Thursday, July 2, 2020

Mind Games

"The energy that was buried with the rise of the Christian nations must come back into the world; nothing can prevent it. Many of us, I think, both long to see this happen and are terrified of it, for though this transformation contains the hope of liberation, it also imposes a necessity for great change. 
I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation." 
 James Baldwin, 1962. (From a Letter From a Region in My Mind) 

An Ikea Dresser

Begin by envisioning something you have worked on. A paper you wrote, a recipe you were following, a painting or drawing, a piece of Ikea furniture you put together, maybe some computer code, anything that requires sewing. Fill in the blank if your interests are less crafty.

What happens when you make a mistake while building something? You can't find a source for one of the main arguments in your paper. You sewed on a sleeve inside out. You put the bottom panel of the dresser drawers in upside down and now the screw holes don't line up. You realize you left out the eggs when the cake is already in the oven.

Some things are ruined, some things can be fixed. If you can fix it - let's use the Ikea furniture example - it will require dismantling part of what you've built in order to correct the mistake. Multiple parts must shift so that one part can be changed.

What happens when we want to or have to change our ideas? Our beliefs and our perception of the world and our systems for processing information are like the dresser components that go together to shape who we are and how we interact in the world. In this analogy, we are Ikea dressers. It requires a partial dismantling of self to flip the drawer bottoms into the correct position. It is perilous, destabilizing work when the structural integrity of the dresser - your self - is at stake. Sometimes we decide we can live with the drawer bottoms in upside down. But maybe after you've been shoving clothes in for a few months, they start to sag, and the left side of the center drawer keeps popping out because there's no screw in there. If you want the dresser to work better, you have to put in the work to fix it, which will require some destruction in the process.

It's hard work to transcend beliefs you've held for a long time. Things we believe over a long period of time can become foundational in the way we see the world, and the way we conduct our lives. If those foundational beliefs are questioned, we might question our identity, and that can be very unsettling. It calls everything we've not had to think about (and considered "settled") into question, and that can be overwhelming. It can cause tension in relationships and spaces that view questions as threats.

If you really tackle the question of "Is God good?" you may find that a lot of other beliefs hang in the balance. If you ask new questions about your sexuality, you may find that some of your interaction with the world is called into question too. If you question the narrative of your nationality, you may find yourself adrift in darkened waters. You may also find that people who share in the structure of your foundational beliefs push back when you take a chisel to the pillars.

Questioning our foundational beliefs can also be very freeing. There is space in the way we define ourselves for growth, change, and movement. When I am open to shifting foundational beliefs of my own, I feel the fear and instability of uncertainty, but it also gives me hope that my identity could be freed from entrenched destruction. That the dresser could be put back together, better.

I Believe You

I am comfortable believing that injustice is a footnote in society as I related to it. Well, comfortable enough that I tend not to do the work of deconstructing my foundational beliefs in order to be deeply aware of injustice as a cancer that is gnawing at my neighbor, and it's coming for me. 

How can I stop believing that it's someone else's problem, and a small problem at that? I've been practicing saying, simply, "I believe you." This started with a real person and a real story. Relationship is, for me, a powerful tool in the changing of minds and hearts. I talked with a Black neighbor about her experience in our neighborhood and with the police in her home, with her family. This conversation did not come about through any effort on my part, but because I accidentally came into the position of trying to mitigate professional risk. I was so uncomfortable and ashamed and helpless that I was shaken, and because of that, I believed my neighbor. Despite the fact that I don't understand it and didn't see it with my own eyes, I believed her.

Something about believing without seeing took a sledgehammer to the Ikea dresser, so to speak. I can't stop saying, "I believe you", and it changes everything. I recall Romans 12:2, "but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." This transformation isn't so much about information as it is about posture. A posture of belief becomes a compulsion to help. To love. And I know that other people can sense the difference between an "I believe you" and a "whatever you say" in my mind. One leads to sisterhood, and the other does not.

James Baldwin wrote, "one can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving."

Belief isn't as simple as we sometimes make it out to be. It's typically not "like flipping a switch." Nothing about choosing to dismantle foundational beliefs is simple. It requires risking ourselves. However, to build the practice and posture of "I believe you" into our relationships with people and alternate realities (meaning how other people experience a system differently than we experience it), it's helpful to make a distinction between "I believe you" and "I agree with you."

We are so aware of what we don't agree with. If you don't already have training in agreement wars from your spiritual or racial background, you've probably experienced it on the internet. There are times when disagreement is not only okay, but imperative. But the level of things that I've been taught to disagree with sews a minefield between "the world" (anyone who doesn't already live according to extremely specific interpretations of scripture) and Jesus. You don't have to agree with everyone you believe. You also don't have to say that you don't agree.

Saying (or posturing), "I believe you", removes the internal conflict over looking like I might be "supporting things I don't agree with". This is an important thing to understand if you, like me, have the teaching or the urge to add, "I'm not sure I agree" to interacting with people who act in ways that are outside of the foundations of our moral fabric. In my religious background (which I distinguish from my beliefs today, but won't elaborate on here), anything having to do with gender or baby making falls into this category. Sex before marriage? Disagree. Sex between the same gender? Disagree. Abortion? Disagree. Police as a corrupt institution? Disagree.

As James Baldwin put it, Christianity as we typically see it playing out "is more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, to which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness." 

"I agree (or disagree)" is about ideas. "I believe you (or don't believe you)" is about people. Agreeing is nice, but it's not paramount. I doubt Jesus agrees with me on everything. But I feel his love for me in spite of our differences of opinion.

You were born gay? I believe you. You were born one gender but you now identify as another? I believe you. I hurt you? I believe you. The police don't see you as human? I believe you. Even, even, You're not a racist? I believe you.

In all of these examples, whether or not I agree with someone else's experience or choice makes no difference to them. The only thing that is served by voicing my agreement (or lack there of) is my own voice. Does me not believing that the police are unjust toward you make you feel better treated by police? No it does not. Even if I could interpret your experience differently than you have, it doesn't help you for me to explain what I think you really experienced or what you really meant.

