On my heart, chainmail

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Trigger Warning: Self-harm & Ednos

When I first started having episodes again — confirming that me and my doctor’s original hope that a period of being medicated would break the cycle happening with my immune system was not going to work — it was devastating. I felt betrayed by my body and I wanted to punish it.

This is not a new phenomenon for me. Between the ages of 13 and 26, I committed various self-harming acts against myself. Cutting, burning, binge drinking, not eating, purging, unprotected sex with strangers, and so on. It’s not that I felt sorry for myself so much as I was trying to find a way to exist. It’s difficult to explain that sometimes you might cut yourself in small, controlled ways just to prevent yourself from slashing your wrists.

I have never been ashamed of my scars because I know that, for better or worse, it was how I survived.

People learn new ways to survive all the time.

Almost immediately following the realization that I was going to keep having the episodes, I found that I didn’t want to eat. Smug satisfaction filled me when I portioned out very limited and specific amounts of food that I would eat in a given day, mostly to prevent me from being sick or drawing attention to myself. If my stomach revolted, I inwardly scowled. You don’t deserve to eat! A cold rage burned in my bones. I didn’t care about losing weight or anything like that. I just wanted to punish my body.

I wanted the hunger to remind me to fight.

Then that determination shifted from day to day. Sometimes riding my bike outweighed heavily restricted eating, or if my husband guiltily suggested that we splurge on a “fancy” coffee. It became difficult to predict how I would feel from moment to moment, so I followed that current and observed myself with bemused detachment. Part of me hoped it would escalate. That I could stop pretending to “handle it well”.

One day after a lunch date with friends — coconut veg soup, water — it occurred to me that I was engaging in thoughts and behaviors that mimicked previous eras of believing myself to be completely out of control, crazy*, and damaged despite the fact that those things are not true about me.

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I feel intensely. Some moments are suffocating, they’re too heavy. Something small has to come forward to clear the air.

bike ride
a long walk
a perfectly brewed cup of Earl Grey
the way heavy whipping cream billows seductively when poured into black coffee
a middle of the day text from R asking how my day’s been so far
going to an art exhibition downtown
a surprise gift from a dear friend
stitching while enjoying an audiobook from the library
writing for small jobs and writing for myself
weather warm enough to enjoy an evening walk and an ice cream
crossing a line through completed chores on my list
a satisfying meal.

Moment to moment still feels uncertain, despite the fact that I eat pretty consistently now. I wrote most of this a week ago, but I feel reluctant to share it. What if I’m not done yet? What if I want to skip meals? What if I need to lie about eating and a loved one is suspicious? Most of the time, though, I realize that the small things are collectively helping me view myself differently.

Maybe I don’t need this secret. Maybe I don’t need a back up plan.

Yesterday my husband and I went for a bike ride, 10.2 miles to and from a local trail. I wanted to keep going, but we both had things to do that required us to go back home. It’s not just the cycling that makes me want to keep going, it’s the trees and the air and the wild flowers. It’s the fact that every time I feel surprised to be here.

I still want to fight. I just want the fight to go down differently. I want to triumph, not just survive.

—-

* The “crazy” I refer to here is the popular expression of female insanity. The madwoman in the attic. Gaslighting. Etc. In general, the traits I listed are meant to be regarded hyperbolically and in no way as a fair description of people struggling with self-harming behaviors.

WRITING + art, people, life

 

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A couple Thursdays ago I gave a talk at ETSU about art writing, which was also my first time doing anything like that. Thankfully I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this subject so I had plenty to say and organization of the overall lecture came fairly easily.

In my own experience as a writer and an artist, I have noticed there are a lot of overlapping characteristics between the two roles. To make the prospect of writing about art more approachable, I thought using a known frenemy for illumination would be helpful. 

