Fracturing Threads, Again

Keavy McFadden

Opening

Over two years after the formal close of my own participation in the course, I sit at my desk pouring over the material documents produced by the multiple iterations of Stories, Bodies, Movements, attempting to think about what my own contribution to this volume might look like. In returning to the course in the context of AGITATE!, I seek not to preserve the journey or archive the experience but rather to think about what it means politically, theoretically, conceptually to revisit and extend the work at the heart of Stories, Bodies, Movements. What is the afterlife of the embodied pedagogical commitment of the class? 

What follows is a delayed, postponed, but ever-fermenting reflection on the themes and divisions that sat at the core of our class. Thinking through my grandmother’s life and my own present grief surrounding her hospitalization and dementia diagnosis, I try to patiently, bravely, and belatedly offer vulnerability and rawness in the spirit of the class, and to bring that honesty and curiosity into new spaces and collectivities. This work and its inclusion in AGITATE! is one of the many ways that the Stories, Bodies, Movements class lives on, as I continue to grapple with the questions, frictions, and fault lines grown in that semester. The pedagogical space follows me, spills out beyond the confines of the classroom, full of textures and tensions that the formal remnants of the course elide. It picks up memories, particles, and pieces as it rolls, joining in with the questions that pool in me like water – how do I sit, truly and honestly, with the complex histories and violences I inhabit, and how do I learn to share the stories I carry with others from a place of respect, relationality, and trust, but without expectation?

Transit Lines

My grandmother is dying. The isolation of COVID-19 has accelerated her decline, but I noticed it far earlier from the way she started telling stories. My grandmother has always been famous for her routinely rehearsed tall tales, but this past year something changed. She started telling stories from times I’d never heard of before, pushing them out so quickly and steadily that it seemed like her very breath depended on it. I imagine that stories make her feel less alone, helping her stay connected. On our most recent phone call, she seamlessly drifted from the mundane of quarantine to memories from her early life. Mary sent over a paint-by-number to help me pass the time. I still need to get the paints, but it’s a beautiful landscape. It looks like there’s a river. I learned how to swim early on, I miss the water. That Mississippi raised me. You know, if you wanted to enjoy the summer, you had to know how to swim. I’ll get you a paint-by-number too, something different from a puzzle. To pass the time.

Where the Wisconsin River meets the Mississippi River

My grandmother grew up along a parcel of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad corridor in southeastern Minnesota. Her father followed work and moved them every few months to another town between the Twin Cities and La Crosse until he eventually left the family and moved on alone. In her stories, my grandmother talks of childhood, her twin brothers who had died in their youth, her own struggles being poor and dyslexic at a time when girls like her would be held out of school and left to work on a farm. Language, reading, and writing are very important to my grandmother, and she made a life dedicated to sharing those pursuits. At age 9, after being kept from school because of her unhurried and sometimes futile attempts to grasp language and translate stories from her inner world out, my grandmother taught herself to read and write. She convinced her parents to allow her to attend school and, although they moved often and she never attended the same school for more than a semester, she went on to become a special education teacher. The stories of her journey, dotted by towns along the Mississippi, flow like a river themselves when we are together. Have I ever told you? I’m only a few credits away from a graduate degree myself. Although I didn’t have the luxuries like you, doing everything on the computer. No, I had to walk to the library every day to do my research. I remember the reams and reams of paper that I fed through the typewriter to finish my thesis. I would cut pieces out, rearrange and glue them together and back again until it was just right. I wish I still had that paper, I would read it again if I could. But it’s long gone.

My grandmother moved to Milwaukee where she met my grandfather and taught in the high school that both my parents eventually attended and where my other grandparents also worked as teachers. I remember the first time I learned that other people’s grandparents weren’t necessarily friends, that they had two or more separate Christmases and holidays with different branches of their families in different places. It baffled me to imagine two grandmothers that didn’t open their stories and tables and laughter to one another. My grandmothers loved each other dearly, like sisters. My parents met and fell in love when they were 15, helping to facilitate the closeness between my grandparents, but it wasn’t just them. My aunts and uncles also married the children of people that my grandparents had known most of their adult lives, so everyone in that generation is full of stories of how they all were when they were young. These familial intimacies that root us in place are defined by the landscapes that knit together the Twin Cities, the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago. I, too, have lived my life in this midwestern stretch, with only a brief float down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Same veins but a different kind of water.

