In Staying with the Trouble (2016), Donna Haraway writes:
Trouble is an interesting word. It derives from a thirteenth-century French verb meaning “to stir up,” “to make cloudy,” “to disturb.” We – all of us on Terra – live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy – with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killing of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble not does require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.
Haraway’s work has been formative for me – her 1984 essay, “Cyborg Manifesto,” (link is to the PDF) was paradigm-shifting for me, and led me to Elizabeth Whitney’s 2008 essay, “Cyborgs Among Us,” which revolutionized my relationship with my bisexuality and opened up whole new worlds of liminality for me. Liminality – the threshold state, the betweenness, the selves and potentials that exist in the overlap, the between-and-beyond, the both/and, the identities that prove the binary wrong, the state that offers hope for new ways forward. Liminality – my heart. Liminality is where I find my way home to myself, and to the world.
Haraway’s writing is dense, thick, complicated and challenging. In Staying with the Trouble she discusses the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and the Chthulucene – and that tells you a lot about where the book comes from and how it goes. She discusses which stories tell stories and which thoughts think thoughts – which frames we use for generating new knowledge, which stories we use as roadmaps to new narratives. It’s rich work, and I can only read a page or two at a time. It speaks to me, but it speaks to me in ways that are not smooth or easy or comfortable. It is the perfect work to fit with the Sunday theme of the Tender Year.
It feels particularly fitting for this blog post because when I spoke with Stasha Huntingford about Venn Diagrams, her discussion of the rich and troubled/troubling/troublesome space between two binaries reminded me strongly of Haraway’s invitation to stay with the trouble. They are both troublemakers with deep insights.
The Year of Sacred Attendance, the Tender Year, started on a Sunday.
On Sundays, our prompt is to challenge a binary. To explore and expand a binary.
We use Venn Diagrams as a simple and accessible entry point into the prompt.
Venn Diagrams are great for this, because they invite both playful and silly engagement and more serious engagement. You can use this prompt to look for any area of overlap, and even that process of looking for overlap can be exciting and full of potential. You can engage with a Venn Diagram over the whole course of a day, diving deeper and deeper into what exists in either sphere, and what exists in the mingling between (as Nathan so beautifully), or you can approach it quickly, scurry up and scratch it down and then retreat to the rest of your day (like I did), or you can start with the diagram and expand it out into further self-awareness and even an affirmation about what you’re seeking for your life (like Stasha did). Each of these processes brought a different method to the prompt, and I think this will be true for everyone who participates. I am looking forward to that variety, and to the richness in the overlap. (Each of these Venn Diagrams are at the end of this post, to give you a sense of what’s possible and how the three of us have approached the topic so far.)
I think that the Tender Year, for me, will involve a lot of “staying with the trouble” and I appreciate the invitation and the encouragement to be troubled, and to find a way to be, as Haraway says, “truly present, not as a vanishing pivot… but as [a] mortal critter entwined in myriad unfinished configurations.” I have found myself lost in visions of the apocalyptic future lately, and have had trouble staying grounded in the present. This year is an invitation to attend my life as it happens (not as it will happen, or as it has happened), and to tend to the life I am living and the lives I intersect and overlap.
In this presence – this troubled and troubling, binary-challenging, playful and serious, liminal presence, there is so much potential for hope, for change, and for ways to intervene in the trouble.
“If the responsibility for the most vulnerable citizens has been passed to communities, we have a lot of work to do remembering what community means. The idea of community is important because in addition to creating shame, I feel that binary thinking has led us to a fragmented world where we are lonely and isolated from each other. My goal is to put the world back into a coherent whole where we concentrate on how things are interrelated, and brave negotiating the grey instead of falsely compartmentalizing into black/white. The peer model allows us all to be integrated, dynamic and interrelated in our identities rather than being defined by one aspect of ourselves. We should all order a nice veggie burger with bacon—which we can share with someone who is different from us!” – Stasha Huntingford
The Sunday prompt, Venn Diagrams, was Stasha’s idea and came from previous work she had done on binaries and the potential in the middle spaces. We sat down to talk about the process, and about her hopes for this year of Sunday #challengethebinary prompts.
Tiffany – To start with, I wanted to ask you about binaries and the breaking of them – the Sunday theme coalesced out of your discussion of both the “veggie burger with bacon” idea and the intersection of social workers and folks who access social work services. Can you tell me what it is about these two ideas that gets you excited, or that you want to explore in the Sunday “meditation on binaries” theme?
Stasha – Nothing makes me more excited than challenging binaries! Lots of dehumanizing oppression comes from the idea of ‘normal’ and ‘the other’.
This essay is where I explain the veggie burger with bacon concept further. It was written at a time when I was really lonely in the academy. I have used this idea to queer things that are presented as opposites.
