Listening to yourself

One of the most difficult things for me having grown up in a chaotic atmosphere was learning to listen to myself. I mean, I have always been able to sense and utilize my intuition which is a powerful force not to be ignored. But having had the pivotal adults in my life constantly tell me I wasn’t feeling how I was feeling, it’s been hard for me to know what I think and feel at times.

The other day an old post of mine popped up on facebook, and it was about the fear and love I felt regarding adopting my disabled nephew. Truly, at this point he is my son although my sister bore him. And he’s been my son for a while. He lives in my heart. Through his growth and maturation I have discovered myself.

Back to fear. It used to be an emotion I avoided, like anger. But when you avoid something, it grows. Most of my life, even now, I felt paralyzing fear. Over the most mundane things. Granted I was able to leave my parent’s home at a young age. I got a degree. Two degrees. Had a baby. I started a business. Adopted a child. Got divorced. Became a single mother. Flying through a fear of flying. Bungee Jumping. Dissent. Disagreeing. Feeling Anger. Handling my business. Confronting people. I learned to do it all on my own, even the things I ( sometimes unfairly) would ask others to do because I was too afraid to do them myself. I do these things now because there is no one else to do those things anymore.

But eventually I learned that shielding myself from fear wasn’t good for me and it certainly wasn’t good for anyone around me. I serve myself by leaning into my fear. I’m not afraid to feel anymore. I seek out ways to access how I’m feeling. If you listen to yourself in the quiet, you can find out how you feel. Meditation. Exercise. Being in nature. These aren’t tired old tropes people just throw around for no reason. There are ways to connect to yourself inside, even after experiencing the most terrible of circumstances. I listen a lot to Nina Simone, the one artist who truly could represent the pain and joy of being alive in her work. Of course my beloved martial arts. I watch movies. Film. Look at art. Drink tequila. Cry in front of my children. Fuck up in front of my children. Apologize to my children. Talk to my children. Listen to my children. And they bring me so much joy. Looking into their smiling faces makes me feel like that’s why I’ve made the sacrifices I’ve made.

Sometimes I find myself discovering what I really think when people ask me questions. Sometimes I hear myself answering and wonder, so that’s it is it? That’s really what I think? Because it’s completely in opposition with what I’m saying to myself otherwise. The most powerful lies are the ones we tell ourselves. And we can’t lie forever. Eventually the truth comes out and inauthenticity becomes authenticity, for the luckiest of us. Prayer and silence aren’t the only ways to get an answer, sometimes. Sometimes you find out the truth by putting yourself out there, where the fear lives, and royally fucking it all up to hell. Sometimes you find out the truth when you burn and salt the earth behind you. And that’s totally okay.

I like being connected to myself. Even when it hurts. After all I’ve done and been through I know that even when I make a mistake, and it hurts like hell that that pain is impermanent. And I can tell myself the painful truth of my life over and over, and eventually I’ll be on the other side of that pain. I control the things I can, look deeply at the things I can not control, and when I can, I set myself free. And once you taste that type of freedom, you aren’t likely to give it up again.

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When my dad had his first nervous breakdown he was stationed in Fairfield Alabama, a predominantly African American community during the late 1970s. Me and my family were the “other.” We were the odd ones out. I remember my parents talking about advocating for the kids in the neighborhood, how they called Coppertone to get cases of sunscreen for the kids so they didn’t get sunburnt at the summer camp pool. I remember, vaguely, the women who cared for me when my parents were busy. I remember that time it snowed. I remember my best friend, a little boy down the street. My parents were always part of the other. Both coming from dysfunctional families with either mental illness, alcoholism, gambling problems or a combination thereof leading to poverty in their formative years. My father took care of a sibling who died very young of what I believe was epilepsy. My mom recounted a time when she was but a small child, hiding under the table while her five of her six brothers overturned it, arguing, food flying everywhere. So they decided to live a different life than that of their progenitors. They joined the salvation army as teenagers, and got married at 16 and 18. My dad was funneled into leadership, and was a preacher for 20 years. Of course, the preacher’s wife has a job even if it’s not listed on tax forms. The Salvation Army provided a car, a place to live, food, clothing, but minimal money. My parents devoted themselves to charitable works.

After my dad was ousted from the Salvation Army due to his nervous breakdown my parents still sought out similar feeling situations–authoritarianism being a prerequisite because you go with what you know. A group with a clear leader to tell everyone what to do. Being young and dependent on my parents I was thrust into these situations too. As a young adult, I remember the dispassionate feeling inside when my sister told me at least two of these groups my parents associated with were investigated for being cults. I saw firsthand. I pretended I was like them, swept unhappily along, suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Once, at 17, after an ugly fight with my mom where she forced me to go to one of these places, I was totally broken, emotionally unarmed, so I just pretended to be like them, pretended to speak in tongues, pretended to be “saved” again and again, loathing myself for every ugly moment of falsehood, it felt like torture. One of the men, presumably leadership, looked at me at that moment, and told me “you may be wearing a dress with flowers on it, but you are a warrior.”

I am a fighter. A brawler. I like using my swords when I’m working out on the mat. I like swinging them around slowly, in control. I like trying to punch the crap out of other martial artists. Sometimes I don’t miss. They don’t mind. While going through my sisters belongings I came across a cache of photos, of myself, so many photos of my teenaged years, me looking angry. I was angry. I felt living religion was a lie. My mom felt parenting meant breaking children like they were animals. So she tried to break me, and I pretended to be broken. Until I fled at 17, with angry words, her physical threats, full of pain, I left that lie. I don’t want to live in the framework of authoritarianism. Misogyny. Racism. It’s not a comfort to me to relive the painful tropes of my childhood. It’s not a comfort to know that the only way your mom knows to show love is pain.

