Click on any animation in the grid to see its text below.
Watching and waiting for the colors to emerge in real time, I made weekly stop-motion photo animations and corresponding personal essays following the rainbow grid. With a few exceptions, I rarely knew my subject matter ahead of time, instead snapping or arranging it as it came up. This became an unintentional invitation to synchronicity, to be amazed at the surprising ways the colors seemingly showed up in just the right place and time. It is also when my writing became more autobiographical, expanding from short aphorisms to essay-length personal inquiry.
As with the previous years, I both shot and edited the photos from my phone to capture moments as they emerged as well as to manufacture the illusion of freely moving objects and stop-motion paintings. For me, animation is a means of documentation that exposes and embraces its artifice. Video captured at 30 frames per second is all too easy to accept as a representation of “real life,” while the choppy nature of improvised photo animation never pretends to stand in for the actual event. When so many of us have a camera on us at all times, how does being able to “capture” any fleeting moment in your own daily life actually alter it? The addition of the camera to our phones fundamentally mediates our experience of reality and the means by which we document, share, and live it.
Using my phone as a tool is another way to poetically mediate my making: it is a computer I always have at hand so I can leap into production in even the smallest moments of free time. However, compared to a larger computer, animating from my phone requires an elaborate sequence of hacks and workarounds. By documenting and sharing my life through the painstaking labor of organizing frames and phrases from my phone, my participation in the content machine of the Internet is also a process-oriented performance.
1. Red Red. I’m not much of a sports fan, so yesterday when it came time to casually register a guess of who would win the Super Bowl I decided to choose based on color. Of course I had to look up the colors for Kansas City (I’m in the Bay Area so at least know those) and was shocked that they were also red and gold. So it would be red against red, huh. Red Red. And one of the teams with “49” in their name, 7 times 7. Alright, let’s start this year off then.
Red Red could be an appropriate match for football anyway: physical, carnal, of the body, of the upper limits of the body, of mortality, of money and livelihood, of blood. Of our collective blood and bodies, of belongingness, of tribalism, of another’s body standing in for your own to represent the collective body: your city, your region, your nation. Bodies watching other bodies, watching men—overwhelmingly men of color—get their bodies damaged for sport. The actions of these bodies generating so much money for so many people.
In this Super Bowl, both teams also demonstrate other ways America considers many of its bodies dispensable: a team literally named “Chiefs” playing on land brutally stolen from Native Americans against a team with a conspicuous absence of a player who took a stand and kneeled for black lives murdered by police brutality.
American football contains so many stories. From teammates to fans, there is so much love circulated in, among, and around the NFL. And so football also demonstrates that love has many types and forms, ones that often intersect with its opposite.
2. Red Orange. Today was Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees on the Hebrew Calendar. The name means the 15th of Shevat, which is the current month. Technically the fiscal new year for the trees, the date was used to determine the age of fruit trees for purposes like tithing, sharing fruits with the priesthood and those not fortunate enough to have their own trees.
In the 1600s, Kabbalists deepened the holiday by creating a Tu B’Shevat seder, a ritual meal similar to a Passover seder. At this seder, 4 kinds of fruit signify the 4 Worlds:
🍊First, a fruit with a hard, inedible peel and a soft, edible middle. This represents the world of Assiyah, the world of action, the physical. You could relate it to the element of Earth.
🍒 Second, a fruit with a soft, edible outside and a hard, inedible pit. This represents the world of Yetzirah, the world of formation, emotions, relationships, feelings. You could relate it to the element of Water.
🍐Third, a fruit that is soft and edible on the outside and inside. This represents the world of Briyah, the world of creation, thought, ideas, intellect. You could relate it to the element of Air.
🍃Fourth, something from a tree that isn’t edible at all but has a smell. This represents the world of Atzilut, the world of spirit and the spiritual. You could relate it to the element of Fire.
Today I peel and eat this orange--this red orange, this blood orange--to honor the physical realm. The realm of Red. Thank you, trees, for nourishing us with your juicy flesh, giving of your body to shelter us, for breathing life into our animal forms.
This weekend I honored and celebrated the trees with the @jewitch.collective and @wilderness.torah, learning from amazing teachers like Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Phyllis Berman, and @starhawk_spiral. May this Tu B’Shevat also invoke JeWitch values: “Defend the Earth and Pursue Justice for All.” May the trees planted today in Israel and Palestine respire liberation, justice, and peace.
