Yesterday my community lost a brilliant light, Aaron Swartz, who did a great deal, in very few years and very young, to better the Internet and the information we have to understand it and the rest of our world. I met Aaron for the second time last year, and had been looking forward to future conversations with him. Like everyone, I am bereft at knowing those conversations will not happen.
The geek community has done a lot of thinking about depression and suicide in the past few years, notably Mitch Altman and co’s great panels at 28c3 and HOPE and other organizing activities. It is especially difficult to have the news of Aaron in the wake of these panels. I know organizing doesn’t make everything better immediately. It’s just…. damn.
All I can offer is what I do to save myself.
Spend time with people who are actively nurturing their bodies, living in them and loving them. So much of nerd work involves living in our brains, wishing all of the physical and exterior-world difficulties we have to face would just go away. Eat the food that your body loves and that takes care of you. Stretch your body. Sleep. For godsakes, DANCE. This is a practice. Not a one-time effort, not a new year’s resolution. Just keep doing this. Only this when you can do nothing else. I have found it is the only thing that helps.
Spend time among people who are also hell-bent on surviving, and not being miserable while they do it. With the people who will keep an eye on you to ensure YOU survive.
This is why I do African dance. Why I used to skip my department’s useless required doctoral colloquium to do it. Why I still do everything in my power, why I go out of my way, to get to Harlem (or to Ailey, sometimes even when I can’t afford it) to dance.
While I understand depression is also an under-spoken-of thing in African-American communities, there is also something in the culture of the African diaspora for which I am immensely grateful, which I have learned to seek out even though as a white girl my dependence on it is historically problematic. There is something in the culture which is about actively loving yourself and your body, in the face of any voice to the contrary, as a matter of survival. To my skeptic, empirical white self, it sounds corny to say “love yourself,” like some loose hippie thing. But this is not that kind of love. To survive, you have to love yourself ferociously, fighting off any voice or thought which threatens that love.
Last year, when I was under-employed and depressed, I went to community African dance classes as much as I could. The classes are by donation, which is a relief for anyone on a tight budget (I’m “overpaying” the drummers this year, in thanks for last year. Not that I could ever overpay these drummers!). They’re full of people with all kinds of bodies, old and young, fat and skinny, broken and lithe — all of them dancing, without shame. And because I’ve been going to these classes for ten years, they feel like the constant in my life: the safest place I can possibly imagine.
I lost maybe twenty pounds while I was depressed — my body was processing food wrong, I wasn’t hungry, and I felt like I couldn’t even afford to eat. Most of my colleagues said to me, “You look great!”, to which I was never sure if I could reply that I “looked great” because I felt awful.
But Holly, one of the other dancers in my class who I’d only talked to a little before, noticed and understood what was going on. “Girl, what are you trying to do, disappear?” she asked one day. When I told her what I was going through, she checked in with me every single class for months.
Last week she said, “You’re looking good!”
I need to remember to thank her, and the drummers, more and more and more.
Today, by chance, I happened upon this kind of love again in the beautiful voice, words, and body of Geoffrey Holder. I’m writing all this because of this video. Like Holder says, remember to kiss yourself. (And may I recommend going out to dance with him, and me, in Harlem?)