Piper Haywood wrote one of those very good posts last week—a cross-section of personal interests that manages to be both minutely specific and widely resonant. It was full of thoughts about female furniture designers I’d never heard of and Joan Didion essays on notebooks and ideas about the distinction between personal blogs and…whatever else it is that we do to try and share ourselves on the internet. I loved reading it. It also reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about here.
It seems silly to say, but I wasn’t prepared for just how often I’d come face to face with the things that made me now that I’m living at home.
My dad never taught me about Commonplace Books or Zibaldones, but he kept one religiously.1 He was always hunting for quotes and anecdotes to fold into his teaching or add to his column in the local quarterly magazine. He also inscribed them on the collaged, abstract bookmarks he made for everyone he met. A great deal of his creative expression boiled down to this magpie tendency—a delight in gathering raw materials and mashing them together into something new.
Piper shared a quote from Didion where she talks about the notebook as “bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” This certainly seems to have been the way my dad approached his pocket-sized collections. His penmanship makes every page feel like a work of art, but I don’t think they were primarily made to be shared—at least not in this form.
And yet below every quotation about children or parenting there’s a note:
There’s no way he could’ve known I’d open to this page, having just read Ondaajte’s poetry for the first time last November. Having listened to Aimee Mann in college. Line after line, I see so many names and themes that have showed up in my own obsessive collecting.
When Didion lists the kinds of people who keep notebooks, she closes with “children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” It makes me shudder in recognition.
Growing up, I was all too aware that my parents were the age of my friends’ grandparents. My extended family weren’t down the road, but scattered throughout England and South Africa and Canada. I didn’t have siblings. I’ve been bracing for as long as I can remember to try and make sure I’ll be able to survive on my own. (No wonder I placed such a high value on independence in my career.)
I think I felt that keeping my parents had to be an act of willpower—one I could fail at and therefore had to approach with constant vigilance. But when I see these notebooks, something shifts in me. These words are confirmation of something I’m trying to learn in my bones: I couldn’t lose these people even if I tried. Their patterns made my patterns, at least in part, and as long as I pursue those patterns, I carry them forward in the world.
My inheritance is ubiquitous.
1. I don’t know how to do tenses with him. He doesn’t do these things anymore, but to speak about any of it in the past tense makes it sound like he’s dead. He’s not dead, but vast parts of him are no longer present. How do I talk about that? I don’t know. ↩
Over on Patreon:
When I shared some process images from my voting rights comic for Oregon Humanities over the weekend, Katie left a comment saying “I really want to get into comics as activism, because it’s kind of the only skill I have to offer, but I’m not sure where to start”. I’m sure this is a common concern, especially among folks who are part of Patreon because Patrons tend to be oriented toward both creative practices and social good, which is why you’re some of my favorite people.
The post I wrote in reply to Katie’s questions covers pitching, payment, research, and interviews, plus links to folks doing great work at the intersection of art and activism. Hopefully it’ll be useful to any of you thinking about this stuff.
Also relevant: fellow contributor Sarah Mirk’s comic on how Multnomah County passed universal preschool last November is now live on the Oregon Humanities website! She’s such a wonderful visual reporter. Go give it a read.
Luke added this illustrated addendum to the GOES Books site after hearing from some people that they felt guilty claiming a comic without also paying it forward. It’s so good. This project is so good.
Okay well right after I wrote that whole thing about distrusting heroics Zina told me she’d done her first volunteer shift administering COVID vaccines and I will admit that in that moment I found myself whispering “oh my god she’s a hero“.
But that’s not the addendum. The addendum is about SAINTLINESS, which is adjacent to heroism.
I remember my mum telling me that people would say “Oh, you’re such a saint” or “You’re so selfless” or “I don’t know how you do it” when she shared that she was taking care of my dad (and freelancing, and running the household, and so on, and so on). It made her furious because it felt like a classification that divorced her from having the right to lose her temper sometimes, or to find what she was doing impossibly difficult, or to demand (and deserve!) help from her friends.
