What does it look like to care for one another — ethically, responsibly, and with love?

Been gone for a minute, but we’re back with the jump off!

Welcome back to Life Balms, a series of interviews on the things — tangible and intangible — that help us get through.

In this installation, I speak with Brooklyn-bred poet, essayist, theatermaker, and educator, Diane Exavier. I was first acquainted with Diane through a mutual friend and instantly took to reading her stream of thoughts on Twitter, ranging from hilariously terrible dating stories to thoughtful questions of how we become better, together.

But it was when I first absorbed her musings on care — more specifically, about what it means to make care a thread that touches all that one does in their lifetime — that I understood her, as well as I could, for the first time.

To Diane, care couldn’t be divorced from the ethics that orient her life. And so, naturally, untangling care became a central force.

A conundrum worth solving.

Care is about very earthly things: bodies, land. — Diane Exavier

Life is hard.

Her book — the anti-elegy “Teaches of Peaches” — chronicles just that, following the loss of her cat by the same name. But the language that Diane employs to make sense of grief and care and a shapeshifting place makes it graceful without surrender.

And it’s in this chat that we go back to basics with the artist: What is care, really? And what is it that, when all is said and done, keeps us here, tethered to one another still?

Amani Bin Shikhan: How are you, boo? How are you living?

Diane Exavier: I’m good! It is HOT in B.K., so mostly trying to stay still while catching enough of this sun. How are you?

AB: Oh, same. The heat wave hasn’t let up in Toronto either, but I can’t complain. Otherwise, I am… okay-adjacent. It’s been a rough little while, I can’t lie. But you’ve crossed my mind a lot lately — your words on care, especially.

Can you start by telling me about your work? And your idea of care?

DE: Word. Sure thing. I’m an artist — writer, theatermaker, and educator. Sometimes the labels feel like exercises in semantics, but I do each of those things, sometimes together, sometimes separately. All always in an attempt to facilitate gathering, which can range from very intimate to very public.

My ideas around care are the ethos — the spirit — in which that work is done. I think I’ve always worked with care in mind, but it’s only been the last few years where I’ve been able to articulate care as the word and specific thing that I’m after and stewarding.

AB: How did you get started doing the work that you do? How much of it precedes a sort of professional entry point?

DE: My introduction to art making came first through exposure to the arts as a child: school trips to museums, craft time during classes. At my grade school, we had these Christmas and Spring festivals where each grade would learn and rehearse three songs (the Jackson 5, the Beach Boys, even Mariah Carey!) and perform for the school community. They were such a big deal.

I was a shy kid, but I took those festivals very seriously. I liked the idea of rehearsal, of practice, and then sharing. And I think it gave me a chance to be performative for a contained amount of time, outside of which I could go back to being quiet.

So, I was always creatively inclined. And then skipping ahead to high school, I joined a dance club where we focused on modern dance, and my teacher suggested a teen internship at the Whitney Museum.

That was my first time seeing art in a professional sense that wasn’t attached to the fantasy of being an artist. There were people in offices working at computers and making copies and doing what looked like practical work. I was based in the education department and it made sense to me that, since I really enjoyed art and learning, this could be a potential career.

I’ve always been way more drawn to virtue than I have toward argument… it’s also a thing of scope: of the big picture against the small. — Diane Exavier

So my entry into art as a profession was in art education. That’s where my focus on facilitation comes from: guidance, scaffolding, holding an audience.

And a real disinterest in limelight or fame.

I feel like the most unlikely artist, mostly because I’m the daughter of Haitian people who didn’t come to Brooklyn for their child to “make art.” Even now, my mom laments that I didn’t become a judge or something that sounds more like a “profession.”

(She never says lawyer, which I find very telling.)

AB: Why do you think it’s telling that your mother doesn’t say lawyer?

DE: I’m allergic to confrontation (a Cancer, a middle child by nurture, a well-behaved child of immigrants, a woman of this world), but I feel very strongly about justice and the fairness of things, well aware that powerful people are not interested in fairness.

And maybe it’s all the years of listening to the Sisters of Mercy, but I’ve always been way more drawn to virtue than I have toward argument… it’s also a thing of scope: of the big picture against the small.

