I want to talk to you about fleas.
First, though, we need to talk about doors. And in order to talk about doors, we need to talk about Kafka.
There’s a Kafka parable called “Before the Law.” It goes something like this. Before the Law, there’s a doorkeeper. (In the story, it’s the Law that’s behind a guarded door. You can feel free to sub in any system where power is produced and distributed unequally.) So a guy comes and asks the doorkeeper if he can be let in, and the doorkeeper tells him, Nope, not right now. The guy asks if he’ll be allowed in later and the doorkeeper basically says, I dunno *shrug* maybe. The guy peeks inside to try to see what’s behind the door, and the doorkeeper is like, If you think *I’m* scary, you don’t even want to know what the other guys in there are like, and so the guy takes the doorkeeper’s advice and decides to wait for permission to enter. And he waits and waits and keeps asking to be let in and keeps being rebuffed, and he keeps trying to bribe the doorkeeper, always unsuccessfully, and this goes on for years. Eventually the guy gets very old, and very grumbly, and he’s so frustrated and lonely that he starts asking the fleas in the collar of the doorkeeper’s coat for help. (They don’t help him.) He starts losing his eyesight and his hearing. Before he dies, he asks the doorkeeper why he’s never seen anyone else at the door trying to gain entrance to the Law, even though he knows that everyone strives to reach it. The doorkeeper roars at the guy (because, remember, the guy has basically lost his hearing), No one else could ever be admitted here because this gate was made just for you, and I’m going to shut it now! Game over. No happy endings for you.
So, I’m finding myself thinking a lot about doors, recently.
There’s an old door in the old basement of my new old house and when I recently bought the place and moved in I had no idea it was there. I only noticed it when it started causing trouble: on my second night in the house, Pittsburgh had one of its (apparently) heaviest rains in recent memory and when I went downstairs to check on my laundry I found water pouring in from this door that I hadn’t seen before. (Not when I bought the house, not when I did the final walk-through, and not after I moved myself in.) So I walked over to this surprising thing that was busily bringing the outside inside and I tried to open it but it wouldn’t budge so I left it there, still streaming with water, and I went upstairs and did my best not to freak out and I tried to figure out how to figure out what to do.
The next time this happened, I was ready. I brought a ladle and a bowl downstairs from the kitchen, and I spent about half an hour before my airport shuttle was due to arrive experimenting to find the right wrist angle to achieve maximum ladling. This dried the pond at the edges a tiny little bit. I did it again after I returned from my trip, and again after that. The door was still there, steadily streaming water from who-knows-where ever time it rained and until the skies cleared.
I had a dream, that night. I was on the shore of a swimming hole, watching the surface of the water and catching the images reflected there like goldfish and putting them in a bucket and taking them home to an aquarium, where I could look at them - clouds, and birds, and branches, and the smiling faces of friends - whenever I liked. I woke up feeling that what was actually happening every time it rained was that my house was making me thunderstorm soup. We were just getting to know each other, and so it was sweating out its memories into the water so that I could look at the little pond in my basement, and read moments from the history of the house in the images reflected on the surface, and ladle them out, and pour them into the drain to give them back.
A few days later, the mold guy came. When we went downstairs to check out the mold situation there was still a little puddle on the ground. He asked where it came from and I told him my house made me thunderstorm soup and then he asked again and I showed him the door to nowhere and he asked where it went and I told him it didn’t go anywhere and he said doors have to go somewhere and I said not this one and he said let’s open it and I said good luck with that and I went to find my ladle.
He eventually managed to open the door.
The first door, it turned out, led to a second door. The second door (a pair of hurricane doors) also won’t open, because of the way it’s covered by a third door (an access panel cut into a deck that doesn’t actually offer access). And so my door leads to a door which leads to a door. None of them really gets you anywhere. I’m ok with this. I quite like having a door to nowhere in my basement. (My sister refers to what lies beyond as “Narnia.”)
Except it’s not really a door to nowhere. It’s a door to everywhere, to an outside that wants to come inside, and to a coming-inside that’s making trouble. (Like anything, that trouble is neither all good nor all bad. Yes, it’s making mold grow where it’s not meant to. But it’s also making stories grow, and as a result I get to live in a world where my house makes me soup and memories swim in the water and you can have a fish bowl full of sunlight and eyebrows.)
Doors make an inside and an outside. They carve the world into places where some things belong and other things don’t. They become part of a lesson about ought and ought not, yes and no, and this shapes (sometimes profoundly) each of our lives and determines how we learn to be social people. Doors are about rules.
But doors don’t always follow the rules or behave the way we want them to. They get tired, and they don’t necessarily want to be maintaining boundaries, and they let things in and out, and sometimes they refuse to shut or refuse to open. They can make things uncomfortable.
I’m finding that being uncomfortable is important. Being vulnerable (even and especially inappropriately so) is important.
But what kinds of discomfort are generative, and when are they too harmful to do good work? When does being open and vulnerable help our students or colleagues or readers or friends, when does it help us connect and not feel so alone, and when does it potentially open us up to real harm? Given the possibility that those resulting connections might nourish us and might harm us, how can we navigate conversations such that we’re growing from critical engagement by people who care about our work and will help make it better, but not getting destroyed by the people who are not actually trying to help with their critical words? How do we manage it so that we can both have the confidence to not base our sense of the value of our work on what others think, and simultaneously care enough about what they think to grow from real critical engagement?
Well, that kind of depends on where we stand in terms of understanding the guy and the doorkeeper and the door. It’s easier, in a way, to do what we’re told and wait for permission. (It *is* actually scary in there, sometimes. The other doorkeepers *can* actually hurt you.) But, see, don’t forget the fleas. No one pays much attention to the fleas. Not the doorkeeper. Not the reader of Kafka’s parable. But in his desperation, at his wits’ and life’s end, the guy pays attention.
Sure, he comes to them late. And you might read his turn toward the fleas as a kind of failure. But in his interactions with them, he finds something that he didn’t have before: a sense of community. The fleas are ostensibly making life less pleasant for the doorkeeper. They’re evidence of the doorkeeper’s vulnerability. And even though they refuse to help the guy, they’re there as a kind of bridge: between the guy and the doorkeeper, and between the world of rules that the doorkeeper guards and the flouting of those rules. Those fleas are where they’re not supposed to be. They’re making things uncomfortable all around, and in doing so they’re helping the guy to make his own story.
In a way, then, those fleas are a kind of door. And like other doors, they’re machines that produce vulnerability. The degree to which that vulnerability helps or harms depends on the relations the fleas come into: causing skin to blister and itch, or making a space for conversation for a lonely frustrated person. They’re not inherently good or bad. They’re there to effect passage, for better and for worse.
And so, I live with the door to nowhere in my house. (The door itself isn’t the problem: the problem is whether it does what I’m asking of it. So I’ve made a little rubber ducky garden where the rain pools from outside, and now the door has a garden to water.) And I try to think with the fleas, now, when I think about Kafka’s parable. (The door itself isn’t the problem: the problem is the guy’s fear, and his insistence on asking for permission.) And I trust that, like all doors, the work I’m making from a place of vulnerability is inherently neither good nor bad - it depends on the conversations that people have with it - and I’ll keep sending it out into the world, and we’ll see what kinds of stories come through it.