On Becoming Practical

I came back to Milwaukee a few days ago, after spending over two weeks on writing retreat in the woods and rural areas of Ontario and Michigan. Tina and I camped on a island in Lake Huron and in Ojibway territory and in a gay camping resort where the tanned and shirtless boys were all busy decorating their campsites for “Christmas in July.” We spent a week at Small Pond Arts, a self-directed artist retreat in the Lake Ontario island county of Prince Edward, sitting in the yard and writing and watching the butterflies go by.

We were seriously out of it. Panicked messages came in about political issues back home. Friends wanted to know what I thought about the recent scandalous campaign filings of a couple city and county officials. School board members wanted my input on strategy around domestic partner benefits for public school employees. The governing boards of some organizations I work with had energetic correspondences about various pressing concerns. But I couldn’t access my voicemail and my phone reception was bad. We had internet service at Small Pond, but we didn’t have a lot of bandwidth and sometimes trying to download email or check Facebook just wasn’t worth the wait. And besides, there were those butterflies.

We wrote a lot. This is what we had set out to do. Six hours a day every day at Small Pond, plus an hour here and there on campground picnic tables and beaches before it got too dark. We each cranked out about 50 pages of text on our current book projects, plus I did a little side work on a couple poems and a performance piece and Tina wrote a short story (her first!). We also cooked some really good meals and made some great new friends and laughed a lot.

From the perspective of a writer, this was a highly productive trip and I hope it sets the tone for the next six months, a period in which Tina and I hope to finish drafts of our books.

So, I guess we’re writers now. I’ve been resisting being a writer for 30 years, because it always seemed such an impractical enterprise. Words? You’re going to change the world with words? I have fought a lot of fights — ran for office, barricaded doors, given lectures, organized marches, outwitted corporate lawyers, advised minor neighborhood insurrections — all trying to change the world in ways I wasn’t best-suited for. The work I’m cut out for is writing, performing, and teaching.

It’s not that those fights aren’t critical, it’s just that I’ve been coming to the fights with the wrong tools in hand. It’s time for me to radically change my approach. I hope my writing and performing advance the work of my com(p)adres organizing for a sustainable, just society. And believe me, I’ll still show up when the antibiotic-laced factory-farm slurry hits the fan. I often joke with a longtime friend of mine — a friend I’ve butted heads and hearts with more’n a little bit over the years — that we may disagree in the short term about when to take action and what to do, but when the revolution comes, she knows she’ll see me there on the front lines.

This has been a year of big self-discovery for me. I’ve come to realize I probably shouldn’t be serving on your organization’s board. I shouldn’t be volunteering to help you galvanize support for your issue. I don’t have the emotional or financial resources to attend your political party banquet. I definitely shouldn’t be spending time organizing any rallies. So I won’t. I should be writing. It’s impractical for me to try to do anything else.

I’m going to be writing for now, as much as I can. Let me know when they come for the kids or the water, though, give me a sec to grab a rock or something, and I’ll see you on the ramparts.

July 30, 2012 Blog Posts