Building Context

I am reading Me (Moth) by Amber McBride which is a novel written in poetry. This is the third or fourth poem novel I’ve read recently and I’ve discovered I love the form. It strips away so much noise from the emotional content of the book. But a novel in poetry requires an accumulation of layers of meaning. I reached a few lines on page 80 that struck me:

“Steps in new directions are hard to take
& it is hard to be sure if Sani is the moon
or just a dumb light bulb”

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride, pg 80

Looking at those words, you may wonder what in them was powerful. I’ve pulled that quote out of the book and dumped it here for you to read. In doing so I have ripped it free of the context which gave those words impact for me. Through eighty pages of reading I learned how my protagonists’ name is Moth. How she is in the process of cocooning after a soul-deep injury. How she meets a boy name Sani who is as injured as she is. And now she wonders if them traveling together is a path toward healing or just endless and deadly circling of the moth and the porch light. Context gives the words their power.

I think about this when I scroll through social media and see endless thoughts and snippets ripped from their contexts for easy sharing. One descriptor for this experience is Context Collapse. The tricky part is that sometimes snippeting works. Sometimes it is incredibly useful to share a pull quote or a meme to spread an idea or to share sorrows and joys. There are twitter threads and social media graphics specifically designed to carry their context with them packed tight.

But even the best-packed meme still arrives in a head different from the one that created it and the one that shared it. The new mind and heart carry their own context built out of a lifetime of experiences, fears, and joys. A context that is built and informed not only by their own life, but also by what appears before and after the snippeted meme in the feed. The new person reacts based on the context they carry in ways that are baffling or feel very tangential to the conversation that the snippet was intended to spark. Even people who are in fundamental agreement on problems and solutions can end up arguing because we’re having multiple conversations instead of a singular one. A cloud of possible conversations sparked by the same snippeted meme, shaped by individual contexts.

We all end up shouting at contextual ghosts that we’ve made up in our own heads. If we are not careful to actually build context with the person we’re attempting to converse with, we can end up holed up in defensive bunkers, terrified of the straw men we built for ourselves.

Pausing to build context is the key. It is taking those lines I pulled from Amber McBride’s book and asking me why they mattered to me, what impact they had. Not just finding out the context that the book provides, but also what are the resonances in my own life that make them ring like a bell for me. Even after all of that, you still may not see why those lines matter, maybe they fall flat for you instead of ringing, but at least we will have had a shared conversation. And likely will know more about each other than we did before. Building shared context is how we connect, how we learn to love, how we heal.

But context building takes time and patience. It takes using social media tools against their built-in purposes. It requires us to add our own context to the things we share instead of just sharing them. It takes all of us learning to hold space for each other.

Addendum: You should definitely read some of Amber McBride’s work. It is beautiful. If you want, feel free to use my affiliate link to pick up a copy of Me (Moth).