Notes towards dwelling: Life-producing possibilities between crisis and shock
Writer Alexis Zanghi considers the possibility and impossibility of dwelling in a crisis: blending memoir and art criticism to examine how culture is produced in moments of shock and displacement, the precarity of the archive and of the body as they are shaped by institutions, and how to live in proximity to incommensurable traumas.
noteThis piece mentions drug use, sexual assault, and attempted suicide.
The summer after I get out of the hospital, I move in laps and figure eights through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which is hemmed with silt grey gravel that reminds me of low tide when it rains.
When I go there on walks, I take notes in a yellow notebook, my first since the hospital. I call the sculpture I like most “the wolf gives birth to the city.” The placard says that the sculpture is of Saint Genevieve but I see an inversion of Romulus and Remus. Instead of the wolf nurturing feral and abandoned children, a woman rips open the belly of the wolf in the act of being born. The birth seems painful: the wolf’s eyes are rolled back and vacant, her udders are so large they are like teeth and the woman is smooth where the wolf is not; a paw reaches for a hand and the hand grabs back. Something wild gives birth to symmetry and order, there is a wound left where the city will grow. The wolf’s face looks as though she is shaking and the woman is placid, as though she is being told of some new and grave responsibility. Both the wolf and the woman seem to know that this has to happen.
The walks, the notebook: I am studying how to be who I have been, who I am now, in 2019. I knew a poet who’d broken his left foot and crushed his ankle in a motorcycle accident, then broken 22 bones, ruptured his spleen, and collapsed a lung in a car accident within the same year. He learned how to play the drums all over again by listening to recordings of what he’d once been able to play.
During the last big shock—crisis seems perpetual, and shock something that marks out a new rupture in pre-existing crises—I was homeless, an underemployed waitress with half a bachelor’s degree and a benzodiazepine habit because I’d been assaulted the year before and an opioid habit because I’d cracked my left metatarsal running a tray of drinks to the green room of the concert hall where I worked. On my days off, I sat in emergency rooms and sliding scale clinics and when I was not working or trying to get drugs or trying not to be sick from not having drugs, I stayed in a series of places that were not dwellings: a room in a basement next to a boiler, a shed, more than one windowless storage closet, more than one middle room in railroad lofts which were not safe enough for anyone to live but where I showered and slept. Beginning in April 2006, I moved no fewer than 12 times in two years, or once every 67 days. I needed shelter, I needed health insurance, and I had neither.
About a month before Lehmann Brothers collapsed, a few days after I turned 25, I nearly died. In the back of an ambulance, creaking from Ridgewood to Bedford-Stuyvesant with the J train rattling above us, the EMT asked me why.
At Woodhull Hospital, I drank charcoal and slept in a hallway, then in a shared room; then, suddenly, I was quarantined. My intake had been for a drug overdose that had not been an accident, but the doctors found a staph infection. For days, I was locked in a room that I did not know how I would afford. When I was allowed to leave, the antibiotic I needed wasn’t at the hospital pharmacy, or maybe I couldn’t wait. I remember being sick with blood thinner under the fluorescent lights, and the light bouncing back at me green from the linoleum and Naugahyde. I did not see the large mural of people dancing above the hospital’s lobby that Keith Haring painted during a week in 1986, five years before he died from AIDS at age thirty-one.1 When I got to a pharmacy near where my parents had once lived in Connecticut, I learned the antibiotic that treated MRSA would cost thousands of dollars without insurance. The infection would subside on its own.
When Woodhull Hospital was initially founded in 1967, New York City’s public hospitals were part of the city’s network of social services, including the City University of New York, public daycare, addiction treatment, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the city’s parks,2 funded by various Great Society and War on Poverty initiatives. Woodhull was designed as a public hospital that provided every patient with a private room: privacy was part of dignity, dignity was part of recovery. Ground was broken at Woodhull in 1970, but the city would spend the 1970s cutting funding for social services, in crisis and bankruptcy, so that Woodhull did not open until 1982.3 By that time, the city’s social services had been so thoroughly eviscerated that addiction treatment and daycare and city jobs were a fraction of what they once had been.
Now called New York City Health + Hospitals, the hospitals are the country’s largest public health system and Woodhull is one of New York City’s dedicated COVID-19 hospitals. Obituaries for the public hospital’s staffers run in The New York Times alongside a report of a man who died after Woodhull turned him away. Hometown newspapers in Buffalo and Seattle profile doctors and nurses who worked “on the front lines” at Woodhull, calling the hospital the “epicenter of the crisis.”
