Space and Sea: Some Thoughts on Not Writing

I still have the art school brain. The philosophy goes like this: every free moment must be spent in studio if you’re ever going to get better. I am forever caught between anxious labor and trying to affect the calm appearance of someone more collected than I actually am. For so long, working was a way of having fun. Real fun, like watching TV or going out, rots your brain so much that art becomes difficult or impossible. It has taken me many years to work on this art school mentality–to remind myself that writing is about observing and collecting from the world as much as it is about getting those thoughts down on paper and in stories. But if you go out into the world, you are not writing. It’s a tricky balance, and one that has everything to do with tricking yourself into some kind of healthy lifestyle. I’m terrible at this.

I believe I can stop writing anytime I want as long as I never quit. When I did stop, knowing that I had to collect and observe the world before I could produce any fiction or art reviews, it made relaxing impossible. I had to walk across a minefield of guilt just to get out of my house every day. I got so far behind on my deadlines, working on anything practical meant not working on ten creative projects, which made working on everything very stressful. Stress led to inactivity, which led to watching TV, which led to guilt, which led to work, which led to impostor syndrome, which led to inactivity, which of course repeated the whole cycle over again. This made me think one can never be truly happy if they live their lives in competition with themselves. So I came up with a temporary solution that would help me get back to a balance: I stopped doing most things expected of me, regardless of the consequences. On this list was writing, so I stopped writing too.

When I stopped writing I watched TV and read books about outer space. I couldn’t get enough of future societies forming haphazardly after a great war or societal reorganizing. I was into the civilizations that emerged. I felt, because I had lost control of something I loved to do and was a little trapped in, that the time I was living in was insufficient. There wasn’t a real requirement to the escapist programs and literature I sought in my bout of not writing, only that they take place–at least partially–in outer space. I justified my break by thinking I could stop writing if humanity dissolved into chaos, took to the skies in clunker rockets or sophisticated vessels of fiberglass and chrome. I could allow myself to stop writing only if I suddenly had to pack up and shoot off my demolished planet on a rickety DIY spaceship (the kind I would prefer, since it’s the end of the world anyway). This was the only scenario I imagined acceptable to excuse my lack of writing. I imagined the night sky sparkled eternally around me. When I looked out of a little circular window on my imagined space craft to watch a minor comet, or glowing bit of space debris shoot across the distant night, I imagined there was something so profound and extraordinary about the universe that I didn’t–couldn’t–understand, that it was OK if I never wrote again, because the truths were all suddenly different. I was no longer a writer because I was no longer on my home planet. I was in a little ship without earthly concerns. I was very OK with this.

I used to like riding in airplanes, but not anymore. Preparing for an airplane ride is an uncomfortable hassle, followed by a series of ever-tightening restrictions on the body’s natural shapes and excretions. Traveling by airplane requires too much forethought. The correct amount of fluid ounces, the easiest shoes, the emptying of all the carry-on pockets to remove stray lighters or pepper spray. It’s a too-restricted form of traveling for anyone who hopes to soak and savor messages exchanged in spaces in between spaces. One must plan for the discomfort of an airport in advance. Somewhere between boarding the plane and arriving at the next airport, brain function bottlenecks. We become essential again, primitive. Language is obstructed by growing discomfort. Etiquette lies somewhere, flattened in some rural area after being ejected from the aircraft. No matter how many times I clean my hands, my fingernails are always black after flying. But a spaceship allows for the freedom to choose what you carry, and the spaceship is designed for long distances and relies on sharp mental faculties. I had a checklist for my perfect spaceship-driven story arc. I dreamed of strong female pilots, conflicts and tensions on different planets. There should be at least one elaborate heist to get the blood pumping. Romance was a take-it-or-leave-it. Honestly, I could do without.

Before I was into outer space, I was into oceans. There weren’t enough programs on the ocean to keep me satisfied. I watched everything I could find, and then I watched them all again. This is also a bad habit of mine: I like things I’ve seen before. It was a wonderful distraction from writing! I would do it again if I could grant myself the permission. I watched all the ocean documentaries and then I watched the documentaries on life on earth. I read about giant squids and took myself to my favorite museum exhibits alone, where a winding ramp took me down through a blue display of deep ocean life and backwards into history, when ocean plants were as strange as those on distant planets. I thought, if all this doesn’t bring me inspiration, it at least will bring me pleasure, one of the rare feelings during a period of sustained creative inactivity. I was obsessed with finding either the ancestor of all life on the planet, down in the deep sea where we all emerged and became erect and walked as giants on dry land, or with imagining the future hybrids that would emerge from a fragmented society. My progression into a period of not writing was a movement from the first sparks of sentient life on earth, to contemplating an advanced, utopian society. The story of my procrastination was the story of life itself.

In time, I began to live in darkness.

The late, exhausting hours spent ignoring my deadlines and responsibilities branched out like neurons, until I was aware of every minute blinking in and out, and of the circular behavior of thought patterns. This pushed me into a premature period of writing again, and I wasn’t ready for it. At night in the oceans, coral polyps bonk around with each other (sex) while the host bodies do the dirty work waging turf disputes (conflict). They encroach on their neighbors, throbbing and clawing with their intestinal webs, devouring the hard shell of the adjacent body. I shouldn’t have forced my writing to happen during my not writing period, because during those nights, my mind turned into coral. It chewed up old ideas and turned them to dust, spitting out fragments of weak flesh and new buddings. I watched on in horror. Everything I made during the daylight hours was turned into food for the more aggressive and terrifying part of the creative brain, that insatiable, horrific critic that is most active in the evenings. This signified something important that I have taken many years to learn: when you’re not working, own it. Be the observer, the normal person, the sponge. Don’t be a writer or an artist when you are supposed to be taking a break to learn.

This was a wonderful piece of wisdom to discover, even if I have to relearn it each time. And in spite of, or maybe because of this, I turned into a night writer. Which I hate. I prefer daylight activity. I photosynthesize like a houseplant with ideas in periods of writing. But when I was finally plugged back into writing again, the days were taken over by the crushing to-do lists I had accumulated while I shirked and procrastinated my responsibilities. Nighttime was when I felt some sense of freedom from what I expected of myself, and as long as I wasn’t lying down and thinking at the same time, I discovered I could write again, just a little bit. Many nights, at a time when I would happily be headed off to bed, an idea struck my head like a book falling from a shelf, and I knew I couldn’t just lay there like an idiot. (The biggest lie I still tell myself is “I’ll remember that tomorrow”.)

