I suppose I could have said “no” to your invitation to come to Guatemala, to be in residence and in dialogue with you and Lily Cox-Richard at Yvonne, but really what would have been the point? Our friendship has always been premised on trust and care—from its earliest form as a writing group (with Chelsea Weathers and Tara Kohn), to the current conditions of dialogue from afar…across states, across national borders. The potential to wake up and retire in conversation with you every day for three weeks was simply too enticing. I am grateful for the invitation, even more grateful for all that happened during that time.
I gained much—thanks in large part to your encouragement to be open to what Guatemala offered. This is also what I value most deeply about your work, which is your insistence that it must be tied to life, to being present and in community with others. It’s hard sometimes to remember that this is an available option, and I am still learning from the many lessons you’ve offered in the form of nothing less than a model of how to live.
You write to me about speed. Can I tell you a funny story? When I was in college I had a friend (ok, he was an acquaintance, really) come up to me one day and say, “You know, I can always tell where you are on campus, because even from far away, you’re the dot that’s moving faster than all the others.” This unsolicited observation came a week after a professor asked me jokingly (half-jokingly?) if I was on speed. I’m a fast walker—I hoof it. I’m a fast talker—my words often trip my tongue. The speed of the world is something I find myself attempting to match, and my acceptance and resistance to it changes daily, weekly, yearly. I am still learning where to conserve and where to exert. Breathing is good (as you suggest), so is centering. But I’ve never been one for yoga, and I rarely stare off into space. I play a videogame, I watch a trashy TV show, I show up to a bar with friends to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.
This is only one of the many ways in which you and I are different. I know, for example, and your letter evinces the fact that you push against the idea of institutional affiliation, and against the idea of a life in academia; whereas I have sought it out, even when I was barely holding it together shuttling between teaching, food service, freelance writing, and curating. I think that’s why you found my comments in the car to Lily so shocking. But what I would say to that is that this is part of the language of my friendship with Lily, as we’ve supported one another in the emotional rollercoaster that a life in and around academia produces. It is also the crucible that partially formed our bond. Your mistrust and skepticism are well-placed. Any sane person should have doubts and strong reservations about the state of higher education (its corporatization and administrative bloat, its reliance on adjunct and precarious labor, it vampiric draining of students’ financial resources, its position as a combative and defensive place of production). When our former university wanted to post an announcement in their newsletter that I had gotten a job, I refused to participate, because I didn’t want to be the carrot at the end of someone else’s stick. “But,” I was told, “Your success shows our grad students that it’s possible.” My experience up until recently had shown the opposite. I asked if they would consider publishing a screenshot of the hundred-odd folders of application materials that I then had on my desktop. Each one was title with the name of a school or museum, followed by a dash and then a “NO.”
But I think in spite of these reservations I believe there is important work to do within such a system. Did I ever tell you that my Mother worked for 30+ years as a lawyer for the Texas state government, for an agency that used to be called the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation? She would come home and tell me horror stories about the conditions of the state schools and hospitals, about the difficulty of hiring and keeping good people, of the pages-long waiting lists of families with critical care needs. You’ve met my mother, who I sometimes jokingly describe as Ina Garten without a house in the Hamptons, so you know her general affect. Why wouldn’t such a person (nice, caring, ethical) walk away from a broken system? Why wouldn’t such a person join an advocacy organization, holding the state government accountable to a higher standard of care and distribution of resources? I can’t answer those questions for my mother, but I sometimes feel I’m repeating the same story, and finding new answers for myself.
Guatemala. There is the work I thought I would do (insular, focused on the writing that has been preoccupying me for the length of our friendship), and then there is the work that was actually done (in studio visits, desayunos chapines, McConos Navideños, and sometimes-silent walks through complicated terrain). I purposefully left myself at your mercy, and so I had the pleasure of experiencing your pacing alongside the shape of your social world. It was clear to me that this place is a newfound home for you, that warmth seeps out of the relationships you have, and that you have important things to do there.
Connection is a word that is often used by travellers to indicate how important an experience is in retrospect. The fantasy is that such an experience ties them indelibly, via a knot of affect and memory, to a place. When I was in High School, my friends and I were encouraged to make a trip to Israel, so we could “feel a connection” with that place. To say I feel a connection with Guatemala sounds silly to my ear, and even imperialist… after all I was only there for three weeks. How much could I know? How much could I have seen? Not much, really. And yet… I know there is more to do, artists to continue to have conversations with. Perhaps it is this sense of futurity that I mean when I write I feel a connection to Guatemala; the sentence hasn’t ended yet, it has just produced a semicolon, perhaps one of many.
I am reading—in fits and starts. Things that are useful for my work. Things I’m finding interesting for class. I am learning more about the new city I’ve found myself in (I have a small stack of books for Summer to learn more about Los Angeles in the early 20th century). That is pleasure to me. It feels like a full life. And when it no longer feels that way, I assume I’ll reorient. This, at least, we do have in common.
In the wake of this new administration in the US, where every day is filled with geopolitical bombas that seem to reorganize my internal sense of the way things are, of the way people are, I am grateful for the place of kindness and connection you’ve created.
You sent along many questions, but I suppose I only have one, which is when, and under what circumstances, can we do this again?
“Hoy existe el mundo” indeed.