Words & the Fullness of Our Being

By Ian Kerstetter 

Courtesy of Ian 

Courtesy of Ian 

“It just feels like I have to walk on eggshells when I’m around you Ian. I’m never sure what words to use or what I shouldn’t say,” she tells me. We are 20 and I can see in her eyes that we are growing apart. I don’t know what to say. I wish I could tell her, “you don’t have to feel like that. I’m not going to be angry with you if you say something I’m uncomfortable with. I might be upset, but as long as I know that you’re willing to listen to me when I explain why I’m uncomfortable, then it’s fine. The issue is that you’re scared of being wrong, and I can’t control that. I care about words because I know what it’s like to be hurt by them. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty.” I try to say something similar but I’m not sure it helps.

I am 21 and someone walking by me says, “Everyone’s offended by something these days. You can’t please everyone with all this political correctness, Jesus.” I have heard it before, but my ears still begin to burn and I want to tell him, “I’m not offended. I have been called faggot and redskin and freak enough times by assholes like you to grow a pretty thick skin. Hateful language doesn’t just offend, it has harmed me. And I may have grown up and grown this thick skin, but I am still mad because I see others harmed by it. Words are powerful. Faggot is not a word that allows a young person to imagine how beautiful, complex and important they are. Telling gay couples that their love shouldn’t be legal tells young gay children that their love is invalid. Deliberate and coded racial slurs perpetuate white supremacy and tells people of color that we are not safe or powerful or important around you. Making jokes about rape helps men justify raping. Language is important, you asshole.”

But I don’t say any of that to this stranger. I am afraid to challenge such confident ignorance.

I am 22 and I begin to tell people that while he/him pronouns are fine, I would rather them not call me man/dude/bro because I don’t always identify as 100% male. I mostly ask the women who are close to me, because I feel safer being honest with those who already see me for who I am.

I am 23, and this boy I just met (on Grindr, let’s not pretend) kisses me and asks, “So I saw on your profile that you’re Native. How Native are you?” And as far as I am concerned, the date is over. Because I remember being a child again whose white friends joke that I can track animals and speak to trees because I’m a redskin and whose native friends joke that I’m not Native enough because I grew up so far away from my Nation and have fair skin. I remember being in a bar with a friend of a friend whose parents own a vacation home in Santa Fe (strike one) tell me that my heritage is “cool” (strike two) and that we definitely have something in common because he’s “1/16 Cherokee”. Seriously. Three strikes, I’m out.

I am almost 24 and this date is over because indigenous people, my people, have had their ancestry measured and documented by colonial governments in order to keep track of us and erase our identities and communities. The date is over because I am a whole person, not a half or a quarter anything. The date is over because I am a citizen of the Oneida Nation, no matter how mixed I am or how many miles lay between the rez and the hospital I was born in to my loving parents. The date is over, and I want to tell him, “I am biracial and I am whole. Colonial notions of ethnicity aren’t good first date conversation material.” But my anxiety and memories of this same conversation clamp down my jaw and I do not feel strong enough to say anything besides, “I am biracial” and hope that he doesn’t press further. Incredibly, he does: “So like half and half?” I want to die. I mumble, “yup” and change the subject. I know I am never texting this boy again, no matter how cute he is. I suddenly remember how much I miss my family. I break down sobbing on my walk home. The weight of words and of people interrogating my blood cracks me open all over the sidewalk.


• • • • •

Asking people around us to describe us using the language we prefer to describe ourselves is not a symptom of a spoiled generation as baby boomers assert. We are not asking that we be treated like special snowflakes. The descriptions of our genders, orientations, racial identities, politics, and other aspects of the self that we are asking others to use are not selfish. They are a vital and urgent attempt to live our truth.

In doing so, we are asking a limited language to perform in new ways that reflect a fuller, clearer picture of human experience and who we are within that infinite spectrum. Asking others to recognize the way we describe ourselves is a radical and healing act, one that seeks to re-infuse stagnant language, and ultimately, relationships with the breadth and depth of diverse human identities. Raised in the height of multiculturalism, we are no longer satisfied with standing to the side as the token minority characters. We ask to not only be tolerated, but to be seen for who we are and listened to when we speak of ourselves.

This is the message every politician, artist, director, writer, employer, teacher, and parent needs to hear: When someone who is different from you speaks, listen to them. When you don’t know something about another person’s experience, ask them. We are the experts on our own identities and experiences, not pundits or preachers or politicians or insulting Hollywood caricatures of us. The first and last step in learning about someone different from you should be listening, not telling or interrogating or justifying or citing the flawed media and language that we don’t fit in.

