Cleaning the Mirror

There is a coffee shop in the town where I live which acts as a cultural epicenter. It’s the sort of vortex-y watering-hole-like-place that promises familiar faces, easy laughs, and unsolicited help at crossword clues by people invariably better than I expect. The atmosphere is generally ebullient as people reach their dirt-creased hands between the rickety wooden stools to grab each other’s elbows and shoulders and knees. 

This particular cafe is a hub for drifters and dirtbags; often, at night, its parking lot turns into a massive sleepover spot. The dominant narrative about these car-living folk is that they’re psyched. When I first moved into a van, a lot of friends congratulated me on “living the dream”: the legacy of Jack Kerouac’s dusty road and endless, endlessly starry horizon continued somehow in my, and all of their, worn-down tires. The only story possible in the American West, it seems, is one of ecstatic discovery, as though truth and beauty and happiness could all be mine (and yours! and yours!) if only I chased one more sunset.

But sometimes, that’s all not true. Sometimes there’s the coverall-clad kid in the corner, slumped onto his elbows, eyes pointed to the horizon through the smudged glass facade. Sometimes there’s the hunched kid who sits alone, eyes getting shifty as she sneaks her sixth, seventh, eighth refill. Getting down about someone’s unknown, abstract, and assumed sadness harshing the mellow, someone reminds us: People hit the road for different reasons. And sometimes — very often, probably — that reason is simply to escape.

In the wake of the 2016 U.S. election, amid the incredible amount of chatter that was produced as people (our people) tried to remember how to find truth in language in a time of despair, GCAS faculty Dr. Amber Scoon gave a speech about storytelling. In her speech, she said that learning is impossible when one is feeling fear. And that this is because fear keeps us from being vulnerable — or at least being brave enough to express that vulnerability. And without the ability to express one’s true self, the critical process that is learning can’t come to fruit — which is why having diverse, vulnerable spaces is so, so contingent to the production of knowledge.

This reminds me of something that I know (in the way sometimes you know things in your bones and in your gut and in the tingly ends of your neck hair): that there is magic in hearing yourself say something wholly true. The kids that clutter up the rickety wooden stools of my hometown coffee shop know this, too: it is the watering hole for caffeine as much as it is for saying things out loud that needed to be admitted in order to be meaningful. And so the coffee shop is our little cultural epicenter insofar as it’s the closest place we have to a confessional.

Dr. Scoon says that the most urgent need we have today is not dismantling old systems but imagining new ones. To do this, she says, we need to tell “person to person stories” — to gravitate to the spaces where we can say things that scare us. We need to say these small confessions to people close enough to reach out and touch us and smell our bad breath and notice if our eyes tear up. And sometimes (as Dr. Scoon notes), we need to say things that we’ll very likely be shamed for.

One thing that I know to be true about myself is that often my first response to sadness is to displace myself from the source, often by a matter of several thousand miles. When I was younger and carless and sad as hell, I once biked 2,000 miles across Europe in the middle of winter: I had emotionally arrived at a place where the only thing that made sense was motion.

More honest would be to say that I had entered a situation in which I was powerless, and this terrified me, and I was afraid to see any of the people involved, ever again. More honest still would be to say that I had told a few close friends this, that they had seen the tears in my eyes, and I was ashamed.

Nothing goes together like 23c tires, black ice, and a 12% grade. I had been living in Grenoble, France at the time, and left in a flurry in early February during a break between two storms without preparation or money or any useable knowledge of bicycle maintenance. But I desperately needed to believe that freedom was still a state of being available to me.

In 2016, novelist Dave Eggers published his take on the dying dream of American freedom on the road in the novel, Heroes of the Frontier. His tale is a hilarious one, detailing the quandaries of a single mother from Ohio who flees a dead-beat marriage and the humdrums of suburban Americana to take her two small children to the Alaskan Frontier. It is an epic she assumes in a constant state of wine-drunkeness, full of naive good faith. Describing one of her many fits of drunken ecstasy while feeling the freedom of the road crunch beneath her cracking RV tires, Eggers writes something basic and true about the way that we Americans reckon with ourselves and our senses of self:

“…At this moment, she thought she was right about everything. That we can leave. That we have a right to leave. That we very often must leave. That only having left could she and her children achieve something like sublimity, that without movement there is no struggle, and without struggle there is no purpose, and without purpose there is nothing at all. She wanted to tell every mother, every father: There is meaning in motion.”

That February, I had nothing left; my emotional resources were a long, dry well. And so I rode across Italy and stayed in a tent on a farmer’s land, and on kindly strangers’ couches, and once, with a fruit vendor who brought me home. After the lure of free oranges and tangerines and clementines and navels, he offered to take me in for the night. I looked like his daughter, he told me: we had the same eyes. Or at least, that’s what I thought he said; I’d been in Italy four days and knew a couple of cognates. More importantly, I wanted, on some basic level, to trust this man: to trust all people with kind eyes and open hands and ripe fruit.

