Counter Culture: Justin Beachler’s Babalon Working

In many ways, the late 2010’s are starting to resemble the 1960s. There is a new attitude of political distrust and a bitter sense that the country is trying to revert back to values that espouse racism, sexism, and recently, neo-fascism. While artists are busy finding ways to fight the swell of hate overtaking our country, Justin Beachler is bringing back hippie era coping mechanisms of occult magic, stoner dens, and tye-dye. His solo show, Babalon Working at Bunker Center for the Arts plays with the light and dark sides of 60s counterculture in an incense scented installation.

We met at his home studio to discuss the upcoming show at Bunker and take a look at the work in progress. “I was very interested in the 60s and psychedelic culture when I was younger. I’ve been making work about it since I was in Charlotte Street in 2013, creating Head Shop with Tim Brown from OK Mountain.”—an artist run collective in Austin. I didn’t see Head Shop, but I did see Beachler’s Old & In The Way last year at Haw Contemporary. The display of homemade water pipes made from flavored beverage bottles was congruent with Beachler’s interest in clashing colors and inelegant display. Haphazard as it looks, his aesthetic has specific origins. “When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in head shops and music stores. It was a weird capitalistic form of subculture. Everything in all the stores looked the same, with the same posters, the same weird dragon wizard holding a glass orb. And after I made the funny work, I went back to the darker side of psychedelic culture that I remember my childhood.” Beachler sites one particular experience that awakened him to the culture of drug use. “My dad’s a biker, and I remember being in these biker houses with him, in spaces with Easy Rider centerfolds everywhere. Once, I found a medical clamp with macramé woven to the bottom, with a roach clamped on the end. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. My dad stopped bringing me after that.” Pulling from this formative memory, Beachler reconstructed what he saw that day for Babalon Working, tying his own macramé helixes and found feather onto medical clips, now with sticks of incense pinched between the teeth instead of the last puff of a joint.

In his own words, Beachler describes his work as “frivolous and irresponsible.” Exploring the conceptual potential in consumer objects in a time great global distress is a way of watering down the conversations we need to be having. “The concept’s I’m working with aid in nothing but distraction from the serious cultural problems currently at hand,” he says of his work. The Internet has certainly provided us fantastic tools for distractions, and Beachler uses his Instagram feed to layer hyper-colorful and erotic stimuli into images of blended meaning. These posts are flavored like a bad acid trip, shrill and lurid enough to wipe all thoughts of political outrage from your mind for a moment during the scroll. Beachler’s posts are hard to untangle on a little screen and feel more like sketches of the finer art that enters the gallery. His posts contrast the phenomenon of using Instagram to sell a twee bohemian lifestyle, as many successful accounts portray the sun flared wanderlust dreams of the flower children. Beachler’s psychedelic/occult/erotica aesthetic leans into the digital age with a well-curated false reality.

The show’s title Babalon Working refers to a “sex magick ritual” performed by L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons in 1947 based on Aleister Crowley’s Scarlet Woman. The ritual was designed to manifest the liberated woman archetype, a stand-in for the Whore of Babylon. (Parsons felt he achieved this when he met Marjorie Cameron, but the second part of the ritual—impregnation—was unsuccessful.) Beachler relies heavily on myth and assumption to inform the audiences experience of his installation, which evokes a ritual recently completed in a dark area of the gallery. “Everyone has a different part of the story before they arrive at the gallery. I gave my friends one piece of information, the press another, and the gallery another. Nobody walks in with the full story.” He cites a party with the Terry Radio crew before he installed the bongs at Haw. One party-goer walked in and smiled, turned to a friend and said “We smoked out of those.”

Though the work lacks real authenticity (Beachler was born in 1981) it is palpable to an age group that grew up with the same occult culture curiosity and access to the internet in the early aughts. “The psychedelic thing is making a comeback, and the internet is full of it,” says Beachler, who grew up reading the classic drug experience review site Erowid.org. It’s a joke to equate a few tye-dyed tapestries and beaded curtains with any anti-capitalist and anti-consumer sentiment today, but Beachler sees this as a source of irony for today’s generation. “We’re using irony to fight a crippling sense of or hopelessness for the future. Irony is one of the only conceptual forms that feels right at this moment.”

 

First Days at Art Farm

June 2nd, 2017

I arrived at Art Farm yesterday late afternoon. I claimed my studio—a square hut at the edge of the property—and cleaned all the raccoon poop and old junk from the previous resident. My hut has no electricity or internet or water or a bathroom, but it’s a good hut. I’ve been trying to write and I realized I didn’t have any coffee this morning. I’m considering walking all the way back to drink some, but then I’ll have to walk out here again. The walking isn’t really what I’m worried about, it’s needing to use a bathroom and being so far away. Getting old is like that. I’m happy to get down to writing business again. How long has it been since I produced a complete story? A year? Six months? Too long, but the graduate school application and rejection ordeal had me thrown way off course. I thought by now I would have chosen a school and started to prepare to leave for a new city to focus all my energy on writing. But nothing is happening the way I pictured it.

I sat down to write in my hut and I listened to the birds and rabbits chirping in the grass. Women’s voices muttered outside the walls and I turned to the new residents coming to check out the hut. Nobody was there. I looked out the windows, the grass stretching for acres before meeting another landmark for civilization. I turned back to the computer and a half-baked sentence I was working with when I heard the muttering again. I stood and walked to the doorway to prepare for visitors, but again nobody was coming my way. I walked around the hut to see if there was something I had missed. Only empty birds nests, a white sheet hanging from a tree, and a machete stuck in the wood. Could it have been the wind rippling the thin metal blade? The empty gown in the tree? Was is coming from the walls of the hut?

I left to make coffee to prevent a withdrawal headache and burned my hand on hot water as I cleaned the machine. Mold grew from the filter left in over the winter, white and blooming like the cotton tufts that decorate the driveway. I ran clean water through and washed the entire thing again. There were no filters, so I tore off a piece of paper towel and tucked it in the funnel. I carried my coffee carefully back through the tall grass, the sun now burning the dew off the farm in the late morning, and sat back down at the laptop. The open door rattled against the brick I set out to prop it open and birds chattered in the tree outside my window. It is windy on the prairie. No women sang.

