High points of a social species

When my dad first got diagnosed with cancer I was 23-ish. Dad and I have a difficult, complicated relationship. I can say we love each other, but we definitely don’t like each other. Still, there was no hesitation, and Mom didn’t have to ask. I told my various employers I was taking a leave, and canceled all my show plans for the rest of my season so I could stay in Chicago and do whatever I could. My bosses completely understood. I expected that. They were groovy dudes on the whole. My friends in my immediate circle knew what was up of course, because they were nearby. But this was before everyone had cell phones. Before Livejournal and Facebook. Internet was a thing, but it was a thing campgrounds didn’t have. Most of us still used calling cards and pay phones, and getting information spread around was a matter of weeks, not hours. Unless you’re a rennie.

There’s a saying. “Telephone, telegraph, tell a rennie”. Within days all of Bristol faire knew what was up. What shocked the crap outta me was how much they cared. I got a rose from a guy I could not stand, who was none too fond of me either, with a message of support. I was baffled, and asked him wtf. He told me, without the patented swagger and sarcasm that made him insufferable, that his mother had died recently of cancer. That he understood where I was at, and was there for me if I needed to talk to someone who got it. That blew me away completely. It was only one of many flowers, letters and messages of love and support that came from all corners of my home show.
Two months later I was at the faire in North Carolina, visiting friends and just getting some space from all the drama at home before digging in for a winter of slinging coffee at a bookstore and worrying. I ran into the owner of the faire there, who was not a big fan of yours truly. We had clashed on several occasions over petty shit, because I have a stubborn streak wider than the Amazon and rabid dislike for mansplaining. My policy was to avoid him at all costs (a policy I have instituted for all members of management staff in general, no matter what it is they’re managing, because I am sassy as hell and that tends to go over badly). I nodded, briefly, hoping to just scamper away unnoticed, when he stopped me. He said he was so sorry to hear about my dad, and if there was anything he could do to help, to please let him know. He said, and I remember this vividly, because his face was so sincere and he looked me right in the eyes when he said it (not something this man tended to do when speaking to me), he said, “We’re family here. Always remember that.” I couldn’t really do anything but mumble a “thank you”, because I was so totally about to cry.

Years later, I’m hunkered down in a strangers house in Shreveport, and a century storm has just taken out the city I was living in. At the time, CNN was telling us that something like 85% of the city of New Orleans was under water. Much later we would come to understand that they weren’t making a distinction between two inches of standing water in the street, and neighborhoods flooded to the rooftops (which, thanks by the way, assholes).
We thought we had lost everything. I had evacuated with 4 days worth of clothing, dog food, and a coffee pot. Because we thought we’d be right back.
Within days I was fielding tons of phone calls. My nearest and dearest peeps, of course, but also people who I barely knew had gotten a hold of my number and were calling to make sure we were ok. People I had outright animosity towards, who were only too happy on an average day to tell everybody what a bitch I was, were calling to make sure I had gotten out. Boxes full of things started arriving. Underwear, socks, yarn and needles (so I could knit and keep my hands busy), coffee, booze, dog treats, gift cards to Wal-Mart, little wads of cash rolled up in t-shirts and folded between packets of incense and other little comfort items rennies tend to use to make our mobile life more homey, books. Care packages from every show where anyone who vaguely knew me might be at. My tribe, even the members who hated my salty guts, pulled together for me right then.

I am actually tearing up as I write this. Because it never fails to humble and awe me (and I’m actually emo AF, though I try not to do it in front of people). I’m nothing special. I’m not a rock star or a pillar of the rennie community. I was just another traveler. Just a booth monkey with a few friends, a few enemies, a trailer and a dog. I was pretty antisocial, to be honest. I worked six days a week, so who had the time, but really that just gave me a convenient excuse. I’m not a big joiner. I’m awkward and uncomfortable in social situations. But somehow this group of people, some of whom had what I thought was the barest, most incidental of connections to me, stepped up in a big way when shit hit the fan.
That is what community is all about.
That’s why I threw $50 in the hat to get Pendragon’s booth rebuilt. Not because I’m friends with the owner or involved in her life. But because Jeffery Segal said it simply and accurately. We’re all family here. And you help your family.

“What’s with all the death?”

I’ve explored a large number of spiritual traditions. As a youngster, I was trying to find a god that didn’t offend me with its misogyny and bigotry. As an adult and an atheist, out of curiosity about how different cultures deal with the big scary issues facing a living, sentient being. One of the biggest, scariest issues is, of course, dying.

