learning of intention and ecology from the ‘ways of antiquity’ | reflecting on the Met

It’s tempting to oversimplify and romanticize the past, but a recent visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art got me in my feelings and sparked questions in me – what is there to learn from the “ways of antiquity”? What, generally, could the ancients still pass on to us? What is there to carry into the future?

It’s something in the differences of approach to essential and daily habits – necessarily and naturally – between us now and those for whom society was a nebulous concept, and resources were basically whatever was there.

It’s like they bore the moral responsibility of working with the environment to survive, sure, but deeper than that, it was key to their being. These people did the same things we do, but with more intention, reverence for each piece, seemingly unaware or phased by the concept that defines them now, the ways of antiquity.

I mean maybe the pure golds, textures, jewels, and intricate designs were meaningless then – they certainly weren’t worth as much as in the present-day. Perhaps they were fully aware that they were not guaranteed the materials again, or they created without considering that they would need another of the thing before the time came. If so, it wouldn’t be a replica. Maybe that conservative approach laid the foundation for engaging fully in creative, constructive processes, in the development of skill.

Perhaps the value we calculate was the result of one person or village’s act to reinforce the significance of that object to them – the utility in its being and the craftsmanship in its creation manifest, without division.

For the first time – and it could be that I’m projecting emotional vulnerability at this time in my life – a museum made me feel sentimental. Looking at the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas actually felt so intimate: ogling jewelry, critiquing letter openers, admiring instruments, observing texts, that belonged to people across the world. These items were built to last beyond that glass – they aided people’s social, spiritual, and physical well-being. 

Now, we humans mass-produce, ship internationally in a day, and digitize ourselves – surely, quality, artistry, and economy exist in another realm as a result. What of our history? Will it be told in the mundane and unique, in the fantastic outliers?

When there are millions of the same forks in circulation, what will future humans place in museums to identify where they’ve come from? Sure, a fork isn’t spectacular, but the tradition of sharing meals is ancient, and to be witness to that is telling of the impact of our ancestors on us.

It’s like they left pieces of shared memories, snapshots for us, where the age on it and difference in era is obvious. But you squint, and wonder, are we so far apart? Have we falsely separated ourselves from them? Old and new ways may merge yet. Necessarily, in my opinion and hope.

Much of the skeleton of those societies remains with us; humans continue to pray, to nourish our bodies, to gather, to trade. So they have left these artifacts behind on their way, and I wonder what this era’s imprint will be. We should ask, “how some of the same human activities manifest?”, considering the problem of many hands and short-sighted economic development, with wasteful practices and the costs of innovation making it difficult to start for many people.

As the wake of industrial capitalism takes its toll, though, there are more and more viable, ecologically-attuned alternatives rising as well; some take us back to ancient ways and others project our future – and both, of course.

I use “wake” because I believe it’s on it’s way out. Times change, and opportunity grows where we are present to reinforce it. Now, we have room to employ updated philosophy and morality regarding the pieces and practices that fill our homes, making conscious decisions about what we produce and consume and trade by considering both past and potential. The scope of wastefulness and wants that plague us in contemporary living demand that we do.

So about what it is we can learn from folks long gone – it can be the little things that have deep meaning in the scheme of it all.

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vigil for the fallen: reimagining safety, security, and prosperity for black lives

Columbia, SC
October 1, 2016

Community organizers Tianna Mills and Rachel Barringer opened this forum at the South Carolina State House to remember the lives taken and regularly threatened by police brutality and racial violence. Thankful to them for creating a healing space, openly confronting pain, and fostering a spirit for action amongst us all. They welcomed me to share a poem, we don’t-land, and then this speech, elaborating on the sentiment.

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Human essence doesn’t belong to this society, to these structures. Black people were a commodity and blackness, this culture, grew in opposition to the shackles, the chains, the lynchings, the rape. Violence. So when we gather in the street and we say no justice, no peace – we are revolutionary. Every time. When we demand to speak truth through creative expression, or demand political participation, when we speak truth directly to power. We carry on a tradition. Coming together like this is our right, and it has been our salvation.

State-sanctioned violence against black, brown, and native people in these United States is not new and it is not limited to police interaction. That cog in this machine is relatively new. The prison industrial complex, criminal justice system, and for-profit policing as they are now – these institutions were intended to preserve safety and security for some, from others when slavery was abolished and black people gained the rights of American citizenship bit by bit.

Now, are we surprised that they continue to do the same thing?

 

…what does safety, security, even prosperity as people – what does that mean to you? Economically, socially, politically?

 

I want to be clear that the impact of these structures manifest socially, economically, and politically, and we can see those intentions, to manipulate, marginalize, and dehumanize black people from slavery through to today.

But y’all can and SHOULD do your research. Look to contemporaries like Michelle Alexander, Te-nihisi Coates, Marc Lamont Hill as well as the work of those involved in relief civil rights movements. White people, you can also look to Tim Wise, Jane Elliot, Ann Braden.

From here, I want to speak to the present, and to our potential.

