So my title will need some explanation, if only because I hope to walk the fine line between the literal and the metaphoric.
Let’s start in January with a trip to an ophthalmologist.
I’ve long had trouble with my eyes, and have been noticeably cross-eyed my entire life. At this point, my right eye (which is near-sighted) has become dominant, which is useful because I read so much, while my left eye (which is far-sighted) is slowly weakening. The ophthalmologist calls this amblyopia. I can still see out of my left eye, but when I switch back and forth from one eye to another, seeing out of it is noticeably a strain. At best, it feels odd, and I default back to my right eye.
One optometrist, taking photos of my optic nerves, noted that they were neither identical nor symmetrical in appearance, as they apparently are in most people. Instead, he mused, it’s as though I have the optic nerves of two different people, my eyes each having seen the world differently for so long.
“I ate my twin in utero,” I once calmly told this optometrist. And he just as calmly suggested that “We don’t address those kinds of problems here, sir.”
But recently, in January, even given its somewhat attenuated level, I noticed a marked loss of visual acuity in that left eye. Objects were just blurrier. Some straight lines even appeared curved. At first I just shook my head rapidly back and forth, hoping that I could shake loose the magic snow globe of the eyeball into some kind of clarity, letting whatever was amiss settle back into my normal bad vision. Shake as I might, nothing was improving.
So I made an appointment with one doctor who then, failing to see anything wrong (except the slow, incipient creep of cataracts), referred me to another doctor, who took a variety of pictures, disappeared for a bit, and then came back into the room where I patiently sat in a chair with numerous torture devices extending around me.
“Mr. Alexander, do you take steroids?”
Not the question I was anticipating, so I responded snarkily, as is my habit: “Do I look like I take steroids?”
Ignoring that, he proceeded: “Are you under an undue amount of stress?”
“Are you kidding me? Am I stressed? Besides the trials and tribulations of being an English professor, yes, I’d say I’m stressed. Have you been watching the news? The election? The inauguration? Our worst nightmares are coming true!”
“I suggest yoga. And perhaps some meditation”
“You have central serous retinopathy. A bit of fluid has built up behind your retina and it’s distorting your vision. It’s usually caused by steroid use or an increase in cortisol, a stress hormone. If you’re not taking any medically necessary steroids, then stop taking any medically unnecessary steroids. And if you’re not taking any steroids at all, then try yoga and come back in a month. Try to manage your stress better.”
“See you in a month.”
I was, as you can see, speechless. Manage my stress? You might as well ask the universe to undo everything it’s done in the last couple of months. And I’m sure I’m not the only one failing to manage stress; in fact, living near a university campus full of similarly horrified academics and liberally-minded folks, I know I’m not. My Facebook feed has brimmed over with messages of outrage, despair, annoyance, frustration, anger, sadness — you name a dark emotion, and I’ve seen it sweeping past my screen since November.
Indeed, for those of us in relatively liberal enclaves, and I think of the California coast as one such extended enclave, I can very likely find many yoga studios but relatively few people in them who are going to tell me that everything is going to be okay. Instead, the mantras of the day have all been about keeping the faith against the evil empire, taking to the streets, mobilizing our righteous indignation, and then also worrying over what awfulness will hit next. Compounding the problem, we also recognize — again, an important mantra here — that we shouldn’t “normalize” the Trump presidency. We live in extra-ordinary times and they need to be treated as such. We need constant vigilance. We need to remain on high alert.
But confronting the extra-ordinary on a daily basis is, well, stressful. And my body, or at least one part of it, is reacting negatively to that stress. So I left the ophthalmologist’s office that day with a real problem. I’d have to learn to manage my stress at a time when such seems nearly impossible, or potentially go steadily blind in one eye. The mandate was clear: relax, and now — for your own good.
I took some immediate and simple steps. I limited my Facebook trolling. I told my husband, who had led our household’s strategy to canvas for Bernie Sanders, that I couldn’t wake up in the morning to the latest news on the atrocities of the Trump administration, a litany that had been serving as his motivating matins. I told him I would listen to periodic reports, which he is kind of enough to summarize, being a die-hard news junkie, but I needed to wean myself off the daily terror. I didn’t want to wake up to it.
