Awash with Wonder


Shannon ButlerComment

Late last year, I dated a woman and experienced for the first time a world without men. My life has long been dominated by men. Through my relationship to men — crushes, loves, heartbreaks, harassment, objectification — I have come to know myself. And yet here was a world where men did not only not feature but they didn’t even get an honorary mention. It was intoxicating to find myself in conversations that always passed the Bechdel test, to be completely unaware of and uninterested in male attention. 

Men would still approach me. More, actually, when I was with her, as if they could sense their increasing irrelevance and it made them reckless. I found these interactions funny because no matter how much my body language made it clear that we were together, the men that approached us would remain completely oblivious. How difficult it must have been to imagine a scenario where women did not exist for them; how hard they must have worked to ignore what was right in front of them in order to uphold a narrative of the world that kept them at the center.   

I was fascinated by the way she moved through the world. She was not afraid in the way I was. There are whole parts of the city that I mark as off limits if it’s after dark, but she would dive through alleyways without a second thought. It was the faster path so she took it. I didn’t understand how her life was not dominated by thoughts of safety in the same way mine was. Do you only learn to fear men when you have also loved them? 

That can’t be true because your sexual orientation does not protect you from violence — more likely, the complete opposite — but still she was unafraid, and it made me feel safe. I was allowed, for a short while, to believe that existing in public while female wasn’t a liability. 

The relationship didn't last because I was, ironically, still heartbroken over a man, but it gave me a deeper appreciation for women and for how it feels to surround yourself with female energy. Energy is a murky word because it encourages the kind of faux spiritually that always paints woman as goddesses. I hate the idea of women as goddesses.  I don’t want to be otherworldly. I want to be human and for that to be enough. Still, there is something about being in the presence of female excellence that buoys the spirit, and I only know how to describe that energetically, so forgive the connotations of the word. 

The embodiment of female excellence -- for me and countless other people -- is Beyonce. I wouldn't typically describe myself as a fan of anyone; I appreciate good art and am thankful for the artists who make it, but I don't feel touched on a life changing level. It is different with Beyonce. I love that her evolution as an artist has been so public; when she performs now, it feels like watching a fully realized woman, and I love that so much of her work celebrates women. Her newest visual album, Lemonade, is clearly made for Black woman, and it is difficult to talk about it without feeling like I am taking up space where I shouldn't be. So I will keep it simple: listening to Lemonade makes me feel powerful. As Clover Hope describes it in Lemonade is Beyonce's Body and Blood, this music is "the type that makes you walk through the streets demolishing tall structures in your head". Her music makes me love myself, and that love expands me into the magnanimous version of myself I long to be but rarely am.  

In Lemonade, men are everywhere in the lyrics and nowhere in the visuals. This is not a world without men, but it is a world where Beyonce is deciding exactly how the cheating man is represented, punished, and redeemed. Taking up space, instead, is a long parade of powerful and inspiring women: Serena Williams, the sisters from Ibeyi, Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, Zendaya, Warsan Shire, Amandla, Gwen Carr, Lesley McSpadden, Winnie Harlow-- the list goes on and on. To see a woman with as big a platform as Beyonce inviting other women to share the stage is empowering in the true sense of the word, instead of the corny, capitalistic empowerment messaging that companies are using to get us to buy more bullshit. It's that same feeling I got in the months when my life was spent almost exclusively in the company of women. I am buoyed, renewed, realized.

I love, too, that this album is about being in love with a man, but it's a complicated love. What love isn't? Whether it's directed at ourselves or someone else. I do not want to live in a world without men. I am, once again, in love with a man and know plenty of good ones (#notallmen) but, my god, it is nice to exist in a time where women are no longer asking permission to take up more room. I know that the world is not magically fixed. I know that I speak from a place of incredible relative privilege...but there is still something hopeful about the art that's being created by women this year. Policies and the general consensus of society might not have caught up yet, but it feels like women on an individual level are rejecting the long-held narrative that there is something lesser, shameful about being female. Maybe there's even a future for me where I can walk dark streets unafraid. I'm not holding my breath for that reality in this lifetime...but still, the hope of it is really something. 

when you don't want to write about yourself anymore

PersonalShannon ButlerComment

I read a lot about the economics of the personal essay industry, and what it demands of the women who mine their personal lives to feed it. I'm interested because I have contributed to the medium in my own small way, even though I have never been brave enough to venture further than this blog. I am brave here because I delude myself into thinking I control the perimeter and boundaries of this rented real estate, and then am reminded anew of my complete lack of control -- and vulnerability -- every time a new acquaintance mentions that they read it. There is no ownership on the internet, and increasingly, there aren't any boundaries either. 