When the sun appears on the other side of the hut, I pack my things and head back to the farmhouse. I’m too slow to see the animals that dart off the path into the blanket of grass, but they are small and timid and, obviously, very fast. I think they might be rabbits. It gets dark in a way I’m not used to. The sky is everywhere, unbroken by buildings or tall trees or highways. When the sun goes down it takes a long time for the light to go with it. When it is finally dark, it is prairie dark, rich and infinite, the door to space flung wide. I forgot what real dark is like. It’s coming back to me. This last year I thought about Anne Boyer’s Not Writing poem a lot. What is not writing when you’re a writer? Does it make you something else, even when you spend all your time thinking about writing, and studying it, and feeling your way through it? I also thought about productivity and guilt. I have discussions with art school friends about this. When you are not in studio you are not moving forward, and when you are not moving forward you will be left behind. This was our mantra in college. Every moment of spare time, no matter what your personal environment is like or what life changes are happening, must be spent in studio making things. I am always writing, but I am not always producing great and interesting work. This is a hard ongoing reality for artists, because we compare our worst work to other artists’ best work, then admonish ourselves for not being brilliant on the first try. Does this ever change? So if I spent a year not being brilliant or attentive in the work I was making, it’s still a fairly small amount of time in the big picture. You can be not writing or not creating for as long as you need to get your thoughts in order, but it doesn’t make one not a writer or not an artist.

 

June 3rd, 2017

This morning I got up at 7:30 and had cereal. Nobody else was moving around the house until I was almost finished, then another resident came down and we listened to the news together. I walked to my hut and spent 30 minutes watching birds through the binoculars. There is a brilliant fire breasted Baltimore oriole that sits in the nearby tree. I watched a male brown-head Cowbird try and woo a female. How lucky! Then I watched three Cowbird’s try their luck at the same time, standing in a row on a T-post behind the female. They groomed themselves, puffed out, and tiptoed with backs straight and their heads tucked into their chests, and made high popping calls for attention, which I have been practicing with my cheeks to confuse the flock. When the female turned to look at them, they all pointed their beaks up and stretched up tall, flattening their wings against their iridescent bodies. She wasn’t impressed, or perhaps the mood was all wrong. When they fly, they produce an alarm clock rattle that is hard to ignore.

Starting to write again is strange–both new and familiar. I have good energy and willingness to sit down two or three times a day and work, taking short breaks for lunch and to recharge my laptop. Whatever is coming out of this is mixed, but at least I’m working those brain muscles again. Honestly, the months leading up to this have been difficult, and my energy was all caught up in not writing affairs. It’s good to have time, space, and a routine. Everyday I get up, eat breakfast, got to the hut and write, come back to the house and eat a sandwich, charge, go back to the hut and write, come back for dinner, and sometimes go back to the hut and write until the sun pierces the windows and bakes my brain.

Send good thoughts if you have some to spare. I’ll take what I write in the next two weeks to my writing group and have complete fiction up here again in no time.

Blood for Babies

The nurse marks a yellow smear of iodine on my vein and tapes the needle down. In a moment, the blood starts to flow into a clear bag. The bag rests near enough to my hand I can touch it and it surprises me by being warm. Of course it would be warm. It is the temperature of my body, of my flushed cheeks when the handsome nurse across the room runs his hand through his exhausted hair. My nurse gives me a rubber ball to squeeze and moves the blood bag away from my hand, pretending not to notice I have it pinched between my fingers. The warmth is gone. I give the rubber ball a series of pumps and feel the rush of heat trail down my arm.

“I try to do this every year,” I say to my nurse, a girl with blue eye shadow and red scrubs. She leans against the machine and crosses her arms. “My dad is a blood donor. He used to tell us about the cookies he got afterward. It made me want to donate when I was young.”

My nurse gazes up at the face of the clock. “Uh-huh. We have Oreo’s.”

There is a pretty round nurse chatting with a blonde square-headed man reclining in the chair next to mine. The man on the donation chair has a red blanket across his lap, which adds a certain sweetness to the bond between him and the nurse. Before I got to the donation center, someone—I like to think it was the nurse—tucked him in. He’s hooked up to a clunky machine that makes pops and hisses as it extracts and separates an oily yellow fluid from his blood. He and the nurse are watching a music video on her phone, I guess, to try and keep the man awake.

“My blood type is O negative,” I say.

“We’ll do a test later to determine your type.”

“I know my type. It’s O negative.” I squeeze the rubber ball again, feel the prick of the needle in my stretching vein.

“If that’s the case, your blood will go to our baby bag.”

“Your what?”

She glances down and kneads the bag, massaging into place the blood that falls evenly down, down.

“The baby bag. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Your blood will go to babies.”

“Oh.”

No more handsome nurse. I can see him in his regular clothes outside the window that faces the parking lot. He wears a messenger bag across his chest and is maybe younger than I guessed before. Twenty-eight?

“How long until I can donate again?” I ask casually. But I’m not smooth about it. She already saw me checking out the handsome nurse and gives me a dirty look.

“Sixty days,” she says. I squeeze my ball and check the blood bag. It starts looking full.

Two bags slowly fill up with the clear yellow platelets in the chair next to mine. If I saw this blonde man anywhere else, I would guess he was uncomfortably close to passing out.

“You’re almost done,” says his nurse. The man smiles, his grin a little dopey from all the extraction.

“Do a lot of babies need blood?” I ask. The donation has me lightheaded too.

My nurse shrugs. “More than you might expect.”

I don’t know what I expect. I expect babies to be healthy, to not need blood from strangers my age, who only walked in one afternoon because it occurred to them giving blood was something that must be done once in a while. Do I expect babies to need blood from other babies? It forces me to consider the age and plasticity of my blood, which has recycled itself for twenty-seven years, which I have dumped senseless amounts of toxins into an embarrassing number of times. If I have any relationship with my blood, it can be summed up in one word: careless.

“What about that stuff, the platelets?” I nod to the machine making quieter sounds now as it slows down the process.

“Spoken for at St. Luke’s General. A patient there needs this particular batch.” She seems bored with my conversation so I hold back my next series of questions. Together we watch the blood stream out of my arm and into the bag that will be transported to some babies, somewhere near us or far away.

