Weekly reading 7

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“Skull House, Mississippi, 2014,” by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

You guys. I love Junot Díaz and really love both this writer’s use of a Díaz quote and just where he’s coming from in general.

• “Dragons Are for White Kids with Money: On the Friction of Geekdom and Race” by Daniel Jose Ruiz in The Millions: “There is progress; we now have an unapologetically black super hero series in Luke Cage. There is BlerDCon (Black Nerd), and Blerds (the term is typically inclusive of any non-white nerd) even get a shout-out in a song (thanks Childish Gambino).”

• “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” by Rebecca Solnit at lithub.com: “Instead of the dictator of the little demimondes of beauty pageants, casinos, luxury condominiums, fake universities offering fake educations with real debt, fake reality tv in which he was master of the fake fate of others, an arbiter of all worth and meaning, he became fortune’s fool.”

• “Let’s Play: Intuition, Imagination, and Black Creativity” by Maggie Millner at PW.org: “There’s a diversity within the black arts community that we don’t always acknowledge. … There’s no one way to be black or to celebrate our lives.”

A story that was told to me by a painting

Inspired by the painting “My Heart Lives Outside My Body,” (pictured) by Daniel Nevins. This post is part of my writing experiment #30DaysofArt. Find more entries here.

THE FUGITIVE

One day the heart got a hold of a crowbar and pried itself out of its prison. It had been locked too long in the dark tower, not able to see anything, just taking the mind’s word for what was out there. But the mind got everything wrong. It had a lawyer’s reasoning and a miser’s unwillingness to part with its riches. “Don’t give more kindness than is required, ration your smiles, never trust more that you need to,” it advised. But the imprisoned heart slept on its coffers of gold and wondered if it wouldn’t rest more peacefully with fewer cold, hard coins rattling beneath its vertebrae.

15267668_10154508685655218_3182269665923310359_nThe escape was not without its fallbacks. “What’s the point of building a tower anyway, if not to keep something in it?” the mind asked. The heart fluttered nervously, grappling for purchase on the outside. The mind was right about that at least — the outside was a smooth suit without shelves or crevices. Certainly no bars. Maybe all along the bars had been less about restriction and more about protection.

And, it was all so blindingly bright. The heart felt itself burning in the sun and shivering at night. But it could see stars for the first time ever. Orion made its way across the winter sky and the heart swooned a little.

“Stop that,” the mind scolded. “You can’t go around just falling in love all over the place. Plus, you’re bleeding on everything. You’re a mess.” It was true. The heart was naked and raw. It thudded and gurgled and made a fool of itself. It was scared a lot. It wished it had a heart-shaped suit of armor. But still it stayed, trying to balance on a shoulder like a good guardian angle, whispering sweet nothings into the closest ear. Sweet everythings, really, because everything — after the initial rush of panic and doubt — was sweet and rich and bathed in wonder.

The heart swayed to music, drank rain, stuck out a capillary to catch the first snowflakes. It shivered as much from anticipation as from chill. Everything was a thrill, every caress of the wind, every passing glance of a stranger, every new song, every saturated color. The heart dressed itself in fresh paint and feathers. It admired its newly acquired scars.

“This has gone on long enough,” the mind said. It was using its patient-but-getting-sick-of-this-shit tone. “You have a place. IT’S INSIDE. Go back to your room and do your job.”

But the heart was in love again and again and again. It would not listen to reason. It wouldn’t even slow its roll enough for those prickling words of insecurity to catch up.

The heart surged toward its new desire. It rushed and throbbed. There was danger everywhere, outside the body. Car horns, sirens, hungry bears. But the new love was so beautiful, so real, so rare, so close. The heart wanted nothing but to fling its wealth at the feet of its desire, to rattle and beat a new poem, to curl into the curve between its love’s neck and shoulder.

The heart said that it would never go back.

“You’ll die of exposure,” the mind grumbled.

“I might,” the heart shrugged, like what could be better? It checked its look and fluttered its lashes. It leaned toward love like it was immune to gravity, like at any moment it might grow wings.

Dear Vincent

Originally published on Facebook as part of the social media experiment #30DaysofArt

It took me all morning to find the Vincent van Gogh paintings in the Musée d’Orsay. Not because they’re not well marked — I could have walked right to them — but because I have a thing about delayed gratification, so I made myself walk through every other room leading up to Vincent. And then there he was, like a long-lost lover appearing, as the crowds parted, at the end of the jetway. “Mine,” I thought. And then I ugly-cried like an overwhelmed Justin Beiber fan, right there in front of Vincent’s self-portrait.

To be fair, I also cried a least a little bit because I’d doing too many hill sprints in Montmartre and not enough chilling at cafes, drinking half-carafes of Sancerre. Sometimes I make it very hard to be me. My hips ached and the slow crawls through museum after museum didn’t help. Also, Paris is terribly romantic and everyone is in love and making out everywhere all the time, but I was not in love. I was alone. It was bullshit.

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I wondered, in the Musée d’Orsay, if Vincent wasn’t a lot like me. Too hard on himself and in love with someone who didn’t love him back, or at least not as he should have been loved. Because, my god! He was Vincent Fucking van Gogh! But he probably didn’t know that. He probably thought he was a weird Dutch dude, hopelessly unstylish, who made strange paintings. He probably suspected he was inherently unlovable. And yet love lived in him, so he did what he could — he put it all on the canvas. Those kinetic shapes, the saturated colors, the way a wheat field was as sensual as a woman; the way he captured his own agony with the same electric strokes he painted sunflowers — as if human ache and madness pulsed with the same sun-drenched ebullience as a vase of fresh flowers.

He worked at the synthesis of beauty and pain. He buried his heart there, in those hues, those lines that are so specifically his. And I swear his lovely, immortal, perfectly broken heart beats on, forever, through his paintings.

