Songs for the Struggling Artist


Where I’m From

When I worked as a teaching artist, I traveled to about 300 different schools around New York City. They were wildly divergent places and environments but on bulletin board displays in hallways, in all five boroughs, I often saw the same writing assignment appear and it never failed to move me. It was called “Where I’m from…” and students would recount the smells, the sounds and sights of their homeland. For kids who’d lived in the city their whole lives, the sound of the ice cream trucks was often the birdcall of spring. Because New York is so beautifully diverse, this assignment would often paint a whole world of elsewhere, as well. The sights of Egypt. The sounds of the Dominican Republic. The smells of Uganda. The temperature of Poland. No matter where students came from, even if they had to flee their homelands because they were not safe there anymore – the formative power of home rang out from their writing.

I’m not from here. New York City is where I live and where I feel at home but where I’m from is a small city in the hills of Virginia. It’s the kind of city that sometimes gets called cosmopolitan – not because it’s a bustling metropolis but because it has a vibrant arts culture and an intellectual fire. This place is as much a part of me as my leg is. My hometown feels like part of my body.

Where I’m from is green, green hills, green lawns, trees and trees and trees. It is people gathering under fairy lights on a red brick road. It is a place where you can see the stars in a backyard. It is a place in which sometimes you feel like you know everyone and a day later feel as though you know no one anymore. People will smile at you and say hello when you walk past.

I’m from crickets on a summer evening. I’m from parties out in the country. I’m from wood smoke in winter and cigarette smoke on the bricked pavement in summer. I’m from jazz pouring out of one restaurant/bar and frat rock pouring from another, just steps away. I’m from a wall so thick with paint it was possible to peel-off a corner of it and keep it as a sculpture souvenir. I’m from craft fairs and festivals. I’m from the bells shaking on the legs of the Morris dancers. I’m from late night wanderings over green lawns. I’m from Greek letters on steps. I’m from dodging crowds of students who flood the city like water pouring into a glass. I’m from orange V’s on asphalt. I’m from libraries. I’m from community theatres. I’m from community radio. I’m from a folk scene, a bluegrass scene, a jazz scene, an old time scene, a rock scene, a pop scene, a classical scene, a women’s music scene. I’m from used bookstores and used record stores and independent community business. I’m from fireworks in the park on the 4th of July put on for us by the fire department. I’m from honeysuckle. I’m from musicians on the Corner and musicians on the Mall. I’m from deer by the railroad tracks. I’m from crayfish in the creek. I’m from red dirt and several shades of brown dirt. I’m from hummingbirds. I’m from dogwood trees. I’m from field trips to the art museum. I’m from book sales and yard sales. I’m from hot humid summers, exuberantly flowery springs, winters that bring snowstorms and autumn leaves with a top note of apple cider.

And I’m also from a place where neighborhoods are black or white. I’m from a school system that tracked its students, that sent its white students to the top and the black toward the bottom, that encouraged young minds to think that this was just how things were, that white students were more likely to be “advanced” and black students more likely to be “general” or “basic.” I’m also from a place that tried hard to believe that Thomas Jefferson’s slave was his mistress. I’m from a place where visiting a landmark important to a black leader meant visiting the tobacco farm where he was born a slave. I’m also from a place where I could go see a kid’s magician in a thousand seat theatre and see only white people in the audience. I’m from a place where we don’t talk about that much, mostly because it’s not polite. And where I’m from, politeness is important.

And now here I sit in Queens, New York – the most linguistically diverse place in the world and one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country – but where I live now isn’t any better, really. It feels good and blended on the train or in the grocery store but the school system in diverse NYC is the most segregated in the country. While we think of ourselves as models of tolerance, diversity and unity – the hate and violence has visited us here, too.

See, the story is that I’m from a place you’ve possibly only heard of because some hateful Nazis decided to target my hometown. And when they did, they broke the hearts of not just the brave souls who stood in opposition to them and those who had to go to work and those who prayed with Cornel West and those who were away but also all of us who feel that Charlottesville is a part of us. Those of us who were born there or grew up there or went to college there or even just lived there for a few years – it feels to us, too, as if the dirtiest boots just trampled over our hearts.

