History is not kind to us
we restitch it with living
past memory forward
into the panic articulation
of want without having
or even the promise of getting.
–Audre Lorde, “On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge”
I have been curious about selfcare/self-care/self care as it has circulated attached to Audre Lorde. A quick (but not comprehensive) search of Audre Lorde’s poetry and prose reveals that she never used selfcare/self-care/ self care, at least never in any of these forms. I suspect the term was familiar to her. It’s common in cancer care—it’s deeply embedded within health paradigms. Another quick (but not comprehensive) search indicates that selfcare/self-care/self care enters English somewhere in the eighteenth century, though the idea of it is much older. (I’m trying not to invoke Foucault’s care of the self, but I’m trying too hard, so let me invoke it here and let it go.)
In its present incarnation, this idea of selfcare/self-care/self care that attaches to Audre Lorde is taken from a passage in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is an act of self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The idea has received generous, loving, and space-clearing elaboration by Nick Mitchell and Sara Ahmed.
Nick argues that Lorde’s critique of self-indulgence valorizes resilience (a term philosopher Robin James thinks about beautifully). This demand for resilience, often incarnated in the figure of the strong black woman, makes it difficult to consider and inhabit vulnerability and pleasure, pain and suffering. The documents of colonial modernity (what some call racial modernity) emphasize the black’s ability to bear pain.
Ahmed draws on one of Lorde’s keywords, survival, to discuss the politics of persistence:
In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered.
Ahmed has taught me to think about the long life of metaphor—how does one assemble what is shattered? Shattering always brings me to glass, sometimes ceramics, but mostly glass. Skin-breaking, body-scarring shards. No matter how quickly and efficiently you sweep up broken glass, little shards might escape, do escape. They gather to pierce. How does one assemble a community from the shattered? What kind of community can that be?
What injuries do we inflict on each other to be together?
An aside from something else I am writing.
I have thought a lot about toxicity and damage—how one lives with them, how one suffers from them, how one is destroyed by them, how one tries to manage them. There’s no shame in saying I have not learned how to manage damage. There’s no shame in saying I don’t want to learn how. Livability cannot be endlessly deferred
I have been stuck on two things (imprecision is needed). Lorde described herself as a poet. In “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she explains poetry as the incubator of the emergent.
For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.
As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have once found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but the true meaning of “it feels right to me.” We can train ourselves to respect our feelings, and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.
Poetry reaches for, runs after, lingers on, makes possible. Poetry thinks. When I think with Lorde, I must think with her poetry.
I’m stuck on self-preservation. What is self-preservation? I think of centipedes rolling in on themselves, hedgehogs curling into spiny balls, tortoises retreating into their shells. Such images take me away from “warfare.” Or make it difficult for me to get to “warfare.” I suspect that “self-preservation” does something wonky to selfcare/self-care/self care, or, perhaps, returns selfcare/self-care/self care to the healthworld in which it is embedded.
The will to persist (conatus, as Elizabeth Povinelli teaches me in her engagement with Spinoza) might be read as “warfare.” But I think it takes a lot of work to get from “self-preservation” to “warfare.” It depends, I think, on which animals one thinks with. I reach for tortoises.
To be minoritized is to be gathered by and through dissolution.
Notice the structure of Lorde’s statement: the move from “caring for myself” to “self-indulgence” to “self-preservation.” Notice the isolation: Essex Hemphill calls this isolation “loneliness.” What if self-preservation relies precisely on this loneliness? Under what conditions is self-preservation possible?
I’m staring at Our Dead Behind Us (1986) and The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance (1992), Lorde’s final two collections of poetry. A Burst of Light falls between these two, even as we know that publication dates for poetry collections may have little relationship to when poems were written. Still, acts of gathering are useful.
Several weeks after I started writing this, I’m still staring at her two collections. I’ve been unable to write through them—even at its most lucid, her poetry is still incredibly difficult. Also, I really want to avoid the poetry-makes-shit-immortal line that we inherit (most famously) from Shakespeare. (Every English major absorbs this.)
Instead, I have been thinking about self-preservation—about pickling and drying and salting and canning and freezing. About what happens to flavor and texture, about health and treatment. The zoloft-fog I refuse to inhabit, though it promises to extend some version of living.
Perhaps I’m stuck at the relationship between survival—one of Lorde’s keywords—and self-preservation. If the Lorde we now think with in our neoliberal times is the Lorde of selfcare/self care/self-care and not the Lorde of survival—I’m trying to tread carefully here—I think we need to ask why. Perhaps self-preservation gives us a different way to get to Lorde.
What is self-preservation’s relationship to survival?
What is that affective and ideological shift? What is the change in tactic, if there is one? I think there is.
I’m tired. I don’t know how to continue. This, too, is about self-preservation.