But then we were driving home in his semi-truck, still full of citrus, and for some 40 minutes we wound a maze through the agricultural outskirts. It was dark. The fields were littered with half-fallen shacks lit only with cigarette embers and dimly illuminated smoke hovering in ghost hands on dark porches. I was disoriented and, at that point, far too tired to pretend that I had any grasp of Italian. I thought to myself: this is how it happens. And I thought of all of the other times I’d had that thought: when I was 19 and bought a one-way ticket to Africa. When the passengers said to me, after our 72nd hour of sharing the aisle of a bus together in silence, that the three of them wanted to share me. When I let a strange man buy a hotel room for us to share because splitting a bed would be cheaper, and I didn’t know the local tongue, and had lost the language of no.

The code of conduct I crafted for my early twenties solidly rested on the belief that I was going to be fine — that I could do, essentially, whatever the fuck I wanted, and would remain unscathed. That I could travel alone — at this point to some two dozen countries — and be fine. That I would leave my youth fully intact.

It didn’t happen any of those other times: the man in the hotel bed didn’t bump elbows with me once; I told the three men in the bus, “Vous ne pouvez pas m’avoir,” and my voice didn’t betray a tremble, and they laughed, gave me a plantain and let me be. It didn’t happen with the Italian fruit vendor, either: he brought me to his neighbor’s house, whose daughter I talked with in her broken, third-grade English, and he packed me a breakfast and lunch the next day. The day I rode away the roads were clear, the sun was out, and I did my first hundred-mile day, drunk on a full belly and a stranger’s kindness.

But then, it did happen. I was in Montenegro and had recently passed the 2,500 kilometer mark. Biking around Kotor Bay, I decided that I had found the most beautiful place in the world. Unlike in Croatia, each passing truck didn’t almost hit me or honk to see if I’d jump, or whatever their motivations were for the swerving and the noise. No, in Montenegro, the streets were quiet and kempt and the traffic heading south towards Albania was almost non-existent. For the first time in weeks, my soul felt at peace.

“Every landscape is a condition of the spirit.” Coming around a stretch of highway that curved to hug the cliff band over the sea, a boy on a bike started riding with me. He was fourteen maybe, and had mousy, brown hair. His face was thin, his cheekbones high, his eyes bright; he looked intelligent, and clean, and loved. He biked with me for about ten minutes, and we’d look at each other and smile and laugh, and I remembered that laughter is our best universal language. And then he raised his hand, and I assumed he wanted to high-five, but he grabbed my fingers, and then grabbed them again and didn’t let go. We rode for a minute like that, barely holding hands, and I knew (in the way that a powerful woman can tell) that I was totally making his day, riding side-by-side overlooking the sea and holding hands. And then he sexually assaulted me, and a few male passersby stopped and cheered him on, and the hill that we were on was too steep for me to get my touring-loaded bike started going again while I was still out of breath from having a panic attack.

But then, as always happens, the boy got bored; the crowd dispersed; and I did the only thing I knew how: I kept moving. I pedaled until my legs burned. That night I slept in a cow-field in northern Albania. The stars were as bright, the horizon as unending as any other night. But suddenly, it was not fine, and I didn’t have the right language to describe why, or anyone who would listen to me stutter as I tried.

What justice can we create if cannot first tell our story? If we cannot dignify our contradictory and beautiful and traumatic lives and dreams and desires with a language unto themselves?

In her speech, Dr. Scoon cites John Berger: “Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organization, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements.’ A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, grief and finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strictest sense, incidental to that movement.”

While biking, I met a lot of men who begged me to meet their sisters, mothers, cousins and daughters — insisted that I meet them so that these beloved women, too, might be brave. This happened with the highest frequency after I left Montenegro, in the weeks when I could still retrace, with what felt like precision, the fading nail scratches left on my rump by my assaulter. Or, more likely, men asked me to perform female courage for them with the same frequency as it had always been, only now when I answered my cheeks burned — because when I responded, I was lying. What could I say to these people? For a girl whose fundamental truth was that she could exist in the world with freedom and insouciance and assertion and presence, how could I tell them anything else? How could I tell them that I was not fine?

There is no model for bravery, except the one that occurs every time we hold eye contact with someone for long enough to make our cheeks rouge.

In Professor Timothy Snyder’s essay, 20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America, number 11 reads: “Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.”

Truer still might be that demanding to live in a psychological landscape where vulnerability is a predicate of truth is the only one worth living in.

People hit the road for different reasons. Sometimes, it’s to try on a truth for size.

Dr. Scoons is on the faculty of the Global Center for Advanced Studies, a graduate school which has a campus in Slovenia, and which happens to be exactly what I want out of a graduate program. When I was offered a spot there this week, I called the person in my life most likely to give me an honest reason not to go. And he did: he said I was a deserter. That I should take the cozy, homey, confessional vibes of my much-adored small-town coffee shop into the rural streets where I live (rather than looking for them on a different continent). He reckoned that a better way for me to realize my desires for nuance in the time of Trump might be to look the locals in the eye. Because in this small town — like in any other rural American locale — it’s not uncommon to see cars covered in stickers of tits and guns and “Obummers” and Trump/Pence.

