Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Scholar, writer, editor

Page 3 of 13

No normal again

As media and everyday rhetoric in the so-called West continues to focus on ‘returns to normal’ I’ve found myself more reflective about what ‘normal’ means, and who is and has been excluded from it. I think about the bodies whose blood feeds a small sector of the world’s concept of normal – from access to goods and vacation spots to which bodies need to be heavily policed for a very small segment of the world to feel safe and free.

I am thinking of who is left out when a global pandemic that has kept me from seeing my immediate family in sixteen months, that most certainly means that the last time I saw certain other friends and family members is likely the last time I will see them though we could not have known this, is declared “over” because a certain part of the world has vaccines. I’m thinking about vaccine access and how the profits of billionaires and corporations have been given preference over people, and for whom the pandemic will be extended and worsened because of that callousness.

I am thinking about borders, and who gets to take their ability to cross them for granted. I am thinking about how on paper I should be able to take border crossing for granted but reality and the past four years of rhetoric around immigration has taught me differently. I’m thinking of what it would be like to be able to travel without exit strategies, without contingency plans, without always thinking six months in advance.

I think about friends who still bear the weight and fear of the last year, whose lives were made easier by accessibility measures and the lack of need to travel or be physically present in places to be part of things, and how in the push to reclaim normal, they are now back to being excluded.

I think about people who were able to bear their jobs better, despite the pandemic, because they did not have to put their bodies in front of their coworkers. I think about people who have been broken by their jobs because others still demanded to be served in certain ways, and demanded that their bodies were put on the line for customers’ senses of normalcy and entitlement.

I think about how all the tools were right there; all the choices were right there to build back a better world. To choose to make people and their needs the focus of governing rather than corporate profits, to reshape modes of life into gentler patterns. I think of every time those choices were let go of in favor of egos and profit and self-centered patterns of thinking.

I think about sacrifice as a word, how often it is said by people who very clearly do not know its meaning. I think about sacrifice as an action and a promise to the future, and the legacy of the sacrifices of others, usually more marginalized than me, that is the only reason I am enfranchised with the freedoms I have today. I think about the communities that have given so much, that still fight for all, even as after a year indoors certain people have only found more vitriol towards that which is different to them, and scares them.

I think about fatigue, and exhaustion, and coping. I think about who is allowed to express those things in public. I think about all the people I know, coping, bearing not only the strain of a global pandemic but a world that does not want them to exist as they are.

I think about the people who are desperate to turn back the clock to times that have never existed, other than in their fantasies of their place in the passing of the universe. I think about how isolating it must be to have all the answers, to have made yourself afraid of change and new ideas.

I think people who will never get the credit for the work they have done to build communities, to protect communities this past year, and before. I think about the people for whom “normal” was never good enough. I think about the people for whom “normal” has always meant their lives stolen, their land stolen, their resources stolen, their children stolen, their culture stolen. And then put on display for people who can pay, who can even in the midst of a pandemic decide to travel to islands and resorts because they just need a break, without thinking about the ramification of their actions on others. I think about those who insist that just because something has been kept open, that it should be used, instead of thinking more broadly about why and how and what motivates decisions.

I think about people who think intentions are ethics. I think about people who don’t have to think in worst case scenarios, who are allowed to feel comfortable in the bodies they inhabit. I think about who gets second chances, and third, and fourth, and fiftieth chances, and who is never allowed to fail much less show weakness or signs of incompetence.

I think about what it means when we as adults say the kids are alright, point to the strength and conviction of youth and absolve ourselves of responsibilities for why they have no choice but to be strong. I think about how, this too, is a stolen childhood. I think about whose childhoods are stolen.

I think about whose safety, whose grief, whose feelings are given preference and airspace. I think about forests being chopped down for funeral pyres.

I’m thinking about who feels entitled to speak over people about the issues their people face. I’m thinking about people who think that their google searches are the same as practical and academic experience and expertise, and who is ultimately given space to speak.

I’m thinking about the audacity of never having to consider positionality before carefully folding thoughts into words and letting them slip past lips. I’m thinking about the audacity of considering oneself the universal, and who is allowed to do this. I think about who has the right to be fragile, to be less than perfect, to crack at any point. I think about what counts as stress, or duress, or pain, and how often its legitimacy is decided by those outside the body experiencing it. I think about what it would be like to consider my mind without the implications of the body it is attached to. I think about what it would be like to be embodied of legitimacy.

I think about what it would be like to not be aware of my body also standing in for so many other bodies. I think about the freedom of not being aware of being the only in a space, and what that does for what I might do or say. I think about how my normal is not the normal that is being cried out for. My old normal is so much more restricted; my new normal is still so much more free than others. I don’t want to think about normalcy anymore.