The Oxford English Dictionary ranks “crisis” as a band-six frequency word.4 The current definition of crisis is a “vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything: a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or for worse is imminent; now applied especially to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or economics” — but this is recent. Until the 17th century, “crisis” was used as frequently in medicine as it was in astrology. In Late Middle English, crisis marked the turning point of a disease: the point at which a patient would either die or be healed. This use of “crisis” was derived from medical Latin and originated with the Greek krisis (“decision”), from krinein (“decide”). The general application of crisis as a “decisive point” outside of one’s body dates from the early 17th century, coinciding with the emergence of a body politic and a nation-state. In its contemporary use, “crisis” is a word that we use when we have no explanation, or when the real word is too troubling, and brings with it too many implications. There is no time to identify a problem’s origins, there is only time to act decisively and authoritatively, or to talk as if we are about to act decisively and authoritatively. The crisis is the blue hour.
Beginning in 2009, I wrote in my notebook every day, so that by the time I was hospitalized in 2019, I had filled more than an entire file box of Leuchtturms and Moleskines and marble composition notebooks. In March 2019, I felt myself surrounded by voices that told me that I could never atone for being who I was: that my name and the memory of me needed to be erased.
The voices said that to protect my family, I had to sacrifice my notebooks, everything I owned that was the particular shade of technicolor tomato red that my sister knew I loved, anything written on graph paper, my sunglasses, my bicycle, my passport. I threw away almost everything I owned before I went to the hospital—almost all of my furniture, nearly all of my books, and every notebook I’d kept since 2009, which had charted my life from cocktail waitress to university instructor, from college dropout to PhD student.
I told my therapist that the voices were like an unheimlich anti-minimalism: they demanded an excess of destruction.
Seven years and ten months after I drank charcoal in a hospital hallway, a few hours before a man murders dozens of people in a nightclub in Orlando, 11 days before the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union, I take an overnight bus from Hamburg to Karlsruhe, to see an exhibition called We Refugees—Of the Right to Have Rights on the last day before the show closes.
The exhibition begins with a video of teenagers running through a panoramic wallpaper at the Tapenten Museum in Kassel. I want to leave the room, which is too loud—interviews with children rise to the ceiling’s moulding—but I want to know everything I can. I don’t realize this in 2016, but I can’t watch films in theaters of any kind without being sick. In the documentary, a curator of wallpaper explains that the panorama is of Europe, and “the East” and the New World: nearly the whole world in a single room, surrounding the teenagers as they run and describe how they migrated to Germany. After Danica Dakic’s EL DORADO comes a room filled with speculative research for migration, and for home, then a smaller, narrow hallway with Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Conflicted Phenomes (2012), a graphic translation of the outcomes of the linguistic testing of asylum seekers, transcribed in Morse code-style dots and dashes against an EU-blue background.
The final room contains Rana Hamadeh’s The Big Boardor, ‘And Before It Falls, It Is Only Reasonable to Enjoy Life a Little’: a large gridded cutting mat, plotted with a flattened geography and a collapsed timeline, where archived magazines and nesting dolls push up against stickered block lettering. Muammar Qaddafi’s epithet to Libyan demonstrators, “YOU ARE RATS,” is set against Sun Ra’s dialogue from Space Is the Place: “I’M NOT REAL. I’M JUST LIKE YOU. YOU’RE NOT REAL. IF YOU WERE, YOU’D HAVE SOME STATUS AMONG THE NATIONS OF THE WORLD. SO WE’RE BOTH MYTHS.” Beyond the gridded map is a set of mocked-up playing cards—“ISLANDS,” “DEFIANCE,” “WATER” —implying chance and divination, the meting out of fates: in “CONTAGION,” Egyptians are depicted fleeing Cairo during a cholera outbreak; in “SANITATION,” Sir Erasmus Wilson demands that Cleopatra’s Needle be brought “back home” from Egypt to London.
As crisis became a word that described the collective conditions for a body politic, the citizens of a nation-state, crisis retained some of the word’s epidemiological origins. Crisis is used to described events in which dwelling becomes disrupted but state power refuses to acknowledge a crisis as emerging from within.
At a gallery in Tiergarten, surrounded by posters that told UK citizens to vote to #Remain in the European Union, a man told me that migration was not a crisis. To challenge the words “refugee crisis” was to make clear that people seeking refuge were not the cause.
“But God is more than history,” I heard a man say to a woman once. They were passing me, going towards an exhibition on Darwin in the Yale Center for British Art, sometime in the winter or early spring of 2009. I had been unemployed for almost eight months by then. After I’d gotten out of the hospital that summer, there were no jobs to be had; the subprime mortgage crisis was unfolding faster every day, and jobs seemed to be hemorrhaging faster than houses, so that all I could do was live on SNAP and odd jobs. My search for a job was not aided by the fact that I was high at most of the jobs I held for the year before the financial crisis. Once I was done applying for jobs every day, I took my notebook and went one of two museums that were near my house and free, and took notes: on how I felt when I was upset, about what I wanted to eat when I started making money, on what I thought of paintings I saw or books I read. I do not have my notebooks from 2009 anymore because of what happened in 2019, but I can still hear the man in the Yale Center for British Art say that God is more than history because I looked for a home for that sentence for 11 years.