3. Red Yellow. Instead of “working on” Rainbow Squared on Sunday, I found myself at Sierra Hot Springs with two dear friends. I had red yellow on my mind. So when I entered the geodesic dome that housed the hot pool, the first thing I noticed was the stained glass: a figure standing with open palms that are shooting out red and yellow beams 😳 I felt the immediate impulse to capture the moment with an animation. Alas, this hot spring being clothing optional, it was pretty strictly forbidden to take pictures. I didn’t even have my phone with me. Then I realized what I did have: my sketchbook!
I sat on a bench sketching naked, so as to make it less sketchy to the other naked strangers I was gazing past. Eventually I got too cold and slipped back into the pool. Then it hit me: body power. Red is the body and physicality, yellow is power and action. I couldn’t use my phone to capture this moment, so I was using my body instead. My eyes, my mind, my hands, documenting what a machine couldn’t. Soaking in hot then cold water, testing the limits of my physical form. Red yellow.
Alison picked up my sketchbook so she could document the opposite side of the dome. Once we could use our phones again she continued to point out and document Red Yellow with me, spurring the first of hopefully many collaborations for Rainbow Squared (and with her).
Red and yellow came up everywhere:
🌷🍽 Tulips, cups, and plates in the Philosophy Cafe.
🚗 🚩New Mexico’s flag, the state where my powerful companions are moving to next month. In the parking lot, a New Mexico license plate parked next to a Hyundai Santa Fe.
💇♀️ Red + yellow hair.
🧡Autumn chooses to wear shades of orange (red + yellow) exclusively.
🍊Ingesting orange-flavored gummies that lent magic and silliness to the day.
🌭On the way back to the Bay with my father and babes in tow, stopping at a restaurant with ketchup and mustard on every table.
⛽️ Filling up at a Shell station, their colors apt for an oil company: using earth blood for power.
When I pay attention, red yellows keep coming, are still coming, more than I can capture. Synchronicity, or is it more like apophenia?
4. Red Green. What We Want Is ____________.
I swore up that I’d never go to grad school for art, that the only thing more useless than one art degree was two. Then I heard about Social Practice, that there was actually a name for this thing I was doing. That the first program in the country was started in the very city I was living in at California College of the Arts by Ted Purves. Ten years ago, I applied, got in, and went.
Last week, I journeyed to a fundraiser for the Ted Purves Social Practice Scholarship at CCA. It felt like a tangible way to honor his legacy, to be in the same room as other people impacted by his life (there are so many) in order to give other people a chance to attend grad school, for better or worse.
I went to buy a ticket online the day before and found that sales had ended. I tried to buy a ticket at the door but no one knew how to sell me one. Finally, someone smiled at me and said I could go right in. For free. Ted wrote a book titled “What We Want is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art.” So walking in, I thought, “What we want is free. Thanks, Ted.” Naïvely, I thought I could put the price of this ticket toward the art auction instead. Of course, $150 wouldn’t even cover the bidding increments, so I am still deciding what Ted would want me to do with that money, if not to put it toward the scholarship. Either way, I think Ted would enjoy the idea of art being sold in honor of a pioneer in the study of art that couldn’t be sold.
In one corner, a group of people were giving away prints created on a human-powered letterpress: every time someone wanted a print, you would have to enlist whoever was walking by to stand together, creating a print that reads: “There is a world behind the world,” a phrase that Ted liked to say. I felt the world behind the world that night in full force.
@rachelannyes offered to get me a piece of cake. I had seen that the initial slices of this rectangular white cake had red and black squares on the inside. I told her yes please, and, if possible, to get me one with a red square. She came back holding two pieces: one with an orange square and one with a green square. “This was all they had,” she apologized. I grabbed the green one and exclaimed, “THIS IS EVEN BETTER!” and ran to a table with red-striped tablecloth 🍰
Standing in line for a drink someone approached me and asked, “Can you draw a map of how you got here tonight?” I did not ultimately photograph that map, but I can tell you that it had a star indicating where I waited for a 33 whose bus-stop LCD screen flashed “Arriving,” “Arriving,” and then suddenly “18 minutes.” I drew that ghost bus and put an X through it. Then I drew a line where I decided to walk and another bus where that same 33 caught me anyway at the next stop. On that bus I noticed that the seats were red, my boots were red, and my skirt was green. Behind me, rows of empty red seats with yellow poles. In front of me, a man boarded outside of SF General wearing red pants and a blue plastic rosary around his neck. He talked to me about my boots and his life-long career in shoe repair, work that he loves but cannot do at the moment because of his injured hands. I drew a line where I got off the bus and saw the green and red of the traffic lights. Giddy being on the street by myself at night in no rush without kids to chase after, I documented my walk to the venue without knowing that there would be a prompt to account for it once I got there. So when that smiling person asked me to draw my journey, I knew that Red Green was for Ted.
