Feeding the ghosts

“Are they your relatives?” People ask me that all the time, when they see all the old pictures in my pieces.

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The answer is “no”. I don’t have many very old pictures of my relations, because they got left behind in Cuba when my family fled. But these are not them, in any case. These people are hungry ghosts. A concept in Chinese Buddhism that refers to a spirit who has no living person to venerate and feed them.

They have no history or context when I find them. Sometimes there will be a name, date or location somewhere. Handwritten on the back or embossed on the front by the photographer. But more often than not there is nothing. They’re strangers, piled in a box or basket at a flea market in dusty stacks. Forlorn and forgotten.

I find it indescribably poignant that these were people with stories, once. The invention of photography has given a depth to the idea of people that never existed before the ability to capture the true to life image of a thing. Sure, you know that humans have been alive for millennia. Feeling, breathing, living humans. But the advent of modern photographic technology gave us the ability to give that concept a face. Posture. Dress and adornment that expresses an individual’s taste and preferences. Their wealth or lack of it. Their features, and the expression in their eyes. Little details that make people real. These people had conversations and aspirations and foods they hated and people they loved. And pets. And hats. And favorite songs. And now, nobody knows who they are.

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So I give them new stories. I take my boxes of junk and bones and broken things and I knit together a story and put them in the center of it. I make a spirit house for them to live in. Someplace to come to on All Souls after they visit their burial place, maybe. Someplace for candles to burn near, so the light can guide them back. Maybe my customers don’t know they’re feeding hungry ghosts by looking and thinking about the story. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t care. That’s fine, too. They’re self sustaining ghost houses. No maintenance required. Just look. Just brush your eyes across the picture and the art does the rest.

But I know. I like to think all those hungry ghosts are sitting there, patting full bellies, wandering no more.

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The Sad

I’m one of THOSE pet owners. My fur baby is my whole world. I know us crazy people and our pets is a well established phenomenon, but norms get unreasonably attached to their critters too, if the epitaphs at the pet cemetery are any indication. There’s something about the total lack of judgement, the lack of guile, that is so relaxing and precious in contrast to interacting with other humans.

I had to help my lil’ puddin’ walk on to the Summerlands. Like everyone, I hoped nature would do the job for me in her sleep some night. Because by the time you realize they’re ready, they’ve been ready for awhile. Animals don’t complain much and they can’t tell you how much they’re suffering. You’ll always have waited too long. I’m sure that was the case here, too.

I don’t know about any one else, but Latins are awesome when the dark lady comes knocking. We are enormously practical and efficient. Death, like dictators, is a thing to be gotten through by dealing with it. I made the decision Monday night. By 9:45 Tuesday morning I had the vets lined up for a 1 o’clock house call, and the cemetery pickup scheduled for 1:45. I spent the intervening time sitting by her side, petting her and reading a book. I didn’t get to do that with Mr. Stinky. He got critical so fast, and I didn’t have time to take him home. It was comforting to be able to send her on in her own house, with all of us around. The vets were enormously compassionate. They were women. Most of the death care workers out there are women. Women have a handle on death that is really amazing.

I held her while she died. That was important. I wrapped her up tight after, and sat with her and petted her as she gradually cooled. It may seem morbid to some, but I hold to the idea that death should be experienced. It’s inevitable. It’s something we all will have to participate in as an observer, and eventually, like it or not, do in person. I would do the same for a beloved human. Our culture is so disconnected from this unavoidable part of existing, and I mean to not be.

In typical Latin fashion, after the cemetery came and took her, Mom and I got to work. Bedding was washed and packed away, along with leashes, harnesses, food, supplements, and dishes, in several bags for donation to a local animal shelter. We rearranged and cleaned the house to absorb the empty space that was once occupied by a 50 lb dog. Death doesn’t stop time. Processing a death involves action, not inaction. People who go in and immediately redistribute the possessions of a deceased person are branded vultures, but it’s in fact a very psychologically and evolutionarily sound way to go about dealing with loss. All my boo’s things weren’t going to bring her back by leaving them in place to stare at for however long. There are homeless critters that are immensely benefited by those things, now, and a shelter running on donations that is grateful to have them. The gal who helped us unload the car was so kind. She reached out to hug me several times, and I watched her physically restrain herself. I both appreciate the impulse to offer comfort, and the respect of not assuming I’d be ok with being hugged by a stranger.