In the past when I've felt wronged (occasionally due to my gender), it would have been great to hear, "I believe you" instead of, "actually, that's not what happened." Whether or not anyone could "prove" my experience one way or another. There's not much that we get to prove in this life, and the things we think we've proven aren't proof to everyone. That's why belief is important, and belief is a choice.

Posturing "I believe you" is important to me because it leads to love. Disagreement is often my ticket to exclusion. I can easily dismiss people experiencing something I don't believe is real. After all, their refusal to see my truth is their problem, now that I've presented them with my disagreement. 

To say, instead, "I believe you" (internally: "even if I disagree"), becomes an I love you. It becomes, "I see what you are saying, and I will help you and be helped by you." 1 Corinthians 13:7 is often read as "Love never loses faith", but the ESV translates it, "Love believes all things." The agreement clause of my structural identity has so often pulled me out of situations before I really listened. And that's one way that we find ourselves in this position, as white people, as a church, where we're shocked by reality because we didn't see it before.


What if you don't believe someone? That's real, and it should be considered a valid scenario.
Maybe we can practice, first, "I can suspend my belief so that I can hear you".

We know that we can't believe everything we see or read. Our impulse is to distrust what we view as outrageous. We also seem to distrust sources that we believe have "an agenda" (maybe we can unpack that another time). We also know that we lean toward believing things that confirm what we already believe. We can go a long time relatively unhindered by that one corner of the drawer bottom popping out occasionally. After all, it still holds most of the clothing.

What does it mean to suspend belief? One definition is, "an intentional avoidance of critical thinking or logic in examining something surreal." 

I say this gently to us, to myself: If it feels like seeing life through Black eyes requires us to suspend belief, perhaps we're not all wrong. It's hard to start believing something that doesn't seem logical to us out of sheer will. I think it is only surreal and illogical to us because we have not believed or experienced it before. Isn't not believing also a suspension of belief? Isn't a refusal to engage in dismantling systems of oppression with our own bodies and a refusal to believe that the police, as a system, are a destructive force an intentional avoidance of critical thinking?

How could something so horrifying - so out there - as centuries of targeted murder in which the murderers are called heroes, be real? If we believe it, what does that mean about us and about other people? What does it mean that we've been able to avoid that view on reality?

Maybe it's not out there, though. Maybe many, many people have said it. Maybe they've been saying it for generations. Maybe I view systemic oppression and my body as the fabric of that system as a surrealist exaggeration because believing it would require a seismic shift in my foundation, not because it's not believable.

If you are a Christian, you already believe something that you can't prove. We don't believe because we are ignorant, but because we've made a choice and continue making that choice. How can we choose not to believe something that we can see, then? We only choose not to believe it if we don't see it. And we can only avoid seeing it if we keep saying we don't believe.

How do you believe something if you have no evidence? Dismantling the dresser in order to repair it requires choice. I am making the choice to believe something new or different primarily through an act of will, and now I am on a quest to gather the evidence to repair my foundations around these altered pillars. Isn't that convenient, you might ask? Yes it is. But the things I believe already are no different. I chose or was handed the other foundational beliefs I already operate under a long time ago, and refusal to shift those beliefs is nothing more than a continual gathering of evidence supporting what I already believed and refuting or ignoring what I did not believe.

For example, it is at some risk to myself (at least any notion of being considered sane within the institutions that I generally run in) that I take a vocal stance on the dismantling of the police as we know them in the United States. I've had experiences with police that amount to personal evidence both that I benefit (not just generally, but specifically) from police and that police are a localized arm of the military, sanctioned by the state to terrorize civilians. Remember, you don't have to agree with me. But you can believe me, if you choose to.

Prior to the last month or two, my beliefs and opinions and feelings toward police in America were maybe slightly less trustful than that of the average white women (due in large part to my knowledge and experience of police in China and Thailand) but in general they were not an institution I'd given much attention to as a whole. Because doing so affected me very little.

In short, while it is a choice, it costs me very little to believe my neighbor suffers unjustly at the hands of police who then face no repercussions whatsoever. Believing that is supported by an abundance of other material which suddenly seems remarkably large to have ever been disregarded by me before. I believe that not every police officer is corrupt and oppressive, but that's a separate conversation. I do believe the police system to be irreconcilably flawed, however, and I believe that in part because my sisters and brothers tell me so. And I believe them.

My old belief served me only passively, and I have no particular attachment to it. My new belief does little to disadvantage me, and I hope everything to affirm my neighbor, both my literal neighbor and my neighbors at large. I have been safe from the police because I have virtually no contact with them. That alone is privilege, and not much of a platform from which to shout that the police are interested in my well-being. I do, however, have the category for lack of safety if I were to challenge police authority, including the authority to terrorize. I believe that injustice toward someone removed from me that goes unchallenged by me is merely an injustice that has not reached me yet.

If we can not repair our beliefs for someone else's sake, we can do it selfishly, to save ourselves.

I don't know if any of this makes any sense to anyone but me. This is a tutorial on how I change my own mind, after all. It may seem as if I'm engaged in extreme mental gymnastics in order to come to radical new conclusions. And that is my point precisely. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Look With Your Eyes: Bernard Evein and Jacques Demy

I've been gobbling up movies from the Criterion Collection, and while I'm hardly the first or last to admire the aesthetic of Jacques Demy's films (so far I've watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort), I haven't seen much praise or exploration of the set and production designer, Bernard Evein, who seems to have brought much of Demy's dream world to life. 

It's maddeningly difficult to find decent photos of their work, partly (I think) because film was marketed differently in the 60s, partly because most blogs about their works are in French, and partly because the set isn't usually the focus of admiration for the films. 

