Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Knitting with a Messy Ball of Yarn

Note: This piece was written for and is published in the 2020 edition of Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar, a joint fund-raising and educational project between outside organizers in four cities and two political prisoners being held in maximum security. It’s not too late to get a copy: http://www.certaindays.org


I don’t much like memes. They’re overly reductionist—to the detriment of critical or visionary thinking. Recently, though, I stumbled on a compelling one, in part because it noted at the bottom, “It’s that simple.” In this meme, the word “birth” was on the left side and “death” on the right; in between was a black-and-white drawing of a big, tangled ball of yarn.

In real life, many radicals seem to approach each new organizing effort as if it will somehow be like rainbow-colored, untangled skeins that they can easily knit into a beautiful social fabric, in order to just as easily achieve a beautiful world. They also frequently seize on the notion that they will, or should, only feel pleasure along the way, always getting all their “self-care” needs fulfilled. Or that’s what some memes, among other millennial media, strive hard to convince people is possible or even desirable.

Perhaps, to be compassionate, folx need such “false positivity” to get through the day(s). We are, indeed, “living” in increasingly deadening and deadly times. The only other alternative seems to be despair, meaning the acceptance that all is lost and any sort of proactive response is futile. The problem with this rosy-individualist view of how life, much less social struggle, works is that it doesn’t at all match reality. And so at the least bit of discomfort, when people realize that everyone (including themselves) is knotted up by this fascistic social order and collective efforts become complex, they bolt.

What if we dispense with emoticon-happy hope or dead-end hopelessness as our false-binary assumption? What if, instead, we throw ourselves into weaving self-determined shared lifeways from the promise we have on hand, in the here and now—first and foremost, our messy-beautiful selves—and with the expectation that we’ll encounter a whole lot of entanglement in the ever-dynamic process of social transformation? To borrow an anarchistic slogan, what if we tried hard(er) to “be careful with each other, so we can be dangerous together”?

Suddenly, holding tight to our messy ball of yarn, so much more becomes possible. For starters, we have more patience, because we can see clearly that it will take time to unravel the structures that break our minds and bodies. And at the same time, we can see that there is already a togetherness, with our struggles and stories, our pains and sorrows, our dreams and desires, already plainly interconnected. That in turn might well give us more empathy for each other, and more willingness to be gracious and generous, knowing that the patchwork of all our little mistakes and imperfections coupled with our big hearts, when stitched together, make for the most qualitatively tender of communal strivings.

Hanging solidly onto our disorderly ball of yarn, we’ll perhaps remember that it isn’t the “orderly” institutions of states and capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy, prisons and police, that offer any real solutions. It is only in the hodgepodge of interdependent threads—that is, the unlimited promise of the many heterotopias we are already experimenting with, such as transformative justice, solidarity across borders, harm reduction, mutual aid disaster relief, and reviving feministic practices of the healing and grieving arts, to name but a few—that we have the potential to craft liberatory social relations and communities. Or simply, by embracing the beautiful messiness of life in common with others, to hark back to the meme above, we will find the warp of a new society.


(photo: universes being knit together, or so it seems to me in this wheat paste spotted on the stolen streets of Montreal in 2019; art by Swarm)








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This entry was posted on January 1, 2020 by in Dispatches from Rebellious Spaces.
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