Tiffany – How can Venn Diagrams help challenge these dehumanizing binaries?
Stasha – For example, being bisexual is one way that I have been exposed to a binary about being either gay or straight. This also reinforces a gender binary that presents two opposite options. So many people have done great work about challenging these binaries, and exploring what a spectrum view changes about two things that are framed as opposites
Tiffany – Totally. The radical binary-challenging potential within bisexuality is one reason I am so happy to be bisexual.
Stasha – Me too! And why I identify as queer instead of gay.
Binaries cause so much harm to people who exist in the middle of spectrums. I have many ways that I have experienced the tension of being a veggie burger with bacon, and I have been fortunate enough to have other people share some of their examples of the harms caused by binary thinking.
The idea of one way to do things or one truth, is part of the binary thinking, and crushes creativity.
Tiffany – I agree. But it’s also (at least for me) a very tempting way to view the world. If there is a “right” and a “wrong,” with no middle ground, then I can feel more confident about my choices – more confident that I won’t slide too far through that middle space and end up in wrongtown.
Stasha – I use venn diagrams to help me reflect deeply on the grey area between 2 binaries. This helps me to be more aware of my privileges and oppressions. It gives me points of intervention.
Tiffany – Oh, I love that! Can you talk more about points of intervention? How do you mean?
Stasha – I mostly use them to raise more questions
For example, if we explore a venn diagram between environmentalism and working for an oil company, this might help us to identify people who we know who may fit in the grey here and feel isolated from both the environmentalist and oil company employee communities.
Tiffany – Ah, yes. That makes sense. And, framing it like that, and thinking also of bisexuality, it occurs to me that the people in the grey area are often painted as “traitors” to both circles. That isolation is so real.
Stasha – Or if we explore the opposite of sacred in the dictionary, this can help us to understand the messages we may have received about what is sacred and how the opposite of this is defined.
Tiffany – Totally.
We have 52 weeks in this project, and although I am sure some binaries will warrant multiple Sundays of exploration, I am also looking forward to the invitation to look at a wide range. If someone wants to participate and isn’t sure where to start, what are some ideas that you’re excited about?
Stasha – I always say that veggie burgers with bacon are very powerful, and very lonely. In binary thinking, we are traitors because we expose that there are way waaaaaaaaay more than two options or ways to do things. What could be more dangerous and magic and lonely?
Tiffany – Yes. Absolutely.
Stasha – I’m excited to think about new binaries because I think that is difficult and magic. I am thinking about housed/homeless, the opposite of productive, the opposite of justice, rich/poor, the opposite of listening…
The opposite of connected, the opposite of fascism, the opposite of dyke
Tiffany – Those are great. Productivity is one that i want to explore, too. Also rest and whatever the opposite is, and forgiveness and all the circles that might overlap and complicate that.
Stasha – Oh my yes forgiveness, and the resulting diagrams could easily take us through to winter solstice!
Tiffany – Right?!
Stasha – Yes! If not the rest of our lives!
Tiffany – What else would you like someone to know about the Sunday theme?
Stasha – I think this is sacred work.
I think this because we are reclaiming a way of thinking that we used to have.
I cite Hans Christian Anderson’s story about the emperor who had no clothes, to explain the role of challenging binary.
Tiffany – Oooo, lovely! Can you explain how it applies here?
Stasha – We must have the strength to identify ways that we don’t belong in order to see what we are being told.
So it is scary to always be the one ruining social time by saying the emperor has no clothes.
Tiffany – I totally agree about how scary it is. I hope that this project is able to offer some of the social support that will help more of us find ways to speak our awkward truths.
Stasha – What we are being told about ourselves, and who we are. Patricia Collins explains the revolutionary act of black women defining themselves as a way that they resist oppression.
Tiffany – Yes. Narrative healing.
Stasha – Yes, I am so excited because it is something that I don’t want to do by myself. It hurts much less when we start from a space of acceptance. And we can return there when it hurts. And we know that we will connect at the full moon. And we know how many days we have to make it through to get there.
Yes huzzah for narrative healing!!! Sacred work.
I’m doing all my venn diagrams in public because I want people to have so many examples of intervention points.
Tiffany – I love that. The ability for the project to be public is one of my favourite things about it.
Stasha – You and Nathan taught me that/gave me the courage!
I did my 100 love letters privately and then shared them a year later on social media. I loved the exponential generative nature of the love that you two demonstrated.
I noticed that other people felt permission to write themselves love letters after seeing yours. And then they shared theirs, and their friends felt better able to send themselves a love letter.