In another ten minutes my bag is full and the nurse pulls the needle from my arm. She covers the entry wound with gauze and lifts my arm above my head. I am instructed to stay like that until the bleeding stops. When the bleeding stops, I am escorted to the snack area and given a bag of pretzels and a bottle of apple juice. The platelet man is at the table, eating a Nutter Butter, watching a cooking show. We sit there like kids, woozy, peckish, under the watchful eyes of the daytime nurses disinfecting the chairs we left behind. The small room smells like a hospital.

“How you feeling?” he asks. Without the blanket covering him, I see he’s in blue scrubs. He slurs, just a little.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ve done this lots of times.” He smiles another foolish grin and I wonder how long it takes the body to replenish the oily matter that binds our blood together. We eat and I watch the cooking show. It’s something I know how to do. Eventually, the man in blue scrubs who donated platelets gets up and wobbles off down a hall that leads to the back of the building. I sit alone a while longer and eat a second bag of snacks while the women on TV spread icing on a chocolate cake and engage in inane banter. Nobody comes or goes.

Ghost Post: Brad Hagen

There are 65 million refugees on our planet. We are currently facing the worst displacement crisis since the second world war, and America has decided to turn away people who are fleeing their homes in search of a better life. When I read Brad Hagen’s reaction to the temporary ban on travelers and immigrants in seven Muslim countries, I had to wonder if it’s possible to encourage people to learn and explore the ways of other cultures and religions without submitting to anger. Brad’s self-directed pursuit of understanding Iranian culture moves me to believe a more inclusive world is possible.

 

Iran in America

By Brad Hagen

Partly due to my own curiosity, and partly from being immersed in a community of Iranians at a young age, I’ve had a long standing love for Iranian culture- from its history and artistic traditions to the contemporary aesthetic of Persian pop culture, fashion, and the fascinating events that have shaped/are shaping the Iranian identity. I’ve been planning a two week tour of Iran for a while now. I’ve been doing a ton of research, making an itinerary, contacting a plethora of tour agencies and private tour guides, and taking Persian lessons. I am SO incredibly disappointed that this will no longer be a possibility since the Iranian government, in response to Trump’s insane ‘Muslim-ban’ (that excludes Saudi Arabia, the biggest funder/source of terrorism, as well as countries which he has business ties to) is not allowing US citizens into the country.

Immeasurably worse than my own inability to visit Iran is the situation of the over one million Iranian-Americans that after having endured legally emigrating to a new country now find themselves isolated from loved ones back in Iran. It is extremely frustrating that Iranians are continuously used as political fodder to push conservative agendas and drum up defensive, militaristic agendas, especially since they are a population which has a surprising enthusiasm for Americans and American culture. Part of that enthusiasm is because SO many Iranians live here in the US. The large Iranian population in America has created millions of family ties between Iran and the US and allowed for Iranian popular culture to resettle, primarily in LA, meaning a lot of music and other facets of contemporary Iranian identity are created and exported from the US.

Sadly, Iranians are viewed through the lens of events that happened in 1979, and the vast majority of Americans are entirely oblivious of what led to the so-called Islamic revolution and establishment of the current political system in Iran. America, which is so proud of liberating itself from a king to establish the first democracy, orchestrated a coup to overthrow Iran’s first democracy in 1953 when the democratically elected president Mossadegh decided to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and redirect profits to the Iranian people. America then put in place a KING (note the hypocrisy) that was beholden to American corporate and military interests- often at the expense of his own people. America responded to the 1979 revolution against the American-backed government by fueling the war and bloodshed between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, selling massive amounts of weapons to both sides to create weakened, vulnerable, (and oil-rich) states. It has since crippled everyday Iranian people with sanctions, and now labels them as potential terrorists from the “axis of evil.”

To be clear, the Iranian people living in the US have never committed a religiously/ideologically inspired attack against Americans WHATSOEVER. People need to look at history as a whole, and start viewing Mulsim-majority countries in a fresh way. The frustration felt by many in these countries is not some religiously-inspired insanity or macho-tribal-jealousy of America’s power. These are complex, multi-faceted, modern people with depth, ability, and the right to be self-determining. I’ve allowed myself to be the only American in large gatherings of Persians repeatedly from the age of 12 to age 23, working at the Persian Culture conference in Chicago, to age 28 when I went to the Greater KC Norooz concert. In the beginning it was awkward but repeatedly allowing that experience of vulnerability in a group I didn’t initially identify with has been healing. As I was met with love and friendship and exposed to new things my sense of self has grown to incorporate a culture and group of people that conventional wisdom would have me fear.

Allowing this vulnerability is the only way to truly overcome prejudice and ignite the empathy and emotional investment in other groups of people necessary to deeply care about their well being. So, until I can go to Iran, thank you to all the Iranian friends I’ve had who have always responded with such kindness and inclusion towards me, and encouraged my interest in their culture.

Unwanted Gifts: Quilt

One Christmas, after I had grown up and moved away and started and then ignored my own traditions, my best friend gave me this blanket. It’s made from used saris and hand stitched in India. The fibers came to me already worn and handled, containing a personal history of all its previous wearers. Reincarnation, rebirth and regeneration are common beliefs in Eastern religions, and this blanket embodies the ethics of this code. My friend found it and thought of me, and I know she didn’t over-think it. If you look close, you can see the places in the fibers where the seamstress made a mistake and, instead of starting over, used a patch of cloth to cover the flaw.

When I met my best friend, we were both starting over in Kansas City for the same reasons. We both came from the Midwest and from divorced parents. Both our mothers started living with a woman. Both of us fought with our fathers about the same things. We had all these things in common, but one thing made us very different: she was amazing at giving gifts and I was terrible at it. This blanket hits me right where all our words never could, and even though we stopped speaking to each other about a year ago, I still have it. Maybe it’s the cold child in me that can’t let go of something that keeps me warm, as if I am still sleeping pressed up against the wall over the heating vent in a bitter Wisconsin winter, waiting for the breath of hot air that kicked on for five minutes every hour.

