A Mirror

*Artwork by the very talented Noel Young 

Very rarely are we given the opportunity to see ourselves through another pair of eyes. A birds-eye view of our own life. A first impression. A last impression.  I received word of this piece and wanted to share. I met this writer in Vietnam. Then he wrote about me. 

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Saigon. It’s 9 am and I’m nursing an ick dastardly hangover. I’m staying at the Red Dragon Hotel, and I’ve navigated my way downstairs for the free breakfast. I do not want to be disturbed from my private pain.

“Are you enjoying that book?”

Oh god. Someone’s talking to me. To make matters worse, with an American accent. I look across the dining room through my sunken eyelids and make out a girl with big eyes and bigger brown hair. Go on then…

I’ll call her Cake. It’s 3 hours later and we’re in the Vietnamese History of War museum, making conversation over genocide and war. Amidst the gore, and through the emergence of my stupor, I realise that this girl is oddly beautiful. Initially, she hadn’t really struck a chord with me, possibly due to what seemed like my impending death, but as the day wore on I grew more than accustomed to her unkempt, wild hair, large green eyes, dark olive skin and big, red pouting lips. We make friendly chit chat as we leave the museum.

Continue reading “A Mirror”

Fixtures

For two years, there was a homeless woman living in the alley next door to my first floor duplex. She had erected a massive fort out of plywood, tarps and shrap metal; an intricate, multiple-tiered fort with a ladder, a closet, and a bed made of blankets and garbage. The police never made her dissemble it or move, probably because she was mostly peaceable and any zoning violations were constructively irrelevant in Tucson.

Continue reading “Fixtures”

Art Brain

Last week, a lawyer told me that the mayor of Berlin has declared it an artistic hub, and that immigration authorities should treat artistic visa applications kindly. The city is drawing artists from all over the world for its financial support of the arts, affordability, and the broad and varied arts scene. It is not surprising and the artistic qualities of Berlin manifest in its street life, history, and even in the everyday. I met a street artist the other day who sold me a few of his pieces and though he was not rich, he offered hope that there has been a city-wide personal and systematic investment.

Like New York and most international cities, in Berlin, you will always find the street musicians and performers, the painters who decorate the sidewalk, and the unexpected intersection variety show. There is also a kind of underground scene, even the graffiti or more fittingly titled “street art” that the authorities do not wipe clean. It’s refreshing and democratic and the artistic voices dominate the buildings and walls more than billboards.

The first time I met a real *artist*, I was in love. Though he was a highly trained and talented guitar player and song writer, it wasn’t his music that inspired me: it was his freedom in life and dedication to living passionately. He may have been the first person I ever met who fearlessly and abjectly denied a four-year degree to write songs.

There was his ability, and then there was his life. He picked me flowers off the street sidewalks and tucked them behind my ear. He drank beer with the homeless who slept along our block. He stayed up late playing piano and belting folk and blues like Tom Waits. He only paid in cash which he kept in a sock in his closet. His socks always had holes and he smelled like cigarettes and leather.

The summer I was studying for the bar, he brought me to a hidden lake in the backwoods at midnight to go swimming. A sign posted said the park was closed and I had heard of cops ticketing those who broke the rules. The water was calm, lit only by the veneer of moonlight, and I said to him, “I can’t.” I was afraid of getting a ticket at the same time my bar application was being processed by the Supreme Court.

Looking back, there were many things I feared unnecessarily.

To be fair, I had just picked him up in jail the week before after he was arrested in the same spot when he tried to fight a police officer. Young girls love anarchists, apparently. Every time we went to the grocery store, he would get caught with fistfuls from the bulk candy buckets. They would kick us out and he would laugh maniacally, throw his head back and ditch the remaining candy in his mouth before we ran out and jumped back on our bikes.

Art (and anarchy) were in his blood and I have always remembered and cherished this about him. In many ways, he changed my life, allowing me to forget about rules and expectations and allowed me to see myself without degrees or licenses or jobs and money. Who we are, is really, more tangible, more alive, when we let go, stripped down, even if it means illegal skinny dipping at midnight.