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1. There’s no substitution for doing the work — Exactly how it sounds. If you’re not in your studio working, you can’t hope to make improvements as an artist and the same goes for writing.
2. Self-motivation is necessary — No one cares if you stop writing or making art once you graduate, except for maybe a handful of people who love you. It takes time and diligence to keep yourself going.
3. Seemingly unrelated assignments can get you closer to your goals / interests — I like how Neil Gaiman described this necessity when talking about the early part of his career:

Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes  it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.

4. Opportunities are sought, but also created — Opportunities exist for artists in a lot of different forms, such as juried exhibitions, exhibition proposals, grant proposals, etc. but there is also some creative problem solving required. Once we’ve made the work, how do we share it with people? How can we take steps toward our respective mountains?

I used Vision magazine, a student-run independent art publication in existence between 2007-2010 at ETSU, as an example. Robert Prowse, at the time a communications major who was friends with a lot of art students, recognized a deficit in art writing and exposure. Since he had experience selling advertisements for the East Tennessean, had taken some journalism courses and had connections with writers as well as artists, he was able to pull together strengths in various individuals (especially Ben Townsend Hamm, the art director of the magazine) to create a product that benefited many.

I wrote a few feature articles on students that they later used when applying to grad schools, which I also used when applying for writing jobs. When Jennifer Culp took over as editor, she was later able to use that experience for editorial and writing jobs. Some students learned about interviewing or reviewing subjects, other students learned about being interviewed and seeing their work discussed publicly in print.  It was a support structure that was needed and created within the community. No one gave them permission to do it or handed them the tools.

5. Communication with a known and (hopefully) unknown audience — Bouncing off of the above point, well, even good things that people love can fall apart. One of the primary reasons that Vision didn’t survive was because it kept speaking to and pooling resources from it’s known audience. Students are by default a transient demographic. Narrower still are the fine or studio art students.

During my talk I quoted Scott Contreras-Koterbay’s article, Elephants As Free Radicals, on Dennis McNett’s visit to ETSU  —

“I find myself often thinking at art world events that the only people who are there already approve of what’s being done; rarely do outsiders find their way into an art event, intimidated by the cliquishness of the community. Art that is for the art community merely speaks to the converted…”

Something I did not anticipate needing to do in regard to this talk was tricking artists and art students into caring about it. If we cannot stand to communicate or see ourselves translated for an audience, how can we possibly hope for anyone else to care? And if we only intend to speak to ourselves, to the converted, then what exactly is the point?

6. Engagement = Growth

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I ended my talk with two examples of how intentional and unintentional engagement with my community, which always involves some degree of willful vulnerability, stimulated questions, discussion, and growth. One worked out really well and the other did not.

When you’re writing about art and allowing it to exist within a larger context, it’s complexity and connections within vast territories grows. When you’re writing about art, you should be writing about people and life.

To caress my day

Discovering and re-discovering neighborhoods.

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We had a few days of warmth so people were out mowing their lawns, sitting and chatting on porches, smoking on stoops, hanging hammocks, and happily walking their dogs instead of merely tolerating the ritual. As it often does in northeast Tennessee, temperatures dipped down to freezing overnight and a lot of flowers died. In early spring everyone is hopeful for new growth, but we all walk around knowing the flowers and buds may die tomorrow. I have sometimes tried to coax the vibrant green beginnings of daffodils back into the ground. Just wait a bit longer. But they are just as eager as we are to feel the sun’s rays.

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I don’t think I understood before that there’s a difference between knowing you could lose what you have and being afraid you could lose what you have. When you know something could interrupt your life and remove people or things you value, it’s easier to feel the weight of a moment, even a very small one. You can appreciate it. When you’re afraid you’re going to lose a loved one or your home or your hair, etc. then you’re just collecting moments to enhance the melodrama of potential loss. You’re not present with those things.

As much as it hurts, that fear is a buffer between me and the real thing. It’s a safety net between me and the ferocity of my love, the vulnerability of existing in the universe.

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My work these days is both enriching of the present and of the preparatory kind. I am starting to feel really restless and I cannot bring myself to say, Just wait a bit longer.

Typically human of me

 

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I’m not sure how to talk about this because saying, “I’m disabled” doesn’t quite sound right. I am disabled, but there’s just something so heavy and restrictive about that statement, so final.