Last week was tough. I had to attend the funeral of my tai chi teacher. A classmate that I thought a lot of passed away at 42. I nearly broke my ankle April 24, and I’ve been really limited in getting around while it heals. At night, I have a wracking cough. My mom. Jesus. I call her to make sure she remembers to turn on the AC, to help her take care of the daily needs she has, to send her water so she doesn’t get dehydrated again, all the trips last year when she was vulnerable, writing her checks, paying her bills. I swing between wanting to help her and wanting to hate her for all that she did during my vulnerable time as a child. But nevertheless.

She said some things last weekend that were really hard to hear. I was already wounded, physically, spiritually, and mentally from the losses and injuries of the past few weeks. When she was saying them aloud, I felt myself pull away from the conversation, I guess I was hoping to protect myself from hurt. But after I told someone else the things she said, and seeing the horror on that person’s face, I thought “maybe I ought to process this.” And man, it felt like hell. I had a lot of thoughts. I would think about how in the end, I didn’t want to be petty. Yes it was not okay or normal for her to not fit the trope of maternalism. Could I help her although she would forget my birthday after I turned 17? That she couldn’t even offer me a graduation card? A sweet 16 birthday card? So many badges representing what society called caring, and accepting what I never received, the embarrassment I felt when people would ask me why my parents didn’t even get me a birthday gift. Seeing other kids open a pile of presents and feeling shame because no one bothered with that in my house, and if they did, my mom would threaten to return all the gifts, transforming the joy of receiving sour. All the insults, and accusations. All the times the only emotion she showed me was rage? Ultimately I don’t want to be petty. I don’t want to live with regrets. She is 77 today, and nearing the last chapter of her life. I took a moment, during my suffering over what she had said, and tried to put myself in her position. I thought, “She is saying this to me right now because she is angry.” So I decided to give her the space to feel angry. She lashed out, and instead of carrying that emotional burden I decided to let it the fuck go. And so I did, and I felt freedom.

Somehow, despite all that I had been through, I was able to change my framework. Through therapy. Meditation. Music. Martial Arts. Self Care. Motherhood. Wine. I was reluctant to go to therapy, but I also didn’t want to continue repeating the same mistakes for the remainder of my life. Therapy helped me maintain focus on my children as my number one priority with all the other responsibilities of adulthood and divorce swirling around us. It helped me see the pain and suffering of my parents during my fraught childhood. It made a tiny space, for empathy. Most importantly for me, therapy taught me the skills of how to appropriately mother myself, because I didn’t learn those skills previously. The Gottman Institute has been a tremendous help to me. John Gottman’s research taught me so much about emotional intelligence, and about myself. I think it’s really unfair that parents expect their children to act with restraint and behavioral standards that the parents aren’t held to. In my childhood this disconnect was one of the major ideologies I struggled with. Fundamentally it wasn’t right that my mom could rage and rage, yet I couldn’t have any feelings at all or “she’d give me something to cry about,” how she’d regulate my behavior with physical violence when she couldn’t regulate herself and would put our family into chaos, instability, and throw our safety into question. She still can’t regulate herself and in her advanced age she’s less able to hide this fact. The two parts of me, the part that was taught I deserved to be treated like an animal because that’s how my mom treated me and she was perfect, and the part that thought it was wrong for me to have to act a certain way when there were no sanctions or limitations on her expressions of rage eventually settled into quiet acceptance. Motherhood helped a lot. I love myself through loving my children. They teach me every day with their hard work and tireless pursuit of excellence. I don’t keep it secret that Dmitri’s struggle to attain what we take for granted taught me to love myself. Maya’s passion, resilience, empathy, and emotional intuition inspire me to strive to be a loving, helpful mother. And to give them room to feel distress sometimes, and let them solve problems, although I dislike watching them struggle, I want them to work on the skills they need to be functional adults. So that they don’t need me when they are adults, and can choose my company.

Late last week I saw a quote from the Gottman Institute that really struck me, deep down.

“Thinking of your child as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your child as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.”

And I had a startling thought, I thought, if I stop thinking of my children as behaving badly when they are struggling, maybe I can apply that courtesy to other people too? Including myself.

Recently I had an experience where someone advised me to take the spot in me that has a deep and abiding supply of courage, and send that courage to the other parts of me that need it. And, I think that’s just what I’ll do. I don’t have to be a prisoner of my past, of present circumstance, or to be devastated by what other people say. That’s freedom, and that’s how I want to live my life. Writing is the balm that soothes my soul, and I’m so thankful for this space I’ve created for myself. I’m thankful for the family I’ve created, both genetic and my martial family. I’m grateful for my life and the livelihood of my children. In the end, when I’m nearing the final chapters of my life, as my mother is now, I hope that I’ll remember that.

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in search of a teacher

When you are searching for a teacher you never know who you’re going to get. I had been meditating, a lot, and a friend suggested I try Tai Chi since it is a form of moving meditation. Forever looking for peace and internal quiet, I decided to give the class a try. I had cut off all of my hair, post divorce, was hiking, traveling, meditating, looking for something, anything. And so I showed up to class, broken, in search of putting myself back together again.

Looking back at the teachers who had the biggest impact on my life, I can see how they fundamentally altered what I thought about myself, about my life. How they yelled at me when necessary. To make me grow. Having grown up in a fraught home, with a sick father, many of these teachers were surrogate father figures for me. I didn’t know it was okay for a teacher to get angry with me and that that was okay. I didn’t know anyone could be angry in a safe way. But anger burns away the unnecessary and spurns behavior to make changes. In my search for truth, I had to learn that the hardest part of growth is looking at myself. First I searched for truth in music, then physics. In meditation, and knitting. Martial arts. In anger. In acceptance.

