A little more than three weeks ago I published a blog post about sometimes struggling to be fully present in my new community. How can I fit here? Now? I realized that through the interminable qualifiers and preemptive addenda I had been adding to literally everything I said and did (discussed at length in my last post), I was attempting to spread myself through time and space, manufacturing a kind of quasi-omnipresence. I was literally getting ahead of myself.
So a little more than three weeks ago I began striving for a greater sense of presence. I wanted to stop needing to be everywhere, and focus on being here. Taking a cue from Heisenberg, I thought maybe if I stopped trying to figure out where I am going, I could figure out where I am. And for the most part it’s worked. I’ve allowed myself to give up some control. I’ve found that I can better focus on the relationships I am trying to build here, the community I am slowly forming. I think I have even allowed myself to be challenged, and that’s exciting.
But there’s always a twist, right? The present is an eternally funny thing, especially in the age of the internet. It’s this decrepit, inscrutable, cosmic, non-euclidean joke. The punchline came years ago, but we’re all still listening for it.
Peggy Phelan, a leading performance studies scholar, famously and controversially wrote that “[p]erformance’s life is only in the present,” and that it “becomes itself through disappearance,” (Unmarked, 1993). Bear with me a moment. If performance is somewhat synonymous with the present and is predicated on its own inevitable disappearance, then reciprocally the present, per Phelan’s understanding, like performance, must become itself through its disappearance. The experience of the present is itself a performance, one that by (Phelan’s) definition is in a constant state of disappearing; I know I am here now precisely because my here-ness and now-ness has always already vanished. In fact, I only know the present in retrospect; it is always going. The only sight we know is hindsight, no?
[NOTE: Many brilliant minds (such as Joseph Roach, José Muñoz, and perhaps most explicitly Rebecca Schneider) have since taken on Phelan’s claim. I am not interested in rehearsing these scholars’ arguments now, but I think it is important to acknowledge that Phelan’s is not the only ontology of performance, nor of presence. I, personally, don’t totally agree with all that Phelan argues, but I do think her understanding of performance provides a valuable framework through which to analyze the intimate work that I do and research (as well as the experience of simply living on this earth in general) all of which confronts presence and togetherness rather directly. Ultimately, however, I am pretty disinterested in defining such an ontology, but that is a conversation for a different present entirely.]
The reason I bring up Phelan, is twofold:
First, I miss academia.
Second, and perhaps more pertinently, because lately I have been struggling with my own present—that space and time in which I exist and function and which I committed myself to fully occupying a few weeks ago. The obvious answer to “where am I?” is Chiang Mai, Thailand. And this is not untrue. However, this place certainly does not hold all of me. Most of what amounted of the last 22 years I spent discovering and growing and creating is more than 13,000 miles away, where people and places I know and love still hold parts of me even as they go about living their own lives. Many of my friends, for example, are holding on to some of my books, and whether or not those books are being read, the traces of me on those pages are taking up real space in this world.
My here is more than just here.
An incomplete list of places I am present:
- Chiang Mai, Thailand
- Northwestern University
- The greater Chicago area
- The suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Overland Park, Kansas
- Arizona, somewhere
- New York
- Other places in Thailand
- Germany I think?
- The United Airlines office in Shanghai
Traces of me remain all over my Midwestern homes and beyond. People are reading this very blog from more than 20 different countries. I am here and there at once. Now and then. And right now I am a little confused about my role in maintaining any sort of cohesion among these disseminated bits of me. I have been scattered through space and across time, and it’s become a little tiring to keep up with myself.
And it gets more complicated still.
You see, right now, the home I invested in for the last 22 years is kind of going to shit. The unfathomable shock of reading about yet another trans person or person of color murdered again and again is slowly wearing off, and I have to teach my Customs and Culture students about the historical strides America has made regarding equality. A self-proclaimed sexual predator is vying to be the leader of the country that so many of my students and Thai friends look to as an example, and last week when I asked Punchy—the incredibly strong and intelligent 10-year-old girl I tutor—to come up with names for the characters in the story she was writing, she chose Elizabeth, Eric, and Donald. This week, while an award-winning American journalist is facing potential jail-time for reporting about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, I had to find and print off an additional reading about Native Americans who are otherwise reduced to a footnote or two in the textbook my students have.
On the side of the world opposite to the mess that is America right now, Thailand is going through some pretty monumental changes as well. I will be wearing black to support my community for the next month and likely longer, taking cues from my friends on how best to behave in the wake of unprecedented developments. Suffice it to say that my intellectual and emotional presence on this half of the globe is invaluable.
Thus, I wonder: Where am I? Or where am I supposed to be as I strive for a greater sense of presence? Where is this elusive present that I am attempting to occupy anyway? The one that Phelan claims keeps disappearing? Because each time I think I have found it, I seem to discover another part of me a million miles away that is showing no signs of going anywhere. How do I continue to invest in a life I spent two decades building in a world that is so far away, while simultaneously achieving a certain distance from that world in an effort to invest myself here? Concepts like here and there begin feeling tenuous at best.
I guess my point is that choosing to be “present” (a word that is losing meaning with each iteration) in either of these homes and in turn (according to Phelan) disappearing from those other places where I forsake presence will have actual material consequences for the people I care about. And I know it’s not my job to take care of the entire world, as much as I would love that, but this kind of present simply isn’t working for me.
So Phelan, I’m sorry, but we’re breaking up.
My best friend is suing the city of Chicago. The Shuttleworth-Shortall-Wong Halloween spectacle is probably already up and running. Sean King’s injustice boycott starts December 5. Vincent is living and working in Australia. I’m still not done watching Gilmore Girls with Pam. Sailom is getting back from Laos in a few days and we haven’t hung out in forever.
I refuse to believe that being with any of these people in any of these places requires that I have disappeared from everywhere else. I cannot remove myself from my home in America even as I am growing new roots in Thailand.
And I still don’t have an answer. No resolution, no nicely packaged moral-of-the-story. I think this post needs to remain disappointingly open-ended for now. It’s due time for an update about Chiang Mai, but this is definitely going to take longer to think through. And perhaps its good to periodically remind those of us that are used to it that catharsis is a privilege not shared by all; the Aristotelian plot structure that I introduced to Punchy last week doesn’t tell every story.
So for now this is what I’ve got:
To my friends who haven’t heard from me, I am sorry. To my family who hears from me far too seldom and probably thinks I found myself a new family, I am even more sorry. (Also, don’t worry, you haven’t been replaced. And I haven’t gotten any more tattoos yet. (Oh, except I think I already have one you don’t know about. Sorry about that too.)) To the people who care about me I promise you are not forgotten, and I wish I had a better way of showing you that you are still in my life.
Wow gosh it’s supposed to be this hard, right?