On Labors of Love, Hope, Growing Pains, Gratitude, and Teaspoons

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Last Wednesday, Iain asked me what I was going to do.

Maybe better than anyone else, and more clearly than I'd ever be able to explain, he knows why I walked away last Sunday not knowing if I'd ever come back. He knows how much Shakesville—not just the blog, but the whole community—means to me and how much of myself I've put into it. And he, with his resolute belief in what this blog tries to accomplish, his magnificent, unwavering belief in me, and his willingness to stand strong with me through some very hard times, has done some pretty stunning teaspoon-wielding of its own to make Shakesville possible. We've both invested a lot here—and he was the first person to suggest some time ago that the safe space I'd created for everyone else was increasingly not a safe space for me.

What started out as a part-time hobby four years ago had become a full-time job—and a full-time job for which I earned very little. Just as there is a "misogyny tax," there is a tax to be free from misogyny and all other forms of bigotry; there's a cost to providing a safe space. Traditional sources for monetizing a blog were not an option: Content-generated ads (like Google Ads) frequently yield ironic advertisements—diet plans on fat acceptance threads, and anti-gay ads on pro-gay threads. BlogAds ad submissions had to be turned down which featured sexualized imagery of women, language that would have broken the commenting rules, or endorsements of companies that were union-busting or bigoted. My earnings were almost totally from freelance writing I do elsewhere, on top of maintaining Shakesville.

Still, it was, as Portly so beautifully described, a labor of love. I like working hard, and working hard at something one believes in is a rare gift.

Nonetheless, there were other costs.

Two famously unmoderated threads—Rape is Hilarious (emphatic trigger warning) and Fat Princess Update—give a glimpse behind the curtain. I get disturbing email. People have come to the door. Iain's and my sense of security is no longer what it was. That's not a small thing for a survivor of sexual assault with post-traumatic stress disorder. It's not a small thing for her partner.

Still, it was worth it. We made adjustments. I gave myself the occasional afternoon off when I needed it. In exchange for the bad stuff, there was this awesome community. After linking to political petitions, within minutes of posting I'd get excited feedback like: "We already got 300 signatures!" Money was raised for charitable causes. People whose pleas for help I posted got the help they needed. Homeless kittens got adopted. This wasn't just a community of like-minded people who shared a space; it was a community of teaspoon-wielding badasses! What cost there was still felt like a reasonable price to pay, given the possibilities.

And I like working hard. Plus, there were all these people who were willing to help. It seemed like every time I was floundering, someone stepped in to provide exactly the help I needed.

When moderating got to be a two-person job years ago, Misty stepped in—she's like a quiet little mouse with the tenacity of a lion, always behind the scenes, fiercely moderating threads and calling me when something gets hairy and she knows I'm offline. And in addition to Shaker Gourmet, she takes care of Shakesville's Facebook page, too, just because she's cool like that.

When blog software moved beyond the basic HTML I'd half-assedly taught myself, Space Cowboy stepped in to provide tech support. He customized the template, tweaks it as necessary, manages Disqus, reviews new technology add-ons—and, aside from everything he does at Shakesville, he helps out Shakers who are themselves bloggers when they have questions.

When I was facing DOS attacks, Mustang Bobby enlisted his brother to help, who donated enormous amounts of his time and energy to try to keep Shakesville on its own server. MB's mom has even offered her support; it's literally a family affair of generosity.

When the election really started to kick into gear, here came this fella called Petulant to send me videos of important stuff as it happened—and when I asked him to become a contributor, he not only became "our video guy" (and generously included a link to Shakesville in his popular YouTube channel), but started giving us the Morning Readings, just for a start.

When moderating became an even bigger job, Deeky volunteered without hesitation—and he is always one of the first to notice when I'm getting completely triggered and send me some utterly silly email to redirect my attention, sometimes there before I even really know I need him.

When I needed someone to talk to who would not be shy about telling me where I was falling short in my communication and give me a fresh perspective, Portly was there on the other end of my phone, with honesty and patience and authentic concern. And a willingness to let me cry and fume until we came out the other side, laughing.

Spudsy? He's been a fuckin' rock for three years. The simplicity of that statement is inversely proportional to the magnitude of its meaning.

When I kept forgetting to do the Amazing Race open threads, Arkades just stepped in without my even having to ask. Bill took on ShakesQuill; Kate became a moderator and gave me her old laptop; Todd's always there for anything I need; Kenny Blogginz went to see HRC with me; Nightshift's there with the legal analysis and Quixote with the scientific explanation; Chet did book reviews because I suck at them and he's good; Shark-fu is quick with a word of support; Phil Barron is always a good friend—and, with his lovely wife M, made me feel welcome in their home not long ago for a wonderfully restorative evening. All the contributors make Shakesville better with their amazing writing and insight and humor—and many of them are always willing to take on an extra post or two to lighten my load, when they get one of my "Want this one?" emails.

On plenty of occasions, non-contributor Shakers stepped in to help in one way or another, too. A sizable contribution from Shaker Rehmeyer during a particularly rough patch quite literally made it possible for Shakes Manor, no less Shakesville, to keep going. Shaker rrp's beautiful forthrightness and gracious patience with me, when I've been working through my thoughts on anything from privilege to blog philosophy, has been invaluable. Shakers Kathy and Bill in Birmingham have been generous in more ways than I can say. Countless Shakers piped up with advice and information when Iain was diagnosed with stinkabetes. There were many moments when a well-timed email from a Shaker just saying thanks totally lifted my spirits. Shaker Rana's patient explanations; Shaker Betty Boondoggle's hilarious trollsmacking. I could go on and on…

As much work as I put in, I wasn't doing it on my own. And whatever costs there were to be at the helm of this community, it was still worth it—in no small part because when I needed something to keep going, and asked for it, it was given. There was sort of this unspoken agreement that what I got in return for doing the lion's share was the agreement to not wrestle with me when I was at the end of my tether. There was a time when I could say, "Enough with the petty arguments about X; I've had it," and that would be that.

