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.

Getting it off your chest

There’s this thing that happens at my shows. Maybe it happens to all of us that do this for a living, I don’t know. I should take an informal poll.
But people, when they’re browsing and we’re talking about the work, start talking about their lives. Not just “Hi, I’m a banker” but like, intimate, painful experiences. Their current troubles, their lost loved ones, divorces, alcoholic partners, abortions. They open right up like split pomegranates and hand you all these blood red seeds from their inside parts.

Last night a woman told me about her son who died of cancer, and how she’s coping with an autoimmune diagnosis that’s left her unable to work and how worried she is that her retirement won’t last her. Another told me she was a hospital chaplain, and talked about her work with the dying, and the loved ones of the dying, and how she felt her calling was to be a guide in these transitional places in life. This is just this last show. People do this all the time. It’s most often women, who, I think, are more apt to share themselves emotionally than men, but I’ve had guys unburden themselves to me as well. Generally women talk about their pain, and men talk about their love like it’s a secret they don’t want to admit to their dude bros, but my tent is a safe place to smile that soft smile when they say their partner’s name.

I don’t know why people do this. Is it art, talking about art, which so often revolves around the artists internal life and emotional experiences? Is it the personalities of creative people, because they tend to come off as open minded? Is it just me? Do I somehow create a space that feels safe and non-judgemental, so they feel it’s ok to pierce that bubble of strangerness and be whoever they are at that moment, feeling whatever they’re feeling openly?

Artists? You wanna weigh in here? Yoga teachers? Dancers? Is it a visual arts thing? I’d love to know your experiences.

It’s incredibly humbling. I feel like I need to honor this, whatever it is.
And they’re inclined to give me a hug or say thank you on their way out. Like I’ve done them a favor. And maybe I have. Maybe listening is a favor. Most people don’t really listen, they wait for their turn to speak, which are very different things.

My own experience with life’s difficulties tells me that mostly, people don’t want to hear about your shit. No matter how big an impact it has on you personally. And I get that to an extent. Everyone has their own troubles, and there are definitely vampires out there who seem to manufacture drama for dramas sake. But I think there’s sort of a culture of “I’m fine!” that’s grown up around us that makes it really hard to connect.

As someone with both major depressive and generalized anxiety disorder, I have a surplus of feels, and my whole life I’ve been made to feel as if my emotions are very inconvenient to other people. Which, to be honest, sucks. There isn’t much I can do about my chemical imbalances. I can’t help being worried all the time or so sad I can’t leave my house. It can be really alienating when people dismiss your feels, or treat them as if they’re not that big a deal. It’s challenging to open up to anyone after a lifetime of this. You assume they don’t want to hear it. Instead you become the life of the party and cry in corners and bathrooms and private places so nobody is inconvenienced by your issues.
To an extent, you should absolutely take responsibility for your own shit and not count on others to bear you up in your daily struggles with whatever your life has handed you in the way of challenges. But there’s a limit to an individual’s ability to go it alone, I think. We need each other. It’s cathartic to be open with people, and I don’t think people get that often enough in our current society. I think we’re too casual, too surface-y. Even though we’re really not. We’re really messy and complicated, but for some reason it’s not cool to seem that way.

And here’s me, a tattooed gal in a flowery hat and black lace babbling about transitions and the unconscious and bird mythology. Maybe they figure I’m into weird shit so there’s no way I’m going to think they’re weird just for being sad. Just for having a hard time with life. Maybe that’s why they hand me their private stash of pomegranate seeds with such regularity.

And? I don’t think you’re weird at all. I think you’re beautiful and complicated and normal. I think your emotions are yours and they’re valid. I think you’re strong enough to get through it. You ARE safe in my tent.

Wazzap?

I’m sure there are those of you who are all, “Wtf is As the Crow Flies Studio lately?”.
Shhhh, don’t mess with my delusion. I prefer to think you all love the hell outta my posts and the lack of them keeps you up at night. Validation, dammit!
Anyway.

