Category Archives: artists

gone to the printers

I think this might be like arriving at base camp at the foot of Everest

I know its an awful lot like being 37 weeks pregnant.

maybe you dreamed of it

surely you worked for it

but as the time nears

you realize, increasingly

that you have absolutely no idea

what you’ve gotten yourself into

 

and the dark clouds form and disperse

as you reckon the size of the leap

you have made

peering at the place you think you’re going to land

readying the things you think you’ll need

asking for mentors, safety nets

realizing that when you need financial security more than ever you are sloughing it off

to pit yourself against the challenge

of doing this thing

and doing it well

aprons and layers falling

revealing the dream vulnerable to the raw air:

 

I,

Writer

terrified, quaking, tired and certain

there is no perfect draft, there is no truly ready time

the story is past due

 

and gone to the printers.

finally finished, and only just begun.

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West.  November 2014

 

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Genuine Heart of Sadness

for Kevin.

driving through the dustygold wheatfields of Eastern WA
i imagine you at the age of 15,
standing somewhere in Idaho, with friends
already you;
long, exquisite, and articulate
with so many questions.

Did you imagine the life you have Now?
high-powered career, life in Manhattan, fresh strawberries, fabulous hats, lovers,
your picture in the Style Section of the NYT, discovered by adoring friends on the opposite coast…

My wondering about Younger You is interrupted
by the sight of a partially decomposed deer carcass
in the median
which makes me think of the half-deflated
shiny red heart-shaped helium balloon we passed a while back,
snagged on barbed wire
and flattened in the wind

Death and Love and Accidents

I flashback to making top ramen with you in Logan
and smoking cloves in the bomber jacket on your balcony
under that vast clear Cache Valley Wintersky
which sparkled with six million stars

the Buddhists talk about the Genuine Heart of Sadness
which i understand as a beautiful willingness to Open
to live fully in the world, acknowledging and letting in the Pain of Living
without being Imprisoned By It,
an act of courage
which enables one to experience Real Joy

it occurs to me that you embodied this idea for me
years before I learned about it in a dharma class.

the other day I found a box on the doorstep from New York
with a sexy red apron and two matching potholders
and i laughed and laughed
what better nod to the current version of Me
such delicious irony.
and an inexplicable ziplock bag of googly eyes.
to stick on the baby, or wherever.
and a letter
which i will reread now.

It made me want to write you a poem.

Here.

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Letting in the Light

 

America is a nation prone to forgetting. We’d prefer not to dwell on the difficult and controversial past, when the American Dream dangles glittering on the future horizon. We privilege only particular stories for remembering, and we retell them in ways that leave out many things, in order that the Dream may continue to seem possible. Yet, despite our best efforts to look forward, the things we’ve forgotten persist. Every now and then, someone diligent excavates them from the shadows, and we are given the opportunity to see something difficult and real about America. If we do not look away, we may make real progress toward realizing the things about America we’ve been promised.  We may even have a chance to make art.

In south downtown Seattle, in the shadow of the sports stadiums and skyscraper bank offices, there is an old brick building tucked at the junction of Airport Way and the Interstate 90 on-ramp. Vacant for the past seven years, its rooms have a fine layer of dust, and the hallways are thick with ghosts, some dating back as far as the 1930s.  For nearly eighty years, this building has been known as the United States Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service.

This past weekend, music and voices echoed through the halls of the building.  Dancers were warming up in old offices, and artists were hanging their work on the walls. Seattle’s old INS building has a new name, and forgotten stories are being invited into the light.  Welcome to INSCAPE: “Seattle’s former INS building redefined by Culture, Arts, Preservation, and Engagement.”  INSCAPE’s mission?  To

[pay] respect to the history of the former INS Building and the people who made that history, the incredible structure and its bipolar spirit, the triumphs of those who became citizens and the tribulations of those who did not, the joys and sorrows that manifested the unique nature of this edifice.  INSCAPE creates a forum for possibilities; a collaboration with artists and artisans, creative individuals and organizations, the neighborhood and the city, to build a mutually supportive alliance that engages the Greater Seattle community in the experience of art and the celebration of culture.  INSCAPE reinvigorates the building and the neighborhood, bringing new life to the district with a renewed spirit created by the investment of the entire community in culture, arts, preservation, and engagement.