A few months ago, that dynamic changed.

Over the course of the election, the average readership of Shakesville more than doubled—even as it weathered flouncing departures from people who didn't like "all the feminism" that they seemed to think had mysteriously infiltrated the blog out of nowhere, despite its proprietor and name, people who thought I was a Catholic-hater, people who were pissed I wouldn't allow lectures on how other Shakers should vote, people who thought I was in the tank for Clinton, people who thought I was in the tank for Obama, people who thought I was in the tank for (this still makes me choke) John McCain.

With growth comes growing pains—and it was a brutal election season for all of us, anyway. It wasn't just Iain and me who were spun sideways by the Donohue mess right at its start; many members of the community were deeply upset by it, too. But we rallied. And we rallied again, and again, when the primaries got tougher, and tougher. I worked my ass off to be fair, and got knocked from every side.

And when it was over and I was ready to rally…it didn't happen.

Please, I said. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please.

I felt crushed beneath negativity—not legitimate criticism about specific failures, but generalized acrimony. I started feeling anxious about posting anything remotely celebratory or sanguine—precisely the things I need to hang onto to do this job day in and day out, a job which is frequently dispiriting, triggering, and grim. I couldn't post something like this in my own space anymore, because I could no longer bear the inevitable: Someone would make a snarky comment about hearing funeral dirges or something equally dismissive within about three comments, immediately hijacking the thread to accommodate their need to express residual anger (even at the expense of others' need to move beyond the acridity of the primaries). That's not criticism, which will never be forbidden in this space. That's using the comments threads to maintain a personal grudge.

It wasn't that I had forgotten the shit that went down in the primary; it wasn't that it didn't matter. It's that there wasn't any space to rally anymore. It's that progress requires looking forward—and, at a progressive blog where teaspooning the ocean is the goddamned theme, threads must be productive. Specific criticisms can be productive; reflexively dousing any display of the unbridled (but never blind) optimism that fuels progressivism with pronouncements of lingering animosity and low expectations is not productive. Worse yet, it's not progressive.

And that runs counter to the objectives of this blog its inception.

I've never told anyone how they should feel, and I wouldn't begin to start. I still feel shitty and scared and conflicted and pissed about what has happened and what may come—and I know I'm not alone. But I was also not alone in needing to find a balance between the shitty and scared and conflicted and pissed, and the tenuous, fragile hope that that's not all there is, that this election was about way more than one man, that beyond the doubt and suspicion and disappointment there was the possibility of some real progress, too.

I tried to refocus away from Obama and onto the people for whom this election mattered, the people who care about progressive ideals (even when Obama doesn't), but it kept coming back over and over and over to him and his very real flaws, which wasn't moving us forward but holding us back.

It was intensely discouraging. That I kept trying to make room for those of us who wanted and needed to express hopefulness, the boundaries of which were continually disrespected by those who don't share the desire, began to take its toll.

I tried it once more. Please.

The answer was no.

I realized that the unspoken agreement we'd once had, where I got what I needed to carry on, had been broken. And that can't be fixed. The community is too big, too diverse, with too many competing interests. It was going to be a struggle, much more than before, to maintain the spirit of the blog—and I could see I was often going to have to do it in an atmosphere that did not feel like a safe space for me. Labor, sans love.

When I left last Sunday, I really didn't know if I was going to be able to do it anymore.

Portly talked to me at length about the value of my work and viewing my labor of love as the job it has really become and seeking remuneration for it. I couldn't get past feeling like asking for regular donations to carry on was somehow holding the blog hostage. It was, I now see, representative of how much I felt I owed my labor to the community and devalued my own work that asking to be paid for it felt like committing extortion. It was only after she requested I do my "day in the life list" (the trickster) that I truly embraced the scope and worth of what I do.

I began to consider that I could do this if it's a labor of love and a job with monetary value, so I am never left feeling again as though I'm doing this unsupported, as though I'm doing it for nothing, as though Iain is carrying a truly unfair share of the burden—and so I'm never crushed under the weight of wondering whether I can continue financially and wondering whether I can continue emotionally at the same time.

I still didn't know how to ask. I wasn't sure if I had the wherewithal to endure the inevitable "get a real job, you fucking loser" comments that solicitations for donations always evoke. Emotional nadir. I hid in a holding pattern.

Last Wednesday, Iain asked me what I was going to do.

I told him, after much consideration, that I would let the community decide if they wanted me to go on, see if they'd carve out a space for me to keep managing and nurturing the space in a way that would work for me. If Shakesville makes the space for me on their own, I said, it's just not some random thing I asked for and they gave without understanding its significance; they will design it and it will be something they're able to sustain. He said, sincerely but so surprised it made me laugh, "That's really wise." In truth, I just wasn't sure what else to do.

It's poetic, really, that it was Petulant who first tried to make a space for me at Shakesville to come back—because I have rejected his resignation no fewer than three dozen times. "It's just a bad day, Pet. You'll carry on." And he does.

And, because I can take a hint even when it isn't delivered with a (loving) sledgehammer, so will I.

Thank you, Shakers, for giving me the space over the past week to just be away—and for making a space for me to come back to. Thank you for recognizing the value of my work. Thank you for your donations and words of support, for your commitment to this safe space, for your expressions of what it means to you, for your encouragement, for your teaspoons. I am pleased and honored that you want me to carry on. I am relieved and inspired that you'll fight for this progressive community, too.

I feel really overwhelmed, and I don't even know if this post makes any sense. If it doesn't, all that matters is this: Thank you. Teaspoons ahoy.


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