I showed up to tai chi at 7am that first Saturday, I was kind of a sad sack and a jumbled mess. My tai chi teacher showed me the Qi Gong style warm up, as he did to every student no matter their ability, without fail. He slowly, patiently moved his hands around, and I watched, there was magic in his hands, it was meditative. Calming. We worked at the warm up exercises together that cold March morning, sweat dripping down my brow. “Are you okay,” he asked? “I am fine,” I said. I didn’t know that standing still could be as difficult as moving fast. But born stubborn and passionate, I stuck with it. I stuck through sweating until I thought I might pass out. Knee pain. Tendon pain that felt like being stung by 10,000 angry bees. Back pain. Pain in my arm so bad I couldn’t close my hand around a coffee mug. Maybe it was the first sense of freedom and peace and accomplishment that I got from tai chi, I don’t really know what propelled me forward from my sad state. He taught with wisdom. When he taught us the first water form, it got my stagnant water moving again. It was elemental. It was powerful. It was slow. It was difficult.

You can’t pick your parents, but you can pick your teachers. Teachers, much like parents are there to serve a purpose to teach you how to live in the world. Even when they are done teaching, you will still learn even if they are no longer there to teach you. I learned in tai chi to believe in what I’ve been searching for. Truth. Myself. Life. Purpose. Alan Watts said the universe created us so it could look at itself. There are so many types of people. So many changes that happen in nature. How could anyone ever get bored looking at the Universe? Concurrently I worked on acceptance of impermanence. Non attachment. Patience. Quiet. But I’m still as stubborn and passionate and loud as ever. Maybe it’s 10% easier to accept now. I can’t quite tell.

When I was really struggling with my non quiet meditative mind I asked another talented teacher in my tai chi class about how to quiet the mind. She said what our head instructor said was to imagine the green of nature or the face of a loved one when the mind is not quiet. No two more beautiful things than that. Maybe my mind and heart won’t be quiet but I can look at the things I love when it’s happening.

My tai chi teacher pushed me to grow. He actually literally pushed me. When I asked what a movement was for he hit me in the face to demonstrate. And I stood there a second time and let him do it again. I won’t forget the purpose of that strike just as I’ll never forget his lesson. He yelled at me in class for not watching once. Oh the embarrassment. I was standing with my back turned, trying to mimic what his was showing. And as usual, with grace he made everything seem so much easier and clearer than it actually was. When he yelled my name I crumbled inside and hung my head, displeased to have evoked the ire of teacher.

The past few months, when he knew he was dying, but the class didn’t know, he told me a few things he wanted me to work on. To go lower in a pose. Once he came up behind me silently in class to fix my arm. He told me to practice tai chi twice a day. I remember looking at him one cold morning, with no idea of his fate, and him looking back, and how I smiled because I was happy. And he smiled back.

Sometimes although you are not ready for your teacher to go, it is his time anyway. Life has already decided for him. When I think of his courage and acceptance and how he kept going to teach us all, to call out the movements, I am in awe. His greatest wish was that we continue the class without him, even as cancer ravaged his body. He spent his final time with his family.

Sometimes a teacher pushes you and yells at you because you need to learn. But no teacher is forever. Even though I didn’t want him to go, it was his time. In the first few days after his death I was in shock, sort of stumbling around the idea of it, and I saw a video clip of a short teaching session he had given one Sunday. I saw again, his brilliance, I got to hear his voice issuing the commands, to see him perform the movements. I felt a moment of peace. He is never truly gone. Maybe he has moved to another room, but we can still learn from him, even though his voice as we know it is gone. I’ve never been so sad to think of someone not yelling at me again. I remember his taciturn style, serious, focused. I remember the few times his keen sense of humor broke through, how he liked to laugh. He was a perfect mimic. You could tell who he was copying when he was pointing out technique. He was a hell of a guy.

None of us in class were ready for his loss. He was our father. Our teacher. Our friend. I sat in his buddhist funeral, surrounded by the smell of incense and flowers. Tears streamed down my face, although I couldn’t understand what was being said, I could see the pain and heartbreak when his family spoke, their bodies encircled in white. I watched the photos stream by on the slide show, of him doing what he loved, with his family, laughing, riding motorbikes. Hugging children. Teaching new students. I looked at the alter in front of his coffin, with flowers and food. I stood in line to give incense to his family and bow, three times, just like at the temple. I met his beautiful wife, and give her my condolences. Some wounds time never heals, like the loss of a good teacher, or a loved one. But somehow you can still search for peace, for truth. And if you find the strength to look in yourself, you may see something you didn’t know existed, that you can believe in yourself.

I will look for him in the trees. In the faces of loved ones. We all cross to that other room, one day. At forty the list of those who have moved to the other room grows longer and longer. But I know in my passionate, stubborn heart, if I look deeply in myself, I can see those that I’ve loved and lost. My teachers, who left before I was ready, although it was time for me to stand on my own.

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Community Involvement

I spend a lot of time thinking about writing, sometimes feeling really vulnerable and uncomfortable about my words being out there. Lately I’ve been ready to write, with a whole post in organized and laid out in my mind, and then had second thoughts because literally anyone can read it and I’ve often aired out the most intimate difficulties of my own life, online, since 2004. Often I’ll be talking with someone and think, “did they read what I wrote? Is that why we’re having this conversation now?’ It can be…unsettling and causes me discomfort. But ultimately I write because it helps me feel at home in my life, in my skin, it sorts out my thoughts and feelings, and because one day maybe I’ll be like my own mother, and I won’t remember. At that time I can look back at these years of writing, all the years of documentation on instagram and flickr and future platforms that don’t exist yet and say “that was my life. These are the things I did.”

