In the Wake of the Walkers

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Pomegranates are made to be enjoyed in the cool of the day, while walking down a dirt path through a green forest, so that every moment you step into a beam of sunlight seeping through tree boughs, the cracked open flesh in your palm becomes more white, more honeycombed and empty, and every seed waiting to be eaten transforms into a rich and faceted ruby glistening in the sun. At the end of it all, I am only left with sticky sweet thoughts and red-stained fingers.

Yesterday, I hiked with my little brother, sister, and dad to the Walker Sisters’ cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 5 sisters – Margaret Jane, “Polly,” Martha Ann, Nancy Melinda, Louisa Susan, and Hettie Rebecca – lived in the cabin bequeathed to them from their father, John Walker. He and his wife, Margaret, married March 29, 1866, after he returned from fighting for the Union in the Civil War (unlike the rest of the state of TN). John and Margaret had 11 children, though most married and left the area. The 5 single sisters chose to remain on the land lived a mountain life of simplicity and self-reliance in Little Greenbrier of Sevier County, Tennessee – even as society and technology changed around them. Forced to give up their land and house to the ownership of the US government (and national park service), the sisters gracefully entertained and educated park visitors that came to see them at “Five Sisters Cove.” They sold their home on one condition: that they could live out the rest of their days in the little Greenbrier house, the government would leave them alone and allow them to make a living as they saw fit. The last sister, Louisa Susan, died on July 3, 1964. (A more detailed history of the Walker Sisters and the Little Greenbrier house is below, courtesy of the national park service: NPS.gov

While walking the path to their home – now sixty years later – I’m overwhelmed. How would I live, knowing that my house was no longer my own and everything my family ever built would be absorbed by the land upon my death? What would it look like to choose to live a life contrary to the society that surrounds you?

I carried a pomegranate in my hands along the trail. Upon entering the house, I stepped carefully onto the hardwood, wincing at the thought of getting the floor dirty. Would the sisters have made me take off my shoes? What kind of wrath would come from my muddy footprints? I’d seen photos of the women sitting in rockers on their front porch, and I wonder if any visitors were ever invited in? Peeking up the ladder to upstairs, my head swarmed with thoughts. But standing in the doorway – and seeing the light spilling inside – quieted me. I sat down on a wooden bench on the porch and stared at the pomegranate in my hands.

Gingerly prying open the bright red fruit, tiny stains of juice dotted my jacket sleeves. How can you honor someone who lost everything? Can I even begin to represent a group of women who could never identify with me, who were morally opposed to the technology-filled life I live now?

I left 5 seeds on the front porch bench, nestled in the grooved holes of 5 nail heads. One seed for each sister.

One for Margaret Jane, one for Martha Ann, one for Nancy Melinda, one for Louisa Susan, and one for Hettie Rebecca.

Louisa Susan, a poet in her own right, wrote the following words (a copy of poem is in GSMNP files.)

My Mountain Home

“There is an old weather bettion house
That stands near a wood
With an orchared near by it
For all most one hundred years it has stood

It was my home in infency
It sheltered me in youth
When I tell you I love it
I tell you the truth

For years it has sheltered
By day and night
From the summer sun’s heat
And the cold winter blight

But now the park commesser
Comes all dressed up so gay
Saying this old house of yours
We must now take away

They coax they wheedle
They fret they bark
Saying we have to have this place
For a National park

For us poor mountain people
They dont have a care
But must a home for
The wolf the lion and the bear

But many of us have a title
That is sure and will hold
To the City of peace
Where the streets are pure gold

There no lion in its fury
Those pathes ever trod
It is the home of the soul
In the presence of God

When we reach the portles
Of glory so fair
The Wolf cannot enter
Neather the lion or bear

And no park Commissioner
Will ever dar
To desturbe or molest
Or take our home from us there.”

 

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Feasting Well

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Christmas Day is over, but the tree is still up — for a week or two longer anyway. We’re still feasting on leftover ham and turkey; the table remains littered with a half eaten pecan pie, sugar cookies, mini donuts, chocolates, and a quarter of cinnamon bunt cake. Oh, help.

