Carrying Books

The sun dusts the white door in the new apartment where the light from the kitchen is “working on it.” It took me a couple of weeks but I think we can begin to settle into this new place. We can begin to speak for ourselves, not just for our boxes. During this move, I sometimes realized, barreling to brooklyn from queens, and to florida where my grandfather was moving, that for the last two weeks my entire spirit was geared toward moving objects from one place to the next. I thought to myself, who am I to need so much, which is to say so many books? 

Books for their stories, for the memories that they hold like trees hold carbon, for their physical presence: their type, their color. Books because I made them, because someone I love made them, because someone I love has written in them. I would have almost nothing: Some clothes and shoes and a tool box, if it wasn’t for my books. All the rest is either shared or left on the sidewalk. And over the years, what are the books I keep?

I never hired movers before, so I had the inclination to help them, to apologize for the awkwardness of all my things. They stole a pack of cigarettes I had not taken from in nine months from the top drawer of my dresser. I thought it was better I didn’t have them, so I didn’t mention it. In any case, I can’t carry this bookshelf on my own. What does it mean when we can’t carry all we own? I know this is a migratory thought, a transient thought, but it seems important to know the weight of you, you who owns this and that, and what you have the ability to carry. You must have money to pay people to help you, you must have friends. But I was also just exhausted by all of my things. Yes, I love them when they are in one place, but not when I have to carry them, which I suppose comes as no surprise, but there is something here. 

I was sitting in one of my classes. I have remained at a feverish state for the last month - month. Moving is distracting to say the least and traumatizing at most. The professor has a calming manner, in a smooth German accent that spread through the emptying room like summer butter: “you never remember the move. You just remember getting there.” I have moved nine times, maybe even more in the last eleven years, since I moved to New York City. But I can never remember all the lifting.

I keep the books that are beautiful and whose stories I love. Maybe I’m an adult now and should treat myself to certain things, not apologize for them, though they feel like an extension of my body.

a dream:

My boyfriend and I were driving up the coast in Oregon again, beaches appeared between sheets of fog where living trees were shaped like ribs by the waves. 

We overlooked another hill filled with trash and a single tree at the center. Cotton balls caught to dried grasses and trash bags tangled in the branches of the single tree, maybe a maple or an elm: with a rounded crown. The tree that seemed to represent all that was living. It’s strange how the beach trees, though skeletal, seemed more alive than this green tree standing on the trash hill.


The Apartment Hop

I dreamt there were city people and country people and they were the same people and they lived in the woods in a house upstate that was also on the number 4 train line. The 4 is express into the city. I dreamt that we viewed the apartment, which was actually a house with a garden on the roof. Rooms kept appearing as we went (this is common in my dreams, dreaming of houses that continue to expand). It looked quite lived in, a little upper middle classy. If that still exists. Anyway, carpets, chandeliers, a little luxy, but also modestly sized. 

It was also a short term place, only for the year. I feel like everything in my life is short term right now. I am about to leave again, and again and again, in every way I can. Even as I am moving I am already leaving. 

My partner has a job and I am in graduate school, but we planned on moving in together last year and this is where we are at: my lease is ending and it’s time to start making some decisions. And the reality is that, when the date is set it doesn’t move but seems to approach with a determined ferocity. 

The apartment search in New York City is hard. I have been here for 11 years and the longest I have been in one apartment has been three years, and by the time I left that place I was so ready to leave because I had been living in a basement (in Greenpoint, which is why I had stayed so long). 

Here are some tips for finding the right apartment when you need to, and when to let apartments go. 

The apartment search can feel a lot like gambling. The most helpful apartment searches for me have been a dedicated day to working with a broker, or going from showing to showing. The thing that is important to know, and what makes the whole thing a little bonkers, is that you pretty much need to decide on the spot if you want the place. I have thought and decided on several places and then lost them within an hour or two of leaving the apartment.

I have decided on places and then wondered if I made the decision out of desperation.

This means you must be clear about what you want at the get go - especially in relation to New York City real estate. When making a decision here is the reality: 

1) there are a lot of apartments

2)There are a lot of shitty apartments 

3) There are a lot of wonderful apartments

4) You are working against time - how many weeks/days do you have to make the decision

To be clear, you don’t have to choose a place that doesn’t make you feel good when you walk in. There are spirits among us. And when you live with them you feel them, you feel them the moment you walk into a space. But in general you want to be clear on the following: 

  1. Price

  2. Windows

  3. Location (I like to be close to some “natural” place like a park or a river, but this could be proximity to train or work etc…)

  4. Closet space 

The list may go on, and you will want to make your own list. This is very helpful when you have to make a decision on the spot.

And I wonder to myself, when will this transience end? Is it just part of living in New York City when the rents keep rising? I have worked in non-profits, I have been a student, my budget was never very high for apartments. I have lived in collectives, and lofts, I have lived with roommates, I have tried hard not to live with family, but found myself on my mother’s couch more that once, I will live with a significant other. 

And here’s what I wonder, for the New York City folks, tell me, how many apartments have you lived in? What do you think about the good old apartment/living space crawl. Do you have any tips? Experiences with living situations or moving situations. 

I’d love to publish your piece next time! Email me at ilylalee@gmail.com

A Makeup Journey

For someone who has a difficult time expressing themselves, I have used makeup as a voice. Often I move through looks slowly, until I have, at least for the moment, discovered what I need to in that manifestation of a self. Every morning I would go to the mirror and repeat the steps like a mantra. I wasn’t hiding behind the sheen, I was not even trying to apply makeup perfectly, but I was repeating, in a way rediscovering the form of it anew. Makeup was clothing, it spoke the words I could not, it helped me live the life I believed I wanted. Sometimes the look rolled into another and took the form of something quite different. Each formation was like a layer of skin that grew and shed in time. 