INSCAPE will host 125 tenants in nearly eighty-thousand square feet of space, making it “the largest arts and culture enclave in Seattle.”  The name demonstrates the founders’ commitment to remembering what the building was.  It also speaks to their desire to look forward, generating collaboration and community via interdisciplinary artistic expression.  They define INSCAPE in three ways:

noun: the essential, distinctive, and revelatory quality of a person, place, or object; the distinctive, dynamic design that constitutes individual identity, especially as expressed in artistic work.

verb: to bring together the unique, essential qualities of many individuals to form a cohesive, distinct community.

building: a collaboration of creative people and organizations, brought together by a vision of artistic and cultural expression in all disciplines, to form a community that expresses its essential nature through culture, arts, preservation, and engagement.

On October 16 and 17, INSCAPE threw wide the windows and let the fresh air of a sunny October weekend flood in to the old INS building for “Passages,” an open house dedicated to inviting the public to help explore the “past history and future possibility of the building.”

My husband and I visited INSCAPE on Sunday.  As residents of South Seattle, we regularly utilize Airport Way to get into the city, but neither of us could picture the building we’d seen on the INSCAPE website.  As my husband drove, I looked up the address on his phone.  “Its right next to the stadiums,” I told him.  “On Airport Way? Really?” he asked, eyebrows raised.  Once we found it, we were both a little shocked we’d never noticed it before.  Its redbrown roof is visible from the freeway, and up close, the former INS building is no podunk anonymous office building.  Its a formidable four-story structure spanning the better part of a block, replete with dozens of artistic flourishes popular in 1930s American architecture.  We stood on the sidewalk staring up at the neoclassical marble columns and Art Deco sunbursts over the arched windows and wondered how we’d missed it in all our years in the city.  We’ve lived here for over ten years between us, members of our families have called Seattle home for decades, and not one of us had ever walked through the doors of 815 Airport Way.

This is how it goes with government buildings for those of us privileged enough to never have to set foot in them.  They’re just part of the landscape.  Not so for those like artist and filmmaker Ladan Yalzadeh, who emigrated to the United States from Iran with her father as a teenager in 1986.  One of the visionaries behind INSCAPE, Yalzadeh was herself processed in the building in 1995, and she spent the weekend giving guided tours.  She led our group out of the lobby to stand on the sidewalk for the beginning of the tour.  After pointing out some of the architectural elements of the building, she gestured down the sidewalk, and urged us to imagine hundreds of people lined up out front.  “Rain, shine, snow, whatever.  All year round, all hoping to make it inside.  If you were lucky enough to make it to the door, you were greeted by a very unfriendly guard, and things generally went downhill from there.”

We followed her inside, where we were confronted by the dangling black silhouette letters of an installation by artist Katy Krantz, paying homage to the dozens of nationalities that made their way through the INS building’s bureaucratic corridors.

The letters danced and quivered in the draft from the open door, casting flickering shadows on the brick walls.  The installation created a vivid and unsettling presence, a fitting invocation of the thousands of stories that played out here, remembered only by those who lived them.  Sometimes the American Dream turns out great.  Sometimes it gets you deported.  Carrying my infant son through the letters, I felt painfully aware of my privilege.

As we began to walk the halls, we paused at printed squares on the floors, designed by artist Christian French, (also the main curator for the “Passages,”) to resemble spaces in a board game.

Turns out, getting in on the American Dream isn’t quite as simple as showing up and working hard.  In recent years, immigration-reform advocates have been fond of saying they welcome immigrants who are willing to follow the rules and come here legally.  The problem is, we keep changing the rules. We’ve been changing them for over a hundred and thirty years, and pretty much every country of origin has taken its turn on the thumbs down list at one point or another.

If the number of Americans who straightfacedly assert their family tree dates back to the Mayflower is accurate, then that pilgrim vessel had the passenger capacity of a fleet of Boeing Dreamliners. Despite the intensely American desire to have gotten Here First, most of us came much later, and received varying degrees of welcome when we did.  Many of the ethnic groups that seem “uniquely American” today were much less popular in previous generations.  Irish, Jewish, or Italian in your family tree?  In the late 1900s, you wouldn’t have been considered white.  Germans found themselves pretty unpopular roundabout WWI (and WWII didn’t help matters much) and Mexicans have been imported (ever heard of the Bracero program?) and exported by the US government at will depending on our need for cheap labor.  The truth is, America has always been a nation of immigrants, and xenophobic immigration policies have come and gone as regularly as the tides.  Unless your family has access to education, funds, and happens to arrive at the right time (read: your country of origin is in favor at the moment), the American dream of “legal” status is about as elusive as the one where you land in the White House.

