Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

“Collective Works of Grief: Unsettling Loss, Reinhabiting Humanity” anthology, ed. Cindy Milstein, forthcoming AK Press

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Note: below you’ll find the overarching frame for an anthology I’m pulling together, Collective Works of Grief: Unsettling Loss, Reinhabiting Humanity (AK Press, forthcoming 2017). Stay tuned for more details, including essays/authors and publication date!

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Your struggle is a crack in the wall of the system. Don’t allow Ayotzinapa to close up. Your children breathe through that crack, but so do the thousands of others who have disappeared across the world.

So that the crack does not close up, so that the crack can deepen and expand, you will have in us Zapatistas a common struggle: one that transforms pain into rage, rage into rebellion, and rebellion into tomorrow.

—SupGaleano, “The Crack in the Wall: First Note on the Zapatista Method,” May 3, 2015

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We are, at present, swimming in a sea of grief. It includes death, but is also so much larger, encircling all sorts of sorrows. In a better world, many of these disappearances would be avoidable, even unimaginable. For now, given the loss-filled waters we inhabit, how to better navigate through them, and without drowning? How to shift course, veering closer to a more humane self and society?

This is not new by any means. But it feels all the more imperative in a time marked by the greatest displacement of people in human history and greatest structural devastation of the very basis of life, the ecosystem as a whole.

I come to this anthology—Collective Works of Grief: Unsettling Loss, Reinhabiting Humanity—through my own pain, which is also inseparable from the pain of this world. I have traversed “the worst,” sometimes deftly, oftentimes not; sometimes with others, too frequently alone. This pain laid bare much cruelty, some of it systemic, some of it socialization. One of the cruelest affronts, though, was the expectation that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatized—a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold a deadening social order. When we instead open ourselves to the bonds of loss and pain, we lessen what debilitates us; we reassert life and its beauty. We open ourselves to the bonds of love, expansively understood.

Fissures appear in the wall.

Collective Works of Grief will gather firsthand, frontline stories—works of artful wordsmithing and agile thinking—speaking to what it looks like when people collectively yet personally disquiet centuries of loss. It asks its contributors and readers to journey without answers, with curiosity, by walking directly into and through grief. It sees the work of grief, and spaces for it, as something that like water and libraries, should be freely, healthily, and publicly available to all. In this way, precisely because we can more openly experiment with sharing the fullness of life, we can begin to rehumanize the world and ourselves. For if we can’t reinhabit the essentials of what it means to be human(e), we surely can’t be the people capable of inhabiting communities forged on trust, reciprocity, and care.

Indeed, by walking headlong into my own pain and that of others, I’ve stumbled on to more intimacy and sensitivity, honesty and insight, than ever before—something that would not have appeared without the hurt. At the hospice that honored my parents’ wish to die, as one example, I learned that it’s possible to cultivate a counterhegemonic culture, in which our behaviors are guided by the intertwined ethics of alleviating suffering and accentuating quality of life.

That walking has also shown me much evidence of hearts taking hold of their own brokenness, generously aided by and mutually aiding others. For instance, in the class-war-torn social fabric of San Francisco’s Mission, which I called home, I discovered that organizing “solidarity not charity” direct actions not only facilitates greater resistance and even victories against rampant displacement. It lifts those being evicted out of their suicidal despair, and into the understanding embrace of those facing similar loss of home and place. Eviction defense becomes, concurrently, emotional defense.

I’ve witnessed pain transformed into weapon, wielded by caring communities in the fierce battle for a little less painful world. On the streets of the Bay Area, along with many others, I’ve accompanied families whose loved ones have been murdered by police. My neighborhood has engaged in public rituals that are equal parts making and defending do-it-ourselves shrines, walking side by side in processions of remembrance and protests of rage, spray painting and wheat pasting a culture of defiance, angrily disrupting police “community hearings,” and happily creating community celebrations to honor our dead. Of late, these public works of grief have helped invent grassroots forms of (healing) justice in the face of a police state that grants itself impunity.

There are innumerable illustrations, of course, like those drawing from the courage forced on people by unasked-for circumstances, turning a place-name—like “Ferguson” or “Ayotzinapa,” “Gaza” or “Greece”—into a flash point. There are proper names, like “Oscar Grant” or “Freddie Gray,” or single words, such as “deportation,” “refugee,” or “HIV,” that in getting chalked up to the litany of loss, voice an unwavering resolve, made visible and poignant. But all the public works of grief that emerge from these deceptively simple words interweave mourning with the fight for truth and freedom. There is no separation, just as loss should never be alienated from life.

And as our social relations become less alienated, almost anything is far more bearable. Or as this anthology will argue, we can bear almost anything when it’s worked through in common, on commons: spaces that we create and sustain to use, share, and enjoy, but also spaces that are forever ours to self-determine, owned by no one and everyone.

“In common” is not equivalent to “the same,” though. Collective Works of Grief will not homogenize or universalize the myriad of losses, individual and social. The gamut and magnitude of losses—from colonialism to incarceration, climate catastrophe to poverty, rape to chronic illness, one’s culture to one’s dignity; from patriarchy and white supremacy to heteronormativity and ableism—play out on different bodies in differentially brutal ways.