I never learned the art of how to properly put makeup on, contouring, shading etc… I think in the old days before youtube makeup tutorials, we learned from Seventeen Magazine, friends, or the Bobbi Brown book my mother gave me. Unfortunately for us Seventeen was preening us to buy brands for the rest of our lives, the Bobbi Brown book was boring and complicated, and my friends knew as much as I did. I had trouble following directions for reasons that my therapist might be able to more eloquently relate. The best teachers are the ones that have you come to your own conclusions. No one was ever that good a teacher for me when it came to makeup, so for better or for worse, I went with my intuition. 

In this fraught moment that struggles with identity, I stand by the choice to wear or not wear makeup as an aesthetic and playful one. The makeup I have chosen has allowed me to be and feel a way that I want to be and feel. It has allowed me to change as my makeup changes. It allows me to speak the things I can’t put words to. I started seriously experimenting with makeup in 7th grade. In this moment I find I am a mystery to myself. For the sake of inspiration, or rather to ease my constant desire for list-making I think it is important right now to chart its movement through my teens and twenties. 

2002: 

REPTILIAN

Lip gloss as eyeliner: 

There were a series of metallic shades ranging from blue to purple to green. The fact that the eyeliner was actually lip gloss made it so that it never came off, and so that it created a complete overcoat over the lid of the eye. More like painting, which was always good. 

2002-2003:

MEMENTO

Bic and Sharpie art. Often they would be winding vines. Kids would also draw little “cut” marks on their wrists. Many of the people who did it didn’t actually cut as far as I know. It was an echo of Hot Topic and books like Cut and Go Ask Alice and the movie 13 which harmonized with my rural upstate town’s brink of desperateness. These were the only narratives we could find that were dealing with all the tumultuous feelings we had as 12 and 13-year-old girls. So we related to them. 

My lists are now in my notebooks, but they used to be on my arms. I used to purposefully write a note to myself on my hand in the night so that I would sleep on it and it would be printed on my face in the morning. I may be the inventor of this specific type of memento because I’ve never heard of it or seen it before. It is faulty if you use Sharpie because the ink doesn’t come off very easily and I would find myself walking down the halls with residue on my face. My mind living all the places, and my body was always here.  

2007:

LONG ISLAND YENTA

Brown lip liner:

No lipstick, just an auburn shade of lip liner, invoking the old jewish woman in me. 

2008: 

MORE YENTA, BUT OLDER

Blush:

These were clustered years of old Jewish woman makeup. One of my professors in a media studies class I took in my first year of college, who was also writing a book on vampires because they were trending at the time, said I looked like a clown. He really did say that. To this day I am not sure why he thought it was appropriate to say in the middle of class - calling out my outrageous makeup, but I was horribly embarrassed and that was the end of blush for a long time - well - I still don’t wear blush - but not because of him. 

2011 - 2017:

BREATHLESS

Cat eyeliner: the longer and more robust the better. I lived in Paris for a year, and while I was there the liner became more and more bold. In the French new wave style. Later on the black wrapped in a thin line below my eye. I still can’t remember when I stopped, but one day I just didn’t pick the liquid eyeliner up again and that was around 2017. It felt like I was never perfect enough for the cat eye, I was always fighting the ink. France is prime with history of revolution yet stuck when it comes to race and gender. I couldn’t be a French femme. 

2016: 

RECLAMATION

Red lipstick. I bought the fireyiest red I could and it felt like I was reclaiming my sexuality, in a moment of helplessness. 

2018:

River Sunset

Blue and gold on the lids and beneath. The blue worked with my blue eyes, and so did the gold. I think these are generally good colors for my tone and palate, if you imagine me as a series of paint globs. 

2019:

SCORPIO RISING

None. Unless I am going out: dark purple lipstick sparkly black liner all the way around and mascara. A friend of mine had a dream I was wearing dark purple lipstick and it felt like a sign.

New Constellations

When you live in a bustling city where light pollutes even the calmest nights, an undisturbed sky becomes absolutely holy once the sun goes down. The milky way spreads luxuriously and it feels like you are drinking it in. For us city dwellers, it feels like something very malnourished is being fed. 

In rural Oregon we bought a three dollar app to look into the sky through our phones. The shimmering membrane of night become animated with line that connected one star to the next. Figures darted from horizon to horizon taking the form of Cygnus, the swan, Hercules, and Lupus, the wolf. In the center was a delicately illustrated lyre. When put the phone down all we saw was heaving masses of stars, the lyre was only a triangle in the center of our vision but the shape had new meaning in our eyes. The triangle appeared to be a perfect isosceles (which now I see is a bit more complicated when I look it up online). I feel pretty confident that I will be able to identify this triangle under any circumstance. And the shape will have a meaning neatly linked to this one night in Oregon where we were invoked by the stars.  

It only takes a simple pattern to identify a constellation and then that arrangement can be found from anywhere. Our brains can detect the formula of the shape almost immediately. These patterns help us make decisions and make out what has come before in order to feel out what may come next. Science has proven that when we are able to identify patterns we learn faster and feel safer in our environment. It is very hard for us to memorize every detail of, say, directions, or the words of a song, it is much easier for us to create a pattern to understand them and apply them to other situations. A pattern, however, is a pattern, and it is not the only one.

