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.

Beyond Urgency

About a month ago I signed up to participate in #WriteThemAll, a campaign organized by Critical Resistance PDX with the goal of writing to every incarcerated person in the state of Oregon. (That’s 14,500 human beings, in case you were wondering.)

I joined for a few reasons:

First: I love writing letters. I send a lot of mail, and the realization that I could leverage that love for causes I care about has informed a lot of my activism this year. Letter writing is also a slow motion activity—a category of thing I’m trying to spend more time in these days. (There’s a separate post in there, I’m sure, but I’ll leave it for now.)

Second: I’ve read more about abolition this year than ever before, which is great, but I made it a personal goal to pair insight with action in 2020 so it felt like the right time to step up and do more than learn. Abolition feels like a vast and occasionally overwhelming conceptual goal, but I think engaging with it through a slower activity like writing letters is a good way to operate at the edge of my comfort zone and become more familiar with the concepts in practice.

Third: CR PDX has a mail night once a month where folks can gather on Zoom and write letters together. This is very good. I’ve found a lot of solace in Kat Vellos’s Connection Club during 2020, and am glad for any opportunity to sit in companionable silence with other people (even remotely) and work towards something we all believe in.

Fourth: I needed to plug into something that wasn’t about the election. I wrote many Vote Forward letters and Sunrise Movement postcards to young voters last month, but if 2020 has made one thing inescapably clear, it’s that voting is just the tip of the iceberg. The urgency of this moment makes it easy to feel like getting out the vote is THE most important thing, but our country is failing so many communities right now, and they will continue to face the same challenges on November 4th, and December 4th, and January 4th, and so on.

When people scream “WE’RE OUT OF TIME” I try to take a deep breath and remind myself that I don’t believe in zero-sum games.

Instead, I think about the things I can still work towards next week, next month, or next year. None of this is over. Not racism or injustice or climate change or my creative practice or the love I have for my loony parents or the to-be-read pile on my bedside table—and certainly not the list of letters I signed up to write.

They will very likely reach their destination after the election has come and gone, and there will still be work to do. These days I find that state of ongoingness a comfort rather than a burden.

We get to keep up this practice, day after day. What a gift.

If you’re curious about #WriteThemAll, here are some ways to learn more and get involved: