Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Being an artist (and a citizen) in and of Detroit

Memorial Day flags at Historic Elmwood Cemetery, Detroit
Other artists and writers I am sure can relate to the feeling of being "stuck." For me, this was a stuck week. Some of it has to do with having lifelong depression (which can be oft-quelled but never shooed from the yard for good), some of it the fits and starts of both long-term and short-term projects and the sometimes huge cycles of not-doing that have to accompany the frenzy of doing in turn. And perhaps some of it has something to do with being in a lurch of life, not knowing where I will be making my living and being more than a little at loose ends with myself at a strange crossroads in middle age. Being stuck. Becoming unstuck. Jolting myself forward from stuckness to renewed creativity. What is your formula? My formula is pretty simple. My formula is to drive around my city on mini-vacations, road trips 15-minutes at a time, location-scouting and eyes-open wonderment of somewhat varying amplitude and oscillation...something like this: 
"Sumafasores" by Gonfer - en wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Today, for the sake of this post, my wandering was blue.

And today found me in one of my favorite spots in the city, inside the gates of Historic Elmwood Cemetery. For me, cemeteries in general are a place of sublime quiet and reflection. I like a cemetery full of mixed-up architecture, more than a little historical intrigue, some shady spots for sitting and thinking, and one that is a good cross-section of the area where they are located. And I always seem to end up there when I need to get grounded, no pun intended.

After a rainstorm this afternoon in which I ran errands, the sun started to come out and I decided to hit the road to see my old friend the cemetery. But, me being me, I was running a little on my own clock (cue Steely Dan's "Time Out of Mind" as the soundtrack here, but ignore the heroin references, kids). And, thus so, I arrived at the front gate at seven minutes til 7. The security guard was getting ready to lock the place down. "You know we close at 7?" "Yes," I answer sheepishly, "I was just hoping to get some photos of the Memorial Day flags on the graves." "Well, OK," he answers, a little begrudgingly, "but I want you out of here by 7." So he let me through the gate for a quick drive. 

Inside, the place is much more vast and circuitous than you could imagine from the road outside. It ranges up and down a few small hills and has some quite nice in-ground mausoleums. But I was on a mission. Flags. Photographs. 7 p.m. And then I found the above photo, right next to the road, festooning the resting place of a WWI veteran and in front of a lovely line of monuments of varying age. It was bright, it was hopeful, it was what I was looking for. The intersection of life and death in a place remaining still where things are moving at a crazed pace all around. Less than a block away, 2,000 bicycle riders from Detroit Slow Roll were filling police-closed streets before riding the heretofore unridden by cyclists en masse track of the Belle Isle Grand Prix which takes place this weekend. It is a huge deal. And, in true oppositional form, two blocks in the other direction is the scene of a recent local tragedy. A young mother was discovered, unthinkably, to have the bodies of two of her own children locked in a freezer chest while refusing to admit they were even missing. Celebration. Tragedy. Bounty. Devastation. Detroit never seems far from having dichotomy in every single situation.

And, letting this wash over me in the quiet of the otherwise empty cemetery, I feel the jolt of rebalance. But within this sphere of thought, I can't help but wonder what is next up for Detroit. There is a huge land-grab going on here by entrepreneurs from L.A., NYC, Berlin, Sao Paulo, "otherwheres." They all want a bite of what artists and musicians have found to be true here in an affordable and very supportive community of hive-minded individuals working our tails off to unblight a vibrant infrastructure and to prolong the history of all arts in a city rich with texture and talent. But living here is something that has to be experienced and "earned" in both street-cred and hard-knocks. It is the secret handshake of the property crime. It is the slitted eyes of we-never-had-working-streetlights-before. It is the familiar fear that the great-grandparents living in that one house on the block might freeze to death if someone doesn't check on them during the next cold snap. You have to live here to get this, to BE this. And to see property snapped up left and right to people who are hoping to build expensive downtown utopias and serve $20 hamburgers to hipsters, well, they haven't gotten the memo yet that, in tattoo terms, if you haven't paid your dues in other ink first you haven't earned that right to ask for a full sleeve. We may very well have bitten off more than the city can digest and this could be a very bumpy couple of decades ahead. 