Though the musician was definitively prolific, the second “artist” I met in my life is anything but. She is eccentric, creative, brilliant, but cannot seem to finish anything. Her artistry, is not in an form or end, but in a kind of freedom: reckless and larger than life. The woman is connected to something that transcends the material world. She makes children light up. She is bright, weightless, and free. Despite her fraught aimlessness, she continues to be one of the most inspiring people I have met. She wears big hats and her car is a trunk full of clothes.  This is how I remember her, as she was always drifting between L.A. and New York, depending on the weather.

One year on her birthday, she shamelessly appeared at the restaurant in a short, yellow, layered, busty, satin $600 Betsey Johnson dress, fishnet stockings and 6-inch leopard print heels. Fabulously obnoxious, she also carried a dozen yellow roses to match. After dinner we went to a club called “Happy Endings,” an old Chinese (ahem) massage parlor near Chinatown. When the dancing slowed and the crowd trickled out into the night, I remember the trail of petals out of the club and onto the dirty Lower East Side streets, the way the roses fell behind her, tracing a path as she jumped on the back of a motorcycle and tore off down Delancey.

It is still one of my favorite memories of her, and of New York.

My friend Auley here in Berlin works a 9-to-5, but wants to leave his office work to be musician. He is classically trained though never considered himself an “artist.” He hesitates when I use the word to describe him. I think this is why he has been reluctant to pursue his vision, even though his passion has been clearly articulated (at least to me). He is also a professional dancer, guitar player, and genuinely committed to all art forms, but more importantly, a creative life.

I said to him, “But, you are an artist, so you will always have to create no matter what you are doing.” This got us to talking about what it means to be an “artist” and at what point the term applies to you or your life. I am also in the throes of writing an application for an artist visa, so it seemed particularly fitting to examine the question. As I explained to him one day, I always envisioned the arts very broadly and for my purposes consider artists both as producers of art but more importantly, having a vision, and living with creative purpose.

Still, there is a fear in letting go and in using the “A” word (I have found it difficult myself). I think for some, the question has to do with income—are you supported by your art or are you just creating alone? Born into capitalism, we are in many ways, defined by what we are paid to do. This can make any artistically motivated person strapped by an identity crisis the same reason writers become professors, publishers or critics, and painters become therapists or teachers. We are desperate to define ourselves, even at the cost of our passions.

I think the most important part of being a creative person, or an artist, is letting go, of fear, of expectation and of self. It occurred to me that I could not encourage Auley to let go of artistic fears, without also letting go of my own. Artistic progression demands risk and there are always parts of the self that we are unwilling or reluctant to share or express. We had a brief conversation about the difference between the image projected by artwork versus truth: reality versus desire in interpretation.

Still, artistic work must be vulnerable.

I decided it was high-time to release some (amateur, raw) recordings I have kept hidden, but for a few friends. While sitting at a bar in Kreuzberg, contemplating this blog, I sat next to an American who works for Sound Cloud in Berlin. Encouragingly, he quickly set up my account and helped me with the coding. I thought it fortuitous, and a sign.

You can find these recordings here.

I am adding some anecdotal history, because in the end, I am still a writer with a need to explain everything. Here are some raw, very simple recordings and a few stories to put them in context.

Big River (2009). This is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs I covered a few years ago when I first landed in New York. I always liked the very stark tonal change that shifts when a woman sings a man’s song, or vice versa. More importantly, this song reminded me of  the pain of women lost and of a woman who still chooses the wandering river over a man.

Who Will it Be (2009). I wrote this song for a lover, who threw down the gauntlet, in an age-old struggle over impassioned, but ultimately unrequited love. Most of the lyrics were inspired by one line he said over pillow talk: “You were built for unconditional love.” I could only take his words as an insult, for he saw me as a source of love, but not an object worthy of his own ‘unconditional’ affections. It occurred to me then, though, that it was better to be built this way, to risk love, than never to give love at all. I lost him to his own inability to love (I believed), though in the back of my mind I was always haunted by the idea that someone else would change him or give him the inspiration to love back. I obsessed over her, who she was, how she would captivate him or make him love, in a way that I hadn’t or ever could.

Winter’s Come and Gone (2008). This is the first song I ever recorded(a Gillian Welch cover)  in my bathroom in Minnesota as you can tell from the weak vocals and repetition. I loved my apartment in the attic; this room that felt like a tree house. There were raccoons in the trees, bats in rafters and always birds on the windowsill. I liked the idea of winter and the mood of seasons expressed in the organic shifts; the ability to take signs from nature; the tender range of human experience simplified in the color of a feather.

Lighthouse Keeper (2010). I love this song, which was first sent to me, converted from a rare 45 by my (ex) fiance before we left New York. At the time, we were in love and the song represented to me the secret desire to find respite in the storm. I liked the idea of a lighthouse keeper (a symbol of the soul), but also, dreaming of dedication to one that is aware, a true protector with a hyper-sensory connection and a keen sense of the world and the exploratory vision that isthe sea.

Last weekend, Auley and I took a road trip to Prague and stayed in an old dance studio away from the tourist hub, with large skylights and bouncing naked acoustics, where we had two guitars and created a kind of freedom of space to explore what I have dubbed, “art brain.”

We carved out these days to embrace our detachment in dance, music, lyrical experimentation in a way that gives way to the creative. Letting go, we spent the weekend, exploring the back streets of Prague, sitting and scribbling at cafes, then returning to the studio to sing and dance and work on some new music—we are both affixed to folk given the one voice-guitar duo, though (fearlessly) pushing some boundaries towards the electronic.

Freedom comes first: a freedom of mind, freedom from fear and freedom from “self.”

We let go…and then…we make art.

The Writing on the Wall

I once dated a guy because he rode a Ducati. At least, it seems now, this was his most attractive feature—also, the one that makes the relationship seem appropriate upon reflection. It was college and Joe was my first real “motorcycle boyfriend,” so I took complete advantage of the fact that we were living in Tucson, saddling up for long rides through the foothills, snaking through the desert mountains at sunset. He was older than me (nearly 30) and always wore dirty jeans and a leather jacket. His hair was short and thinning, and it never occurred to me then, but as I remember, his face was perceptibly asymmetrical. Continue reading “The Writing on the Wall”

Getting There

In travel, I have learned to appreciate the act of “getting there,” the inherent differences in modes of transport, the adventure of self-navigation, and the disorientation of arrival. Air travel, while having the transcendent feel of lift-off, always comes with the most complications: organization of liquids, security, timing, shoe-removal, passport control, customs, general airport racket and other irritations. Interestingly, the check-in, boarding and overall experience is quite different, depending on the airport and country of departure or arrival. Continue reading “Getting There”

Fingerprints

On a sunny London morning, a woman careened towards me with a baby carriage, smiling and bouncing with happy. I had just spilled hot coffee down my arm and the front of my shirt. Often, my awakening to children and babies is forced—an occurrence delivered with high-pitched screams and tension, for me, most evident, while trapped at the airport. At LAX, I was waiting to board my flight to Sydney, when a family comprised of two sunken eyed, exhausted parents and three children entered my world: there was the eldest girl in pigtails, under ten, her brother, not over six or seven, and some version of a toddler (girl or boy, I didn’t care, the parents didn’t seem to either, belied by the deliberately androgynous haircut).

As in many travel situations, I tried not to be overwhelmed by natural, unavoidable annoyances—other peoples odors, amplified announcements, delays, lost baggage, and harsh lighting. The most affecting irritations are invoked by the ignorance of others: this is the kind that cannot be so quickly diffused or excused. In this case, the parents thought it a socially responsible idea to give their children toy instruments—one had a drum, the other, a recorder, and the youngest, some kind of electronic percussion instrument. The parents were oblivious to the eye-rolling directed at them, remaining not only unaware and slouching, but unsympathetic to the fact that no one, not even the most desperate, unmarried, Midwestern girl, thinks their kids are as cute as they do. When the little bastards got bored, they threw their instruments on the carpet and wandered towards the windows, pounding and pawing, leaving large greasy fingerprints that were made visible by a setting sun through the glass, the planes hovering distantly, in an otherwise beautiful shot.

When children are present, IQ’s plummet: speech, manner of reason, and appreciation for the general welfare of the public is irrelevant—normal social skills need not apply. I have heard from some mother-friends of mine that walking out of the house covered in bodily fluids becomes normalized. Parents are swayed only by acts that will potentially quell their screaming children and move as quickly as possible through each moment, each day. As my one divorced single-father friend once so eloquently explained, You give up your whole life to take care of these ungrateful little pieces of people.