I’m normally such an obsessive poster because FB is a douche canoe and I figure if I post all of the things, more of the people who have liked my page will actually see them. It’s a business page, so people seeing my bidness is pretty much the point.
I could be wrong, but short of hacking FB (May I request that? I mean, with all the hacking going on, surely someone with the skills is done enough with FBs jackassery to do it?), that’s my best plan.

But it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Shows! Art classes! Funerals!

Sadly yes, that last one is true. My mom’s best friend died suddenly last month and left her as the executor of her estate, so I’ve been as busy being helpful to her in whatever capacity she needs as anything else. I’ve learned valuable lessons from this. It’s enormously complicated to die in this country, and you should leave freakishly detailed instructions to your executor/family members, if you possibly can. Write a will. A looong and precise one, and update it periodically.
Consider giving someone power of attorney, just in case. We actually had to argue with the medical examiner because the deceased had no known family, and they were afraid if they released the body without power of attorney (which, according to the lawyer, ends with death, but they insisted on it anyway) some random unknown relative would come suing over the disposition of the remains at some later date. The funeral home had to get its legal department to draft a waiver exempting the medical examiners office of liability if that should happen, before they would turn over the deceased to my mother, who had her copy of the will naming her as executor, which is all she legally needed in the first place.
Also? Don’t hoard. Your survivors will have to figure out what to do with your stuff and that sucks because it’s emotional to have to sort through and dispose of the possessions of someone you cared about. So don’t have a bunch of extra shit lying around to make it harder for them.
The one upshot, weirdly, was the memorial. The departed was a very sassy old lady and sassy old ladies tend to have fun people in their lives who will eulogize them in hilariously touching ways.
So, yeah. That happened.

But, shows!
Red Door was down profit-wise from last year, but otherwise just as lovely an event. I blame the weather. Despite the almost constant presence of it in the Midwest (particularly along the shores of a large body of water), it continues to stump people. Chicagoans won’t leave the house if anything is falling out of the sky. And it was, so they didn’t. But the dip in fortunes was slight, and since I got such a positive reception and the organizers were, as before, really communicative and great to work with, I had a fine time anyway and look forward to next year. Even a great dane peeing on my display could not dampen my day. No, nothing was damaged, thank FSM, though his owner was kind of a jerk about it. Such is life. If that’s the worst thing that happens at a show in the coming year, I’m calling it a win.

And next up of course is Shop Jarvis Square, this coming Saturday in Rogers Park. Buncha bars, buncha artists, buncha bloody mary’s and a whole lotta awesome. I’ll be in R Public House, the first one in line coming from the train station. Dave will be there with lamps both new and funky and we’ll both be merry and bright because cocktails. Come out. Even if there’s stuff falling out of the sky. There’s a raffle! And discounts! And beer!

Lastly but hardly leastly (shut up spellcheck, you don’t think “thusly” is a word either so I don’t trust your squiggly red line anymore), art classes!
I’ve posted about my collage and assemblage classes with Lynn Whipple, my new favorite art doula. Now I’m taking something called a “Junk Book” class with Carla Sonheim, whose deal this is all been going through. Her hubs makes the videos and they live on her site. Mixed media, collage, watercolor, acrylic. I’m not sure there’s anything she doesn’t do.
I met her at one of the shows mah boo and I reconned in the spring and signed up for her mailing list because I liked her work so much. Best thing I’ve done in a long time, as it has turned out.
The class involves repurposing junk mail into an art book. Hence, junk book. There is drawing and painting with watercolors, neither of which I even kind of know how to do. Franken-junk is my jam. But what fun would life be if we never challenged ourselves? Hmmm? Besides, it’s important not to decide you suck at something until you’ve actually tried it. And then if it’s fun you can keep going, sucking at it notwithstanding. Sometimes you stop sucking with practice, and sometimes you don’t, but the bit about fun is the important bit.
The finished product should theoretically end up looking like so.

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Mine doesn’t yet, but I’m only 3 lessons in out of 6, so we’ll have to see.