Everything dies, even mountains. So why is it so terrifying? Some Native traditions refer to death as the Great Mystery. That about sums it up, doesn’t it. I’ve had plenty of people in my life go off into that mystery. Relatives of great old age and friends of great tragedy or accident. Nobody has come to tell me what happens next, if anything. So I’m left to deal with the idea of non-existence in whatever way works best for me. We all hope to live long and fabulous lives, but the truth is that death is walking next to all of us, all the time. We don’t know when she’s going to put her hand on our shoulder and say, “Come now. It’s time.” And that’s kind of terrifying.

Even with the wonderful pragmatism of Buddhism in my pocket, it’s a hard thing to give space to in my consciousness. I don’t hold all Buddhist beliefs to be literal truths, but plenty of them hold symbolic water with me. Reincarnation for example. I don’t believe my spirit, if such a thing I do possess, will go anywhere when I die, but I will be in actual fact reincarnated. My body will be broken down into its individual elements by a host of fascinating and necessary creatures and fungi collectively known as “decomposers” and be taken up by the grasses and trees whose roots have found my remains below them (I’m a green burial advocate, so I mean, for all intents and purposes, to be composted), which will then be preyed upon by whatever eats them, and in turn by whatever eats them. So maybe “recycled” is a more accurate term than “reincarnated”, but whatevs. This, to me, is right and proper. I was borrowing those elements from the universe, and I must return them when they’re due. Like a library book. My elements aren’t mine to keep, but belong to the universe collectively, and in time must be loaned out to something else. I could be a nebula someday.

I’m not the first sentient being to deal with things like Life! Death! Universe! symbolically. Art has a long history of being a coping mechanism and method of expressing Shit Too Big To Deal With. So to be honest it always kind of surprises me when people ask me what’s up with all the death. I want to ask them how they deal with it. Not in a judgy way, but I’m legit curious. It’s not even really death, exactly. Just because there are a lot of bones and carrion birds (don’t get me started on bird mythology, because we will be here all night) and whatnot doesn’t make the story specifically about death. The story I’m almost always telling is about transition and in-between-ness (“liminal” is the dictionary word for those people or things in between two states, which spellcheck refuses to believe is a word, but it totally is, you can google it). Dying happens to be the big one for a living thing, so it shows up often, but there are many other liminal states to be meditated on though the medium of art. There is no such thing as an end, only a shift. People don’t cease to exist, they cease to be people. What they are next is pretty open to interpretation depending on your belief system, but the transition part is non-negotiable.  A mountain, when it’s no longer a mountain, is dust, sand, magma. It hasn’t disappeared though. People don’t. Planets don’t. Because Library of Universe. Many of my materials are well along the path to returning their elements to it, and I’m there to help. Like a good little decomposer/recycler/agent of karma.

For whatever reasons, people like to make huge, complicated ideas that belong on a continuum into either/or equations. I’ve had to deal with this personally as a card carrying mentally ill person. People like to categorize me as balanced or unbalanced, but the fact is that I’m both, either or neither, depending on the day (or the hour). Sometimes, when my chemistry is chill, I’m very normal. For years I refused to discuss my malfunctioning circuitry with anyone, choosing instead to pretend so hard to be balanced that no one knew what to do with the unbalanced me when it happened. It wasn’t a good way to deal, though it left me with a valuable skill set. To this day I pass so well nobody knows I’m whackadoo unless they’re around me a fair bit. I’ve learned not to have the inside conversations in my outside voice. I’ve learned to respond to being touched like mammals are supposed to instead of flinching, and stopped organizing the pasta alphabetically. Sometimes though, I’m laying on the floor talking to the people that live in my brain who aren’t me, or not being able to leave my house because, AAACK! WORLD! That effort needs expressing somehow, too. The things inside you can’t let off their leashes but that can’t stay inside indefinitely or you lose touch with the difference between subjective reality and the one we all more or less agree is real (don’t get me started on quantum theory or we’ll be here all night).

I’m also a first gen. My parents came here from somewhere else, and like lots of immigrants, they wanted their kids assimilated like, now. So I didn’t grow up with a strong sense of either place. My family was very different from the other kids I knew, but also not like any Latino family I knew either (which, growing up in a very homogeneous suburb, consisted of my Puerto Rican friends from summers in San Juan, so maybe I didn’t have a great representative sample for comparison). I sit between two cultures and don’t feel fully a part of one or the other. People who feel rooted in their culture express their feelings for it all the time through artistic mediums. People who don’t feel rooted though, also have feelings that need dealing with. Feelings of in between-ness and dislocation.