Patterns are simply stories. The way we view them is the way they are understood. One summer I made out Scorpio’s tail rising over a Canadian forest north of Toronto. Scorpio has also been likened to a palm tree. The big dipper has been seen as a plough, in Ireland, or in Burma it is a crustacean (this is all on wikipedia). A friend of mine, as we were surrounded by July fireflies, said he saw a rabbit in the moon and not a sorrowful man, which may hail from Asian cultures. Of course all of this depends on the story you’ve heard about the constellations. Orion may be a hunter who kills the bear in autumn, spilling blood over the northeastern leaves, or he might not. The patterns repeat throughout the year, returning above our heads as an emblem for the season. The stories in the sky made up of figures may once have indicated to our ancestors that this moment is connected to so many others in the past. 

I have an issue with the astrology in this way - subjecting ourselves to archetypes created by ancient Greeks seems dull if not completely lacking in nuance. I know my entire chart: I am constantly grappling with my virgo moon’s crippling neurosis - it might also just be anxiety. But is this the only pattern for us? Truly, are these patterns human?

There’s a youtube video I love that is Kurt Vonnegut giving a lecture about the shape of stories. He explains the predictability of these stories. Our brains just long for the shape of Cinderella’s arc. And he is not the first one to assign a rhythm to them. There was a Russian folklorist and scholar, Vladamir Propp, who studied Russian tales and believed that there were 31 functions to all stories. He wrote each story like a long math problem detailing everything that happened for the characters. 

And then there are the meteors. We stopped in an unfamiliar town on the Oregon coast and stood on a stone bridge and looked up into the sky with nothing but a vape pen and our arms wrapped around one another’s waist. Momentarily, a flame burst and fizzled in the atmosphere. Not at all like a shooting star, it was more like a giant fireball that appeared and then was gone. 

Psychology attempts to claim the shape of a soul, so does astrology. The truth is that our bodies operate very much like stories, they move and grow, they face difficulty and revelation. We let go of perceptions. Our bodies break and heal. Our skin breaks and scars and leaves telling marks on our skin, or on the tone of our words. 

The infinite nature of probability appears to be chaos. Constant cause and effect render the measurement of outcomes almost impossible. When we were on that bridge, perhaps there was a machine that could have seen the fireball coming. But we didn’t know. We just looked up and there it was. There is no lasting story, but there is the sky. To someone who doesn’t know the stars, they’re only a flurry of light. But to an eye that has been trained to see the sky in a certain way, it is easy to jump from one character to the next. 

Predictability is natural to human perception. Seasons roll in a measured manner in the scheme of our lives. And if the climate is proving unpredictable, the stars are certainly static, but there is something more. There is something wild about our lives, something entirely novel. Will the light swallow the stars? Will the pollution cover the sky? It certainly already has for many people throughout the world. While history rhymes is it not still. Sometimes there is a flaming ball of fire that hurtles through the atmosphere. Perhaps this can be a new sign, perhaps these stars can make new stories above new circumstances.



A Day Paddle Boarding on Emigrant Lake and What is Underneath?

We drove a blue Subaru up the mountain across from Ashland where Emigrant Lake is indented like a tooth filling in the hills. Having been born in upstate New York I’m used to mountains like the Catskills with lush deciduous forests where the shape of mountains are obscured with layers of trees. But here the land alternates between crusted midsummer grass and rugged pines that darken portions of valleys and peaks. With a little concentration, it seems as though I could make out each blade of grass from across the valley. Georgia O’Keefe knew how old the hills seem, wrinkled, with their delicate crevices poised against the sky. Southern Ashland is the same. 

At the lake we were given life vests and paddles. Paddleboards are slightly raised surfboards. The paddle is measured to the elevated wrist, which allows for the paddle movement to begin at stomach’s core and swirl up the body like a gondelear. Getting on proved to be as wobbly as getting on a canoe at the beginning, but as I got my water legs I began with wide strokes. The movement was graceful to begin with. I picked up speed pretty quickly as I glided into the middle of the lake. But as the shore distanced I realized the wind had a stronger stake in where I was headed than I did. My paddling technique began to disintegrate as I barrelled into the center of the lake where the water had once appeared so placid. Through an awkward tacking technique I learned canoeing, I attempted to keep a straight line, though it buckled as the wind only seemed to strengthen. 

I had agreed to paddleboard with my partner and his mother earlier in the week. I had been canoeing, I had even been kayaking before and managed. I was a competitive swimmer back in the day and I am the type of person who would prefer to jump in any body of water that float over it. Unless I was headed for a narrow escape then might I would use a water vehicle, but even then, I would probably swim faster than I could paddle. Maybe I’m giving my swimming chops too much credit. But it’s just how I feel. My partner’s mother is a lawyer and a second degree black belt who has met Chuck Norris and absolutely loves paddleboarding. 

When we arrive at Emigrant Lake I was decidedly down on paddleboarding. I’ve seen too many yoga paddle boarding classes to take the sport seriously at all. All I think of is white upper middle class American women who want to feel centered swooping into downward dog position in a synchronized motion. I never want to identify myself with that. To stand on a board - not with short exhilarated surfing bursts like in Blue Crush, and not canoeing: a long form trip, that requires tenacity, planning, and strength, but, paddleboarding, an hour plus long foray of just standing. It seemed to me more of a show than a sport. People stand on the board, their form conspicuous above the water. They appear to be centered in the scenery, their figures unobstructed by anything, elevated above the placid water. The activity, if only aesthetically, seemed vain. And one can’t possibly do proper yoga on a paddleboard, it’s way too tippy. The entire activity is the equivalent of vaping, or tiny matrix sunglasses: the gemini of water sports. 

