Paula Cisewski’s poetry book, The Threatened Everything (Burnside Review Books), is on the smallish size, trim-size-wise.
It fits easily in my small hands and seems to be littered with hearts—although upon closer inspection those hearts are less than sweet. None of that prepares me for the first poem, “The Apocalypse Award Goes To.” Variously, each section of the poem offers, then withdraws the award to:
First, “my newly betrothed and me . . . It was already the apocalypse, and we already felt appropriately minute.”
Next, the award is given to “most grown people,” who are described as “kaleidoscopically unsafe.” Then, the “animal kingdom,” then “doctors who specialize in treating Prolonged Apocalypse Stress Disorder,” so that finally the poem includes everybody. But these are just the bones of the poem; it’s shot through (literally, in one case) with interruptions. This is a poem for this moment, I think—which, given the time invested in writing a poem, revising, getting it into some editor’s hand, pre-production, and publication of a book, shows some strange sort of prescience on the part of the poet. That I should find it in my hands right when I needed it. Because the poet stopped me to say, “For statistically what percent of the parents pushing strollers on this sunny boardwalk have guns tucked away in holsters? For bullets rip through every modern poem, even the ones where shot or gunis not stated explicitly.”
As I was digesting that, thinking of a friend who I recently learned is nearly always packing, who I’ve begun to hug more carefully, the poem clobbered me with, “Another patient in this waiting room switched on the news and I immediately began leaking. Oh, well. It won’t be the first time a poet has leaked through her own poem.” The poem talks about the practice alarm for the apocalypse. It asks, parenthetically, “What if we need the alarm while the practice alarm’s going off?” and later, “(Those sirens are just on TV, aren’t they?)” These are the questions of worriers and I’ve embraced my suppressed worrier-self of late. This poem is the frontispiece for the entire collection—mixing technology and pop-culture references, sly jokes, relatable fears, and the constant sense of unease and disbelief that has come to characterize the current political and cultural moment for many of us. As the poem says of the apocalypse, “It’s a slow burn. Some of us have mothered whole people through it, others have died of old age in it.”
Cisewski’s book thereafter is divided into three sections: Field Guide to Austerity and Surroundings; The Wolf/Cave Problem; The Laughing Club. In the second section, twins are everywhere. There is a “good one” and a “bad one” and they are the same person, finally. The speaker of the poem “The Good One” is like that soft-sewn children’s toy that has the face of Little Red, and the Wolf, and if you flip it over, also the Grandmother, all in one. After one kills the other waiting for the “old woman” to arrive, she realizes fingerprints differ even on identical twins, so she undertakes to sever hands and sew them on, becoming all one person in one body: “whether or not I had ever been / the good one no longer mattered.” Other imagery from that tale recurs in other poems in this section—the kitchen shears, the animal inside the girl-speaker (like an echo of Carter’s retelling of the tale). All this reminds me of Carol Clover writing of slasher movies, “What makes horror ‘crucial enough to pass along’ is, for critics since Freud, what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings.”
The final section of The Threatened Everything ends with laughter, a cathartic kind of laughter. It is not joyous, but the kind of laughter that occurs after too much stress, too much pain, when the body and soul is wrung out and doesn’t know what else to do. In the poem “Suddenly Laughter” it’s described as an “intersection / at terror and comfort.” Laughter is a “familiar wrecking ball” that “pummels / your heart’s hollow / business center.” The poem ends with the word “relief,” but we don’t feel any relief. Rather, we’ve decided to laugh, because we don’t know what else to do anymore.
Similarly, in the poem “Humans, Dogs, Apes and Rats” we have a description of rats and the insistence that they laugh. That they have laughed “since before / humans even resembled // ourselves.” Before our culture, or technology, before we gathered to exchange ideas, “or irony, way / before irony.” And then, for those of us uncomfortable with rats, there is the description: “a wriggling pink pile / of bald rodent babies, // the size of several / opposable thumbs.” This is laughter that rings true and unsettles, as many poems in this section ring true and unsettle. Like the poem that includes Obama’s joke about Orange not being the new Black, but of course that’s exactly what happened, and it’s not so funny after all.
But I can’t end on that note, although this was a poetry collection that seemed to meet me where I was, deliver gut-punches I wanted to receive, right in my pale fish-belly. I have to tell you about my favorite poem. In the first section is the amazing “Revolution Prairie” which takes up the imagery of weeds and root systems and limbs and desire.