What I discovered about this process seems, in retrospect, like an inevitable evolution. In the nighttime, I was closer to the color of space and the color of the deep ocean. Being surrounded by the dark, even in the light polluted city, renewed my sense of freedom from the world. At night, in my little apartment, in a submarine or a spacecraft gliding through a weightless environment, I could imagine I was free from the self-generated pressure to write and write well. Responsibility, commitments, deadlines, criticism, and self-doubt all disappeared behind me as I cruised further away from the scattering dust of earth into as much blank space as I could dream. It’s unfortunate that I am this kind of writer, who can’t snatch up and utilize free moments like acorns falling to the yard, because I need much more space and patience than any creative person should be allowed. So this is what I’m getting at: I’m writing now, and I’m going to post more finished work up on the website. I promise it won’t all be publishable work, or even work that is polished (to my obsessive Virgo standards) but it will be something.

In the meantime, if you have any recommendations for your favorite space and sea books, TV shows, or movies, I will save them in a list for the next time I stop writing.

 

 

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The First Humans

The older I get, the fewer stars I see. It must be the glasses, something in the lenses. Or the frightful thought: something in the eyes. On our backs in the camp, the start of the night sky appeared overhead. All four of us wore some kind of corrective lens. There were seven stars, and then there were eight. I counted as many as forty-five until I decided the number was less than I had seen in skies years before. Astronomers believe space is rapidly expanding, moving away from our galaxy faster every year. The first humans must have seen the night sky glittering with stars so bright, they could not have stared all night. If telescopes could see this and predict the distance of the stars over time, the fault was not in our lenses. It was definitely something in the eyes.

We left home without a lot of things we needed. We had enough food for a week for the weekend. Not one of us remembered the water. It was cold and humid in the morning. There was dew on the oven mitts, reflecting the sun in lime green drops, one bit of light at a time.

If we had Pat, he’d chop us some wood. If we had Courtney, she’d build us a fire.

If we had. If we had.

We drank beer so we wouldn’t think about water. Thoughts of water turned into thoughts of a lake of water, of a fresh spring that flowed into our campsite, as if we could will one into existence.

We wouldn’t make it through the weekend without water.

We turned over a stone with the beginnings of a sculpted leg. Da Vinci was just a torrential rain, we said. Michelangelo was a tornado of sand and wind. Lambs ears sprouted in the creek bed, where flat black spiders darted under warm stones when we were posed to step down. Drowned and dried up weeds looked like tattered clothes in a violent way, as if the dry rocks and trickling stream was complacent in a struggle. But they were only plants caught in a flood. But the only tattered clothes were on our legs.

To emphasize our group potential, each of us had a job at the site. The men strung ropes between trees with loops interspersed to hang wet clothes or—jokingly—ourselves when we got too thirsty. The women, used to their morbidity, rolled their eyes and cleared spider webs off the picnic table with sticks of fragrant cedar. Snowy ash from the fire fell into the guac. At least we remembered the guac. We heard a round of bullets fire into the woods, and somewhere in the park a bird left a space in the sky.

At night, a creature walked through our campsite when we turned off the flashlight. We held still at the edge of the woods in the pitch black. The animal moved slow as if stopping to pick fallen berries off the ground. I held my breath when it grew close enough for me to hear her grunts and grinding teeth. When she was beside me, I still could not see. The tip of a soft ear brushed my arm. Danger, fear of wildlife took over, that existence almost exactly like our own, but feral, indigenous. Life was meeting life in an arena with no rules. I closed my eyes to see the sun. I thought please be tame, please be kind as the ear ran across my arm, then my cheek. For a moment, the only thing in the world anymore was the connection of that fur and my skin, the meeting point between girl and unknown animal in the blinding dark. I felt like the earliest human, like I was meeting the world for the first time, like I could look up and the sky would be all white with stars.

Later, in the tent, I put my face into a moist armpit and felt the emptiness of the open night around us settle, turning, in my dreams, to water.

In the morning we left the site in damp boots and unbrushed hair. Our tents were wet, the floor was quenched, but we were not. At the nearby stream, we built a ship. We called her The Mermaid and released the ship into the drink. A maiden voyage, we shouted. Long live The Mermaid! The Mermaid went over a waterfall and drowned in the river.

What we never realized was this: The Mermaid was only a float prepared by thirsty friends. That the stars are there until they’re not. That fur and skin are the only separations between us and the deeper connective tissue of the world. That this life was our maiden voyage.

Oh, How We’ve Failed

This morning, The Kansas City Star published a spectacularly destructive article by Laura Herrick on the ways in which women can adjust their lifestyles and actions to prevent rape from happening to them. Here, you will read the original article, titled “Women can take action to prevent rapes” in italics and the responses below each section. To write a letter to Herrick, reach her at oped@kcstar.com.

(Update: The Star has removed the original article from their website. If you would like a PDF of the original article, send me an email. I saved it.)

With a long history of publishing awful fluff pieces and generally obnoxious clickbait, The Kansas City Star and whoever approved the original article reached a new height of incompetence when deciding to run this dazzling number. Here you go.

Let me preface this by saying that I empathize with women who have been raped. These women have endured terrible experiences and need to know that what happened was not their fault and that whatever they did to stay alive was the right thing.

I would also like to remind men that “no means no” (and if someone is too drunk to say no, then no is implied); that no matter what a woman wears or does, she isn’t “asking for it”; and that if men witness a woman being treated inappropriately, they need to step in and attempt to stop what is happening.”

Stop right there. Your article is over. As many times as I read and considered this garbage piece of writing, this was the only part I kept coming back to and thinking “at least she said one good thing before the turgid swirl of bad rhetoric came out like from a broken sewage pipe.” If you haven’t read the original piece, be prepared, because that’s what it is. Sewage.

