Friendship, Intimacy, Community, Swimming, and Twitter

While #Digciz is over, I want to put this out to share. This blog post is about making and breaking friendships and the intimacy of swimming and social media, and where I call home. I swear it will all make sense at the end. I write a lot of words. They always create something more meaningful, I promise.

This post has been sitting in my draft pile, unfinished, for a couple of months. I didn’t quite know how to pull all of the disparate thoughts and stories and feelings together into something resembling a coherent piece of something that people would read. But then, #DigCiz happened. And Domains 2017 happened. And life and conversations kept happening, and people kept writing like Amy and Kate and Adam and Maha have been writing about place and home and belonging and growing up and connecting and trying to build something in this world, digital or otherwise. Something worthwhile. Something sustainable. Something good.

I am a Canadian, living in the United States. I have lived in two provinces and four states. My kids were both born in different states, but spent their formative years in another, which is a different one from where they live now. No one asks us about our immigration status. Only occasionally does my accent mark me as someone who is foreign, and even then, I could be from North Dakota.

I was also born in the West Island, a cluster of English-speaking (or Anglophone) suburbs on the western part of the island of Montreal. Montreal is a multicultural and multilingual city within the larger province of Quebec, which is almost entirely French-speaking (or Francophone). Where we lived growing up, and my mother still lives today, in the same house, is on Iroquois and Huron territories.

I grew up during a time when the very question of citizenship, belonging, and rights were constantly being debated. I was a Bill 101 baby. I witnessed the Oka Crisis through the local news and listening to my parents. I voted for the first time during the 1995 Referendum. And then I moved out west to the province at the heart of the Reform movement.

If I tell a Montrealer I’m from Montreal, they laugh, and tell me I’m not a real Montrealer. When I tell a Francophone from elsewhere in Quebec that I’m québécoise, I am told, no, I am not a real québécoise (which has their own history and problems with concepts of “pure laine“). In Alberta, I was not Canadian enough.

I grew up in a place that I was constantly being told I was not home in. It took me a long time to hear and really understand why that was. But the place where I grew up, it never really loved me back.

Follow us on Twitter!

— Lee Skallerup (@readywriting) March 21, 2010

So I’ve been on Twitter for more than seven years. My first series of tweets weren’t much, as I was trying to get my business up off the ground. My first blog post appeared a few weeks later. I tweeted 36 times in March. I wrote seven blog posts before the month was out. In April, I tweeted 455 times and wrote 10 blog posts. I discovered education Twitter chats.

I’m burying the lead here, as I am wont to do. I have been on Twitter for SEVEN YEARS. This is the longest I have ever been anywhere in my life, save for being on the same swim team for 13 years. While I didn’t move around as a child, I did continually and constantly change social institutions; after elementary school, I went to a completely different high school than all of my friends, then on after that to a different CEGEP, then on to a university in a different language for five more years, then off to do a PhD on the other side of the country for four years, changed countries and lived in Southern California for three years, Florida for a year, Morehead for five (long) years, Lexington for a year and a half, and now Virginia for almost the same amount.

At my peak, in 2013, I was averaging 2,880 tweets PER MONTH. I outdid myself in January 2014 with 3,295 tweets. My blog was now at Inside Higher Ed, and I’m pretty sure I was at my peak productivity for that space. I was also doing a lot of freelance as well as writing for Academic Coaching and Writing, which also involved working on my academic book. I don’t even want to think about the number of words I produced in 2013. I was doing all of this on top of teaching a 5/4 course load and being a parent to two kids under the age of 6.

Dear 2013 me: calm the f down.

I was writing like my life depended on it. And in a way, it did.

I didn’t have any friends in elementary school.

There was a thing that the kids used to do to me on the playground; I would approach them to see if I could join their game. Inevitably, one of them would look at me and say, “We stamped it, no more joiners” and then stamp their foot again, just to reiterate that I was not welcome in their games.

I was a weird kid, loud and awkward and brash and…basically a smaller, even more uninhibited version of myself today. But compounding that was an unstable home life that made it so that I never wanted to invite anyone over, and when I was invited over to other people’s houses, I would more often than not lie and say I wasn’t allowed because I didn’t want to risk a confrontation. I was nervous, avoided confrontation, until I couldn’t, and I would explode in ways that made it even more difficulty to connect with people my own age.