Art. Love. Revolution.

Though I can’t make a political statement under the auspices of the alt-weekly paper I write for, I do want to speak from the perspective of a longtime arts writer and editor. Because art is what we have. Art is the conversation. Art is our great gift, to ourselves, each other, our communities and the world.

The election results were a blow to many people I care about and even more who I don’t know but whose concerns — LGBT rights, the environment, multiculturalism, civil rights, justice, the arts — mirror my own. But this is not the time to lose heart. Rather, this is the time to be brave, be bold, stand with those we love and stand for those who feel disempowered and disenfranchised. And this is the time to make art.

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Public art, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

We have not lost our freedom of speech. We live in a country where we can express unpopular opinions, speak out against our government and disagree with our neighbors without fear of being imprisoned, or worse. We owe it those who do not have such luxuries to exercise those rights. And for those who don’t feel safe to speak out, we must be their voices and tell their stories.

To love in the face of hatred is a revolutionary act. To hope in the face of fear is a revolutionary act. Defy that which insults your good heart. Stand tall, radiate, invest in what you love, what feeds your soul, what strengthens your community, what represents your humanity. Continue reading

Open letter to the universe (or one musician who shall remain nameless)

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Album art from the 1980 album Waves by singer-songwriter Mike Batt

I started writing this a couple of weeks ago, not necessarily intending to send it (because fan mail is inherently creepy, isn’t it?), but just to get the thoughts on paper. It was literal paper, too. I started with a ballpoint pen and a notebook.

But in the last few days I’ve found myself saying similar words to other people in different contexts — most recently while talking to students at a career mixer at my alma mater. (Sorry, kids, but adulting is strange business.)

I’ll add that it has long been my belief that all love songs are ultimately written to god (I say this as an agnostic who likes the concision of the word “god”); that romantic longings are the pathways to our highest selves.

It might be trite or cliche to tell a musician that their songs meant something to you. I probably should feel at least bit silly about how deeply I’ve gone into your songs lately. How I’ve lived in [insert album title]. But the whole point of creative work is to make connections. Songs, poems, stories, books — they’re all missives loosed into the world in hopes of finding kindred spirits.

Continue reading

The memory of things

Unitarian Church cemetery, Charleston, S.C.

Unitarian Church cemetery, Charleston, S.C.

Walking up the loose bricks of Lexington Avenue, passed the Shady Grove florist shop, I thought for the first time in years about the series of gift cards I used to produce. It was 1997 and, in a bout of entrepreneurial motivation, I designed a number of collages from old issues of National Geographic.

The magazines came from a turn-of-the-last-century house tucked into an overgrown wedge of land at the far end of Montford. The property had the feeling of being at the edge of the known universe (just past the treeline was a steep hill that bottomed out on the interstate) and also lost in time. It was too ornate for a farmhouse but its rambling garden, wire fence and white-washed siding all nodded to farmhouse-ness. I took a weekend job helping to clean it out after its owner — a hoarder and chain smoker — passed away. A friend of my mother’s was the realtor and needed to remove a lifetime of ephemera in order to put the house on the market.

Morning glories

Morning glories

I loved every moment in that house, despite its nicotine-stained walls and claustrophobic floor-to-ceiling piles of boxes, books and newspapers. The tall windows were all blocked by layers of blinds, yellowed lace on top. The carpets were in various stages of decomposition and the few valuable antiques were damaged by cigarette smoke and neglect. Proud objects slumped in obscurity beside rickety TV trays and overly cute knick-knacks. Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, a nursery rhyme in a horror show.

At the end of the weekend I took a box of National Geographics and an oversized faux-fur coat in payment. The coat, on, looked like half of a bear costume and smelled like furnace. I eventually gave it away to a drag-queen co-worker at a late-night hotel job. But the magazines I kept and cut, slicing new stories out of old. A picture is worth a thousand words, and then it can be repurposed for a thousand more.

I made eight collages and had them color-copied at Kinko’s, back when Kinko’s was a destination. It was an all-hours, fluorescent-lit bastion of office drudgery and rare creativity. Paper clips, three-hole punches, lamination, clear plastic sleeves. You could run off a report (I never did) or reproduced your chapbook in double-sided print pages with a center staple. The color copies were pricey at a dollar a page, but if I combined four collages onto a letter-sized sheet, I’d get four prints for my dollar.

One of the oldest houses in Hot Springs, N.C.

One of the oldest houses in Hot Springs, N.C.

The greeting card production consisted of glueing a collage print onto the face of cream-colored cardstock and signing the image title (“Sisters,” “Tropical Fruit,” “Travel Dreams”) and my name on the back, like it was high art. (It was, at least, medium art.)

I sold the cards, eight at a time — one of each print — to flower designer Perri Crutcher whose tiny shop was tucked into a Lexington Avenue storefront. The shop itself was barely larger than a closet, but it smelled dark and mysterious. Damp, exotic, slightly dangerous and deeply enchanted. But the true magic of the place was that its side door led to an alley that opened into a back lot where once a building might have stood but had long been left to return to the wild. It was a large open-air room shaded by a giant maple tree. Narrows paths led to rusting metal benches and wooden furniture in stages of collapse. It all felt at once diminishing and expanding, dying and caught in the act of being reborn.

My entrepreneurial spirit ended there. I only ever sold my cards to Perri and when he moved away, I quit making them. Things change, it’s the nature of being. Creativity ebbs and flows and takes on new forms. But I think, when I pass Perri’s old shop — now Shady Grove — about how the secret garden still exists out back. It’s not closed off to visitors, but it’s the kind of place you have to know exists. You have to make an effort to get there. And then, when you do, the garden reveals its strange magic without ever rousing itself from its own tangle of dreams.