Making at the End of the World

photo credit: Bruno Moretti at Pexels

On inauguration day, January 2017, my one-year-old daughter Eloise projectile vomited all over the daycare parking lot.

Life the past few years has felt a lot like that. I’m worrying about a Constitutional crisis while also wondering about getting vomit out of my hair before work.

For example, my husband and I are waiting on a contractor’s bid for some work on the house. Because we’re also low-key political junkies, we’re also following the process of the Democratic  presidential candidates quite closely at the moment. Arriving home from work the other day, he asked, “Any news about our future?” “Do you mean of the house or of the nation?,” I responded. “Oh, definitely the house. I’ve given up on the other one.”

Somedays it gets a little rough having two sarcastic newshounds in one marriage.

Of course, life these past few years has also been wonderful. Here’s a thing that happened the other day: Eloise, who is now four and learning to read, translated the jokey line in one of her books, “make like a tree and leave” into the poetic directive “move as the tree.”

Like lots of people privileged enough to be able to ignore or forget about geopolitical and environmental horrors, I sometimes do. Also, like many people privileged enough to feel physically and economically safe most of the time, this election has left me blindsided by political despair. So sometimes I do that thing too. SNL had a skit about the political despair of women like me immediately following the election, in which Dave Chappell looks on bemused as a bunch of white liberals discover American bigotry. Like my doppelgangers,  those fictional “nice white ladies” in their smug Brooklyn apartment, I too am adjusting to living without political hope.

Parenting and writing the kind of words that I do can feel foolish in this world. The range of maternal despair I feel is wide-ranging and varies according to what I’ve read most recently: I can work myself up about the fact that there may be no elephants in the wild when my girls are adults; I can despair about what it means to have girls in the world of Brock Turners and Brett Kavanaughs and you-know-whos; I think about how cute they might think their old mom and pop were to have held faith in the idea of governmental checks and balances.

In these dark and melodramatic moments, the work I do putting words on a page seems pointless and self-indulgent. I’m not a political scientist or a sociologist or an environmental scientist, and even within the world of literary and film studies, I am working on the frothiest of frothy topics—celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s. What does this book matter? Who cares if people were shitty to Jean Harlow and Katharine Hepburn? In better moments, I know, of course, that in working through the way these two women were perceived, I’m also working through my own feelings about how women (myself included) continue to be perceived. But it can be hard to keep this in perspective while also keeping an eye on the very distracting world around me.

This January I read two things on different topics, one on mothering and the other on art making that have made me think more broadly about creativity, making life, and finding joy in times of crisis. Both pieces are from writers with identities different than mine, identities which haven’t allowed the writers to blithely assume a friendly world.  First, I read Beth Pickens’ short book Your Art Will Save Your Life, in which  she talks about the political depression many in the queer artist community felt after the 2016 election, a feeling that led to a creative doldrums in which making art, especially making non-political art felt pointless. Her book is a practical and motivating read that reminds artists that humans find solace in the arts in dark times, whether that’s in explicitly revolutionary artworks or simply works that move us. She reminds her reader that art is not selfish: “art helps other people process the times we are in and live their lives.” Anyone who has been or had a teenager with depression, for example, likely knows how important music is to surviving that state. Too, and I think this is especially important in times that feel silencing, or suppressive, she asks creative people to remember artmaking as part of their identity, “Artists have to make art because it’s how they process being alive.”

Second, I read Kaitlyn Greenidge’s essay on mothering while Black and in a time of climate crisis. She writes of her own mother saying to her, ““Our people have always had children when the world was ending for us…If black women waited for a world that was hopeful for us to have children, we would never have them.” 

One thing that connects both pieces of writing is this idea that making (whether life or art) in a hostile world is a radical act. A world that is hostile—because it is too hot, or too racist, or too authoritarian, too misogynist, or too neglectful of your community’s health crisis—is a world that is at least indifferent if not antagonistic to your making. Pickens writes from San Francisco, where she works to help queer artists attain grants for their work. In her argument for the necessity of making art in tough times, she recalls the creativity of the ACT UP movement, which fought to bring recognition to the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s. Their motto, “silence=death” recognizes the fact that making noise, making art when others would rather have you be silent matters.

Too, Greenridge writes about how taking on the act of making life in a hopeless time turns her from the easy and perversely pleasurable handwringing of being “a Cassandra” foretelling the end of the world, to the work of creating and building a community:

“As these thoughts enter my head, I feel the keen, thin pleasure of catastrophizing–how it can make you feel like a brave Cassandra to point out everything wrong without ever doing anything about it. It is a pleasure that loses its appeal when you have a child. I think maybe part of having a baby at this moment is a way to counteract that profound spiral of darkness. But this is an awfully big burden to put on a person who will have to bear the brunt of a crisis she had nothing to do with making.

I’m writing this from my family’s home—where my mother and sisters and nieces live. I have thought all day today how much easier it is to mother her here, how babies are meant to be raised communally, how so much of our culture that tries to convince us that we should all live in isolation is the cause of so much despair, so much anxiety that can find its way into the actions of a Cassandra and less into the actions of building a community.”

For Greenidge, like Pickens, making and political action work together. While Pickens points out the way art making is necessary to sustain the self while waging battle, Greenidge flips this and points out that once she has made a life, she finds inaction less palatable and takes to building community.

I have a friend who talks about wanting to be with others when bad things are happening. She means being with others at protests, and we have seen lots of moms, lots of little girls, and lots of artists in the streets these past years. In my little own town, there is now a generation of kiddos  used to carrying signs and chanting.  This website is my effort to be with other women who are trying to make things in a world that doesn’t especially value women or the things they make.  

For artists who despair about making art when they feel they should be doing activist work Pickens writes, “when thinking about making art and all other possibilities, eliminate the word instead.” That sounds like good advice to me.

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