I was round and clumsy and graceless while the popular girls all did ballet and figure skating. I was a tomboy who couldn’t keep up with the boys so couldn’t play with them either. I chewed my nails and my cuticles so my hands looked like a mess. I spent a lot of time alone as a result, and thinking, quite deeply, that something was desperately wrong with me.

When I started swimming, it was yet another way that I didn’t fit in. My hair got to be messier because of the chlorine, and the smell stuck to me, no matter how often I washed. I was told for the first time that I was ugly. But the pool, the pool became my home. The pool was the place where I felt like I might actually belong.

Long before the Internet, I was well-acquainted with theoretical and metaphorical spaces becoming like home. A real place where you could be yourself, a place that would, however imperfectly, love you back.

There were two things that I felt, deeply and almost unequivocally, that I could do and do well when I was growing up: swim and write. I lacked any sort of confidence or sense of self in just about every other aspect of my life, but at the pool and on the page, I was unstoppable. I found family and community through swimming; I found my voice through writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and got on the internet and early messaging platforms and wrote some more. When I stopped swimming and really got online, I found fledgling family and community there.

And then I went to grad school.

That is a loaded statement. I can talk endlessly about how grad school socialized me to believe that I couldn’t write, that the Internet was a waste of time, that my worth was entirely based on my ability to publish academic essays, get grants, and a tenure-track job…So, between 2001 and 2008, I was singularly focused on the goods and goals that graduate school and academia set forward for us all, which I achieved, and subsequently gave up and moved to the middle of nowhere.

And then I got on Twitter and started blogging. Twitter became the new space for me to find myself and be myself. I often say that I was “built for Twitter” where I could manage (and in fact enjoyed) the firehose of my timeline, but also wired to be able to interact, converse, share, amplify, and just generally tweet out a stream-of-consciousness live memoire/diary.

But most of all, I could connect with and to and through my various interests and challenges. I found a wide variety of supportive groups of people who were interested in what I had to say, who wanted to talk to me, and who (this isn’t a small thing for me) seemed to actually accept and like me for who I was. For who I was becoming. For who I am. I had a chance to rediscover, remake, try, fail, try again, explode, cry, celebrate…I found a place where I could belong and not just be myself, but actually figure out who that person was, is, and could be.

That’s belonging. It’s not about being yourself. It’s about a space where you can become yourself.

No one really liked me on my swim team either when I started out. I was still the same weird kid that I was at school, but now I also displayed a certain level of confidence, if not cockiness, when I was in the water. And despite being bullied by the other girls on the team, there was nothing that was going to stop me from being a part of the team. I just outlasted them all.

I swore, early on, that I was going to a) persist and b) thrive at my swim team. And I was going to make damn sure as many people as possible on the swim team did, too. I cheered every single teammate I had on at a meet, and insisted that others do the same. I organized team outings to movies and bowling and arcades and even just someone’s basement to watch movies.

The pool was my house. I made it into a home.

Or at least I made it into a place where people felt like they were welcome and belonged. It was my community. It was our community. There was no “stamped it, no more joiners” on our team.

One of my favorite things about swimming – the only thing that mattered was how fast you were. You trained with people of different ages and sexes, and the only thing that mattered was if you could keep up. And when you went to meets, you all went together as a team. And you get to know the people on your team, you spend so much time together traveling to meets and training long hours at all-hours of the day.

You don’t know someone until you’ve seen them at 5am every day for a season. Or when you are all broken from a practice that didn’t go well. Or when you can’t take a deep breath because your abs hurt so much from doing inclined sit-ups holding 25lbs plates on your chest. Or when you shave each other’s backs before a big meet. Or when you finally win that big meet and hug and cry. Or when you’re on the long bus ride home after the big meet that you lost.

There was an intimacy there, with that team, with that group, in that community. Our team was a smaller community within the larger community of swimmers in the West Island (we tended to band together because we all primarily spoke English while the rest of the teams at big meets primarily spoke French. We also all lifeguarded together in the summers and went to each other’s high schools). But, even if we didn’t always like each other, we knew each other in such a way that we were community and within that community, we supported each other.