Consider the right of way of weeds,the root system’s defiant grip,
that they’re only called weeds becausewe didn’t buy them with money
or decide where to plant them.A flowering without
a boss, like our lovepopping up everywhere
(I wish I could read the whole poem aloud to you . . .) Suffice it to say, the weeds burst forth; the poem concedes a mower could cut it all down—the weeds, us, the words that are weeds that burst out of us like sentences of things that need to be said, popping up everywhere. But the poem ends with a call, a promise, and a declarative: “Burst forth with me in this narrow vista / of the threatened everything.”
In my Survey of British Literature class in college, I remember learning several new words reading Milton.
He’s credited with introducing several words to the English language, but I remember one he didn’t invent: amanuensis, “a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.” The image is familiar – blind Milton, leaning back in his chair, surrounded by his daughters. There’s a painting in the New York Public Library that shows Anne, Mary, and Deborah, each engaged with their father’s work. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, and later works, with the help of a number of amanuenses. His daughters, a nephew, and some people paid to do the work. But I was most interested in his daughters then – and now.
The stories that make up our histories are ever shifting. One story is that the muse would visit Milton during the night, and he’d repeat lines over and over to himself, getting them right, committing them to memory, until someone arrived to write them down. He described his own process in several places. The youngest daughter, Deborah, worked with some biographers later in her life, so some of her impressions may have survived. Other biographers wrote of how the daughters hated their father: his demands, the tasks he set before them, his hypocrisy about the very notion of liberty, his re-marriages, the household where he kept them prisoner. Milton was a man of his time perhaps. Perhaps somewhere between the voice in blind Milton’s head, and the hand that wrote down the lines, some whiff of Anne, Mary, or Deborah survives.
Emily Bowles’s chapbook His Journal, My Stellaexplores a similar situation in some ways. The relationship between Esther Johnson and Jonathan Swift is introduced in a prefatory note to Section I. “Miss” establishes some basic parameters for their relationship. It is a fatherly, mentor relationship. She is eight. He is an “authority.” Later, perhaps, their relationship changes. The poems in Bowles’s collection traverse the grid of this shifting relationship, between powerful established man, and “pliant, pleasurable” Stella – who wants to be seen as “more than a child, better than a woman.” The deftness of these poems is the way they are sketched only, paired with modern-day experiences and relationships, stretched across the negative space of the page, leaving the reader more gaps than knowing. The repetition of “Miss” to signify young unmarried woman/girl, and “miss” to signify something lost, and the line-ending that splits “miss / take” recur over and over to fragment idea and thought and concept. Who can know what happened in Milton’s household? Who can know what was in Stella’s heart? Or Swift’s? The opening note makes clear: “This is and is not something we now refer to as grooming.”
Another classroom wells up at me in the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais.” The speaker has “missed / The Point.” The speaker has gone off topic, writing about something she shouldn’t have, questioning something outside of the poem. This is not an approved topic. “It is not valid,” the “[male] professor” points out. The final stanza of the poem is arranged in opposition to itself, a form that happens again and again here: “you” aligns itself with one margin, but the story occurs on the other margin, in the gutter of the page.
By the end of this poem, the speaker has become fragmented, both second-person (a person to see through) and an “I” still inhabited. She is two-personed, unable to withstand the weight of male authority, but uniquely situated to watch her failure and write it down.
While the story of Stella and Swift forms a framework for Bowles’s collection, the poems aren’t confined by that relationship. Many of the poems don’t reference that relationship explicitly but could be about it. Or not. They navigate the see-saw between specific and universal, but all traverse scaffolds of power, and specifically the power between men and women, that differential in romantic and sexual relationships, in marriage. Each poem calls forth “an act of sexual / textual / violence.” I said the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais” reminded me of a classroom – it does. A graduate school classroom where I asked if we could talk about a poet’s ethics, and the professor said that “wasn’t an interesting question.” An undergraduate classroom where a visiting poet told a round table of eager women poets that “no one wants to read about these things”; he told us, we earnest women-college students at our glossed wood table to “think about your audience.” We had been rapt.
In the article “Experts in the Field” published in Tin House, Bonnie Nadzam writes about abusive men in the writing world – and she touches on exploitive practices and the long-term effects they can have on students’ writing, careers, and voices. Power and authority can have long-reaching effects; power and authority can silence. As mentors, those who seek to harm can control their victims into their future. They are gate-keepers – they control access to jobs, residencies, contracts, networks. Most importantly, they can control access to our very selves, and the way we see ourselves. Through their reputations and classrooms and programs, they can “[teach] the rest of us how we should tell our stories.” In several poems, Bowles gives texts, criticism, judgement literal weight: “I wore the allusions, / those critical garments, / until they didn’t fit anymore.”
Bowles takes on structures beyond the classroom and criticism, exploring marriage and the home. In “Cedar Waxwing in Our House” the speaker finds kinship with a cat, noting the way we choose kitty litter and grain-free food to further divorce the creature from the wild – leaving us all “neutered.”
Domesticitycan feel like a form ofterrorism, and sometimesa feral urge creeps inon mouse feet or cedarwax wings.
There’s that fragmentation again – separating words we expect to see together, perhaps the way the bird’s wings were separated by jaws and claws. In the short poem “I Went Missing,” Bowles makes of words fragments, so they can be read multiple ways. I like to imagine hearing this, as well as reading it, inserting a long pause at the line breaks, giving the page its due.
It was a misstaketotakehis name. I wentmissing when Imisstookmyselffor his Mistress.
Perhaps the speaker of this poem is Stella, perhaps it’s the poet, perhaps it’s any married woman who regrets marrying. Or not regrets entirely, but just wonders about things lost in the joining. Things like names and the identities they signify. I appreciate the slight form, the symmetry of the lines.
The final section of Bowles’ book, Section IV, is titled “Missed.” The note describes how Stella fell ill, died. Swift lived on and mentions of Stella continued. Perhaps she lived on in his fiction, fictionalized. Perhaps she animated Gulliver’s Travels. A poem from this section complains “I am an envelope, sent back and forth / between men . . .” Perhaps whoever survives ensures their version of the story survives, but it isn’t that simple, not between women and men. Not when the context of history has its own rules, in its own places, and one party holds more cards than the others. Not when the negotiations take place behind closed doors in dimly-lit rooms. Witness Deborah, Milton’s surviving daughter, whose voice still wasn’t strong enough to trouble her father’s legacy much.
Reading Sara Ryan’s Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned is like finding poetics, a philosophy, a mini-manifesto.
It’s fitting, too, that the work is described as “hybrid”—as it mixes lineated poetry with prose endnotes that read as a mix of research notes and essay. She blends childhood memories of visiting museums, layering the remembered visions of taxidermied groups of animals with visiting taxidermy shows, excerpts from how-to manuals and articles about the meaning of skins and mounting, with a poetic voice that is quiet (fragments and small i’s) and loud (calling attention to the sheen and color of faux-blood and bright eyes). Altogether, this micro-chap from Porkbelly Press is an examination of the ways we preserve both ourselves and the animals we regularly pretend not to be.
A particularly strong poem is “Bad Hunter,” set at the Taxidermy World Championships in Missouri. The speaker describes women who “flock around like smart pink birds” and “men wearing leaves” who “chew on toothpicks.” The poem continues to contrast these genders: men and women, boys and girls. Judges walk through, taking the measure of all the animals there: “this is how wet the nose should be, this is how / cocked the hoof.” The final lines showcase the juvenile of the species— “a girl dusts paint flecks off her road-kill / beaver. a boy licks a pearl of blood from his thumb.” How color-rich and sensual these details. The reader’s understanding of the poem is only deepened by its accompanying endnote, which describes the gendered divisions in the field—hunting is masculine and so women in taxidermy “encounter sexism and gender stereotyping.” However, the footnote informs us women’s numbers are increasing: “young, academically driven, and largely female.” The endnote concludes with lines that could be back in the poem: “Women in polo shirts. In poodle skirts. In camouflage. Combing dead birds as if they were still chirping.”
Another poem with the (literal) cold-belly moments, the juxtaposition of the sensual and the unsettling, is “Prehistory.” In it, the speaker is discouraged from being an archeologist, but tells how she “identified the difference between / a shoulder blade and a pelvis in middle / school science. I dug into a fetal pig’s / cold belly while a boy pulled my hair.” I am there with her, in the poem, the black lab tables, the chemical smell, the pairing up (of lab partners). At the end of the poem she promises her mother she wouldn’t “dig up bones / for a living” but explains “I only meant the bones / that didn’t belong to me.” The poems are peppered with small moments of memory (a childhood visit to the Field Museum, the middle-school science lab, sitting across the table from “wily foxes on two legs”) that explain the adult intent in looking beneath the seams, sifting through sawdust and glass eyes to discover what the illusion is for— “are we mourners? Are we searching for sweetness?”