When I get out of the hospital in Minneapolis, my apartment feels vacant and gray. My books are stacked on the floor, the bindings are ripped out and damaged or hidden, my bookshelves are empty, my bed is fetid with my night sweats, my sheets are like wrinkled tissues. I take my medications, I have my levels checked, and when I still hear the voices, I go to church: I am overwhelmed with a feeling that I must do something to right myself, within myself.
If I had needed to learn how to be in my body after Woodhull, this time I needed to learn how to dwell with my thoughts. As I cross the bridge to the Sculpture Garden, the cars howl beneath me, all 16 lanes tearing across Minneapolis. I feel dizzy no matter how fast or slow I go, and then, as I am almost at the end of the bridge, I see it: “and when you get to the point / where you can go no further / it is like a reason / that picks you up and places you / where you always wanted to be.”
“It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing,” Martin Heidegger writes in “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Through the excavation of language, Heidegger seeks to establish the true nature of dwelling. He traces the origin of the infinitive “to build,” Bauen, to its Old High German antecedent, Baun, meaning “to dwell.” This connection between dwelling and building remains in the German Nachbar, which derives from Nachgebun and Nachbauer, meaning near-dweller.5 A relation of proximity and distance is inherent to dwelling—a neighbor dwells nearby, not inside.
Dwelling is the action and practice of care—through dwelling, a person is spared and spares those people they dwell with—as well as a site for care. What we share when we dwell near each other is part of how we dwell.
I spend the summer after the hospital tracing over myself, taking new notes, trying to teach myself to be myself. The notebooks are something that I can’t undo, but I regain my ground and my home fills with new things that are red and graph paper and books.
Before I knew what incommensurable meant, before I knew what incommensurable would and did feel like—a great lacuna between my experience of the world I inhabited and the experiences of people who did not look or sound like me—I would know trauma, but the trauma of others would still be ineffable and unknowable for me.
A few days before Woodhull, I was arrested outside a convenience store, for having eaten from the hot bar without paying and damaging a sign. I was tasered and spent a night in jail, drugs receding from my blood, and handed my bologna sandwich to the woman on the bottom bunk the next morning. I missed my court date in Woodhull. When I was finally called before a judge, the prosecutor looked at his folder, said something quietly to the judge. I paid a fee. A year later, the charges were no longer on my record. That I have landed on the other side of this crisis is because these charges were expunged. I was able to go to the hospital in 2019 because I had health insurance because I had gotten into graduate school because I had gone back to college, because I had no record, because I took on debt, because I am white.
On Christmas Eve, 1941, John Ashbery writes in his diary that he is happy, but would be happier if his brother, Richard, were with him. The diary is a gift from Ashbery’s mother, who has sent him to stay with a friend; Ashbery is 14 and does not realize that his brother is dying. In her reading of Ashbery’s diaries, his biographer Karin Roffman sees him grieve privately, engage with the diary as though the notebook is a reader, and imagine the adult he will be.6
Five years after I tried to die, I went to Ashbery’s house in Hudson, New York as part of a class I took to finish my B.A. The house felt lacquered and honest: Ashbery was still alive then and spent most of his time in the sitting room upstairs where Swedish Christmas decorations made from chains of paper dolls lingered on the fireplace’s mantle, though we visited in March or April. We talked about television.
Interviewed for his documentary, Human Flow, Ai Weiwei said that he could not understand the controversy that followed when he posed for an Indian newspaper in the same position as Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child who drowned trying to reach Kos and was photographed small and blue—that nobody had explained to Ai why re-staging the beach scene was wrong.
Ai explains, through clay figures, that he survived imprisonment and torture in China for several months. He distances himself from his own experiences as he tries to feel the experiences of others: he floats in the Mediterranean, he attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, he pretends to trade his passport to a Syrian man trying to get to Germany and mentions his studio in Berlin.
Ai returns to Berlin and prepares dinner with his son.
Crisis shows the fractures: that safe passage and shelter does not mean dwelling, that what is incommensurable between lives often becomes visible through who society houses and who society allows to dwell. Solidarity between people who have survived trauma begins with the recognition that a person’s trauma is incommensurable with another’s.