When you carry around a secret, particularly one that exists at home, one that you are ashamed and scared of and broken over, intimacy becomes difficulty, if not outright impossible. You are guarding yourself and your secret, and so there are parts of you that you never share, that you dare not share, that you are work to hide. But it’s always there, just waiting and wanting to be revealed.

And so, at least for me, I hid all of myself away, plunged myself into the pool, where no one can see you cry or hear you scream, and you can’t really talk to anyone ever except in clipped stories during short snippets of rest between intervals. But you still end up finding a closeness with your teammates, a closeness that being closed off in a lot of ways from everyone else allows you to feel somewhat human.

And slowly, you find a way to let the right people in (and sometimes the wrong people) to trust with your secrets, hoping that they don’t leave (which, sometimes they did and still do), but none of you when you’re in your tweens and teens are equipped to handle, so in the end, you all do the best you can. Sometimes that was enough. Other times, it wasn’t.

And sometimes it would go horribly wrong.

Those who know us the best have the greatest capacity to also hurt us the worst. This is cliché, but when you are in a community of people like a swim team and that swim team is mistaken for family, then the wounds compound. But, you are a team and a community and remember you are human and you make up (or you don’t) and you keep swimming and cheering and crying and hurting.

I’ve lived and learned and taught in places where I was a linguistic minority, a religious minority, a racial minority, and an out and out foreigner, sometimes all at the same time. If I wasn’t ever going to belong, not really, then I was going to embrace my strengths at not-belonging.

I’ll admit that even though I didn’t belong, I still maintained a privileged status. I’m still an English-speaking white woman from Canada.

Because of this (or maybe in spite of it), I was afforded in just about every instance a great deal of hospitality. I have been welcomed, if not outright embraced. But I also always remembered that I didn’t belong, and that I was going to be a good guest, for lack of a better word. I’ve always tried to remember my liminal positionality, that I was on the edge, in the process of not-becoming. My status was never going to change.

But I could change. I could be a good guest. I could receive the welcoming with gratitude. And I could work to be deserving of such treatment.

I also understood what it meant not to trust.

I’m doing a poor job articulating what these experiences of not-belonging have had on me. On what they have meant to me. Trauma put me on high-alert, but the search for belonging, for a safe intimacy, for trying to understand where and how I might fit somewhere in the world, when it all feels like jagged edges…

Empathy. That’s what I gained. Listening. Amplifying. Protecting. Learning and learning and learning. That’s my job as an outsider who also still has a whole lot of privilege.

I dove into Twitter the way I dove into swimming.

I didn’t intend for it to become my new figurative home, but I found that it provided much of the same things swimming did for me. When I got on Twitter, no one had yet said, “stamped it, no more joiners” and instead I found pockets of welcomeness.

We shared our professional successes and failures, as well as our personal ones. We shared what we ate for lunch. We shared TV show viewings. We shared resources and research and thoughts and ideas and questions. We whispered our greatest hopes and dreams and fears. We shared vulnerabilities. We defended each other. We supported each other. We would rise up to defend, gather around to protect, lift up, lie down, hold space.

We shared secrets that finally needed to be spoken.

We were all, of course, older now, and while we experiencing things together, we found ourselves sharing previous experiences, and coming together over those shared histories, shared traumas. Suddenly, we weren’t alone as we once were. Those hurt secrets we all kept, they came rushing out, 140 characters at a time, sometimes explicitly, often implicitly. We see you, we hear you, we believe you. Words we had longed to hear when we were younger, words we still needed to hear today because the traumas don’t stop happening when we “grow up.”

It was a different intimacy, one that was beautiful to watch flourish. We all lived our life in various degrees of openness – groups, communities, networks – together. Somehow the disparate interests and my idiosyncrasies were allowed to come together in this space, through words, in a way I had never experienced.

We built something, something meaningful. I remembered the lessons. I had to pinch myself every day that I was a part of all of this, a welcomed part of it. So I kept welcoming. I kept including. I kept reaching out, and every time, I found someone, something that reached back to me. Through words, we brushed up against each other, and we stayed and talked and laughed and loved. We loved in the space, and, however imperfectly, in a lot of ways, it loved us back.