Red is about survival, so it’s also about livelihood. What you do for money. Green is about love, family, other people. Red Green is doing what you love for money. Or not. What we want is free.
Green is also the color of the Oakland A’s.
There is a world behind the world. That night I felt it. Thank you, Ted.
If you have the means and are so moved, donate to the CCA Ted Purves Social Practice Scholarship at whatwewantis.com
5. Red Blue. Last Friday, after a day of work and panic-shopping for shelf-stable food, we spent an hour driving across the Bay Bridge at rush hour to be two hours early to a Mardi Gras party we weren’t technically invited to. We let ourselves into the backyard that is actually three or four backyards connected without fences. For a while until @srohrd came home we were the only ones out there, jumping on a giant trampoline flush with the ground, dancing around in trippy lights, playing with face paint in an outdoor treehouse studio. The sun had just set and all the lights turning on were red and blue. It’s been three weeks in a row now that these rainbow squared colors just show up as if on cue.
Red with Blue is primal communication. We all start with the nonverbal: crying out, using our senses, acting our feelings. We test the world around us, twisting our bodies and grasping for objects to understand how our forms relate to other forms. Right now Baby M clocks our presences and absences, gives big smiles, laugh laugh laughs at his sister doing just about anything. Hard to tell from her red blur in these images but she is actually jumping on the trampoline while clutching an antique telephone.
D is rapidly powering up her verbal communication. Always preoccupied with stories and characters, she is teaching herself to write, doing what any adult would call work beyond her 3¾ years but that she often regards in frustration. Sometimes I see her anger rise up when the marks her hands make are not what she saw in her mind. Here what looks like drawing squares within squares (blue inside red!) is her crossing out squares she deemed imperfect. She is learning, and I hope to help foster the joy of that.
Mardi Gras is traditionally a giant celebration before a period of reflection and temperance. I couldn’t help but think of this party as the last we may be at for a while as we move toward social isolation, especially in Northern California. Preventing our bodies (red) from communicating (blue) microorganisms with each other. Protecting our bodies from fear.
Feels important to note that this may be the first Rainbow Squared piece with my face in it.
6. Red Purple. Too spooked to go to a playground last weekend, I steered us to wander in Golden Gate Park instead. We brought D’s black plastic cauldron to collect flowers for a “potion.” There are flowers upon flowers in there that I can’t even ID, but here you can see Rhododendron, Mexican Sage, and (I think) California Holly. D knows to ask the plant before she picks. Most say yes, though a fern did tell her no this time. She also knows not to eat any, though we did eat some Miner’s Lettuce.
Then we stopped at a restaurant and it felt like D touched every surface. I was having an out-of-body experience, or maybe a very in-body experience. Clutching the handle of a pot of tea: oh, this is not washed between customers. D pouring soy sauce on her plate: oh, that bottle is not washed probably ever. No, I was not scared to be at a Chinese restaurant. I was scared to be in any restaurant, any place with shared human surfaces. I was getting the message that this time would be fine, but not to do it again.The message said: this isn't fear, Child, it's reality. Pay attention. Then D looked up and said:
"Things are not normal."
No, they are not.
Except maybe they are now. It feels like a veil has been dropped, that we are feeling anew the vulnerability of this surface called Earth, the vulnerability of these human forms.
I am worried about my baby. I am way more worried about our elders. As someone who shares intimate space with children (who are filthy face-touchers, every last one of them), I am distancing myself from others for their own safety. But the feelings unlocked now are not just concern. They are a fundamental shift in how we relate to each other and ourselves.
Red Purple. Bodily wisdom. Tapping into your intuition from your body and about your body, using the power of your mind for healing and to stay healthy. Above all, protecting one another through consciousness of how we use our bodies.