I also started meditating in the morning, for at least 15 minutes, something I hadn’t done in years. At first, it felt so strange, seemed even somewhat transgressive. Not exactly a waste of time, but a selfish apportionment of energy that could otherwise be channeled into direct action to protest the current regime. But I have still sat quietly every morning since January for about fifteen minutes. And I have begun to realize a few things, to see the world around me a bit differently.
The pressingly felt need to do something is totally understandable. And indeed, there is so much we need to do. Right now. And continually for as many years as it takes to turn back the tide away from this retrograde conservatism and corporate capitalism run amok. To be fair, we’ve always had this work to do, even when a Democrat has been in office. It just feels even more alarming now since Republicans seem so much more willing to undo the few meager controls on capitalism that surprisingly get put into place.
We increasingly know that the devastation that uncontrolled (or barely controlled) capitalism wreaks on our planet, our society, our lives is untenable in the long run. Hell, it’s untenable in the short term as we are duly warned in books like Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Crary traces how contemporary economic structures require that we be “always on.” The price for having a huge array of consumable goods and services available to us around the clock is that we too, in turn, must be ourselves available as a good, a potential service, around the clock. We can order on Amazon at any point during the day or night, but we also likely check our email or text messages when we wake up for that nocturnal piss, our phones awaiting us by our bedsides. For many of us, the work week seems never to end. The results are frequently dissatisfaction, fear, sickness, and death, as people work themselves to an earlier and earlier grave with less and less of a sense of either security or meaningfulness. Talk about alienated labor. Crary argues we are being alienated from time itself. As he puts it:
The primary self–narration of one’s life shifts in its fundamental composition. Instead of a formulaic sequence of places and events associated with family, work, and relationships, the main thread of one’s life–story now is the electronic commodities and media services through which all experience has been filtered, recorded, or constricted.
Weaning myself off Facebook and other news sources was the bare minimum I could do to try to salvage a sense of self, or at least an eye, from the surrounding narrative of despairing doom and gloom.
But it’s hard to slow down. Even we academics, who are used to the long arcs of research and scholarly publishing, have felt an urge to get on with it. I’m working with two other colleagues on a collection of essays titled Unruly Rhetorics, about the increasing number of voluble and disruptive global protests that have emerged over the last decade, such as Occupy and the Arab Spring. One of my co-editors emailed just last week, urging us to urge the publisher to send us our reader reports so we can revise and get the volume out there — urgency for a book that, at best, won’t see the light of day till sometime past mid 2018. But the need to push, to get moving, to launch the resistance feels compelling.
That urgency sometimes finds odd incentives. I called my mother recently to tell her about my eyes. We talk nearly daily and while she’s not really that old, only 73, I feel the need to connect with her regularly, to know more about her life, to be open to her stories from the past. I worried for a bit that the election might cause a bit of a rift, as she’s fairly socially conservative, attending Mass daily. But she couldn’t bring her self to vote for Trump, even if she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Clinton either. So pretty good there.
I tell her about my eye and she, like the doctor, wonders what I have to be so stressed about. I allow myself a bit of a whine and complain about all the horrible stuff Trump is doing, the recent executive orders banning travel from certain countries topping the list at the moment.
Her response comes chillingly: “But really, what is he doing to you?”
I compose myself, realizing it isn’t very mature of me at nearly 50 to yell at my mother, however much my inner child wants to. I then calmly explain that, for starters, Trump doesn’t have to be doing anything in particular to me for me to find his policies abhorrent, his values deeply suspect, his humanity in question. While relatively secure for now, I could still feel terribly for the families torn asunder by his travel ban, for instance. Taking it closer to home, I could certainly begin to worry about the kinds of anti-LGBT legislation that a dominantly Republican administration might attempt in the coming years; Pence in particular seems worrying on that count. So yes, for the moment, I wasn’t feeling myself the toxic effects of this administration, but I also wasn’t going to suspend either my empathy for others feeling those effects or ignore the very real possibility that the damage could arrive one day at my own doorstep.