In one sense, he’s right: the presence of my body, with its kind eyes and easy smile and both of their abilities to communicate nuanced understanding is a damn fine thing to bring to a place that voted Trump by an 80%-odd margin of victory. That is: what my dirty, wandering, loud female self brings to these people is a visible reminder that women can exist with freedom in the public world. And I can accomplish this, as Dr. Scoon recommends, with person-to-person stories. This is even more the case for my friends there who are colored, or gay, or more “different,” whose diversity demands an acknowledgment of an even greater and more difficult spectrum of truth.

In her novel I Love Dick, Chris Kraus writes that perhaps the safest place for a women is in the performative: where the truth of the inner-self could be dissociated or distorted from the truth shaking her tits on stage. There is power there. And there has been power, to a degree, in my female body and its radical leftist mind showing up in rural America, and in professional land-management, and in various other old boy’s clubs; perhaps there has been power in my attempts to code-switch intersectional ethics into rural Western. But I’ll be damned if it hasn’t been lonely. Because in showing up with the intention to be seen, getting looked in the eye seems to be a different thing. I’m not showing up to reveal that I too am fragile and broken and cry sometimes; at least, I haven’t been, not in those rural, Western spaces. I’m showing up with the grit and stoicism rural communication relies upon and I’ve been doing so to test their truths, not mine.

Sometimes (probably always) bravery demands showing up to test your own truth: to say vulnerable things that you need to be seen saying to know the truthiness of. To put your body in spaces where it’s vulnerable, just to prove (if only to yourself) that it, too, can be dignified there. Like Berger says: there is a kind of resistance that exists in our physical bodies; there is a kind of courage that exists in our daily reactions, in the power of our language and interactions. The danger of putting yourself in harm’s way to remember that you are invincible: to tell a true-story, or to let yourself exist in a space where your story can become more true: this, too, is resistance.

The federation of Yugoslavia fractured in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War. Croatia left first; Bosnia and Hezergovina left most violently (in genocide); Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia were all left rife with their own bitter inter-ethnic tensions as well. Biking north-to-south from Slovenia, through Croatia, Bosnia and Hezergovina, Montenegro, and finally into Albania, there seemed to be a longitudinal regression, largely the aftermath of an international embargo that lasted through the better part of the 1990s. These nations are ethnically and linguistically different. They use different currencies, and are still largely competitive against one another. Slovenia and several nations away from Montenegro. And I was on the border of Albania that day, anyway, which is a world unto itself, having had closed borders until less than two decades ago. And yet, in the historical fallacy that the ghost of Yugoslavia occupies in my brain, and because of the momentary truth written into my body while I was there — there is part of me that is afraid to go to Slovenia. That I was assaulted by a child means at least an entire additional generation of girls in Montenegro will grow up with sexual violence. And so what of Slovenia?

For months after returning from that bike tour, I crafted a narrative for myself in which I was still tough and starry-eyed and contradictory and bold. I told everyone that I was fine and hardly believed it myself: I was living a sort of fake-it-’til-you-make-it approach to trauma theory. Nearly two years have passed and still some days there is a part of me that no longer believes that I am anything other than fragile; that because on that day I did not fight back; I am largely unable to resist.

On these days, the only bravery I know is lifting my eyes to make contact.

In her speech in story-telling, Dr. Scoon recounts a conversation she had with a New York City police officer about 9/11. Leaving, he says to her: “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t cry, thinking about it.”

And she says: “Even though I was well read, well therapized, well loved by my friends, well sheltered by my family, there was only one way that I could understand that lesson: And that’s by hearing that incredibly strong, tough NYPD cop telling me, face to face, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t cry, just thinking about it.”

And: “I realized that even though I am an educated person, with a strong will and a critical mind, I had felt ashamed, every day, since that day, ashamed for feeling the effects of PTSD, ashamed of crying, ashamed of nightmares, ashamed of having trouble flying. And why was I ashamed?”

In I love Dick, Kraus claims to be writing in order to formally study emotionality — as though human frailty and heart could be analyzed outside of the psych ward. As though art could be the place for that. As though storytelling or performance or real life intimacy could unlock a certain sort of bravery that we culturally tend to dismiss as being shameful, as needing to be confined to a white-walled and windowless room.

Recently, the Serbian artist Marina Abromovitcz, created a performance piece, called The Artist in Present. For the piece she spent several days at a table in NYC’s Museum of Modern Art. She’d bow her head and close her eyes, and wait. One by one, museum patrons would sit across from her. Ambromovitcz would raise her head, open her eyes, and make contact. She’d hold her gaze steady. The vulnerability she presented in that steadiness moved people to tears. It was like saying: that we can see each other means we are separate, we are two, we are other, and yet we are the same — we are sharing this moment. You are you and I am me and I accept that we are two and therefore not the same. And I see you. I still see you.

And I let you see me.

And rather than feeling ashamed at our exposure, we feel vulnerable. And we feel safe.

Astra Lincoln is a writer and illustrator based in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains of California. She’s currently working towards a Master’s degree in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland. Her writing interests include semiotics, the cultural politics of climate change, and artistic authority/authorship. Astra is a regular contributor to Terra Incognita Media, and has self-published two books on freeganism and local economies.

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