I don’t like getting gifts because one year I ended up with two of everything. “Why do you have two moms?” I remember the unintentionally cruel question from the other middle school students. “If your mom is gay does that mean you’re gay too?” I didn’t have an answer to that question, thinking my mother’s gayness was a phase that would recede when she was done being angry at my father. Instead, she and my step mom moved into a house together, interlocking our lives, and all of our things. My mother’s house reflected her newly uncovered sexuality. 2000 was a glamorous time for two women in their 40s. We had two dogs, two couches, two televisions, two cars, two sets of knives and two sets of pots for two moms to ignore while they went out to places with names like Juniper and Gads.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the zip code, our father’s house became a museum. He kept close the hand-crafted objects collected from his travels around the world, things that couldn’t simply be duplicated or replaced. He’d downsized to a ranch with a dark interior, where he curated the rooms to reflect the kind of single man he could finally be. With a cigar hanging from his lips, expensive black caviar under his fingernails, and a useless hunting dog sighing with his head on my fathers lap, he presided over this home where he could sink into the natural state of his shibboleth. His house slowly transformed into the colors and odors of a Flemish painting, where it always smelled faintly like Limburger cheese and it was somehow always winter.

Bedding is a powerful thing. When children suddenly have to choose whose house their beloved bed and covers and pillows go to, the other parent goes out and hastily finds a small creaky frame and scratchy wool blankets that smell like dust in an attic. The second bed is never as nice as the first. It’s always a little too small, a little too old, and lumpy in places a ninety pound child can feel poking into her ribcage. Blankets can ruin a perfect bed, and they can make perfect a ruined bed. A blanket is the ultimate symbol of a new beginning.

My best friend knew these truths, because she lived through them too. She knows the value of a blanket. It must be warm enough to make it through the winter when one parent was cheap with the heat. It must be pretty enough that friends who sleep over will be jealous of it. It must be light enough to wrap around our shoulders and walk to the kitchen like that on a Saturday morning.

I ask myself: how can a person who knows so much about me one day not be a part of my life? The end of our friendship left behind all these textures I don’t understand but am now responsible for mending. Were her gifts a way to cover up the holes in our friendship, and did I hold up my end by providing the patches we could use to mend it? Or did we avoid talking about what made us tick because we have the same emotional guards that characterize children whose parents made them the weapon?

So how do we face unwanted gifts without facing our own history and our own shortcomings? The comfort of the objects we seek out only serve to reaffirm who we believe—in our most generous way—we really are. It’s easy to do what my parents did, to fill our homes with objects that reflect our ideal self back upon us. It’s easy to gloss over our faults and flaws with things that keep us bobbing on the surface above our chaotic emotional depths. To disrupt this dream is to be a better human. We must find some objective flaws to remind us we have them in the first place.

Obviously I kept the blanket. I sleep with it every night and I wrap it around me when I eat cereal hungover on my couch. I finger the threads and trace the patches that cap a hole to protect the delicate insides. I think about my friend and where she is, how she’s doing, and if we’ll ever really be friends again. What else are we supposed to do with the parts of ourselves we have a difficult time facing?

This is how you deal with an object given to you by someone you love who is no longer part of your life: hold it closer. Recognize the parts you haven’t patched up are not broken, but simply incomplete. An unwanted object, one with patches and stitches in the places that were torn, can remind us to do the only thing left to do after something is damaged: repair.

quilt

Listen to the live version from David Wayne Reed’s Shelf Life series.

Holiday Special

december

Contact: annie.raab@gmail.com

I’ve seen a lot of artists use their work for good, especially in light of recent American developments. Sometimes I don’t know how to use my writing to construct a better world, but this December, that will change.

You’ve seen my rates & services. You’ve thought about your business, or art practice, or self-promotion. You’ve thought about hiring a writer to take on some of the work for you, but were waiting for the right moment. That moment is now.

For every project I work on in December, I will take 20% off my usual rates as a holiday gift to you.

But wait, there’s more!

I want to live in a world we can be proud of. That’s why I’m donating 50% of my December project profits to one of these organizations:

Earth Justice

Campaign Zero

The Trevor Project

Planned Parenthood

NODAPL (various places to donate)

When you hire me as your writer, you get to decide which of these organizations you would like to see the money donated. This is a small way for us to support those who are committed to building a better world for us to live in. Donating is just the beginning, but it’s the least we can do to begin to find peace during the giving season.

I hope you will join me in the fight for compassion and equality.

Love, and happy holidays,

Annie Raab

 

Rabbit

I started hanging clothes when the dryer broke. I don’t know what went wrong, but after an hour and a half of tumbling, our bed sheets still weren’t dry. We have two big trees in the yard that are perfect for a clothesline. I sank a nail into each and wound a strong piece of twine from one to the other. The taut line came up to my eyebrows, a tiny hay colored line that defined our green horizon. I draped the sheets and towels and our shirts over it and watched them wave like flags on the wind. I don’t know why I didn’t tell my husband.

He never goes out back anyway. He makes it as far as the garage, stumbling around in the dark like an anguished ghost that haunts the gardening tools. I never took apart the workbench or the board with nails and hooks that hold up his tools. The tools are still hung in an irregular grid, each empty hole between the nails a socket without an eye. My husband worries I will sell his tools now that he cannot use them. I have seen men with four fingers build cabinets with secret drawers and dovetail joints. A blind man can fix a deck chair.

The tools in the garage are rusty. If we need something fixed, my husband has me drive him to the hardware store. I walk him to the counter and watch him take over. He holds the broken object out in both hands, talking to the guy about what went wrong and how he suspects it happened. I watch the guy nod, then slowly catch on and begin to say “yes” and “ok” instead. It took me a long time to get used to that. It was like being on the radio when you were used to being on TV.

So that is how we fix things now. The tools in the garage are just there for him to visit, to put his hands on and sigh, like he used to, but deeper.

He trapped rabbits as a child in the English countryside. He had a terrier and knew the intricate knots of a snare that could pop a rabbit’s foot off. He says he will never forget the sight of the animals thrashing in the wire, caught in the invisible leghold over the entrance to the hole. We have a picture of that little boy with a rabbit slung on his shoulder. The boy’s eyes are sullen to the rabbit’s lifeless black beads, two dark pits that trap light down inside. But the memories, my husband assures me, are pleasant. I wonder if all memories change when you lose something so integral to your being, if I would remember restless legs with fondness if I were cut off at the knees.