I’m not sure at what exact point I decided that this medium was a good one for expressing All of the Things. The weirdness in my head, my feelings about non-existence, the ways of being in between two sharp points in the world and still feeling authentic. But I did, and it works for me. And I have the huge compliment of being told at every show how well it speaks to other people. People who are liminal people, people who are members of one or another counter culture, but also people whose freak flag doesn’t fly very high at all. People who work with death, grief, or mental illness as part of their jobs. People who occupy places society doesn’t explicitly approve of, or that aren’t well defined. It’s satisfying as hell. I’m really just sitting in my basement playing with glitter and junk and wondering if anyone is going to get this, and it seems that, yeah, they do. Not everyone does, but that’s fine. Not everyone likes shrimp or BMWs.

We all have to deal with Shit Too Big To Deal With in some way or another.

 

 

Anthropologists, I beg you

Hire a ghost writer. Please.

When I first went to college, believe it or not, it was as a science major. I wanted to go into forensics. Not because I thought Abby Sciuto’s job was in any way realistic, but because I’m fascinated by the field. I read college text books on criminal profiling and medicolegal death investigation for fun (which, I promise, will always get you plenty of elbow room on the train). But I quickly realized that the school I’d chosen, the one I could afford in the city I wanted to live in, was not going to give me a good education for that particular life path. And because I’m one of those people who is not driven by one single passion, I simply chose another path. The path I chose was anthropology.

Culture is hilarious. No, it really is. Once you get outside of it and start looking at it like a story someone is telling you, the plot holes are epic and nothing the characters do seems to further the story. It’s a Shakespearean farce with a tragedy chaser. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a compelling one. The art, the music, the languages, religions. It’s all such poetry. Surrealist poetry, but poetry all the same. I’m a poet at heart. Even my mixed media work is a poem. It’s just not one that uses words. It’s a poem of objects in juxtaposition. And cultures are the same.

In my totally unasked for opinion, it is the job of anthropologists to interpret those poems so people living in other stories, other cultures, can understand each other. So maybe the people on this little experiment hurtling through space all alone (or are we…) can, I dunno, respect each other and the planet. Maybe. Just for yuks.

So. Imagine my DISMAY as an actual, living, breathing culture story interpreter in training, when I realized that anthropologists didn’t share my notion. At least insofar as making themselves even remotely accessible. I had to read dozens of ethnographies (200 or so page breakdowns of a particular aspect of a culture) in the course of my brief life as an anthropology major. Not a single one of them was even a tiny bit penetrable. Some because the language was so jargon-y and dense, and made important references to 600 other books that if you hadn’t read you would be at a loss to understand, but some were just flat out crap from a literary standpoint. In other words, they sucked the poetry right out of the thing they were describing. Broke it down to such a molecular level that it ceased to have meaning. And this is SOP. Anyone not making culture read like stereo instructions was deemed a dilettante, not a serious scientist. Which, ok if you’re talking biochemistry or whatever. Molecular level makes sense there. But a culture’s parts only make sense in relation to each other and if you excise them from the rest it has no meaning. The word “red” is just a word without the “rose”, “love” et cetera. I don’t even like Robert Burns, but I can recognize it’s a poem because context. It’s not a remotely good poem, but that’s neither here nor there and totally a matter of opinion.

I answer the question “What inspires you as an artist” with “everything”. And that’s vague AF but also true. The reasons we strive inspire me. The reasons we grieve. The reasons we create and love and work. Not, we in this country and people of my cultural background, but the capital We. All of us as a singular species that have taken what nature programed us to do and made it so mind bogglingly complicated and diverse. And yeah, stupid, too. We’re amazing and pitiful and our poem reads not like stereo instructions, but like an opera. And I personally think it’s criminal that an entire branch of science works to deaden it into something only a few can digest, leaving the rest of us to fail at a comprehension that could make all of us so much richer for the understanding.

So, Clifford Geertz, Huntington and Metcalf, and all the rest of you thick tongued, long winded, pedantic as fuuuuuck jerks, I’m saying to you, learn to do this species justice or gtfo and stop torturing us with your writing. Hire someone who can tell a good story. There’s a world of unpublished talent out there who would probably love a shot at getting paid for what they do that, even if they’re only good at potato chip fiction, will tell the story of humans better than you can.

/end rant