 

Wages are kept stagnant and welfare is stigmatized, as one in five children are food insecure in this, the richest land, the strongest country on Earth, as we say.

 

Now I know this election is a disheartening one. But let’s take a good hard look at this concept of “law and order” being thrown around on the right and used to delegitimize this movement further. We know it’s code for subjugating blackness. Again, this fascist fear-mongering rhetoric is not new.

But in its essence, what does safety and security look like to you? Is it a badge, a gun, a uniform, flashing lights? Is that all? What about community? Accountability? Access?

In this land – where freedom and bravery are supposedly paramount – the same structures, and folks within them, that justify (even reward) the police killings and the culture of excessive force, justify lead poisoning communities of color. See: Flint, Michigan.

Just as public education is underfunded and segregated, transportation and housing are disproportionately inaccessible to people of color. Wages are kept stagnant and welfare is stigmatized, as one in five children are food insecure in this, the richest land, the strongest country on Earth, as we say. Institutional priorities are fucked up and they’ve been fucked up.

 

It is a surrender to the status quo, an allegiance with no standard, without consideration for future generations or a real claim to our own future.

 

So I ask again, what does safety, security, even prosperity as people – what does that mean to you? Economically, socially, politically? As we gather here to affirm that Black Lives Matter, how will we apply that to the communities we live in and the organizations we support? Will we demand more of our elected officials – I’m talking local – school board, city councils, state – as we’ve seen in NC with the governor, etc.

So, when we “land”, when we settle and quiet down and comfortable, we continue a public passivity. It is a surrender to the status quo, an allegiance with no standard, without consideration for future generations or a real claim to our own future. We have to actively fight back, fight for more of what is right, always, and collectively – and in our own way. Some of us will be activists and organizers, some of us will educate through art or conversation; it is enough to be unapologetically ourselves and in those times we will encourage others to do the same.

Things must change for us, and for our children. Change is the only constant, and the secret of change – I think truly living change – is to focus all of this energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

hungry

are you eating though?

diet is all that we consume, spit, chew

– habitual nourishment

 

are you swallowing everything they give you?

if they sliced your insides,

would they find poisoned persons,

leaded pipes, oil-tumored fish?

 

an environment in a void?

sowed by averted eyes

when humans, whole in asking their fill,

ask whatever we can spare in shared streets

between the extremes of need and greed

 

so, if you could have a that you wanted and nothing more, what would you give?

 

those unseen and not heard

may be over the herd mentality

 

starved, bodies rejecting the constant processed cud

when the institutions’ false sense of security

fenced us in

to fight for scraps, fumbling on crumbs

– you know, people drown on land all the time

pulling out dregs, trying to break the surface

with one hand extended, one behind the back, flat

 

what do you hunger for now, given that?

 

ss.

 

to be, rather than to seem

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RUNAWAY is a Durham streetwear brand, and this is their take on the NC state seal, bearing the motto “Esse Quam Videri”, Latin for the phrase “to be, rather than to seem”.

 

Reflecting on state of being, settling into a new state, and looking toward manifestation in the year ahead, I’m struck with questions of autonomy and authenticity.

To be frank, I wrote this at least a year before publishing it. I think it took about this long to embrace what it contained, to be prepared to spring from it as I’d imagined – or rather, to learn not to hold myself back for or down to a single blog post, poem, or other statement, and spring forward a bit every day, at some point, any way.

What is it to be? How do we go beyond seeming to care, to being about it?

We want our actions, lifestyle, and relationships to align with the things we think and feel are right, right? Realistically, consistency and candor are tough – we are human, after all. But perhaps that inclination to live authentically is deeply rooted, innate, natural.

I struggle with conscious, socially responsible living; balancing concern for the world around me with the things close enough to be within my control. I’m learning, some of us feel guided to cultivate our own ideas of how to live, from which we can build intention and structure our lives.

 

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Sometimes, being open can be overwhelming and existentialism too abstract, especially when considering how to ‘make a difference’. Early on, I stole away into myself until the pressure sparked my next purge on Facebook. But it’s nice, this sense of my own capacity for actualization has welled up over the past year – as hope, I’m pretty sure.

Still, there’s that constant fear of falling short. Although there is no archetype for our dynamic selves, shame at falling short of it kept me from doing and engaging, from nurturing my psyche, capacity, and connection to the world. I’m learning that every step along our paths – charging forward, taking a reflective step back – holds meaning.

So, what makes the difference between seeming and being as we make our way?

looking back

Growing up, milestones like birthdays and new years catalyzed internal this is me, now phases and shredded notebook pages. Now I’ve realized, we can’t wait for overnight success, perfect timing, or infallible opinion. It’s more like “okay.. this is me.. and now.. wow, is it? yeah, still working on it” and as conditions change, so do we.

Philosophical questions surrounding human rights, our potential, the way we relate, and the conditions for an environment supporting self-actualization and connection drew me into my studies. The more I learned of the system and the status quo, I sought something different. But I wasn’t exactly sure what. I graduated lonely, unmotivated, and disillusioned – the earnest nerd at my core frustrated with the way higher learning was squashed into checkboxes. Academia and what felt like the weight of the world brought on bouts of spiraling doubt, anxiety, and a dissociated, floating feeling.

