Ju has very kindly invited me to contribute to the 51st Down Under Feminists Carnival, focusing on the theme of Personal Positives:
Share with me the moments of your lives and the way in which you put goodness, positivity, back into the world, even as you use your trusty teaspoon in the ocean of ick and muck. How do you move through the world? What are you most confronted by in your experience of the everyday – where do you find that you compromise and when are you or aren’t you comfortable with that? Is there a practice or something else you’ve enacted that is entirely for the benefit of contribution to the world becoming a (very gradually) better place for everyone?
In large part, my attempts to live my politics are guided by two principles. Firstly, pragmatism. Realistically, I have to think about the limits to what I can achieve. Most of the changes I want to see in the world are too large to take place in my lifetime, or to be affected by me. Right now, the status quo is supported by economic, political, and social structures that have a vast amount of power. I am relatively privileged, but my power is still limited in the face of these structures. So I do what I can and I work with people who have similar perspectives as much as possible, and I try to appreciate any small headway that we make. Secondly, I think that there must always be pleasure in the attempt to create change. What I want is a world that is more caring, more interesting, more beautiful than what we have now, and I think that world exists in the cracks, here, now. Helping myself and others to see that gives us strength to keep going: we can’t wait for the revolution comes before we dance.
How this manifests is complex, and stretches across most areas of my life. I feel like I could write volumes on it, but for now I’ll try to give a few sketches of what living my politics means to me.
Some of what I do is visible as activism: at the moment I’m working with Bluestocking on small projects that bridge the gap between academia and our local communities, and I’m also helping to put together Avenue (both metaphorically and literally) with the rest of the Unnamed Collective. What’s sustained my involvement in both of these groups, in large part, is that those involved are realistic about the limitations of doing activism in Perth and about the time that those involved can give. We do what we can manage, and what we can enjoy.
Part of what I like about Bluestocking and the Unnamed Collective is how often meetings and other events involve eating together. When I think about living my politics, food often comes up because it plays such an important role in my life – it’s a good example of just how many layers of choices can be involved in our life politics. At the most basic level, we all need to eat, but there are also so many ways in which we imbue food with meaning. From a feminist perspective, also, so much of how I’ve learned to show love and care for people is tied up in food. I cook to look after people, to give comfort to others or to myself, to show people that they’re welcome, to create a space for people to meet each other. Sometimes this happens in activist spaces, but more often it’s threaded through my life.
When I felt like the place I used to work was too hostile, too structured by a mindset that left little place for me or my values, I eventually stopped raging against it and instead started trying to change the culture by bringing in food I’d baked and fair trade tea and coffee to share, leaving an icecream container for foodscraps for the worms. When I go to my brother’s house I take biscuits, and he makes salad with greens grown in the garden. When my friend is sick I take lentil soup around in glass jars perched precariously in my bicycle basket. When I visit my family on the weekend my grandparents always cook too much, meals they have been cooking for years, meals they remember across countries. When I am tired and sad another friend catches the bus across town to put a bowl of strawberries and some tea down beside me.
There are always compromises to be made, difficult balances. I’m trying to be more vegan because I don’t like the cruelty and environmental damage involved in producing meat and milk and eggs, but if my grandmother cooks me a spinach pie (with eggs and feta and love) I will eat it. If I go out to dinner with non-veg*n types I’ll try to get something vegan, but default to vegetarian rather than skip the pleasure of eating with friends. I try to buy food that’s grown locally, that’s least-packaged (to avoid waste) and unprocessed, but at the same time I prefer buying fair trade tea and coffee and whatever else I can get (although there are problems with fair trade, and most fair trade products available have travelled huge distances). None of this feels like a sacrifice: it’s not about what I’m giving up, but about enjoying the abundance available to me. And, of course, none of it is enough, either. Being careful what I buy and what I eat doesn’t necessarily change the huge problems with the global food system…but it gives me pleasure, and sometimes helps people around me to change their minds about how they eat, and on rare occasions I also find a small space to get involved in campaigns around the labour or environmental or regulatory structures involved in the food system. And then there’s the gendered politics of how we police people’s food intake around bodies (I refuse to diet, I try not to let fat-shaming go without notice around me), cooking and cleaning…
There are many other ways in which the small habits of life are, for me, shaped by the politics I care about. Bicycling or catching public transport instead of driving, mending old clothes when I can, wanting for my leisure to revolve around making things or playing ukulele with friends, my decisions about how I dress and present myself, what I share online and what I don’t, the kinds of relationships I have.
Work, also, for me is about being pragmatic and taking pleasure in what I do. I am lucky enough and privileged enough to be doing work that I love: my research and my teaching (and the other side projects I have around the place). Academic work, as in other industries, is increasingly casualised and precarious. It’s stressful at times, but I love the moments when I see students stretch themselves, think critically, put together something new, learn a new skill. Recently a whole group of students who I started teaching in first year graduated, and I was proud of the small role I played in helping them through. With both research and teaching I try to live my politics by remembering that the people I work with (students, activists kind enough to do interviews) require my respect and are autonomous. Sometimes we’ll agree and sometimes we won’t, but they’re always worth listening to carefully.
I’d like to write more, as much for myself as anyone else. It feels like there’s a hundred things that I haven’t even mentioned. There are many ways in which I’d like to do better, but I’m also enjoying what I’m doing so far. How about you? What do you do with your trusty teaspoon?