It’s no secret that I’ve felt lost, adrift in the current state of political affairs. So for multiple reasons I started taking Community Emergency Response Team classes with the hope that maybe in some small way I can give back to my community. Maybe I don’t like the way the world is headed, but perhaps I can help my own world in what ever little way I can. Concurrently I’ve been going through the belongings of my sister and her husband. Relics of 20 plus years of marriage, the birth of their son, the meaningful memories of their own lives and childhoods. It has been. It has been painful. Emotional. Gut wrenching. I held my brother in law’s baby photos in my hands and it hurt. It hurt because I have limited space. It hurt because I can not carry their memories around in my heart and my home and continue to carry around my own memories and my own belongings in my home. It feels wretched to know that these photos, these memories, that the person who created them is gone now. That his parents are gone now. That my sister is gone now. A third party could come in and mercilessly toss it out, these memories of another. They hold no emotional attachment, no ties. For me it is harder. You start thinking about things like purpose, and value and what is the mark left on the world.

For so long I felt like a ship, with holes poked in on it from all sides. From all the times loved ones told me I didn’t feel what I felt. Sometimes all it takes is acknowledgement. There’s not much acknowledgement in dysfunction. Every time my sister or my father or my mother told me that what I thought wasn’t what I thought it created another hole. And now that two thirds of them are gone I am left to plug those holes, so I don’t sink.

There are a lot of hours of training when you begin taking entry Community Emergency Response Training classes. The first and foremost fact being, you regard the safety of yourself above all else. So you don’t become an additional victim needing rescuing, an additional burden. You are issued personal protection equipment and you are expected to use it. You train in light search and rescue, you practice fire suppression by fire department sanctioned small fires, you sit through disaster psychology. They tell you, if it’s bigger than this size that we want you to put out today, then it’s too big for you. You rescue mannequins from precarious situations. You learn that the sole purpose of CERT is to regard the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. And sometimes that means the individual is left behind. Triage in disaster training ended up being the most difficult subject for me. Because you organize and categorize people into three groups. Immediate, Delayed and Minor treatment. And a black tarp. Sometimes you might have to say “help is on the way” although you are aware that the individual has something that is going to land them on the black tarp. You absolve yourself of humanity to help the greatest amount of humanity.

There is a lot of stigma, being the child of a mentally ill parent. Or parents. Sometimes I wished I could say something more concrete like “I was the child of drug addled parents” because maybe people would be less likely to judge me for the predicaments of my parents. When I look back on my childhood, sometimes I’m angry that my parents poured their dysfunction right into me at the age when a parent is supposed to teach a child to mother itself. I look back at the trauma, and there was trauma and I wonder why no one ever addressed it with me. Why there was no Monday morning quarterbacking of the sometimes terrible things that happened.

While I was sitting through the disaster psychology segment of CERT training and the teacher was talking about triggering I realized some dark things in my own past that were triggered as a result of my own training. And a few things that were triggering me in my disposal of my sister’s life affects.

I think the stigma of mental illness is really terrifically unfair. If you’ve ever been around someone who is suffering deeply from it it is very unsettling, which is likely part of the stigma. I remember when my father would go off of his medication and that terrible flow of energy issuing from him, which felt like a cold breeze in the middle of a hot summer day, brushing past you and making every hair on my body stand up. Who was he talking to? What was he laughing about? Now that I’m older, although admittedly with no evidence to back it up, I have to think that cold energy was somehow him connecting to his subconscious. That same collective unconscious we all tap into at times. It creates art. Writing. Music. It is the source of many things. Kandinsky and many of the other artists of that period wrote thoughtful pieces on that connection. But that energy also has the power to destroy. Reputations. Dreams. Status Quo. Retirement.

At the very end of my CERT training we did a disaster drill. Throughout the training somehow, I found myself reassuring people who felt insecure about what we had to do. During fire suppression my partner looked at me dead in the eye and said “I’m scared. I can’t do this.” I looked at her, told her to put her hand on my shoulder while I held the fire extinguisher and prepared to walk toward the fire and said “I’m scared too.” We all feel that same fear. Somehow you learn to hold it. In class was this very intelligent young, precocious teenager. Maybe about 16. But damn if he didn’t know almost every fact during every question and answer period during our training. We ended up being partnered up during the disaster drill training exercise. The local high school drama club were our “victims.” They painted elaborate stage make up on their bodies. Taped up their arms as if they had been amputee victims. What I wasn’t prepared for was that they would cry out during our exercise. All the times they would yell “help me,” “I can’t find my brother” or just “Please help” as we had to walk by to complete whatever task we had set out to do. It was deeply unsettling and I was very affected by it, but I said nothing. I just continued with the drill. The young, precocious teenager looked at me, with pain in his eyes and said “I didn’t know the yelling and the sounds would upset me so much.” I told him, “tune it out.” “Tune it out.”

It is hard to describe what it felt like walking by people yelling out for help and not helping them in the moment. When the adrenaline rush wore off of me that evening, I ended up in the fetal position, sobbing. Even though it wasn’t real. Even though it was just a drill. The chaos of the situation deeply affected me.

There were times, obviously that I had to metaphorically walk beside my sister and my father and my mother when their subconscious was yelling “help me” so loudly that it made all the hair on my body stand at attention. But, the first rule of safety is save yourself. I couldn’t save my sister, or my father. Just like I can’t save my mother, or frankly, anyone else. I have to maintain my own self and sense of safety, and love my children. Anything else is voluntary.

Once, I found myself in need of assistance from the police, which they offered. I found myself glued in place, looking into the eyes of one of the officers and it touched me that his eyes had no life in them. I couldn’t understand it. He had compartmentalized so much that he couldn’t reach out to me for reassurance, although he definitely aided me in the way that I needed help. Life is like that. I thought about him and his dead eyes many times. I wondered what had happened to him. I still wonder.