Charlottesville isn’t perfect. The racism runs deep there, yes. (Read about that here.) But before you start thinking my hometown had it coming, that it asked for it, that it shouldn’t have worn that short skirt if it didn’t want to be invaded, search in your own city’s past. I’m going to guess that no city in America has completely clean hands when it comes to racial discrimination.

The deck is incredibly stacked against people of color in America. It took me too long to work out how much. For me, it took going to college and learning about white privilege and starting to understand that being nice was no excuse for accepting injustice. I thought that because I was nice, I was immune to racism. You see where I’m from, we’re nice to everyone. We’re polite. We’re courteous.

And maybe you’re thinking, “Ah! I see now! This terrible thing happened there because the people of Charlottesville let it. They just didn’t say “no” loud enough.” And you’d be wrong. The people of Charlottesville have been preparing for this for months. The folks I know there have been, for months, strategizing and debating, trying to figure out the best way to make it clear how unwelcome the “Unite the Right” were. From what I understand, Charlottesville’s Black Lives Matter was organized in June to help address this invasion. Petitions were circulated. Injunctions were filed. Violence was suggested and rejected. Dozens of peaceful demonstrations and events were organized to prepare.

The people of Charlottesville didn’t throw open the door and welcome this mess. It showed up unannounced on the doorstep in May and they did everything they could think of to prevent it, at every stage. So when I see people say things like, “I’d like to see them try that in my hometown,” I think, “No, no, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t like it at all.”

You wouldn’t like this mess of feelings that I’ve had to negotiate, not just these last four days when you started paying attention but since May when those assholes with torches first showed up. It is a combination of despair and fury and fear for my loved ones. A few months ago, on video, my mother asked a Trump supporter at a rally about his “Kekistani” flag and the look of pure hatred that he gave her made me quake. You don’t want to know the mixture of pride and terror that seeing such things inspire.

You don’t want to sit 500 miles away as you watch militant Nazis with advanced military gear taunt clergy people kneeling at the edge of a park you used to play in. You think your people are tough? That these highly organized, armed jerks with nothing to lose will somehow be stopped from waving their flags by your gang of guys with bats? I mean, I wish that were true. But I don’t think it is. These people punched clergy-folk. They taunted them and tried to do worse.

This is the future I was worried was coming as soon as I saw where the world was turning on Nov 8th. I was figuring we’d have ourselves a Nazi-like state by now. I didn’t expect ACTUAL Nazis. But otherwise – this is what I feared most. And yet I never expected it to start in my hometown. So I’m not surprised that this happened. I saw it coming. I just didn’t see it coming for my hometown first.

I hope you’re not next. The country is racist. My hometown is racist. The city I live in racist. And so is yours. Those guys came from all over the country. If you’re just realizing this a problem, you’re late. But if you’re late, we still need you. In fact, you may be the best link to the people who are going to be later than you.

Dealing with the racism in your town (or the racist people in your town) isn’t easy – especially since it’s usually systemic and those structures are hard to see and take a long time to dismantle. If you’re new to these concepts – if you don’t know what systemic racism is, then this is a great time to start learning. Seeing the ways that your town or your city or your county has perpetuated white supremacy over the years doesn’t mean you love your town any less. In fact, the more you know about where you’re from, the more meaningful your relationship with it will be. Forewarned is forearmed and knowledge is power.

I know that terrorists primarily want to strike terror in people’s hearts and the terrorists who came to my hometown stated plainly that this was their goal. I do not want to give them what they want. I’m from Charlottesville and I live in New York. I was in NYC on 9/11. I was not cowed then and I will not be cowed now.

But I am afraid. I cannot deny it. I have not slept much since the racists with torches surrounded a church service Friday night and essentially held them hostage. I had family in that church. And friends. I was in that church in spirit.

Here in Queens, I heard some folks swear they’d never cross the Mason-Dixon line again. I understand the instinct. It’s a way to say – “Oh, that’s them over there. I’ll be safe if I just stay here.” But I don’t think geography will save you. I would never have thought, in a million years, that white supremacists would march through where I’m from. And here in Queens, many years ago, Donald J. Trump’s father was arrested as he marched in a KKK rally. In Queens. New York. It’s not about location, y’all.

