difficulty to describe my experience of sex and the pain of the sex itself and yet almost more so the pain of not being able to describe it, not only the sex, but the relationship, the idea that it would be painful and loving at the same time, my inability to use the word rape, the inability to call it normal, the inability, to speak … about it, without writing about it for years and yet still I have not been able to make it clear …
And then the question arises, perhaps the more important question arises … Why…. Would I have such a need to make that experience clear to anyone other than myself? Why indeed should I care that this or that person cannot understand what it is that I am trying to express? Why try to express it, why the obsession with being known … with not being silent … with being understood?
Is this struggle common or is this something only some of us struggle with?
Cherrie Moraga says this: “All writing is confession. Confession masked and revealed in the voices and faces of our characters. All is hunger. The longing to be fully known and still loved. The admission of our own inherent vulnerability, our weakness, our tenderness of skin, fragility of heart, our overwhelming desire to be relieved of the burden of ourselves in the body of another, to be forgiven of our ultimate aloneness in the mystical body of a god or the common work of a revolution.”
Those of us that do care—that we should be heard and expressed—are we all terribly narcissistic and negative and BAD and BAD and BAD? I like this word, BAD—I think I love it more because it is so vague (it’s that same kind of love of American culture I was talking about), and I will love it that much more today. I could say something like: I strive for vagueness but instead I strive for specificity. But Why, exactly? Why exactly should I struggle for specificity, like why should I prefer being clean to dirty or dirty to clean?
I suppose what I’m getting at up to now in this essay is that life appears to be full of arbitrary choices: like how we dress our bodies, like what aesthetic we choose to love, like what we do professionally, like where we live, what discourse we speak, who we choose to identify with, whether we live or die. Arbitrary in relation to the rest of the history of the world.
Let me connect my stream of thought to something very grounded, which has to do with Juan moving here. I don’t think I’ve quite expressed how huge this is for me, how much the expectation of him has figured into my experience of life in the past six months, in short—I am clinically in love. I’m out of my gourd. I’m tragically happy. “I’m loony as a June bride.” It’s that same old problem of words again. With all the vocabulary I have sought to use to describe our relationship—commitment, partner, life partner, boyfriend, lover, husband, all of these kinds of words are so difficult to toss around when somehow what I really just want to express is: What a big deal it is for me that he is moving here, how strange it is to me that I could ever live with someone again because deciding to live on my own was so monumental for me. At the time I made that decision to leave was to stray from a path I might have thought I was on. But this is not like any path at all, it is forging something entirely different than I’ve ever known. I suppose there is no rhyme or reason to it and I can’t describe it exactly, it is not about settling, or retracting, or going backwards, or ceasing to grow. But probably you already know this.
I wonder if these phrases reflect my own misunderstanding of what it means to live with someone or have commitment with someone, maybe it is a function of growing older that I am finally able to understand that I don’t have to give up what I am, what I am growing into.
So maybe I’ve answered my own questions about why it is that I attempt to express myself to others—maybe it’s my downfall—I am seeking acknowledgement from others. Maybe someone will say, “you seek approval from others” in this negative tone of voice (the thought of it makes me laugh out loud) … in so many ways this admonishment doesn’t seem to match who it is that I am (I am so independent—laughter, sarcasm) … But perhaps that is it: I seek approval from others, I mirror myself with others … I am able to see myself only in mirrors. And, oh my god, it’s true, so often I forget who it is that I “am” or am not able to capture “it” at all: what it is to be me, what it is to be a girl or a woman or a mind or a loving being and anyway, am I?
I create my own mirrors. My writing is such a good example—these words are mirrors to see myself and to remember. My photography and self-portraiture reflect this obsessive need to see myself. Should the question of why it is that I write and live to write and save letters as mirrors interest me? Is it a function of the “disorder” itself?
Even in this very letter I have professed to love other people, but perhaps my writing reflects that in fact I do not know how to love in a selfless way.
I listened to beautiful music last night and washed my clothes in the kitchen sink. I listened to Bach’s Cello Suites played by Yo-yo Ma. Then I listened to Track 8 of Dylan’s World Gone Wrong on repeat about ten times and then I listened to Exile on Main Street three times through in entirety. It took a long time to do my laundry by hand.
My thoughts travel from Berlin to Managua, which perhaps spiritually are not so very far apart as they might seem at first glance. Perhaps connected because I could describe similarities in their political history, but more so having to do with laundry.
This was my latest money saving scheme—not to spend 6 euro on laundry at the Launderette but rather to wash my clothes by hand in the sink. It takes a kind of Zen concentration to do so since the water is so cold in the sink and already you’re standing there with a hat on your head. Sink load by sink load, there was something beautiful staring into the metal basin and listening to Bach’s cello suites. I thought about Nicaragua. Of course I remembered that the last time I had had washed like this was just this time of year five years ago. My host family and I washed our clothes and dishes and everything else in the outside sink, the pila. I remembered my host mother making seafood soup and the image of her throwing all these live blue crabs in the water in the pila and then picking them out one by one and killing them with her knife before throwing them just like that into the soup pot … and further I remembered that the first time I heard yo-yo ma playing Bach’s cello suites was on rose’s minidisk recorder when we shared a fading yellow paint room in a Cuban hotel.
Hrair calls me. I am squeezing out the icy water from thinning socks and hanging them one by one on a laundry line I’ve rigged across my bedroom. He always calls at the right moments and as usual imparts me with new wisdom that I need to hear in that moment and love that reinvigorates me with strength, with humor, with the idea that I can go on. This is the first time that he calls that I do not burst out in tears. My entire mood is lifted into laughter and we tell each other how much we love each other and that is the moment that I put on the Stones and laugh out loud.
I tell him about the people here that I have met, finally, that are friends that I would call real friends. Friends whom I sit with for hours and talk candidly, without fear, without questioning their trust or their judgment. He might not know it, but Hrair is always a mirror for me, a mirror of myself. And — I just realized this for the first time — I think that whenever I talk to Hrair, I always know when I’m lying to myself. All of the lies that I try to hide even from my own eyes get brought to the surface, like talking to mirror, mirror on the wall … So I often find myself weeping or hysterically angry or drastically in love with life.
I think I’ve said all I have to say. No—one thing more. I saw something last night on my bike in the snow more jarring than any of the strange images I’ve seen thus far. I had already wiped out once that night, splayed in full on the ice. A car waited patiently for me to pick myself up before circumnavigating the accident. Bruised, I rode carefully the last five miles of my journey. It was two in the morning. I was almost home. Then at the wide intersection of Prenzlauer Allee and Molle Strasse I saw the high wall of a cemetery, overgrown brick and ancient tombstones visible behind. And parked right there was an abandoned baby carriage—thank god, no baby, I checked—rapidly filling with snow. The traffic lights were blinking. My bike light had ceased to work. My toes were freezing, the next tram up Prenzlauer Allee wouldn’t arrive for 45 minutes.