I particularly want to see more of the set from The Model Shop (1969), below. There are some fantastic details from clips I've watched, but hardly any stills. You can see how The Model Shop and The Umbrellas have a similar saturated color pallet. The Young Girls is referred to by Evein as having a "pastel" pallet, but it's still pretty eye-popping. 

My favorite wall treatments from the Umbrellas of Cherbourg are the oranges (see several photos down, though the color isn't great in the photo I chose) and the metallic purple seen here. Of course I love the garish pink-orange and pink-red combos they use too.

In 2013, there was an exhibit in Paris called "The World of of Jaques Demy" that featured costumes from his films and some of the wallpapers, which I understand were often hand-painted into real homes by Bernard Evein, specifically to play well off the costumes.  

I watched a short documentary interviewing Bernard Evein as he worked on the set of The Young Girls of Rochefort. One remarkable thing about the sets of these movies is that they don't film in a studio but actually created apartments and whole shops for their set within real towns. They're painting the outside of the public buildings! There's a funny section in the documentary where they interview the mayor of Rochefort to ask how the film set has affected the town, and he says he's memorized most of the songs from hearing the cast practice in the city hall building. Evein and his team also struggle with how to control the natural lighting for their purposes and if you watch the documentary before watching the Young Girls, it's fun to note the small details that Evein used to adjust lighting and other details to his vision. I'm especially attached to the pink window frames and matching molding within the sister's apartment. 

You can tell from the behind the scenes footage (the documentary) that Catherine Deneuve is a bit of a diva. The other main actress in the film, Françoise Dorléac, is Deneuve's actual older sister, who died in a car crash soon after the making of the the Young Girls. In the documentary she tells Catherine to stop making a scene about her dress not fitting properly. 

Here is one of Evein's lovely illustrations that was the concept art for a room in the Young Girls. You can see a woman in the documentary painting that piece that's on the left wall in the sketch. I wonder what happened to their sets afterwards?! Did people live in or work out of the sets they built directly into a town?

The cafe in the town square from the Young Girls is amazing. I want the brass-glass-bubble wall SO much, and I really hope that it went into some design-lover's apartment after the movie was finished filming. The patio furniture (teal lucite!!!) from the cafe kills me, you can see it in the background of the photo of the carnies dancing (get a load of those boots, too). 

If you like the world of Demy and Evein then you should just watch the movies for yourself, I suppose! The costumes are fun (particularly the hats in the Young Girls) and I appreciate that the girls are all in kitten heels, but the costumes pale in comparison to the sets, in my opinion. Even so, I had to mention the obnoxious ex-boyfriend's several mega velvet suits with contrasting shirts and ribbon bow ties and these under-reported sequin tops with white jeans. 

But wait, there's MORE! The movie posters that were used to promote the films are fantastic. Here are some from Romania, Japan, and Russia. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Observations From Inside

I feel a doll sized effigy of myself padding around in the room of my chest.
Wall to wall to wall to wall to wall.

Mourning doves fly back and forth between the swollen trees outside. One flutters to perch. Soon, the other comes to join it. They sit for a while. The first is restless, relocates. Soon the second follows. Repeat.

You want to be alone, but when you imagine being truly alone, you thank the Stars for the dove that won't leave you be.

Why is isolation at home hard, I think to myself? It's not very different than my regular life, in ways. I needed the break and the sleep. My natural sleep pattern is unveiled as considerably different than the one I've inhabited for years now.

When I look outside, the shine of the sun can seem wretched. I know I'm not the only one. When I went outside to be in the sun once, it made my throat tight for hours, I don't know why.

I keep thinking about what I remember of the accounts of prisoners in solitary confinement. How its inhumane, how it's used as punishment. How prisoners lose their sense of time and reality and sanity.
I'm not in prison. Isn't it strange how much of sanity is just habit? How quickly lack of habit becomes unnerving. How forced relaxation doesn't feel the same as voluntary relaxation. The steps are nearly identical, the dances alien to one another.

I take my wedding ring off. I look at it. I put it back on.

Imagine if you didn't live with your most beloved ones and had to weigh whether it was essential to see them. What kind of love is safe? Killing for love. Imagine it.

When I surrender to the urges of my emotion, I lay on the floor. I used a box of Rice R Roni as a cushion while my husband pet my shoulder. Someone called me tightly wound one time, and I'm still smoldering about it, giving my well grounded excuses and explanations whenever it comes to mind. Imagine me unwound.

(by Sara Hagale @shagey_)

I don't know how to read the curve graph. I haven't really tried and I don't want to you to explain it to me.

I'm biting my tongue at almost every opportunity. I'm trying not to tell my kids to be more quiet. Now and always, because I don't know why quiet has to be so important to me all the time. I don't want that to stick in their minds about me.

I wonder if I'll be different after this. I don't think it's been long enough yet. I think the cement in the me-shaped mold is stiff already. It hurts when the edges are chipped. So far, I still worry that I'm not doing enough. So far, I still want normal (the Before version) life to be slower. This time feels like holding a breath, and when we let it out, it will be a dream soon forgotten. I speak for myself that I know.

How tiresome the encouragement can become. How hollow the jokes. How irksome the "could be worsers", the "check your privilegers". Of course. Of course. Go away. Put your mouth in isolation. Is what you meant to say, "I'm scared too?"

Friday, January 31, 2020

Look With Your Eyes: Sam Szafran

I think about my Instagram scrolling like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, falling a long long way. But I don't feel bad and mindless, I feel good-lost in the beautiful and thoughtful (and sometimes properly mindless) things people create. I find so many artists to love on Instagram.

Months ago, a fashion magazine archivist I follow, Julien Baulu, was at a museum and took photos of some paintings by Sam Szafran. I took a screen shot (as you do), and later got off my phone to get on a computer so that I could keep falling down that particular rabbit burrow. Sam Szafran turns out to be fascinating and a bit difficult to find information about.