AB: I find the link between care and justice fascinating. Can you talk to me more about that — the “spirit” of care, your dedication to justice?

DE: I’m kind of the worst student of theater (the area of study I have all my degrees in), but one of the things theater has historically attempted is a practice of empathy.

People put on these stories to literally be in the shoes of other people. And there is perhaps the hope that after the play is over, you will have returned to your own life in your own body, after being suspended for a time, changed in some way.

Not all theater aims to do this, but much of it does. (And much of theater fails at this, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

As I’ve gotten older and the world has gotten worse, I’ve had to challenge my notions of empathy: what it is, how it works, its use. And what I’ve realized after too many frustrated conversations with close friends and collaborators is that there’s a deep, deep failure in empathy because it’s not enough.

It’s simply not enough to go through the gymnastics of imagination for two and a half hours all for the lights to come back on at the end of the show and for me to go home comfortable and not actually affected.

But as I’ve turned my practice, my aesthetic, and my tastes toward care, I’ve found that it demands more of everyone: the makers, the performers, the audience, even the producers.

With care, it’s not just an intellectual and abstract notion of “life” or “experience” that is at stake. Care is about very earthly things: bodies, land. There’s a more immediate consequence with flesh. And so if I call the body to attention, what does that then require?

I go home, first and foremost. That’s where I experienced the kind of care that has made it possible for me to even be talking about it, talking about anything at all. — Diane Exavier

Care isn’t an idea. It’s feeding people, providing shelter. It’s touch. It’s the opposite of comfortable as it tries to provide comfort.

Care is about extension and tending.

It’s really not about thought (as in intellect). I mean, look where “thought” has gotten us. These people and their Enlightenment antics! It’s wild.

AB: So in “extension and tending,” how do you find yourself also setting certain parameters around care? How do you define your ethics of care, so to say?

DE: Okay, I’m so glad you asked this. Because this is actually a major, major thing for me: a project of living but also writing — this trying to define my ethics of care.

I go home, first and foremost. That’s where I experienced the kind of care that has made it possible for me to even be talking about it, talking about anything at all.

And so, a definition of my ethics of care begins with a practice of relation. Yes! An ethic of care is a search for relation.

Of course, I think of my family first— people who I was lucky enough to have be in charge of my care. But after that, friends, colleagues, even temporal acquaintances. Who are you? Where are you coming from? What are you doing here? These are the questions.

As the answers match up or diverge, I can gauge the level of kinship.

You know, I often feel most cared for when cultivation and growth are at play. — Diane Exavier

So you can be my family or you cannot be my family. It’s cool. But if we answer those questions off top, then we can agree on our mutual humanity and keep it moving or come together.

I have to register your body as human and humane. So that even if we remain strangers, there will have been some care. So generosity is at play, too. But also discernment.

AB: Mmmmm.

DE: There’s this Haitian phrase, Tout mounn se mounn, men tout mounn pa menm. It means “All people are people, but not all people are the same.” I feel like this is the motto of an ethics of care.

But it has to be a reversal of how those same questions are often used to police people.

AB: What do you mean by that?

DE: “Who are you? Where are you coming from? What are you doing here?” These are my inquiries as they open up to the possibility of relating to people.

But these are the same questions made by people committed to whiteness, empire, and expulsion as means to close doors and create borders. So that originating impulse toward [intra-communal] identification turns into a threat [when it leaves that arena].

AB: When do you feel most cared for?

DE: Let me get in my feelings.

AB: Extremely my shit.

DE: You know, I often feel most cared for when cultivation and growth are at play.

So when someone cooks me a meal or does some small thing to create ease or comfort for me, it usually surprises me because I’m a really self-sufficient person. And I don’t like asking for help. But when I am helped without even getting the nerve to ask for it. Care!

Because it means someone has been looking at and looking out for me.

I would only see [my mom] give and give, and I think it influenced a lot of how I view care as something that is not transactional but a thing that has its own rules, too. — Amani Bin Shikhan

But also, asking for help — this is a thing I am really trying to work on!