A friend on a ridge looking westward over the Mississippi near the border between Minnesota and Iowa

Last summer, I mentioned to my grandmother that I was going to celebrate the solstice by camping at Great River Bluffs State Park. She tilted her head to the side, as if searching for something. Just south of Winona? Is that the one? I think my grandfather sold his farm to the State of Minnesota to help form that park. I spent summers in those valleys. I instinctively turned to my own father for confirmation. Grandma is always telling stories and making claims, and I’ve learned to vet her tales as much as possible. As if truthful stories have anything to do with veracity. But he just shrugged – this was one he hadn’t heard. No, really. Great River Bluffs? That place used to be home. I promise her I’ll think of this connection while I hike the bluffs. 

When I arrived at the campsite a few days later, my muscles throbbed with stiffness from the drive up, so I set out down a small path to stretch my legs before setting up camp and waiting for the others to arrive. The trail ended after a short rise, where a sliver of forest had been cleared to provide a wooded lens, a quintessential humble viewpoint of the Midwest. Easing myself out from under the trees I nearly tripped, stumbling on a plaque that read Kerns’ Valley. A sharp inhale of disbelief, and an exhale of inward shock and surprise. So it wasn’t just a tale this time. Kerns. My great-grandmother’s name, and name of her father. I stood in quiet incredulity, half fueled by the jarring twist of finding a trace of my blood claiming the land, and half fueled by the land itself, the way the mist rose from the river floor and clung to the steep sides of the hollow as it climbed to meet the clouds. I stayed until the sky darkened, unable to turn away from the tangle of stories, spoken and erased, that tied me to this valley. That place used to be home.

Solstice celebrations on the edge of Kerns’ Valley

The roots of our family history strengthen my grandmother, anchoring in place her narrations of an unfolding life crosscut by love, grief, and joy. Geography buttresses her sense of belonging, supported by and aiding in turn the longstanding practice of white families claiming and making home across the Midwest. I make frequent trips to camp in the Driftless region, to walk the bluffs and escape the particulars of the city. And while I value the hushed peace that I find in those valleys, it is tempered by a deep sense of unease and discomfort with the complexities and complicities that dwell unspoken in the corners of both my grandmother’s stories and my own, from processes of white ownership, white supremacy, and ongoing colonial violence. Our connection to place is so tenuous, so disingenuous, so harmful. The same roots that feed my family’s stories choke out the roots of others, crowding space and stealing nutrients in soil that is not ours. Indeed, that place used to be home, remains home, for many families and kin who have been forced away, made to be outcasts, or otherwise made not to belong. The specific valley in my grandmother’s memory is Sauk and Fox land. But the wider landscape that has nurtured my family belongs to many Indigenous peoples – Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Miami, Potawatomi, Odawa, Dakota, Menominee, and others. Familial stories of primordial-like ownership, of selling land to the state of Minnesota to create its park system, violently overwrite other stories that must be told. Stories where my family actively contributes to and benefits from the theft of Indigenous land and the forced removal of people from their homelands. The harm of these untold stories is reenacted even as I attempt to grapple with them, made plain by the limitations and violences of the place names I reach for, names that further entrench white claims to this space. I do not know the land’s true names. 

This is not a finished story that lingers in the past, only popping up to trip me on a weekend away. It follows me in my wake. The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad that my grandmother grew up along, the steel and iron that fed her through my great-grand father’s wages, was named as such only after purchasing a section of track in Chicago called the Bloomingdale Line, an elevated line connecting the industrial district on Goose Island to the nearby suburb of Elgin. Hungry, greedy, rapacious, the railroads moaned and stretched to eat land and connect the cities and towns that define the transits of my family, each a pendant on a necklace we call home. I’ve lived just blocks from this former rail line in my post-college Chicago life, my apartments snaking north, south, and ever westward along the Bloomingdale artery with each new lease. In the intervening time between when I left Chicago for graduate school in Minneapolis and then returned, the Bloomingdale corridor had opened as a converted greenway called ‘The 606’ that offers a pedestrian trail, parks, and art installations. The 606 has caused immense displacement pressure in the Black and Brown neighborhoods that surround it on either side, and gentrification is spreading from the eastern terminus outward to the western end of the trail, causing families to lose their longtime homes. My own search for home interrupts and disrupts the homes of others. Whiteness continues to seep from the ghost of this railroad, the scars of which connect generations of violence, of wrongful claims to place, of dispossession on the part of my family.