We adjusted to the practical chores. I took over most of the hard ones. Driving, slicing bread, doing anything that requires a relatively straight line. My husband does the other things: fluff the throw pillows, feed the dog. Mostly he walks around bumping his knees on furniture. I sometimes forget to move chairs back after I vacuum. The bruises on his shins and knees stir up the guilt inside me, as if I was the one responsible for his loss, in some tertiary way. He refuses to get a stick even though our insurance will cover one. He says it would make him feel like an invalid, like something that was canceled midway through production.

“It would help you move around. Become an independent,” I say.

“I’m already independent. I can do everything like before.”

I catch myself watching him like one watches a baby learning to crawl, ready to leap forward and knock aside anything that stands in his way. But he is careful, walking with his hands facing forward, re-remembering the walls. I wait until he is seated by the radio before I bring the clothes inside from the new drying line.

It’s the little things that are hard for him. It bothers him if I change the hand soap in the bathroom from coconut to lemon, or if I let the batteries die in the kitchen clock. He never complains, but I catch him sniffing the pump with a disapproving frown, or standing in the kitchen holding his breath, anticipating the next tick like an absent heartbeat. He steps on things. Maybe not more than he did before, but now his tactile instinct is heightened and sharp. Last week he brought me a button that fell off his shirt two years ago and asked me to sew it back on. I don’t know how he knew which button he had found, but as he peeled it off the bottom of his foot, his exact words were, “Janey, will you sew this white button back on my grey shirt?” He can tell by the sound the cheap bulbs make in the lamp when they will burn out, as if the darkness he lives in lures our home through its unbroken tunnel one watt at a time.

I thought it wouldn’t matter now if I cut my hair. When I came home from the parlor he could smell the styling gel, the fancy shampoo. He felt my hair with his fingers and frowned. “I don’t like it,” he said. I reached for his face next, traced the crevasse on his temple the color of new skin. “Too bad,” I said.

I let it all grow back.

My eyes pop open in the middle of the night, surrounded in darkness at the center of the rabbit’s moonless eye. I slide my hand through the indents on his chest in search of a heartbeat. It bumps against my hand. I put my head back on the pillow. It smells like cool, fresh air, or wind coming off a frozen lake. After two years, I’m still the only one with nightmares.

I try the dryer again but it still doesn’t work. Summer is almost over. It will be pleasant to air dry for the remaining weeks. As I gather the wet clothes in my arms to take to the clothesline, a sputter catches outside the backyard window. I look to see my husband leaning against the mower. He toes the edge of the grass with his shoe and pushes off in a steady line, confident now behind his favorite tool.

The mower roars over my shout.

The wide lines of shorn grass are irregular, but it doesn’t matter to him. I watch him push forward like a hare headed for a trap, about to catch, but happy at the moment to be flying.

 

New Published Work and Updates

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a personal update for the blog. I spent the last couple months getting my life out of a tailspin. Now that my plane has somewhat stabilized, I have good news and new adventures to announce.

One year ago, I was accepted to Green Olive Arts in Morocco. The residency, writing, and following travel this spring and summer was everything I hoped it would be, and in the time since I’ve been home, I’ve slowly edited a few stories to completion. You can read about the experience here. You might have read two of these stories, but the rest have not been made public. Fear not! A small handmade chapbook of selected writings will be made available soon. In the meantime, you can still purchase Interiors here if you have not read those four.

Now for the big news: Right now, you can head on over to On The Premises and read my newly published piece, The Frayed Edge, which won an honorable mention out of 403 entries in the 2016 “Darkness” themed contest. I’ve sent this story out to many literary magazines, but this is the first time it’s been made available to a wide public. I was always fond of this piece.

Another story, Survivors, has been shortlisted on TSS: The Short Story for their 2016 quarterly competition. This one is pretty heavy, but it’s one of my personal favorites. Winners will be announced at the end of the month.

You can head over to my awesome friend Jessica Conoley’s website for my KC Writes interview and hear me talk about why I need to write fiction, the secret reason I write criticism, and generally what it’s like to live in my brain. Conoley’s podcast is a must-hear for KC writers and readers.

As far as art writing goes, I’ve spent the last couple months plotting my freelance business and figuring out my rates and availability. For Kansas Citians, this means artists, galleries, individuals, and small businesses will be able to hire me for projects that require writing. Brochures, books, copy, statements, reviews, grants–you name it, I can write it. Contact me through my email if you have any questions or want to discuss a project.

My recent critical work for the 2016 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards Exhibition came in this snazzy brochure and is available at the Kemper Crossroads gallery until the exhibition closes January 7th, 2017. I got to visit each of the artists in their studios, discuss their creative processes, and interpret the excellent work I saw.

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Madeline Gallucci holds up the brochure against the real thing. Photo credit Madeline Gallucci

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They made me take a picture

I will have some new fiction for you to preview in the coming weeks. I have been busy with freelance projects and art writing, but I have some fiction in the shop. Writing is a slow process for me, so thanks for being patient as I organize my life outside of my fiction and get some necessary things in order.

My sincerest THANK YOU to everyone who keeps up and everyone who supports my work by reading and sharing. It’s rewarding to know I have readers out there!

-Annie

 

Ghost Post: Rhiannon Dickerson

Welcome to my Ghost Post series, an occasional divide from the usual content that tackles subject matter I want to make discussion room for. This post comes from Kansas City poet and lecturer Rhiannon Dickerson, who had a powerful reaction to this year’s election cycle controversy and is a general badass feminist with a strong voice. Her personal experience of sexism and abuse struck me as an important topic to make available to a wide readership, given the distance we still have to travel to make this kind of story a thing of the past.

Every Woman I Know

By Rhiannon Dickerson

Driving to the store this weekend, my daughters and I were listening to the local news when we heard the audio of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting a woman. I quickly turned off the radio, parked, and went into the store. As we navigated the aisles for my soon-to-be 10-year old daughter, Isabel’s birthday, deciding between emoji party cups or princess cups, I was only half-present, preoccupied with what my daughters heard on the radio, and the conversation I’d need to have. Earlier this summer, we all watched Hillary accept the Democratic nomination, and it was Isabel’s enthusiasm for Chelsea, and Hillary that, for the first time in this election, I felt inspired. She watched their speeches closely. She listened to powerful women confidently espouse their views, and their experiences, and she was moved to tears. It was seeing her see these women that made me fully realize the importance of this moment historically.