After all was said and done, my bestie and my partner plied me with whiskey at our preferred little hole in the wall Irish pub.

That was day one. Day two my partner and I drove to the cemetery for the cremation. I opted for a private one (only my pet in the cremation machine, rather than several separated by partitions. It’s more expensive, but my control freak nature is appeased.) I chose to watch the process. After a few minutes with her in a private room to say our last goodbyes, I watched them open the door to the cremation machine and put her in. It’s not a comforting thing to watch. There isn’t anything dramatic or scary about it, for those of you who might be cringing right now. But it’s very final. For me, there is healthy closure in such a thing. Incidentally, you are legally permitted in most states to do the very same for a human. Hindu and Buddhist families are often present at their loved ones cremations from beginning to end.

Cremation for a dog her size takes about an hour if the machine is hot (at noon, it had been running for several hours already, so it was very hot). We spent that time walking around the cemetery grounds. I cried a lot (recall the aforementioned heartbreaking epitaphs). But cemeteries are green and peaceful and when you get past the reality of why they’re there, filled with love.

The woman (again) in charge of the cremation came and got me when it was time to finish up, because I had said I wanted to watch the entire process. I watched her use a long handled scraper and brush to carefully remove the cremated remains, a small pile of glowing bone fragments, from the machine and spread them on a steel counter top to cool before being ground (cremains don’t come out as ash. They are recognizably bone fragments until run through a machine that grinds them into powder). Once cooled, she used a soft brush to move every bit of bone and ash into the grinder, and once ground, used the same brush to meticulously transfer every last particle into the urn. The care taken was immense. She was kind and professional, as was everyone at the cemetery. I chose this particular one in Hinsdale (an hour from me) because they’ve been a family run operation since the 40s, and they were amazing when Mr. Stinky died, staying open well past regular hours to wait for me to bring him in.

When it was all said and done, my dear lady friend in town for Bristol took me to my favorite brew pub and plied me with wine and her always sunny and deeply hilarious company. I stayed out til past 11. Something I’ve rarely done in the last five years. I had some moments of reflexive panic during the evening as the hours wore on and I instinctively thought I had to get home to take care of my baby girl. The last five years of my life, my full time job has been this special needs dog. A special needs pet, like a human, is an all consuming job. Sometimes that job is very hard to do, because so much of your life has to be sublimated to the doing of it. It’s going to take me a long time to get used to no longer having a curfew.

That was day two. Day three will involve talking about the whole thing (that’s what we’re doing now, btw), taking flowers to all the vets who helped me keep her as healthy as possible for the time she was with me, and properly disposing of the leftover meds. Not much when compared to the jobs of the last two days. Certainly not as fraught with emo weepy. I hope, anyway. Then I’ll go to the gym and sweat it out. Because there’s only so much wallowing in liquor you can healthily do, and I’ve done it. Time to wallow in sweat and effort.

Thank you to all my peeps for the comforting words and crying emojis (I’d love to see an anthropological study of our society’s return to hieroglyphics as a means of succinct communication of an emotional state). You guys are awesome.

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.

“Where do you learn all this stuff?”

I’m a reader. That’s answer I give to this question, which I get at shows all the time. Usually after an excessively rambling account of the way Catholic and West African beliefs combined in diaspora religions, the history of the term “burking”, popularity of postmortem photography in the Victorian era, or the feeding habits of corvids and their relation to mythological traditions in northern Europe. Or, “I’m a nerd”. This is very true. When other kids had video games, I had a library card. Well, I had video games too, but after I won Contra I lost interest in the whole thing and never picked up a console again. My very first book was called “Misty and Me”, a feel good little bit of fiction geared towards that age group in between Cat in the Hat and Miss Peregrine, about a girl and her puppy. And I picked it out at the book store at the age of six, after convincing my dad that I was ready for a “real book” as I called it. That is, one without pictures and huge type. Dad didn’t believe me, which, fair enough considering my age, and asked for a book report when I was done. Then I started making my way through Nancy Drew, and they never argued with me about my reading habits after that. I think they were disappointed that I didn’t turn out to be some genius prodigy, but I guess that’s a parent’s lot in life sometimes.

