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)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

My Favorite Names: Women in History Edition

My sister Annelise is having a baby and I send her so many texts suggesting names. This is probably a replay of the time she wanted me to help her pick out curtains. We went to World Market and I talked her into a pair of red poppy curtains and they were on sale!! After putting them up in their house, she and Andrew decided against it and they've continued to have (lovely) muted blue living rooms. So for the next four months, unless you know Annelise quite well, consider these names fair game.

(not all these names are historical figures, but enough of them were that it became a mini theme by the time I'd finished) 

Casmira (Kaz meer uh)
It came to me in a dream, a name I've never heard, as far as I know. When I looked it up, it seemed to mean both "destruction of peace" and "declaration of peace" in Spanish, which I found quite interesting and profound. 

Similar (also Spanish) and I just learned that it's the root or inspiration of California. Calafia was a 
Moorish warrior queen of an imaginary island from Spanish mythology. Calafia is likely a derivative of the Arabic "khalif", meaning "ruler."

by Norman McCreary

Mural of Queen Calafia by Maynard Dixon and Frank Van Sloun

Soraya was the second wife of the Shah of Iran in the 1950s. If you love heartache, this is a great name for you. There's a French song called, "I want to cry like Soraya" and although I don't love the song, I do love that title. There was also a Queen Soraya of Afghanistan in the 1920s. Soraya Tarzi was really incredible, you can read about her here. Soraya means "a very bright light." (It's also an NPR name, which we all know is a wealth of unique names. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is the head corespondent in Berlin). 

Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary

Soraya Tarzi

A friend of mine on Instagram named her son Sardius and I've always thought it was so neat. Sardius is a kind of stone that actually appears in Exodus and Revelation, if you need to convince an ornery spouse who is set on a Bible name. 

Saladin was another incredible figure from Middle Eastern history (Iraq, Syria, Egypt). He led the Muslim armies against invading Crusaders, and unlike the crusaders, he had a reputation for being very merciful toward his captives and was generally respected by all. He also gave much of his personal wealth to his subjects. Saladin is actually a westernization of Salah ad-din, an epithet meaning "righteousness of the faith." 

Hedy Lamarr is largely known as one of the most beautiful women of all time, but what a lot of people don't know is that she invented technology that made Bluetooth possible. You can learn a lot more in the Netflix documentary called Bombshell. Besides Lamarr, I like the other connotations of "hedy" (heady). It makes me think of Nina Simone/Jeff Buckley's song "Lilac Wine", which I love. Hedy is a form of Germanic names like Hedwig (hello great subtle nod to Harry Potter!), Hedda, and "hadu" meaning "battle" or combat". I probably would have shied away from names meaning anything remotely violent in the past, but I'm loving these powerful names that body justice and dissent these days.  

Hedy Lamarr

This name has appeared on other name lists I've made, but I'm resubmitting it as a girl's name as well. One of the reasons I like it is that it goes with my boys' names (Ishmael and Ira). "I" can make a lot of sounds and both Idris and Immanuel are an "I" sound that we haven't already used. Idris also has both Welch and Arabic roots, so I like it for those reasons too. Idris means "ardent lord". Ardent means passionate, if you, like me, weren't totally sure. 

Again, I've listed Marcella before, so Marcel or Marcellus are the male forms. Though they could easily work for a girl too. Marcellus means "hammer" which reminds me of that fantastic song "If I had a Hammer" written by Pete Seeger. Marcel means "a wave in the hair" which is pretty goofy, so I'd just carry over the Marcellus meaning. 

Meaning "dawn" in Slavic languages. I like the vintage sound of this name. To me it sounds feminine and powerful. Haters will say it sounds too much like "Zoro", but to some people that might also be a plus. Zora Neale Hurston was an American author and anthropologist in the 1940s. I think I studied her briefly in a class, but I can't do her justice here with my current knowledge. 

Zora Neale Hurston

I am anticipating this will have a bump in popularity thanks to Greta Thunberg. To me, Greta is a name that is stereotypical of heavyset Germanic women in costumes, but if I just listen to the sound of the name, I think it has potential beyond my mind tricks. It means "pearl". 

Another friend named her newest son Augustine and I love it so much. It can be shortened to August too, of course. I really like words that have meanings beyond their most common ones and August is one of those. As an adjective, August means "respected and impressive."

Meaning "bringer of joy, blessings" (how great is that!), it can also be spelled Beatrix like Beatrix Potter, the author of Peter Rabbit. I like Beatrix better than Beatrice (who I think was one of the bad sisters in Cinderella?), but I'm not wholeheartedly in love with either name just yet. For your consideration as a classic but unusual name. 