These classes, btw, are available to all, online, for a way reasonable rate. They’re mostly short, one or two week deals that take you through a project and give you the tools to expand on your own from there. Go to http://www.carlasonheim.com/ and check out what’s available. Classes in all manner of art things, free tutorials, and ongoing contact with your classmates and the teachers through a given class’s FB and Flikr pages. It’s better than college if you ask me. But I don’t like mornings, or student loans. And there you go.

So that’s what’s up, y’all. I hope everybody has a good Whatever Holiday You Celebrate, or a good time ignoring them altogether.

Rage against the dying of the light

I don’t usually get the feels when someone famous dies. Which is why it’s surprising that I’m sad. But I am. I’m genuinely sad he’s gone.
Many of the brightest lights in the world live in a private darkness unimaginable to those observing from the outside. Some of them can exorcise enough of their demons through their art that they’re mostly ok. But many can’t.

While everyone mourns the artist, it would be good to remember that the art came from a place of desperation, as much art does. The link between mental illness and imbalance and the creative drive is well documented. There is a high rate of substance abuse, depression, institutionalization, and suicide among the artistic community and it’s something that is in part assisted by the fact that we don’t see and acknowledge it.
Of course you are responsible for yourself. For how you move in the world. Your brain and it’s issues and malfunctions are yours to navigate. But sometimes you need help. Help can’t find you if you don’t seek it. You can’t help someone if you can’t see they’re struggling.
But both seeking help and seeing the need for it in a society that shuns the mentally ill can be an overwhelming challenge. We have a long history of putting people away who can’t behave in a way that makes everyone around them comfortable. And the horrible truth of it is that oftentimes connection is the difference between dealing and dying. To feel as if you’re not alone in the dark. To know there’s a hand to grab on to if you start to sink too deep.

I imagine being so damn funny caused him problems with this. The “but you don’t look sick” mentality that people have. If you are not visibly ailing then you must be faking it, or it must not be that bad.
It is, in fact, that bad.

I wonder sometimes, if we lived in a more compassionate society, one where people genuinely looked after one another, would he have been able to get on top of it and survive for just a little longer. People don’t see one another. If we did, would he have made it?

I think it’s important to be open about mental illness and imbalance. Same as it’s important to be open about sexual assault, about grief, about all the bullshit that makes life hard to live. Because being in a darkness where there are hands to grab on to is vastly different than being in a darkness alone. Sometimes just knowing someone gets it is enough. But how do you know when no one talks about it? When you’re told to just suck it up and keep moving. Nobody wants to be dragged down.

Hey world, a lot of art comes from pain. Your favorite painters, poets, actors, writers, dancers, comedians, sculptors, many of them are struggling to find reasons to keep going. And that struggle, though invisible, is very real.
I spent years in and out of the hands of various mental health professionals and was briefly institutionalized. I have what’s called generalized anxiety disorder (characterized by a feeling of anxiousness and fear nearly every day), major depressive disorder (characterized by depression, loss of interest in daily activities, guilt, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts on an almost daily basis), and I have auditory and tactile hallucinations that aren’t related to schizophrenia. To a lesser extent I’m obsessive/compulsive and touch phobic (human contact freaks me out, but I’m fine with animals).
I have been told repeatedly that medication will help me. I choose not to be medicated.
I choose this because I feel very strongly about learning to adapt. I came from the factory with my wires crossed. There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s there forever. So I feel like it will benefit me most if I learn to work with the crazy, rather than struggling against it. To this end I create, do martial arts, yoga, meditate, and speak openly and candidly about all the bullshit that makes it hard to stay alive. You can choose to ignore or dismiss it, but understand that dismissal is partly why he died. We’re all connected in a very real way, and the attitude that makes for dismissal, on a huge scale, is a big part of what makes mental illness and imbalance so hard to navigate.

I’m not telling you all this so you can say, “gee, what a champ”. I’m telling you all this so you can see. His pain brought him down partly because nobody could see it properly, partly because he couldn’t find a hand in the dark. Learn to see. Learn to be open about what you’re dealing with. Learn to reach for a hand. There are services, free ones, you can contact. You have not failed if you need help. You just need help is all. Everybody does.
Look for help.
Be someones lifeline.
Survive.