Tiffany – It has been a pretty amazing collaboration, and I love the way it has invited more people in, and has rippled out into little growing communities of radical self-love. I hope that the same thing happens with the Tender Year.
For my first venn diagram, I wanted to explore what the opposite of sacred is. I started by looking up definitions, synonyms, and antonyms (words that we use to say the same or opposite things). I did this, keeping in mind that it is very important to inquire what is missing from the dictionary, for example colonialism and other kinds of racism are often reinforced through the appropriation of languages of resistance.
Under the sacred side of the two overlapping circles that I used in this venn diagram, I listed words that mean similar things: hallowed, pure, divine, solemn, guarded, immune, and secure.
Under the non-sacred side I found these words to describe the same concept: open, unprotected, vulnerable, profane, irreligious, ungodly, unholy, unsacred.
I then sat with my feelings with each of these words and concepts. One highlight of this meditation included reflections on my hatred of the concept of pure, since this is often used to oppress me, as a woman living in a patriarchy. I really love the word hallowed because it makes me think of my favorite holiday, the only one where the society that I am part of addresses the concept of death.
I was disappointed that the opposite of sacred is defined mostly as unsacred. I find this so interesting in terms of how we think about what is holy and what is not. I was surprised that sacred is linked with security; because in my life my most sacred moments have been the most perilous and chaotic. I think of sacredness as coming out of shit with your identity intact.
Next, I thought deeply about where the overlap is between sacred and unsacred, especially in how it applies to this project and our intent to practice sacred attention and tending. For me, vulnerability is sacred because you are reclaiming your true self. For me, the security in sacredness comes from being able to return home to yourself. Somberness and solemness are not required for my sacredness, as I think play is how we grow and interact in a genuine love. My sacredness is not guarded, it is found in the messy corners of tending your heart on your sleeve.
Finally, I created a definition of what I seek in terms of the sacred:
I seek the messy security of hallowed profane vulnerability.
Here we are. A beginning.
Sunday’s #dailypractice is about challenging binaries. My brain says: this is easy for you NVF, given the nature of your being. But, in truth, I do have a lot of either/or thinking ruling my worldview.
Because today is a beginning, I wanted to focus on parts of life that are working, but not necessarily working together. Things I’ve come to learn how much I need, especially during 100loveletters. But things that feel like they cancel each other out sometimes, in a way that gets in the way of my heart.
Spaciousness and Connectedness. I need them both in similar measure, but how to have them both at the same time?
I wordsed about each when this download arrived about a place for everyone/thing and everyone/thing in its place.
It got me thinking about ecology, about how we are connected in space and through it. Connected not crowded. Spaciousness not isolation. It got me to thinking about the collaboration that initiated this project. The collaborations that have initiated me and others.
I want to say there is a tender balance. But I think more accurately there is a robust dynamic, that can be disrupted. Keep an eye on the keystone populations. Keep an eye out for overgrowth. The algae bloom. The mineminemine of that.
Read the river. Bring curiosity to flow. There is a magic here to collect and study and work.
It’s good to be back.
I have a long list of binaries I’d like to explore over this year of Sundays. As I tried to figure out which would be *just right* for this first post, I realized that the pressure I was putting on myself to get it right, to make the right first impression, to say something profound, to make some kind of meaningful art, to have a perfect first post – that pressure was squishing the joy out of the project for me.
I had a busy day, have had a busy weekend, have had a busy week, have had a busy summer. This Tender Year / Year of Attendance work feels so important to me, and I am so excited about it, but my own internalized ideas about what “good work” means is in conflict with my sense of tiredness and general overwhelm, and what happens in the middle is not the productive, profound, generative new space that Venn Diagrams can highlight. It is, instead, a squished, cramped, claustrophobic place.
I think that this is actually a perfect start to this project, because what I need from the Tender Year is not just more work. What I need is better work, more holistic work, more wholehearted work. I need tenderness. I need to attend to the tiredness. I need to find a way to feel less cramped and squished in the creation of project-focused work.
This is a perfect diagram for where I’m at today, and an indication of where I can focus my energy to change this pattern. Or, at least, an indication of the pattern. And identifying the pattern is a great first step.
Even if you’re identifying a pattern you’ve identified a dozen times before, it’s still a good step.
Image description: On the left, a stick figure labeled ‘My tiredness and general overwhelm’ pushes a red ball labeled ‘Something.’ On the right, a stick figure labeled “My desire to do good work’ pushes a blue ball labeled ‘Something Else.’ In the middle, a purple area of overlap is labeled ‘Some other thing’ and a small stick figure it caught between the balls and labeled ‘My sense of enthusiasm and agency being squished.’ There is a text box on the bottom left that says ‘#tenderyear’ and a small Tiffany Sostar logo on the bottom right.