It is primarily women who write personal essays. 

Part of it is a revolution: we have had centuries of silencing, and the internet is now allowing us to be vocal authorities on our own experiences. It is a way of saying, "I matter, my life matters, and I am going to tell my stories". That was my motivation for starting...but then there is another part. It is this part that leads to my long absences from blogging and writing.  A lot of woman start writing personal essays because they believe it is the only kind of writing they can do. We are not accustomed to believing ourselves experts on everything, to expecting that other people will want to hear our perspective, in the same way that men are (or at least the ones that are so eager to #wellactually you on Twitter). So we turn our gaze inward, to the one thing we can tentatively stake a claim to: ourselves. 

If you do this on a big enough level and have uncaring editors, you open yourself to the kind of criticism that could destroy you. If you do it on a smaller level, like a personal blog, let's say, you engage in a semi-public journey into discovering and creating yourself. It can be healing. It can be even be helpful to the handful of people who see themselves in your doubt, your small triumphs, your stumbling path towards grace or understanding or whatever nirvana it is we're all headed to. It can also be limiting and unhealthy and...boring.

After four years of personal essay writing, I don't have any desire to share my stories anymore. Not because I don't think they're important, but because I don't want to perform them. I want them to belong to me and my selective, faulty memory. I want to belong only to myself. But I still want to write. It feels like the loss of something important to no longer write. My thoughts feel duller, less interesting, since I stopped actively looking at the world with a writer's eye. 

I am no longer naive enough to believe that being a writer is the most noble thing you can do with your life; I do not mythicize my favorite writers into god-like proportions anymore. But reading truly transcendent writing is the closest I get to religious experiences these days, and I am a person who loves words to an almost pathological level. I am buoyed, joyed by an excellent turn of phrase -- I'll roll it around in my mouth for minutes after reading it -- and I am stupidly offended by ugly writing. To contribute, in whatever tiny, forgettable way, to capturing the world in words feels important to me in a way that few other things do. But I do not know how to remove myself from my writing, to cast my gaze outwards, to claim ownership on any idea other than the small kingdom of myself, so my fingers are still, and my mind is quiet, and the world is shrinking. 

It is not an entirely unpleasant shrinking. It is nice to exist in the present. But it does call my idea of myself into question. If I am not someone who writes, then who am I? How will I define myself in a way that is not related to other people? The next natural step is to begin to write poorly-informed and nauseatingly simplistic advice type pieces  -- which you'll find a lot of in the early entries on this blog and even some recent ones -- but my conscious won't allow it. I could throw myself into spreading positivity and empowerment...but I want any readers I have to continue to be the authorities on themselves and to feel free to be kinda fucked up and occasionally sad and not bubblegum happy every single second of every single day.

So, I am an at an impasse: the desire to write but the inability to write about anything other than, well, me. There is no neat ending to this post, no comforting resolution, in the same way that there never is in life. All there ever is choices and the next step -- whether that's going to along a similar path or a turn in an entirely new direction. This is, I suppose, just me popping by to say that I'm still here, still have a trembling grasp on my identity as a person who writes, and I'll make the next step sometime soon. 

madly involved

Shannon ButlerComment

In the opening verse of 'Crack Rock', Frank Ocean sings "cause she was and you are madly involved" and then immediately repeats "madly involved" incase the listener didn't realise the significance of the involvement. As this is a verse that starts with "you don't know how little you matter" and is about smoking crack, we can infer that the involvement is toxic. It is not an involvement anyone should aspire to, but there is something about madly involved that sounds like love. 

We are all looking for the comfort of being undeniably involved, lives so tangled together that separating them is unthinkable. There is a madness in the depth of our involvements with each other though, because they go unnoticed until it’s too late. You meet someone in a bar and a year later they’re named on your lease and three decades later you’re welcoming your first grandchild. All of this because you liked their smile. Madly is the linchpin to involvement, and it's only when the madness has dissipated that you realise how deeply involved you are. 

In White Teeth, Zadie Smith writes “involved is neither good, nor bad. It is just a consequence of living, a consequence of occupation and immigration, of empires and expansion, of living in each other’s pockets… one becomes involved and it is a long trek back to being uninvolved” and the romantic in me despairs at her replacement of love with proximity, but I can’t argue with her. Proximity is how I ended up in Hawaii, on Christmas day, with the entire extended family of a boy who smiled at me in class a month before.  I know the power of proximity and the heady intoxication of involvement, and it’s why I’m now more protective of my personal space than I’ve ever been before. 