“I saw a quote on Facebook that said, “When a woman drinks too much she expects to wake up the next day hung over, not raped.” I agree.

But as women, shouldn’t we take responsibility for our bodies by not becoming so intoxicated that we don’t know what is happening? Every woman should know her drink limit and stop there.”

Props to you for finding reputable news sources to agree with. Nevermind Facebook uses algorithms harvested from your friends, your internet browsing, your online shopping, etc to structure your content. So, good for you for finding a Facebook quote you agree with. But by the lizard-logic of your next sentence, I can only conclude that this was as far as you went into navigating the wide-spread discussion of the harmful perpetuation of victim blaming you can find almost ANYWHERE on the internet. I imagine this is how it happened: You saw a quote on a page designed by experts to filter and tailor content to your liking, had a blip of a thought about blame cross your mind—which has no doubt been conditioned by other blips of idiocy you found by whiny men’s rights activists crying over their perceived loss of power—and you spent what I assume was the better part of an otherwise unproductive day to cobble these thoughts together into one, gloriously ignorant Star-appropriate op piece about the fault of women in accepting responsibility for the history of sexual violence that has targeted them from multiple sources for the entire history of humanity. I try to imagine this, but honestly, I can’t.

“No, she’s not asking to be raped by being drunk. But isn’t it her responsibility to reduce the risk by not getting to that point? And if you wake up the morning after doing the ‘walk of shame’ don’t yell rape if you regret your actions of the night before.

Accept your role in what happened, learn from the experience and move on.”

 I wish I could remember what my reaction was when I read that little gem of a statement for the first time. I might have lost consciousness from the blow of backwards reasoning and, when I came to, found my kitchen table flipped over on fire. That’s an exaggeration, but I did—and I’m sure I’m not alone—release a cry of absolute pain into the world at the evidence another woman who lives in the same world as I do could connect such appallingly oppressive ideas together to form words I so naively expected could still only come from non-woke men. A part of me died a little inside. The only way I can recover from this is to take your harmful statements apart piece by piece in hope of preventing such harmful hypothesis from you ever inflicting them on the world again.

It’s really quite fantastic to hear an educated and eloquent woman such as yourself refer to the journey home after a sexual encounter as a “walk of shame.” Because for a woman, sex is a shameful and degrading act that was only invented to please the male kind no matter how you slice it. Thanks for that, patriarchy!

Regarding responsibility, let’s use this analogy. When men drink, they have to be careful not to operate heavy machinery. (Note: gender has nothing to do with it. Don’t operate big stuff drunk.) Luckily, heavy machinery can be largely avoided if one has limited access to construction sites, airplane hangers, leisure boats, the keys to their car, stuff like that. When women drink, they have to be careful in every situation you can think of. Sexual assault happens in public and in private places. It happens at house parties, at the club, at a friend’s house, at your own house, outside, inside, in the presence of others and in the presence of nobody. If the only way to prevent operating heavy machinery is to not do it, why don’t we view rape the same way?

Accept your role? What role? The role of existing in the world? The role of going about one’s day unmolested? The role of there’s a 26% chance a woman will be raped in her lifetime? The role that nearly half of all women will experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime? What role are these women accepting in the violence they, you have so beautifully stated, could easily prevent? And what makes you believe it’s so easy to simply “learn from the experience and move on?” Does the fact that 54% of rapes go unreported add up your conclusion that women should just learn and move on?

“Women want to be treated as sexual equals when it comes to desires, the ability to have casual encounters and the enjoyment of sex. But some women act on this freedom then want to deny their involvement later.

Every woman who falsely accuses a man of rape makes the battle harder for women who are actually raped. And the lives and reputations of the men who are falsely accused are often irreparably destroyed.”

Bringing desire into a conversation about rape and sexual assault is the most offensive, juvenile, retrogressive piece of whatever-you-can-even-call-this-hot-mess I have ever seen. The only thing ANYONE can assume about ANYONE ELSE’S sexual desires is this: Even in fantasies, nobody wants to have sex 100% without their consent. Saying “women want to be treated as equals when it comes to sexual desire” ONCE AGAIN removes the responsibility of not raping from rapists.

Furthermore, the notion that women lie—that anyone lies—about being raped is incredibly damaging and undermining to an event that alters someone forever. Who do you suppose was the first person to claim a woman was lying about being raped? I’ll give you two hints: it was probably someone who felt their power would be taken away by the truth, and it probably wasn’t a woman.

It is not women who lie about rape that make the battle harder for women who have been raped. It’s you. It’s people like you who continue to shirk your responsibility to educate yourself against the pervasive culture of toxic masculinity and the patriarchical grip of victim blaming, shaming, and dehumanizing. If you give even one single shit about the reputations and future success of rapists, you need to seriously, hugely and forever, fucking check yourself.

“When men drink, their decision-making abilities are also limited. If a woman was too drunk to know what she was doing and should be excused for what happened, then why are men not allowed to be too drunk to make good decisions?

And if a woman is so intoxicated that she can’t remember giving consent for sex, then how can she know that she didn’t give consent?

If she was so drunk she was unable to make good judgments, then how can we be sure that she has any idea what actually happened?

Maybe she forced herself on the man. Or maybe she initiated the encounter.”

Did you read anything before deciding to push this garbage out into the world? A chance of a woman being raped is 1 of 5. For men, that number looks a little different. Only 1 of 71 men experience rape in their lifetime, and while it’s not impossible for a woman to force herself on a man without his consent, it’s way, way less likely to happen. Giving consent while intoxicated is a tricky grey area for everyone, but educating men to be respectful and use good judgment in these situations is more important than teaching women to moderate their impairment or stop drinking altogether. Also, ever heard of date rape drugs? There are some levels of impairment a victim of sexual assault just cannot control.

Many of us have been there in the morning when a sense of deep regret sets in, but you cannot assume everyone who has been in this position will automatically leap to accuse someone of this especially heinous crime. Sure, we all make mistakes, but one night of drunken consent does not send most people into creating revenge-seeking lies about what happened.