We headed back out to the car, our cart full of pre-teen party goods. I wanted to talk to the girls alone—in a safe space without men. And I was conflicted—I didn’t want them to feel scared, but I wanted them to know there’s always danger around us as women, as girls. I turned around in my seat and I told them what sexual assault meant. We practiced saying, “No” firmly, and without any explanation. We practiced saying, “My body. My rules.” I steadied myself with every “No.” But the thing is we all know those words won’t protect us. I felt powerless as I put on a brave front. I kept thinking about this app I saw on Facebook earlier in the day. It’s an app you can use as you walk to your car—Safe Trek, I think. You simply open the app, and keep your finger on the icon until you reach your car, and then you text in a preset code. If you release the icon and don’t enter your code in 10 seconds, police are notified. We aren’t safe even walking to our cars, I thought. We’re not safe anywhere.

When I was a young girl, my mom taught me about the “oh-oh” feeling, and what to do if anyone ever made me feel that way. My mother was a survivor of sexual assault from her family, from strangers, and from her partners. As women this is part of our everyday lives. Every day. Every woman. Fear, violence, casual sexism, misogyny, looking over our shoulders as we walk down the street, as we walk to our cars, the fact that statistically speaking, we’re in spaces with rapists every day unbeknownst to us.

My first memory is from when I was 3 or so. I was sitting at the top of the stairs, my baby brother asleep in the next room. It was late at night, and I was supposed to be in bed, but I was listening to the sound of my mother being beaten downstairs. I was only 3. I was powerless. I felt powerless.  Years later, in a different house, after my mother left him, he showed up one morning intent on getting in. He tried to break down the door with my brother’s bike, and I was relieved he hadn’t used mine, and ashamed I felt relieved. His girlfriend sat in the car in front of our house. In my memory, she’s checking her lipstick in the mirror. We left through the back door, my mother’s open robe fluttering in the wind as we ran to the fence and she pushed us over. We moved in silence. It was a wooden slat fence and it was so high I can’t imagine how she made it over. Our neighbor—whom we’d never met—was startled when we fell into her yard. She was signing paperwork with the Orkin man who gave us coloring books with pictures of cockroaches while my mother called the police.

When I was 27, I was strangled (it’s still painful to write that word). My boyfriend, someone I loved and trusted, someone I knew since I was 10 years old, 6’3” 280 pounds pressed me to the floor, his hands on my throat, my fingers struggling to scratch his face, or push him off, or gouge his eyes. For years part of me was still lying on the basement floor trying to breathe, trying to leave.

And it’s every woman I know. It’s every woman you know.

By the time I was 16, six of my closest friends and family had been sexually assaulted by men they knew. I’m 35 now, and I can’t count the women anymore. And we don’t talk about it except sometimes when we’ve had enough to drink to let the stop out of our throats, to let the scream out of lungs, to move past the shame to rage. We don’t talk about it. So when you call it “lewd” or “crass” or “locker room banter”, you create a safe space for misogyny, you perpetuate its existence, diminish its reality, and side with the abuser. You leave me on the basement floor trying to understand what happened, what I did, and what I should have done differently.

***

People are asking: are we normalizing sexual assault in these conversations? No. These conversations demonstrate that it is already normalized. Violence against women is accepted, or ignored and implicitly condoned, sometimes encouraged, and often sexualized. It’s part of the fabric of America, part of the fabric of patriarchal oppression, part of what it means to be a woman in the world.  They call it locker room banter because the locker room is the apex of American masculinity, and because masculinity has always required demonstrating power over women, because sexual violence against women affirms masculinity, because patriarchy has never valued women, but does value violence against them. The locker room is the acme of American masculinity—but these values are evident in the board room, the war zone, school room, golf course, and now, the presidential stage. These values are evident in the constitution when they say “all men are created equal” and didn’t mean women—because, well, women have always been dehumanized and objectified.

We’ve never been treated equally. And I’m a white ciswoman. Many folks experience this exponentially more than I have. Misogyny against women of color, against transwomen—is excused, dismissed, ignored and justified far more often. Because culturally, historically, and legally we’ve dehumanized our sisters of color with greater potency and frequency than their white, or cis counterparts.  We’ve come so far, I want to think. My daughters feel empowered by possibility. We have a major party female presidential candidate. But standing next to her on that stage is a self-confessed sexual predator (and let’s not forget, a racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, narcissist) and the crowd is cheering for him; they’re applauding. The most terrifying thing is that that stage reflects every room in America. Every step towards progress is met by a creepy, powerful man who gives you the “oh-oh” feeling as he stalks the stage behind you, as he demands that you should be ashamed of yourself, as he talks over you, and he devalues your humanity, and ridicules your ability. Every woman I know. Every stage we’re on. He is some of the men we know. Men you know. Men we love. Men we sleep with, and men we teach. Our grandfathers. Our sons. Our presidential candidates. They are everywhere, and it is terrifying.

I watched the town hall debate, and I cried into my hands to stifle the sobbing—where the hell was that trigger warning? I felt like I was at the top of the staircase again listening to my mother being beaten, listening to women everywhere try to muffle their screams so they don’t wake up the children, running away at night with nothing—no bags, no shoes, even—in an attempt to flee before he wakes. I felt like I was in the police car again deciding not to press charges. I felt threatened and disempowered and fucking scared. I’ll be having long talks with my son about consent, about respect, about sexuality, and masculinity. I’ll remind my daughters that our bodies are ours, and that we live in a world that wants to take our power away, that “No” is a word that doesn’t need explanation.

But, men—this shit is on you. Have you excused or justified or minimized violence against women? Have you taken the side of the abuser? Have you laughed at “locker room banter”? Have you made rape jokes? Harassed women on the street? Have you wondered what she was wearing or what she said before he hit her? Have you blamed women for the violence against them? Have you softened the edges of assault by calling it “lewd language”? Have you created a safe space for violent abusers? Have you kept quiet when you should have stood up? Are you part of rape culture?

Dig deep, y’all, because this isn’t new, and it isn’t going away. It’s every woman I know, and some of the men, too.