The 606 at sunset, facing westward at California Avenue

The trajectory of my family and the still-unfolding scars of land dispossession we propagate follow the tracks of that old railway line, out of St. Paul along the bluffs, down the Mississippi and across the Wisconsin River to Milwaukee and Chicago. That a railroad, rather than water or landform, knits together the geographies of my generational kin speaks to the ways in which our foundations sit upon and extend colonial violence and white supremacy. We are those who fed off an infrastructure of extraction, circulation, and control, those who flocked to and were blinded by the gilded promises of a better life at the expense of the lives of others, I made something of myself when no one thought I could. A worship steeped in denial, in not knowing, in not acknowledging. These heinous compromises, shoddily disarmed through forgetting, hide in the silences of my grandmother’s stories. This history is my inheritance, that which comes to me by birth and blood, but also by death. 

I must learn to walk with this legacy, must slowly and patiently try to do justice to the dark corners and shadows of my own stories. Yet, even in putting these family stories down on paper in the spirit of vulnerability, I feel myself bending backwards towards the apologetic, the analytic, and the protective. I struggle to allow the power of letting stories free the space it needs to do its work unencumbered, I have to fight against my reflex to reach for concluding pivots and abstracted takeaways. It is so difficult to be brave in weaving these stories and histories together, to be honest, courageous, and unflinching in probing how whiteness conditions the ways in which my family makes home, how we love, and how we construct ourselves as a dense knot of kin. I imagine my parents, my brother, my cousins, my grandmother herself, reading my narration of our collective inheritance and I immediately pull back and doubt the writing. How do I share the stories that root me in the world while preserving the dignity and humanity of my loved ones? 

The path that leads to Kerns’ Valley

Today, after suffering both a stroke and heart attack, my grandmother lost her memory, lost her ability to revisit the many trails of her life, unable to swim in the colors and textures of experience, no longer frantic to weave the stories of her bones into air and back again. And even though she can’t tell stories, she still asks for home, for return to those places, feelings, and valleys that birthed her. As I sit in my own silence, dwelling in her lessons, waiting for news from the doctor, I grieve with the weight of how heavy that ask of return is, how violently benevolent whiteness embeds and takes root, how painful and fraught it is to claim home and make maps on land that is not yours.

Containment

I am on the phone with the social worker at the senior care facility where Gram is recovering in a skilled nursing unit. At her facility, health workers attend to her every few hours with water, medications, and assessments, but we aren’t allowed to visit her due to COVID-19. So we get our updates by phone. She’s not allowed to leave the room where she is recovering, out of fear of the virus, despite her negative test and previous rounds of quarantine. Quarantine is not an activity that my grandmother faces gracefully, and it noticeably eats away at her already diminished cognitive abilities. Contact, our cells in proximity, help us stay healthy and whole, despite the potential otherwise.

The social worker and physical therapist report that it has been very difficult to complete accurate assessments and treatments because my grandmother is both bad at following directions and refuses to sit still. She’s been very busy in her room, she keeps rearranging the furniture and moving things around. It is hard to get her to rest. My family and I chuckle and cast each other knowing glances. Amid the draining heaviness of the week since her hospitalization, we find a gush of lightness in the image of Gram repositioning the single chair and dresser every few hours, no doubt ordering a nurse to help her adjust the angle of each piece until it is just right. There is comfort in the familiarity of this image, we see her as we have known her through the therapist’s report. She is still herself.

My grandmother is notorious for having an immense amount of things in her possession at all times and for always having a project or twelve in process. Busy, busy, busy. Her life is catalogued by drawers and tubs of material items – seven sets of dishes, innumerable thematic collections of trinkets displayed in curio cabinets, whole closets dedicated to fabrics, marbles, fake flowers, and ornaments that she arranges to exhibit her prized items. She decorates for every season. And while ‘season’ often implies four annual divisions, and this is inadequate for describing the velocity at which my grandmother’s decorations change. Her seasonal shifts last only a few weeks at most – the santas and evergreens of Christmas in December give way to the snowmen and light blue of late winter January which graceful make room for hearts and cupids in February, sometimes interrupted by Mardi Gras beads and masks, only then to be superseded by parades of green leprechauns and shamrocks by March. This continues throughout the year, each month bringing at least one or two sweeping changes to her small apartment. The decorations are all encompassing, her space a willing chameleon in this ritual of passing time. Dish towels, door mats, wall hangings, cloth napkins, figurines, and placemats all rotate in turn, a domiciliary changing of the guard. Always in motion, the unfathomable collections of nutcrackers, angels, fish and sea creatures, roosters, cookie jars in the shape of fruits and vegetables, and flags in red, white, and blue take their turn on stage only to be shelved again till next year.