All this, rushing through my head full-force, on my 4 minute drive back to the front gate where the security guard waits patiently in his car to let me out of the closed gate at 7:05 and call the place secure for the night. I thank him abundantly for being patient and letting me in at the last minute. "Did you get your pictures?" he asks, smiling. "Yes! It was just such a beautiful evening and I love the late evening sun on the flags. The cemetery is just so beautiful after Memorial Day!" "It sure is! Now, are you sure you got all your pictures?" "Yes. I am all set. You have a great evening. Enjoy this lovely weather!" "You too, young lady, you too. Have a Blessed day!" And with a click of the remote control gate, I am back on the road. The floodgates of art are open, the floodgates of Detroit are open, but the cemetery is all locked down overnight because, in true Detroit form, if you don't lock it up tight, someone will steal your $^%# in a heartbeat. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Being ultra-choosy in a hook-up world

This past week was a weird one. It was the 3-year anniversary of the implosion of my last relationship. No doubts that it was one that needed to implode, but it was still really hurtful nonetheless. What have I been doing since then? I have been getting to know myself again, getting back into old creative habits, and doing the things I love to do with friends I really care for. What have I not been doing? Dating.

Almost a year ago, when I was still in a kind of shock over the abrupt end of what I considered a very serious relationship, a good friend asked me how many dates I had been out on since the breakup. Without a second thought, I said, "Zero," and I was met with a look that was somewhere between complete shock and abject pity. And for the longest time I wondered what would possess someone to react that way. Then I stepped back and started really paying attention to what was going on around me in a way I had not before. There was a whole hell of a lot of completely drunken and casual sex going on all around me. And I really didn't care to join in. Not in the least.

All of my life, I have been "monogamy girl," with no regrets. I made a horrible mistake in my first marriage (other than the first mistake in being 19 and being married) and I have tried not to let history repeat in every way since then. Don't get me wrong by any means. I totally respect my friends with open or polyamorous relationships, nontraditional bonds, sexuality of every shade of the rainbow, but I know better than to think any of those solutions would make me happy. I am a straight girl and I would like to spend my life with a straight dude. I still hold out hope that the right guy is out there for me, one that can be all the flavors of my personal ice cream shop and finds the same in me. As singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco once sang, finding acceptance for all of who you are is difficult and being an unusual woman, I am more than my cover just as Ani is more than her "32 Flavors."

But it is tough to put yourself out there and venture without getting hurt, to risk derision, to lay yourself bare to someone who will most likely like you "if only you could change a little bit." And it is even more terrifying when you have had a relationship in which your every flaw (of which you are perfectly self-aware) is thrown up in your face at every turn. It is a shark tank. And I do not feel comfortable swimming with the sharks. So, 3 years on, I am out in the water in a boat. It is a small boat and I am a little terrified. OK, more than a little terrified but I am here. 

Over the last 7 months, I have dipped my toes over the side of the boat twice. For a hot second I thought I might like one friend-of-a-friend. And I wrote a single note which was instantaneously rebuffed. That's cool. I value honesty more than anything. That isn't to say it didn't spark any self-doubt of my spirit, my self-image, the very core of "being a woman" (of all things), but again, I am not deluded. I know I am getting older and everything that comes with it. And today I have a current crush which is well on the way to not panning out for any number of reasons listed above or not. I am sort of OK with that too. Hey, if I am not what someone wants, why force the issue? Honest girl. Single girl. Monogamy girl. Zero date girl. I am all of those things. 