Telling others how we prefer to be spoken of isn’t always easy to do, but someone sincerely listening can go a long way towards communication.

This is more than just political correctness. It is a move to try to undo and revise the often restricting and harmful language that we have inherited from a dominant culture built on imperialism and control. It is an attempt not just to “tolerate” but to honor and celebrate the fullness and beauty of human experiences, as many of our ancestors on every continent did in their languages and traditions before being colonized and displaced. Whether a nonbinary person is asking you to use pronouns that they prefer, a person of color is asking you to not use racial slurs that perpetuate white supremacy, a queer person is asking you not to apply heterosexual norms to them, or anyone is asking you to use language that they prefer, they are asking you to see and embrace who they really are, something everyone has a right to. In the current political climate we live in, this is more than just a request for human decency. It is a move to be seen and heard amid so many voices who would erase us.

If all of this feels difficult or overwhelming, trust me, it should. Learning any new language is difficult and requires intention and consistency. But know that no matter how hard or inconvenient it might seem to use different language, know that it is far more difficult and inconvenient for many people to learn it and invent it, surrounded by societies and languages not built for them. Know what we are trying to bend these languages to fit everyone better and ultimately, to reshape our reality to do the same.


Apocalypse, Myth, Rebirth: The Importance of Stories

By Ian Kerstetter

Art from  NateHallinArt

I was nine years old and the radio on my school bus had stopped playing music. Breaking news, it murmured. Crash, explosion. The bus driver turned it up without a word. Something was happening in New York. A plane had crashed into a building full of innocent people– then another.

I had never experienced war or violence in any way until that morning. I knew that a long time ago, people had used guns and bombs to hurt each other but I had never imagined that people would do that here and now. As an adult I recognize that violence has had a more or less constant presence on the planet since human history began, but as a child privileged to live in relative peace and safety, my mind had never before imagined war in the present tense. Although I understood the narrative facts of the events that day, I didn't fully understand what had happened to me, or the world, until years later.

The idea that my life, or the lives of those around me, could end suddenly at the will of another human felt like the ground beneath me was no longer stable. The radio could say breaking news at any moment and another piece of the world could end.

My conception of the future had been thrown into question. Ultimately, many if not all people face the idea that the future is unpredictable, and such questioning prompted me to grow and investigate my own beliefs in a positive process, but this process is difficult nonetheless. My parents, teachers, and friends did everything they could to help me cope with my increasing existentialism, but as with any part of growing up, it took time and patience.

The memory of that day made me ask myself countless times, if people could bring themselves to kill each other, what's to stop them? If people had the technology to destroy whole buildings, why not whole cities or nations? It was around this time that I first encountered doomsday theories. Religious zealots, conspiracy theorists, cynical atheists, there were so many people saying the world would come to an end soon. As an impressionable young person, I was overwhelmed. I didn't know what version of reality to hold on to, so I tried to push them all away. New Years' Eve became a frightening night in the legacy of Y2K and 9/11. 06/06/06, 12/12/12– someone seemed to predict a new end of the world every year. They never came true though, and as I grew up, I began to trust in the present moment, and gained the courage and wisdom to study the facts of these false prophecies and see their emptiness, and their patterns of obscuring truth and feeding on fear.

Eventually, I accepted that end of the world predictions were not something that deserved my energy, and that living in fear of the future wasn't healthy or empowering. I learned that people have been predicting the end of days every so often since there were years to be counted. I learned the broader implications of the 9/11 attacks, and the unforgivable violence that our country enacted on innocent people in response.

And while I have healed from the realization that the world is a violent place, and have largely grown past my fear of the end of the world, I still find it troubling how flippant our society seems to be when discussing these ideas. I find it disturbing that people continue to laugh about flimsy doomsday conspiracy theories and pay money to watch disaster flicks that treat mass violence and chaos as mere spectacle. I feel that continuing to give them space in our media and conversations perpetuates them. Conspiracy theories about the world ending on a given date are just as empty as thinking fluoride is put in our water to control our minds or that vaccinations cause autism or cancer. As a reasonable person, I certainly think that science is just as subject to human error as any other field, but I find alarming the number of people willing to deny well-tested scientific truth to perpetuate these theories. I wouldn't suggest that we avoid talking about them at all– rather, we need to openly and critically examine them just as openly as we allow bloggers, filmmakers, and the History Channel pretend that they are real.