I admit it: I’m a sucker for skins, the animals they once were, and the strange things we do to them. I’ve begun my own collection of weird vintage accessories that I wear, often unsettling people I meet. I have the requisite foxes-biting-their-tails stole, complete with claws and glass eyes; a baby alligator purse with the whole small body intact; a skating muff with loose fox tails that waft in a breeze. I keep a small cache of porcupine quills, some blue jay feathers in a box, a raven hairpiece I should probably only wear for costume. As Ryan writes in “Beast Fables,” “we are all animals here” —the speaker goes on to invoke even the tiger mascot on a volleyball jersey as part of this menagerie: “the animal in all / our skins.”
The poem continues “this is a lesson in fake dead / and real dead. in learning / all the lies.” And here the poem breaks away to an endnote (and this reader along with it), a discussion of an art exhibit with photographs of taxidermied polar bears, accompanied by the bears’ biographies. From an article (cited in the footnote and included in the chap’s bibliography) by Rachel Poliquin, she includes the quotation, “. . . the bears become mysterious and ambiguous objects.” The endnotes are poems in themselves, a treasure trove of ideas to linger over—I found myself reading them as prose poems. They revisit key ideas: when does the animal cease to be animal? (Especially when we invest so much time and effort in re-creating it as if it were still living?) How does the process of turning the animal into a taxidermied object change our relationship and understanding of it? What does this process of “othering” look like? How does it function?
There are small quotes here and there that read to me as a statement of poetics, encapsulated:
“a sharp knife is important—always is.” (from the poem “The Specimen Dealer”)
“Through making things, people make themselves. Without things, we could neither be ourselves nor know ourselves . . . Without things being things, we are just as much human as we are animal” (from endnote 12, paraphrasing Patchett’s “Animal as Object: Taxidermy and the Charting of Afterlives”)
“The various reasons and purposes of preserving animals are ‘underneath and between,’ meaning that they are liminal and surface-level reasons, that cover or make glossy the visceral aspects of human desire . . . to prove something happened” (from endnote 13, referencing Rachel Poliquin)
There is a poem about the literal making of a taxidermied animal, “Of Men & Birds” that takes the reader through the process: “thrust your hook into his pelvis / and suspend him in midair (the better to work with the body) . . . be gentle with his neck (remember he was once other than object) . . . fill him up (a list of suitable materials follows) . . . when you take him home / notice his body (be filled with wonder) . . . you have never seen such a bird, / not even in your dreams.” The poem goes on to ensure that in its instructions for constructing this thing that is both object and subject, both animal and not animal, it shows its once alive-ness, while also showing the care given to the illusion. “he should have a few stitches / at his back, but not too many. / for obvious reasons. // you wouldn’t want him / to look a fool.”
Here, too, I don’t think the poet is talking about taxidermy, or not only. I find this a useful instruction for making a poem or thinking about how a poem could—or should—be made. Work with both hands; disjoint bones carefully; what wings! such feet! he is some good genius! But be sure a few stitches, a few seams (not too many) show, because it shouldn’t be too perfect an approximation of life either, there should be some intimation of a made thing, a thing touched by human hands, a thing that is not fully a recreation. Like taxidermy, a poem is “a dilemma of realism.”
The final poem is entitled “Extinct” and even more than the others in the collection makes use of fragments, half-starts, and dismembered sentences. This is heightened further by its form on the page, two columns that can be read in columns, or across, or both in sequence. The subtle shifts in the poem—depending on how one reads it (columns or across), and then how/whether/if one doubles back to the other reading occasions a contrast between things that survive: “fossilized sequoia” and “gold of an oil slick”—that final of final moments “eating the sun” and the already disappearing human who would witness these things: “the bone museum” that we’ve peopled with artifacts we collect and reconstruct for our comfort. I love the stop and start of this form, the way it sounds like an incantation of strangeness, the disjointing of images, pauses like unguents.
I highly recommend picking up this strong-voiced micro-chap that engages with all sorts of bodies and making and uncovers various ways of understanding what any of this means—asking far more questions than it provides answers for. The cover art by Rachel Allen is beautiful and perfectly paired; what a gorgeous specimen of a book. Together, the images of fur and feather and claw—and the hands that make use of them—give new life to the beasts of the woods, whether seen in their natural habitat or behind museum glass.