But neither should the enormity of these diverse losses tear us apart. This anthology contends that there is something uniquely (re)connective in the sharing of personal stories. And so this collection sits with the heaviness we feel in this world that, we’re told, has “no future.” It gathers—tenderly, intimately—narratives that don’t shy from rawness and authenticity, humility and hurt. At the same time, it brings into dialogue works that exude compassion and humanity. It seeks to do the public work of grappling out loud with conundrums and tensions and yet also promise.

This anthology tries to reclaim what is an inevitable part of the human condition: we mortals will experience countless losses. For much of our time on earth, loss was perceived as an organic part of the life cycle, human and nonhuman. Grief was processed in hands-on, communal ways, integrated into daily beliefs and practices. People made sense of loss together, acknowledging the physical and emotional aches it provokes as organic, too.

Over human history, loss also became the impetus for rebellions and revolutions, including those that challenged—and still do—the instrumental logic of capitalism, which inherently turns us into mere things, commodities, thereby privatizing and wholly debasing our lives.

The power of Ayotzinapa is, at heart, its demand for the intrinsic value of life, meaning a demand for freedom: “They were taken alive, and alive we want them back.”

As the Zapatistas and Ayotzinapa families make clear, to borrow from the poetry of SubGaleano again: You think we’re trying to take down the whole wall? It’s enough to make a crack . . . [i]n order to imagine everything that could be done tomorrow.”

Our grief—as words or actions, images or practices—can open up cracks in the wall of the system. It can also pry open spaces of contestation and reconstruction, intervulnerability and strength, empathy and solidarity. It can discomfort the stories told from above that would have us believe we aren’t human or deserving of life-affirming lives—or for that matter, life-affirming deaths.

The stories in this anthology will follow three circuitous paths in our “common struggle”: transforming “pain into rage”; transforming “rage into rebellion”; transforming “rebellion into tomorrow.” These routes won’t so much be discrete sections but instead will aid in charting out the book’s arc.

The first path—or crack—“Pain into Rage,” will explore grief that carries the weight and is cognizant of history, grief that dives into multigenerational pain as our inheritance and legacy. Pieces in this vein will touch on how the past binds to the present, and perhaps gesture lightly toward a future that might have to begin by speaking and enacting anger. They will give voice to ancestors long gone but still accompanying us, and decades or centuries of systemic theft and cruelty as individual yet common experience, and where that might take us.

The second—“Rage into Rebellion”—will trace subtle bends in the road when sometimes, almost in the blink of an eye, our fury at a world that shouldn’t be compels us, implores us, to battle for a world that ought to be instead. Writings here will take a twist toward the commons, discussing instances of reclaiming of our streets and neighborhoods for do-it-ourselves ways of mourning our dead and self-organizing for the living. Here we become warriors intent on “unsettling loss” foisted on us hierarchically and involuntarily, from stolen lands to stolen lives and deaths.

And “Rebellion into Tomorrow” will tentatively meander down paths, precarious though they may be, where rebel-healers prefigure what it means to be fully human. These pieces will dig deep into examples that aspire toward lives worth living in the here and now. They’ll share qualitative approximations of what it means to be humane, especially when it’s most meaningful: when times are tough. This ending, which is a beginning, strives to reintegrate us into the messy wholeness of human existence, unearthing fragments of a world that might have a future after all.

It is my hope that this anthology’s stories supply abundant material for such futures—as part dress rehearsal, part experiment, part slipping up and trying again. I hope, too, that the narratives here do not craft safe spaces but rather brave spaces, without neatly packaged or happy endings, yet still striving to illuminate what it means to bring care, grief, and death work into our public work of struggling to repair the world as well as ourselves. I see this work as gift economy, as labor of love, as what it means to be simply, complexly, human, damage and all.

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For those who don’t know me, here’s a bit of info related to this project: I’m author of Anarchism and Its Aspirations (AK Press), coauthor of the picture-essay book Paths toward Utopia: Graphic Explorations of Everyday Anarchism (with artist Erik Ruin; PM Press), editor of the anthology Taking Sides: Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism (AK Press), and has contributed essays to collections such as Only a Beginning: An Anarchist Anthology (Arsenal Pulp Press), Globalize Liberation (City Lights Books), Realizing the Impossible: Art against Authority (AK Press), and We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation (AK Press). For other writings, see my blog at cbmilstein.wordpress.com. I’ve also long been engaged in grassroots/antiauthoritarian organizing/agitating and social movements from below, and creating and sustaining collective, do-it-ourselves spaces as well as solidarity and popular education projects. I make my home, gratefully, in Detroit.

(Photo by Cindy Milstein, street art of resistance, austerity-besieged Athens, Greece, October 2015.)

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This entry was posted on January 27, 2016 by in Dispatches from Life, Dispatches from Rebellious Spaces, Uncategorized.
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