So there in the middle of the lake, the wind persisted, steadily, propelling me towards the opposite shore where I would keep company to a blow up unicorn that was pressed against the sandy rock shore.


“This lake is man-made.” My partner’s sister said as we walked down to the shore. She pointed to a swell of dirt and rock a quarter mile long, “that’s the dam.” The paddleboarding lady carried two paddleboards in each arm, which I assumed weighed about 10 pounds each, but were definitely closer to 40 when I picked them up later, and she may not have been human all along. 

I can’t describe it, but once you start seeing towns as colonies you can’t stop. Downtown Ashland is only an example of all of the towns nestled along the 215 mile long Rogue Valley and clusters of old wood houses of the Victorian inclination, but obviously windworn, smoke worn, tucked together in the Rogue Valley. Rogue was a slur for the native tribes that lived in the region. According the the Grant’s Pass government website it was, an othering term attempting to define the nature of the Native’s fight for freedom and representation: Rogues.

Oregon, the state which, for me as a child, took the form of one of the only computer games I played as a child in the mid 1990’s: The Oregon Trail, an educational game about people migrating west once the Pacific Coast was fully occupied by westerners. The trail began in Independence Missouri, where you had In a moment your wagon wheel could be broken in a river, holding you up for a vital week of the journey, as you are expressly traveling during the summer months. Or your daughter dies of smallpox, or your nephew was bit by a rattlesnake. I’m not sure I ever got to Oregon. I also cared so much that it made me sick to leave the computer and I ended up self sabotaging myself in the river for the passion of it. I never knew what to do with my competitive nature to begin with. 

Emigrant Lake is wishboned around the south Ashland hills. I took off my life jacket and slipped off the paddleboard into the water and thrust myself down as deep as I could. The water had a green murky quality and I found no bottom, with fuzzy underwater vision, I saw the paddle board waiting above me and my partner’s legs tread lightly. 

“It’s deep. There’s a town down there,” his sister said when I surfaced. “They moved the white graveyard and left the black one. The one with African American families. Or that’s what I’ve heard…” she said, as if introducing a ghost story that sounded all too familiar. 

In the middle side of the lake, a pocket where the wind was lower and I could lay my paddle down and swim was where I found the joy in the activity, processing what I had learned against the wind, feeling slightly stronger than the blow up unicorn. How many ways have people, houses, environments been covered over by cement or water or language? And the rented paddleboard skims above it. This country is not subtle in its domination, and though the land is long and bubbling with diversity, the clusters of houses remain.


Footprints

After seven hours on the beach I return with charred skin to bone dry streets. With my burns pulsing, I lie on my floor in front of the fan. With the humidity it feels like 115 degrees outside. I feel I am becoming liquid as the sweat pools at my back. My burns are taught against my body and moving hurts so I stay still on the tile kitchen floor: the coolest place in the apartment. After a few hours of stillness I find that my digestion may be off. I have found it hard to work lately. Quitting my long time job and beginning a public life as a writer has made me ambivalent to all kinds of work. I drink a glass of water that was cooling in the freezer. 

I have become obsessed with salts and scrubs. Somehow it feels as if I exfoliate enough my true self will climb out of the flakes, especially on my feet, I scrub them down with what looks like large nail files. And it took until I was 29 to learn how to properly love my feet. Trust them when I build the courage to step away. I don’t want to say that “I’m finally growing up,” because becoming doesn’t take one step to achieve. I am not convinced that moving at all implies a fated final destination. I think it may take a lifetime of constant shifts. So this is just one transformation of many. 

Alexis Pauline Gumbs came to my graduate class in the early spring. Cherry blossoms swirled by the botanic gardens and collected in yards by the brownstones down Classon. The whole graduate in writing class formed a circle in the classroom. I don’t remember at which point she said this in the workshop, but the statement was clear and complete: we are going through breakthroughs all the time. This sounds exhausting. But the way she spoke was with a smile, with a sigh of relief. Here we are, never being the same and all the entanglements that may bring and loosen. Above all, it is not a thing to fear. 

Like an email without a heading. 

Like a story without a title. It doesn’t mean the narrative isn’t there. 

So when we are leaving we define what is left by looking back at the footprints. And footprints, like any print, require a pressing. As long as we have hands or feet, we will press with them. So language is a trace as much as weight is. Where type is the language of the voice and the head, footprints are the language of the body, footprints are also language of vast trends of people. Like signatures, the shape, the gait and movement move like a story across the ground, marking the movement of groups. Pressing implies a reproducibility and uniformity. Where script is a manual and expressive, a print is automatic. A footprint is automatic. It follows the joints and compression and set fluctuation of muscle. The automatic quality of print generally cuts away both expression and design, leaving a sense of apparent truth to the action. The uniformity of a footprint highlights trends. So only large variables are detected: a different species, or a different typeface. In the same way the effects of type on a page is generally consumed unconsciously, so too is gait. However a human body is propelled is natural to their form and rarely thought of in banal activities. The awareness of steps may produce intrigue, story. Courage literally means, to speak what is in your heart. This gesture is the point. Not out of contrarianism or rebellion. But awareness of the movement of the body the functioning of the step is the work that I charge us to.  