Right now I am so grateful for the three beautiful bodies I am allowed, even required, to touch. In particular for my partner who embodies Red Purple himself: red glasses frames and ubiquitous purple t-shirt(s), Midwestern pragmatism and Jupiterian optimism.
7. Red Black White. So much tenderness in this prolonged proximity with small people, mixed with so much frustration. The highs are high and the lows are low, and they cycle so quickly everyday. I had wanted to work from home and spend more time with my kids as they grow. Well. Here we are. Here so many of us are.
D’s current favorite game is writing together, where she determines the word and I call out the letters, then she writes them down though asking for help on curvy letters like S and G. We’ve been talking a lot about the world, so it wasn’t a surprise when she wanted to write the names of places she knows: first where she lives, then where her cousins live (and she was supposed to visit next week), two other far away places she’s heard of, and where my family is from. All while wearing red and white and black and rainbow pajamas. She wants the letters to be perfect, so she gets frustrated not just with herself but with me when I don’t draw the letters the “right size.” Sometimes it feels impossible to get right.
Sometimes when I start to get frustrated with D, she shouts at me: “TAKE A DEEP BREATH.” It’s hard to take that advice in a harsh tone in the heat of the moment, but clearly that’s how she’s used to hearing it. Is that what the universe is doing right now?
Red Black White. The body and interconnectedness. Survival and transcendence. Whether you are totally isolated or totally smooshed right now, lacking work or taking on too much of it, keeping your body safe, keeping other bodies safe, or putting your body on the line: now is a time to feel into our bodies. But it is also a time when so many of us want to crawl out of our skins.
As they say about birth, the only way out is through.
8. Orange Red. Holding a baby on my hip in one arm and making live changes to our website with the other. Muting myself on a video call to chase after D so she doesn’t run out the back door (we have now chained the front door). Working after their bedtime until 11pm, nursing a baby, then trying to turn my brain off immediately for sleep.
Red can be about work and livelihood. Orange can also be about work and craft: creativity and fire, associated with the suit of Wands in the Tarot. So here I am in double work. Responsible for my “9-5” on top of caring for these very small children, pretty much solo. Of course I have to qualify that with gratitude for a job I can do from home with my children present. It is an extreme privilege. And it is hugely demanding.
And maintaining an art practice: this is when the Rainbow Squared formula shines for me. My compulsion to execute helps me find nooks and crannies of time to make. I chip away at my own sleep, do even more multitasking with the kids around. I have extra hours from the TV I don’t watch, but that means that even my recreation is another form of work. I don’t “have” to do it, I am burning myself out, and yet.
It helps that now instead of an elaborate set-up, I just whip out my camera (er, phone) as life unfolds: as I feed my baby sweet potatoes for the nth time and notice the red spoon in the orange mush. As I walk my block for the nth time and notice the spent red Camellias against the orange California Poppies. As I pass the orange and magenta Ranunculus in our little garden for the nth time, seeing how the same three blooms change by the hour: opening in the sun, closing in the wind. All these things, over and over. That’s how it always was, but now that our travel radius is smaller, we get a chance to notice. A chance to remember to pay attention to the physical realm, to what we touched and didn’t touch. The motherfucking present.
Orange Red is a special unit of Rainbow Squared. As the beginning of Orange and a new cycle of seven, it is the only one with a foreground color that directly carries over from the cycle before it. The Red cycle doesn’t completely end with Red Black White: we get one more in Orange Red. The lesson here is that you can’t escape the body. You can try to transcend it, but (for the time being) we are embodied creatures. With limits. Just when you learn to go beyond your own skin, you are right back in it.
Now that D and I are always together and my material has become personal, she notices me “doing” Rainbow Squared. She asks me almost daily: “What Rainbow Squared is it now? It’s still Orange Red?” The other day she stormed into the middle of video call when she was supposed to be napping or at least staying in her room pretending to sleep. I didn’t have the energy to try to control her so I just grabbed a giant pad of paper and markers and threw them on the floor next to me. “Yes, they are Sharpies, it’s fine for now, just draw.” A few minutes later I hear:
“I am doing Rainbow Squared for you.”
I am still unpacking that.
