The Stories We Live By

 

Beyonce

Beyonce, Lemonade music video still

Last night, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store, when I decided to ask the cute young guy at the cashier, “What do the initials E.J. on your name tag stand for?”  He looked a bit flustered by my question that veered off script, but replied, “My parents are Catholic, and my dad’s name is Emmanuel.  When I was born, Dad insisted on calling me Emmanuel Jr.  It’s quite a mouthful.”

The woman standing in line behind me nodded and said, “A beautiful name…God with us.”

I said, “My dad was a prisoner of war, and he tore pieces of wax paper into letters to spell Emmanuel and stuck them to the wall of his cell with toothpaste to remind himself that he was not alone.”  At this point, the checker looked stunned by the depth of the conversation, so different from the usual upbeat chitchat at the till.

The woman behind me said, “That reminds me of a Victor Frankl quote–he said ‘people can take almost everything away from you, but they can’t take away how you see.'”*

I’m an artist, and I’m fascinated by how we see, and the stories or narratives we tell ourselves about reality.  One of the reasons these narratives are so powerful is that they are largely subconscious.  Narratives show up in pictures, in slips of the tongue, and most especially in what we avoid talking about and addressing in our society.

We don’t see our eyes, we look through them.  A narrative is like a lens or a window, invisible and therefore really dangerous because we don’t question it.  The narratives we believe are powerful because they lead to action or inaction and this is a life-or-death issue, because what we don’t see or perceive, we can’t act upon.

I want to share the powerful shift in my perception that I received this past weekend at a workshop called Kids and Race led by Jasen Frelot.  Many of the examples of racial narratives and counter narratives in this post are ones that he presented.  Perhaps the most potent tool that he gave me as an artist and writer is the idea of a counter narrative.  Every time a dominant narrative gets challenged whether in word, image or example, KAZAAM, you have a counter narrative. Counter narratives shake up societal assumptions.

First, here’s an example of a counter narrative to the two extremes of the Left’s despair, and the Right’s glib denial of a problem regarding the state of our country.  Rebecca Solnit’s counter narrative of Hope is so powerful that I couldn’t watch it all the way through in one sitting.  She points out all the times in the past 100 years that ordinary people have triumphed over impossible odds–the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of the first Black president, the end of nuclear energy expansion in the U.S., the vote for women and more.  Her list is pretty exhaustive, and if it doesn’t make you feel a glimmer of Hope, I will eat my shoe.  I don’t agree with her on everything, but she is indisputably a prophet, a bold voice in the wilderness of pessimism, cynicism and inaction.

Here’s a powerful narrative that I grew up with and NEVER once questioned:

evolution of humans

Did you catch the message embedded here that as humanity evolved, we became whiter?  Also, did you notice this is a male human, rather than a female human?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the evolution of humanity presented as a female, come to think of it.

Okay, so a quick web search shows that there are some, but again the same narrative about white supremacy shows up:

evolution.jpg

Here’s a counter narrative where the homo sapiens actually has blacker hair and skin than the Neanderthal:

evolution2

Here’s another powerful narrative that I grew up believing, based on the Mercator Projection first presented by cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569:

map

Here’s a counter narrative, the Gall-Peters Projection, that more accurately represents the actual, comparative sizes of continents.  When I saw it I was shocked at how large Africa and South America are in comparison to North America and Europe.  Somehow, we continue using the other map in our schools and homes, even though it is wildly inaccurate and continues to perpetuate the myth of a White world when in fact more than half the world’s population is either Asian or African.  Gall-Peters

Icon.jpgBlonde-Hair-Blue-Eyed-Jesus

On the left (above), we have a Savior who might get the pat down at the airport for being a suspected terrorist.  On the right, we have an image that could have been used in a Nazi propaganda poster.  And that is why narratives matter.  I don’t care one whit for political correctness.  I’m not in favor of inventing untrue narratives to make traditionally underrepresented groups like gays, women, and people of color feel better.  I’m interested in the truth.  The problem with all of these narratives is that they reinforce lies (Jesus was Anglo Saxon, White people are more evolved than Black people, Northern Continents are bigger than Southern Continents, etc) and these untrue narratives maintain oppressive power structures while the people excluded, erased or misrepresented by these narratives bear the brunt.

And now for a few counter narratives:

banksy

Banksy Street Art that gives power to an unarmed girl over an armed man.  Peace idealized over War.  Woman in position of power.

 

our_lady_guadalupe__basilica_painting_

Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The apparition of Mary appeared to a poor peasant dressed in indigenous “Indian” garb in Mexico, leading to the conversion of the nation to the Catholic faith. Talk about the power of a counter narrative!

albino-twins-brasil-models

African Albino Twins throw Whiteness into confusion. Visit this link for the story.

the snowy day

The Snowy Day – a children’s book about a day in the life of an ordinary Black boy.

corduroy

These children’s books succeed as counter narratives to the dominant narrative of Black people as either Victims, Heroes or Violent Criminals by presenting ordinary, loving Black families leading nondramatic, beautiful lives.

 

I hope to write more about the power of the counter narratives in a future post.  Suffice it to say, after weeks of hearing a voice in my head telling me that I’m alone and forgotten, I woke up today with a counter narrative spoken by me in a dream, “I have plenty of love.”  And I started seeing all sorts of evidence that it was true–from the messages left me by my friends to the joy I felt in spending the day sewing a giant coat of many colors.  That, my friends, is the power of the stories we tell to define and align ourselves with the Real.  So, let’s take the world by storm and overwhelm it with truth, joy, compassion and hope.

*The quote actually goes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

This post is dedicated with gratitude to Jasen Frelot.