New Year’s Eve is one day away, thus, more eating. Instead of just allowing myself to overindulge this year, I want to truly feast — not just on good food, but on good company — being fully present with my family without an iPhone attached to my palm. I want to bless the ending of one year and sound the arrival bells of the next with laughter and tears (for me, the two have always gone together.)

We celebrate with feasting — turkey, ham, and maybe even roast goose. The best holiday films visualize heart-warming scenes around the table, or even en route to dinner, such as with Mr. Matuschek in the film The Shop Around the Corner (1950, played by Frank Morgan: most famous for his role as the wonderful Wizard of Oz). Recovering from an emotional breakdown (and failed suicide attempt) because of his wife’s betrayal, Mr. Matuschek faces the possibility of Christmas dinner alone. He reaches out to his employees as they leave one by one, wishing him a merry Christmas. The old gentleman’s hope wanes, until finally a lone errand boy gives him reason to get excited again.

“Rudy! Do you like chicken noodle soup?”

“I certainly do.”

“And what would you think of roast goose stuffed with baked apples? And fresh boiled potatoes and butter and some red cabbage on the side?”

“I’d love it!”

“And then cucumber salad with sour cream? Then a double order of apple strudel with vanilla sauce.”

“Sounds wonderful!”

“You’re going to have it, Rudy. Come on. Here, taxi!”[1]

This is one of my favorite scenes. Mr. Matuschek knows how to feast — a double order of apple strudel — with vanilla sauce… Lonely Mr. M practices generosity and Rudy, a working teenager all on his own in Budapest, gets to enjoy a wonderful Christmas dinner.

For as long as I can remember, my mom prepared food for an extra kid or two around the table, even during the holidays. We celebrate new births, a new year, new jobs, new marriage, old but steady love, finishing old seasons well and beginning new ones. We always partied for even very small things growing up, like a band concert or even just because. My parents are really good at celebrating.

When my great-grandmother died, we went to her funeral. To this day, I compare every funeral I attend to hers — it was so much fun. Great Aunt Marie, living in California, originally from Newfoundland, took thirteen year old me aside and told me how she hated seeing the casket open. She said Grandmother wasn’t really there, and that body was “just a shell.”

In her thick Newfinese, Aunt Marie said that we should be having an Irish funeral — everyone clothed in white with great singing, dancing, eating, and drinking. I wished for that kind of celebrating so badly, and for the rest of the day, everything went wrong (or right, looking back now). The wrong song was played for the special, and Dad found out too late that his grandmother liked Carmen, the opera, not Carman, the Christian musician and evangelist (with albums like Addicted to Jesus and Shaking the House.) After an awkward procession, we all ended up at a local cafeteria. Great Uncle Charles took out his dentures, and he and my little sister made silly faces at each other (I still don’t know who took those pictures.) We celebrated Grandmother’s life and enjoyed just being together as a family. All together from east and west coasts… many of the relatives I met that day I haven’t seen or spoken to since.

While writing the last paragraph, my little brother Matt told me and mom with a straight face: “If you don’t have alcohol at my funeral, I’m gonna come back and haunt every one of you.”

The only thing that can ruin a good feast is a good haunting — whether it’s a bit of undigested beef and broth, the leftover pieces of a broken relationship, or ordinary spirits of strife revealing their horrible faces.

Oh, the haunting. What better story of regret, redemption, goodwill toward men  and delightful feasting than Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. I love George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge (from 1984). He first terrified me as General Patton (1970), and Scott’s Scrooge has coldness and chutzpah that chills you to the bone — he’s the best Mr. Scrooge that ever was.