Those of you with Central Asia fibers in your beings will recognize right away the components that drew me in. And yet the facts, from what I can discover, are unrelated, in as much as anything on a rather small planet can be.


There's a documentary about his life that is still in peer-review (I know because I tracked down the director on Instagram). Here's some information from the Kickstarter page for the documentary:
"Born in 1934 in Le Marais, the Jewish ghetto in Paris, his father, uncles and aunts all perished in nazi camps. He himself was among the few children to have miraculously survived the Vel d'Hiv Round-up, in which 13,000 French Jews were herded into a cycling stadium. Aged 10 he was arrested again and imprisoned briefly in an internment camp before American troops liberated it. After the war, living down and out on the Left Bank, he overcame a heroin addiction."
He was creating until his death in September of 2019, but he seems little known outside of Paris where his works have almost exclusively been shown. His work is primarily in chalk pastels (his pastel board from his studio appears many times in his work, it often looks like a quilt to me!). I'm also so interested in the limit of his subject matter, primarily his studio, hallways and stairwells, and his plants. Over and over again. And it doesn't get old to look at. I'm enamored with the composition of this blue one.




I especially like looking at the treatment of the floor areas in these works. I have an idea of how he did it, but I don't know for sure. 

I admire artists who dwell on the same scenes endlessly. The work is no less beautiful, but I can not fathom the mental focus. I am not sure if the person in the ikat-looking robe in these pieces is the artist, his wife Lilette, or someone else. 

One of my favorites (above), titled "ATELIER DE RAYMOND MASON, 2004"

Here are some photos of his studio and the scale of his work at a gallery.

Photo by Manolo Mylonas

Photo from here

Here is a photograph of Szafran and his friend, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (well worth his own blog post) taken by Martine Franck in 2003. I love it. Sam owned more than 200 prints of Henri's photos that Henri had given to him, the subjects of the exhibition of Henri's work that the photo below was also displayed at. Knowing about Sam Szafran and his work feels like owning a small and secret glowing treasure. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

My Grandma in a Snowglobe

Written September 2019

Some creatures slowly leave out the hardest parts when they tell stories over time. The memories become artificially sweetened, but it tastes like the real thing. Some are merciless in the retelling, building monsters in the hard drive.

My grandma Patty died in March, so let me retell as I know how.
My memories of her are only sweet, but memory itself is a monster.

I have always relegated "prayer for my ailing grandparent" into the category of least honest prayer requests because everyone has an ailing grandparent and none of the rest of us know those people. Of course God does not scorn the prayers of worried grandchildren, and my rancor in my opinions about the hierarchies of prayers worth praying is part of why I wasn't chosen to succeed God whenever he's dethroned for not answering his texts (heresy).

My grandma loved me and I miss her.
I miss the security of knowing she was near.

I didn't ask anyone to pray that she would recover. The week or two leading up to her death and her death were nearly as smooth as one could hope. Following a day spent with her children, eating and chatting, something in her body broke and she never woke up again until she was ready to go a week and a half later.

It felt better then than it does now. At the time I felt like I'd said a good goodbye and the time with other family members was healthy and appropriately wrenching, but hopeful. I was able to realize things about who she was and what I loved about her in a way that seemed like softly accepting a matter of fact rather than getting swept out to sea. I think that's what it means to say a good goodbye, but I'm not sure because if it is, it's the first time I've done that.

I was even able to see that my grief was less tragedy and more tiredness. In ways that I'm too tired and distracted to fully explore yet, I'm learning that my body does most of the emotional work that my head denies. I respect and resent my body for it.

I didn't finish the first rambling obituary I wrote about my grandma because I knew that times had changed, I had changed, since the way I used to do that for other grandparents. This one is more about me than the others were. Last goodbyes are more about those left behind. Of all people, my grandma will not hold this against me.

I wanted to write down every memory that includes her, but they begin to blur into the mundane, and besides, it's a futile exercise. Even as she deteriorated, over the last few years to be truthful, I tried to reach out the arms of my mind and gather everything I could about her. I created a space sheltered somewhat from my own degrading memory reel to put the things I know about her in a little globe so that I can visit it from time to time. A sort of do this in remembrance of me.

Of course, I know that the more I visit her there, the less she will be herself and the more she will be
a figment of my creation. A photo negative rubbed into oblivion with repeated touching. It's a great frustration of life, but perhaps also a blessing. It's how we become either sweet or merciless retellers of history. Usually I'm very aware of people's faults, but I can't think of anything I didn't like about her.

It was hard because I didn't know her very, very well, and the knowledge that I would never know enough kept me from giving myself wholly to the project. Although I didn't do it very well, it seemed better (and safer) to be with her when I was able than chase her memory before she was even gone.

Even so, I tried to ask her detailed questions when I could, trying to hear stories I hadn't heard before. I asked her about a ring she wore and the vase in her living room and prom dresses. I got her personal notes on the family taco recipe (which is all wrong if you just follow what's written in the original recipe). She would drop alarming tidbits about her life as if they were the simplest details, and I skirted the nagging voice in my head reminding me that those stories would soon be locked out of reach. Of course I know stories die every day. Of course I know it.

In San Diego at my youngest brother's college graduation, we sat on a dizzying ledge above the amphitheater pit, too far away to recognize my brother at all. I bought popcorn that we shared. That weekend, she told me about her dad, one of three brothers. Two died in or as a result of WWI, killing Germans who were less than a generation removed from being their kin. Her father was never deployed, but after the war he found work on a banana boat off the coast of Florida where he learned Spanish from the crew. Later he ended up in El Centro where my grandma grew up an only child in the first integrated class in her school.

(This photograph of her is from March 1958, in Avenal, CA. She was 22.)

In the past few years, she nodded to herself more and more, and it felt like breaking her away from her own thoughts when you spoke to her. My grandpa Ron died in 2012, and her charisma faded noticeably with each time I saw her after his death. They were married for over 50 years. I am relieved that she no longer has to live with him missing from her life. Despite her losses, she was never far from her big, easy smile.