Beatrix Potter (photo via MessyNessyChic)

My love for Lola also comes and goes, and I do think it has potential to become trendy. It can sound both stuffy and fresh to me, alternately. Of course there's that weird and wonderful song by the Kinks about Lola, but its etymology definitely sways me in favor of the name, too. It's a derivative of Delores (Spanish) meaning "sorrows", inspired by Our Lady of Sorrows (Nuestra SeƱora de los Dolores) which is one of the Virgin Mary's titles, and one close to my heart.  

Whether or not you're having a baby any time soon, what are some of your favorite names these days? And what historical figures most inspire you? 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Creative Manifesto

Having just finished Show Your Work by Austin Kleon (thanks to my fellow artist sister in law Danielle for giving it to me), I feel newly motivated to continue the work of making art my work. Why am I sharing it? Well, beside "showing my work" (including thought processes), I find that ordering my thoughts is the first step to making a plan. And a plan is the first step to achieving a goal. As I read Show Your Work, I had the urge to scribble some things that I've been learning about the way I make creative work and why I care about it. Here they are.

(artwork by Alma Haser)

1. My work is worth money. I like to share things and give them away, but that's something that I get to decide. If you ask for my work, I will ask you to pay for it. Creative work is hard work. My work contains part of me, and that's not free.

2. I make new work in response to stimulus. I often feel like I should wait for epiphanies or come up with completely original ideas from thin air in order to make things of interest, but what really inspires me to play with ideas is having a prompt. Prompts can come from anywhere, but mainly involve putting myself in a situation where I'm going to find information that doesn't originate from something I already know. Read, look, engage, study, argue, travel, listen.

3. I'm motivated by economics. I see a lot of things that I like and plenty of stuff I want, but I usually can't or won't buy it. Many projects I undertake begin with how to solve the problem of getting something I can't afford to buy. Learning how to make it, and make it my own. On the flip side, I've learned to pay for some things that I'll never care to do well on my own (like making or altering clothing).

4. I am my own category. I worry that I need to focus my work more in able to market it. I have seemingly endless and diverse interests. But I also realized that that nebulous, sometimes unwieldy approach is something I value in myself and my work. I like it. I find it very interesting in others as well, so I am trusting that the fact that my work is not easily categorized is of intrinsic worth.

5. I am a quitter. I need momentum to create, and some ideas will die because I couldn't execute them before my interest faded. It is okay to stop working on one thing because something else is now more deserving of that time. I do not want to finish projects I do not care about.

6. I am afraid to fail because... money. A broken heart.
To expound, I am currently afraid to give my biggest ambitions all of my energy because I can not afford not to be hustling for a stable paycheck right now. I hope that that changes in time. I am also afraid to put my whole heart out there because if my project(s) get a poor response, I will feel crushed that others did not see, love, or even care to check out something I put my whole self into. I also think it's important to periodically answer the question, "what am I afraid of" because that helps me tackle how to overcome or push through those fears.

7. What I make is not made for everyone. You can not please everyone. People have different tastes. It's not a failure if not everyone likes or gets my work. (I apply this heavily, at least in theory, to people who have negative things to say about my work. If you didn't like it, it wasn't for you.)

8. I am an artist. My current main job is a restaurant cook. But I'm not a cook that makes art, I'm an artist that cooks. This mindset helps me see my creative endeavors worthy of serious pursuit.  

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Wild, Wild West

I live in the west
Continent and state
I live in the wild, wild west.

The cows still run
The dust still flies
The natives are still fighting to survive. 

The waves still beat
The trees still burn
The sky is still blue as turquoise.

But most of all
In the wild, wild west
The white man still

Scuffs his boots
Paws the dust
Climbs the fence
Swims the creek
Slings his gun

And tries to tame the wild, wild west. 

Written 7/31/19 after the Gilroy, CA shootings. 
Image from National Geographic.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A Letter to Catch Up

How long is a season? Traditionally, in terms of weather, perhaps three months. Winter feels longer, like it might never end, but if you've been around the sun a few times, you recognize that feeling and know that it is but a season. The good parts of summer always seem to fade too soon for my taste. We also talk about seasons of life, and it seems to me that "a season" usually refers to a less than pleasant circumstance. It also occurs to me that we don't really know when these seasons will end, or how long they will be, no matter how many sun revolutions we've weathered.