So let the sharks circle in the hook-up zone, I will never jump overboard. Let the lighthouse blare the siren song of giving up and being alone forever, and I refuse to answer the call and head back to shore. At least the stars in the night sky are pretty from out here in the waves and I have plenty of time to just think and to just be who I am. It is as close to uncomplicated as a person can be in this age of instant sexuality and little gratification, and I, for one, will take it over the other options any time at all.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Personal archaeology and probable paths

This past week I have been digging into my archives, both on paper and online, to unearth poetry I have published out into the greater world. Unfortunately, some of my best work has gone offline with journals either folding or starting over from scratch and I am without screen captures of them as they appeared. Without being overly sentimental, I am trying to catch what I can of what is left out there and do a better job of archiving my work in the future. That is the positive portion of this exercise. There is indeed a future. I have found that writing is a great deal of what I have felt was missing in my life lately and I am making a concerted effort to get back to it while not letting other creative ventures fall away. It will be quite a balancing act, but not one I am unfamiliar with. 

Before I do anything else, here is a capture of the first poetry I was ever actually paid for. Yes, real money, by check. Most poetry journals pay in copies if they are printed and if online, not at all. But then again, the prestige of being selected for some is fairly great when hundreds or thousands of other writers are competing for the same spots. I never did cash that check, and I never did get around to framing it as proof I was doing something I loved for money, but here is the work that got me remuneration. (From Issue 16, Winter 2006 of Ducts at

Second up is a piece from an online magazine I really revered over the years, Eclectica. There are not really words to express the emotions roiling up when I found out they had chosen one of my favorite pieces of work for their October/November 2005 issue. I pulled this screen capture but I somehow wish I had every issue of their journal in print in my own library.

As for the other work that is missing either temporarily or permanently from journals such as Horse Less Review, Pettycoat Relaxer, and nthposition, I will find the hard copies somewhere and keep fingers crossed I had not edited them them at publication. But life is a road map and the best miles are yet to be routed. And in light of that, I am unveiling new work I have been sitting on for a few days. I can never just throw something right out there until it feels right and this one finally does. Hope it resonates a bit with you.

On Lightning Ridge

On Lightning Ridge, the people wore gingham
  honestly with no pretense or airs
The bright checkers flitted in and out
  of sunlight patches, butterflies
in hand sewn folds, as if they would
  light on the ground and slowly sip from
drops of errant lemonade.

On certain days, when the air was
  camphor blue, the checks lay lazy
on beeswaxed floors, dust motes
  whirling to the keening of doves
daydreams put to music on forgotten
  phonographs as lovers caressed the
yesterdays away.

Friday, May 8, 2015

My life as a "Hamster Brain"

Years ago I realized that I had a set of personality traits that made me who I am. They didn't necessarily make me unique from anyone else, but they made me operate under a certain set of rules and parameters that I have since both lovingly and disparagingly termed, "Hamster Brain." Within this post I will disgorge those traits and try to put them in as much of a concise description as possible to hopefully shed some insight into how my creative process works and why it makes me act like a tiny overly furry and somewhat caged mammal. And, believe me, it is both an amazing amount of fun and a crazy drive back to the cosmic pet store to turn myself in for either cash back or an even trade for an animal more suited to a life among humans. This, dear readers, is the life within the cerebral cortex of Mesocricetus auratus, the common Hamster Brain.

First of all, why did I even begin to call myself a Hamster Brain? It all goes back to college when a close friend of mine began calling me out on a series of both stunning feats of klutziness and outrageous forgetfulness of the most mundane tasks. I would become so hyperfocused on studying, writing, doing art, researching, taking photos, watching movies, that I would forget to eat, forget to sleep, and forget to pay the rent or utilities. You have seen the hamster in the cage, running wildly on the wheel for extraordinary stretches of time until finally it crawls over to the water bottle and drinks for ages, never seeming to slake the thirst? That is hamstering. It is forgetting biology and going on pure instinct. Only for me personally, my instinct is to stuff things into my brain instead of stuffing food into my cheeks. When I read a book, I read "a book," a whole book, barely putting it down for long enough to use the restroom or get a glass of water (and forget about eating an actual meal). When I edit photos, I am inside the program for hours at a time until my eyes are red and irritated and my fingers are clawed from holding the mouse and typing. And when I am working on new art projects? I dive in to research like I am hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. I don't stop until I have a full plan developed with contingencies for all steps along the way and ideas of where to procure every supply and how, precisely, the finished project should look barring design changes. It is all a stuffing-the-cheeks behavior that makes multi-tasking (though possible) improbable. And have you ever interrupted a hamster on the wheel? Well, it goes spinning out of control and lands in a fluffy and confused pile across the cage. You got it. Do Not Disturb when I am in the zone.