9. Orange Orange. I got it together to bust out watercolors in the middle of the day last week. It feels like a high point in my pandemic parenting, especially today when D was so lost in screentime while I was so focused on work that she pissed her pants. Anyway, she started painting houses, so I started painting houses. I painted with one hand and snapped photos with the other, figuring I could use it this week but not knowing how. A couple days later it occured to me: our front door is orange. I don’t go in or out of it enough anymore to remember. I definitely didn’t remember the orange pumpkin that has been there since October. Orange Orange.
Homes. Boxes for people. Boxes upon boxes, each of us trying to stay contained in our own units, whatever shape they are. It is so easy to say that we are all going through the same thing right now, but it is so wildly different for each of us. Don’t have a moment to yourself or have nothing but. Living alone or living with any combination of other people. Access to fresh food, to internet, to hygiene, or not. Healthy or not. All these experiences in all these little boxes dotting the globe.
Orange is gratitude, creativity, fire. Oh, the fire. My dominant quarantine emotion has definitely been anger. So many outbursts out of overwhelm, borne by the people I love. And that’s where the gratitude comes in. Every time I feel angry I try to remember how much I have—and then I still feel angry because that shit doesn’t work. I think about all the ways other people are suffering and it makes me feel worse. But in between anger, I am staggered by gratitude—perhaps verging on fear—for the preciousness of these tiny wild people and our responsibility for their wellbeing. I am grateful for the too-muchness, for the havingness of it.
I am fueled by creative fire, and I will keep it burning. Gratefully. Until I burn myself out.
But hopefully before that.
10. Orange Yellow. Somehow I always feel anxious slicing a mango. Am I doing it right? I question myself even in this very low stakes task. But these days when your kid asks for a mango and your partner manages to find one at the grocery store, it feels like a small miracle. So I engage the mango. First I slice into it lengthwise all the way around the pit. Nothing happens. I slice it again around the belly and then am able to peel off the skin in quarters, cutting bits of the meat off from there. I distribute the mango piece by piece as I slice it, including to an eager baby who stares and grabs and wriggles and gasps like it’s the best thing he’s ever eaten. It probably quite literally is.
And that’s how it goes eating mangoes. By the end of the process I remember that there is really no wrong way to do it. It may be a bigger or smaller mess, but you get mango at the end any way you slice it.
This mango was not orange and yellow, but one uniform shade for both skin and peel that I would call Orange Yellow. Orange is compassion and creation. Yellow is power and yes. Yes to making moves, even when that means slowing down. Yes to multiple possibilities, that perhaps my every decision does not spell a certain fate. Yes to self-compassion, and also compassion for the tiny people forced to resort to animal tactics to get my attention. Yes to loosening the grip of patriarchal ideals that would have me equate my self-worth with my productivity at the expense of my well-being. My product is not my power. I am my power.
11. Orange Green. By 5:30pm on Friday, I had had it. Justin made some innocuous comment about the burner being on too high so I threw down the spatula and stomped away to hide by the back door. This was my last day of work for a while. I finally decided to take a leave of absence, or rather realized it was the only sustainable choice. Knowing that I would be focusing on the kids soon enough, the last five days had so many screens and so much screaming as I sprinted to wrap things up. So by the end of the work week, I just couldn’t anymore. With nowhere to go, I buried my face in my shirt.
Hiding in plain sight only lasted for so long before I heard, “Where is mommy? Why are you doing that, mommy?” Peeling my shirt away from my face, D climbed on top of me in a full body hug. “I’m feeling overwhelmed. There is too much going on,” I told her honestly. “Don’t feel overwhelmed!” she said and hugged me tighter. That line wouldn’t work coming from any other person, and shouldn’t have even worked coming from her. But somehow her curious attention rather than yet another demand snapped me out of it.
She tilted her head backwards and her eyes landed on a photo from our wedding, the only one we have hanging: a group shot of all 150 attendees right after the ceremony. She asked to pull it down so we could look at it together. Then I looked up and noticed our mismatched orange and green curtains. Orange Green. I laughed out loud. Of course now is when Orange Green would show up, right at the moment that I let go.
I pulled back that orange curtain to see our green bean plant, the one we sprouted from a purple seed: ayacote morado. Three weeks ago D’s preschool told us to choose a bean from the pantry, wrap it in a wet paper towel, put it in a plastic baggie, and tape it to the window. Not only did it sprout, it exploded. 10 days later, when we unveiled our bean during virtual circle time, it had two leaves and roots three inches long. We put it in dirt and have been watching it grow ever since. Out of confinement springs life.