The Story of Real Person

Has it ever, in the history of Real People, been a good idea to mend old, wretched, unrequited love? Real People are not people in stories. Things don’t work out for Real People the way things work out in love stories. A packaged ending does not neatly appear before Real People. The last sentence of a love story might be their expression of a love that never died, and fade out to a description of the sun setting, the street slowing down, his face betraying some glimmer of a shared emotion and hope for the future. This is a beautiful finale for a love story! Wouldn’t the reader prefer one of these stories? Go away. Leave this tragic tale aside. Leave it to crumble or blow away or wait for the language to die so that nobody else need be subject to whatever you will find at the end of this story. Go read your story with the beautiful ending, when the man leans over to kiss the girl and the last rays of sun sparkle in a show of silent fireworks. Sadly, Real People are left standing in the street as a possum scurries under a car, a man hocks a glob of spit on the sidewalk, facing an old flame who, in the dimming sunlight, was easily confused as bearing a tender expression. But now in the drooping darkness a Real Person can see that the expression on his face was disgust and pity all along. A confession of this caliber is best done as the Real Person pitches herself off a high peak and shouts their admission to the old lover over one shoulder, so as to never face the consequence and total shame of clinging to a love for someone who doesn’t love them back.

The reader can think of many stories that feature unrequited love as a central theme, a literary ‘carrot-on-the-stick’ to drive the reader towards the answer to the question ‘will they or won’t they?’ This happens to Real People too, but in Real Life, it is neither comedic nor tragic, but it is very messy and rarely resolved in a satisfying way. Real People must choose a life of sorrowful remembrance, to fill the void with someone who will treat them good and kind. Or the Real Person will take the alternate route, which leads them right into the path of the old flame, where there is opportunity for confrontation and confession. Or they can go to jail. Real People understand the aftermath of a passionate speech, which would be so romantic if followed by a deep physical fusion between the two, but could also result in a lawsuit.

But this is not the Real Person we’re dealing with. This Real Person has goals, ambition. She is not dumb. She is merely conflicted. And you, my reader, are in charge of the outcome of this story.

The Real Person is the person in this story. She has her life somewhat together, like a Real Person who survives heartbreak would. She is not some two-dimensional character with three or four descriptive eccentricities, like the way she rakes her flyaways back on her head when she is anxious, or likes the feel of pins and needles in her hand when she sleeps holding her breast, out of habit. What kind of Real Person would she be if the author told the reader she orders almond squares from the bakery and scrapes off the slivered nuts before eating, seeking out the gooey texture of the pastry and not the almonds themselves? Perhaps positioning the reader to empathize and relate to her in ways predestined by the author is not fair for this character. She is a Real Person, and you can decide her best and worst qualities.

For the sake of narrative ease, the reader may choose the name of a woman they loved once and now find absolutely contemptible in every way. This will give the reader a chance to reevaluate their conceptions about the Real Person as they come to love her again, or at least acknowledge her imperfections as part of a greater, more complete whole. Her name will also create empathy for the character of the man she once loved, because the reader will be in the position of the man she confronts at the end of the story. Do whatever you want. But the name you assign her should be the most loaded name for a woman you can think of, a name that makes your heart quiver with a strong emotions—any strong emotion, really, because emotions that are brought up to their absolute peak resemble other emotions that, on a lower end of the emotional gauge, are the total opposite of the one you feel. Try it. Give this Real Person a name.

So which is it? Who is she? Is her name Miriam, or Jane, or Rachel, or Taylor, or Rue, or Hua, or Prophecy, or Paige, or Ming, or Donna, or Katarina, or Ash, or Jess, or Bette, or Susan, or Mona, or Louise? Have you said the name aloud, to make sure you are not giving this Real Person a name that peels off your tongue like a bitter leaf? Right now the reader probably feels many things for the character with the same name as a woman in their life, among these feelings is a deep respect for the authors craft and manipulation of the readers mind, an admiration for bringing up a painful past in a graceful way. What a gift! The Real Person in this story will bear the name of the woman whom the reader feels little charity towards, a cause to donate their passing affection to when the mind gets bored with something else. Now that she has a name, practice saying her name to yourself until the hard edge of your contempt softens a little.

Close your eyes and remember clearly who she was.

One day she disappears. Your Real Person stops being real to you and she becomes a character. I can’t tell you how it happens. She becomes a character you can point to and describe in one or two dreary sentences what it was like to watch her try on a sweater, or drive you around with sunglasses on, her arm stuck out the window. She becomes a puppet hanging off strings, dressed in signature clothes you will always remember her wearing, but the animation is gone. She hangs on her strings, suspended above your stage in the shadows until you recall a quality about her which is starting, in your memory, to fade. Recall her now, and the puppet springs to life! Her dancing legs carry her across the stage, waving wildly for your attention. All she wants now is a space in the sunshine of your memory, where she can live on in tact, mended at the busted seams and in her party clothes, in the wan spotlight where you will always be sort of thinking about her.

So that this story does not address the authors own case of unrequited love—a story nobody wants to read—let’s switch over to our Real Person and see what she thinks of the whole sappy matter. She wrinkles her nose at the bunch of cilantro glistening under the sprinklers of the market. Light bulbs, she heard once, are different in supermarkets. There are special light bulbs that make red apples look redder, green kale shine in verdant splendor, all thanks to the coating of the light bulb above. She tilts her head to the ceiling, distinguishes glows from the bulbs she thinks differ from each other over the pineapples, the oranges and garlic. She picks off a rotted brown leaf and stuffs the cilantro into a plastic bag. It has been five years since her heart broke, and then the two pieces that used to fit together changed shape and sizes, never to press up against the other flush again. What she feels she has now are two distinct hearts, one that grew and evolved and became more complete, pounding at her chest like a cannonball shot over and over. With this heart, she moved forward, got the blood flowing again, picked herself up and started over. This heart is the heart she uses to love herself, to love others, which took a lot of practice. This is a strong and powerful heart and the love in her life now proves it. This heart is a hard-won heart, and this heart refuses to be broken again. Now, when she carries love around inside her, it must pass a rigorous test of loyalty to be admitted beyond the heart’s iron walls.

