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A Portrait Of The Self As Self

Marcia Paints Her Self-Portrait with the Aid of Mirror, from De mulieribus claris, by Giovanni Boccaccio // Modified from flickr

How do we as individuals become parts of a whole—a community, a family, a nation?

Happy New Year. Happy first walk around whatever body of water is closest to you, first meditation, book read, friend hugged—happy first everything. I know as well as you do that time occupies an elastic-ly arbitrary shape in the world, but I am not about to deny myself the deeply satisfying reward of closing up one year and beginning a fresh one. And if you’ve got similar neurosis around organization, I empower you to do the same.

“Ooooh, I’m being empowered!” P—my partner—always jokes when I say this. “Thank you for empowering me!”

Still, it’s challenging, isn’t it? The way we come face-to-face with the things we’d like to leave in the last calendar year, the things we expect ourselves to be able to cleanly cut away from just because we scrawled that we would in 2019?

For me, this has been apparent in the savagely unpredictable landscape that grief occupies. It’s truly a wild ride. Even as a person who has experienced a good deal of loss in my life, I find myself caught in the Mariana Trench of it: darkness that abounds and about which we know nothing.

This month, I lost both of my grandmothers. In the same week. I also lost a friend. The details of my friend’s death are still being sorted through, so I won’t publicly talk about them, but I will talk to you a little about my grandmothers.

For those of you who have read my work at The Establishment, you know that I lost my parents at a young age. I was adopted by my maternal aunt, and raised by her, her husband, and my maternal grandparents. We all lived in the same trailer park. My stepdad’s family—the man who had still been married to my mother when she died—I have also stayed close with, including and especially his mother.

My grandmothers were of the Silent Generation, though that is the only thing they had in common: the way their movements were informed by a kind of careful attentiveness and disgust with waste that only economic scarcity can instill. My maternal grandmother, Donleita, was a diva who loved leopard print, fanfare, and Jesus. My step-grandmother, Marjorie, was a dressmaker who out-earned her husband (but never talked about it), couldn’t cook to save her life, and had grown up on a farm in rural Oregon where they kept things cold in a hole dug in the dirt. Her father drove Greyhound buses. Her brothers helped load pianos off ships coming from South America. Both women taught me grace, the love of a good cup of coffee, how to sew, how to use lipstick as rouge, and how to survive in a world full of callousness.

I feel strange around my friends—bone-tired, unable to make small talk, monitor my intonation appropriately, or respond quickly enough to jokes. As I walk them to the door, I know that our visit was not one that included me at my best. That I took too long in moments when I needed to be faster, or was too swift in moments that required reflection.

If you’ve been witness to that, it’s not you, it’s deeply me. Please be patient. Please keep being kind. I am hopeful that it will pass quickly, and I also know that healing takes whatever time it needs, no matter what boundaries I try to enforce upon it.

P and I have an annual tradition that we are unable to make happen this year due to the events that unfolded in December: in January, we go someplace hot. We leave behind the wet, gray sog of the Bay Area in January, trading it in for Joan Didion on the beach in the Yucatan, or a cooking class in Bangkok. We save all year so we can circumnavigate not only the drear of post-holiday come-down, but also so that I, specifically, can hide from ghosts; nearly all of my major death anniversaries occur in January. This is some kind of mercy or some kind of sadism, I haven’t quite decided. The slew of deaths last year, however, happened in December, and the funerals themselves are in January.

As such, we’re home. Wearing forty layers of clothing in our 19th century house that leaks hot air (original windows are beautiful, original windows are beautiful, original windows are beautiful).

Still, we managed to go to Los Angeles for two brief days this last weekend, to meet family for a short trip that brought some levity and kindness to the month. P, always the adventurer, took us to the Marciano Arts Foundation to be blown away by art—Ai Weiwei’s ballooning sculptures of bamboo and silk, namely, that intersect ideas of ancient legend, kite-making, and the refugee crisis. While wandering through the huge, brutalist modernist halls of the Marciano, we encountered work by Bunny Rogers, the 27-year-old who’s making waves in the art community with her work around Columbine.

The piece of hers that we saw was immersive; you are invited to walk into two rooms that are full of falling snow made of paper. Projected on the wall is an animated video of a girl playing piano on a stage. The description of the piece said the following:

Rogers relies on corrupted memories to piece together a narrative that both mourns its origins and begs for resolution. Her videos, A Very Special Holiday Performance in Columbine Auditorium (2017) and Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria (2016) depict rehearsals of ceremonies for mourning.

My mind went wild at this concept of corrupted memory—what is that, I wondered from my required two-foot distance. A security guard eyed me, looking wary.

In Rogers’ case, it seems to be about the intersection between mourning (a public/private thing) and popular culture/media/cartoon. After all, the reason the pieces are so resonant is because the animated videos reek of after-school-special, and yet are heavy-hitting in their emotional resonance: Columbine. Columbine is a beautiful, pansy-like flower that needs special care, yet the first Google search of its name produces articles upon articles about the school shooting. You need to clarify—”Columbine flower”—in order to get results for the thing that came far before 1999.

I know that both collective and personal grief become totemized. I know that we tend to take the fractured pieces of our grief and try to hold them up to everything and everyone to see where they fit — to the sky, to see how or if the light shines through. To the face of another, to see if they match the color of their pupils. To the work we do in the world, to see how our own mortality serves us—if we’re doing this living thing right, or paying appropriate homage to those who have gone.

The reason the idea of corrupted memory is so fascinating to me—and potentially a new lens for looking at the way public and private intersect—is because of the way it relates to the identities of marginalized people. I thought, for example, immediately of Elizabeth Marston saying that femme identity is “an unauthorized copy of femininity.” Disallowed.

The fact of the matter, too, is that public and private lines are even more blurred than they once were; social media knows when I’ve been talking to my friends about menstruation, or celery juice cleanses, or that I’m sad my niece and nephew are growing older. I regularly spill my guts on Twitter, unconcerned with being too much. I write thinkpieces, for heaven’s sake. And while I do believe that visible vulnerability is an evolved strength, I also believe it’s because my concept of myself and the internet have both become less defined as opposite of one another—and in that sense, they’ve corrupted.

We position ourselves as opposites of the virtual world, and that is important, somehow, to maintaining autonomy from the internet. But as free media begins to look more and more like personal narratives (which are nothing new — personal journalism really took off in the seventies, thank you Queen Joan Didion), our information becomes, as Bunny Rogers gestures to, pixelated.

I know that both collective and personal grief become totemized. Click To Tweet

What does it look like for us to embrace this corruption, at least in times of grief? To allow the soft, shape-shifting of these entities to create for us a kind of collective consciousness that we can pull from in order to enhance our experiences of feeling?  

The fact of the matter is that we need more complicated ways of thinking about our reactions, responses, and selves as individuals—and especially how we as individuals become parts of a whole (community/family/nation). We readily offer that kind of generosity of mindfulness to art, but we rarely do that for ourselves.

Perhaps I should think of myself as an exhibit more frequently—one that depicts provocatively and image-istically, and has a juxtaposed title.

Say, Self Inside Self Inside the Tomb of Marie Laveau

Woman in Flannel, Head in Hands, Stonewall Inn

A Portrait of a Dinner Party at Pearl Harbor

How would you title you?