In the Sculpture Garden, children swing from a sculpture by a man who founded a different sculpture park in Queens where I had once worked. For a summer, I rode my bicycle over Roosevelt Island to the park to send emails and shake black mold from old grant applications and press releases and exhibition catalogs before scanning each file and organizing each scan so that the PDF resembled the version on wilting and wrinkled paper. The park’s offices were in the offices of a former truck rental company which had been flooded during Sandy; the molding sedimentation left behind when the East River receded meant that I was often sick—but outside and across the street, the park was busy making, and being, a place for community.
The sculpture park was, like the man’s sculptures, monumental and unassuming; it was its own record to itself and what the city had endured: several waves of gentrification, 9/11, Irene, then Sandy.
The park is designated as essential and is currently open.
As a child, Ashbery built sandcastles on the shore of Lake Ontario, which he wrote about in his diaries: “This morning I built the ruins of a magnificent castle on the beach.” Roffman writes that these structures are “always also ruined because they exist so briefly—once standing, each shelter is at the mercy of the vagaries of weather, accident, and the folly of adults.”7 Ashbery’s diaries are the record of his building.
The spring after the voices tell me to throw away all my notebooks, the world compresses around me—around everyone. I am on the other side of this crisis: 12 years after Woodhull, I have lived in the same apartment for almost two years and had the same landlord for four years; I have had the same employer for five years. When shelter in place begins in Minnesota, the ways in which I am affected—rescheduled conference travel and dental work—still sound foreign to me when I say them out loud. I watch as neighbors pack things into boxes before the first of the month.
The lack or privation implied by homelessness is often literally concrete: the absence of housing structure that is sufficient for dwelling, which requires some level of privacy. The term also frequently implies some form of dispossession: those individuals who are inadequately housed were at one point housed. People who are displaced are denied dwelling and all the “life-building”8 contained therein. Similarly, the lack and privation of statelessness can—and in contemporary usage, often does—refer to those individuals who at one point were part of a state, but who are now under the jurisdiction of another state(s), without having the rights of belonging to any state.
At the end of May, the world compresses again. People gathered together to protest and to grieve and people without homes sheltered in a Sanctuary Hotel and then sought shelter in a park, then were served with eviction notices by armed police officers. These places—hospitals and parks, shelters that allow for people to build lives and thrive—had been public, were seen as essential for dwelling, as sanctuaries.
In June, the city parks in Minneapolis were declared a refuge and sanctuary for people who did not have shelter in which to live. From the uprising, from an eviction, a Sanctuary Movement emerged that seemed to restore sanctuary’s meaning. Like dwelling, sanctuary is a place, and once was a verb that meant “to place in safety” and “to afford protection from.”9
When I went to see Ai Weiwei’s Safe Passage, I looked at the lifejackets bound to the columns of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and wondered how many times each jacket had been used, and if each jacket had worked—Kurdi’s father had told reporters they were given lifejackets that didn’t work—and where each person was. Were the people who had worn the jackets in a heim in Germany, were they languishing in camps at the periphery of the Schengen zone, what did the fading on some jackets and the fresh yellow hazard tape on some others mean about the fate of those passengers and how had the jackets arrived in Minneapolis? The exhibition’s lead sponsor had renewed its contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace,” Heidegger writes. Dwelling is inherently a practice of sparing and preserving and “to spare and preserve means: to take under our care.” 10
Despite his expansive approach to dwelling—factory workers can dwell on the assembly line, truck drivers on the highway— Heidegger seems to believe that dwelling is impossible without some isolation or sparing. In Heidegger’s Hut, Adam Scharr excavates Heidegger’s relationship to dwelling by studying the hut Heidegger built on the edge of the Black Forest, in the mountains, with windows that latched shut whenever the hut was empty: to unlatch the windows and allow the sunlight began every summer trip to the hut at Todtnauberg.
When Heidegger first presented “Building Dwelling Thinking” in 1951 to a conference of architects in Darnstadt, the war had decimated housing in West Germany. Heidegger had only just begun teaching again after the Denazification Committee had classified him as a “fellow traveler.” (In 2014, Heidegger’s Black Notebooks would reveal an entrenched anti-Semitism that equated “historyless” with “groundless.”)
What makes dwelling possible, what causes building to become dwelling and dwelling to become a way of being, is poetry—but how many people had Heidegger allowed to dwell, had he denied dwelling?11
A small sign is posted near the hut in Todtnauberg: “Why the hut is not a museum: The hut is still owned by the Heidegger family and used privately by them. Visitors are not permitted. Please respect the privacy of the family.”12
After having studied his poetry and stared at photographs of John Ashbery’s rugs and coffee tables for a year, I could recite one line which I remembered from the first read because I had read very few things that felt as true. “The summer demands and takes away too much / but night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.”
A year after the voices tell me to erase myself, I take notes in a red notebook.