The very worst of it is trying to plan things that are off the beaten path, even if I desperately like them, want to try them, or need to do them (yes, overdue bills, I am giving you the stink-eye). I am a tiny mammal of habit. I don't necessarily do things in pattern, but I definitely have a territorial stomping ground, what I call the four corners of the cage. If I am not sleeping, eating, bathing and toileting, or creating the most grand of shredded structures known to hamsterkind, it has a tendency to fall of the radar. Have I planned to go see a favorite band or to a new gallery? Not on the stomping ground path. Was I supposed to call you at 3 p.m. on Tuesday? If the phone did not appear in the middle of my food dish, I probably forgot, didn't I? Am I supposed to meet you across town at that new restaurant I wanted to try as well? I am probably circling the block trying to reconfigure my path because how to actually get there is not computing and I might be freaking out a little. I say with all sincerity that I do not mean to blow off personal obligation and that my friends and family mean the absolute world to me, but that I am stuck here in this cage, doing my hamstery things as I have done every day of my life, and sometimes you need to rattle the lid, tap on the glass, or throw me a mini carrot to get my attention. I mean well, but Hamster Brain is an entropic zen state of mind. The more I concentrate, the less the out-of-the-ordinary gets in and sticks to my schedule.

As an adult, I have developed a web of coping mechanisms to deal with being Hamster Brained. If I can pay a bill automatically, I do. I send myself a multitude of reminders, alarms, alerts, e-mails, and inventively placed notes that will jar my memory on important dates and appointments. And, dear friends, I blurt. Heavens help me and may all friends past, present, and future forgive me, I blurt in every single way possible in almost every situation there is. Did I think about something I needed to say to you during a conversation? That thing is going to spring out like a crazed salmon swimming upstream for the last time in the middle of the point you are making because if I don't say it, it is gone forever and a day. Hopefully I have something handy to write it down on so I don't interrupt you, but more than likely I have, I am, or I will interrupt you at some point in our history. Please try to understand that it is not with malice that I blurt, but that that tiny blue butterfly of inspiration or reminder is flying away before I even open my mouth or stick a finger into the air to make an open-parenthesis in your part of the conversation. And besides blurting, I hoard communication. If we have talked about something and I really wanted you to know more (or you have asked for more info), I will write you ill-timed messages in staccato succession, send several emails stuffed with links, or post and post and post on your wall until it is all out there. I am not some stalkerish loon, it is conversely the overzealous habit of caring for you that forces me to make a point. Because once I am off in another direction or corner of the cage, we may not speak again for days, weeks, months, *ahem* years. Believe me, if I have you in my life, I care for you deeply. But my regularity of social skills leave more than a bit to be desired (in my own opinion if not anyone else's). I know that this has led to both a breakdown of many relationships in the past (both love and friendship) and that it is bound to happen many more times in my life, but I am putting it out there into the blogosphere in true blurting fashion that the Care and Feeding Of for Hamster Brain includes a modicum of understanding in the reasoning of my shoddy intimate communication skills (and life skills in general). And gently throwing mini carrots my way to regain my attention is both accepted and appreciated because as a Hamster Brain, I do often forget to eat regular meals and I may bite when "hangry."

I know that I part of a larger breed of other Hamster Brains in the universe, some of whom I have met and blurted extravagantly with and most of whom I haven't (since you are probably nose-down in the next great invention or novel or solution to the universe as a whole). And while I am not writing this in apologistic fashion, I am hoping that a few of you will actually understand where I am coming from in my overblown metaphor. I am that hamster in that cage. I know there is a huge world out there to explore. I yearn for a larger Habitrail to lead the way to new adventure and places I have never seen before. This is me. And I like carrots.