The term carbon footprint is batted around a lot. I became familiar with it in 2006 when climate change began to be marketed through movies like An Inconvenient Truth that described the alarming trends that were being detected in sea levels and the devastating effects of deforestation. I have some questions about the term footprint. It brings the issues of the environmental crisis down to the level of the body. While a carbon footprint follows human habits, I think that it points a punishing finger. Which is not to say that human habits are not responsible for the shifting climate. But, fundamentally, I don’t think any bodies are wrong. If anything must be fixed it is the printed word: the story must change. Because the story is what draws away from the real societal issues that create the environmental crisis. Rather than a footprint, we could say a structure, a highrise. The footprint is a system. Humans are so so good at systems, following systems, creating patterns. This might sound over simplistic, and probably quite capitalist now that I think about it. But the story needs to change. Not the story, but the perspective, like Roshamon, let’s find another perspective. It won’t be perfect, and it won’t necessarily save us. 

So we are wrapped in salty air at the beach, the sand is welcomed between toes and the sun is so hot it stings. The smell of sunscreen clouds the beach, and the umbrellas quiver like mirages in the heat. The water is so packed that we accidentally fell into people body-surfing. People find trash in the water and scream “what the fuck!” while picking up a sloppy piece of bag or foamy item and throwing it a couple of feet away from them back in the water. I literally heard this several times over the beach day with regard to floating trash. 

I think about how ephemeral a footstep is. How unlike paving or planting. How it’s just pressing. After a soccer game a fielding is raw with steps leaving the story of the game marked in the land and the soil open and ready for new seedlings. Soil oozes up wet from the ground. I think of a trail, how, like an oral history, it winds through the land. It was not a car, or a plow, or a city official that collected these footprints. The logic of the trail seems to wind if looked at in a map. But its logic is deeply entwined with ancestral knowledge and understanding of the land, it deepens over time. The path requires new ways as the environment changes.

Something will grow where my feet step. Rather than the desecration left at the mark of a foot, I hope to make possibility and growth. Rather than covering over, our footprint may be a gentle farmer on the soil. I hope we can all imagine ourselves that way, as makers of beauty and potential with every step we take. And however we move forth, let it be in our bodies. Even if it is just the vibrations made from breath. That is moving. Let the moving be celebrated. 

Deconstructing Chivalry

Commuters run when necessary. Spot them at dawn and dusk darting gazelle-like into traffic breaks on a green light, or revving to pass slow walkers, hiding rush-induced rage at the sorry clip of the people in front of them. At Union Square we all get off the train to find a tangle at the subway stairs. Tens of people huddle to walk up at the same time. One older white man gestures to me wide like he is holding a platter and says, “go ahead.” 

Cities have cultures. And, of the cities I have seen, New York in the morning is open minded and short tempered. Priority goes to white working men and pregnant white women. Coffees are allowed on trains, snacks sometimes. There is room for all different kinds of people to get on the train, no matter what they’re wearing or how they smell, or what they bring on with them. People in the train are tolerated, though not always fully welcome. 

No matter how many people are on the train car, folks should never touch others with their body or their bag. It is necessary to remain vigilant of this as cars fill and empty between stops. The New York Post wrote an article about a guy who took a bat on someone because they didn’t take their backpack off in a crowded train. The New York Post is extreme. But, besides being a bad source for news, I wasn’t surprised to see the story. Bag etiquette transgressors upset a lot of New Yorkers. There are times when the proximity and anonymity is, not only annoying, but traumatizing.

I bring up the violence because it is evident and pervasive in everyday life. I bring up language because it succinctly, for better or for worse, defines a given situation. I have an instinct that language could have the potential to reform daily notions. Chivalry should be translated. 

Localized permissions permeate the atmosphere of a crowded subway. Back underground at Union Square, we huddle at the steps after the train has left the station. People funnel up persistently and the man tells me “go.” I wait two beats to see how long the offer stands. To let him think about the generosity of his claim. What does he mean to say this to me, to take this power and lift me up the stairway with his “go”? If I was old would he have offered? If I had a different skin color or gender presentation? If I was a man, would he have said “go” then? Instead he took that power and lifted me up, congratulating himself for making one white woman’s day a little easier. But in this act he had alienated all the people next to me and behind him. I have no more right than they do to go before him, as he clogged the stairway with his charity. 

I didn’t know how to respond, the opportunist that I am. I waited so that he could think about his offer, perhaps even to allow him to get a little angry at me (along with everyone else. Which is why it may not have been the smartest decision.) And then I went. The entire situation didn’t carry much weight in itself. But it is the very fact that the act is petty that intrigues me. No one has much to lose in the situation, but it still holds deep cultural significance. 

I thought about chivalry on the second train that barrelled through the Upper East Side. What does it mean for me to have priority? What does it mean for him to give me priority?

While I respect and admire the decency that living with a high moral code requires, the problem with chivalry is rooted linguistically. “Chevalier” means knight in French, or literally, horseman. A chevalier is also a lord, not a foot soldier. He lives in high socio-economic stature. So, at its base, chivalry has combative and classist roots. 

The word, chivalry implies aspects of duty, honor, and service. A knight is never himself. He is, without falter, an extension of his master. In tarot cards, knights have a vibrant, youthful energy. The knights are the messengers, never still in their motivations, but highly active players in the deck. They are truly romantics in character, living in the service of their idealized world. They are riders, which may represent both a mastery and relationship to their animal instinct that carries them. Or perhaps their horse is broken and, in Freudian terms, the power dynamic is the subversion of the id by the superego.  