My mother and I stopped talking about Trump, and we have generally avoided political discussions since, but I left the conversation scratching my head about how I might continue to cultivate a capacity for empathy, something of a hallmark of liberal and progressive thinking and being in the world. Indeed, my husband and I, having lived for a long time in the Midwest, have tried to imagine and understand the feelings of betrayal that many in that part of the world succumbed when they cast their votes for Trump; Democrats in many ways failed to help protect their jobs, their livelihoods, their unions, so their anger isn’t unjustified, even if I still think their votes were misplaced. It’s a complex story, no doubt, but we both thought it useful to try to understand what happened in the Midwest as opposed to demonizing folks — folks not unjustly frustrated with government in general.
Empathy can be difficult work, but I remain committed to the cause, even when the conversations are stressful. When I need a break, I find myself frequently heading to a nearby coffee shop to sit with my laptop and work on the Unruly Rhetorics collection that my co-editor is increasingly agitated about. Today, I’m sitting across from my favorite hipster, David Lumb, a Brooklyn-based writer who’s in town for a couple of months, wintering in SoCal. I have a fondness for hipsters, I have to admit. I know, I know, there’s much to revile. David had taken me on a walking tour of Brooklyn last September, and we expressed great dismay at the gentrification of large parts of this borough, a gentrification that has been pricing many low-income and working-class residents out of their homes for years. More corporate capitalism run amok. David knows that hipsters are part of the problem; their aesthetic, however DIY and remix it might be at times, also signals, like the gays used to, the arrival of the “creative class,” and the wealthy always seem to want to be around the “creative class,” even if they end up driving the poorer creatives out.
David and I sit across from one another, having just purchased our high-priced coffees at the hipster coffee shop, and while I bemoan the intertwining of hipster aesthetic and gentrification, I have to admit that I enjoyed the fact that it took about 12 minutes for the tattooed barista to make my pour over. Twelve minutes. That’s nearly the time I spend in meditation every morning. Whatever one might say about hipsters, this attention to detail, to taking one’s time, to waiting for a good thing — and the pour overs at this particular coffee shop are totally worth waiting for — that slowness is deeply attractive to me. It’s a ramping down, a pulling back, a moment of respite before I crack open the laptop and get to work. Apparently I need more and more of those moments of respite before I recharge my body for the work ahead. I’m grateful for the hipsters who teach me about such slowness, particularly as I sit across from one who writes for a living, who wonders where his next story opportunity will come from, who lives from word count to word count, pitching his talent to media corporations that otherwise won’t hire writers full-time. His own urgency in this economic climate, this increasingly toxic economic reality that makes people so desperately responsible for themselves, is met and momentarily relieved by his willingness to wait with me for that pour over. Our urgency is put on pause to enjoy something.
A couple of hours later, I get up from my writing and walk around the complex, gazing at the little shops, some selling cheese and spices, others offering way-too-expensive clothing. I’m not really looking but daydreaming, taking a break from clacking away at the laptop. I allow myself these little strolls because I can only sit at the computer for about an hour at a time, and then my body demands that I get up and move. So I walk around and think about what else I have to do today, what I want to make for dinner, what I want to write in the future, what projects await, and the walking turns to real dreaming, picking up on a prolonged meditation that’s always at the back of my mind about where I’m taking my life, the paths I intend to follow, the desires I have to make a difference not just in my life but in the world around me, in the lives of the people I love, to be there for them, to be there for those I can’t even imaging coming into my life yet, but who always do.
I’ve come to appreciate these little daydream strolls as more than just the body needing a break. They are the body moving my mind. They are a little opening onto and into futurity. The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch understood them as glimmers of utopian thought and feeling. While our night dreams confront us with images and situations over which we have little conscious control, the refuse of the unconscious mind, our day dreams are wanderings and wonderings that we can participate in and actively cultivate. Bloch put it this way: “[T]he day-dreaming ‘I’ persists throughout, consciously, privately, envisaging the circumstances and images of a desired, better life […] It is concerned with an as far as possible unrestricted journey forward, so that […] the images of that which is not yet can be phantasied into life and into the world.” I like that “phantasied into life and into the world,” a possibility that led Bloch to wonder, “Should one dream […] only when one is asleep and not at all when one is awake?” Bloch rejects the Freudian unconscious, the no-longer-conscious, the neurotic tendrils of the past, so that we might better become attuned to traces of the not-yet-conscious. Daydreams are less about repression and what we fear to make manifest, as are nightmares, but instead concern themselves more with expression, a playful engagement with the longed-for, the barely and all-too-briefly glimpsed horizon of possibilities. Bloch sees such horizons nearly everywhere, and he constructs an aesthetic philosophy that’s all about tracing the utopian possibilities latent in most art and culture, not to mention our daydreams. His magnum opus, The Principle of Hope, exists as a compendium of such daydreams, pulled from across history and the arts.
