The Artist and the Connector

I’ve been doing deep contemplative work all my life. During the CPTSD program I went to last year, I turned toward exploring what I realize is going to be a life-long journey of considering what being an “artist” means, and all the connotations thereof. Questions like: What is the artist? What roles does the artist hold? What can the artist teach us? What does it mean to be seen as an artist? What is it like to LIKE being seen? And what might a life of being witnessed, and of witnessing, look like for me as an artist rather than me as a mental health/trauma worker like in my old life?

One of the greatest joys of my life is listening to people talk about what makes them come alive. And also, to discover what is the thing beneath the thing. There are few core fears—we’re all just variations of them, and we’re all just variations of them. Maybe there’s nothing new under the sun, but you are.

In preschool I thought a lot about the edge of the universe. In third grade I started studying human evolution on my own. I was bored. I was intrigued by everything and not being challenged at school and my teachers wouldn’t give me extra work when I asked. In middle school I started studying neuroscience. In high school, quantum mechanics, poetry, transcendentalism, genetics, trauma, and mental health. I lost touch with some of those parts. Even my curiosity became suspect in the life I was living in my 20s. I’m finding those roads again. Those insatiable curiosities. And I’m figuring out how to weave them all together into this creative life.

Some of the most important work I’ve ever done is when I bear witness to another, whether silent or in words. When I get to pull out fears and truths they’ve buried. When I get to answer the question we all ask, “Am I alone?” with a resounding, “No,” in a moment of connection, whether with a friend in our deep belly laughs or by sitting with a person in one of the most traumatic moments of their life. The Spock side of my brain wants to say: what an incredibly illogical question when there’s 8 billion of us. How could you ever be alone? And yet, it’s one of our core fears. But it’s not being alone that is the problem.

It’s being cut off. From ourselves. From each other. It’s not knowing how to cross the divides—less the political and more the vulnerable emotional realities we inhabit, whether from chasms real and imagined, manufactured or natural. And being cut off is the point of oppressive systems because it’s how you keep the machine going. Separated. Fearful. Not together. Which is political.

And yes, these are questions that have been asked throughout the ages, that can be found in historic writings. We’ve always wondered if we’re alone—alone in the universe, alone in our lives, alone in our minds. And we are always forgetting to do the most transcendent, bizarrely plain machination of movement through vertebra and synapses and spinal fluid—we are always forgetting to look up.

These things are both more complicated than this and as simple. I’ve written pages and pages about these ideas the past several months. I imagine I’ll write many more over the years. All the things I’ve learned in my life have always been in pursuit of living a richer life, one with deeper meaning, of more profound connection. Of refuting the darkness and feeding it tea and sandwiches because we all get cranky when we’re hungry. And it’s been in pursuit of helping people remember. And of helping myself remember.

I look forward to how much more there is to learn, and of seeing the ways in which I’m going to combine all my lived experience, all my education and training, all my creative pursuits into a life that keeps asking these questions, and keeps bearing witness to the innumerable answers people are living. And maybe, when I’m very lucky, I’ll get to point people back to the truth: the disconnect is the lie. Connection is your birthright.

On Art, and Everything

Or this is how my brain works while contemplating an artist statement

Sometimes I can’t write fiction until I pour out truth. Much of my truth time is focused on trauma intersecting with art. Art art art I’m coming for you and you’re coming for me. Mutually assured joy.

Art is where I’m going. Art is where I’ve always been. It’s always been there. It’s the Care Bear dolls in the tree I put to sleep every night when I’m 3 and 4 because they are real, because imagination is ever possible when your mind is still more star stuff than lived in. It’s a kid taking off their shirt and their cousin says only boys can take off their shirt and knowing that’s not how it’s meant to work because I’m not just a girl, you duality keeper. It’s seeing that one kid win a drawing prize and thinking I could do that too. It’s realizing I’m too much a perfectionist in drawing, but not elsewhere.

It’s clothes mismatched, color too piercing, patterns too wrecked, and growing up always commented on and not understanding why, not realizing it’s a glorious kaleidoscopic autistic mind that goes a thousand miles per hour in a thousand directions and that’s maybe not how it is for everyone, so you live with your differentness commented on at every turn. And confusion. You just live with a lot of confusion toward this species around you.

It’s my own path. It’s not being allowed to skip a few grades because they want me to be normal. How’d that work out how’d that work out. It’s teachers not giving me extra homework when I asked so I took matters into my own hands, haunted the adult section at the town library. It’s researching throughout middle school whether I should skip high school, get a GED, and start college at 14. It’s deciding to only go to high school so I can play soccer ‘cause I do like chasing balls. And yet, it was never quite right, was it?

It’s missing a lot of school due to physical illness, due to mental illness, due to that police investigation, and then sometimes skipping school just to read everything I want, all the things USian schools don’t teach me because I will eat every piece of truth I can find bar fucking none. It’s dropping out of high school anyway, two months before graduation. It’s giving the best fuck you’s to bureaucracy and brains sucking on cinder walls and unimpressive suits and I’m an expert at doing the hard work of living and the hard good byes and I always do it so well.