What most struck me as I began to process her being gone was that she made me feel unconditionally loved. It's a thunderbolt the few times in life that you can recognize that feeling. She not only loved me as a granddaughter, but I am convinced I was liked, too. Approval isn't everything, but now I'm realizing how rare it is to feel that someone is truly in your corner. I can not remember her ever speaking a harsh word to me or betraying even a hint of annoyance, and I surely went through many an unflattering phase in her vicinity. I am in awe that someone could leave that sort of feeling as the overarching characteristic of their personality. To me she seemed a selfless giver of love, and if I can ever make someone else feel like that someday... I don't know how to finish that sentence.

My impression is that she made many people feel as if they were her conspiratorial favorite, and not only her family members. More than anyone else I know, she was diligent about maintaining friendships. She traveled to visit people, she kept yearly appointments with friends from when she was in elementary school, she attended every baby shower, piano recital, or important football match for her grand kids, and she was a faithful letter writer. Not only did she keep old bonds strong, she consistently cultivated new ones. She welcomed each new neighbor and babysat if they had young children. She tried new foods as her neighborhood became more ethnically diverse. She kept up with the politics of the countries her friends were from so that she could be more aware of their worlds. The last time I talked to her, she had called me to ask about my experience having my wedding dress made in China because her friend's daughter was thinking about going that route. She never seemed to tire of this level of engagement.

People often seem to get stuck in the social norms of their youth, but she was largely immune to that. Sometimes older people seem to disdain new iterations of political and social correctness, but I never saw her struggling with that because I think that fundamentally, she was kind and cared about people. Not only did she care about you, she was interested in you. Because she cared more for people than circumstances, she didn't seem wrung of compassion in new and surprising chapters of history. I don't know how she did that. Even with her priorities straight, she stayed deeply interested and engaged in current politics. She told me she hoped Millennials could turn this ship around and I said I don't think we can, but I'll carry that baton for her.

She didn't lack fire. She just didn't make her passions about herself, at least not by the time that I was around. She told stories of her own forceful will when she was much younger, demanding that my grandpa go back to school, or leaving their car to walk down the highway alone after they had fought. He spent several hours looking for her. Here, I can't tell if my memory is sweetening her or if my own age now recognizes that sometimes getting out of the car isn't a weakness in character.

My most vivid impressions of her are from times when she took special care to be with just me. She took me to lunch for my birthday one year, I was probably 9. We went to the Oaks mall and ate at the Cheesecake Factory, and then she took me to Claire's and let me pick out several pair of earrings. One pair were silver-colored cats with tails that dangled and the other were flowers made of blazingly blue rhinestones. I hope I still have them somewhere, but I'm afraid to look in case I don't. She was not one beholden to "stuff" (much to my chagrin, at times), so I don't have many heirlooms to remember her by or "big gifts" that I felt obligated to keep. In fact, while this wasn't really of her own volition, she told me several times that her wedding dress was gone because her mother gave it to a cleaning lady.

She did leave me things. Newspaper clippings, personal writings that got lost in a folder between the time I was 10 and now. I will read them closely when I no longer feel the absence of a birthday card from her. She gave me the last newspaper clipping over a year ago, and the fact that I haven't read it yet feels like a continuation of life with her near by. Not reading it is a way of saving the last page of a book I was enjoying too much to want it to be over. I can not say goodbye just once, all at once.

My grandma Patty and me, c. 1991

She hadn't done much to her house since the 80s. That's just the way a Grandma's house should be, because it's always the same. The vent to the drying machine let out right in front of the front door and she always used the same products, so it was a smell I'll always associate with her home. The living room always smelled the same too, but I'm not sure what made the smell. I can tell when I smell it elsewhere, though. I don't think that matters to anyone but me, and I feel myself building snowdrifts in my memory globe out of increasingly unrelated, "unimportant" things. My heart, you are a shaky devil.

My favorite memory of her is from when she was driving me to an art lesson one afternoon, I think it was right after we moved back to the US, so I was probably 16. I grew up on the other side of the world from her, and I felt like I didn't know her very well when we first moved back. I often worried that I was inconveniencing her, which is funny, because if I can think of anything I knew about her that could be considered even a minor flaw, it was that she was maddeningly deferential at times, and it was hard to know whether she was deferring because she truly didn't care about something or because she thought your needs were more important than her own, but was secretly displeased.

We were driving in somewhat awkward silence to this art lesson when we stopped at a red light next to a monster truck blaring rap with the windows down. For as long as I can remember, my grandparents had gold-colored boat-sized sedan cars, always clean inside, always with a box of tissues, always playing classical music. My grandma rolled down her window and cranked up her classical music and howled with laughter the rest of the way to my class. That was so characteristic of her. Gentle and riotous. I think I was embarrassed at the time, but it was truly funny and surprising, and I admired her confidence in herself and her lightheartedness. When I picture her in my mind's eye, at any age, she's always in the spirit of that moment, open-mouth smiling, almost lurching forward full of her own enthusiasm.

She loved music. She had what was - to me - a very "grandma-y" way of humming, where she'd put her hand in the air a bit like a conductor, with several fingers pointed and sort of draw music in the air while worbling "la dee da, hmm hm hm". It was one of those things that only Grandmas in movies do, or Fred Astaire, except she was completely sincere. She loved the performing arts, stale black licorice, Mary Cassatt, Diana of Wales, buttered rolls, steak and red wine, watching My Fair Lady, playing and watching tennis, and watching figure skating. Beside red wine, I enjoyed all of those things together with her. She didn't hold back in times of celebration - eating out, Christmas, laughing.

We tried to get her cooking, but she hated it, and it makes me smile. She was a lifelong learner, but sometimes you just aren't that into some things.