Since Misty broke the seal, I’ve been – consuming, is really the appropriate word to describe it – literature at a high rate. I never don’t have a book. If I can’t find a good book I will read a crappy one, but I have to be reading. SF/fantasy, biography, comic books, poetry, history, biology, anthropology, religion, memoir, physics, criminology, field and survival guides, sociology, chemistry, fiction, huge ass picture books of art, entomology, big, sexy word combinations with hyphens like socio-biology and ethno-botany. There isn’t anything I won’t read. If it’s crap and I have options, I won’t finish it, but that’s about the only deal breaker. Genre doesn’t matter a bit, so long as the writing is tasty or the subject so interesting the writing isn’t an issue.

I find “autodidact” to be a clumsy and ugly word, but it’s what I have been since the alphabet began to make sense to me, and I never looked back. College was a nightmare of intellectually stifling maze running for this rat accustomed to following her nose over hill and deep into thickets of connected subject matter, wherever the path, beaten or otherwise, seemed to most interestingly lead. The problem with a system like the educational one for a person like me, is that they want your brains to function on a track, like a well managed freight train, while mine is…not. It’s like a thing that wanders around quite a bit. Insert preferred metaphor here. A brook, butterfly, squirrel, jabberwocky, nargle. Whatever makes you happy. That’s my brain. A wander-y thing that is very VERY hungry and has to eat information constantly to stay content. I have in my bookshelf subjects as diverse as the history of table salt and its effects on the development of cross continental trade routes and human culture, and a boxed set of Bunnicula books. Does this make me a better artist? I dunno, but it does make me a hoot (or a nightmare, depending on the sorts of guests you have and how easily they are made uncomfortable by discussions revolving around the finer points of dermestid beetle feeding habits) at dinner parties and an epic pain in the ass in an argument. It makes me take a very macro view of human culture in my time and place. A mixed blessing, that I won’t wander into here because time management. I’ve been called smart, but I don’t know that I’m smart, or just have a super absorbent brain. Like a Sham-Wow. Things that stimulate me lodge in my skull and become part of my world. My brain is a nomad before colonialism threw arbitrary borders on the map. It goes everywhere. It sees all the things. And it gets nutso if it has to stay still, overgrazing the same territory and contributing to desertification. Alright, maybe I took that particular metaphor further than makes sense, but you get my drift.

So next time you’re in my booth and somehow the conversation turns to coming of age ceremonies in Pacific islands tribes or why fortune cookies are so ubiquitous, and you’re all, “How the hell did we get HERE?”, now you know.

 

 

“Doesn’t it suck if people don’t get into your art?”

It used to. I mean, it still does on a large enough scale, because this is how I make my living and if an entire show goes south that’s me having a pretty bad day. But on an individual level, like a person not getting into what I make, not anymore. At first I was really sensitive about it. I think that’s normal. I don’t know anyone making any kind of art that isn’t emotionally invested in it. But I feel like if you’re going to do this full time you need to disentangle your feels from the business end of selling your work.

The difference between opinion and critique is an important one. Lots of both will get thrown at you if you do…anything. Anything at all. Someone is going to have something to say about it. Some of it will be right on and some of it will be dookie. Some of it will be either/or, depending on where you stand. If what you’re doing is something you’re emotionally invested in, it gets even more complicated.

I started out as a crafter, so I’m no stranger to being told how wrong I’m doing something. You can’t learn to do a thing without screwing that thing up a few times, and your teacher is going to tell you about it. If they’re not a jerk they’ll do it pleasantly, but either way, you get used to being told what you did wrong and how it needs to be fixed. Opinion really didn’t factor into it. I was manufacturing someone else’s designs, and once I started doing it correctly, nobody had anything negative to say to me about it.

That all changed when I started making my own thing, and that thing was something with a subjective definition. I had to learn the difference between an opinion, “This sucks” and a critique, “The glue is sloppy”. And how to not get butt hurt about either one.