I broke out in hives when I was triggered by sifting through my sister’s personal effects, and I was triggered by sitting through a disaster psychology class. I look down at the hives covering my body like a roadmap and I tell myself this is how I know my subconscious is connected to my nervous system. I tell myself, you don’t have to be hyperaware. There is no disaster right now. I can look back at these times when my sister poked holes in me. I can look back at the times when she poked holes in me and the other part of this triangle is my father. And there he was poking holes too. With my mother. I can look at the holes, which strangely resemble my hives and whisper “you don’t have to be a sinking ship.” Because the truth of my life is, I can rescue myself. Because the trauma I’ve been through has made me very strong, not very weak. And my writing will set me free.

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a few musings on art and a love letter for a friend

I remember standing in the Clyfford Still museum in Denver and feeling the electrified energy of his art wash over me.

Clyfford Still

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And I thought, he is long gone, but what he made still has the energy that he poured into it. It is his legacy, to bequest something that makes us feel, although he has gone away.

Art is seductive. Entrancing. It, like writing, or music, or dance has the power to make you feel. Art is cheeky, subversive, conveys meaning, it’s political, apolitical, respectful, irreverent, it is the collective subconscious. Art is philosophy, art is protest. According to Kandinsky there is an inner resonance, to quote from his wikipedia page:

Colours on the painter’s palette evoke a double effect: a purely physical effect on the eye which is charmed by the beauty of colours, similar to the joyful impression when we eat a delicacy. This effect can be much deeper, however, causing a vibration of the soul or an “inner resonance”—a spiritual effect in which the colour touches the soul itself.[23]

“Inner necessity” is, for Kandinsky, the principle of art and the foundation of forms and the harmony of colours. He defines it as the principle of efficient contact of the form with the human soul.[24] Every form is the delimitation of a surface by another one; it possesses an inner content, the effect it produces on one who looks at it attentively.[25] This inner necessity is the right of the artist to unlimited freedom, but this freedom becomes licence if it is not founded on such a necessity.[26] Art is born from the inner necessity of the artist in an enigmatic, mystical way through which it acquires an autonomous life; it becomes an independent subject, animated by a spiritual breath.[27]

23. Kandinsky, Du spirituel dans l’art, éd. Denoël, 1989, pp. 105-107
24. Kandinsky, Du spirituel dans l’art, éd. Denoël, 1989, p. 112 et 118
25. Kandinsky, Du spirituel dans l’art, éd. Denoël, 1989, p. 118
26. Kandinsky, Du spirituel dans l’art, éd. Denoël, 1989, p. 199
27. Kandinsky, Du spirituel dans l’art, éd. Denoël, 1989, p. 197

In fact I attended a talk at the LA Art Show where MOCA Director Phillipe Vergne discussed Jeff Koons’ famous balloon dogs. He said part of Koons’ intent in creating the balloon dogs is not to capture something so mundane as a relic of a child’s birthday party, but that the balloons themselves are made using air, which contains the magic, the very spark of life.

That time I saw one in the wild in San Francisco the day after Christmas

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That magic, that electricity is something we should embrace in each other. Locally. Spiritually. Ethereally.

It doesn’t meant the artist must belong to you. That you should micromanage things until you choke the very magic out of them.

More art in #2016 #matisse

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L’artiste doit apporter toute son énergie, sa sincérité et la modestie la plus grande pour écarter pendant son travail les vieux clichés qui viennent si facilement à sa main et peuvent étouffer la petite fleur qui ne vient elle, jamais telle qu’on l’attend.

The artist must bring all his energy, his sincerity and the greatest modesty to remove during his work the old clichés that come so easily to his hand and can stifle the little flower that never comes, waits.

Henri Matisse, Écrits et propos sur l’art

But, for a time, you can share that energy, feel that feeling that the artist intended. Much like we don’t truly own the earth, but we have that spark, and we belong to it. Be that person who makes people feel. Step into your darkness and your fear and learn how to sit with it. How do you paint the essence and capture the energy of your subjects? How do you express intent and being and the magic of life? That moment in time is just on loan, for us to borrow. But we should be happy when we borrow it, when it is our turn. Cherish it for the gift that it is.

Si, sur une toile blanche, je disperse des sensations de bleu, de vert, de rouge, à mesure que j’ajoute des touches, chacune de celles que j’ai posées antérieurement perd de son importance. J’ai à peindre un intérieur : j’ai devant moi une armoire, elle me donne une sensation de rouge bien vivant, et je pose un rouge qui me satisfait. Un rapport s’établit de ce rouge au blanc de la toile. Que je pose à côté un vert, que je rende le parquet par un jaune, et il y aura encore, entre ce vert ou ce jaune et le blanc de la toile des rapports qui me satisferont. Mais ces différents tons se diminuent mutuellement Il faut que les signes divers que j’emploie soient équilibrés de telle sorte qu’ils ne se détruisent pas les uns les autres. Pour cela, je dois mettre de l’ordre dans mes idées, la relation entre les tons s’établira de telle sorte qu’elle les soutiendra au lieu de les abattre. Une nouvelle combinaison de couleurs succédera à la première et donnera la totalité de ma représentation. Je suis obligé de transposer, et c’est pour cela qu’on se figure que mon tableau a totalement changé lorsque, après des modifications successives, le rouge y a remplacé le vert comme dominante. Il ne m’est pas possible de copier servilement la nature, que je suis forcé d’interpréter et de soumettre à l’esprit du tableau. Tous mes rapports de tons trouvés, il doit en résulter un accord de couleurs vivant, une harmonie analogue à celle d’une composition musicale

If, on a white canvas, I disperse sensations of blue, green, red, as I add touches, each of those I have previously laid down loses its importance. I have to paint an interior: I have a cabinet in front of me, it gives me a feeling of living red, and I put a red that satisfies me. A relation is established from this red to the white of the canvas. That I put a green on the side, that I turn the parquet into a yellow, and there will still be between these green or yellow and the white of the canvas the reports that will satisfy me. But these different tones diminish each other. The various signs I use must be balanced in such a way that they do not destroy each other. To do this, I must put my ideas in order, the relationship between the tones will be established in such a way that it will support them instead of defeating them. A new combination of colors will succeed the first and give the whole of my representation. I am obliged to transpose, and that is why we imagine that my picture has completely changed when, after successive modifications, red has replaced green as dominant. It is impossible for me to slavishly copy nature, which I am forced to interpret and submit to the spirit of the picture. All my relations of tones found, it must result in a tuning of living colors, a harmony analogous to that of a musical composition.