That space is both protected and protective because I am finally experiencing the gift of aloneness unencumbered by loneliness. There is nothing that I will not do alone and every meal, every movie, every evening spent in my own company thrills me. When I wake and think, “I want to go to breakfast today”, my freedom to do so encourages me to think, “Perhaps I will move to New Zealand next month or start acting classes or develop a one woman burlesque show”. There is no end to the things I might do alone. 

Later in the same passage, Smith writes that involvement “is an enormous web you spin to catch yourself” and the imagery is dangerous. You are both the spider and the unsuspecting fly. Hers is a more subtle interpretation of Ocean’s mad involvement, looked at from a different angle, but the results are the same: a destruction of self that you don't see coming. 

Visiting my family a few weeks ago, I was immediately transported to a universe of attachment. It is difficult to love people and be so profoundly involved with each other's histories; there is no room to forget.  I looked at us, still bruising from ten year old hurts, and I wanted to tell all of them to un-involve themselves from each other, to buy a ticket for somewhere new, leave for a decade and come back unhinged from the past. It wouldn't work. We would all walk into the same room and resume the silk-spinning of a generations old web. And anyway, they can't, so deeply, importantly involved with each other and the new additions to the family. Still, I wanted solitude to be the solution. 

Returning to my selfish solitude on the train home, I thought a lot about this gift of aloneness and how few people truly get to experience it. Loneliness we get in spades, involvement, too, but contentment in our own company and the time to enjoy it often proves elusive. We're always getting accidentally involved. Whenever I ask a couple in my family how they met and why they stayed, their answers are so breathtakingly circumstantial, and now look at all of us, barely hanging on but irrevocably connected. 

I read the Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein on the journey home and she coincidentally echoes Smith's imagery but elaborates, describing the web as something "we depended on as much as we wanted out of it". There is no out; there is no leaving; there are no human islands. As soon as I step off the train, I am already heading towards new involvements, the gossamer threads of the old ones trailing behind me, unable to achieve the simplicity of an uninvolved life for longer than a single journey. But perhaps this is all any of us need. Just a brief moment of respite, time where we are infinite in our aloneness, where pasts cease to matter and futures are not dependant on someone else’s whims. Then we can return to our involvements, present and ready, and continue to support and survive each other.  

all the things we cannot have

Shannon ButlerComment

It is crazy-making how much I want these boots. 

I first spotted them two months ago, along with their insane price tag. At the time, I was able to convince myself that I didn't need them because I was looking for ankle boots and not ones that extend past my knee, even if they do lace up so appealingly and would look amazing with my coat. Months later and I still don't need them, will never need them -- but I want them. 

The store they live in is on my way to work, so I walk past it twice a day, and every time I do, I pause for a moment to look at them through the window. I haven't tried them on yet because the idea of something is always better than the reality; also, I don't really believe that when it comes to this boots so I'm trying to protect myself from the disappointment of leaving the store without owning them. 

This is a ridiculous amount of wanting to feel over a pair of boots. I know this, but I feel it anyway. Chalk it up to a consumer culture that's turned me into an insatiable well of wanting, never satisfied with what I already have and incapable of making good buying decisions, or that I simply adore clothing and the opportunities different pieces give me to reinvent myself. Either way, I have thought about these boots for months and planned on ways to afford them. 

And then I dropped and smashed my phone and bought an expensive train ticket and all my bills seemed to come in at once. I truly pay the bills of my everyday existence -- phone bill, electricity, rent, council tax -- with joy, grateful that I have the ability to pay them,  but it's the unexpected expenses that cut into my boot fund and these hurt. They intensified the wanting. 

Desire is such a funny thing: dangerous when perverted but also the pure guiding force of our lives. It is desire that shows us what we like and it is these experiences, people, and, yes, things, which make our lives worth it.

A popular tenet of Buddhist philosophy repeated often by people who only have cursory knowledge of Buddhism (like me) is the idea of non-attachment. It is attachment -- to people, to circumstances, to outcomes -- that causes all our suffering. I have always hated this idea. It is in attachment that I find all my joy. I want to be desperately attached; I want to belong to what I want as much as they belong to me. 

That approach works fine when I get to have the things I so desperately want and doesn't work at all when I don't. It seems that the Buddhists know that we rarely get everything we want and that the times that we don't are devastating enough to dull the shine of everything we do have, so it is better to practice non-attachment at all times. Safer that way. 

