The following is the full editor’s note for Issue 8:
When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
and I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep
and I’ll love the littler things
Mitski Miyawaki, “A Burning Hill”
A couple months back at Off Color, standing in a room full of other people escaping the wind, feeling drained from work and a bit distant, Kathy said something to me that stuck: “this is the season for talking to people.” It made me pause because my immediate thought was that it feels like the talking never ends but, in spite of that, the sentiment felt right. Winter is a time of growth in Chicago. The cold slows us down, pushes us into bars or inside apartments, into ourselves. The ones we make time to speak with are the ones we care about deeply, the ones that nourish us until we can bloom back out onto the streets in Spring.
Since we started this project half a decade ago, I’ve seen my understanding of myself broken down to something unrecognizable and built again from the dirt through work. Commitment and surrender to work in all its forms felt like a way to simplify life into something consistent, something that gave order and purpose in a world that felt, and still feels, chaotic and purposeless most days. Washing dishes, grading papers, writing poems, pouring beers, designing books. All these activities gave me a self through action, but not the commodification of that action. The vital element was not the product or the image of work, but the work itself. Sustenance through quiet, sustained practice. Freedom through constraint.
In this era of ubiquitous media, constant digital communication, and mutating ad algorithms, we are encouraged to be consistent in our construction and expression of self. We are expected to define our identity publicly, refining primarily through externalization and consumption. Self-reflection has always been difficult, but in this context it seems wasteful, if not downright useless. Change of any kind can be construed as inauthenticity, as if somehow the true identity is codified in its first public form.
This pressure for consistency seems largely tied to the framing of self as a commodity, as a product to be consumed and, through its own consumption, be formed more perfectly to be consumed more. We are given a plethora of digital platforms to connect (read: consume and be consumed) and yet, even with all these tools we’re given to realize ourselves, most of the people I know feel more fragmented than at any other time in their lives. Maybe it’s the age, maybe it’s the alcohol, maybe it’s sociopolitical fatigue.
But, to me, this discontinuity need not be feared. The self is a reflection in shards of glass, fragmented mask presented as face. The goal isn’t to pretend the mirror is pristine, but to recognize the cracks and reimagine how the pieces fit together, maybe flip the pieces over and focus inward, maybe see your face reflected in those you talk to and love.
In the past decade, work helped me love the littler bits of life, to find freedom in acknowledging limitations. This magazine is part of that, as well as the other creative ventures I’ve pursued, but the most significant element of that realization has been conversations, both with the work of others as well as those others themselves. I’ve wrapped my interior self up in the interiors of others, and we’ve created our mirrored masks with little pieces of each other, forever reworking.
The pieces in this issue navigate the construction and conception of self through a variety of nuanced lenses, from transformative childhood experience to extended hallucination narrative to a snake eating its own ass. The self is central to these poems and stories, but it is not static. There is little demand for consistency of identity in the work herein. The self here transforms and is transformed by time and physical geography, creating boundaries and then transgressing. The self is built from and exists in the soft clay of trauma, triumph, absurdity, and beauty. It is warped, fragmented, whole.
We’re grateful that these writers have engaged in the difficult exercise of reflection in spite of the cultural indicators that such a private activity may not have value, which is to say it cannot easily be commodified. This issue stands as a physical representation of and testament to that exercise, as a synthesis and presentation of the exploration. We hope this collection validates in some small way the practice of reflection, subsequent action, and gradual growth.
As always, we hope this makes you feel human and unalone.
Chicago, January 2020