I honor the extension of self, but not the erasure of it. 

To expect him to obey without thought, would deprive the knight of their problem solving, morality, and elasticity that makes them human. As a slightly obsessive compulsive person myself, I am constantly afraid of the chaos my right, monkey brain would unleash if left to its own devices (as if there is such a binary.) If the knight was to let go of his place in the order, would he be his own man? He may have more innate good than his previous station assumed, whose judgements are fixed, who provide orders. My therapist says that everyone has desires, and the floundering of those desires is visible in a person’s demeanor like something’s been left on the stove too long. 

The knight knows what it means to separate people. He stands at the border, or travels abroad, interacting with difference through the eyes of his king. This militaristic code has a model of boundary-making and expansion. Whatever good the individual is protecting is on the inside of their kingdom and the evil doing becomes “of” the other and the knights live like barriers from, or surveillance over the “foreign.” When citizens are to model themselves after soldiers, borders appear that the individual must protect, and the citizen must choose who their borders surround. They become like surveillance cameras, constantly judging and monitoring the geometry of each situation.

While the knight represses parts of himself, he travels as an echo of his kingdom, hence he knight will inevitably be unprepared for their conquest, and by extension, by mere existence, be hurtful to the land and the people on his travels. I think of the way people go to resorts in different countries and have no concept of the true culture of the place. Because somehow, still, even as a traveller, they need a buffer from diversity. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by Werner Herzog, the Spanish conquistadors trundle through Brazil, alongside the Amazon River. The men are laden with heavy armour, the women wear long medieval dresses on the mountains, and they bare canons down jungle ravines. The absurdity of the scenes are poignant and tragic. While floating on a raft on the Amazon, waiting to come upon a golden city, El Dorado, the company takes out a paper and declares themselves masters of the land they see. Throughout the entire film the conquistadors barely even see the native peoples. Arrows shoot at them from the brush. Their experiences simply can’t translate if the world is centered around a single belief system that they continue to carry with them. 

In so many ways the knight evokes a human desire that may outweigh the symbolic kings or queens. Knights live out a life that I think is ideal for humans. Games are small battles, requiring strategy, problem solving, and sharp decision making to the participants. These skills are some of our strengths as humans. Our brains can create elaborate and beautiful patterns that are constantly looking to trick and outmanoeuvre, naturally, and joyfully. We want to feel useful, we want to feel like we are doing good for the people we love. There is nothing wrong with that. It is human nature to desire movement, to travel, we desire to learn and continue to learn. We desire challenge. All of these aspects make up the core of a knight. 

But the common narrative of war is generally that it doesn’t make sense. All accounts of battle detail the need to survive rather than any type of strategy or discovery. More often, heroic acts are not of killing, but of kindness. The non-sequitur of war interrupts identity and narrative, both of which shatter and are replaced by history, written by the state, taught and administered by the state. 

And so chivalry continues, programmed into culture as an ideal. Romantically, chivalry should be dead. I am fine with holding doors, with paying for people’s meals, for helping people who need, who ask, for help. But the word comes out of a toxic intention within which is embedded a power dynamic. In On Photography, Susan Sontag describes the way in which plunder was/is a soldier’s pay. Being a soldier gave certain rights that may not have been morally acceptable on homeground. Hence, chivalry implies payback. So this man lets me walk up the stairs. But maybe in a way he has some sort of claim to me. 

Translate chivalry to compassion, which is akin to being of service. Being compassionate is a flexible and vibrant thing. Being of service has rules. Being of service has requirements and standards. Compassion can be as great or as small as it needs to be, yet requires bravery and malleability and attention that would match a knight’s. I say let duty go. Differences can be looked at, in the eye, our selves are not extensions of belief systems or leaders or rulers, but our ancestors. Compassion is not always easy. We are trained not to be kind to one another. We are trained not to be kind to ourselves, so these acts don’t appear to come naturally. We carry our ancestors. We have a responsibility to them, to see them, to forgive them, heal them, to heal ourselves in courageous compassion from within and out into the world.


The Season for Spiderwort

Windsor Terrace is subdued in the early summer afternoons after rain, when the clouds move along the sky in steady herds. I make it a point to become familiar with the plants that grow in any given region. But after ten years in this city, I found a flower I had never seen before. The shape of the petals caught my eye because there were only three, rounded against each other like a purple cup. The leaves looked like reeds that were long and collapsed over themselves like lax reins towards the ground.

To find their name I snapped a picture and googled “purple flowers in june nyc” and the answer came up almost immediately: Spiderwort. There are several plants with the “wort” suffix that I know of: St. John’s wort, mugwort, lungwort, bloodwort, and apparently the list goes on, down the page it went. The “wort” suffix comes from the Old English “wyrt,” a version of the contemporary “root” which connotes medicinal qualities. “Wort” plants are often considered to be under the umbrella of “weed,” their status hovering only slightly above common weeds, lifted only due to healthful properties. The suffix forms a hierarchy of plantlife, but the implication is inherently untrue. The common dandelion holds multiple health properties, as well as Queen Anne’s lace, jewelweed, and clover.

Around June 21st small purple flowers with explosive anthers extend out of meadows like a wiry unkempt beard from the centers. Like most weeds, spiderwort grows in open spaces, cultivated land, and meadows. It enjoys sun or partial shade in dried to well draining damp soil. It is resilient and stubborn. Its appearance is as wrangled and energetic as weeds come and fosters its name because it looks like a sitting spider with its long stems and leaves, and tiny buds like spider bodies.