I’m puzzled by the question, “why are men not allowed to be too drunk to make good decisions?” Men can make good decisions when they are drunk. Anyone can. It’s hard, sure, but it’s not impossible, and it’s definitely not an excuse for rape. Drinking impairs judgment, but at no point in anyone’s life should that judgment slip so far as to justify the rape and assault of another human being. The fact that this is something you use liquor to excuse—implying that it’s already in the man’s brain to rape, booze just helps it along—is super fucking harmful to everyone of every sex and gender.

“I am not talking about the extreme situations like group rape or the Stanford incident. Those men should be held accountable for their inexcusable actions.

I am talking about the casual encounters many people have had — waking up the next day and realizing they are next to someone in bed and being embarrassed and regretful that it happened.”

Why not stop worrying about other people’s casual encounters and individual regret and start having a productive conversation about sexual assault, rape, reeducation, equality, and all the other things you clearly need help understanding.

“I hate that I have to tell my son that if he sees a drunk, unconscious woman, he needs to either run the other direction or find women to help her.

Men should be able to help a drunk female without thinking about calling a lawyer first. And people should be able to interact sexually with someone they are attracted to without fear of being convicted of a crime.”

Wait…didn’t you just admit you tell your son to run away from a woman when he sees she needs help? Are you implying already that it is mentally and evolutionarily engrained in your son to rape an impaired woman? This hands-off approach to education because “what can be done?” is the biggest problem we as a society have when discussing how we should teach people not to rape. If you truly believe men should be able to help that crafty wild animal, “a drunk female,” don’t educate your son to fear the ~*~irrational female brain~*~ that has only evolved secondary to the ~*~male brain~*~ to make his life more difficult. In the space of three sentences, you a) admit to educating your son the same way the toxic patriarchy has educated us all for hundreds of years, b) complain about the lack of helpful and progressive education of young men, of course for which you are in no way responsible for creating, and c) connect the two in a conclusion about the complex and ever-changing web of human sexuality as a whole.

“Bottom line: Men, stop acting like animals and having sex with anything that breathes, and intervene when you see a situation that you know is wrong.”

 This is one of the oldest and most harmful assumptions we have in our culture of toxic masculinity: that men “just can’t help themselves,” or “boys will be boys,” and other familiar adages that excuse the system for not educating young men to not rape.

“And women, take charge of your bodies and your sexuality by being sober enough to stop unwanted advances and sober enough to actually enjoy sex when you choose to have it.”

 Fuck you.

Full Review: Dark Days, Bright Nights

A partial review of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” was published in The Pitch on February 10th, 2016.

finland-Rauha-Makila-Mura

 

Now, in late December, the people of Finland will experience their darkest days of the year. With only about 4 hours of sun per day in some regions, winter has officially arrived. Lakes freeze over with meter thick ice, and snow can rise a couple feet off the ground, covering every inch until March when spring starts to hedge in. It is the perfect time of the year to see “Dark Days, Bright Nights” at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, where a collection of works by Finnish artists mirror the dropping temperatures outside. Political and personal, each piece in the collection feels a part of something bigger than the individual artist. Everything taps into a shared experience of living in Finland, be it the landscape, the necessary layers required to venture into the snow, or the brief but deadly wars that divided the land—the artists here are struggling against something bigger. Cable knit sweaters—familiar worn articles that would spell a frozen death if left behind in a moment of carelessness—are painted with as much care as it would take to knit the garment itself. Memories of a lonesome farm covered in snow bloom from large canvases like selections from anxious dreams. There are no fires in the images, but the glow of a functioning artistic community lights up the work from deep inside. What emerges is a sense of never being relaxed, never being inattentive to what the country produces by weather and by culture.

Finland is reflected in every face, pale and stoic, hungry for warmth—a unique landscape in itself. Rauha Mäkilä’s portrait series—five altogether—are of haunted girls and women with empty eyes and carnivorous expressions. Against flat, single color backgrounds of rose pink and icy blue, the women seem to be momentarily caught in the frame of the paintings, either as they pass through or try to escape their oppressive walls. These are faces in the winter. The uneven exposure to the sun and snow has left splotchy marks around the foreheads and high on pallid cheeks. Mouths have been ripped out or erased, eyes have been blindfolded, and the women press onward through the season, leaving behind something vital as the landscape around them dies. “Petite,” the largest of the five, is striking red and orange, but the warmth of the colors is not a comfort. A young woman bows her head in profile, but it is her mouth we are focused on. Blood and scabs replace what would have been a willowy pout, matching the crimson background. To the left, a smaller “Doora” looks directly into the viewer. Her high white collar suggest a religious association, but the way she stares out with almond shaped eyes sunk into the shadows of her face is deeply upsetting. Her small mouth puckers hungrily like a wolf on a dusky prowl.

Jarmo Mäkelä’s series, “Kärpästen herra (Lord of the Flies),” “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” and “Europa, Europa” depict identical boys in school uniforms in three surreal developments. The most striking of the trilogy is the eleven knee-high sculptures of the boys, identical in their stance and solemn expressions, emerging as if from the paintings of themselves on the wall. The material looks like concrete, although the description says clay, and where the mold for their shape was broken, hard flaps of stone stand out from the figures. Material leakage is common in mold-made sculptures, but Mäkelä’s decision to leave the surface unfinished is a queer one. As the little boys march forward into the gallery, they proudly wear their flaws on their skin, on their small faces, like some uncivilized troop of future sovereign. “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” directly behind the sculptures represents the boys in a more animated and disturbing backdrop. They brandish sticks, raise a skull above the battleground like an ominous flag. Boys ride on their twins backs, ready to joust, and one of the decanonplets (what is the term for 11 twins?) beats a drum above the frenzy as he looks deep into the woods beyond—or possibly out at the sculptures of his brothers. “Europa, Europa,” the second painting, is a busy, contained drama of the same boys trapped in an underground room with hysterical German Shepards leaping off the ground. A boy’s face on the body and clothes of a grown man stands giant on an oil barrel in the small room, beating a drum strapped to his chest. Above the scene, two of the boys balance on an unfinished roof like fencers in combat. Mäkelä’s series explores the country’s civil war and eventual independence, which had to be defended during the Second World War when Soviet Russia rose to power. The identical boys, locked in battle in the paintings and banded together in the sculptures, signify the internal struggle Finland endured as the people fought for control during the transition into an independent nation. Their strength of self-preservation has eventually paid off, and a young, independent Finland has grown and even prospered.