There’s nothing final about my experience.

My favorite part about riding my bike is the sense of autonomy I feel. For brief moments I look down at my legs and marvel at carrying myself miles away, up hills, down busy streets, fulfilling my own tasks. I am aware of the risks, but I feel confident that I could cope with those situations, and the confidence outweighing the fear makes me feel like I am the wind itself.

The first time I set out alone on my bike it was raining and cold. The house was empty with my husband and housemate each at their respective jobs. First I felt paralyzed with sadness, then I felt enraged by that paralysis. It felt like a poison. As I looked out the window trying desperately to think of what to do, I remembered how I felt days ago when my husband and I went for a bike ride that ended up being about 14 miles because I didn’t want to stop. I remembered the rage that kept building up and then dissipating with the next mile. I remembered how jubilantly I felt about my body’s power and ability.

As soon as I started pedaling, I knew I had made a good decision. The rain soaked me and my glasses fogged up. I almost cried several times, from equal parts sadness and gratitude.

I don’t have chronic pain. I have not lost any of my limbs. My hearing, vision, and sense of smell are all decent. I am not constantly sick from medical treatments. My body is not rapidly deteriorating under the burden of disease or illness. And even with those realities, people still do amazing things. Everyday.

Moments feel small to me lately. The giants have climbed back up the stalk and my house is not under threat of being smashed. Not right now. On a lovely Saturday afternoon my husband and I rode our bikes downtown to Atlantic Ale House for Noli tacos and beer. Others had the same idea, their bikes parked across from the cars while they congregated outside around picnic tables, leashed puppies, and cornhole boards. AAH is a small, new establishment, reflective of Johnson City’s development downtown. We were pleased to find that it’s style in no way points to a lack of substance. Our beers were delicious and I tried to make myself sip slowly while waiting for our tacos.

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R noted that just across the road are soup kitchens, low income housing, and for brief periods of time before they’re forced to disperse the occasional shanty town. Our city is not stranger than other cities in that signs of financial disparity are everywhere, but there is the peculiar balancing act of still feeling you have access to so much from below the poverty line without lying to yourself. To appreciate the wealth of a cold porter and fish tacos in the sunshine because there is this pleasure to be had for now.

I am starting to believe that our smallness is our greatest strength when we can embrace it. Especially combined with the fact that we’re so much bigger on the inside.

 

February mending

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February is my three year anniversary of having an abortion.

Anyone that has gone through an abortion knows that it’s a month long process at least. The exact day was February 17th. It was cold and lightly snowing on and off all week. I remember going for many walks prior to the procedure. I remember watching the trees through our second floor windows and saying nothing at all. I felt empty of words.

I suppose that’s why when I was bed-ridden and needed something to do with my hands, I turned to embroidery instead of drawing, writing, or painting. All familiar modes of expression felt too weighted compared to my delicate lightness. I learned later about the relationship between embroidery and death throughout history and realized I not only made space for myself to enact a traditional female role, but was making mourning embroidery. It had my blood on it. It spoke for me.

Embroidery taught me that you must love the scissors that sever and the needle that mends.

Eventually I started writing a lot, though in short fragments. I could not write a perfectly linear and coherent narrative because that’s not how I have experienced it. None of it has been shared much, for the likely and obvious reasons.

My desire to describe the trauma was born (pun intended) by the disappointment of how abortion is typically talked about, privately and publicly. Surely there are other people that feel devastated by having an abortion, yet also recognize that it’s better for themselves and the life growing inside them to terminate the pregnancy.

Actually, better isn’t really the word for it. I don’t know for certain what would have happened if I had not chosen to abort. I do know that me and my husband could barely afford to support ourselves and I had a lot of health problems that were already making pregnancy extremely difficult only eight weeks into it. I do know that I spent my whole life believing that I could not be a mother. That’s how I ended up pregnant in the first place. (The copious amount of whiskey didn’t help. That’s right. It can really only take one time, kids.)

