(Transcript from the podcast The Second Page on the theme "getting lost")
I preface this story with these words: I am not a capitalist. At my fake birthday party last week, there came a point when people were intoxicated enough to cry without anyone noticing…and I cried. More like wept, reclined next to one of my closest friends. CJ put his arm around me so that his tattooed bees crept down my side, and insisted that my angst was a sign of passion, not hopelessness. I wept because I could not, and still cannot, reconcile my politics and my life.
I seek no sympathy in this. Certainly, in a post-Occupy world where radical politics are the butt of an already-tired joke, I know better than to bring sob stories about my generation to a public light. To assuage the offendable, I am employed. I have been employed to a massive corporation for well over a year now, underpaid, overworked, just like the rest of middle America. I am reliant on my employer to make ends meet for rent, to afford food, and for the incredibly precious health care that so many friends of mine lack. When I have internal bleeding, I have the privilege of paying only 20% of my medical bills, and as a result I’ve never developed the fearlessness and sense of invincibility that propel my peers into reckless, but ultimately worthwhile life decisions. I am employed, 25, and already I feel frail.
I took a corporate job when I first moved to Brooklyn with my ex-boyfriend. The company was prodigious in scope, anonymous in its Craiglist ad, and surprising me during my interview with a winding tour of two out of the seven floors making up its larger Manhattan office. Minus my recently paid security deposit, I had two hundred dollars in the bank and was living between Chipotle burritos and cinnabons every other day to try to make money work. I was 6’00” tall and weighed just barely 135lbs. When I failed to negotiate a median salary in my field, I took the offer anyway. I needed it, and the opportunity was one that would grant me corporate IT experience instantly—and remove me from unemployment and days spent in my ex’s father’s basement.
This much I know now. If you wind up doing what you want with your life immediately after graduation, you are one of the most fortunate. Few people, save those who jump immediately into graduate school or perfect jobs they are lucky enough to obtain, find themselves in a stable place those months later. I know many friends who are underemployed, paying off student loans, working jobs that have nothing to do with their desires, and are happy. I found no solace in this—I simply felt lost, immediately, and deeply.
My job was mere blocks from Zucotti Park. I had literally just told myself I would join in with Occupy Wall Street every day that I finished ten job applications, and had been on my way the next day when I got the job offer. Mere weeks later, I was wheeling carts into freight elevators, listening to blue collar workers making the same salary as me complaining about the movement’s ignorance. I had my chance to be a radical, and I turned it down to work twelve hour shifts, leaving work at least once a week at midnight, sleeping five hours, and returning.
Even at Oberlin, I wasn’t very politically active. I thought about issues constantly, and somehow managed to metamorphose from a Libertarian in a small Kentucky high school to a strong Democrat at graduation five years later. However, during trips to protest mountaintop removal, I remembered my Appalachian family members and felt too strongly that they knew the situation better than I ever would— and that the last thing they, as strong mountain folk needed, was a bus full of white college students intervening in their affairs. When I canvassed, I sought to increase overall voter turnout rather than support a candidate. As a person who never really desired to get married, I didn’t take a strong stand with the HRC on gay marriage, and was more so incensed with their past history regarding transgender activism. I stewed, quietly, and turned away the opportunity to take action.
It was months later, after I recognized how poisonous the heavy hours at work were in tandem with living with my ex, that I met CJ. It was supposed to a boring casual date, a tepid friendship at best. I was intending to fill the void only for a few hours, see a museum I’d avoided up until then, like all the other dates I’d gone on. I was not supposed to have gamelan instruments on the floor of my bedroom when he dropped by. He was not supposed to recognize them. He was not supposed to have almost gone to Oberlin, nor overlapped at a concert I nearly attended on campus when brought in from out of state by one of my professors’ requests.
We were not supposed to have sat there in my apartment instead for well over an hour, discussing music and books. But we did, and he mentioned the book he was reading— Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. The next time we hung out, it was at a queer bookstore and activist center that he volunteered with: Bluestockings, in the Lower East Side. I bought the Halberstam, we split dumplings in China Town, walked to Christopher Pier, and he said goodbye before moving to Chicago to attend graduate school. His arms were not covered in bees then, but as I saw him over the months he returned, I learned of his plan to get the tattoos, the meaning of them to him, and I saw them added to his flesh whenever he rolled up his sleeves.
His last gift before moving was a recommendation to the volunteer coordinator at Bluestockings. I somehow jumped the stack of forms and found myself in a closing shift in what can be described by all-too-many labels, but most appropriately by none. Feminist. Queer. Trans. POC. Anti-racist. Anti-capitalist. Anarchist. Coffee shop. Bookstore. Meeting hall. Safe space. Oberlin, away from Oberlin.
In the week where I still felt the tinge of a best friend’s move, I devoured Queer Art of Failure. Halbersta m taught me life lessons in getting lost. Being found, it turns out, was not so powerful a tool as I thought— while it meant financial stability (as best as lower middle class can offer), self-preservation closes as many doors as it opens. The treatise was simple, and Google Books’ description does it the most justice:
Failure sometimes offers more creative, cooperative, and surprising ways of being in the world, even as it forces us to face the dark side of life, love, and libido.
It was really then, gin & tonic in one hand, mocked twice already for reading at a gay bar (I don’t do that any more) that I realized I was lost. Realized, and began to accept.
There is no fairy-tale ending to this story, certainly not yet. I don’t think there needs to be one. Being lost is the state of my life still. I’ve volunteered with Bluestockings for nearly half a year now, read countless other queer theory texts, and still hold down the same corporate job. I’ve come into contact with a rich unfinished legacy of artwork and activism crafted by the hands of victims of AIDS, spurring me to join a vaccination study for HIV. I have produced little in a year, still make drastically less than my fellow computer science alumni, but I no longer believe my self-worth is what measured in what I produce. Paradoxically, I’ve begun to create more than before (though just barely). I’ve learned why my political beliefs are beliefs and not just opinions. And, I haven’t reconciled those beliefs with every facet of my being, but I have no interest in being a tidy human. I seek to self-sustain and look for alternatives— to see different opportunities as they are, and constantly ask myself if I am doing some good, by my terms and by no one else’s. I now understand what Halberstam says, when they write:
For queers failure can be a style, to cite Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend on trying and trying again. In fact, if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.