I’m rarely interested in my care — not that I’m undeserving. I just know that I’m cared for enough and when more care comes, it will come and I’ll be superbly grateful.

And I get really excited when I see care go out into the world without the guarantee of a direct transaction. When someone performs some small act: holding a door, swiping a MetroCard, holding bags, providing directions.

There’s no guarantee in that, right? You don’t “get” anything for that. And yet! It feels like some practice of hope that someone might do the same for you. And we need these invisible marvels. That’s how spirit works!

Maybe that’s why I’m not ever really concerned about seeing care for myself. I just… know — trust — that I’ll be cared for because I try to care — to tend to — things around me every day.

And because I’ve seen so many other people care, as invisible as it can sometimes be, all my life. I guess that’s faith.

AB: It’s so crazy because that last bit sounds exactly like my mom. Exactly. And it would drive me crazy because I could never see the big picture of her care.

I would only see her give and give, and I think it influenced a lot of how I view care as something that is not transactional but a thing that has its own rules, too — and as someone who often feels “uncared for” in whatever capacity, making those hard lines around it is difficult, because it feels like I’m losing the bigger picture in pursuit of the smaller wins.

But then, that brings up the ethics of care, its practice and performance: Is it just narcissistic? Is it preservation? What is it? Then I find myself back at square one.

I’m so intrigued with your sort reckoning of care for that reason.

DE: Hard and constant same. I’m sitting here rolling my eyes at my own understanding of care as I’ve named it because I really know it to be true even though I don’t feel it.

It’s always our mothers, isn’t it?

AB: Always. Always, always, always.

DE: Real talk, I am an incredibly lonely person. Always have been. As a child, I would sit in silence for hours. Sometimes it was peace. But most often, it was loneliness.

I always feel like there’s this cavernous hole inside of me. And I live with it. I’ve gotten used to it. It flares up sometimes and sits idly at others.

And don’t even get me started on watching my mom care and care and care — give and give and give, as you’ve said — and get squat in return! But she always got up to give again. I did not understand.

But it really is the big picture… or just another way of understanding and seeing time. She didn’t give for the small wins. That’s not actual victory.

I really think something happens when you are faced with the body… that in reaching out toward someone, there’s an infinity created between the flesh.

And I think that’s the time she was looking at, that’s where victory lives.

So that’s not a minute, an hour, a week, a few months, even a year. It’s counting on someone’s time being made fair. That’s the actual “long arc” of justice or whatever that nonsense phrase is. But you can’t get there if you don’t tend and work hard for the present.

AB: My brain gets so gummy thinking about this shit. It’s all so much and also not enough and some things are urgent. But I feel you RE: lonely kid. Same, same, same. Still the same.

I’m just thinking of this thread I read the other day. The tweet said: “like I often feel like I’m using my body, my words, my gaze etc in a way that I’m hoping will reach the past of the person.”

It just hits me all the time — how hard it is to care and care in a way that’s impactful and not just a way that makes us feel like we’ve done enough. To know when caring is not enough and to know when to push more or whatever. It’s all so… abstract.

All this is to say, your thoughts help stretch that imagination for me of what care is — what the sanctity and utility of it is.

DE: Mercy. That is, truly, my greatest success and my gravest mistake.

I’m constantly trying to put my body in someone’s path in the hopes that time will break and that I can reach their past or they can reach my past and in the present, tending to that history, move toward some future.

What is the use [of care], like in a real, utilitarian way? It’s so, so, so difficult.

AB: It is but I can’t shake the impulse that it’s something that is just so… vital to me. And not to speak for you, but it feels like you feel similarly.

DE: Yes! I was writing yesterday and the only word I could think of to describe this impulse was “vital.”

AB: Thank you so much for this — for your time, your perspective. I can’t wait for people to read this one.

DE: Thank you so, so much for reaching out and for writing and for trying and for caring every damn day.

AB: Girl! You too! I’m in awe from afar, always.

Like Diane Exavier’s thoughts? Follow her journey on Twitter and Instagram.

Amani Bin Shikhan is a culture writer and researcher with a focus on music, movement, tradition, and memory — when they coincide, especially. Follow her on Twitter. Photo by Asmaà Bana.