Here in Queens, I’m devastated about what’s happened where I’m from. And there is no shaking off this sense of violation. But if there’s anything that gives me hope in all of this, it’s watching the way the community in my hometown has come together over this series of events. From the clergy linking arms and marching in silent protest, to the swelling numbers of white people at teach-ins and Black Lives Matter meetings, to the giant crowd at Heather Heyer’s memorial service, there is a unity brewing that many never thought possible. Where I’m from, folks are trying to be better. I’m from that. I’m from where brave, nice people try to be and do better. That’s where I’m from.

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This is a great list of resources if you’d like to help the people of Charlottesville.


Normally this is the spot in my blog posts where I ask folks to support me on Patreon. But today, I’m requesting instead that you go to help the many people who need your help in my hometown. Go to this list on Google Docs.

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Single Gender on a Train

On the Politically Reactive podcast, the guest, Michael Skolnik, described being on the train coming home from the Women’s March in DC. He said he’d never been on a train “where there’s such a disproportionate amount of one gender.” And I said, out loud, in response, “I’m sure that’s not true.” That is, I’m sure he’s been on the train with a single gender before, it just wasn’t women and so he didn’t notice.

Why do I feel so sure he’s been on a train or in public somewhere with only men? Because most public space is male space. Because I have been the only woman on a train more times than I can even begin to count. Any woman who spends time in public has had this experience – and when it happens to us – we get very alert, very quickly. Being the only woman on a train full of men is normal – especially after a game or late at night and most of us will do a fairly quick complex assessment of the danger levels of being in a car full of men. We know we’re surrounded in just the same way Skolnik felt very attuned to being surrounded by women. The thing is – that happens very rarely. And there are a lot of good (and by good, I mean legitimate and clear, not good) reasons for that.

First, it’s historical. There have been any number of diatribes against women ever showing their faces in public. In some places, if you were “public women” you were prostitutes. That is, any woman in public is suspect.

As soon as women start gathering, the wheels of patriarchy start really grinding. It’s how we get witch trials and hysteria epidemics and such. Oppressive movements almost always rely on the idea of women staying out of the public eye, being at home, where she “belongs.” From Rousseau to Phyllis Schlafly, the retiring, natural home-maker is encouraged to remain by the hearth, to never gather with other women in public places, to never venture forth without her husband or father. Soraya Chemaly’s talk on space illuminates the sense that the world is designed by and for men, even women’s restrooms.

And there is another factor, there’s the safety factor – that women in public face harassment, or worse, when they venture forth. Danielle Muscato recently asked women what they’d do if men had a 9 o’clock curfew and the answers revealed how unsafe many women feel in public and how much the world would change if men were safely home in bed by 9. It’s an interesting thought experiment.

For myself, my life wouldn’t change too dramatically if men had a curfew. A lot of the things woman said they’d do I do already. But – I live in a city and cities have always provided a safer haven for women, especially in public. (see Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies) I notice, when I travel, that I am a lot more unusual as a woman traveling on my own. In smaller cities and towns, when I go to coffee shops, I often find myself the only woman. That almost never happens in New York. I wonder if one of the major divides between urban and rural is actually how much space women can occupy in public. I wonder if some of the hatred of Hillary Clinton was related to folks coming from places where women are more rarely seen in public. For me, I feel a very stark contrast when I travel from cities, where I am completely inconspicuous as a woman in public, to places where I am suddenly required to have a heightened sense of my femininity. There are endless public spaces that are de facto male only.

So, yes, it is powerful to see only a single gender on a train – but it is a very different experience for a man to be on a train car full of women than it would be for a woman to be on a train in a car full of men. Part of the power of things like the Women’s March is that it brings women into public space and it makes it possible for the world to be re-imagined as a place where women really can do anything, like ride on a train without any fear at all.

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Sticky Benevolent Sexism

It happened weeks ago, after the Women’s March. Since then there have been many more marches and many more protests but I can’t stop thinking about this experience I had right after participating in that first one.

I was at a conference. We were wrapping it up with a reflection session – talking about what had been successful and possibilities for the future. Towards the end, a man stood up to say he’d been to the Women’s March and that he’d been inspired and now wanted to recognize all the women in the room. He asked us all to stand and receive applause and appreciation from the men. We stood, as requested and received the applause. And don’t get me wrong, I love applause. But this felt so so bad.