Waiting to board the ferry from Malaga to Melilla, I was stuck at a coffee shop guarding a pile of bags while my twenty-something travel buddies wandered around looking to find the ticket counter. I was stopped on the street by an Irish woman and her husband, also lost, having just given a confused, panoramic, sun-shielded glance of the pier. Both looked younger from far away than they did up close (skinny and smiling, even if falsely, signal youth). She had the kind of legs even Barbie would admire, slim and tan, wearing a short jean skirt like a high school cheerleader. They introduced themselves (“Sheila and Jim”) and we helped each other navigate entry, gather tickets, find the ramp and forge ahead with our bags. Lagging behind, I watched them holding hands and skipping up the ramp.

After boarding the ferry, I learned that the couple was in their mid-forties and had married late. They fell in love and both agreed they did not want to have children. They had traveled to Africa several times and were currently on an excursion to Chefchaouen to find some of the best hash in Morocco. They had done their research. Jim pulled out a notebook of literature on how to buy pot in Morocco, the illegalities, ways not to get caught and the best cities to find what you are looking for. They invited us to join them on their exploits, but we were headed 14 hours in the opposite direction.

Sheila and I bumped into each other as she was coming out of the bathroom and I had to ask, “Now, really, what is your secret? How did you get those legs?”

She laughed and said, “Everyone says that. It’s nothing really. I have my father’s skinny gene.” She asked me about what I was doing in Morocco and my travels. We talked rapidly and succinctly, each of us baring our own life story as though there were no other place to have this conversation, but in the hallway, outside the ferry bathroom on the Strait of Gibraltar. When she found out I had called off my wedding she said, “I think that is great. You know, there are so many young girls who just don’t even realize what is out there. They don’t even know what they are capable of. I decided very young not to have children, so it was never hard for me.”

Not that I am one of these “young girls” she describes, but the advice, support and confirmation was well-received. For the first time, I wasn’t being asked, “Don’t you want to be married?” or, “Why don’t you have children?”

Sheila was wild and hard, but also tender and motherly: when a button broke on my shirt, she kindly gave me some scissors and sewing equipment. When I broke the scissors, she smiled, and winked, then the lines on her sun-infused, freckled skin feathered when she refused the leftover Euros in my purse. Sheila and Jim gave us maps and led us off the boat, hailing us a cab and giving us instructions on how to get through customs at midnight.

A month later, I met an older woman on the train to Manchester traveling from the Grasmere Lake District in Northern England. She was returning to Spain to see her husband and children, striking me as lonely and overly gregarious, almost pushy, but proud to talk about her family. She told us about her daughters, one who had two children, and the other, a married lawyer who had made the decision not to have children at all. This was the only moment she ever looked sad, looking down at her hands that clenched tightly, “I fear she is missing on what is important. She may have her travel and her money, but what is it worth in the end?”

My parents try to goad me into the childrearing life-phase, explaining that, “No one is ever ready,” but it seems clear that some people are never ready and should not be populating this world at all. Recently, I stayed with a photographer friend in Minneapolis: early forties, single father, half-French, half-Mexican with beautiful tan skin, green eyes, and white teeth, like the grown child of a dentist. Ramon and I sat at the picnic table in his backyard, drinking wine while he showed me a photo album, spanning his college years through the present. Most of them were of girlfriends, including the mother of his child, and sundry models, one he introduced as a heroin addict who had since overdosed: “I have worked with the best,” he told me.

While he proudly explained that his daughter was the best thing that happened to him, the story was complicated. His model-girlfriend became pregnant only weeks before he intended to leave her and return to Mexico to become a filmmaker. For the first year, he played part-time father, coming in and out and contributing when necessary. After they separated, when his daughter was only two years old,  he was called by Child Protective Services because his ex-girlfriend overdosed and ended up in rehab.

He was later awarded full-custody, which sparked a subsequent legal battle after her release. While looking at photographs, he showed me what was once a crucial piece of evidence during litigation: a photo taken of his toddler daughter draped over her strung out mother, covered and colored in make-up. There was something beautiful and haunting about the way his daughter had applied the eyeliner and blush, as though she mimicked the drug addict mother with dark, sunken eyes and heavy, pouting lips. The two small bodies were entwined, the child’s head resting on her mother’s naked and skinny hip. This photo that told a childhood of stories, was blown up poster-sized and called Evidence A.