A hallway cabinet with various “Irish”-themed trinkets

This past week, I’ve been packing up her one bedroom apartment with my family because she is unable to continue living independently. This up-close intimacy with the possessions of her life (but not with my grandmother herself) means my relationship with her is mediated by the material items she holds dear. The foot-high statues, printed hand towels, and jeweled pins, though staggering and fatiguing in their volume, are sentinels to my grandmother’s life. Masking tape stuck to the bottom of figurines and pencil marks scrawled on the back of picture frames weave a web of relationships through time, marking to or from whom the object was bequeathed. For Ellen. From Rosemarie, 1982. Mary wants this one day. From Lois, birthday gift. As I pack, I am propelled through dizzying cycles of emotions. Joy as childhood memories flood my head, incited by a small ceramic turtle painted to look like a globe. Overwhelmed as I sit suspended and disoriented as if in a trance, gazing over a shelf of collectables I realize I missed when I first emptied this armoire. Claustrophobic as I reach for the tiny space of air left in the cardboard box between the carefully wrapped depression era glassware and breakable china. Sadness as my muscles, my heart most of all, ache with the strain of moving someone’s world into boxes they will never see again. Wading through her belongings and the feelings they invoke is an act of love, rooted just as much in the purposeful bubble wrapping and frazzled, dazed exhaustion of sorting through holiday mugs as in pouring over old family photos and reminiscing on times spent together. 

Despite how meticulously her storage drawers and plastic tubs are labeled and organized, what’s most haunting is the current jumble of seasonal arrangements on display in her home. Easter bunnies and egg plates sit dusty next to cornucopias and pumpkins placed on a burgundy and orange plaid cloth of late fall, all discordant in the summer heat. A fourth of July banner hangs next to the bathroom closet, more closely in step with her usual decorative almanac, but the fake flowers on the bookshelf still bear the red, green, and white holly of Christmas. A display outside her front door features birds and birdhouses, signs announcing to her neighbors that Spring has sprung!. No one has been allowed in here to visit since the pandemic began and, although she has told me over and over on phone calls that she has been working in her storage closet or changing out decorations, busy, busy, busy, these anecdotes are contradicted by the kitchen counters and walls of the apartment. At some point, time slipped. The seasons, once painstakingly and cleanly divided by her efforts and possessions, grew languid and compressed, blurring together until a full calendar year could be experienced with just one turn about the room. She has suffered a major medical emergency, but the mismatched objects on display narrate a longer story of a person aging rapidly in isolation without their loved ones to bear witness, no longer able to push time into neat, labeled compartments through the rearrangement of space and things.

A buffet displaying Easter and Fall decorations side-by-side

I am also afflicted by this drive for control of my surroundings, though it results in obsessive cleaning and a near-constant purging of items and goods, a habitual striving to make the space more minimal, more streamlined, less messy, smaller. More contained. This is at odds aesthetically with my grandmother’s drive for decorative opulence, but it comes from the same compulsion. When I was little, six or seven, my grandmother was watching me for the weekend and noticed I was pacing about the apartment without much purpose. She called me to come sit down in the kitchen where she was fixing a roast on the stove. Keavy, do you know about the B word? Terrified and slightly exhilarated to be treading such forbidden linguistic terrain with my grandma, of all people, I slowly nodded my head up and down. Yes, I had recently learned this word and its explosive capabilities from an older kid on the playground at school. Good. I try not to say it, but I will now, just so we’re on the same page: bored. My eyebrows darted up my forehead in question and surprise. This was not the word I had learned to avoid, nor had anyone told me this word should be banned from my rapidly changing lexicon. The B word is something that can take you over if you’re not careful, it eats at you. Never say the B word, and try to not to think it either if you can help it. Only boring people get bored – to be bored is just a failure of your own imagination. You must always find something to do. I smiled meekly, embarrassed by how B word I had been just moments earlier, stuck in my grandma’s apartment while it rained outside, left to read the same few picture books I had already read so many times over or watch the cars on the freeway from the window. I reminded myself to offer to help more, and shuffled to my feet to set the table for dinner. Busy, busy, busy.