First visited by Christmas Past and Christmas Present, old Scrooge is visited at last by the future, or Christmas-yet-to-come, consistently represented in film by a tall, black robed figure with boney, spindly fingers. After a series of chilling encounters describing how Scrooge will die alone and unloved, he leans over a grave — wiping away the snow to reveal his own name chiseled into the stone. George C. Scott trembles and cries out imploringly to the specter:

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”[2]

The future can be re-written, as Scrooge soon learned. A new life can begin with ordering the biggest goose the market has ever seen and sending it anonymously to the very person who least expects it. Bob Cratchitt and his family knew how to feast even with very little, and a bigger bird only increased their delight. Scrooge does something he adamantly refused to do and visits his nephew Fred, apologizing for his horrible attitude the day before (and for avoiding him every day before then). If I learn anything from Charles Dickens, it is to keep inviting, keep feasting, and keep celebrating. Someday, the person you care about who keeps turning you down might just change their mind.

Happy New Year to you, friend. And happy feasting!


[1] The Shop Around the Corner (1940), beginning at 01:24:10.

[2] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013). 74.

Here’s to Re-Beginning

After a long and crazy semester, I’m just now resurfacing. I need some fresh air.

A snowy hike with good friends in Yosemite last winter made me realize just how arduous climbing an ice-covered mountain can be without the right gear. Two steps up, three steps sliding back — I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was I didn’t want to die. The landscape romanced and terrified me. We were in Narnia, peaceful and quiet, closely watching for every place my feet would go.

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This blog originally began as an aid to writing my thesis. It still is, though for a while there I moved terribly slow — two sentences down, then three backspaced. The major change is that I need to talk around, below, and beyond all things attached to intimacy within art. The musings to come may just stay here — and have their resting place here. I may come back to these things, or they may come back to me, knocking at my door months or years from now. Here, in this space, I can be completely me, unbounded by outlines and ecstatically moved by tangents. Unveiling Intimacy isn’t the place for my thesis, but the territory for ESCAPING it.

So here’s to re-beginning.

 

Remnants

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Here is the space and time for past performative encounters to be spilled out— the dried up bits of fruit and flesh that remain in my memory, the scattered leaves of paper that have scabbed over my skin, making even the most tender wounds more lovely.

 

I held your hand for what seemed like forever. Why it seemed necessary at the time, I don’t know. Now it lingers in my palms, with a sweet perfume and a dull ache.

 

You watched me wash my feet—with honey. The smack of gold on my skin was almost too loud, too vulnerable in the white and empty room. It pops and crackles as I recall it.

 

You came in and then left again. No, you didn’t want to sit down—

And then you came back.

 

The milk was so cold, so soothing on my wine-stained eyes. They still burned. I held them tightly closed, and then I heard you—bending down, close to me. You offered me a towel to wipe my face, and you said:

“I just want to take you home and throw you in the tub and clean you off and tell you it’s all going to be okay.”

 

My eyes were red, and from the sticky itchiness on my face and neck, I could feel the tears still dripping . I must’ve looked pathetic. Your nose twitch and your hand start towards me. With a jerk, you stopped and barely over a whisper, you asked me— “May I wipe the dribble from your chin?”

 

Your eyes are clear, but now I can’t tell. Are your eyes watering or mine? The red makes your pupils dilate. The light is vibrating.

 

I couldn’t tell if your grip was growing or mine was. And then I felt the pressure increasing on our clasped fingers. Loosening and tightening, a pulsating rhythm. A heartbeat of hands.

 

Pomegranate seeds, golden hair, a wooden box, glass vials, a silver funnel, a red chalice of coconut oil, and a jar of honeycomb toffee.

 

I sit here, waiting. Still waiting.

Prologue-ing

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My first performative experience as a child happened at my mother’s kitchen table. She poured Welches grape juice into two small glasses and opened a roll of Ritz crackers. This was communion: an intimate ritual where she spoke and I listened. She restated the mantra of why we were eating this meal, what the symbols represented, and the ramifications that accompany belief. This was a sensory experience: the sound of juice trickling into my glass, my mother’s voice—smooth and soft, the scent of her robe mingling with grapes, the sweet tartness of purple, and the buttery salt wafer dissolving on my tongue. These repeated moments with her left their mark, creating an awareness of the present— an intimacy causing ultrathin seconds to seem hours.     