The Eye of the Universe Winks

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“Dancing with the Stars” copyright Alfredo Arreguin

So much needs saying, and no
words come. My too small
life, zigzags
stitched on my grandma’s
singer sewing
machine,
a streaky
sunset
in one
point
perspective.

Our Lady of Poetry
pray for us.
moths and monkeys
pray for us

A seething mass of vegetation where birds
with no names call
in a language

I don’t understand.

Butterflies, lynx
pray for us.
Cesar Chavez
pray for us.  Ultramarine sky
shattered in a thousand points
of Light
pray for us.

My whole life feels miraculous,
Alfredo said. Kaleidoscope
of ghost salmon surf Hokusai’s
wave, stars
explode

He gets lost, makes better mistakes
than he planned,
painting whispers.

Where figure dissolves
into ground and all is won-
der. Beyond
space-time, a moment containing
all moments
eternally fixed in
Frida’s stare.

Manifesto of a Poet Reborn

Manifesto of a Poet Reborn

I tiptoe, dance,
and dribble my words
across the page
because poetry is prose in tap
shoes, it’s copy writing
In drag.  It’s the sound my
soul makes cracking
its knuckles.  Poetry’s a pink
molerat on the beach, a newly
circumcised penis, Botticelli’s
Venus rising from a scalloped
potato casserole.  My poem’s a
War on Drugs, it’s better than booze,
It’s the sound
of open floodgates
peace flowing
from wounds that won’t ever
heal.

Skein: The Heartbreaks and Triumphs of a Long Distance Knitter

Skein Front CoverHello Friends!

I’m really excited to share with you my news–I’m wrapping up the final details of my book SKEIN, coming in the Fall 2017!  There are ever so many fine details to attend to, and I’m giving it my ALL to create something that’s totally unique, spell-binding and intimate.  Here’s the back cover text that I’ve written thus far–as always, I welcome any feedback as to how to expand or improve it.  Also if anyone wants to write a captivating blurb endorsing my book, I would love that too 🙂

At 34, Christen Mattix is unemployed and lonely when, on a whim, she decides to knit a halfmile blue line from a bench to Bellingham Bay, a decision that cracks open a world of social interaction with her lovable and quirky neighbors.  What began as a whim turns into a calling, as the time frame stretches from an anticipated summer project to a 3+ year marathon of daily knitting. In the process, Mattix falls in love with God, dates a follower of her blog, and recommits herself to the crazy life of a contemporary artist. Told with open-eyed honesty and self-deprecating humor, Skein is both an intimate glimpse into Mattix’s psyche and a warm and sparkling account of a real neighborhood with all its joy and sorrow. Knitting by streetlight, in downpours, and record breaking heat, Mattix finally arrives at the Bay.  In the end, her greatest artwork may be the neighborhood that comes together in radical celebration and love.

skein back cover

Simone Weil Remix

I’m a little teapot;
To accept a void
in ourselves–short and stout–
Is supernatural. Here is
the handle,

Grace
fills empty

spaces,

Here is the spout. When you tip
me o-
ver,
It can only enter
where there is a
void.

Hear me shout!

And it is grace which makes
this void,
Just tip me
over, fuller than all
fullnesses,
And pour me

out.

skein

heart-shaped-glasses

Exciting news, friends.  I am getting close to self-publishing my book, “Skein,” about the 3.5 year adventure of knitting a line from a bench half a mile to Bellingham Bay.  I need to choose a cover image and that is why I made this post as a way of thinking out loud though any input is appreciated.

 

Social Practice Art

the-bubble-brigade

The Bubble Brigade

Dear Students,

We have a huge range of freedom but we unconsciously choose to limit ourselves to what’s socially acceptable.  So it starts with a sense of possibility and wonder—you have to start experiencing the world like a child and ask “what if” questions.  And don’t be too quick to judge the idea or throw it out.  Some of my best ideas have been the ones I thought were silly, corny or embarrassing at the time.  Sometimes I start with a place—what does this place need to come alive, to really sing, to put a smile on people’s faces?  Or a moment or a season.  For example, what is May Day?  Sometimes a word leaps out at me in a conversation like boneknit and I make a visual pun.  I look for spaces that have been vandalized or abandoned and I see the possibility for transformation.  (benches, phone booths)  I think walking is one of the most important practices, ways to get ideas.  Oxygenate the brain.  Soothe the nervous system with repetitive action.  Experience a bouquet of sensations—sound, sight, touch, smell—and the element of chance and serendipity.  

Social practice is a way of being in the world.  Some of the finest social practice artists I know do not consider themselves artists.  There’s Joe who walks 10 miles from one end of Bellingham to the other every day, and knows this place called Bellingham intimately.  Elli, who dresses like a fairy and gives children “dragon scales.”  The three college students who passed out cupcakes to homeless people on Valentine’s Day.  The anonymous person who pruned the ivy on the Grainery into a heart for years…creating the perfect photo opp for newly married couples.  

It’s the recognition that we have the power to make an impact on others, no matter how small.  Start with the tiniest gesture.  Crack your car window open and blow some bubbles for the people stuck in traffic with you.  They will never see you again anyway.  Do a dance move while crossing the street.  Wear a mismatched pair of socks.  Strike a yoga pose on the sidewalk.  Hold a meal and tell everyone to come wearing polka dots.  Or host a potluck where all the food has to be yellow.  Wear your ugly knit chicken sweater for a day or an hour.

We are all creating Reality and Culture together.  When we have some fun doing it, it’s like adding flavor to our cultural stew, a little spice here, salt there.  Why should we settle for a boring, depressing Reality when we don’t have to?  So it all comes back to freedom, to giving ourselves permission to be free and to be agents of positive change.  Who and what you are does matter…Each of us has a ripple effect on the people around us.

Courage,
Christen