I have come to know, or at least to acknowledge in words because truly knowing requires a settling in my bones that has not fully landed, that this surface churn of activity, the refusal of stillness and messiness, is a symptom of my whiteness. The need to control and contain that which is untidy structures my relationship to the spaces I inhabit, to the ways I make home with myself and with others. The desire for pristine possession, for an ever-active and bustling order within home spaces and intimate relationships, taps into structures that root me in the present of a whiteness that clings to the realm of things – material, purchasable, collecting space and energy, busy, busy, busy. In thinking through this learned denial of stillness and chaos, the diligent practice of refusing to listen to the messy quiet and cacophony that dwells within and around me, I feel estranged from my own motion. My movement, my machinery in full swing, my busy, busy, busy, has always stuck to me like a personality trait. Or perhaps I have clung to it, begged it to give me substance so I wouldn’t have to look down. Either way, I have been told throughout life that my seemingly unending energy and activity, my allergy to rest, is a virtue. But from here, I can see it more clearly for what it is – a veneer, a refusal to be whole, to sit with and wonder about all that moves within. 

This is not a call for simply navel-gazing or getting to know oneself in the vein of white-washed holistic healing and pop-psychology. In refusing to listen to the voices, memories, and stirring within, I am also refusing to be honest about the ways in which whiteness permeates my inner space and structures the way I move through the world. It is a refusal to know and challenge the intimacies of racism, capitalism, colonialism and the drive for possession that lie enmeshed with my own cells. And in refusing to patiently untangle the threads of empire, capital, and white supremacy that tether me in place and time, I produce an autoimmune response wherein I toss out the whole, including parts of me that could be disentangled, dislodged, and made fertile for new growth. This week, in the thick of dealing with my grandmother’s changing circumstances, I visited an old friend for a walk through the park. As we paused at a bench overlooking the wooded hillsides, she confessed that she had never seen me so tired, so exhausted, so devoid of energy. What is it about grief that punches us from our tireless slumber of constant activity? In my rawness, I find compulsory clarity – I can no longer forge on ahead, I must stop and look around, must confront that which bubbles to the surface and releases toxic fumes. There is a fervent honesty in grief, one that I hope to strike an attentive friendship with even as I move beyond the immediate cycles of loss and mourning. 

A life, contained

Though it brought me respite in a strained moment, the image of my grandmother rearranging the furniture of her hospital room no longer brings laughter. As she slows and forgets and quietly fades, I wish I could tell her to let go of her busy, busy, busy. To sit with and stare at her compulsion to order and control the world around her rather than feeding the flame and doing its bidding, as I must do with mine. I am reminded again of the tricky question of inheritance – not just the possessions we come into, but the way we possess, and the decorations we hang over our refusals. 

Bonds and Walls

My family has a penchant for love stories that stem from childhood romance and end in decades-long hetero marriages. My mom’s parents grew up down the street from one another in Milwaukee. In elementary school my grandma disliked my grandpa, finding him stuck up and rude, but they eventually grew close, my grandpa winning her over with teenage chivalry and gifts. My aunt and my uncle went to grade school together. When my aunt was in sixth grade, my uncle gave her a banana at lunch as a token of his affection. My grandma found it rotting and buzzing with fruit flies in the closet a few weeks later, my aunt having kept it to treasure and marvel over rather than eat. Once my aunt got to high school they were allowed to date, and they married a few years later. My own parents also started dating in high school when they both took part in a school play, my dad working tech behind the scenes and my mom securing a leading role even though she had only attended auditions to help a friend build the courage to perform. My parents later went to the same college and have since been married for decades. My brother carried this tradition into a new generation, marrying someone we’ve both known since middle school. Once, before my brother had any inkling, my now-sister-in-law confided in me that she was sure she would marry my brother one day. And so the stories go. Contrary to the general thrust of these love stories, my family is not overly romantic but rather tends towards privacy and silence, but these tales of great, long loves still structure the ways we narrate connections between people, places, and time.

My grandmother’s story does not match the tenor of the conventional family patterns. She married my grandfather and built a family with him, but the prevailing consensus is that theirs was not a great love story. They look happy enough in the black and white wedding photos that still line the hallway of my grandmother’s apartment, but family anecdotes paint a different picture. My grandfather died when I was four, so I never knew him much, but I have come to know him most plainly through the stories of my father and uncle. Those stories almost exclusively end in a lesson about how strained day to day childhood with grandfather Edwin was, dotted by the broken hands or feet of my father, cases of beer and cartons of cigarettes, and the silent disappointment that filled the house as my grandfather slinked upstairs with a bowl of popcorn in the afternoon, retreating upstairs before dinner after my grandmother had spent all day preparing a holiday meal. It is general knowledge that they were an unhappy match and that my grandfather was a difficult man to make a home with. But, lucky for us, it does not take a great love story to make a matriarch. 