Look at this almost married bitch @puffmunch

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To Andria, I’m so glad to count you among my dearest friends. May you and Todd have every happiness in your new life, together.

Buy art consume art commission art love art be art breathe art. Art.

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Art carries so much meaning for me. I hope that this painting captures one important moment for the two of you. We are all made up of strokes of the stories of our lives, it shapes us and shapes what we create today. Looking through the lens of life, I love you and Todd very much and I am so happy that you have joined your lives together. May you make much art together, friend.

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The past several months, in photos

Catching air

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Happy Valentine's Day ? #knittersofinstagram #knitting #yarn

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My baby boo boo kitty

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My oldest boo boo kitty

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Making plans

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How we roll #aikido

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Time to dust them off

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I like this doctor's office

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Good mail day

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Hanging with my lady

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Business meeting! @yarnovertruck @mdmpls @barbracabliss

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Taichi dinner with @lbufogirl!

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Car knitting

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Happy lunar new year #luckycat

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That’s it! Bye now!

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On the day of my sorrow

I think ahead to the time when I won’t have my mother and I won’t have my father and I feel a deep sorrow. I can try, with flowery language to express it, but I can not. Losing my father was a hard thing, but not unexpected. Losing my mother is expected, but also a hard thing.

I think of all the things over the years that I resented in my mother, and then, I look deeply at myself and see I am like her. I am her. But I am also not her.

The single minded focus. Determination. Stubbornness. Not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. But my choices of how to apply those qualities are different because I am different. And I have made different choices. Maybe not better. But different. My own.

Like my own children. Maybe one day my daughter will struggle when I am beholden and hidden in the inevitable arms of old age and wonder at our life together and resent the mistakes I have made. And my humanness. And to her I would say, I was alive, I was real. I made my mistakes. I made you. And I love you. Please forgive me for my humanness. I can not take it away. I won’t take it away. I want to feel. I want to touch. I want to sense and taste. Don’t lock yourself in a tower of what you think you are supposed to do and neglect to be alive. Resent me, resent my choices, but make your own. And own them. And grow. Grow into the life you’ve been given. That I’ve given you. I loved you into existence, from the deep beating in my heart.

And in the winter evening of my mother’s life I want to understand her, to forgive her. To help her although I feel unable to do so. She said recently sometimes she’s happier in her dreams. Then she followed up with, “but that’s not reality.” Then she said some people grow old and question why they had children at all.

She had different choices to make then, then now. She had different responsibilities then, then now. This time left between us, is like a pregnant pause. Filled with words left unsaid. But maybe she thinks, like I do, I hope my daughter will forgive me for being human. And sometimes inhabiting the space of being unloveable, because I gave her the gift of life, and all the magic it entails, from the deepness in my heart.

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Letting go

There comes a time when you come to the horrible, sinking realization that your parents are fallible. Even when you grow up as the kid of weird 1970s doomsday hippies, that the inevitable does eventually reach it’s logical conclusion. That all those times where your own parents said the end was coming and it never did, and you thought, we are just infallible and we will never die. That is a falsehood. And then you find yourself as a byproduct of a traumatic childhood, suddenly shouldered with the responsibility of caring for the person who told you all those times, the end was coming and it never did. That you have some choices.

In therapy I learned that the usual choice in my situation was to abandon the parent that caused so much suffering.

But I couldn’t do that.

So instead I’ve spent the past seven months on many many airplane rides and many car rentals and many many hours spent together, struggling with acceptance, that there is more math behind her than there is ahead of her. And I’m able to offer forgiveness and help her. But it’s cyclical. Sometimes I’m okay with it, the fact that death robs us all of our parents, no matter how perfect they were or weren’t and my forgiveness of my imperfect childhood. And sometimes I’m full of anger and hurt and betrayal that the one person on earth who was supposed to teach me mothering, didn’t. That the strong, invincible woman in my life that physically intimidated me and her other children, that that strength declines, erodes. And that despite all the times she wasn’t perfect, that she was breakable, human, flawed, and yet still my mother, I steadfastly don’t want her to go. I want to be locked eternally at odds with her, rebuked and sanctioned by her physical strength as the weaker one.

But no one can remain the ill-treated child forever. Even if that position feels warm and as comfortable and familiar as well worn leather.

In a way our roles have reversed and somehow I am the strong one now. And I look back at all the time over the past seven months, and all the varied things I did, searching for understanding. And acceptance. That’s a lot of history between now and then. Not as much history as between my mother and myself but a lot even so. Eventually, after many months I opted not to slide so easily back into our predefined roles. Trying to view my mother and myself with compassion. Instead of anxiety, worry and fear.

Sometimes I look at my empty hands. Sometimes I transform my empty hands with knitting. Or my phone, when I call her. When I write out her bills and go through her papers to help her maintain the lifestyle she wants. Or hold her arm as I take her to lunch and hug her. And sometimes I transform my empty hands and heart with wine. Or martial arts. Or the warm bodies of my children who I hold close, and look deeply into their eyes, searching for contentment and happiness, hoping to hold onto it for myself, greedy. In a way I want to hold onto all the good things in life that way. Clenching them with white knuckles. But that’s not the timing, pacing, and reality of the universe. So I take some deep breaths and tell myself it’s okay to let go. And sometimes, it is. Even with all that’s passed between us. I don’t have to control it or make it perfect in the eyes of others. Some days I can just accept it as it is and continue doing the best I can. Making my new mistakes and going my own way. Looking forward and looking back, and finally downward at my empty hands.