It was jarring to recognize the manipulation underlying..

  • ..income inequality and graduates crippled with debt for higher education supposed to prepare us to contribute to the (under-stimulated and outdated) economy.
  • ..industrial-scale practices that continually harm our environment and as a result, our health. It makes perfect sense that we ignore calls to climate action when corporate donations are technically constituent speech and when resources and rights owed to the people of Flint, Michigan and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are simply political casualties.
  • ..concerted efforts by the criminal justice system, prison industrial complex, and pharmaceutical industry to perpetuate and benefit from the inaccurate scheduling of marijuana, criminalization of black and brown bodies, and the stigmatization of substance abuse and mental illness.
  • ..voter suppression and manipulative media. I was among the people distraught when Senator Bernie Sanders lost the democratic primary and the voters rightfully indignant and relieved by our cynicism once the Democratic National Committee’s (obvious) collusion to undermine him was confirmed.

..and I couldn’t unsee the connections, and I felt it was hopeless to try to point them out.

 

looking around

I know I’m not the only one who wants to dismantle systems of oppression, or whose given up on popular narratives and party politics. There are real nuances to living collectively, in a way that respects the environment and each other. I’m inspired by the people who have and continue the work to aspire and challenge, navigate and overcome, with conviction. Let’s continue to face the complexity, reject easy answers, and forge forward. We have a future to create. 

Durham’s artists and activists, the people that are fueling this place as it changes have irrevocably opened my eyes. It’s a place thats growing, gentrifying, breaking ground, and trying to stay whole all at once. Cities are living things too. Sometimes I think it’s no surprise this move has come with a new appreciation for change.

looking ahead: three things to keep in mind

Don’t waste time worrying about wasted time.

Underestimating what we can do as individuals, I was taught this year, is its own hubris. I’m speaking to the idea that you can’t do enough as just one person, so why try – or that you’re unsure exactly how to do something or make a difference, so inaction is inconsequential. Of course, there are real external and internal limitations, and the non-stop push and pull between them – but indecision is a decision.

People, plants, and projects grow and manifest with care and consistency.

I firmly believe we possess the agency to make the alignment of identity and existence happen, to live consciously and efficiently – not perfectly. If we are compelled to innovate, evolve, or forge our own path, don’t we naturally accept the capacity to misstep? It seems to be a mish-mash of taking things bit by bit, being engaged and aware, then developing some practice of reflecting for growth and projecting into the future. In doing so, we could break down fear bit by bit as we process and progress!

I’m of the belief that we’ve just got to work at a balance of thinking, doing, expressing, letting go, and sharing – personally and collectively – or else we hold on to more than is necessary or good.

You get as much as you put in.

I’ve explored dreams of pursuing the physically impossible and disrupting deeply ingrained societal norms in my poetry, but this year, more of the rose-colored, slimy-sweet gunk fell away from my eyes. Perhaps more than ever, the personal is political and while it’s surreal enough to observe, I do worry: if I am not versed in my own truth, tailored by fact and experience, challenged by criticism – will I speak up when it counts?

We have to speak, act, learn. This living is cyclical, manual, and involved, so where we can dig in to hone our skills and interests, we should. Whether its for our own well-being, towards self-sufficiency, or to help others. Many of us already do within the creator market, or when we crowd-fund for a cause.

 It is in our nature to share opinions, perspectives, and questions for collective thought. The volume of that voice can weigh us down when it goes unused. I believe, for everyone, expression is vital transference of energy.

Imagine, one opportunity or experience at a time, we take stock of the components influencing our lives – individual and collective – process them, and put them towards something more, leaving what no longer serves us behind. We are each but one contributor, but maybe what results from intentions interacting as a collective can feed all of our growth.

Vision matters.

My father says, “a river with no direction is a swamp”, and as my path develops, I know I must embrace motion, however things unfold.

There is a richness to the present, even in the coming darkness, and I feel a mystifying momentum driving human trajectory at this point. And we have always given of ourselves to movements and perspectives, to be catalogued and carried on. I am here as a documentarian, to contribute to conversations about real, radical social innovation, and to participate in the spread of conscious resistance to the current rate of consumption, living the green revolution.

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It would be wise never to claim to know exactly what that looks like. Hope is not direction, and relies on the absence of certainty. Misguided ego can confuse things, make “seeming” to others appear as real as “being” itself. But I’m comfortable working from somewhere in the middle; our actions must have effect to see positive change in any increment and vision doesn’t come with step-by-step instructions.

So, I’m trusting the writing process, which has always brought things to light. I’ll continue to be present, use my voice, and engage readers who share these interests, I hope. My commentary and musings, these blossoming posts will be awkward, opinionated, lofty, cynical, dreamy, hopeful, fallible, and flexible. Be forewarned.

Thanks for reading this little manifesto. This one’s a bit more for me than any readers but stay tuned, there’s more to come!

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ss.