Two years ago for Christmas I gave her Paul Kanathi's book When Breath Becomes Air, and she said it was the best gift she got. I have a copy but I haven't read it yet, I'm sure it will make me cry. I find myself wishing I knew what her favorite flowers were and what her favorite book was. I know she liked roses. She read a great deal, as most wonderful people do.

She was always cheering me on. Telling me I was gifted, born for this, pushing me to go for the things that set me aflame, clipping magazine articles to that affect and giving them to me, emailing me. It's pretty rare (especially for me) to feel like someone's base feeling about you is "proud'. I'm lucky to have a lot of people love me, but you can tell when someone is acutely aware of your faults. My grandma didn't dote, but I never felt my faults around her. That breaks my heart as I realize it, because where am I going to find that again this side of eating buttered rolls with her when my breath becomes air?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019 In Review: Grief and Escapism

At the beginning of 2019 I was feeling emotionally lost and unstable. On a whim, I decided to adopt the "word for the year" exercise and chose "grief", not because I thought this was a great idea, but it almost felt like I couldn't *not* put myself through some exploration of grief for my own health. I did not know how brutal 2019 was going to be. It set me full of holes. I found little rest from tragedy, rage, and wave after wave of change. The motion made me sick. The silver linings I found felt like social or personal expectations more than truth. Rarely could I see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's disorienting to be traveling through the dark for a long, long time.

Pictures in this post are most of the images from my Instagram feed in 2019. 

There are times when I worry that being open about the level of carnage that I feel engulfed in will push people away. I don't usually want to be around people who are constantly in a hole and seemingly refuse to work on a path out. I wish I could be more direct about some of the specifics, but there's so much that isn't my story to tell (yet) and so much that is so far from resolution that it's not yet a story.

I wouldn't choose to go through 2019 again just to experience the growth that it's pushed me toward. I never feel ready to do the work of growing and I would never choose the circumstances by which that work is undertaken. This year will leave scars. I have not learned all the lessons from battles I wished not to be engaged in and wars that I deserted.

This top row of photos is the painting I did this year. It was a liturgical reflection for Easter.

We had 5 deaths in our extended family. We totaled a car. We moved out from my parents house after 5 years there. I started 2 new jobs and quit 2 old jobs.

Two dazzling bright spots in the year were my sister Annelise getting pregnant with her first daughter (due January 2020) and a family trip to New York in May. I loved Manhattan so much. I was incredibly impressed by the the Met museum and was thrilled to see the CAMP costume exhibit. We also saw an amazing show, Octet, that will stick in my mind for a long time. I can't really do it justice in any description, but you can listen to the cast recording (search Dave Malloy) if you're so inclined. It's an exploration of psyche in the digital age. We enjoyed memorable meals at the Clinton Street Baking Company, Uncle Boon's, and Okonomi, among others. I gawked at how well dressed the average person is and how great the stuff that they leave on the curb is. But most of all, being in New York left a heavy impression on me that I am an artist at heart and that I should pursue that. I'm listening.

I had the pleasure of meeting two rad ladies this year, my brother Bradley's girlfriend Kristina and my brother Jonathan's girlfriend Sophie. I feel so lucky when I click with people who come into our family circle. I first met Kristina during our 4th (?) annual Welch siblingcation in San Diego which was short but sweet.

8 of these photos were taken in NYC. 

I spent a lot of time feeling deeply in over my head in 2019 and therefore that I was failing at this, that, and the other thing. But I started going to therapy and have a wonderful, supportive home-church, both of which have helped me immeasurably to feel heard in the midst of being overwhelmed. The experience of being listened to well has also empowered me be more vulnerable about unresolved grief when I'm still in the midst of it, and I think that has allowed me to connect with many people in a way I would not otherwise have been able to do.

I thought I was open and I thought I wasn't [that] afraid of what other people thought of me before, but I've broken away some of my niceness this year in a way that I think is great and healthy. I think I'm more cynical (as if that was even possible) but I'm also aware that that's a very real reaction to some truly abysmal situations instead of "just who I am," and that distinction also feels healthy. I have confidence in allowing myself to feel rotten a lot right now and express that as needed. When I think about my headspace at this time last year, I was suffering from much the same existential anxiety as I have now, but my core feels stronger, even if that's not because I grasped some truth that I didn't have before. I'm proud of the steps in emotional maturity that I've made, rather than being disappointed that I did not reach emotional nirvana.

As 2019 marks the end of a decade (and nearly the end of my 20s), I'm celebrating having tried a lot of things. I've been worried for most of my life that I won't have time to try everything I want to try, I won't find what I love most and get to do it and be good at it, and that my life will fall flat. While I think I've been able to shift my focus to something healthier anyway, I'm also proud of how between last year and this year, my sense of "having tried things" has gone from panic to confidence.

I've built and run a profitable small business, become an expert in [some areas of] children's literature, the postal service, and fashion history. I've been published in print multiple times and I've painted multiple commissions and had my work in a gallery. I've cooked in a restaurant and tutored in two languages. I've been an event coordinator and partnered with multiple faith-based organizations. I worked in quality assurance for a medical device manufacturer and I sold Pampered Chef. I've started a lot of things and quit plenty of things too. I'm going in the 2020s and my 30s with a clearer picture of what I like and what I don't like, what I'm good at and where I need help, and that feels valuable.

Usually I like to review the best media I engaged with within a calendar year, which brings me to the second word that began to stick in my mind toward the end of the year, "escapism." Especially as I wrestled through the holidays, I took refuge in the idea that stories can transport us to other worlds for a while, and that we can even go to new worlds together. I love to share the things that transport me and excite me, especially when I'm not always excited to wake up to a new day in my real life.

I read 15 books this year (which I keep track of on GoodReads) as well as some graphic novels and discovered a good amount of music (MUNA, Luxury, Charly Bliss, Tal Wilkenfield, and Colin Hay got a lot of plays). I didn't watch much TV or many movies, but of what I did see, I loved the shows Killing Eve, Pose, and What We Do in the Shadows. They are all current shows, so I'm eagerly awaiting more of those stories. Besides the play Octect that I mentioned in the section about our New York trip, Jonas and I also got to see Anoushka Shankar perform and it was mesmerizing. Not only was her sitar playing beautiful, but the drummers in her troupe were just beyond. Like Octet, it was an experience that defies my retelling, but that I recall with intense admiration.