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multidimensional me

That thing where you read some Roxanne Gay and she talks about how we as a society don’t allow women to be unlikeable, multidimensional human beings. In films. In books. In porn. In art. But no one is just any one thing. We don’t fit into boxes. I’ve never fit into any box. My children will certainly never fit into any one box. My mother and father didn’t have any boxes.

Also, that thing where you realize your parent, your mother, knocked down from her pedestal, is human. After many years of anger and resentment. One day you simply realize. She is a person. She made her mistakes. And she’s entitled to do so. The world keeps turning. Think of all the artists and people who fucked up yet also did something really great that deeply touched us all. They had someone at home, and maybe they didn’t do it all right either.

My mom put herself around people and in situations where women weren’t equal. Yet she worked to take care of her family when her husband could not. The messages all around us were, cover yourself, don’t attract attention to yourself, follow the rules. And she was able to disregard it all. I’m very grateful for that. I’m grateful for the times we went outside for long walks and she knew all the names of the plants and how she was never afraid of snakes. The time she took me to see Halley’s comet. Her love for geology and astronomy, and birds. How we would watch star trek together. All of these things were subversive to her sex and her station. And yet she did it anyway. I’m grateful for how she said one thing but did something else, and how that something else shaped me into the person I became.

I think of how I struggled to break out of the box and the role of someone’s mother. And even more confining, the mother of someone with special needs. And most difficult of all, how I struggled to change my life, upending it, rending and cutting and setting fire to my sense of security and my perceived place in the world, to search for my own happiness. We still have human needs and desires and all of the other experiences and wants of a person.

I think of my mother and my father and their struggles and all the things they did and decisions they made that I didn’t agree with, and the things they did that caused me hurt. And finally after 40 years of wondering why, maybe I’m done with that. I can just say, they were human beings, making the decisions they needed to make at that time in their lives. They were multidimensional and fucked up and complex and undefined. And maybe, maybe that’s okay.

When I look in my heart and feel good about the lives of my children, or I do something for myself that feels good. Yes, I created my current life and my trajectory, but that wouldn’t have been possible without my parents. They breathed that magic of life into my body, and despite all else, I’m here and alive and happy because of that act.

Alan Watts says in one of his books that the purpose of life is simply for the universe to see itself. And the full realm of human behavior is life, death, good, bad, hurt, pleasure, all of that existence is legitimate because that’s what it means to be alive. So, perhaps even when it hurts others or is unlikeable or you can’t understand it, it’s okay to be multidimensional. Those dualities of good and bad in people that we can’t seem to understand, maybe you just have to suck it up and accept it because it’s part of being alive.

Acceptance feels like a fair trade off for being alive, if you ask me.

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Happy dreaming

I found myself with a seat at the hotel bar after the Women’s March on Washington, surrounded by three fellow WVU alumni. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go when I said where I had been the entire day. Much to my relief my answer, “I’ve been at the Women’s March on Washington” was met with warm smiles and questions about how it went. Kind of reminiscent of how attending WVU was my personal salvation. On my roughest, toughest, hardest days in California I would go to sleep at night covered in hives from stress and dream of being in my small apartment in Morgantown, working hard and feeling happy. I would wake up calmer. Living in West Virginia changed everything for me.

Jessica Diamond Film Show, reminding myself of my roots #mastersinphysics

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My decision to study physics was the ultimate rebellion from an upbringing based on feelings, not facts. I was constantly exposed to the idea that the end of the world was imminent but somehow that date was always changing, that the ground beneath our feet was solid as so many bits of sand. My mother was always preparing for the end of the world. I remember the first incident, when I was four, which coincided with my father’s first nervous breakdown. There was never any reason or logic to it, she simply couldn’t be dissuaded from her harmful idea. Again and again we would find ourselves around people who deepened her resolve that the demise of earth was coming and she had better be prepared with 50 pound sacks of rice, expensive products only available to the select rapture-worthy, and a 22 that would maybe maim a squirrel and even then only if you shot it in the eye.

Science and fact was a slap in the face for her, I presume. She was not impressed or assuaged with my choice of profession. I fled from places and spaces where I was forced to pretend to speak in tongues, I fled from that time my mom sold the family home to buy up sacks of flour and rice and moved into a sketchy ramshackle home, owned by even sketchier people who knew Pat Buchannon. I remember standing in the garage there, at the dilapidated home, finding a photo of the home owners with Pat thinking, these people are really weird. This is so weird. I fled from my sister, angrily coming in to my work in Virginia, spouting off to my coworkers that West Virginia was a terrible mistake. For some reason she felt I would be better off at MIT. Which is a lovely, kind thing for her to have thought, that I was smart enough and mentally tough enough to be at such an institution. West Virginia University is THE state school. I was surrounded by great minds, taught by professors from every ivy league school. One of my classmates won the physics prize for the ENTIRE COUNTRY of Serbia when he was in the sixth grade. I was dwarfed by greatness there. I worked three jobs to pay rent and eat and learn there. Taking a job at McDonalds one semester, working there 40 hours a week so I would have one guaranteed meal each day. Working so hard and so long and getting the same grades in physics as everyone else. I’m proud of that.

The professors would say things like, “I can’t write you a letter of recommendation because you’re only in the top third of the class” in a field of 200 students. They would say “Stop working, you’re only going to hurt yourself.” But if I didn’t work, I didn’t eat, nor have a place to live. The students would say, “why don’t you just quit working so you can only go to school” or “how come your parents don’t just pay for your college” or “why can’t you give $20 for a going away gift for this professor.” Money was so tight that an extra $8 expense could throw me into ruin. I parked my car and canceled my insurance and walked everywhere for a full year. Including a many-stories-tall staircase cut into the mountainside with temps outside at negative five degrees. I had roommate after roommate, and a couple precious semesters where I had my apartment to myself. Sometimes I would have to pay my rent late, and I would tell my landlord with my deepest apologies. He was understanding of my situation, for which I’m very thankful. He knew I was working hard. That was a kindness I’ll never forget.