Spiderwort is native to eastern Canada. Along the map it bleeds down the US eastern seaboard and east side of the Midwest into the Alabama region. They grow up to three feet tall on spindly stems. Their tiny blossoms open during the day and close at night. What I saw to be their cup-like form was a morning version of their flower as, throughout the day the petals invert before closing again in the night. The entire plant can be eaten, root to flower and is said to have health benefits including a neurological calming, stomach digestive. With the hums of strange serendipity, it also increases breast milk, which is what my friend who lives at the foot of the brownstone where I found these plants was hoping for (the scientific term for this is Galactagogue [like galactic]).

Tisane is usually a $4 drink at a fancy coffee shop. But in fact they have potentially powerful medicinal properties. These plants grow, for the most part, nameless in our midst. And, surely, why would any layman know much about them? In science classes we learned about chemical properties and chlorophyllic systems, but no properties of specific plants. So when we walked outside we viewed the plants as aesthetic or a nuisance, moving them into what would be an “art” or landscape. The separation of classes propagated a separation of life.

The concept of what is natural is always entwined with human movement and production. Specifically humans with money and power (hence the concept of the anthropocene). Embedded in forests of upstate New York are patches of apple trees that were once planted as orchards long forgotten. Unlike what I thought before, the trees don’t appear in clusters in that way naturally, but were planted side by side with hands or the blades of humans. What is native to this land has been so altered that even if it could be replenished, no one would know how the land looked before settlement. And the uprooting would unearth swaths of vegetation and annihilate thousands of species. Reparations for all that has been taken from the individuals who were taken to this land are left unpaid and the whole place is a burial ground. All of this is true, and the fact that I am talking about humans and plants and the environment is intentional and connected. In the forests of the moment I believe there are opportunities for a new nature. We can’t deny the past that has led to the story of the world now. But we can pay attention to the seasons.

I propose an integration, finding answers through the emerald spring leaves. Sometimes it feels like there should be a reason or a direction, the lack of which rattles me until I come out one morning or in the shower, or with a tarot card in my hand saying, “is this a sign?” And of course it is. And so flowers appear at my feet like whispers from the world. Whether it be the color, the shape, the property. It’s simply the season for spiderwort.

What I find interesting now is the concept of cleanliness. Having grown up in the country and nurturing my obsession with the properties of the plants that grew there, I moved to the city fully aware that the plants here were not to be eaten. This is obvious, I know. But I’m stating it in radical optimism, with the intention that cities can be redefined and reworked so that plants can be picked and eaten by people who live here. That while the land is mixed with native, invasive, and non-invasive non-native species, not to mention the physical structures that separate the land apart, there is a sense of being. An embodiment that needs to occur.


While outdoor living for plants, animals and people can’t be easy, I argue that, instead of just having encyclopedic knowledge of the plants, and the outdoor as a scientific or aesthetic place that is catalogued and monitored, and inside spaces are for emotions, relaxation, and play, it will be important to disintegrate the separation between indoor and outdoor. To locate yourself in the city, to embody the self as if it were a plant on the land. And, while on the beloved sidewalk, consider the animals, trees, and plants that grow in the cement cracks and learn about their qualities, watch their growth patterns in the seasons within the seasons. Each phase has a story to tell.

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A New Museum

When I was 18 I took the 6 train to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from near where I lived by Union Square, paid $0.25 and proceeded to cry, weep, just lose it in front of a Cezanne painting of a house through tree branches. It reminded me of my childhood spent in the woods. Fresh memories surfaced of the safety of the forest, the damp smell of the ground, and the anchor of an inert house in the distance. To me, the painting teeters on amateur. It is not quite the cubist masterpiece of Cezanne’s other work and the work that followed him. The trees are shabby and incomplete in the frame. The colors are not even very striking. Tonally it is like staring into a pile of dead autumn leaves. I imagined myself, symbolically out of the house and in the forest, making a trail of my own in a cement landscape, when all I wanted was to stare into a dead pile of leaves for the rest of time. To smell their slightly rotten musk beneath. To feel the undulations of dirt under my feet.

The Met felt safe and tight around me. The complete enclosure of the artwork embraced me like an oily and melancholic mother, the cost of whose love was essentially free, and whose halls were full of harmless zombies, suffocating from lack of oxygen flow and wandering in circles. I grew up with parents who were artists and spent most of my time, when we went to cities, in museums. I felt safe enough there to let go and often left wiping tears from my eyes. My twenties remain a second childhood, except this time there is very little in terms of guideposts, and people aren’t paid to “set me in the right direction” through school or by any other institutional means. Which is a good thing, but confusing and also requiring of a good amount of backbone which, for some reason I missed out on developing back when I was a real kid.

A few years later, Frida Kahlo looked at me sideways with a monkey on her shoulder. I had a down jacket tucked into my arm and an overstuffed bag on my shoulder. My feet grew sweaty in my large winter boots: visiting the scandinavian family in Minneapolis over the holidays. I was a woman, and also, not all feminine. I was a woman and nothing about my public body felt comfortable or right. Not since I hit puberty and not then. I would venture to say that every woman must unlearn despising her body and live in it fully, without shame. At 23, I was coming to terms with this physical self and everything else I had graduated from and was moving towards. And the world felt dark. But it may also have been a winter night.

I was familiar with Frida Kahlo. I knew the strong colors, the beautifully intimate frames where she contemplated nuggets of her life and experience. Each one was in fascination with her own figure and face as subject that seemed to bring into stark clarity a sort of narrative.  

