Oh, goodness. It’s hard to write anything these days. I got out of the habit of documenting my work when a couple of venues got touchy about one’s work being published before a show. Now it feels very similar to when one goes without speaking for a long time and one’s voice is raspy. I don’t even know what to say, much less how to say it.
These will be at PIQF this week. They’re in the Domestic Mayhem series.
Shot From a Cannon
To be “shot from a cannon” is to be rapidly propelled into a new or overwhelming situation. This is about the feeling many of us have when we become parents, that we don’t know what the heck we’re doing and that the odds are against us, yet we have to keep trying. Sometimes we even feel like our lives have become a circus act.
Here’s a closeup. Dear lord, the squalling. The stench is probably overwhelming as well; there’s a good chance at least half of those babies are crying because they need a diaper change.
The Juggler is about the struggle we endure to keep all aspects of our personal and professional lives aloft. Alas, sometimes even six arms aren’t enough to avoid catastrophe.
I hope these will give people pleasure at the exhibit, although perhaps there’ll be the sort of “I wouldn’t give two cents for that!” reaction I once heard about a friend’s rather wonderful work. (Before – yes, I admit it – I loudly proclaimed that I knew the artist and I thought her work was very clever.)
Projectwise, I’m emulating Martha Ginn a bit at present. She’s a good person, a fine person to emulate; lately she’s been making a series of free-form quilts based on scraps and strips. Most of us have a bag or box of these squirreled away, and it’s nice to convert them to art, a bit of joy, even a utility quilt.
Mine are batik scraps which I bought for heaven knows what reason. I’m sure I thought the reason was good at the time, but the fact is that the bag has been languishing along with the many drawers of new, unused fabric I also had to have for “good” reasons. Once upon a time I would have looked at that fabric and regarded it as precious, that no project I could do could possibly live up to it. Now my relationship with “stuff” is changing as I peer down the years, hopefully decades, to my eventual demise. It is just stuff: it should either be enjoyed and used or given to someone else who will use it. I don’t want my legacy to be drawers of dusty, rotting fabric which went to waste and have to be thrown out when I die.
Although I’d like to get back to the point of creating some art, there isn’t much of me to do it at present. I’m wrung out. I sketch and I process ideas, but I’m not up to committing to a single idea, to a project which will probably take months to execute. A casual, strip-based utility quilt is a good project for right now, though. Fall is in the air, then there’ll be winter. It’ll be good to make something saturated and cheerful for the hound and the boy to snuggle under. A strip quilt doesn’t take much mental or emotional energy. I lay out the strips, find pleasing combinations, sew, trim. May the result give someone joy and use up some of those blasted batik scraps.
It has been a summer and a fall of mental processing. I do most of my processing in my journal, writing down incidents or thoughts as they come to me.
Sometimes my husband and I discuss the notion of personal “narratives”, or stories. We humans are great storytellers. I’ll go out on a limb and say that, barring the discovery that some other creature has language and an oral storytelling tradition, it’s one of the characteristics which differentiates us from other animals. We classify, we wonder, we tell stories. We tell stories about great human themes, as we try to understand our place in the universe, and we tell stories about ourselves.
We humans have lives comprised of many series of random incidents: we were driving to the store for a gallon of milk and saw a red sports car at the corner. We needed a job, and happened to run into an old friend who knew someone who knew someone. Tuesday we went in for dental cleaning. That kind of thing. There are millions upon millions of random incidents in even one person’s life.
We pick out salient bits and construct a story around them. A narrative. “I met my future husband when we were kids; he sat behind me in Trigonometry class. He was the most handsome fellow I’d ever seen. I was besotted. Over time, we became friends and started dating. We’ve been married ten years now, and they’ve been the best years of my life.”
Narratives can be really useful. We can’t and arguably shouldn’t analyze every tiny thing that goes on in our lives, every instance of a lizard scuttling across our paths or a piece of garbage ending up in our flower bed. It’s useful to be able to say “Oh, a kid must have tossed that there” and move on.
Unfortunately, sometimes we discover that our narratives don’t match reality, that they must be adjusted. I discovered that with my family. One of my personal stories involved a family which was quirky, but generally loving and supportive. It turned out to be inaccurate. I was in denial about that fact for a long time because, I guess, I can be rather dense where people are concerned, particularly when I’m really invested in an idea.
My husband has compared narratives to scientific hypotheses. In science, one does an experiment, collects data, then sees if a theory explains the data. Sometimes there are outlying data points which one tosses out. These particular data points don’t fit the theory and there aren’t many of them; maybe they were due to errors in collecting the data, or due to some other phenomenon.
Similarly, when we’re looking at our relationships or our personal stories, there can be outlying points. A loved one is sick or is having a lousy day and says some uncharacteristically harsh things. We don’t dwell on those incidents too much; bad days happen. We toss that “data” out. When we start to see more of those types of incidents, though, or we become aware that many were there all along, we start to question our theory. That is what happened to me, becoming conscious of those outlying data points and realizing that they were the norm, not the exception.