On Surrender

No, not quite like the Cheap Trick song… But I have been thinking about the idea of letting go much more recently.

I actually started writing this a few months ago, as I was moving through the “clean out everything” stage of a second? third? lockdown, but what I really was meditating on did not quite emerge until after this week, and really, not until I was in the middle of this yin yoga session this evening, and the word “surrender” kept being repeated. Surrender into the pose, into the ground, become heavy – take up space, take up time, take up breath, let the ground support you, let go. To indulge in being fully embodied and release everything, to luxuriate in a single pose for several minutes just breathing, feels rarely permissible in a world that did not even allow people to breath or reduce their outputs in the middle of a global pandemic. But if I have learned anything over the last year, it is that we need that kind of space more than ever, space to just claim our own needs despite other peoples’ demands and claims on our time. But to do that we need to be more attuned to letting go, to giving ourselves permission to let go.

When I moved to Edinburgh to do my MSc, one of the things that was most dear to me was a care package sent by a friend who at this point is one of the few I have left who have known me most of my life. Along with some candy (a lot of candy) it was full of camp swag – bracelets, a sticker, and a reverse tie-dye staff tee-shirt, a piece of home that made me feel so grounded in a new space.

Those camp t-shirts were something that I thought I would never run out of. I’ve had piles of them for years that always seemed to grow. But at one point over the winter I put on the one that I had brought with me for my PhD (not the one in the photo), and realized that it did not fit the same anymore. I had been spending the winter reorganizing our apartment. After the super-structure of wedding planning and finishing a thesis, the sudden gap in my life needed to be filled with something, and I had watched many organizing shows on Netflix through the summer. I launched myself into making things easier to find and access, and declaring war on things that had been nearly unused during the years we had now been here. Clutter needed abolishing. There would be a vision for closets and spaces and an overall guiding aesthetic focused on being able to have either of us use any room for any purpose easily. But while I had flung myself into all the other closets in the house, and even gone through the bookshelves before we moved everything around, I had yet to face my own clothes.

When it comes down to it, I have a tendency to feel like my stuff roots me, and I hate to let it go. And I hate being reminded of change, that life implicitly changes whether I want it to or not. Unfortunately, when you start to go through clothing you packed into suitcases about three years ago, inevitably, things will have changed. Like this t-shirt. So I spent a couple days in January trying everything on, letting go of things that either no longer fit right, or had been worn through, or even things that did not make me feel like me. It felt indulgent, but also refreshing. In a way, I was making space for me in the moment, but also space for who I wanted to become, how that person might change or grow, or shop differently. I was not letting my past choices weigh me down. I was not forcing myself to hold on to things as if losing the things would somehow even take away the nostalgia I had for them.

Moving forward a few months, still in a period of life-limbo, moving out of this stage of being where constant overachievement and production coincides with constantly feeling not enough, I finally had a four day writing workshop I had applied to in the fall begin. And suddenly, I was not the only person in my life looking for release. Over the span of four days, what started as a class turned into some kind of international group therapy, where suddenly, we all had permission not to produce things, but just write for us. Just play on the page, in ways that no one would see unless we wanted to. The performance of writing was eliminated. And for me at least, there was an ability to surrender to a joy that was buried under so many other more negative emotions.

Surrendering to joy, to creativity, to what we want to do and the stories that just have to get out is something that is conditioned out of us so often. And by letting go of what we should do or ought to do, we make more space to become what we need to be. We have to be allowed to outgrow our past selves and our past choices, and do so without guilt. It does not mean that we reject who we were, it just means we keep giving ourselves permission to keep growing, transforming. I needed this workshop to relearn this. The image of me and my future in the back of my mind is a bit like that old camp t-shirt that I have worn to bits. I keep squeezing into it, but it does not quite fit anymore. And I have to let go of it to make room for what might come next.

So what might surrender mean for me, going forward? It means being selfish with my time, my space, without guilt. It means not holding on to things that are not fulfilling. It means making choices based on my own needs rather than other peoples’ ideas of what and who should be making demands on my time. It might mean trying new things, or making space for the workshop experience to continue. It will mean giving myself up to the spaces and people who are supportive and nurturing. And what I think I want out of life ultimately is to be able to have the space to become not the best version of myself, but the version of myself that makes me the happiest. If that means learning even more to let go, to surrender more deeply to what might yet come, then that is what I need to keep practicing. But while I do that, I am going to hold on to the joy of that workshop experience, hold on to the satisfaction that putting the house in order after some major life events gave me, and I’m going to let those two emotions be what drives me going forward.