The residue of that early memory imprints my art practice through the way I use food objects in performance to ritualize relationship. My desire is to extend an offer of vulnerability, inviting a viewer to be present. I perform rituals in my search for the sacred, and my body is slowed into rhythms of breathing and waiting. I paint with the stains of olive oil and blackberries, wash my feet and hair with honey, meditate through milk-fat, and drain the “life-blood” of onions. The materials are thick with history—wine, milk, honey, and bread having ancient, cross-cultural, and sacred meanings— ripe with symbolism and lovingly prepared for their future demise. I open a veiled doorway for audience-participants to walk through, an alluring entry point into intimate space.

As a performance artist, the series of questions I present in this space are both theoretical and applicable. What is the residue of intimacy? How does intimacy manifest itself through objects, images, or text? How does the performer exist as a lover when audience-participants are no longer viewed as “objects of affection” but as collaborators and co-lovers? What gifts are passed between bodies during a performance, and what do the remnants of these gifts look like? Answering these questions requires more than skimming fat from the surface of the matter—a bouillabaisse needs a rolling boil.

The state of relationships between performers and audiences needs to be tasted.

Affect-ed-ness or Affect-ing-ly Affected

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In diving into this mess of theory, I am easily distracted. First I latch onto affect but then am side-swept by conversations of residue and touch and—oh! The infra-thin! Somewhere in between the affected, the state of being affected, and the process of affecting—all intermingling in a furious boil. (Thanks to Brennan Manning, I have bouillabaisse on the brain.) All in good time… no need to get overwhelmed. Because that always leads to frustration. Confusion. And Netflix.

So to counter this, I am embracing the mess. And as I hang my toes over the diving board and gaze down deep, my body leans forward. As if propelled by sheer will of its own.

Such is affect. We are easily affected, whether by relationships or experience or by memory. In-between-ness. If there ever was a state of unknown, this is it. Even though we apply glossy, fresh painted terms, it still doesn’t hide the fact that affect is still a mystery to us.

One of the clearest (and confusing) descriptions I’ve seen is by Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth in their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader: titled, “An Inventory of Shimmers.” (Shimmers, not sparkles.)

Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves.”[1]

Breaking this down into morsels we can actually chew (breathe in)—(breathe out) we feel our bodies. We encounter our (often mediated) surroundings through at least the five senses. As artists, viewers, and humans in general, we are limited by our own need to categorize things, to place happy boundaries around experience. Let’s log that away. I have at least two copies of that filed in separate places. Can you imagine if we loved people that way? Dealt with relationships that way? Our minds are incredible machines that hold onto some memories while discarding others. Some of the dearest or most intrinsic moments are just too slippery to hold onto, no matter how hard we try.

Affect sticks to us: our environmental surroundings, our bodies, and the physical objects between and around moments where we are affected. Like syrup, affect keeps turning up on my elbow. Each time I lay my arm down on the table, there is something unknown sticking to me—and I’m left wondering if it’s from me or the person that sat here before me. Sentimental and gross at the same time, the disgust only surfaces when we have no idea of what the residue is or where it comes from. Either through or in spite of a performance, meeting with a stranger or a friend transfers something onto me; trying to define that thing is another struggle on its own. All we can do is give examples of how it looks and sounds, and then maybe we can say what it doesn’t taste like. Another thing to consider: within a performance or outside of it, there is a possibility that I have imprinted onto someone else.

Affect is in this passage between bodies. A dark hallway, a winding corridor inside a labyrinth that seems to have no easy escape. Yet somehow I find myself in another mindset after a performative encounter. Why is that? How do experiences between audience-participants and performers create such a strong impression? (Or leave no impression? Ambivalence and rejection are also remnants of affect.) Impressing onto something (or someone) insinuates closeness or, as in Affect Theory, beside-ness. Taking a print of oneself.

Gregg and Seigworth state (later on in the reading) that affect can also be interpreted as force or “forces of encounter.”[2] Use the force, Luke. How a person is affected might not necessarily be forceful or forced upon them (though it is evident in cases of trauma.) What is often seen (or missed, if you prefer) is the way a person is just barely affected. Even at the most microscopic level, we are always affecting. (Ask my roommate—she’s a scientist.)