Things I wrote about in 2019: the intersection of a conservative church background and modern feminism, an angry psalm, a lament of unseasonably bad weather, a poem about another shooting, a creative manifesto, names of women I admire, and saints of doubt and sorrow.

Review of 2019 goals. Did pretty well on these! 
  • See a therapist. "I'm exhausted and full of trepidation just thinking of everything behind and in front of that resolution, but I just need to take the first step." There was still a lot of pushing that had to happen to get my foot into that door, but I DID IT. 
  • Language learning. In a very small way. I did get to practice Chinese more than usual, and I studied both Arabic and Spanish through an app, but ultimately didn't invest very much into learning any of these 3 languages. 
  • Think about home ownership. We did look into it. We'll be renting for the next several years at least. 
  • Paint. I did one commission this year. 
  • Get a job.  I got several jobs, and I'm grateful for them, but they've also helped me cross some things off the "possible long-term job" list. 
  • Write out a business plan [for my dream job]. I'm not sure what my dream job is anymore... 
  • Find inspiration in hardcover imagery. I did this a bit and I have an impressive reference library, but I'd like to utilize it more. 
  • (2018) See a chiropractor. I was so afraid to do this, but some chronic pain became so bad I was willing to die at the chiropractor's, lol. Getting adjusted made a big difference for about 6 months, and I think the rest of the work is emotional. 
2020 goals:
  • SLOW DOWN. I want to have and make the time to play, engage in my hobbies, explore, entertain, cultivate relationships. I've been too drained and busy and stressed to do those things and I want to fight through the things I *have* to do to get to a place where things I *want* to do are woven in. I want to feel the peace and contentment that comes from not being over-scheduled all the time. 
  • Write a book outline.
  • Build a good credit score. Getting a credit card has been such a huge obstacle for me. 
  • Spend intentional time with each of my boys, not multitasking.
  • Take a digital design class. I doubt this will happen in 2020, but it's a goal to keep in my head.
  • Get a website and a start a mailing list. 

I'm going into this new year and this new decade feeling brave. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Tattoos of the Saints

I don't have any tattoos yet. I always thought that maybe I'd get one to commemorate a tragedy, though I don't think I expected one to happen to me. My last several pieces of writing have explored both a great sea of sorrows I've found myself afloat in and a sand storm of doubt. Neither are fun, but I've been through the sandstorms before and I know that they come and go. I think the sea goes on forever, but sometimes the water is deeper, sometimes more shallow. Sometimes there are sandbars. 

I've been building these designs in my head, one for sorrow, one for doubt. Part of me is hesitant to get these tattoos because what if I have the opportunity to come out of sorrow and doubt sometimes and don't want a constant reminder of them? Maybe I'll balance it out with a sibling tattoo of the Rat King (or Queen) to lighten the mood? 

I'm accustomed to doubting, if not comfortable with it. 
My faith feels like something I can't shake in spite of my best efforts at times. 
I have never found my faith to be something very compelling to share because I don't know why I have it or why someone else would want it. 

Recently our church family was discussing this and how several of us who grew up with very rigid parameters of what is right and wrong within faith struggle to step over the hurdles of the twisted parts of our faith culture and focus on the person of Jesus Christ. 

Our friend and church leader Mikey gave some really good advice that I've been mulling over. He said that some people want to fight about what Christians have done wrong and others will try and counter with all the good things done in the name of Christ. I struggle to see past the wrongs and hurts inflicted by Christian people. Focusing on that as the hallmark of Christianity is ultimately not a convincing argument in favor of Christianity (this I have realized fully) and is to miss the point of the Gospel entirety. It's not the good of Christians that saves me, it is the blood of Christ. Nor is it the faults of the church that damn me. It is what Christ himself has done for me that saves me and my own flesh that would rot me. 

My faith is not in the church for it can always fail me in the end. 

Mikey's council was that in conversations about faith that begin to veer into how being a Christian doesn't make life less painful (one could argue it makes it more painful) or veer into the faults of Christians throughout history or in modern times, to always refocus on to the person of Jesus. As I've thought about that, I've realized how much I don't know Jesus as a person and how much I don't know how to get to know him. I want to get to know him more because I believe he's a real being, but I also think it's a more stable foundation for faith. 

If I don't know why I follow him or why someone else should, why do I believe at all?

Part of my doubt is confusion or lack of understanding, part of it is chafing against some of the more difficult to reconcile truths. I love Jesus for protecting a space for doubters. I love him for loving me and for giving me assurance that I am safe and accepted in my doubts. This is not the most poignant of analogies, but I imagine myself as a cat on a leash. Tending to wander, but connected by a lifeline. 

In light of doubt and sorrow, here is what is shaping these tattoos I envision. 