“Then again,” she added, “that’s probably because I wasn’t complaining to them. I didn’t want to be a downer.”
I do this—play it off when I talk about what’s happening with my dad. I try to put other people at ease because the alternative means engaging fully (sometimes in front of people I don’t know well and maybe don’t trust) with the immensity of my grief.
Saints, superheroes, “successful” people…there is a flattening that comes along with these labels—a reduction in interconnectedness. It’s what drove me to give that XOXO talk in 2016, and it’s what keeps driving me to try and talk about this stuff more publicly; to push back against the part of me that wants to make out like I can do it all on my own.
tl;dr: I’m becoming increasingly wary of any label that obscures our reliance on one another and denies us our wholeness as human beings. I think that’s it.
I just received some questions for an upcoming interview, including one about whether I know any real-life superheroes.
The question was meant to be part of a “lightning round” of easy options, but I’ve been chewing on it all morning. It feels like it comes paired with an unspoken definition, and I think that definition and my definition might be different.
Of course they don’t want to know about whether I actually know anyone who can shoot webs from their wrists or manipulate plants with their mind (and who’s to say I’d even tell you about those people if I did know them, hmm?), but my guess is they do want to know about people who fit a specific social profile. It’s wrapped up in the way we often talk about healthcare workers or firefighters—people who devote their lives to selflessly helping others.
I’m sure plenty of people have written about the role of superheroes in a system obsessed with power fantasies and quick fixes, but I’m going to scribble this down anyway for the sake of my own brain. Elevating essential workers to “hero” status feels akin to saying “A woman is president!” as if that solves the fact that the presidency itself is built on questionable foundations. Heroics feel given over to urgency and spectacle and performance. They create a division of responsibility, placing an unreasonable burden on the exceptional “heroes” to enact change, rather than addressing the root causes of a broken system.
So when I try to answer this question, I come up short.
The people I admire are mostly moving in spirals, guided by curiosity, poking their heads into things at odd angles, and reporting back with offerings. Often they’re taking the time to think about their values and then embody them through practice. I say “practice” instead of “action” because the latter still feels too close to…the other thing. Most importantly, they’re all in constellation with (and inextricable from) a web of other people who are thinking, wondering, helping, and connecting, too. And so it feels disrespectful to label them as “heroic”.
As Le Guin says:
[…] it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.
This combination of words (rabbit/potato) makes me laugh every time.
Moving into caretaking as a practice, I’m noticing that there’s no “fixing” any of this. There’s no dramatic reversal. There’s just presence and flexibility and willingness, and that’s the best I can aspire to at any given moment. It’s a rich, sad, funny, strange stew.
Maybe I’ll just say Spider-Man.
A couple years ago, my friend and fellow cartoonist Tessa Hulls got a gig speaking with the Washington Humanities Speakers Bureau. Her role (which is still ongoing) involves being sent all over the state—from city libraries to rural town halls—to share her talk about women traveling solo in the early 20th century. (A talk written, I should mention, after she’d completed a 5,000-mile solo cycling trip from California to Maine. Bad. Ass.)
Hearing about her experiences with the Bureau was the closest I’d come to seeing what state-level humanities organizations were all about. I’d heard of the National Endowment for the Arts, but never really understood what it did. It turns out that there’s an entirely separate organization—the National Endowment for the Humanities—that Lyndon Johnson signed into law at the same moment in 1965.
The National Endowment for the Humanities established 56 state- and territorial-level humanities organizations all over the country in 1973—including our local branch: Oregon Humanities. These organizations all have marginally different aims, but their overarching goal is using the study of the humanities (defined very broadly) to nurture a society that is thoughtful, creative, equitable, and proactive about engaging with difference. Some organizations focus on grant-giving, others run public discussion groups or programming, and some (like Oregon’s) put out quarterly magazines. The amazing thing about this being a government-funded organization is that the magazine is free to anyone living in the state. Seriously: you give them your address and then they just mail it to you and it’s gorgeous and full of amazing writing and illustration and all kinds of good stuff. This is no fly-by-night operation.