Ladan spent her fair share of time waiting in lines, but as she gratefully acknowledged, she came here with the advantages of having already gained legal access.  She showed us Room 121, where she was processed for citizenship back in 1995.  She remembered how unsettling it was, even though she’d done everything by the book.  As part of her naturalization interview, she was asked to declare whether or not she was a Communist, and if she had AIDS.  A Canadian man on our tour added that as part of his green card interview several years ago, he was asked to declare whether or not he was a homosexual.  After demonstrating her English proficiency by writing “I love America” on a scrap of paper, Ladan was approved for U.S. citizenship.

As we made our way through the building, art installations and Ladan’s tour began to  fill the empty hallways and offices with a narrative of history and personal experience.  We were guided through the “Oriental” women’s dormitory and the “Detainee Booking” area, the tiny barber shop and the infirmary and childrens’ dormitories.  An artist had strung muslin sheets from the ceiling to recreate bunkbeds in what was once the “Chinese boy’s Dormitory;” through the windows, sun poured in, and the sports stadiums were visible nearby.  The pile of bars that previously flanked the dormitory windows were visible in the old exercise yard.  While its been almost a century since the wave of Chinese immigration that gave this room its name, young immigrants from other countries were confined here in the last decade.  I wondered if they were cognizant of the fact that American citizens were eating hot dogs at baseball games only a stones throw away.

Artist's recreation of the Chinese boys' dormitory

Grates that previously barred the windows

When we visited the exercise courtyard, we spotted something that may well have inspired Krantz’s installation on the main floor: the names and home countries of dozens of detainees, marked on the walls in black letters.  The ink?  Sun-melted tar, scraped from the corners of the courtyard by detainees on warm days.  Looking at the pile of bars, I couldn’t help but wonder if calling them detainees was just a semantic nicety.  Here, thousands of people who came to America in search of a better life for themselves and their children were held prisoner, until such time as the complex bureaucracy deemed them admissable or shipped them back where they came from.  Granted, some who attempt to come to America have dark pasts, or commit criminal acts while in this country, making their deportation seem legitimate.   Others lived here for years, raised children born as American citizens, paid taxes, went to church and worked two or three jobs at once to make ends meet, trying for years to attain citizenship, only to be deported after decades to a country their children knew only by way of stories.  The vast majority of people who spent time in the old INS building were no different from my great-grandparents, or yours.  They came here—and continue to come here—looking for their shot at the American dream.

The visiting area. Looks an awful lot like a prison.

The final stop on our tour was the basement of the building.  Here, the degree to which we have criminalized immigration was painfully clear.

Ladan Yalzadeh (in blue and white shirt) explains how detainees were told to follow the yellow line, much like in a prison, for processing.

The room behind the door held solitary confinement cells.

Before passing through the door, immigrants were ordered to place their hands on the prints for patdowns. I couldn't help but think of the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free..."

The interior of a solitary confinement cell.

Our tour ended in the basement.  The group broke up and scattered to wander the art spaces in the rest of the building.  We stared at the dusty cell for a while before we climbed the stairs back into the daylight.  On the first floor, we visited the studios of artist Alica Tormey, whose mixed media paintings glowed in the warm sunlight flooding through the southfacing windows.  Dancers from the Manifold Motion group were giving previews of a performance they’ll be putting on throughout the month of November, dedicated to dance interpretations of moss and dirt and mold.  On the third floor, a wacky game of “apocalyptic miniature golf” was underway.

In inviting us in, the creators of INSCAPE are asking Seattle to see both the art and the walls behind it.  This INS building may have been decommissioned, but there are others like it all over the country, and the stories that take place behind their walls have been in the shadows for too long.   The folks behind INSCAPE aren’t out to change US immigration policy or throw open the borders.  They’re here to promote art, to “bring together the unique, essential qualities of many individuals to form a cohesive, distinct community.”  Sounds like a recipe for America.