When I realized I was a lesbian in the summer of 2005, I seriously thought I was one of the only ones in the wide world.
I had never read a book about a lesbian. I had never seen a movie about a lesbian relationship. I had never visited a lesbian bar, or attended a lesbian concert, or gathered in a house with a group of lesbians. I did listen to the Indigo Girls, but they were famous, and the Swamp Ophelia album only reduced me to more weeping. I was twenty-eight, married to a man, and in love with my best friend. No one anywhere had ever had my experience.
The internet told me something different. On Netflix, I found movies, which were delivered to my house in their anonymous red and white sleeves: When Night is Falling (Canada, 1995); Fire (Canada/India, 1997); Aimee and Jaguar (Germany, 2000); Tipping the Velvet (UK, 2002). On Amazon, I searched for “lesbian books,” and found Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Somewhere out there, there were other women who loved women. Their stories, often anguished, but almost always fiercely passionate and true, became my community.
In November of that year, I flew to New York to stay with a college friend who lived boldly in a civil union with her partner. They took me to The Oscar Wilde Bookshop (now closed, sadly) and to Bluestockings, and I loaded my arms with more stories, as if I could, with reading, ward off my fear and loneliness. Rebecca Brown, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Joan Nestle, Lillian Faderman, Elana Dykewomon. Tell me, I pleaded with these other lesbians, who I am. Tell me what to do.
Meanwhile, I wrote mostly about parenting and adoption, about Alaska (where I lived at the time), about climbing mountains. My own story as a lesbian was fragile, in the way a tinder-dry forest is fragile. I feared that if I wrote about my love for Lia, it would flame to ash. And of course, it did, far more violently than I ever imagined. That’s the story Grief Map tells, but Grief Map also tells the story of the lesbian who emerged from that ash, the living woman, writing now about allof her experience because she had no other choice.
But after Lia died in 2011, I once again felt like I was the only one. I crouched in my grief and wondered what it meant to be a woman who loves women all alone. And again, the community spoke to me: the movies and the books reminded me that I was not the only one to have lost, that I could survive. I wrapped myself in those stories. I breathed there. I kept writing.
And yet I still felt as much awed distance from the lesbian community as I did from the Indigo Girls. I was just an isolated lesbian writer in Colorado. When my wife Meredith and I first met in 2014, I was keeping a sad blog called “The Boulder Lesbian,” as if I was the only one. It still felt that way.
I discovered the Golden Crown Literary Society by chance one early morning, when I was taking a break from a scene I was trying to construct in a short story. I wanted connection. Where were the other lesbian writers in the world? I googled “lesbian writers” and Google offered me “lesbian writers conference.” I clicked—and GCLS was the top post. I found myself on a website offering “the premiere lesbian literary event” each year, and an ongoing mission of dedication to “the promotion and recognition of lesbian literature.” I told Brain Mill Press, Grief Map’s publisher, about it, and they submitted Grief Map for a Goldie Award in the non-fiction category. But I didn’t feel part of it. It was another famous place where lesbians gathered, somewhere else.
Then I found myself at the GCLS Conference this July, listening to Lucy Jane Bledsoe and Rachel Gold and Elana Dykewomon and Dorothy Allison read from their work. I told myself, I am part of this community. And I was! For three days, I attended master classes and presentations and panels, readings and speakers in an all-lesbian space. I exchanged my card with other lesbian writers and readers. I discussed story ideas that revolve around lesbian lives. One woman told me she thinks of this annual conference as a sort of lesbian summer camp, and it did have that otherworldly shimmer. With its diversity of age and race and background and expression, the conference had the open-hearted kindness I’ve always imagined those circles of lesbians had in the 1970s communes. How wonderful, to move among these other lesbians in this lovely safe space, a literal haven from the smoke and crowds and din of Vegas.
Each morning, I walked through the Bally’s casino and breathed in relief to reach the conference rooms, where we lesbians retreated from the world awhile. Each evening, when Meredith returned to our room from her poker tournaments, I told her the stories I had heard people read during the day: a lesbian pirate, a lesbian doctor in a helicopter, a lesbian who disguised herself as a man in the 1890s, a lesbian who discovered her grandmother’s secret love had been a woman. I told her that Elana Dykewomon’s poetry made an entire room weep, and that Dorothy Allison was just as funny and wise in person as she was on the page. I told her that I had never imagined the power of an all-lesbian space, the way I literally felt all of us were embraced and held up there. Meredith smiled at me and kissed me tenderly and, because Vegas is like this, just outside our sixty-sixth floor window, the Eiffel Tower throbbed purple and blue with a party and the giant digital eyes on the Cosmopolitan reflected in the water in front of the Bellagio. We were in our own lesbian romance story.