Anyway that’s a mini history lesson about Oregon Humanities. Hopefully it explains why I was thrilled when their editor reached out to me at the end of 2020 about doing a comic on voting rights for the Spring issue. I’ve been cranking away at it over the last few months, doing a ton of research, conducting interviews, and trying to condense, condense, condense so I can cram a bunch of complex policy issues into six scant pages.
I learned an enormous amount about the history of the franchise (aka the right to vote) during this process and found that, as with most topics in U.S. history, the highlights we’re fed in school don’t tell nearly the whole story.
I ended up centering the comic on three key areas: age, immigration, and incarceration. While the organization I wanted to interview about a non-citizen voting bill ended up having to postpone their efforts until the next legislative session, I still had plenty to work with. I took a deep dive through the state’s founding documents, explored voting access wins in recent history, and spoke to advocates about lowering the state’s voting age and securing the vote for people in prison. The resulting story, which comes out in just a few weeks, is dense, but gives a pretty solid overview of the issues at play.
The reason I’m writing this, though, is to document the most valuable part of working on the project.
My friend Sarah Mirk, who’s also contributing a comic to the issue, got assigned to help edit my piece. This was great news, since we’ve worked together before and I admire her skills and ethics immensely. When I turned in the first draft of the script, I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information I’d ingested and worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it all justice in such a small number of pages. I was particularly scared to tackle the wide-reaching impact of racism and White Supremacy on these systems. It’s a topic that many of us have engaged with very closely in the last ten months (and beyond), and it can very easily come to feel obvious.
“Of course these systems are founded on rotten policies that disproportionately impact people of color,” said some part of my brain. “Everyone knows that.“
So I punted.
I didn’t think I’d punted, but when I look at the first draft of the script? I punted. I turned in a comic that talked about a variety of issues and historical facts and angles, but never explicitly stated that voter disenfranchisement is inextricably entangled with racist policy-making.
That unwillingness to be explicit stemmed from a scarier feeling: “This is so big and I feel like I still have so much to learn—there’s no way I’m capable of doing it right”. It’s a feeling tied to zero-sum thinking and perfectionism (both hallmark principles of White Supremacy—surprise!) that ended up pushing me to elide crucial information.
And Sarah, because she is a great editor, read the first draft and twigged this right away and said “There is a huge piece missing from this story, and I know it’s a lot to engage with and weave in, but I believe you can do this“.
It turns out I just needed permission to try. And (again, because she is a great editor) Sarah had a ton of practical suggestions for quotes, sources, and imagery to include that would make these links and themes clearer. This piece as it stands wouldn’t exist without her.
I’m not saying the comic is now The Best Thing Ever—there’s still so much that had to be left out—but the reason I wanted to write all this up (rather that doing another “Here’s the roughs and here’s the inks and here’s the colors” kind of process post like I usually do) is that I think many of us have probably been in situations like this: moments where we recognize the impact of racism, but worry that we don’t yet have enough knowledge or language or mastery to call it out.
And the role we can play for each other, as editors or just friends with eyeballs looking over a project, is to create trusted relationships where we can encourage one another to lean into that discomfort and practice. It’s very easy to feel like getting this stuff wrong will doom us, but in fact the opposite is true. We don’t get better without being willing to goof it up sometimes.
So that’s a lot of words about relatively few pictures. I’m really looking forward to sharing the whole comic when the magazine launches later this month.
P.S. Go look up your local Humanities organization. I bet you won’t regret it.
Austin shared some lovely sketchnotes from a talk on writing as a form of prayer yesterday, and this bit really leapt out at me:
Out of all the interesting subjects they discussed, I think I was most taken by Father Martin’s explanation of how his vow of poverty affects his writing. Martin is “editor at large” at America Magazine, and as he explained it, he basically has the freedom to write about whatever he wants. The same goes for his books: All of his royalties go to the magazine, so he’s mostly unconcerned about sales. […] Writing, for him, is never a struggle.