I stepped outside to photograph the plant up close and heard the sound of a hose. D shouted “Melissa?!” and looking down the stairs, I saw our garden roommate there to water her fruit trees, our fruit trees. So I photographed her too. Her blue jacket on blue mouth-covering is not orange, but at least it’s complementary. Orange green: creating family. Chosen family.
Orange is gratitude, creativity, craft. Green is love, the heart, family, leaves. Choosing right now to focus my craft on family. Remembering how big that family is. Just when I thought nothing made sense, being brought back to my heart by a series of loving gestures and seeing orange green all around me. That’s how these moments happen now, when I open to them. When I create with love.
The next day I finally managed to take D out of the house, for the first time in April. It was a celebration of my new relative freedom. We went chasing roses for her potions but found none we could reach from the street (is it okay to mindfully pick flowers during a pandemic?). We walked uphill to scope some out and then found this orange green mural by Roberta Ahrens. Orange Green. Its green Telegraph Hill parrots fly freely, as I am sure they are now in real life too.
12. Orange Blue. My first free evening in weeks. Children sleeping, dishes washed, other duties dealt with or non-urgent. So I sat down to make a stop-motion painting. I’ve always loved animation for the ability to craft a moving image frame by frame, like creating the pieces and then solving a puzzle. What I love about stop-motion painting specifically is exposing all of the states that a painting passes through as art itself. Stop-motion painting transforms a single finished image, revealing what is otherwise the private experience of the painter. All of the steps along the way that you loved but still wanted to change to see where it could go, or places where you thought you had taken a wrong turn but were able to steer into something you didn’t expect.
Orange is creativity, creation, craft, and blue is expression and communication. Orange Blue is creative expression: an undertaking that those who are finding themselves with more free time right now might be doing more of. Orange and blue are complementary colors, exposing polarities, opposites, extremes, dualities that are either harmonious or discordant depending on how you wield them. When you create, which parts are for you and which are for others? How do you decide what to enjoy privately and what needs to be shared? This painting is normally the kind of thing I would make for myself and not show anyone. But sharing it is part of the polarity of orange blue: a creative act communicated to the world.
I go back to painting because I have fun doing it. Playing with color is itself a journey. I’m usually not totally enamored of the finished product, but love the process. So on Wednesday night, which happened to be Earth Day, which happened to be a New Moon, I took the moment to engage in an activity for the love of it. On the table where we eat all of our meals (and right now I do mean all of them), I set up a stack of hardcover children’s books, put a laptop stand on top of it, and lay my folded tripod lengthwise on top of that. I ripped and placed blue tape (itself a symbol of process) and painted until I needed to sleep, then woke up before the kids to resume. I was just able to finish peeling the tape before D woke up, and then resume painting at the next interval that both kids were occupied. The real miracle was that the ever-curious D somehow did not notice—let alone interfere with—the stop-motion set-up. She ate breakfast across from my rig without registering it. This is likely a testament to how messy our table is. Or maybe a bit of divine intervention.
13. Orange Purple. What is it about flowers that make us want to photograph them? The genitalia of the plant world, they are meant to attract attention with bright colors, abundant folds, and (perhaps most importantly) limited display. Flowers are special precisely because they won’t last forever. The impulse to photograph is the impulse to freeze, to literally capture a moment. To mark time, and mark yourself along with it. But what does having a digital rendering of the image of a flower do, or any image for that matter? Grasping for moments that accumulate and fade, like so many blossoms.
If there can be any beauty in the timing of a pandemic, at least it is happening in the spring. We are intimately learning our shared garden, beginning to map some of the flowers on our surrounding blocks, and then occasionally finding foliage in the city beyond. Two weekends in a row, I’ve managed to get out the door for a solo bike ride. I’m out of shape, but building up to go deeper and deeper into Golden Gate Park before turning around. This weekend I passed so many flowers in bloom, and as I rode I thought about the orange and purple flowers I had gathered and animated earlier in the week. Then deep in the park, I passed a resplendent rhododendron grove, practically frothing clusters of bright magenta blooms.
These flowering trees were a sight to behold, and many were, stopping to look and of course to take pictures. Even I couldn’t resist. I lay down my bike and ventured in—no need to lock it really, who is going to steal a bike now with my germs all over the handlebars? I looked up, looked all around, appreciated the spent blossoms coating the ground (trees make the prettiest waste). Then I found a trunk bent in an L-shape low enough to sit on, and I perched. I hadn’t been sitting too long when two hiply-dressed people walked up carrying a camera and a couple large elaborately-painted cut-outs of flowers.