At the GCLS Goldie awards ceremony on July seventh, I stood at the podium with Grief Map’s award for non-fiction in my hands, and I said to the gathered community of three-hundred and fifty lesbians, “Thirteen years ago, when I realized I was a lesbian, I thought I was the only one,” and a wave of loving, understanding laughter rolled toward me. I had never been alone at all. Later, when Meredith and I danced in each other’s arms on a dance floor full of only other lesbians, some in suits, some in dresses, some in wonderful ambiguous amalgamations of the two, I kissed my wife and I knew we moved, now, in the community, part of it all.
What’s next? At first, when I came home to Denver, the same slump threatened me that used to threaten me after summer camp when I was a kid, as if the world could never be as supportive and vibrant and connected as camp was. It really can’t. But the stories I tell in the next year can reach toward that energy. My new protagonist Sam can long for it. And then next summer, I can return to that all-lesbian space (in Pittsburgh in 2019) for a few days. I’m excited already.
The blue light from my computer screen illuminates my face as I scroll through my friends’ Facebook posts. This friend has just traveled to Hawaii with her husband. That friend has just hand-made clothes for her children. That friend has completed a Tough Mudder with his boyfriend. I click the thumbs-up icon, or I leave little encouraging comments. An hour passes. Two.
I joined Facebook late, considering that the company began in 2004. In 2007, the summer I decided to adopt my daughter Mitike, I created an account on the blue and white website people were talking about, and shared a photo of me, my mom, and my sister Katie tubing on the Upper Iowa River in Decorah. We are all grinning in the photo. Five people liked it, then ten. People with whom I had lost touch began to request me as their friends. At the time, I lived far away from all of them — all the way in Alaska — and my new cellphone (I was late to that trend, too) allowed me only a limited number of monthly minutes. Facebook was a free way to stay in touch.
A year later, when Mitike came home from Ethiopia, Facebook was a way I could stay sane, a way I could show everyone the sweet and astonishing little person I had promised to raise. I shared videos and photographs, and more people liked them, and more people requested friendships. I connected with adoptive parents’ groups and with Ethiopian culture groups. Every day at nap time, I checked my Facebook account — and I felt a little more connected in a life that, while beautiful, contained mostly cheese sticks and raisins and discussions about poop.
In 2011, when Ali died, Facebook became a place I haunted in my grief. I studied our old posted photographs for clues, and I left cryptic messages on a Facebook page that had outlived its face. The blue website no longer connected me, but encouraged my drifting, alone. For hours, I zoomed in on photographs to examine a smile, a look in the eyes, the clues I had missed. I ignored all my friends’ happy updates, and I dwelled in the darker places.
And then, still later, there were the years — the recent ones — when Facebook functioned as a joyful declaration: I survived! I have found love again! Hey, everyone, this is Meredith! We’re married! We’re happy! I posted photos and videos, links and updates. Mostly, I checked and checked Facebook. What had people said about my photo? Had people commented on my column? Had others liked my link? Facebook was part virtual scrapbook, part live feed into my life. I engaged with friends’ posts; I found and shared exciting events; I shared pictures of the dozen pink pussy hats I had crocheted; I vented my anger about the Trump administration. Morning after morning, I clicked on the little white “f” in the blue square on my phone, and it was like walking into a crowded room — look at this photo of my quinoa plants, have you seen what Trump’s done now?, can you believe how much my daughter’s grown?, there’s a rally downtown next Saturday and I plan to go.
This past June, when my family and I traveled west to stay in a rented cabin on the Oregon coast for a week, I decided, on a whim, to take a sabbatical from all technology. For seven days, I did not access the internet in any way; I used my phone only as a camera, on airplane mode. And…I began to take photographs so I could remember the moment, not so I could share it with five hundred strangers. At night, I reflected purely on the conversations I had had with Mitike and Meredith, not on the chatter of that crowded blue room. My mind was clearer, like a desk I had sorted.