Or perhaps the great love comes to her in different forms? Strong female friendships are the lifeblood of my grandmother’s story. She has cherished her friends and prioritized relationships with other women as if they were family. In my memory, she was always waking up early to meet with her decades-running card group to play bridge, running to catch a Brewer’s game in Milwaukee with former co-workers, or setting off on a cross-country road trip to stay with her friends in San Diego, Florida, and the Carolinas. She loved the freedom of driving and regularly took her friendships on the go, whether via extended journeys or just day trips up the coast of Lake Michigan to see the changing colors of the fall leaves. As her mobility has constricted over the past few years, so too have the friendships that support her and bring her joy. She has struggled immensely as friends, those with whom she has witnessed and celebrated so many chapters of life, have declined, rifts arising as they all separately navigate the process of growing old, confronting new limitations, and passing on. I cannot imagine the weight of watching nearly all of her friends fade, waiting for phone calls and more bad news. More funerals. 

The importance of close friendships, thick like blood and traced by veins of loyalty and devotion, is a lesson from my grandmother that I hold close. The webs of trust, love, and belonging that friendships foster have sustained me from the time I was young through the present. I have leaned heavily on friendships to learn and grow, and the intimate comfort of close relationships have been a place through which I’ve come to articulate my inner world, to hold up a mirror and narrate my own path, to build up the edifices that house my stories. I have always considered this rootedness in friendship a strength, and I found beauty in the intensely relational sense of self that I cultivated and embodied. In some ways, I still do. But, as feedback and distance has helped me realize, such fierce bonds and tightly-knit relationships can tend toward isolation, protection, and reservation. And I’ve found that these dynamics can breed an insidious addiction to the relative comfort, ease, and safety of those relationships. Friendships can become impenetrable walls that end up keeping others firmly on the outside just as much as they create space for honesty and rawness within. They become borders in and of themselves, a line between different ways of being and relating that relegates vulnerability to only certain spaces, moments, and relationships. This is delicate and somewhat heartbreaking to grapple with because friendships have also expanded the depth of my joy, challenged my thinking and shaken me from ruts, and taught me to love myself and others. But, through close and trusted friendships, I also run the risk of developing practices of vulnerability that are unwittingly strategic and reserved, a vulnerability that has the potential to at once overwhelm and fall short because it is only allowed to flex and breathe under particular conditions. A vulnerability constrained. In practicing this restrictive vulnerability that is only shared selectively, robbed of its sharpness and fullness, made to stay buoyant but static in a single lane when it hungers to dive in the swell of turbid waters, I deny my full humanity and refuse to connect with the humanity of others. A wicked cycle of disavowal. 

This is particularly problematic in the context of friendships between white women, as were the case in all of my grandmother’s relationships and many of my own. It is difficult but necessary to acknowledge the ways that whiteness fortifies and disguises itself in these dynamics, how the perceived safety and shared understanding can create space for the spores of whiteness to circulate and find footing. This frantic adherence to the safety and power of friendship, in this case also with another white woman, is partially what caused such a rift in my own participation in the Stories, Bodies, Movements class. I took the class alongside a dear friend who was also my roommate and program-mate. Our lives were deeply enmeshed. Our closeness and our whiteness came together to form a forcefield in a space that was already marked by and struggling with racism and white fragility. As the class opened me up and prompted internal processing about my past and my scars, my vulnerability collapsed into the protection and isolation of our friendship. I was raw and uncertain, and friendships have always been a sacred space for me. But, in falling into a singular relationship so heavily in the context of the class, I created a wall that prevented the rest of the collective from sharing my stories, seeing my pain, celebrating my joy, and connecting over the complex, tangled histories that both connect and divide us. I gave what I could, but ended up guarded, exhausted, and confused.

The classroom is long gone and I do not know exactly where the afterlives of the class will go from here. I am left again thinking about walls, the way they contain us, grow within us, and spring up from our actions when we might least expect it. How many ways are there to build a wall? When do walls make a home, offer space for sustenance and warmth- and when do walls cut us off from those things we need to breathe, to hunger, to grow?

Can we tell stories through walls, can we know each other, love each other, hear and smell, from behind walls?

What do we do with walls we inherit but may not have built? And who gets to ask questions of walls?


Suggested citation:
McFadden, K. 2021. “Fracturing Threads, Again.” AGITATE! 3: https://agitatejournal.org/fracturing-threads-again.

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