* * *

If you’re interested in visiting INSCAPE, getting involved, or leasing a space, contact Sam Farrazaino at 206.257.3022 or www.inscapearts.org.  If you or anyone you know has a story about the old INS building, contact Ladan Yalzadeh.

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a laundry list of inspiring bits.

Travels with Owl, a new blog from Samantha Claire…

There are days when OWL naps beautifully, his mouth relaxingly puckered in sleep as he ghost-feeds, perfect child’s pose.  I shower.  I meditate.  Wash the remaining breakfast dishes.  He awakens in giggles and I find him surrounded by books he’s pulled off the shelf that’s bolted to the wall of his walk-in-closet-turned-bedroom.  We walk slowly & deliberately to the grocery store, cook dinner, and dance to Leonard Cohen or Dolly Parton, his tiny feet on my mine as we move slowly & deliberately, mindfully & with love.  We hike & camp.  Ride the buses & trains.  He loads the dryer while I fish for quarters.  He says noodle and turtle and thank you.  And it really cannot get any better that.

Pearl Nelson, a Mississippi White Trash Girl, a collection of poetry and musings from Pearl Nelson….

(from “Walking in the dark around the pond”)

I wonder aloud if the raccoons and deer
and all the other song-less creatures
wish everyone would just shut up.
Not me. I especially love the frogs
who bleat like newborn lambs.
and the old grandmother crickets with
rusty worn out summer voices. And you
when you tell me about your day.

Turning the Mind into an Ally, a book by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

What we call ‘war’ is a series of calamities arising from beliefs and opinions, which are always subject to change. What we call ‘peace’ is the absence of aggression, a tenuous state. When it is winter, summer no longer exists. We organize our life around the concept of a solid self in a solid world, even though all of it is simply ideas and forms coming in and out of existence, like thousands of stars flickering in the night. … Contemplating impermanence can be a liberating experience, one that brings both sobriety and joy. In essence, we become less attached. We realize we can’t really have anything. We have money and then its gone; we have sadness and then its gone. No matter how we want to cling to our loved ones, by nature every relationship is a meeting and a parting. This doesn’t mean we have less love. It means we have less fixation, less pain. …We’ve learned to look at what’s in front of us. 149-50.

From my garden

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"All good comes to them that waitress."

I wait tables for a living.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a whole pile of black aprons, rolled in cylinders and tied with their own strings.
When I unroll one before a shift, I fill the pockets with ballpoint pens, a soft-shelled order book I’ve been using for six years (in its pockets: snapshots of Ryan and Assata and my liquor and food handlers permits), and a stack of coasters. Used to throw in a wine-key too, but I mostly serve beers these days.

Also in my pocket: an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree. (Yes, I keep the degrees in my metaphorical pocket). When customers get chatty and want to know what I went to college for, I tell them American Studies. I let them consider that for a moment, then deliver my punchline. “Which is why I’ll be your waitress tonight.”

They love that one.

I first put on an apron the summer I turned 19. Fresh from my first year at Evergreen State College, I showed up at Crater Lake National Park for a summer job in the gift shop a few hours after a server had quit in the dining room. That night, I was wearing my first apron and shadowing a server in the midst of a terrifying fine-dining dinner rush. I learned the ropes quickly enough and spent the summer as a Breakfast/Lunch server. I walked to work from the employee dorms at 5:30 every morning, along the rim of the volcanic crater as the sun rose over the 6-mile wide lake, a view I was lucky enough to enjoy all morning through the dining room windows. I spent my off-hours backpacking with dear friends, sitting around campfires, soaking in hotsprings, driving hours off-mountain to buy beer and swim in nearby lakes.

Weirdly enough, given that I’d always defined myself by my academic success, I began to take pride in my new identity: a Decent Waitress vagabond-type who was most at home in the mountains and on the road. I took it back to college that fall, and lived off the tips I’d made that summer for the academic year. The following June, Crater Lake alum Erin and I struck out for Mt. Rainier National Park, where fellow Paradise Lodge Dining Room servers quickly pigeonholed us as the “hippie waitresses.” We did two summers slinging food on the mountain, got ourselves written up a few times for insubordinance, began to shy away from the hippie label (it is ahistorical after all), embarked on a few wild early-20s adventures, and finished our respective BA degrees.