Ultimately, for Bloch, utopianism comes from our ability to dream. But daydreams take time. We need to take the time to entertain them, to have them, and to cultivate them. Does the current urgency allow for such time taking? What do we lose if we don’t take that time? What visions might we not see?
Returning to my computer from my stroll around the plaza, I think about my daydreams, my morning meditation, my waiting for the pourover. Yes, we need to prepare for the revolution, but we also need to prepare for the long-haul, for the steady enactments of utopian thinking that don’t necessarily change the world in a flash, but that build up over time into a livable life.
I remember myself as a young scholar, in the 1990s, working with a colleague on a rather strident queer theoretical analysis of Ellen DeGeneres and her coming out as lesbian, both as an actress but also through the character, Ellen Morgan, on her hit show Ellen. We were full of the impatient and ideological rigor of the young, calling DeGeneres on the carpet for offering us a lesbian representation that seemed rather bland, that was essentially de-sexualized. Our critique wasn’t wrong, and it resulted in an early publication that led the way to others and ultimately to the position I now hold. And at the time — given that this was still at the height of the movement to deny gays and lesbians marriage rights — the work seemed vital and important; we were pushing ourselves to think more boldly and to hold those in power accountable for representing us as queerly and as authentically as possible.
But in our youthful fervor we couldn’t see the small steps that only became apparent over the longer haul. Ellen was soon cancelled, but Will & Grace followed, and a whole host of other mass media representations of queer people emerged on television. And then, one day, a young man, a student, was telling me in my office over a decade later that his generation would be the one that would take care of all of this anti-gay marriage crap. Sure enough, his generation, those Millenials, having grown up seeing gays and lesbians aplenty on television, was the one that really helped the cause, creating a cultural shift that older people weren’t ready for. And while marriage rights for gays and lesbians hardly signals the end of homophobia in our country, and while there’s surely so much more work to be done to ensure the sexual and gender-expression rights of so many, I’m at least glad that gays and lesbians can marry — that at least those rights are secure, for now. I can trace the development of the possibility for those rights to the work that Ellen DeGeneres was doing twenty years ago. I can trace that work over the long haul.
Indeed, I think that, increasingly, our fights against rampant capitalism, social inequality, the failure of empathy, and other evils destroying our planet and ourselves, will be fought over the long haul. The slow change in culture, in generational attitudes, and in a people’s ability to imagine itself differently just takes time. We need to storm the barricades, definitely. We also need to pay attention to the work that develops into culture change over time. And that’s slow culture work. It’s just as important, I’m coming to think, as any other unruly action we might need to take in the immediate future.
I’m back sitting across from my hipster friend, David, thinking about slowness. Crary worries rightly over the 24/7 livelihoods that are slowly killing us. Similarly, in her brilliant book, Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant identifies such livelihoods as a kind of “slow death,” the steady accumulation of somatic and psychic nicks and cuts that over a lifetime make life less livable, or ultimately lethal. Surely some people in parts of the world live near toxic dumps that are killing them more quickly than not. But Berlant wants to attune us to the ways in which corporate capitalism is producing a culture that might not be killing us quickly but that is surely killing us over time.
David and I will soon get something to eat. We’re in a hurry, there’s so much to do, and a quick burger seems so tempting. But that fast food is slow death. So I try to keep in mind the pour over, the slow pour, the slowing down that isn’t slow death but the easing into a life that we know we need to change, but that might have to change in small steps, in little increments, and not always all at once.
So no, I cannot really blame Donald Trump for my impaired vision. But I do need to de-stress. I need to think about the relationship between bodily stress and politics in ways that don’t impair me. I suppose I’ll try some yoga in addition to meditating and hope that my vision starts to clear. I don’t really want to go blind. We will resist as we have to, and fight for our utopias as we can. But I know that I am also going to work on just trying to see more clearly. And that takes time.