Why? I wondered. Why was I upset by this nice man wanting to honor the ladies in the room? He was just being nice. Why did it make my skin crawl? For weeks, I’ve tried to unpack this moment. And then on International Women’s Day, I felt the same feelings upon reading multiple posts and tweets and tributes.

And still, I struggled to understand. So I talked about it with my partner. I told him about the request to stand and be recognized and he seemed to instantly know what I was reacting to. “It’s like Secretary’s Day,” he said. And I said, “Yes! Exactly! Exactly that! But what is that?”

And it comes down to power, folks. We have a secretary’s day because bosses have power and they express that benevolently (if also patronizingly) via things like Secretaries Day. A man who steps forward and asks for everyone to recognize the women in the room is asserting a similar kind of power. It is claiming an authority over women. He takes on a boss role and thanks the helpers. The fact that it is outwardly benevolent is what makes it confusing. This is called benevolent sexism and it is a bear, y’all.

Benevolent sexism is super confusing for a lot of dudes. It’s why the Orange Man in Chief thinks he’s great for women. Women are also confused by it. It’s men being nice, right? But so many studies show us how not nice it can be. It can be very dark and very dangerous.

My moment of benevolent sexism was confusing for me because I like to be appreciated and recognized. But I would like to have all of those things happen due to my accomplishments and artistry. Being applauded for just being a woman suggests being applauded for my service to the real art, the men’s art. I’m getting accolades for being a good helpmeet, not being an artist, or an achiever – because that’s what we ladies do, right? We help! We make the coffee and mop the men’s brows from doing the real work. Golly, we need a day to thank those ladies!

When that guy asked us to stand, I stood. And I cried. I thought, briefly, that I cried because I was moved, because I was touched by the gesture. I know now that I cried because I felt utterly undermined and defeated. After a day of women asserting our voices and our power, we were suddenly reduced to secretaries, to helpful wives – rather than the peers and colleagues we are. Now, I think I was crying due to how quickly that feeling of empowerment can be ripped away. BUT. But…

The good news is that now I’m wise. And I won’t fall for this trick again. Next time, I will not stand. Maybe I’ll even ask the men to stand and let them see how it feels.

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The Resistance Will Be Handcrafted
March 22, 2017, 10:41 pm
Filed under: art, music, puppets, resistance, theatre, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , ,

Since the digital age really kicked in, I have watched a lot of things that were important to me fade away. In a world that values social media currency and digital art and so many things on screen, my analog skills of theatre-making, performance and presence have felt less and less valued in the world. While I have adapted as well as I can, I have at times felt like an analog girl in a digital world – a handwoven basket in a factory town.

But since the world turned upside down on Jan 20th, I have found that my old-school art skills are suddenly relevant again. At a recent rally and march, I suddenly realized how many skills I was pulling out of storage to be there. Some examples were: creating an impromptu puppet, gathering protest props that not only can pop at a protest but be light-weight and fit in a bag so I can carry them on the subway, putting a costume together, singing loudly, helping ladies find a pitch when a man is leading the singing and puppeteering.

And it’s not just me – there’s a call for all kinds of analog skills that might have felt lost to the digital age. Examples: Painting signs, playing drums, marching bands, one man (woman) bands, creating spectacle, knitting. Art supply sales are booming. There is something poignant about our old-school skills suddenly being useful again. We can’t rely on video to save us. We need things in real life. Now more than ever.

In a way, it’s a shift of our public spaces out of the internet and into actual spaces. We are all out in public more. And I find I want to bring out even more things into that space. I want to cry in public space. (I was a little disappointed there was no keening at the mock funeral. I could have used a good cleansing cry.) I want to read in public space. (What if we had a Read In?) I want to just sit quietly with a bunch of my fellow introverts and shush anyone who gets too loud.

There is something about this moment that is calling us to really stand behind what we value and those values may not always be obvious. It reveals all the things we’ve let dwindle – things we actually once loved or felt were necessary. Journalism. Theatre. Music. All things we stopped paying for because we could get them for free. If there’s anything to hope for in this depressing mess of a year, it’s that adjustment of value. It’s that subscriptions of newspapers and magazines are back up, people need music like never before and theatre might just make a difference again.

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Help me keep crafting

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist




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