Absence of pressure as a prerequisite for pleasure. I love this.
I’ve still got Luke’s phrase “financial profit is not possible here” reverberating around my skull from the launch of GOES yesterday, which has me wondering:
What happens to a creative practice when you proactively divorce it from capitalism? (And what form does that divorce need to take in order to be an effective means of culture-shift for the individual and their wider community?)
I think of this as the inverse of those well-meaning friends and relatives whose first words after seeing something you’ve made is “You could sell these on Etsy!” You might as well say “You could siphon all the joy out of this practice and replace it with crippling performance anxiety!”
Who are the people in my life whose response to any nascent creative work is: “Have you considered trying to make this as un-commercially-viable as possible?”
And more importantly: what allows someone to follow that instinct?
Shing and I have talked a little lately about feeling the hustle go out of us in our 30s, and how following the course of that ebb is a privilege earned by hustling a lot in our earlier career days (alongside other factors, of course). Overfunding a Kickstarter or landing an unexpectedly lucrative illustration gig—or even, on a more sustainable scale, running a Patreon—is a means of buying your own creative freedom for a spell, but all of these still involve an initial influx of cash. You have to pay to play.
(The string layer is back on.)
Okay, listen: I’ve been pretty consumed lately with barking up my own mental redwood tree about patronage and interdependent communities and what it means to try and support artists during late-stage capitalism, but this morning I got an email from my friend Luke Kruger-Howard that felt like turning around and realizing that this isn’t just one goddamn redwood. There’s a whole forest out there.
Luke’s email (and it was an email, addressed tenderly to many friends, which is the kind of thing I love getting) announced a new physical publication (Goes #1), released under the aegis of a new publisher (Goes Books), but it stopped me in my tracks because there was something different going on.
He wasn’t running a crowdfunding campaign. He wasn’t encouraging people to preorder. He wasn’t even asking for money.
Instead, I got to read this sentence:
This comic will be free for all readers, gifted by other anonymous readers along the way.
Hear that? It’s the sound of my heart exploding.
The only encouragement in the email, beyond asking people to talk about it which, like, DUH OF COURSE HOW COULD I NOT TALK ABOUT THIS I WILL NEVER SHUT UP ABOUT THIS, is to sign up to receive a free copy of the comic in the mail. That’s it. 2,000 copies of this new beauty are headed into the world and they will all be gifts. I already have so many questions! Is there a Mysterious Benefactor who financed the initial print run so that, potentially, every copy could simply be given away even if nobody chose to pay it forward? Or is there no initial capital beyond Luke’s own savings and this is just a massive trust fall? Is it more or less of a trust fall than running a Kickstarter?
Whatever the answer, I’ve never rushed to give somebody $20 faster in my life.
In the delightfully-illustrated financial transparency page, Luke writes:
This is an investment in the relationship between artist and reader—between stranger and stranger. Financial profit is not possible here.
The comic will always be free.
The comic will always be free.
Oh yeah also P.S. any money raised beyond what’s needed to pay forward all copies of the comic will be donated to RAICES. HELL YES TO THIS.
I’m going to save all the other yelling I want to do about this for Friday because you can bet your ass I texted Luke the moment I finished reading the email and begged him to sit down for an interview. If there are things you’re interested in hearing us talk about, let me know.
Haven’t been super exact about remembering to cross-post when I release new Rambles, but I wanted to be sure I shared my latest one because people have said some deeply thoughtful and lovely things in the comments over on Patreon, and I think this is a discussion worth having right now.
Broad Themes: similarities between grief and creativity in both their acute and ambiguous forms, what to do when there is nothing to be done, Vaccine Feelings, broadening the window of tolerance for discomfort, models for social and economic validation, the metrics that matter in understanding Patronage, object permanence and online audiences.
Guest Starring: a lot of birds.
(If you prefer reading to listening, you can download a transcript here.)