Although most of the show focuses on paintings, Vesa-Pekka Rannikko’s colorful two-channel video installation, “Canary,” is set up in one walled off part if the gallery. Follow the taut climbing ropes, the sinew that stretches from a carabiner in the wall to the larger-than-life canaries projected into a corner. Masses of bright colors fill the shadows created by the ropes as birds alight on a perch and flit around. While we expect canaries to contain a certain amount of yellow, these birds are flat with primary colors, no shadows or varying hues define them. They are cadmium red, sunshine yellow, and bright cyan. The ropes and their matching shadows build a cage, and although the projected birds can move about freely, the effect of a controlled natural state prevails. A quick search into genetic modification exposes The Red Canary, a story of the first attempts to engineer an animal outside of it’s own evolutionary arc. This popular bird—in the wild and in captivity—caused English canary breeders to experiment with feeding the birds different types of food in attempt to change their color. In the installation, the color of the birds have been digitally modified (another type of human intervention that disrupts the natural state of things) erasing defining features like eyes and feathers and thus erasing naturally occurring traits. The story becomes a metaphor for ethnic cleansing and selective populating—with Finland experiencing some of this during World War II while their borders were still fluid. While the red canary was never perfected, Nazi leaders took notice of the experiment and admired the scientific approach to their brand of ethnic cleansing. While the literal desire to cage and control a wild life may be overstepping the meaning of the piece, the struggle against natural forces in the environment and political landscape which one exists can be so tiresome—so repetitive—that one wishes to exercise any amount of control at all. Within the context of the “Dark Days, Bright Nights,” the imposed cage of shadows reflects a nation’s desire to be self contained.

Anna Tuori’s three large paintings, “It Is All Now You See,” “Splendor in the Grass,” and “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More” follow the dreary, reflective tone of their titles into glimpses of cold landscapes. The three paintings pulse like a memory slowly coming into focus. The vignette format of these large scenes keep the images from reaching the borders of the canvas, remaining in the stillness of a certain time without overtaking the present. A dreamy countryside is glimpsed through a clear spot in a frosted window, swirling with cold wind that does not disturb the culminating icicles. From our vantage point, the rural locale is safely in the past where it cannot freeze us. Tuori takes us gently into these moments while keeping us out of harm’s way, and as the vignette seems to breathe—expanding a little and contracting slightly—we may feel a stiff and far away breeze reach out to us from the cool colors of “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More.”

Once outside the museum, the cold sets in for real. Chilly winds blow down Warwick and above the nearby park. Cheeks chap and fingers search for the warmth of deep pockets. It is as if you have traveled a great distance in a short amount of time, retuning home with a new appreciation for the environmental restrictions art can thrive in. There is no such thing as a culture without art, and the perspective the artists of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” bring to Kansas City is a fresh and effective reminder that anything can be accomplished in any weather.

“Dark Days, Bright Nights: Contemporary Paintings from Finland”

October 2nd, 2015, to February 21st, 2016

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

4420 Warwick Blvd

Kansas City, MO 64111

www.kemperart.org

In The Earth

Then there was the gentle but healthy pressure to have a hobby. Hobbies are the most wonderful, Agnes says, stroking winsome nightshade vegetables, distracted. Eggplants the size of your head. Don’t you just love the first sign of tulips? No, in fact. Short bloom, premature wilt. Area bees avoid pollinating a flower that crumbles at the lightest touch, like a reckless girl. I prefer the hardy plants—the carpet of moss, the juicy aloe, encroaching mint on everything. The community garden is divided by my tendrils of invasive herbs.

Overalls are what Agnes wears, like a Communist uniform, as she manages the tomatoes. Rotating sunhats for Maude, whose face is a tight paper bag. I simply go in what I’m wearing, being rebellious. I use my trowel to puncture the earth. I turn and knead until I can add the bag of Soil Enhancer. My soil will be so enhanced.

I pour half the contents in the ground and look inside the bag. Curled grey fur rests half buried, eyes closed. Its tail wound over its legs, pinched up to its body. I lift it out of the bag. The soil around it is warm. In my hand, the baby squirrel shivers, unfamiliar with a gentle touch. I have made a discovery in the dirt, like an archeologist. I hold this abandoned relic to my heart, beating like a child’s footsteps. I sink into the garden, holding the squirrel in my open palm. The potato bugs dig away, fleeing my unearthing.

Amber alert. Sirens. Dawn seen in the woods through the pale beam of a flashlight. The meteor impacts my heart, sending my careful saplings into extinction. A clump of yellow hair blooms from the damp ground. My search has ended.

My tulip. My child.

The squirrel stirs, opens her eyes. I lower her to the garden and brush a muddy patch off her fur. She thanks me by doing the only thing she can do: disappear.

The Frayed Edge

Memory is like a puzzle. You have to slide all the pieces in the right slots to see the image you want. Sometimes you don’t know what image you’re going to get, or someone interrupts you in the process and you have a hybrid of your memory and someone else’s. At my age, I am afraid most of my memories have been altered. If I were young, like Richard, I would document my life more carefully, while I am alive and my grandkids are young. I remember some things from my youth, like my father needing a cane after the war was over. I don’t remember him leaving for the war, but I remember him returning. Even those memories are faded. I think about it enough to know it happened, but the images all blur together. My fathers old cane has taken on some of the qualities of the standing lamp in my house. The knotty, stiff cane he used to support himself—and occasionally whack us with—has begun to straighten out and gloss over as the number of times I have seen my lamp overtake the number of times I have seen his cane, or felt it on my back. Most of my early memories are like that, as if there isn’t enough room in my mind for everything and the old stuff gets pushed aside for the new.

Where is that cane? Did I leave the lamp on downstairs? I can’t go to sleep now thinking I left the light on. Getting out of bed isn’t that difficult and I’m not too tired to walk down the stairs tonight.