But even when she could feel the full force of the love this strong heart produced, the love was never complete. The second, smaller heart, the one she lost in the detritus and mud of an intense love that suddenly ended, beat too. Anyone can learn to live with two hearts. The second heart is not all that helpless, really. The second heart lives in secret messages. It has sprouted roots and grown a coarse skin around it, like a beet in a garden, throbbing underground. With tendrils in the dirt, her second heart soaks up the clues of everyday life and interprets them as secret messages to broadcast to the steely other heart, a plea to soften her, to fall in love recklessly again. Hidden information leads our Real Person around the city, tugging at the leash of her second heart. What our Real Person sees is a beat up paperback, but what her second heart sees is a message from the past. The Real Person is fed up with her second heart sometimes, wishing the heart would begin to see the world as logical and indifferent rather than sentimental. But, any Real Person knows it is necessary for at least part of them to be hopelessly romantic, even if the romance lives inside them alone. It’s one of our riddles.

At home, our Real Person unpacks the paper sack of fruits and vegetables, now somewhat dull under her home lighting, made homogenous by the flat glow of the kitchen bulb. She falls back on the couch and sighs, slips her shoes off her feet so her warm socks cool under the breeze of the slowly turning fan above. She picks a magazine off the windowsill from atop a pile of torn envelopes and leafs through the thin pages. She stops at Contemporary Arts and Culture, intrigued by the image of a huge green snake with yellow eyes staring vacant into the camera. The sculpture is seven feet tall, carved from stone and coiled menacingly around a warped Earth. She reads the caption. It’s you.

Her stomach falls. In the warm sack of fluids in her abdomen, breakfast bubbles and churns. She runs to the bathroom and vomits, the dairy curds fill up the toilet bowl, clenched up in the cold water from the temperature change. She wipes her mouth on her arm, leaving a snail trail of milky slime that pastes her hairs down to the skin. She stumbles back to the magazine and throws it in the trash, then removes it from the trash and throws it in the recycling. She needs fresh air, or to lie down, or both. Outside, in her socks, she sits on the porch in the shade and waits for the trees in her vision to steady themselves against the earthquake in her mind. Her minor heart bloats with secret messages.

You, the artist, are in town for a show. You have come back to torment her, to smear your success across her window of sanity. She wants to extract herself, to squeeze out of the city before it closes in. To hop in a car or plane before you arrive with your art and posse in tow, with your svelte girlfriend from some beautiful Caribbean island. Or maybe from Los Angeles. Nope. She should get out, get on the highway and go stay with her parents ten hours north, sleep until noon in the guest room and take up with dull but moderately handsome boys from her high school who work for Allen-Bradley and play in a ping-pong league on weekends. Here, she should find herself drinking big glasses of red wine and watching the convoy of fishing boats return from the lake, patched with discolored paint from the polluted waters at the edge of a collage campus, where the fishing is bad but the chance to impress girls is good. The Real Person with the name you gave her should find old photographs of her parents, standing beside a bicycle under a palm tree, or leaning out of a Cadillac to pet a Saint Bernard, photographs from before she was born, or maybe shortly after. She imagines this world in the photographs and longs to be dropped from the sky, from the time she is living in, and begin fresh in a time and place where the events in her life did not add up the way they did. It’s a silly idea.

Instead of all this, our Real Person makes a pot of rice and watches a TV show called When We’re Gone about the plants and animals that take over earth when humankind dies out. She sprinkles soy sauce and parmesan cheese on her rice and thinks about the last surviving human, how part of her is kind of jealous.

Night arrives. Our Real Person isn’t dumb. She understands there is love and there is Love. This kind, she thinks, the kind that makes her vomit, is Love. But the thing about Love is this: it changes, mutates like her two hearts, and one day feels the same as Hate. Just like you, reader, must have felt when you gave her a name. When opposite strong emotions converge, they feel pretty similar. Real Person is not interested in starting the process over again, but she imagines a chance to finally close a door and rest her little heart for a much deserved eternal sleep. She lays down in bed, chest pressed against the mattress. Before she curls into her favorite position, she listens to her two hearts beat softly against the mattress. The mattress is a drum. Her heart is a hand that taps the drum.

***

The day comes when she decides to confront you. She tells everyone so she will actually do it. Her therapist says this is a bad idea. Her mother says this is a bad idea. Her girlfriend says “who?” Her big heart says “please don’t” but her little heart, the stupid one, says “hooray!” Her dog looks back at her and thumps his tail. She puts her face in his neck and tells him exactly what she is going to do. He groans and lays down. He is never sure when she is being serious anyway. The day arrives and our Real Person has second thoughts. She paces the room. She drinks too much coffee. She takes a shower and turns the water all the way to cold. By the end of the day, she has prepared what she wants to say. She looks decent, too. It’s not something you would have picked out for her, but you barely know her anymore, so you don’t have a choice. Go ahead and imagine her now in a nice outfit that you would not have chosen.

Here we go, reader. This is your Real Person we’re talking about. She’s about to take a leap off a high peak and land on her feet or on her face. Here we are in the gallery, with the green snake from the magazine magnetically pulling the crowd of people into its pee-yellow eyes. The person Real Person is about to approach is you. Now you must imagine your best outfit, your most attractive friends, your most winning smile, and go stand by a piece of art you are proud of. Be brilliant and modest. Everyone is here for you. Real Person takes the last gulp of wine. She feels like an athlete, ready to sprint the long track, to run ahead at top speed as her peripheral vision blurs out the crowd. Her flyaways have gone rogue again and she rakes them back into place with one hand. They spring right back up.

Bear with me, reader. It’s almost time.

Say her name. Just for practice. Say it with a smile as she approaches you, awkwardly at first, then something in her step changes and she regains confidence, a confidence you saw in her when you first met at that party. You imagine Real Person in the same plaid brown skirt and thrift store white top she was wearing the night you met. How young you both were as the room swirled around you! How dear it was to conceive an origin story there, at some party, when both of you started a whirlwind ride with no clear end. Maybe I’ll tell that story next. Or better yet, I’ll let you tell it. As the sun leaves behind a periwinkle sky, Real Person comes forwards, looks into your eyes, and speaks.

Real Person says something you never thought you would hear, something that fills you with one of the emotions that fits right back into the space she left, in your own heart, your own life, like a puzzle piece.

She said it. You heard her. Don’t ask her to repeat it.

The room moves to give you space. It’s your story now.

What do you say back?