My family was spread throughout the gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Art while I ambled behind. The permission Kahlo gave to mixing ecstatic color with personal pain, the courageous expressions of her shifting sense of self seemed to sink into me like a dose of medicine. The entanglements of plant and animal life that overtook the canvases. The askance gaze in her eye felt simultaneously frank and enchanting. The power gave me power the feeling of which didn’t wear off for several months.

This is the beauty of art, that it has the potential to communicate with our emotions with such complexity that it feels mystical. And while the artwork and the interaction with the artwork is personal, the politics and collectivity around artwork is fundamental in its creation. The artist then adopts collective social pains and anxieties, their narrative is marketed as culturally emblematic. In the sorry narratives of their lives, artists are portrayed as drunk, poor, with mental disabilities, with addictive personalities, helplessly possessed by their creative pursuits. And so, Kahlo’s narrative, as with many, is dappled with illness, pain, and genius quirkiness that fuel her and give her more legitimacy as an artist. As if this way of being is somehow unique.

The museum is awry. It is manipulating my emotions and running out of oxygen (I believe the reason why people get so tired.) Museums are melancholy heavens. Melancholy, as La Mar Jurelle Bruce, explains as pertaining to music in his essay Interludes in Madtime, is cyclic. While he describes music here, the same movement occurs in museums, the nostalgic returning, spiraling to some mythic time in which the work was produced. At their core, museums are tragic examples of colonization as well as toxic artistic celebrity under the guise of preservation. Museums are places where artwork goes to die. The pieta like a mummy in the corner. A sad matisse up on sharp white wall, the color escaping into the lights above. And by that time I can barely even look at the painting I am so ready to eat and drink water, and would much rather lie in the grass somewhere.

Across the stoney bridge from the Met, a show just closed at the Brooklyn Museum that I didn’t see. It consisted of Frida Kahlo’s “clothing and medical objects:” A surgical deconstruction of Kahlo through her illness, through fashion, accessories, and photographs that obsess over her “realness.” In an interview with the curators, Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa, they awe over the naturalness of her stone jewelry, the nativeness of her biology that gives her real pain and struggle. I am not trying to take away from the facts of Kahlo’s life that she worked through, or didn’t work through in her artwork. But I argue that her life and her feelings about her life are her own. What is to be found under a microscope of Kahlo’s belongings, but old Revlon nail polish?

Ultimately, I deviate from artistry being an outcome of suffering, and that we must pay the devil in order to have the kind of legacy she had, the way Robert Johnson, the mythical father of what became blues and rock and roll, did. The trite story takes away from the expression of her artwork and places her into a role in which she appears to be a Latina manic pixie dream girl. Just incapable of “fitting in” to being a ridiculously boring and unreal “normal.” As if no one dressed up to take photographs. As if no one wore jewelry from their native country. As if no one had a troubled marriage and opened it up, or had extramarital affairs. Give it up for yourselves, people, you are just as wonderful, plagued, and blessed as Frida was. Your pain is just as worthy of feeling, and expressing. Your feelings have bright colors. We don’t need an exhibit of this.

And the fad didn’t begin at the Brooklyn Museum. Frida Kahlo has bloomed like the million flowers on her canvases. Her face is everywhere from socks, to pens, and iphone cases. Kahlo is meticulously commodified.

Lately the Brooklyn Museum has made a point of focusing on people of color, women, and LGBTQIA artists and subjects, several rigid tick marks that Kahlo theoretically falls under. But there are other Mexican artists. There are other ways to create art encounters that are meaningful to contemporary culture that dance forward while looking back. To feed on Kahlo as a marketable object is not art, and it isn’t interesting. As an alternative, imagine a show about the ways in which Mexican artists are working with surrealism now and weave in some Kahlo pieces as inspiration. This world is rich rich. Let Frida Kahlo have a voice outside of her objects. We don’t need proof of her pain or her “nativeness” to coo over at the museum store.

Consumerism attempts to be mystical here when it is not mystical at all. This show simply takes Frida apart as a person of color, as a person experimenting with expressions of gender, as a disabled person. The celebrity of painters is tangential and completely irrelevant to the issues that are going on in the moment, it may in fact, do the museum good to reconsider their entire mission. For now the fact is Kahlo is a safe commodity.

I had a head cold in Rome when I met Edith Schloss. She was a painter who came up in the New York School of Painters, and was friends with the likes of Cy Twombly and Joseph Cornell. Her apartment was full of artwork of her friends, and family, and her own works. The apartment located, maybe in the mid-southeast section of the city, was narrow with tall ceilings in dark wood. Schloss led us to her bedroom where she opened a closet where she kept a file of her newest work that she had to reach up on a stool to take down. It was a large expanse of paper lightly toned with layers of watercolor, and two gods embracing in the air. Then she made us tea and considered the craft of Botticelli.

You don’t have to be friends with famous painters to have meaningful experiences with color, with framing. Schloss could have just as easily been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. But, Schloss, who worked well into her 90’s, understood who her family was. She understood and grew with the likes of Botticelli, of Cy Twombly. This was her chosen family.

I don’t know how museums should look anymore. But this is not working. Museums seem to be the location where art, study, and capitalism intersect. Or should I say, clash? Or should I say implode? I can’t seem to go to museums without feeling uncomfortable over the loss of the art there. The life withers under the microscope of gazes. What I want to say is that art has deep and profound possibilities outside of museums and socks.


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