I grip the rail and begin the gentle wind down to the first floor. I have to move slow in this dim light or I will panic and fall. You learn to do things different when you get as old as me. Time is the only thing that moves faster. Everything else slows down. As the staircase turns to face the living room, a soft yellow light travels around the corner, like a sunrise viewed while laying down. The bulb glows and finally appears beside the wall as I approach the tight end of the curve. I lift my other hand for balance against the wall here, half expecting to feel the heat of the light, but all I feel is the cool smoothness of the plaster. Where my hand meets the wall, it also meets a slightly darker line that looks more like a shadow until I get up close. The shadowy stroke on the old paint was mine, my wife’s, and our children’s handprints all stirred together by the passage of time. I think about Richard when he was a little boy placing his hands on the wall, usually covered in grime and dirt. I think about my wife coming in from the garden and walking up the stairs with her gloves on, absently stroking the wall’s inner curve. I stop and trace the outline of the dark blemish. It moves like a hand would. First laying flat on impact and then easing up to a brush of fingertips as the body travels forward. Where the color starts, it is dense and thick, and where the hand begins to lift the color pales until—where the hand reaches the tip of contact—it is hardly there at all. I back up a few steps and try to recreate the effortless motions of all our hands over many years. It’s difficult when you are concentrating on the mark, and it’s difficult for me to back up on the steps without squeezing the rail as hard as I can. If I can step backwards up these stairs, I can reverse time itself. Even strangers, or distant family members we didn’t know very well probably used this spot on the wall to balance as the steps curved. It was uniting all of us more than the painfully awkward dinners we sat through with distant family. I think of all the times Rose and I walked down the stairs together, and how hard I felt her loss when she died. Why hadn’t we ever talked about the smudge on the wall? I reach the first floor thinking about dinner. I try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I must have come downstairs to make something to eat.

Richard comes over in the morning and wakes me up from the couch.

“Dad, did you sleep down here?” His dark hair is halfway dry and stuck together in small, wet ropes. I look around at the living room. The lamp is on and there is a sandwich on a paper napkin on the side table. “Dad, you shouldn’t sleep on the couch. It’s not good for your back.” Richard picks up the sandwich and turns it over. One of the pieces of bread flops open to expose a slice of peppered turkey. He leaves the room and I pull myself up to a sitting position. What was so important about last night? How did I end up on the couch? Richard ran the sink in the kitchen. Pieces of sunlight sparkle through the vertical blinds of the front window. I feel the puzzle briefly come together, then fall apart again. Richard returns and helps me to my feet. His face is dotted with small hairs on his chin and cheeks, each one of them concerned for my health. “Do you want me to help you back to bed?”

“No, I’m awake now. I have to let Geggy outside.” Richard gives me a curt nod and opens the back door. I don’t look at him when I step outside. Richard treats me like a child sometimes, but he is still the child to me. Geggy is already waiting at the window and seems disappointed to see me instead of his owners, who will be back tomorrow. My grandkids called the dog Geggy before they could say “Gregory”, just like I was Papa, and my wife, Nanie. In my stern, younger days, I would never have tolerated this baby talk, but grandkids soften you in ways your children only prepared you for. Geggy circles around the yard until he pees and we go inside to eat. I scoop his kibble in the bowl, making sure to close the lid on the food tight so it wouldn’t get stale or covered in ants. Richard is picking up the debris that blew onto my driveway during the night and I stay at the neighbors window for a moment to watch him. Richard looks like I used to, only slightly thinner. When he dips towards the driveway to remove a piece of trash that landed there in the night, I feel his movements in my body, in my hips or shoulders, in the puzzles of my muscles and bones. He looks weak underneath spindly muscles and the small pot belly forming under his shirt. At that age, I was already stronger than my own father. I have the cane to thank for that. Geggy chomped down his food. I guess I stayed at the window or watched the dog eat for too long because Richard comes in to get me. We leave the house together and stand outside, surveying the morning.

“Dad, do you need me to take you anywhere today? I can go into work a little later.” I think about it for a moment, but nothing important comes to mind. Either something important is on my mind, or nothing is on my mind. It’s frustrating a little, but I guess if you can hardly remember the important things, it doesn’t really bother you.

“I can’t think of anything. You go to work. I’m going to stay home.” He pats me on the back and I stand up as straight as I can, which is still sort of stooped. I feel small beside the span of his long shoulders.

“Ok. Call me if you need anything. I can send Julia over too. She’ll bring the kids if you want.”

“Yes. It would be nice to see the kids.”

***

I must have said something about the kids to Richard because while I was picking up the sticks from my lawn, Julia’s red wagon pulled up the driveway. The back doors open and two kids sprint onto the lawn. They’re so young. Richard had his kids too late in life.

“Grandpa!” They shriek and wrap around my waist. Handfuls of sticks keep me from hugging them back. Julia is out of the car with her bug-eye sunglasses on and her hair in a ponytail. She looks like she needs another cup of coffee. The kids break free and run into the garage to get the sidewalk chalk, big-wheels, and other toys I will probably have to pick up later. Geggy stared out the window when they emptied the entire canister of chartreuse rubber tennis balls onto the cement and start to kick them around. I think he will go crazy from the sight. I put the sticks in the waste bin and Julia gives me a warm hug.

“How are you, grandpa?” she says and I look at my dual reflection in her sunglasses. I appear to be facing slightly away from her in both lenses. “Richard said you had quite the night.” Her smile is one I have seen before, when my mother would visit her father in his later years, when he could hardly remember her name. I hate it when they talk to me that way. I see the two sides of my face smile gently in her sunglasses. The man in her eyes is feeble, a threadbare blanket with stains hidden in the corners. A man that doesn’t know why he entered a room, or why he is thinking about her hands on his shoulders like they are dirty, and why he feels an odd sense of comfort at the thought. I hope I’m not the man in those glasses, with two sides of a face and a mind that won’t meet in the middle. “Do you have everything to make grilled cheese?” Julia turns away so I can see myself in only one dark lens. This time I am fatter in the protruding curve.

“I think so.” We leave the kids to tear around the back yard until they get hungry and want to watch a movie. How long until they’re old enough to mow my lawn?