It’s laughing now at 35 that I should have skipped high school. Motherfucking soccer and the promise of movement always luring me in.

I always promise movement because stagnant water will kill you, ya know? It’s just survival. It’s always been my own path. It’s the truth I’m always seeking. The insatiable curiosity because I’m always sure I can eat the world and know it all.

The only thing I know is true is art. The only thing I know is true. When we stare at art we weep the same. When we stare at art, we weep the same.

I know we’re a clusterfucked species that never had a through line taught to us. We scrabbled and fought and limped our way out of bogs and into endless futures unknown the dead lights our only guides.

How could we ever hope to learn truth when we learn it from the dead.

I don’t need to know the end or the beginning to know the middle, to know we do this on repeat because we love an encore. And our art keeps living there, keeps taking our blood, keeps massaging the calendar down the line of its hands, saying here here here witness I was here.

We are these immaculate fading handprints on the wall reaching through centuries for descendants we can’t believe are still going you’re still going you wild, magnificent fucked up creatures I love you all. We are death masks keening through the clock because we end. We do end. We are gowns exquisite on display forgetting we were always meant to dance and do you want to dance with me? We are soft animals. The softest hearts. Frail, frail in our losing. The hardest shells.

But

the middle is all we have. Damned clichés, but arrows only fly when you pull them back, notching knuckle against cheek. I fucking love the tension pulling back, the shaking arm, the steadying breath, the fucking release of everything. The collapse. The catastrophe. Does it shoot straight I don’t care there’s only queers here.

Got a bullseye one time anyway because sometimes I hit what I’m aiming for but mostly any time I played video games, I always spent my time trying to find the edge of the maps, ignoring the tasks, and trying to push through the edge I’m always trying to push through the edge.

Give me uncharted everything. Can’t sleep when you’re 4 because you’re lying in bed in terror in panic in ecstasy with the paradoxical knowledge that the universe is infinite but it’s always expanding and this terror and panic and ecstasy will carry you throughout life. You will read the encyclopedia. You will read the dictionary. You will talk to trees. You will question why you must suffer the indignity of being a child when you’re a child. You’ll become an adult and learn the important work of childhood but you were always old before you were young.

You are Benjamin Buttoning your personality. You are taking it all back. You are walking backwards into empty rooms. You are filling them with voices. You are making art and art is heaven and wow, you really want to go to a museum now and weep for us all. Will you weep for us all?

I wonder what it’s like to be loved by the world. I wonder what it’s like to be loved so fully by myself that even when observed, I’m still a wave—nothing separated, nothing broken down, nothing left on the floor, nothing hidden, everything exposed, fear drunk by the gallon, swallowed whole,

I’ll just leave that comma there. A place holder. Not an end. This doesn’t end, you sillies. This doesn’t end. Maybe that’s tragic to some. Maybe that’s hope. To me…to me…

I haven’t talked much about my time at the trauma treatment center I went to in May. It was a complicated experience. There were some very good things. But there were spiritual beliefs I didn’t know were going to be a part of the program, ideas around past lives and being bound up with the same group of people throughout every life and so rather than solely get trauma treatment, I had to contend with people pushing radical forgiveness due to past life narratives hahahaha and people who know my thoughts and feels about forgiveness probably only know a snapshot.

I have a lot of forgiveness. I’m a terrible scorpio. I’ve had 20 years of trauma therapy. The therapists broke me down eventually. They gave me a lot of hugs. It was uncomfortable. I’m a hugger now. Nice big bear hugs so I can inhale people a while. But I don’t hold grudges except for very serious things and that’s not really a grudge, is it, when it’s a crime. And self-forgiveness? I will always, always, always forgive my folly. And I love my sins.

Anyway, it’s a small program up high in the mountains, the mountains I used to live in, run in, summited decreasing oxygen in. The mountains I always want to get back to. The way the sun is different there as it bows down past the ridges. I digress. I am made of digressions. I have found it’s the best way to live my life. I want improv, and most want maps. I used to draw a lot of maps as a kid. I used to play Victorian orphanage as a kid. It was my favorite game to rope my friends into. And I would draw maps away from the orphanage. I thought my real family would come. They never did. They never did.

—but I did a lot of thinking about being an artist while I was there because my life has in fact been bound up in thinking about whether or not I’m allowed to take up space as a human. As an artist. As an oxygen intake system who wants to let off some art through its release valve. I’ve journaled and poetried a lot about it in the past months. It’s one of the things that gives me the most joy these days.

I am the most contained and expanded when I am thinking about art. I should really just do this more. I should really just go to art school and howl at the moon some more because that’s where I always find god which is to say where I find soul which is to say myself. I spent my teens being asked if I was high and no. I wasn’t. This is just what I’m like. Some of us are hungry for good vibes only. Some of us are hungry for destruction and power. Some for oblivion. I have wanted them all but what I really want are buffets of the universe. I always want everything. If you don’t give me everything, if you don’t give me all my tiny revolutions, if you don’t let me swim deep and come up gasping with a grinning mouth spilling life—I’ll do it myself. I’ll tear hope up by my teeth from the corpse of this world.