What possessed me to work so hard? A life of being in spaces where the world was going to end. A life of being in places where I feared my mother would try and marry me off to one terrible, ill-suited angry and controlling man after another. Where I was forced to wear a skirt down to my ankles and was rebuked for wearing makeup and earrings. Where the only opinion that mattered was hers, or the people she had thrown herself in with, this time.

She and Dad would visit my precious apartment and passive aggressively leave books about the debate between creationism and science. I would beg her “please do not spend your money on these books” but those pleas fell on deaf ears. Most of the professors were avowed christians rendering her argument invalid. Not that it mattered anyway to this atheist. How many times can you hear ‘the world is ending in 6 weeks’ before you don’t believe in empty words anymore, or faith, or god. How do you trust a parent, who tells you they hold the keys to your life or death, over and over until you flee at 17. How do you accept that helplessness to cruelty, that inability to steer your life in whatever direction you please, to do what you wish?

For me, the seeds of my rebellion started in the second grade. I was placed in a summer program taught by a wonderful woman who changed my life by teaching me computer programming on a TRS 80, put a camera into my hands, and had a beautiful, polished loom with as many pedals as a church pipe organ that she let us children work. Soon after that summer I began reading every book I could get my hands on, and my reading choices went uncensored, thanks to my father. These experiences gave me resilience, they laid the foundation to what I love to do most in life. Creation, and the search for truth and beauty. That next summer a close relative put a camera in my hands and my brother came to visit, exposing me to art on a level few get to experience.

Those experiences, those adults who cared enough to show me my escape route from religion and dysfunctional upbringing, they changed me, they shaped me. They gave me my own voice. So when the time came, I left my family behind, my upbringing behind, and I moved to Morgantown to attend WVU and study numbers, and figures, and facts in my search for a higher power. Physics was my personal endeavor to find god. I was not successful. My search included high pressure criticism, the expectation to perform, the need to work to provide for myself, meaning less time to study. It built my character, it built my strength, it shaped my anxiety. And, to be frank and honest, when I got my first B in a course, I gave up the need to be perfect. I probably worked less hard than I needed to, because the shining ideal of my perfection developed a patina and had a bad attitude. When I learned that all of Quantum Mechanics was based on an approximation of the hydrogen atom, I wanted to take to my bed for a week. That answers are something you approached with sequences and series of data and calculations to get closer and closer to an answer, and that sometimes there was more than one answer, that did not appeal to my idealistic view of “how everything should be.” That people could use computers to work calculus problems that are so tough I wanted to cry, that those problems could be solved literally in one instant. That people cheated and looked up answers on the internet, just like in real life. That groups of foreign nationals worked together to do homework so everyone got their answers perfect, except for you, who did your homework by yourself, as specified and you got a bad grade. Then the lens of disillusionment became scratched and worn, it was almost like being in physics was like you were living your life, day by day, just like everyone else. With the same damn problems as everyone else. Like there was no escaping the realities of life. When I heard men say things like “women just aren’t genetically meant to do physics.” It felt a lot like “women should wear skirts that cover their ankles and shouldn’t wear makeup or earrings.” Funny how real life finds a way to creep in, even when you’re fooling yourself with the idea of what is the pursuit of perfection. How there isn’t one real path to solving every problem. Personal, interpersonal, and mathematical. I began to sense that there just isn’t a perfect anything to solve anything.

So I specialized in sensing equipment to see if I couldn’t get close to some answers. For my undergraduate senior project I used a 14″ Celestron scope with a ccd camera slapped on the end which I manually adjusted to half second of arc to study the spectra of 7 different stars. For graduate school I used an atomic force microscope to study proteins in a fluid environment. Both pieces of equipment divvied up data in to buckets, kind of like how a camera has millions of tiny buckets of light. It’s no coincidence that I used types of cameras for my undergraduate and graduate work because I had been accustomed to them since the age of 7. I used a camera to see the world at that instant in time, like I almost always have, kind of like how I’ve always used writing to see inside myself. Sometimes I look at old photos of myself and I can see what I couldn’t see then, and that’s how I was feeling at the time. The chaos of my spiritual upbringing had me caring for everyone else’s needs and neglecting my own. Even in my time in physics, the woman becomes the group mom. But fiber saved me. Photography saved me. Programming saved me. These seeds planted when I was only 7, they saved me from a life of dysfunction, unhappiness, and fear and shame passed down in my family. Somehow, through all of it, I saved myself.

Finally I can look in the mirror and in a photograph and see how I’m feeling right now. Or I can ask myself how I’m feeling and get a precise answer. Not something approaching an answer or an approximation of an answer. A discrete, actual answer. These dreams I have, where I’m in Morgantown, unpacking the hurts of the past, working my ass off, leaving perfection behind, accepting my realities, these are my dreams of happiness. I haltingly play the piano in these dreams. I stretch out the quilt that is my life and look at the pieces. I look out the window and assess the mountains. I look at the small place that is my very own and I feel content, relaxed, at ease, even though it was a time where I worked harder than I ever had to before. Those difficult and uncertain times, upon reflection, were challenging and beautiful and happy, and that’s why I go there in my dreams.

Got my hat on, I'm marching ??????

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But today, finally, after working so hard on myself, learning to take care of my own needs before I take care of everyone else, and even with all of the huge, troubling things we have to unpack to deal with in our current reality, I can look at myself, awake, and sense that I’m happy NOW even though I must work really hard and have a lot on my plate and go through the same shit everyone else is going through. And I don’t have to wait for the refuge of sleep to sense and feel it. And I am thankful. For all of it.

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