My body slowly erases the house. I am afraid when I die, I will have taken more and left less. On my toothbrush, the bristles stick out or are worn down. The couch is faded around the arms and seats. The doorknobs are polished and small. What has my body contributed? Something starts to form in my mind, a dark smudge appears but everything goes white when I try hard to remember. Something I have possibly created, a part of me I can leave behind so I won’t be forgotten. The thought doesn’t come to me anymore.

“What?” Julia says as she presses the first grilled cheese sandwich down onto the skillet. It sizzles with the warmth of bread and oil.

“I didn’t say anything,” I say.

“You did. You said something but I didn’t hear you.” Her sunglasses are pushed up onto her head and the hairs that are caught behind the stems are spread out like the yellow feathers of a royal penguin. Perhaps I did say something, but I certainly don’t remember.

“It wasn’t important.” I settle for this compromise, just in case. Julia flips the sandwich over and turns down the heat. I open the morning paper and rub the newsprint between my fingers absently. A sentiment is aroused in me when the ink rubs off onto my thumb, but I have no idea why. It just occurs to me how I might smell a bit foul today. Julia is too nice to ever say anything about it, but I haven’t been upstairs today so I must not have bathed. Julie has her back turned away so I bend my chin down and sniff. Not too bad, probably not noticeable to anyone else. I swipe a few potpourri from the bowl on the table and put some in my pockets just in case.

“Grandpa, are you ready for Richard to come over on Saturday? You remember we’re going to touch up the paint in the living room.” Julia sets a sandwich down in front of me. This sounds familiar, but I can’t remember when we talked about it.

“Of course. I’ll go out for the supplies tomorrow.” My sandwich looks delicious. I wish I could smell a little better.

“You don’t have to worry about all that. Richard found the same color paint and already has what you need, OK? You and I will go out to lunch and take the kids to the park. They should have more time with their grandpa.” Her kindness still amazes me. For having kids so late, she looks great too. Richard got lucky. Julia is at the door, calling the kids inside for the other sandwiches. They are bouncing tennis balls at Geggy’s face in the window and catching them with two of my old baseball hats they found in the garage. Geggy looks about ready to leap out of his skin.

My Rose had trouble with words sometimes. After fifty-three years together, she never felt that she had said exactly what she wanted me to hear. I heard her say lots of things anyone not used to living with her would find strange or inauthentic. She told me once, as if fighting through a bramble of language seeking to pull out a rare fruit: “I wish you could dip your hand inside my heart, and when you drew out you would be covered in something thick and dark, like tar. That’s how I love you.” She struggled under her love and against her lack of words, fighting so hard to tell me a thing any man would find so much simpler. I love you, I could say and know exactly what I meant, and she knew too. But when she was facing me in bed, or at the table, or on the porch over a glass of scotch, she got a look about her and I could see it was painful. “Tell me what you’re thinking,” I’d say, hoping she found those perfect words to use, the ones that would relieve her anguish. “Tell me, please.” She swirled her glass and seemed about to speak, but more often, she just squeezed my hand and looked in my eyes all the way through me until I squeezed back. This was the way she let me know.

She said something a year before she passed away, when the puzzle pieces of her own memory were dulling fast at the edges and slipping off the picture. She said something after breakfast while sitting at the table. I was headed into the living room to collect stray water glasses when she spoke. And I finally understood what she had always been trying to say. I felt as if the floor burned away and I dropped a flight in our house, down to the basement where the kids used to play and I kept a room of old hats. I looked back at her, slumped forward at the table over small splatters of syrup getting hard and sticky. Her favorite coffee mug spotted with dribbled liquid going dark at the edges. My once most graceful, composed companion was slipping away from me into the blurred dark of old age. Yet, she finally found the language to—not tell—but to show me with her words the exact way she had felt for me when we were young, and now old, and soon will be gone. Those words are still sharp in my memory, and I plan to die with them. I can never do justice to what she said to me, so I will never try.

***

After we eat, the kids ask to put on a movie. They speed ahead of me while I extract myself from the chair and open the chest of tapes. They squabble for a bit while I make my way into the living room.

I want to watch my birthday tape but Lindsay won’t let me!”

I want to watch my birthday tape but Matthew won’t let me!”

“Well,” I start with my hands on my hips. They stare up at me, waiting for a verdict. “How about we watch America’s birthday?” They are still puzzled so I rifle around the chest and pull out the Fourth of July party we threw in our back yard when the grandkids were toddlers. They lay on the floor and the tape starts a few minutes in. My son grins and waves a spatula at the camera through a light cloud of rising smoke. Behind him, my neighbors hold Gregory the puppy out for the grandkids to pet. Richard says something in French and leans in to kiss the camera lens. Julia giggles and swings the camera around to my wife and I. I lift a hand and Rose waves her little American flag for a bit. We both drink Pabst on this special occasion. Next we are watching the grandkids take turns holding the puppy, and putting him down, and picking him up and wobbling off with him. As the tape plays, I search for signs of my wife. Signs of her presence are muted in the background. The pink and red mums are alive on the side of the garage. The hanging birdfeeder is full and the seeds that have fallen off sprout underneath. Things I haven’t seen in years are suddenly young and alive.

Matthew rolls onto his side and looks back at me. “What’s America’s birthday?” he asks.

“July fourth. That’s why we celebrate it.” I can see the understanding eclipse his moon face. He turns back and we watch until the tape is over. Julia comes in and announces it’s time to go home. The kids jump up and give me another hug.

“Bye grandpa!” they shout and I tell them there’s no need to shout. “Bye, grandpa,” they whisper and tiptoe out to the car. Julia hugs me too.

“Richard and I will see you on Saturday. Let us know if you need anything.” She kisses me on the cheek and in her bug-eye sunglasses, I look a little confused. Her face contorts. “You didn’t forget we’re painting this week, did you?”

The man in the dark lens hunches further down. “I’m not crazy.”

“Grandpa,” she says, “that’s not what it’s called anymore.”

It’s Saturday, not the day Richard usually comes over to see me. I try not to look surprised when he unloads the painting supplies from his truck. If I look surprised, he will know I forgot about his plans to paint the living room, so I greet him at the top of the driveway.