Apostle Thomas the Doubter, Missionary to India
Matthew 5:3
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Thomas is forever branded "the doubter" because he was the one who literally inserted his fingers into Jesus' resurrected and pierced body to convince himself that the whole shebang was not a mirage. I love the visceral way in which Thomas doubts. I don't know what the actual scene looked like, exactly, but lots of paintings depict Thomas just jamming his fingers into Jesus' wound. Maybe Jesus' resurrected body was beyond pain, but still. Even so, I respect Thomas' quest for proof. As I was researching a bit more about him I was moved by the other things he's recorded as doing and saying (mostly historical records outside the Bible). 
[From Wikipedia] "Thomas first speaks in the Gospel of John. In John 11:16, when Lazarus had recently died, the apostles do not wish to go back to Judea, where some Jews had attempted to stone Jesus. Thomas says: "Let us also go, that we may die with him.”(KJV)[13]"
Having read the previous verses, I'm not sure whether Thomas means "die with him (Jesus)"
or "die with him (Lazarus)." I think the first would show beautiful and fierce loyalty to Jesus, especially as he is also encouraging his friends to join in in this possible death mission. This seems to be the connotation of the commentary above and I defer to other scholars, assuming that is the meaning of the text. 
The other possibility I see only makes (some) sense in light of verses 14-15. 
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Jesus is explaining that because Lazarus is dead, the apostles are about to witness something that will strengthen their belief. So it seems to me that Thomas could be saying, "in that case, let us also die so that we can witness even more truth." 
[From Wikipedia] "Thomas speaks again in John 14:5. There, Jesus had just explained that he was going away to prepare a heavenly home for his followers, and that one day they would join him there. Thomas reacted by saying, "Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?"[14]"
And this I ask in my deepest heart coils. How can I know the way to a place (his side) when I don't know where that is or what it looks like or if it is simply the result of my brain chemistry and a need for belonging. Lord, I have not jammed my fingers in your side, how will I recognize your face? 
In verse 4, Jesus has just told his followers, "You know the way to the place where I am going.” You know the way. You know the way. Even a cat on an impossible leash knows the way because Jesus guides it. And yet Thomas is the details man. Jesus has just said, "you know the way" and Thomas is like, "yeah, but HOW?" And thank God for the apostle Thomas. I'm envisioning my tattoo of him with his two flesh-digging fingers in the air (you know the saint hand pose!) covered in saving blood. 
[From Wikipedia] "Thomas is traditionally believed to have sailed to India in AD 52 (but there is evidence of his being in Taxila in AD 43,[citation needed] where he did not have success) to spread the Christian faith, and is believed to have landed at the port of Muziris, (modern-day North Paravur and Kodungalloor in modern-day Kerala state) where there was a Jewish community at the time.[33][34][better source needed] [1][4] The port was destroyed in 1341 by a massive flood that realigned the coasts. He is believed by the Saint Thomas Christian tradition to have established seven churches (communities) in Kerala."
Thomas's ministry in India seems well documented, but there are specific details that I love. First, it seems that he was sent with Bartholomew who a) has a cool, underused name and b) yay for the buddy system. Secondly, Thomas supposedly deigned to go to India twice after getting Indian when the apostles drew lots about where they would spread out. Finally, Jesus had to appear to him in a vision to convince him. In this vision, Jesus reportedly said, "Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you", after which Thomas was like, "nah, I'm good" for the second time, and I believe a picture of Thomas is beginning to emerge. It gives me great hope for myself. I want to meditate on that phrase, "fear not, my grace shall be with you." 

I also love that his "failed" time in Taxila is mentioned because, my god, missions is just not always a "success". Taxilia was likely Pakistan (a city there shares the same name to this day). Here's another fantastic tidbit: 
"Remains of some of his buildings, influenced by Greek architecture, indicate that he was a great builder.[citation needed] According to the legend, Thomas was a skilled carpenter and was bidden to build a palace for the king. However, the Apostle decided to teach the king a lesson by devoting the royal grant to acts of charity and thereby laying up treasure for the heavenly abode." 
I think Thomas should be relieved of his title of Doubter and instead be Thomas The "I Have a Better Idea". Thomas was eventually martyred in India. "The records of Barbosa from early 16th century inform that the tomb was then maintained by a Muslim who kept a lamp burning there.[43]:237" India even issued a stamp in 1964 commemorating his work!

I keep a lamp burning for Thomas the Doubter. 

Our Lady of Sorrows (Mary, aka Dolores, aka Lola) 
Matthew 5:4
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Sorrow is easier to talk about than doubt in some ways because more people of faith recognize (or at least verbalize) their sorrow than their doubt. I have long been fascinated with Jesus' mother and sometimes identified with her as a young mother. Less so her earth-shattering belief. But anyway, there's this traditional image of her that always grips me, with 7 daggers in her heart. In this depiction, she is called Our Lady of Sorrows and there are churches and festivals dedicated to her in this role in several places around the world, including Santa Barbara. 

She bore so much pain and when I looked up the 7 sorrows I was and am moved more than ever. 

1. The prophecy of Simeon. (St. Luke 2:34, 35)
34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.
My son, a sign spoken against. The revealer of hearts. The source of the piercing of my soul. 

2. The flight into Egypt. (St. Matthew 2:13, 14)
Displacement. Running in the night. Real men with weapons hunting your son. 

3. The loss of the Child Jesus in the temple. (St. Luke 2: 43-45)
So often I have seen this story of Jesus preaching in the temple as an adolescent as funny. But I can not question that it was a dagger in a mother's heart. Not only because she lost him in a vast crowd with no internet or phone or carrier pigeon for over 24 hours, but also because this event marks the point (in the Bible at least) in which Jesus first sets himself apart as something other than a child. He is preaching to preachers, teaching his teachers, parenting his parents. There is a shift in the relationship, and every parent grieves those. 

4. The meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross.
I think this is the most heartwrenching of the daggers to me. I can not imagine the depth of agony in this scene for Mary. Did she understand what was happening and the ultimate beauty in the midst of watching her son stumbling, spit on, beaten? 

5-7. The Crucifixion, the taking down of the body of Jesus from the Cross, the burial of Jesus. 
Blow after blow after blow. We know this part of the story well, but where did she go home to on the nights following his burial? Was she granted sleep? Was she granted peace? Understanding? Comfort of any kind? Dagger after dagger pierced her heart. "A sword will pierce your own soul too." 

In an interesting connection between Thomas and Mary, some people believe he was teleported from India to be the sole witness of the ascension of Mary after her death. Crazy, but crazier things have happened, just sayin'. 

Sorrows, Doubts, Gospel, Saints, maybe Tattoos. 
The end. 

(artwork in order by Itsuko Azuma, Akiya Kageichi, Qistina Khalidah)
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