The photo itself became infamous and he was awarded full custody. I suggested it was art.

I have a friend in New York, a few years shy of 40, who is unmarried and desperate for a child. Last time I visited her, we laid on our backs in her bed like crazy women, brainstorming how she could “accidentally” get her relatively new boyfriend to knock her up. In this case, the straightforward request would not do: he wasn’t ready and they weren’t married, though she felt her biological clock ticking inside her like a suicide bomb. The guy was also an overly responsible Wall Street type so it wasn’t like he was susceptible to any “fast ones.” We thought of the obvious: poking holes in the condoms or getting him drunk. When pressing other friends for suggestions, one recommended taking the used condom into the bathroom and pulling the turkey baster trick. Still, we found logistical, biological, and moral issues with this brilliant, but diabolical scheme.

This desperation is not unnoted. Children do become an extension of the self, even if unknowingly. It starts out biologically, then evolves, into general dependence and personal accountability, at some point sort of morphing into a kind of individual satisfaction though the inverse is also true. Considering the death of her child, I know of a woman who explained that even though she knew her son’s suicide was not her fault, she could not get over what felt like the death of something inside herthe  death of herself. The parent-child relationship is one I have yet to understand, though its beauty and tragedy, often confusing, cannot be shorted.

Recently I have been impressed by the simple, utter joy experienced by grandparents. I sat at a café in Vietnam and was approached by an older couple who were announcing the birth of their first grandson. Without knowing me, or speaking English, they treated me to breakfast and coffee (announced via our translating waitress). In Dublin, I met a man at the bar who bought a round for the bar celebrating the birth of his grandson, explaining to me that, “Der ain’t any greater joy than seein yar grandbabes.” My own parents are like reborn Christians, dizzy with devotion to their new grandchildren. Recently, at a hotel, I met a man at the bar who glowed when he announced his daughter was having twins, even though she was still in college and unmarried. There is no shame when welcoming new life.

Since my brief return to the States, I have had to confront the reality of the overwhelming place that children occupy in the world. This was a summer of family reunions, birthday parties, weddings, showers and birth announcements, introductions to newborns, and the harrowing sense that time is pushing all of us forward.  Grocery shopping, Interstate stops and suburbs remind me that the economy, culture and psychology of the world is directed at cultivating, socializing, and providing for the next generation. Why wouldn’t it?

My life is not amenable to children and I have not yet swallowed the rhetoric (women without children are selfish or sterile). Abandoning the Midwest seems like a good idea for now, where people like to procreate and mid-twenties pregnancy seems to catch like wildfire. Armies of families begin to form young, making it hard not to feel alone when everyone in your age bracket has at least two other bodies hanging from them.

Before I packed my car again and left for San Francisco, I was at a corner café/bar with a friend in Milwaukee. We were having mimosas in the afternoon before a thunderstorm forced everyone to huddle inside.  In close quarters, the owner handed out serapes to keep us dry.  While squeezing into a corner booth, we were approached by two children, a boy around eight, and his sister, probably five or six. This wasn’t the normal case of, “Jesus, where are your parents?” They were cute, funny, polite, and said things like, “When I grow up, I am going to be a rock star, a soccer player, or a restaurant owner,” (he had compelling reasons for all three). We talked about dinosaurs, favorite superpowers, fairies, vampires and children’s movies I hadn’t considered in years. Outside, the thunder crashed, the lightening lit the summer sky and the rain cut streams through the gutters and past the row of cars parked on the street. Until the storm settled, we played catch with a ball made of rubber bands, acted out dragon slayer scenes and pretended we were ninjas. Imagination transcends time and space…it didn’t matter where we were.

Though I am moving forward independently and perpetually feeling somewhat unhinged (for better or for worse), there is always the potential for new influences. Despite my reservations, I can embrace this one thing: channeling imagination and a kind of detachment from a world that has not yet jaded them, children make people happy…stupid happy, the kind of happy where you lose yourself, if only for a moment.