When I went away to college, I tried swimming, but the team…the team was closed off to me. Part language, part level, part exhaustion, this team wasn’t a community, but a group of swimmers who happen to all attend the same university. I wasn’t fast enough to be tolerated. But really, there was nothing there to be a real part of.

Something changed. It wasn’t swimming that had changed. The place changed. The people changed. The expectations changed. And I had changed, too. I didn’t want to be a swimmer anymore, so closely wrapped up in who I had been before, and I wanted to be another person. I changed languages. I gave up swimming. I had to answer, who was I if I wasn’t a swimmer? Who was I in this new place and space and time and language?

It really wasn’t that surprising that ultimately I studied translation, wrote about an author being shaped and re-shaped in a different language, in different cultural situations, at different historical moments. That I was interested in immigrant and migrant writers, particularly ones who wrote and re-wrote their life story over and over again.

It wasn’t until I did my PhD that I found a swim team again. It got me through one of the roughest years of my time at the school. Somehow, I could be the person I had become, in a place where I had always felt at home. I could be all the things – PhD, teacher, coach, soon-to-be-wife, teammate, friend – all at once. How do you write back in the part of yourself you never wanted to leave behind?

I have been struggling for the past 3000+ words to articulate a feel I’ve had about Twitter and blogging and social media. Here, finally, it is: lately, I’ve found Twitter to be kinda like when I went away to college and tried to keep swimming. I reach out, and not as many people reach back. The platform changed, the people changed, I changed, and somewhere, I don’t feel like I’m welcome anymore.

Welcome to the club, right?

I miss friends who aren’t there as often anymore, given how toxic, corporate, algorithmic, surveillance culture, reactionary it has become. I miss people, I miss conversations, I miss pieces of myself I don’t want to put there anymore. I miss being naive about the space, because of course it never, ever loved everyone back, and outright hated large populations.

Bonnie Stewart, a friend from Twitter, from the Internet, from the serendipity of the platforms, from the electronic words we wrote and became real for each other and to each other, one of the many, many, many I have made, has written much more extensively about this unease I’ve been feeling.

None of this is new. I’ve been sheltered from it, largely, and then started sheltering myself. Twitter and social media are addicted to outrage, feed fake news, populated by malicious bots…The list goes on.

In academia, we see the outrage cycle continue to spiral faster and more furiously than ever. I wish I was better at sociology, to make better sense of all of this, but I’m tired and wary and reeling. The platform has changed, the people have changed, the historical moment has changed, I’ve changed.

Who am I if I’m not @readywriting anymore? Where do I live? Where do I belong?

So, what, if anything, does all of this have to do with digital citizenship? Consider:

When you’re hurting, when your entire sense of self and life narrative are built around being wounded and the resulting sense of outrage, it’s far easier to block someone or avoid engaging them than it is to have those difficult conversations, especially around triggering topics. It’s more comfortable to disparage someone than actually engage them or attempt to arrive at a bridge of understanding.

Attacking others is about finding sense of power in a society, in a moment, where powerlessness is real.

How do you help people become better digital citizens when the feelings of hurt, of not-belonging, of rootlessness and powerlessness are real and infiltrate our interactions in these spaces? How do we become citizens in a place that both does and does not exist, in both a literal and a figurative sense? Online is real life, but physically unrooted, in a time where we are feeling vulnerable and placeless and hurting? In other words, where are we supposed to be good digital citizens?

How do you convince people to stay and work to make it better? Where do you go instead? How do you keep a spirit of openness alive when everything else is closing in? How do you make a better place when the place itself is set up to turn any efforts against you?

How do you convince people who historically didn’t have to work at being a “good citizen” that, yes, in fact, you do need to work at this for the collective good?

How do you build anything without trust? How do you gain trust without intimacy? How can we nurture intimacy on and with platforms built with the opposite aim?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. I don’t even know how to answer them for myself, as I figure out what’s next. My narrative tells me I need to dive into the next pool, invest in the next community, the next no-place for home. I’m not so sure anymore.

Maybe staying in one place, as futile as it may feel, is the right answer. For now.