They stood on the path and stared at the rhododendrons, then at me. I looked up at them, mouth obscured by my neon-yellow facemask.
“Do you want me to move?”
“Um, if you don’t mind...”
Somehow, I did mind. I sputtered a series of annoyed remarks at them. “Can’t you take a walk around the block and come back—do you have anything better to do right now? I finally got out of the house away from my two small kids and you are asking me to move?” They just kept smiling and standing there awkwardly as I fought with myself at them.
“Fine, I’ll go. Enjoy your photo session!” I said spitefully. As I biked away, I shouted behind me: “I hope you get a lot of likes!”
I rode toward home for a minute or two feeling embarrassed, and then guilty for taking my frustration out on them. Where the hell did that come from anyway? Was I envious? Judgemental? Why was I trying to taint their very justified splendor? To self-soothe my quarantine rage? Was it my Aries moon rearing its head? My moon cycle? All of the above?
So I turned around and apologized. “I just wanted to say sorry for being an asshole. I understand these trees are completely beautiful right now, and of course you would want to photograph your work here with them. I didn’t need to be a jerk about it.”
These rhododendrons are magenta, or pink, which is light red. Red is the shared color between Orange and Purple. Orange is compassion, creativity, fire. Purple is wisdom, presence, intuition. My fire got the best of me, so I gathered my presence and wisdom to make it right. I am sure my outburst bothered me more than it bothered them, but I was compelled to close the loop while it was still possible. Our creative endeavors carry stories, and their piece would have held my righteous anger. Now hopefully it holds resolution, and maybe a touch of bewilderment. Just as my piece does.
The flowers in this animation? This week we ventured out to Justin’s sister’s house to run around her backyard, our first time driving in the car together since early March. D played “flower detective,” gathering up armfuls of red camellia blossoms from the ground. I carefully picked a few orange roses, a color I was giddy to see. I placed them in Delia’s red bike helmet for the ride home, along with purple onion flowers, lavender, camellia branches, and rosemary. We returned home and I spent a long time snapping pictures. My arrangement splayed into a sort of accidental Arcimboldo-style portrait. D was not amused. “When are we going to play?” I didn’t stop, so she joined me. The next day she grabbed my phone. When I asked what she was doing, she said, “Taking pictures of my garden.”
14. Orange Black White. After I went back to the rhododendrons and apologized to those people taking pictures (see 13. Orange Purple), I felt jolted into the present. Sort of like the fourth wall breaking in the play of my life. It was then I realized I was riding on my orange and white bike on black wheels on black pavement, and that ahead of me was a giant orange and white construction barrier. Orange Black White. This street in Golden Gate Park is currently shut down to cars so more pedestrians enjoy it, or as the signs say, “CLOSED TO VEHICLES for increased social distancing.” I had passed those barriers before and hadn’t registered the colors. It was like I needed to complete one level of the game before I could advance to the next.
For the rest of the ride, I felt like I saw orange black white everywhere. Shirts, jackets, helmets, houses, trucks, signs. Moving through space on a bike means encountering far more people and places than my quarantine-usual. More stimuli means more opportunity to encounter any given color. But it doesn’t matter whether it was synchronicity or confirmation bias. It matters that I noticed.
Each time I encounter the colors I am working with, it feels like magic. It happens often, and I am still figuring out what exactly to do in those moments. Do I pull out my phone and start snapping pictures? Do I write it down? Do I share it? Every time? Or do I just smile, maybe laugh, close my eyes, and breathe it in?
Orange Black White is creation, interconnectedness, transcendence. Like traffic props point out, it is a perpetual work in progress, a public project, bringing visibility to where transformation is about to take place. Maybe an individual, maybe a crew, but usually people working together to create something new. It’s also temporary: opportunities for transformation don’t stick around forever. What is temporary now that could be made permanent, like streets open to pedestrians? What seems permanent but could be destroyed for something better in its place?
15. Yellow Red. The start of a new cycle, Yellow. Power. Will. Yes. Each cycle also starts with Red. Body. Survival. Life. I used the power of my body to bike 15 miles round trip to the ocean. It took me three weeks to get there, building back up the strength or maybe just the courage. Of course, there was plenty of yellow and red waiting for me when I got there, letting me know I had indeed arrived.