“Dad, Julia will be here soon to take you out for lunch and to whatever else you want to do today. It shouldn’t take long to paint the room, but I can’t do it with you here.” He doesn’t mince words with me anymore, but he speaks in an even tone. He instructs me to move the couch pillows and cushions into the kitchen where they won’t get paint on them. He pulls the couch out to the center of the room. The change reveals lost artifacts that fell under the sofa long ago, but it’s nothing of great value. There is a receipt with the words and amounts all faded out, a dead battery, and a bit of plastic that broke off something long gone. I bend down to pick these up and dry sprinkles of mauve potpourri flutter from my shirt pocket and join the strange collection of debris. How the heck did that get in there? I scoop everything up and go to throw it in the kitchen trash. My couch pillows are on the kitchen table and I grab two to carry back to the couch, but the couch is in a different place and Richard is putting blue tape along the base of the wall. He looks up from the tape and his face is very heavy.

“Dad, do you have everything you need for the day? Julia will be here really soon. Could you check your bag again and make sure I packed everything?” He has a good point and I walk back to the kitchen with the couch pillows and open up my duffle bag for going out. There are some medications I take for my bladder, a granola bar with a running man silhouetted against a mountain, and a light sweater.

“I have everything I need, Richard. Should I come help you?” But Richard is standing in the door to the kitchen, still looking very sad. He moves forward to embrace me with his long arms and broad shoulders. He smells like fading deodorant and of something cold and dusty. My son has not hugged me for a long time, I think since his mother died and we had a big fight about something. That was important once, but I don’t remember what we fought about. Rose has been gone for two years. My son hasn’t hugged me in two years. We don’t fight anymore but we are men and we are strong and we don’t need to fight about the past anymore. I spend enough time fighting the past in my head, but I am fighting to hold onto it a little longer. Richard holds onto me while I am thinking about these things and a horn beeps in the driveway. Julia helps me into her red car and we drive to a place with chicken noodle soup.

When we return, my son is standing at the top of the driveway with his hands on his hips, covered in fresh spots of clean white paint. They both help me inside and offer to help me get changed. I decline and feign like I will watch TV tonight. Richard and Julia duck out of my house and instruct me one last time to wait a while before touching the drying paint. I watch their cars back out of the driveway and disappear from my block. The room looks very clean and fresh and empty. Everything I had before is still here, but something is missing and I don’t know what. Something is missing in the way I felt something was there when I saw my wife in the family video. I’m perplexed by this feeling, because in the video something I missed was present, but now…something is missing, but what was present? Of course, I can’t hang onto this for long. All the color drains from an image like wet, white paint drips over old colors on the walls. Pictures slip out of frames and drift to the floor, leaving something you saw everyday gone and leaving you in a fight to remember what the frame first contained. It’s late now in the evening and I’m tired from spending the day with Julia. The only thing I feel like doing now is getting into bed.

Something odd comes over me when I reach the stairs. The house still smells a little like paint, but a cool breeze blows through the open windows, airing it all out and dispersing in the world. All the old smells of a single old man living alone have not resurfaced yet from the carpet, or the walls behind the fresh paint. All the old has blown away through the open windows. I grip the rail and climb the stairs in an act that feels weighted by a sense of finality. The stairs curve and I brace myself with my hand against the wall. It is the first time I touch the new coat of paint, and a deep and unexplainable sadness rises in me. I stand on the stairs with my hand on the wall and try to understand why I feel so alone, and so sad, and so old. The wall is cold like plastic in the way only fresh paint is cold. My memory is slipping through the cracks and leaving behind only sediment and sand. I struggle to retain the feeling and to connect it to some memory, but I grasp at nothing and there is nothing to remember. I lift my hand off the wall. It’s dark throughout the house and dark outside too, but I can still make out the shadowy print of my large old hand, holding up the wall on its own and in some quiet way pleading to stay forever.

Near Death

The tire was brand new too. The worst.

The tire was brand new too. The worst.

My car tire exploded on the highway today. My long-held fears of dying in a high speed car accident came uncomfortably close to being real. I pulled off on the left shoulder, on a curve in the road, and that was almost the worst part. Anyway, between punching the hazard lights and tossing the gear into neutral, I didn’t have time to check my mirrors, or think about anything else. Then I was on the roadside with my face in my hands, cringing and crying each time another car sped past, hugging the turn at top speed.

It was weird to have an empty mind. I didn’t have a moment of profound realization or regret, flashbacks to other times or people. It happened very fast, and when it ended, I was left feeling a strange solitude wrap around me, like everything I have done belonged to me alone, and if I died, it would all die with me.

Of course, I’m fine. Roadside service came and helped me put on the spare. I lived.

So far, nothing has changed. All my plans are still scheduled. My stories are still incomplete. My relationships are the same. My worth hasn’t changed. I’m not calling old lovers, or distant family members, or settling debts with peers. The daily death speculations have shifted a little, but that will pass. I am continued. The time on the shoulder of the road, leaning into the sway of the car created by speeding traffic, has occurred. Now I’m home in my single apartment, surrounded by material extensions of myself, and I feel something else–something gone. All my windows are shut, but there is a draft coming from all over. The usual clutter is strewn, but everything has shrunk. Corners in pillows seem dented and weak. Chipped paint on the walls expand to reveal more color, older color. Is the carpet puling away from the edges of the walls? I do not know that this exists, but I know where these feelings come from. I thought, for only the 2nd time in my life, that I was actually going to die, and I didn’t.

I want to share what I have, maybe so I feel something else next time I’m terrified. Maybe only so I know people saw I was trying to give something back to the world–trying to give back what I have taken from it. So I give you a new story, because we deserve it, and I need it to survive.

Come over October 11th, at 8am and read it. It’s not about what happened today, but the themes are the same. And if I haven’t told you I love you lately–I do.

Chapbook

Hello my small, amazing following,
I’m in the process of compiling a collection of sixteen short stories for publishing and distributing. I’d like to submit it to some places, but I also will make some hand-bound collectable copies for those who are interested. Last time I hand-bound, I had one-of-a-kind covers that were unique and sculptural. I’m still in the revision stages, but hopefully you can expect to see a physical, nicely made copy of one soon. If you are interested in a copy, let me know and I’ll start thinking about what I can make just for you.

-Annie

Seppic