Swept Away – Life is Complex – Do Something! (Vortex Summer Vol #1)

I’ve been thinking that “activist” or “radical” publications like Slingshot lack a sense of heart — of the raw emotion that makes life so amazing, difficult and complex. For all the articles about stopping the war, saving the freebox, defending immigrants, something is missing. The most radical thing in my life is not the articles I write for Slingshot, but the very personal way my life in this community — Berkeley — feels liberated.

I want to figure out a way to express that sense of excitement, liberation and life force and broadcast it out everywhere because I think if people were able to feel and see the way life can be when money, property and power are cast aside as the driving goals and replaced with having adventures, using just what we need, and cooperating with others, that vision would be powerful. It would shake people up on an emotional, heart level the way a dry analysis of neoliberalism can’t. It would be meaningful politically, economically, culturally and psychologically.

One of my best friends is named Artnoose – she publishes a hand-printed zine called Kerbloom and we silkscreen t-shirts in the basement together every Tuesday night after work. We talk about intimate, personal, very important stuff. When Artnoose and I have those talks in the basement, I feel a sense of presence — of actually living instead of just getting by. And not just when I’m talking with her. The confusing, complex, collective, economically marginal, but incredibly experientially rich life here that so many of us share feels very real, very present and radical beyond just life-stylism. Like the “revolution” is not some kind of a day that will be noted in the newspaper, but its a process of personal and social liberation that we’re each responsible for, engaged in, and swept up by each day.

Swept up because sometimes my love for these people and these alternatives we’re trying to create actually hurts and is out of control. In one day I can feel so exhausted and defeated by a project that I want to give up — and then 2 hours later I’ll realize how lucky I am to be involved and that keeping that project going is my destiny in life and that it is why my life has meaning.

I get swept up and I end up loving too many people or the wrong people at the wrong time and love is so ultimately powerful. It isn’t really under my power to control it all — I have to ride the reality and the emotion. It is scary — I was raised to value control and knowing what I would be doing next week, in six months, or in five years. Part of living this kind of life has meant exchanging that knowing for a million complexities and questions and risks. But for each thing that I “give up” — convenience, security, power, certainty — I keep noticing that I get something else that I hadn’t expected to get and that I can’t always even describe. When things get complex and harder, they also seem more meaningful, authentic, beautiful and fun. Like I remember studying feminism and the idea of smashing the patriarchy and feeling so satisfied to realize that this didn’t just mean that women would get power and get to live as more whole people — it also meant that men would get to live as more whole people, too.

It is all a jumble to try to explain what I’m talking about when I talk about life here and now and when I say it isn’t just a lifestyle — just buying different stuff or not buying or living a certain way — but that its something more fundamental, important and radical. A paradigm shift personally, locally, politically, at home, at work and all day long. I’m talking about endless meetings with lots of different collectives, constant parties and new people to meet, travel, romance and sex, playing music sitting around a campfire at the landfill, dressing in drag, going for long walks with crying and hugging and smelling flowers, planting gardens and cursing the snails that eat the basil just after it comes up, and then re-planting it, spreading the ashes of our lovers with compost on an apple tree, writing this article and publishing Slingshot, riding on critical mass bike ride stoned in a tuxedo, blocking a street at a protest, building a solar heater.

My atheist sense is that I really am here because of an amazing, cosmic mistake — our world was a cloud of gas that became a sun and a cloud of debris that became the Earth, my life is part of an evolutionary chain of accidents that created those snails that are eating my basil, and we’ll all be dead and gone for eternity soon enough. So if there’s no point to all this, why do anything and what should be done? I figure the best I can hope is to have as many experiences that could be good stories as I can, and spend as little time on drudgery / earning money, etc. as I can. Life really is way too short and you really do have to do what you want now while you’re here this very moment. And clich├ęs you realize while tripping on acid at the beach are sometimes true. I’m really the same as all life around me — an animal in an ecosystem with other creatures both human and non-human — so I want to cooperate with the survival and pleasure of other living things while I experience that pleasure myself.

On a political and a personal level, this means that it makes more sense to do something than to do nothing. If you are focused on avoiding romantic mistakes, you’ll never take a chance at loving someone because it might not work out and hurt one or both of you or even other people. And if you always act with such caution, you’ll have a lot of lonely Saturday nights.

Politically, we never know before we try whether a particular tactic or campaign or project will succeed or fail. But it is an absolute certainty that if no one tries it, it won’t happen and thus it will fail. Three days ago at the Slingshot meeting, we were trying to decide whether to do this issue this week or not. It didn’t look good — there weren’t a lot of articles, most of the collective had left to travel, and the new volunteers hadn’t shown up to the meeting. But somehow, here is the issue because it seemed like doing something — even if it isn’t our best work — couldn’t possibly be worse than doing nothing at all.

And things always look different from different vantage points in time. If you look at a problem you can’t figure out that is keeping you up at nights from the perspective of a year in the future instead of from where you are, you realize that in a year something will have happened. The worst most painful things that have ever happened to me — as awful as they were at the time — from my perspective now looking back are sometimes good stories. Stops along my way. But if you try to look into the future, you really can’t tell what the hell is going to happen.

Politically, things often look pretty awful. Right now, for instance. The war in Iraq is like a broken marriage that neither of the spouses can figure out how to finally end — it just lingers on. The eco-system is under attack and it somehow seems we’re simultaneously all responsible and all spectators to an out of control machine gone mad.

If you look at things from now, you’ll get paralyzed politically and be incapable of taking any action at all because the problems look insurmountable — those in power too rich and mighty — everyone else too disorganized and distracted. But if you look at history, there is both progress and regression all the time — slavery abolished, women liberated, gays out of the closet, polluted rivers saved — and also lots of terrible oppression unaddressed still.

Things changed because millions of nameless people took risks and fought. They didn’t know if their acts would be successful or pointless. But they knew that if they failed to act, then surely nothing would happen. And many of their acts were failures, just as many of our actions will be failures. But some of them will succeed.

Everyday the fundamental choice we face is whether we can deal with the uncertainty of history and life and do something — throwing a bottle into the ocean with no idea whatsoever if that something is the right thing or whether it will make a difference or get smashed on the rocks. If you get paralyzed worrying if it will make a difference or if you’re doing the right thing and end up not doing anything, you’re going to lose the opportunity offered by that day.

I’ve been working on Slingshot for 18 years now — my life is organized around it — and I still have no idea if it makes any difference or is just a pathetic and embarrassing waste of trees and ink. Sometimes I think both. I do know that doing this project and the many other complex, confusing, struggling, half-failure projects around Berkeley feel like a better option than just minding my own business and doing nothing. And I do know that I feel a hell-of-a-lot more alive doing stuff that is messy and uncertain and possibly even crazy than living the life the teevee says I’m supposed to be living.

This article excerpted from the first volume of Vortex Summer, a new zine about the authors continuing struggle to learn how to be a human being.