What next, as we all have become Cassandra

I’ve started writing this countless times now. And to tell the truth, I am not quite sure what to say or how I even feel about the election. It is an odd space to be in as someone whose job was at different points covering news, or commenting on current events. Its an odd space still for someone with my varied research interests, who writes for a living, because right now the words just won’t come, or they continue to feel laden with the curse of Hecuba’s daughter. And so I join the ranks of unwilling Cassandras, screaming into various voids, unable to be heard by those unwilling to listen, to believe what their own eyes would show them if they would only look.

I guess, first, is that I can’t quite seem to stop holding my breath; its not over until there is a concession, until we see the change and the damages undone in a way that they may never be done again. I am scared for the people who I care for who are more marginalized than I am, because they are watching a lot of allies who no longer themselves feel threatened take the results of this election as a win, instead of a harbinger of how much there is left to fight for. I’m tired of analyses from the outside with no context of the greater complexities or histories behind the current state of things, of the questions, the disbelief of where we actually are, of being forced to give time, energy, and credence to the privilege of other people’s shock, and feeling obligated to listen and respond nonetheless. And yet, there remains an overwhelming weight of resignation: what is the point of writing, of speaking, if it is always going to have to be fettered and constrained by other people’s understanding, especially those who don’t know or recognize the depths of work they have to do to not make these moments feel inherently violent, to not make these conversations add to the threat I have felt for years, or recognize that what they put me through, so too have at least 50 other people as their token whatever box they have stuck me in at any given time.

And under the resignation, the smallest rise of audacious hope as I heard the newly elected leaders speak; the conflict and emotion of seeing two people whose policies I fundamentally find too weak, too flawed, and too conservative to meet the needs of the current moment speak and yet bring hope simply through the appearance of competence. And realizing that as much as I need to punch back at the centrist middle ground rhetoric for the danger it poses, 10 year old me needed so badly to see that woman on that stage, to hear Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris say:

“So Congressman John Lewis, Congressman John Lewis, before his passing, wrote: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” And what he meant was that America’s democracy is not guaranteed. It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it, to guard it and never take it for granted. And protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice. But there is joy in it, and there is progress. Because we the people have the power to build a better future…Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before, but know that we will applaud you every step of the way.”

from “Transcript: kamala Harris’s victory speech

I still, several days later, cannot read that without crying. I cannot deny how gratifying it was to in a single person see the definition of what it means to be from my country expanded so much. I cannot forget the lightbulb moment, seeing her in white, of understanding why I eschew color so much, why I wear so much black to blend in and efface my difference, elide my comparative darkness which is so stark in lighter colors, why I have remained so hesitant and afraid to stand out. I cannot deny the empowerment of being given permission this far into my life to be myself, unapologetically, through a new reflection of what I might have one day strived to become if I could have ever seen that image of success as possible.

And yet I still know it is not enough; Harris might embody a new story, but as N. K. Jemisin has recently pointed out in an incredible Twitter thread, we do not know how to tell better stories than what we are up against, and too many people are too willing to buy into their own feel-good stories and simple narratives about what went wrong instead of looking at all the hard fixes, the should-dos, and the ways in which they themselves might be culpable in the ills of the nation. The Overton window keeps shifting right and the people who are not under direct threat keep accepting it all as normal without even noticing that the rights affirmed in the 1960s have been systematically chipped away in every way since then – and those dragging the country back to a time when many nations were banned from immigration and only certain people had the right to vote or even live in certain areas are aiming to take away even more. Instead, they fixate on phrasing that scares them and fight it and dismiss it even though they have no idea what it refers to nor do they have the presence of mind to learn about it before reacting. And they pull the conversation to their fears, and away from the people those conversations are meant to protect and liberate. The moderates and centrists we’re meant to appeal to, who dominate every damn analysis on the air right now, do not know that they do not know how to dream, and see any potential difference as a nightmare. And the rest of us look to the impeding nightmare, and wonder how far down this road we will need to go for them to wake up, if they ever will.

I’ve spent six years now actively, if not longer in truth, watching people turn away, turn to conspiracies, bury their heads in whatever comforting lies they need to in order to keep their days ‘normal’ their connections with others ‘civil’, and feeling the sense of doom rising. When faced with the unfathomable they turn to the stories that shore them up individually instead of grasping the pen and creating new ones that might give safe harbor to everyone. And so I guess I remain among the ranks of unwilling Cassandras; we are many, often women, often marginalized in some way, often othered one way or another, still fighting to be heard, to encourage people to step forward into truth so that a new reality might be built once the one we are actually in is faced. But I cannot force anyone to look any more than I can for them to see, nor can force anyone to hear us any more than I can beseech them to listen. I can only hope, in the most audacious ways, that there will be a lesson learned from the history we know before we become ourselves even more of a cautionary tale.

« Older posts Newer posts »