Eyeing the job market, we dug out our aprons again.
Erin waited her way from Eugene to Philly to the Oregon Coast. I schlepped my basket of aprons around the PNW, slinging Thai, Italian, and Mediterranean food. Eyed the GRE and a stack of graduate school applications uneasily for a few years, then finally dove in and scored a 2-year fellowship to study history at Utah State University.

As I neared the completion of my degree, I realized I’d had enough of academia, for the time being, and opted not to apply to PhD programs. I returned to the northwest, found a dear old house in a hilltop neighborhood with Ryan, who still had a year of graduate school in front of him, and pulled out my aprons again. Logged many hours as a cocktail waitress in a bar with some good beers and some good people and some wretched drunks. Made enough money to keep us above the water, help finance a month for us to backpack around Guatemala, and see us through the following summer. At which time: I gave notice without regrets, and we set out on a month-long road trip around the western states.

Returning to Seattle that fall, Ryan offered to support us financially for a year, so I could finish overhauling and expanding my master’s thesis into a book-length manuscript. When money became too tight in the spring, I found a waitressing job in a matter of days, at a solid local establishment with good product, a conscientious business model, and a stellar crew. I walk to work; I clear 20 to 50 dollars an hour, depending on business, I have a highly flexible schedule, and plenty of time to write (if I practice some discipline).

I’ve met some of my dearest friends via “the business.” One of them, Chrysta, would eventually introduce me to Ryan. A vivacious and extraordinary clothing and fashion designer, she’s been supporting her art with her aprons for years; while she’s very close to putting the aprons away for good, as Erin has, she embodies a reality I’ve encountered time and again in the restaurant industry. Your server isn’t “just a waiter”—there’s an excellent chance he’s an accomplished painter [T.S. Pew], a singular musician [Michael, Ebon!], or she’s a stunning photographer [Gretchen], or writer or gifted journalist [Erin]. Sara waited her way into the Art Institute: now she’s an associate at a successful Seattle design firm. Your server may well be a mom supporting her children, or a traveler who’s served food in 6 countries and 22 states who’d just as soon see the sun set over a new landscape a few times a year.

Servers witness moments most people miss. 5 years ago, I walked up to a table set for two where a single, middle-aged woman was sitting. There was an envelope on both plates, and a bouquet wrapped in paper in the center of the table. “Is it a special night?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied, “its my anniversary.” I asked her if I could bring her a glass of wine while she waited for her husband to arrive. She told me she would take the wine, but that he wouldn’t be coming; he’d died the week before, and she was honoring the reservation they had made. I remember every detail. The almost undetectable quiver in her voice. The two glasses of Ravenswood Red Zinfandel. The corner table she sat at, facing the door. The Blackened Salmon Caeser. I told the chef her story, and he comped her meal. When I told her there was no bill, she clasped my hands in hers, with tears in her eyes, and said “God Bless you.” She couldn’t have been more than 45. They had two daughters, she told me.

One woman took an interest in my background as I waited on her, and when I told her quietly I was quitting soon to go back to school, she tucked a fifty into my hand. When I cleared the table, there was a note scrawled on a napkin. “enjoy your new life.”

I’ve reached through raw, painful marital disputes to refill water glasses, and seen parents smack and shake their children when they thought no one was looking. I overheard a tiny woman wearing too many diamonds tell her friends that her husband upped her allowance five thousand dollars that month, since she’d dropped her weight to 115 pounds. I’ve watched teenage girls excuse themselves to the bathroom for longer than necessary and return to the table furtively wiping their mouths. I’ve scanned the faces of their parents for some sign of concern, and found none. I’ve heard rednecks joke about someone killing Obama while clearing their plates, and been groped by business-types while my hands were full of empty glassware.
I’ve walked home after a 5 hour shift with enough cash for the carpayment, wrangled weeks off in mere moments, and served hundreds of birthday desserts and thousands of really lovely meals.

Its a mixed bag. And while I am striving to create a career for myself based on writing, rather than serving, I do not regret a moment of my ongoing overeducated waitressing career.

Last winter, an exceptional journalist named Kathy Helms passed along a gem that someone passed on to her years ago.

“All good comes to them that waitress”

I’ve tucked it into that metaphorical pocket along with those college degrees.
So much good has already come my way, and the horizon is filled with unfolding stories.

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