How am I, ever so subtly, being affected by the people (and environment) around me? Canned corn tastes like can. This is the very reason why my mom refuses to drink diet coke from anything but a bottle or a soda fountain. But then again, eggs poached in buttered water have yolks like golden orbs of happiness compared to the ones cooked in regular tap (No, seriously, they taste like cheese. Julia Child was on to something… Heck, all of France is onto something!)

I am affected. You are affected. We affect each other. What are you left with after a one-to-one performance? Or after spending lunch with a friend (or lover?) A lingering flavor rests on your tongue. After you leave me, your clothes will smell faintly of garlic or burnt sugar—or coffee. And you might not even notice.


[1] Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” The Affect Theory Reader (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010). Paragraph 1, Kindle Edition.

[2] Gregg and Seigworth, paragraph 2.

Here’s to beginning.

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This blog is born out of my heart’s desire to see new things bear fruit. A bit too broad? But, of course. (We are beginning, aren’t we?) There is nothing more important to me than relationships. And to start this off on the right foot (and to clarify), my relationship with Jesus is the one that consumes me completely.

Yes, I’m a Christian. But before you shut down your screen—read a little longer.

I am also a performance artist, writer, an academic, researcher, and poet—living in San Francisco—the most amazing and beautiful city in the world (in my not-so-humble opinion.) I love it because, from the first moment I came, it grabbed me up and wouldn’t let me go.

For future reference, this will never be the place for political, religious, or doctrinal debate. This is also not the space for soapboxes that alienate or demonize any person because of their religious belief, class, race, gender, or sexual orientation. If any post or comment on this blog seems to even remotely resemble any of the political-religious-superiority speech that pollutes the interwebs, let’s call it out for what it is—hate. And we’ll derail that runaway train. (Heck, if it’s still not stopping, we’ll bomb that sucker… And I digress.)

This is where intimacy as a concept and as a living thing is explored.

Yes, intimacy—that space where I encounter you and you encounter me. The place where the unknown meets the known, and the fine wavering line where vulnerability and control touch in a soft embrace—though it can also be as violent as the water slamming against the cliff-face along Highway 1. (If you haven’t driven down this winding stretch of road—it should be on the list of places you see before you die.)

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In this short gap of time, I’m writing a thesis—for a degree entitled History and Theory of Contemporary Art (wordy, right?) My topic has changed over the last year, but at this point, it’s a physical thing that I can actually taste and chew on: intimacy in the relationship between performer and audience-participants of performance art.

The purpose of this blog is not only to aid my overly exhausted brain through compartmentalization (whew), but it is also for speaking my heart and letting passions run wild… before I calm down and organize and edit them for my thesis-readers. I will be discussing books, artwork, theory, and tangents of all kinds that connect to this tangled mess of intimacy. It is messy—and in the next few months, there will be blood, sweat, and tears poured out by the gallons. This blog may end up looking like my kitchen after I’ve spent all day baking (crusty and sticky with white powder dusting everything), but that’s okay. Things will still be made. Theory will be solidified and new observations will be viewed from multiple angles. This is the beauty of what we call art making. And as writers are artists (yes, I said it), this blog serves as a sketchbook of sorts where I unpack completed or incomplete ideas—serving up some hot and crispy notions or sometimes scooping them off the floor because I burnt myself taking them out of the oven.

I also love to cite things. For instance the second half of this blog’s subtitle is taken from the book Real Presences by philosopher and rhetorician George Steiner (he is just one of my loves, though I take strong issue with his tendency not to cite.)

The arts are most wonderfully rooted in substance, in the human body, in stone, in pigment, in the twanging of gut or the weight of wind on reeds. (Steiner, 1989. University of Chicago Press: Chicago).

I am rooting this writing on performance, art, food, and intimacy… in substance, with the materiality of words weighing on every discussion. Someday—in the near or far future—a solid essay or book (or dissertation!) may culminate from this experiment.

I am giving me room to breathe.

And I’m allowing myself to talk about Jesus—because if we write about what contorts our insides into knots, the least we can do is be honest about it.

So here’s to beginning. I raise my glass to all of you.

And I hope for good things. Intimate things.