The widely popular 12/21/12 apocalypse theory, for example, was born out of a series of misinterpretations about Mesoamerican calendar systems, sensationalist media, and fear mongering, and yet I remember how the theory completely captured the public's imagination that year. The Mayan calendar– completely different from the Aztec calendar stone that was widely pictured to represent it– uses a “Long Count” that allowed for timekeeping up until December 21, 2012. After that, the calendar stopped, but the claim that this signified the end of the world was largely fabricated. While you and I may not really have believed the world would end on December 21st, think about all the people who did– schools were closed and bomb shelter sales went up that year. Consider all of the money, effort, and attention poured into that story. What if all of that attention had been paid to something else, like the U.N. Climate Change Conference in November of that year, which decided to extend the emission reduction policies of the Kyoto Protocol until 2020, which the U.S. continued to refuse to agree to. Imagine if every person who thought about the 12/12/12 conspiracy theory had written about, spoken about, or watched the conference. Social media and the internet have allowed many people to rally around important issues, but how many with such widespread knowledge, investment, and media attention than 12/12/12 or any of the other things we choose to focus our attention on?

In many ways, the world is ending, and has ended many times. For many indigenous people across the Earth, the world ended the day colonists stepped foot in their ancestral home. In different places and times, the world ended and began again with the inventions of bombs, cars, factories and computers. The world is in constant flux, and it isn't a stretch to say we that we are in fact living at another end of the world. But by focusing on the end, are we prepared for what comes next? Where, in our cultural storytelling, are the stories of the future? Sci-fi holds many stories of the far future, and of near futures gone wrong, but where are our stories of the near future gone right? Warnings of dependency on technology, a failing economy, and a suffering Earth are important warnings, but I wonder what stories might be told about humans rising to these challenges rather than falling into chaos, and how these stories could change the course of history.

We need stories that open up the possibilities of a world beginning, not just of a world collapsing. Climate change, nuclear war, hunger, disease, income inequality, genocide all pose real threats to the wellbeing of humans present and future, but the future has yet to be written. Humans have survived many tragedies and challenges; it's not beyond the realm of possibility that we could flourish in a post-apocalyptic world, or not face a Hollywood apocalypse at all. But for this to be a tangible possibility, I think we need storytelling that establishes this, not another disaster film or another gritty post-apocalyptic teen novel.

As artists, writers, and creators, I feel we have a duty to be considerate and deliberate in what stories we add to public conversations about the present and future. We don't need another disaster film or another blog post about Illuminati imagery in Rihanna's last music video. We need stories that interrogate the real challenges facing the world, like climate change, unchecked capitalism, institutionalized prejudice, industrial poisoning of our land and water, or militant imperialism. Zombies and aliens may be entertaining, but there are far more real monsters paying off our government, killing people and the Earth, and yes, writing our stories. They have names and faces –David and Charles Koch, the Walton Family, Robert Rubin, A. Jerrold Perenchio, Tony Hayward– and we should talk about them, and add our own narratives and truths to the stories they try to dominate.

The world may be ending, or may well have already ended. But we are still here, and what we desperately need is to leave behind narratives of end and apocalypse, and to tell stories about this new world we're living in, and open our imaginations to the world we might come to live in, as painful as the transition may be.

The Secret History of Rivers

By Ian Kerstetter


Photo courtesy Tess Kerstetter

Photo courtesy Tess Kerstetter

I am nine or ten years old and the biggest centipede I’ve ever seen is writhing around in the bucket at my feet.

On a wall, a centipede is frightening. The other kids say that even its feet will leave painful welts across your skin, and I believe them. But here, trapped in this bucket with a week’s worth of fallen leaves, a centipede is a fascinating creature.

I am on a school field trip that we make once a month to help a local conservation group collect biological data from the Rio Grande and it’s surrounding cottonwood forest, which is called bosque in both Spanish and English. This centipede has fallen into one of the many large rubber buckets that we check each month to capture a snapshot of the bosque’s growth and decay. We record what we find and cautiously return the centipede and leaves and dusty white twigs to the forest. The mysteries we uncover each day here begin to suggest to us the larger mysteries of nature, and we come to understand the bosque as a living, breathing organism.

The white cottonwoods stretch out all around us, a humming maze of green and gold that I have always felt safe in. The meandering bosque and the quiet Rio Grande within offer a vast sanctuary for the living creatures here. Its endless silence and endless hum of life make an impression on my youth of an ancient, wild being, an impression I suspect children by the coast understand when thinking of the ocean.

This impression only grows as I grow, and I travel to see the river from its origins in the Rockies to the Chihuahua desert in northern Mexico. It appears in my mind as a monumental compass; a great line drawn through the soil that points from north to south, from mountain to ocean. Every time I cross it, I look north and think, Colorado, and look south and think, The Gulf of Mexico. With the river below my feet, I feel connected.