For the few months after that, I returned to posting and checking and liking, but my brief sobriety had taught me something essential: I didn’t need Facebook. It distracted me from living my real life. Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened, and former Facebook creators and executives began to admit that the site is deliberately designed to addict us to more clicking and to direct certain companies’ ads at us, and, like Montag (Fahrenheit 451 is frighteningly apt here), I shouted, “No more!”
I deleted the app. It took seconds. I stopped logging on to Facebook every morning as I ate breakfast. I stopped visiting the page when I needed a break from my writing. I stopped scrolling through the 515 “friends”’ posts at stoplights on my way home in the afternoons. I just stopped, cold turkey.
And — I missed it not at all. For the months of September and October, as I moved through my life without Facebook, I did not once wonder what all the posters were posting, or what the likers were liking. When a November New York Review of Books article revealed some of the darker, far more serious reasons we should all free ourselves from social media like Facebook, I happily breathed my free air.
Then, in mid-November, I needed a few photos so I could craft our Christmas card. Like many people, I have not printed photos to store in shoe boxes or leather albums for years; instead, I have stored them on Facebook. Until I spend hours one day downloading all those photos (and Mitike’s baby and toddler videos) and burning the files to a CD, I cannot actually delete my Facebook account. That day, when I logged on to grab the photos I needed, the 6 messages, 68 new notifications, and 2 friend requests nearly seduced me to start scrolling.
But I held to my resolve. Facebook does not improve my life. It does not connect me more deeply to anyone. It does not inform me better than my daily reading of The Guardian and The New Yorker. It may announce events, but mostly, it pulls me away from real engagement in my community. Again, I say: no more.
I have been accused at several junctures of my life of Luddism, mostly because I resist texting everyone constantly, because I watch little TV, and because I have seriously restricted Mitike’s screen time (at age eleven, she still only gets three hours a week; we bought her a flip-phone for emergencies when she started middle school, but her iPhone is years away). Now I am deleting Facebook. However, like the original Luddites, I do not oppose the technology itself, but its threat to genuine human skill and human interaction. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter claim to better connect us, and yet the hallways of the high school where I teach are crowded not with boisterous teenagers but with solitary figures hunched over their iPhone screens, shuffling forward as they scroll through friends’ Snapchats. When I pass these zoned-out kids, I call out “Look up!” to startle them back into their real lives.
The original Luddite movement began in Nottingham, England, in 1811, when a group of angry factory workers smashed textile machinery in protest against low wages and too little work. In the months that followed, the British government deployed soldiers; the Luddites set fire to factories and broke more machinery; the soldiers fired into mobs; people died. Mostly, the Luddites feared, in the words of the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1829, a world in which “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”
In 1996-97, I lived in the Luddites’ Nottingham, in a second-story flat with eleven other American college students. There I knew a far better balance between my humanity and technology. Our flat possessed a single Apple computer that was good only for slow word-processing, a single land-line telephone, and a single television set. Sometimes, I took the bus early to the university so I could send electronic mail to my mom with my new Yahoo account, but that was it. My flatmates and I spent most of our time hanging out, attending plays, frequenting pubs, venturing into the green countryside. I wrote more, sketched a little, took photographs of crumbling walls and pubs on a film camera. When we couldn’t think of an answer or a definition, we engaged in fierce debate, because Google was still an idea in a Stanford dorm room. Except for the parents we called periodically, no one received daily or hourly updates about the pints we drank or the castles we visited.
And yes, I am saying that Luddite life was a better, healthier existence than this one. This fall, when my Nottingham roommate, Sarah, and I decided to move our friendship back into handwritten letters, I was astonished. Sarah and I have remained close for the entire twenty years since Nottingham, but these letters! In our rushed handwriting — while her kids slept, while Mitike did her homework, with early-morning coffee — we dove more deeply into reflections about our lives than we have in years on email and on Facebook. Paper and pen, actual envelope, the imprint of one page’s writing on the next: I read and re-read her letters like I have never done with her digital communication. True, I caught myself wondering why she hadn’t responded yet just an hour after I tucked my letter to her into the mailbox, but these habits are difficult to smash immediately. True, I considered posting a photo of my steaming cup of coffee next to Sarah’s letter with a caption like “Old friends, and a return to real communication,” but I resisted.
Oh, Facebook. I will not grow mechanical in head and in heart. I will not “take things at second or third hand.” I will see this world with my own eyes, experience it as it is, read more actual books of paper, connect with real friends face-to-face. I will look up.