One typical example, not to get too personal: I was visiting my “home” town with husband in tow. I didn’t go there often, maybe once every year or so. I phoned my folks to ask them to lunch. My treat. There was a place in town which had the type of food they enjoyed, a place they hadn’t visited. I hoped it would be a nice outing for them. A lunch date was set. My husband and I drove to their place outside of town to pick them up at the appointed time.
When we arrived, no one was ready to go. There weren’t any signs of life, other than the usual ragtag group of dogs sprawled in a fenced area which was perpetually caked in mud and dog feces.
Inside the house, my stepmother plotzed on the couch in polyester stretch pants, watching reruns in the perpetual dark. I’m not sure she even looked up at me when I came in. “Where’s Dad?” I asked. “Upstairs taking a nap,” she mumbled.
Things went downhill from there. Nobody was ready to go. No one was interested in going. No one was glad to see me or to have me visit, despite the fact that I’d traveled 1700 miles and hadn’t been around in ages. No one had had the politeness to say “Oh, thanks for the invitation, but we’ll pass,” when I’d called. We’d driven way the heck and gone out to the house for nothing. There wasn’t even edible food in the house, meaning we’d been deprived of lunch ourselves.
I made one last attempt, describing the restaurant and its menu. “Where is that?” my stepmother asked absently, not taking her eyes off the TV screen. I described it. “Oh, that’s that place that was shut down by the health department.” Zing. Bank shot.
This was typical of interactions with my family. This was mild, actually. Perhaps the saddest thing is that I was so dense that I truly didn’t understand what was going on, that I was being treated in a manner that went beyond casual rudeness. They could and did do and say whatever they wished and I wouldn’t protest, because I didn’t comprehend what was happening. I couldn’t understand why visits with them left me sick, feeling awful, stressed out to the point that I ground my teeth and cracked them. It wasn’t until I had a kid myself and realized that I’d never treat him in this manner that I began to understand.
My narrative was all wrong. I’d invested a lot of myself in something that was only a fantasy.
This isn’t a particularly original story, of course. This type of thing has been going on for millenia. Maybe someone else could have handled the situation with my family better. “Yeah, they’re rude as hell and basically hate my guts, but they’re my family and I want to make sure they’re okay.” I didn’t have the emotional tools. I couldn’t swat away the nastiness like an annoying malaria-carrying mosquito. Now I get to try to mentally untangle it all. Maybe it will come untangled in my artwork; maybe it won’t.
Our stories aren’t always about family issues. Some of us get invested in, say, the story of the marriage which has a few problems but is basically sound, nothing serious that can’t be worked out. We push aside signs of serious trouble because they’re frightening and we don’t want that stuff in our story. We want to believe that everything is basically fine and is going to work out. Then one day our husband sits us down on the bed and tells us about a pass he made at a woman at work, and how the situation was serious enough that he had to have his work schedule changed. “She was there and had on this little skirt. She turned around in it and asked me how she looked.” The desire for this woman is in his eyes. Everything shatters, including us, and we realize we can’t ignore the cracks. Or maybe there’s a drinking problem or an abuse problem, and we pretend to buy into the person’s story and we hide the issue from everyone – including ourselves.
It pays to be clear-eyed about the stories we tell ourselves, to check them from time to time. We tend to look for facts or circumstances which support our narratives and discard things which don’t fit. Sometimes that’s harmless or okay. Simplifying things can help us make decisions, cut to the chase. However, sometimes we throw away information that was actually important. If we get too invested in a narrative which isn’t true, as I did with my family, it’s a bad way to live. The situation can be toxic, even dangerous.
Sometimes our stories have the power to alter reality, to come true. There’s that kid, for example, that rotten teenager who can’t do anything right. He starts trying to live down to our expectations. He flunks out of school, starts climbing out the window at night and doing heaven knows what. Sex, drugs, maybe turning over Port-O-Potties. Why not? He knows he’s a bad kid. Even his stepfather has told him that he’s a troublemaker and is going to wind up in jail. Sure enough, by the time the kid turns twenty, he’s been in jail a couple of times.
Then there’s the cousin who’s a “slut” rather than a “troubled young woman who could use encouragement and guidance”. She gets pregnant again and again and again. An adult could take her aside and try to intervene, try to get her into counseling or at least send the message that she matters. An adult could ask her about her plans for the future, encourage her to finish her GED and enroll in college, volunteer to watch the baby while she’s in class.
However, nobody does much to help the girl climb out of her hole because the story is that she’s a “slut”. Nobody expects much else from her because that’s what sluts do, run around and get pregnant. It’s too much trouble to actually do anything concrete. It’s far easier to gossip about her and call her a slut.
We humans are natural storytellers. It’s a necessary, useful skill. However, we can also damage ourselves and others with our stories. We should strive to be clear-eyed about the stories we write for ourselves, and kind and compassionate about the stories we write about others.
Tell a good story.