But in the same moments that I learned of the river’s life as a child, I learned of its struggle. The Rio Grande holds an open secret; it is a contradiction. Its many dams prevent sacred flooding that sustains the cottonwoods and fish and many other organisms at the same time that they provide irrigation for countless crops. It’s banks have been narrowed and it’s bed deepened to protect cities from falling into its currents, sweeping away the fertile soil it once deposited across its valley. Its once mighty path is marred by pollution and drought; if you drive far enough south it goes completely dry in places. Its very existence depends on the activity of humans.

Now, thirteen-hundred miles away, I find myself over the Chicago River looking for the same connection. The Chicago is a mighty river, easily two or three times as wide as the Rio Grande, and who knows how much deeper. Rather than meandering, it follows the grid of the city around it, becoming a glittering street of its own. Its very existence has become a part of the grand plan of Chicago– the river I stand over today is an engineering project that shares only its name with the living thing that came before. It doesn’t even flow in the same direction as it once did. There is no bosque here, no centipedes or porcupines. This river is a modern municipal sewage and transportation project.

The Chicago River yields its secret to me: no river flows how it once did. The rivers in our country have been yoked to urbanization, to agriculture, to civilization. Like the Rio Grande, the Chicago exists as it does because humans redesigned it. Living beings, now domesticated.

As I search the air above the Jackson street bridge for a sense of connection, the lazy river below me tells me another secret. The Chicago River once fed into Lake Michigan. In an effort to wash away pollution and waste from the growing metropolis, the city reversed its flow and fed it into the Des Plaines River, which joins the Kankakke River to form the Illinois River, which pours into the mighty Mississippi and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico, the same sea to which the Rio Grande ultimate leads. If I put a finger into the Chicago, I would be connected by water molecules to the place I was born.

This river, like the Rio Grande and many other waterways across this land, holds the contradictions of health and sickness, of wild and urban. But I recall the magic secrets the Rio Grande used to whisper in my ear as a child; the sight of people planting young cottonwoods in lieu of the annual floods; the ecstatic abundance of a desert farm watered by the Rio. In contradiction, I see hybridity. The river– the idea of the river as living being and controlled resource– lives on. The waters carry life, they carry history, they carry our future. Many rivers may be sick from pollution and drought. But they flow on as living prayers for healing. Their secret is that they live on, but for how long? More than ever, I stand in awe and reverence of the river. I find I cannot see its water without praying they might be cleaned one day soon, that they might flow freely and support not just cities and crops but cities and crops and trout and porcupines and forests.

The river of my childhood flows brightly though my mind. It is constantly moving, washing the old with the ever new. It is not the river below my feet, but this river moves too. I hear it tell me one last secret as I turn to leave;

move. always move. 

Getting There

by Ian Kerstetter


running my fingers through sand.

blink. breathe.


i am not in the high mountain desert. this

is a lake that is too big to see more than a blue blur of land on the other side: canada? michigan? i could google it, sure, but i won’t remember. this place hasn’t landed in my mental map yet. i am floating somewhere between yellowstone and boston

and i am running my hands through sands my ancestors could have walked, but i’m not quite sure where i am just yet.


i am still getting used to it.

still getting used to being around so many other queer people

getting used to living a block away from everything and a train away from anything.


there are seas smaller than what they name “lake” here.



the map here is hard to picture, there are no right angles.

only a sea and a city.


show me a mountain;

i will curl my back into its ridges

and not flat like architecture.


the birthday party in the storm helped.

sitting and giggling on the floor with my roommates helped.

buying brussels sprouts and green beans from a farmers’ market down the street and then cooking them and not messing it up




can i tell you my favorite moment of every day?

the moment i get off my train and walk out from the tunnels

and the gargoyles on the library are grimacing up at the towers, grown much higher than the gargoyles’ wings

and i am enveloped in the hum of downtown. something familiar. far less than deafening.

it is not home yet.


living in a place where i can still count my footsteps,

i see people move with practiced ease,

and i remember how it feels to live in a familiar place:


smoothed by ceaseless motion,

marble floors rubbed raw.

you know how a muscle should work to open that door

and how a word should be shaped to say this.

what’s around the corner

where the street signs are

what languages you hear

what that noise means

how a cashier phrases a question

the difference between a tourist and student

where to look when passing a stranger on the street

how a leg should move and how a hand should twist up and around to board a train.


where east is.


i am running my fingers through the sand by Lake Michigan.

i can tell it’s the sand of a lake and not an ocean.


my world is gently crumbling,

ready to be remixed and remembered and reenter

the stream of trains and stairs and flowers and sirens,


but not just yet. i am not quite understood by this city yet.

when you live here, you have seeped into the city.


i am just beginning to steep.

i am finding out.

i am rubbing the sand smooth between my palms.


Photos by Ian Kerstetter