Better is not the word for it. I have seen people pull through tremendous difficulties to establish and maintain the security and well-being of their families. I have also seen people become bitter, sad, demanding, or mean. Performing a biological function does not make you a giving, loving, and courageous human being.* It’s something you build, like a muscle, with repeated use. It’s something you learn to see in yourself.

I try to be giving, loving, and courageous. I know that when I am pregnant again someday, I will create a good home for my child. I’ve had almost three years to carry the memory of an ultrasound in my heart. Almost three years to learn how to be invested in myself and in a future that includes children who know love.

The time does not feel wasted. It would be a waste, however, if I continued to hide what has helped me grow so substantially.

About three years ago on February 17th I looked at an ultrasound and with a rare clarity regarded the tiny orb of life as perfect. It is still perfect.

* It is, of course, absolutely possible to be giving, loving, and courageous human beings without having any children. I just dislike the general assumption that birthing a child magically turns you into a parent.

Solitude vs. Isolation

I often seek external and indirect permission to do things. Sometimes it takes an embarrassingly long time to realize that I am doing it.

A lot of the fumbling that I do with blogging comes from asking myself, constantly, “Should I be writing this? Is it worth sharing? Why does it matter what I think or feel?”

The truth is that it doesn’t matter. Yet while I keep waiting for a worthwhile excuse to share or, even better, for at least a handful of people to say, “I’m interested in your thoughts and feelings,” the fact is I’m not sharing anything and writing less often than I feel inclined. Personal momentum carries me far, but with about a third of the way left to run, I start to think, What’s the point?

The like follows:
Where could this possibly be published?
Am I wasting my time?
Is it useful to even worry about where the writing ends up?
It’s nice to get paid. How do people get paid for things they write?
I don’t want to write short opinion pieces that simply amplify the latest outrage. So what should I hope to accomplish with my writing? What are realistic goals?
Is any kind of writing in service of Writing? 

I don’t know answers to all of those questions, but I’m fairly certain the answer to the last question is Yes.

In college, it was really hard for me and most of my peers to grasp that there is no way around the unglamorous, diligent work of being an artist. No matter how well you draw or how mature you are conceptually, your practice is just that – a practice. It wasn’t until, a few years in, I took a Figure Painting class that I observed first hand how beneficial it was simply to work regularly. Is painting a foot over and over conceptually rather dull? Yes. That is unless you can get over yourself, stop fantasizing about your future masterpieces, and earnestly take up the tremendous challenge of seeing and translating.

I could write privately in my journal – actually, I do, all the time – yet somehow I still feel the need to send out my thoughts and feelings. Maybe that’s weak or narcissistic or petty. I would like to think it’s because, sometimes, I need to be reminded that while I am working in relative solitude, I am not in isolation.

So, I’m going to try something new and different for me. I am going to write when I want, about whatever I want, and worry less about future masterpieces or permissions or appearing “poorly” to The Internet. I may regret this later and drop the whole thing. But for the time being, Hello.

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Things I’d like to see in 2015

  1. The end of white people claiming with desperate earnestness, “I don’t see color.” So many things wrong with that statement, I dare say, I can’t even.
  2. Jumpsuits. More jumpsuits. Everywhere. Except the kind that implies penal incarceration.
  3. Smut written by skilled, feminist writers. (Note: the gender and sexuality are not specified intentionally.)
  4. Whiskey rain storms. Preferably Woodford. Get on that, Jesus.
  5. The end to the necessity for lists on dating website profiles saying obvious things like, “Do not contact me if you want me to be your mom” or “Do not ever tell someone you have packed an overnight bag just in case.”
  6. Less “I don’t give a fuck” and more “I give the appropriate level of fucks most days because I’m a decent human being”.
  7. A study done to determine how cats make themselves 100x heavier when they are laying on a blanket you are “sharing”.
  8. For someone to call me a “mega babe”. I would also accept being grouped in with some “super babes”. I happen to know a lot of super babes so this seems more likely. Though none of them are in their early 20’s, so perhaps not.
  9. Any politician who makes blatantly incorrect claims about, say, climate change and does not within a few hours correct themselves publicly will immediately be removed from office. Kid President or Ellen Degeneres can take over until someone suitable replaces the former putz.
  10. Art trades that don’t involve me apologizing a million times for being such a slack ass about it. (I’m not going to start by apologizing again, but I will say that I have not forgotten those I owe work.)
  11. An orchid that survives.
  12. More singing. I love to sing. Did you know that? Probably not. It’s a secret. I don’t want it to be a secret anymore.
  13. For people to actually read their emails instead of skimming over them and making the whole effort at communication ineffectual for both parties.
  14. To come up with answer to “what do you want to do?” that is more than just “be a mermaid”.
  15. Three C’s: Curiosity, Compassion, and Courage. From me. From you. From everyone.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Art Domestic is moving