Since I last wrote to you, a small lifetime has elapsed. My grandma passed away after a short illness, I got two new jobs, our nephew died horrifically and we may not recover, we visited New York and I decided I want to be a career artist after all, we're moving within our city and moving into official ministry with that physical move, one of our children is in a particularly difficult phase, several of my soul sisters have been bobbing for apples in buckets of heaven and hell, and I am splashed in joy in pain. Last we talked, I was having an existential crisis (before all of that other stuff), but sometimes big questions get railroaded by careening situations and I don't know if that makes questions go away, or if they'll just visit again on a rainy day.

My heart started out slow burning, became engulfed in flames in a giant crush of sleepless nights and crying on the phone, expanded again with unforseen strength and lightness, grasping oxygen from the air in an unchaperoned effort to stay alight. I felt invincible, but it gave way to feeling fogged in.

I want to write out each event for my own processing, but I have not found the time or felt enough urgency to do them each justice. Some things are too fresh, besides. I have been thinking about how when I can return to writing more regularly, I will have grown a great deal. I think this makes me a better writer, but I also have less to say sometimes because I might be growing out of trying to control my own narrative. I think my spirit is both more resilient and more exhausted. My words evaporate into the atmosphere before they can be solidified, like perspiration into humidity.

It struck me with curiosity - at what point does one's life become a tragedy? Sometimes, after someone has died, we might refer to their life as a tragic one, but I don't usually think of lives as tragedies. In a narrative sense though, what amount of sadness tips a story from being a story with sad elements to being fundamentally tragic? Remember in the movie Stranger than Fiction when Harold Crick is trying to find out what kind of story he's in? Maybe it's foolishness or maybe it's faith or maybe it's story telling, but it seems to me that a tragedy is only a plot twist away from hope. That no story need remain a tragedy.

I recently met a young man who is working in the ER as a trauma surgeon at age seventeen. He washes dishes at the restaurant I work at for extra cash since the ER is too intense for them to allow him to work very many hours. He was telling me that he recently stuck his finger into someone's aortal bullet wound on the sidewalk in our city. With his finger in a heart in shock, the team discussed what they had 30 seconds to do to hopefully save this person. He pulled his finger out, they did their thing, and.... .... .... a heartbeat.

The hardest thing with bullet wounds, literal and otherwise, is whether there's an exit wound. If it's a clean break, you're good to go, but if the bullet gets stuck inside, it can put pressure on your vital organs and kill you. I'm no surgeon, but sometimes I think I'd take the literal bullet and my chances with a clean exit over these conceptual bullets that seem to lodge against the organs.

I mourn the end of summer every year because it's my favorite season. I am at my best in the warm air, the freedom from a fuller schedule, fewer clothes, the abundance of produce. But I don't hate fall as much as I used to, because back-to-school is a new kind of release from what invariably becomes a chaotic lack of routine. I was trying to prepare the boys for the possibility of switching schools away from friends, and I was reminding them that although they might leave some good things in an old place, there would be things in a new place that they will love, just like they've grown to love things in the past. Of course, I was talking to myself too. All I did as a kid was say goodbyes and hellos, and choosing goodbyes, even with the hope of new hellos, is something like open heart surgery to me.

(painting by Gail Potocki)

I am not an easy crier, and when I see people who do process externally, I think the way I handle grief is just so clunky. I am confident in so many ways, many of which are purposefully a departure from the norm, but I've spent a lot of time believing that other people's inner lives are more "right" than mine - others seem to ask fewer questions that result in ripping up the concrete of your own life every few years, others cry through their pain instead of being like a teakettle that heats all the water but then only sputters and scalds when it boils, others seem to have this spiritual life that is more intimate, more personal, more calming. My grief is so stubborn. But after aspiring to what appears to be a clearer path in others for so long and trying to bend myself into that shape (or not trying, but just feeling like it's out of reach for me), I'm starting to believe that the contortions of my heart are by design. Isn't that intense and frustrating? I mean, it's life-giving too, but it means that I was made in a shape that I don't yet understand, and maybe won't ever be comfortable with. Certainly some of the things we struggle with are the result of trauma or decisions, but things that are broken can be mended, if not fully restored. And the things that aren't broken are actually on purpose. Maybe I was meant to knock down the pillars of the temple I'm standing in, even if it crushes me.

God does not fail.
Nothing he does is by mistake.

I think about myself, I think about the ones I love, near and far. I think about the ones I don't know at all, but that I read about and see pictures of and I think this season is so long. 
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