It’s become incredibly hard to not dance at the coffee shop. So I don’t stop myself. I have always played the laptop keys like ivories, kept the time, heard the metronome, leaned into the screen like it’s me and jazz and notes sparking love in the air. A little word gremlin for your pleasure.

When I sit in this spot at the lgbtq+ coffee shop, I get to see the poster for Your Body is Not Your Body I put on the community board.

What is my artist statement?

Art is the through line of humanity. It’s the soul of our species. It’s the softest hearts we hide. It’s when we reach the outer edge of our skin, the edge of our expanding infinities, and find
we have to
we have to
we have to
motherfucking have to press out through it.

We are so impossible, so improbable, so incapable of not reaching back.

I won’t ever stop reaching back.

I’m working on artist statements for MFAs to apply next year. Partially I’m waiting till next year so I can have more time to organize a portfolio, apps, recs—and to organize my wonderfully disintegrated mind. The more tattered, the more you can see through to the other side.

I would have liked to be applying this year, but I know I have more truth to face. I’ve never been the kind to live in denial unless I’m very, very tired. I was very, very tired of the conveyor belt of bad when I hit my 20s. I had a sweet, naïve belief that maybe things would be smooth for a while. When they weren’t, I didn’t know how to adapt to that yet. I had adapted to so much. I had changed so much, said so much, and no one else was changing, no one else was adapting. Everyone was denying.

I let exhaustion take me for a while. A long, long, long while.

And then I got filled up on art.

There are still so many infinities I haven’t reached yet.

Sometimes I worry I’ll be like an autumn tree with all its leaves clinging on until the first freeze, and when you wake in the morning, all its leaves lie silent on the ground.

I have so much left to say.

I hope I get to say it.

I have lived through so many hard frosts.

I don’t want to be paid for my thoughts. I want to hold them in a basket, a basket full of leaves, and say, “Here, this one holds delightful veins. It’s variegated.” My thoughts are always variegated. But I have to live, too.

Mutually assured art.

(I never have difficultly writing CNF about art and creativity. I am paying attention to that. I am letting that be something I lean towards. I am letting it be a map of dead light because contradiction is also my bread and butter and I love bread and butter. Add some candles. Add some rosemary. Add some olives, and then you can pretend you’re eating history. I always love eating history.)

Contentment in the Process, Or, Let’s Be Nerbs About Writing

After going through an imaginary commitment ceremony to noveling 3 years ago (“Through treating paper cuts and inflamed tendons, I do promise myself to thee”), I eventually remembered how much I love short stories. I finished and subbed a few shorts last fall (they were rejected), but then I saw how close I was to completing the third draft of my novel. It was a siren and I’m a sucker for epics. So I paused working on shorts. With draft 3 now complete, I’m back to writing and subbing short stories, and while I wait for emails telling me yea or nay, the thought came to me about just how damn glad I am that acceptances do not make or break my joy. The process of writing is what draws me forward, those little breadcrumbs of an idea that transform into a whole story, all the messy pages of notes, the flow charts and lists and questions to answer. For me, the act of writing is what brings heady contentment. 

I was a child who was entirely overwhelmed and panicked about success. My only good validation generally came from doing well in school and sports. Chronic undiagnosed health conditions had other ideas. My extreme absences as a kid slowly impacted those successes and, therefore, limited external validation. And then my mental health imploded after I reported an abuser and had to deal with an investigation my sophomore year of high school.

It took nearly a decade to find some measure of stability, which is right when my physical health imploded, which took another several years to improve in that regard. During those years, I learned to interrogate the limitations of external validation—the dissatisfaction we humans are meant to feel toward ourselves and our lives if we don’t meet society’s preordained markers of success (the job offer, the graduation, the agent, the big fancy win.)

Photo by author of snowy woods and a rambling creek

Then came an utterly uncontrollable and personally devastating situation in my adult life. It was from within that mess that I jumped back into fiction writing. I gained so much ridiculous self-liberation in a few short weeks just from twisting my experiences into horror-filled fantasy and sci-fi stories. It let me enact some control over a life that had been layered thick with trauma. Writing fiction became the rope I clung to in violent waters, without care of where it was pulling me, just that it was. Finding a word, and then another and another, to build up a string of dialogue, or the thrill of seeing how a piece of setting can foreshadow, is one of the strangest, most lovely forms of alchemy I’ve ever been a part of.

Yes, I look forward to being published. I look forward to short story sales, querying my novel, writing more shorts, novels, and poems, doing dramatic readings and narrating, adding personal essays and memoirs to my work, teaching writing workshops, and leading silly horror retreats with costumes, but I’m enamored with the writing part. I like the writing because it’s what sustains me—me the person, me the body, me the mind. What comes when the stories are published is the visible part of the career, but the writing, oh the writing, is the biting mouth that drags me into the woods and doesn’t let me go. And I don’t want it to. In fact, I might just bite back.

And my hope for all of you creators is that’s what you can find, too. Stories and art and projects that wrestle you down into murky depths of meaning and questions, ones that drag you bodily into their worlds until you relent and live those worlds into creation.