The worst part of wanting without the possibility of possessing is that it shines a light on all the intangible characteristics I do not have, the gaps I cannot close. With material things, I find that I am not smart enough to translate my talents into more money, that I am already using more hours of the day than I'd like to work and it is not enough. With people who do not want me back, my lack is illuminated, or rather, the lack of us not adding up to something singular and whole is revealed in sharp relief. With opportunities, with jobs, with lives I long for but do not live, I am reminded of all the ways I fall short. 

This feeling of lack is what transforms simple wants into all consuming monsters. Suddenly I must have everything I have ever even briefly wanted just to prove that I am worthy of them. It's why on my most recent walk past the shoe store, I noticed all the other boots and how much I suddenly wanted them, too. I wanted them ALL. I saw the parade of outfits and lives I could wear once they were all in my possession and it felt so much bigger than the boots: it felt like owning them would mean that I had finally arrived

It's not bigger than the boots, though. It's never bigger than the thing we desire. It's always just about the reason for that desire and the way that reason becomes something hideous when our desires go unfulfilled

As I was backing away slowly from the window of the store, which I was inches from pressing my nose up against, I could fully recognise the ridiculous dimensions my desire had grown into. I was briefly glad that I could not have what I wanted. The thing is if I had the resources or an attitude of wild abandon with credit cards, I would totally buy all those boots. And what would I be then? A very broke, very materialistic stranger (albeit a very well dressed one).

There was not much to be gained from possessing those boots and quite a lot to be learned in wanting them and not having them: how to sit with desire, how to be disappointed, how to not let the things I can't have illuminate the things I think I'm not. Which is an interpretation of unfulfilled desires that falls into the Sesame Street, after school special way of writing about events that most blog posts eventually succumb to, but the alternative is to become a bitter weirdo who spends her life obsessing over all the things she cannot have. 

There is always going to be so much that I simply cannot have. Some of them I can work hard for and eventually achieve, but for lots of them, I will have to somehow accept an existence without them and not see it as a lesser life. I'm looking to claim my own big life and on the way there I'm learning that the pursuit of more occasionally means desiring less. 


reluctant lessons in dealing with Terrible People

Shannon ButlerComment
Be about ten times more magnanimous than you believe yourself capable of being. Your life will be a hundred times better for it.”
— Cheryl Strayed

I can count the number of people I have truly despised on one hand, and with all of them, I had to spend concentrated time with them and, in some cases, take instructions from them. Someone more enlightened than me would make a case that these people were there to challenge me to become a better version of myself. Unenlightened me says that these people suck and my main goal in life is to always have the kind of freedom that allows me to leave as soon as I realise the depth of their awfulness. I will accept that suffering is a part of being human but only as an unfortunate byproduct of seeking adventure, joy and love. I will not accept the kind of suffering that is dealing with people who are consistently terrible. 

However, I will concede one small point to the enlightened among us: I did learn something new in my latest dealing with a Terrible Person.

After what is hopefully the last conversation I will ever have with them, I found myself practising what I would say to them if I ever did run into them again. These remarks would be cutting and emotionally devastating and hopefully there would be an audience. I would pour all the of the pity and dislike and frustration, built up over months, into one single shattering statement -- think Oscar Wilde at a dinner party with people he did not respect -- and I would be vindicated. 

Around the fifth mental editing of this statement, I started to think about the conversation I actually did have. In it, I didn't launch any personal attacks, defended myself without getting defensive, and left with my sense of self worth still fully intact. I think this is the reality for all of us who practice our revenge in our head; we were likely decidedly not vengeful when the event was still occurring; we might have even been kind. All of my cruelty has to be practised, thought of only after the fact. It is not my first instinct. 

This is not a weakness.

I do not know what makes someone become a Terrible Person. What I do know is that it is not my job to fix them or correct them or put them in their place. Whatever's making them move through the world so disastrously is probably enough for them to deal with in one lifetime. My only responsibility is to keep being a person I like and can live with. 

For me, that process looks a little like this: 1) Practice devastating and witty thing to say to Terrible Person and feel better about self, 2) Never, ever say those things out loud (except to friends in angry phone calls), 3) Take responsibility for my missteps, 4) Move the fuck on. 

It always, always just comes down to moving the fuck on, doesn't it? The desire to be petty can be overwhelming sometimes, but the (harder) path of magnanimity offers greater rewards. Mostly, I get to keep moving forward and eventually I will arrive somewhere entirely new, instead of constantly returning to the scene of the crime in a vain effort to undo what's already been done with a particularly smart insult. Also, I get to go to that place with me, a person I like and respect, and I get to leave the people who I do not like and respect and who do not like and respect me behind. 

So, there you go, I learned something.