I’m moving the series Art Domestic to Tumblr. Partially because I’m not sure if I’m going to have a blog anymore — I’m not very good at maintaining it, obviously — and partially because Tumblr seems like a better format for it. I’m hoping the nature of Tumblr will encourage people to submit posts and to share the art in their homes.

Here’s the link: http://artdomestic.tumblr.com

p.s. If you want to make a submission, but don’t have a Tumblr account and have no desire to create one (understandable), you can still email submissions to me. Thanks!

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Art Domestic: Entries and Departures

September has really flown past. I can’t really account for steps forward or backward, only that it all feels like it’s part of the same dance.

There is a slender wall immediately adjacent to our bedroom door, which acts as mini entry area for us when we come home since it is also right beside the front door of our apartment. (If that sounds awkward, that’s because it is.) I wanted to collect an assortment of precious objects for entries and departures. When my friend Mira Gerard gave me one of her paintings a couple years ago, it fit right in.

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xx

Interested in participating? Check out the submission page. If a blog post seems like a hassle, you can also post to Twitter or Instagram under #artdomestic.

Art Domestic: Welcome to My Crib

Anyone that has rented an apartment in an old house or building knows that you’re likely to have weird or awkward spaces. Those spaces are typically part of the charm. Still, they can be a challenge at times.

For example, when your front door opens immediately into a narrow hallway and you’re not allowed to paint it, how exactly do you brighten or enliven that space? For a while we had paintings and such stacked salon style all the way up to the ceiling, but I had a drawer full of unframed art that I really wanted to liberate despite being unable to frame all of it.

This was our solution:

artdom1There’s a lot of stuff there so I’m not going to get into detail about each and every single piece. Most of the work I received as a gift or as part of a trade. I still plan to properly frame their artwork, but for now at least I can see most of it, which is especially important as people move onto other adventures in their lives.

artdom2In this section: Marie Porterfield Barry, Stephanie Streeter, Amanda Richardson, Liz Layton, Jessica Augier, Stephanie Ott, and just a corner of Ira Pratt’s octopus print. artdom3In this section: Liz Layton, Stacie Williams, Wyatt Moody, Reese Chamness, Marissa Schillaci-Kayton, Keaton Lawson, Stephanie Streeter, Jessica Augier, and Ira Pratt. artdom4Not all of it is art, as you can see. There are also a few wedding photos. We used to have more pictures up, but they kept felling off the shelf, so those are in a drawer for now.

In this section: There’s some more Liz Layton, Ira Pratt, and Marie Porterfield Barry work in this section. Charlie Haskins and Geoff Pratt each have a drawing poking out.

artdom5This is one of my favorite possessions. A little girl named Alex gave it to me.
artdom6“Little Womb” by Taylor Norris. This painting was part of her BFA show and I snatched it up. (Pun intended.)

artdom7Unfortunately I don’t remember what this silverpoint drawing it called, but I can tell you it was made by Jessica Augier when we were undergrad students together.

xx

Interested in participating? Check out the submission page. If a blog post seems like a hassle, you can also post to Twitter or Instagram under #artdomestic.