Opinions are awesome when they’re nice and hurtful when they’re not, but ultimately something I try not to get hung up on. I mean, I’m selling stuff, so I want to cultivate good opinions of me and my work, but I don’t let that be what validates me. The part I focus on are the happy customers. I’ve had customers say some of the most utterly humbling words to me about the effect my stuff had on them, or someone they love (and in the case of one therapist, on his patients). The kind that make ya almost tear up, and you’re all, “They are talking about someone much cooler than me”. That is life affirming shit, and will carry you through many “Is that supposed to be art?” kinds of interactions. Making art exposes some part of your inner life to the world for it to look at and judge. That’s just how art works. It feels very weird to have people treat the puzzle pieces of your heart like they’re shopping for tires or picking out a new set of highball glasses. Not everyone will, obviously. Some people will totally recognize heart parts. Some people’s own hearts will squee or cry when they recognize them and that’s an amazing thing.

Critiques on the other hand, are always useful, even when they’re off, or not applicable to whatever thing. It gives me a reality check. Makes me look at what I’m doing and reassess whether I’m doing it to the standards I want to be at. If someone has technical advice for you, listen. You don’t have to act on it if their advice isn’t useful, but listen. They may save you from reinventing the wheel at some point. Opinions though, you can learn to take or leave as you like.

 

Imposter Syndrome

A friend asked me a question in a letter not too long ago. One that I’ve asked myself a million times, and I’m sure every artist/san/crafter asks themselves too. “Are my friends just being nice?”

Over the course of the last two shows I’ve had several friends drop many dollars in my shop and walk away with multiple pieces each. It’s wonderful and humbling and makes me all verklempt. After the last such multiple piece purchase I turned to my bestie and said, “Man, maybe I don’t totally suck at this?”

It’s interesting that validation from strangers is easier to accept, but validation from loved ones brings up this kind of insecurity. Do we think, what, that we’re tricking people, and strangers are ok to trick? Or strangers have worse taste than our friends, who of course wouldn’t want the shabby products of our hamfisted attempts at creation if they weren’t just being nice? Why do we think that way? I’m not saying you should go around thinking you’re all brilliant and Aaahtist-ing all over people, because ego like that is gross. But can we at least go around trusting our loved ones judgement? We don’t have to agree with it. We should learn to give it the same weight as our own in this case though, even when it conflicts with ours. Maybe their perception here is right and yours is completely whack. It can happen. You could be…wrong. You might NOT suck!

Ok, if you can’t accept that at least accept your potential whack-ness of perception.

While we’re at it, accepting things that is, lets get something straight. Loving you is a perfectly valid reason to support what you’re doing. You are the work, the work is you. Art is an expression of the self. So supporting you is supporting the work, whether the work is something they’re totally into or not. If someone loves you enough to buy a piece of art they think is hideous or that just doesn’t speak to them, you’ve done something right in one of the most important relationships in your life. Someone values you and your path a lot. “Take the doughnut”*, as my new favorite book on living a creative life advises. Go you!

But lets get pragmatic, because love is lovely but I’m a cynic. Unless your friends are very wealthy people, nobody is buying art just to be nice. The scale of being nice is a very short one and your friends are probably on a tight financial leash like most everybody else. Your broke ass peeps will maybe spend a fiver on being nice. Maybe a ten or even, possibly, in a good week, a twenty. Additionally, whatever they buy from you has to go somewhere. Nobody spends money on something they’re gonna bin. So in addition to parting with funds, they need to negotiate for space with all the other things in their home. I don’t know about y’all, but I have neither money nor space in any great supply. Most people just don’t. And when they budget enough of both for your work, that’s more than loving you. That’s a sincere appreciation for the work you’re doing and a desire driven impulse to support it with their filthy lucre. Which is awesome.

But either way, the question of if your friends are sincerely loving your work, or just loving you? They are of equal value here. They both say good things about you and what you’re doing. Take the doughnut.

 

 

*In Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking, she tells a story relating to this subject. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation here. You can get the whole thing by reading it if you like (and I recommend you do because it’s a great book). Short version; the “doughnut” in question becomes a metaphor for help and/or validation in whatever form it comes. Just accepting that help without making it into a “Do I deserve/am I allowed” kind of thing. You deserve it. It’s allowed. The art police isn’t coming for you for impersonating an artist. You are one. No papers necessary. Take the doughnut.