My Michigander-self will never stop being amazed by the ocean: its power, its finality, and the fact of it being here, like, right here. Arriving at the ocean’s edge is a spiritual event, an exercise in ineffability and humility. As Dar Williams says in her aptly-titled song, The Ocean (shout if you know this one):
“I must confess I was drawn to the ocean,
I thought it spoke to me. It said:
‘Look at us, we're not churches, not schools,
not skating ponds, swimming pools.
And we have lost people, haven't we though?’
Oh, that's what the ocean can know of a body.”
Oh, our temporary bodies and our temporary concerns. Our temporary but long-lasting and unevenly-distributed harm. It all matters so much, and then not at all. Time stops. The human agenda slips away into the crashing waves, extending out to what may as well be forever.
And in the next instant, it all comes pummeling back. The tenderness of our vulnerable bodies in the face of that fierce Mother Ocean. My feelings pour out of me in a singular stream; I try to give them to the ocean. She laughs.
“The Ocean said, ‘What are you trying to find? I don’t care, I’m not kind, I’ve bludgeoned your sailors, spat out their keepsakes.’”
The power of the body extends to the impact of all of our stuff. The piles of possessions and properties that form rings far wider than individual fleshy bodies. The ocean could and take that down too. Maybe she even will. And other things besides.
I turned around and headed home.
“I thought the ocean, the ocean thought nothing.”
16. Yellow Orange. When I was pregnant with D, we found a fancy glider chair on Craigslist and got a free dresser out of the deal. It was white, so we painted on it. Or started painting on it anyway, which would be fine except that I drew huge circles all over it to fill in later. That was almost exactly four years ago, and those pencil lines have been staring at me ever since.
This week I decided it was finally time to finish the damn dresser. I thought it would be a quick activity that D and I could do together while the baby was napping. I didn’t factor in the novelty for her of painting on furniture in an adult medium like acrylic. D begged me to let her paint outside of the lines, and I finally relented. It was a bit of a mess, and the dresser is better for it. We painted and chatted for far longer than I intended, having a great time.
Then she asked out of nowhere: “Mommy, am I a good artist?”
I didn’t answer for a while.
The truth is I do think she is a “good” artist. She has an insatiable curiosity, almost obsessive love for narrative, and confidence in expressing the world around her through words, movement, and pictures. I see in her the seeds of huge creative power and prowess. Still, I don’t want to say “yes” to this question. I don’t want my approval or anyone else’s to be her incentive to create.
Sometimes I joke that the peak of my artistic career was in preschool. I liked making art, and people told me I was “good” at it all the time, probably because I could draw things that looked like other things. In some ways, this praise affirmed my burgeoning identity. It also taught me early on that there is a right way and a wrong way to make art, and that I definitely wanted to keep doing it the right way, but with no way to know what that might actually be. I’m still unlearning this, in every facet of my life.
“There is really no such thing as a good artist,” I finally told her. “What matters is that you are making what you want to make, and that you feel good about what you are making. That you keep trying, keep learning, keep seeing, keep making.”
I left out that there are so many times when you feel anything but good about what you are making. That I vacillate between thinking everyone is an artist and that everything is art to judging the shit out of other artists, especially myself. Either way, I don’t think this speech really landed because after some silence she lobbed an even harder question:
“Mommy, are you a good artist?”
Ha. Wow. I’m not actually sure how I answered that one. I think I started laughing. Maybe I said something about how making art is what I love to do so I keep doing it. Maybe I changed the topic.
Here is an animation of the yellow orange nasturtiums in our garden in the morning after a rain, along with a bouquet D picked for a wedding or a ball or a potion, I can’t remember which. Is it “good”? Depends on your rubric. I’ll say it’s a document. Of the act of seeing, of noticing, of appreciating, of declaring that this moment right here is also a piece of being alive.
Am I a good artist? This may be a different question than whether my art is good. If I can’t affirm that the answer to either is “yes,” I would like to at least affirm that it doesn’t matter. And mean it.
Yellow Orange. The power of creation. Saying yes to creativity, to not knowing the answer and doing it anyway. To claiming the title of Artist, with no qualifier.
17. Yellow Yellow. The performance of planning as an act of procrastination. With an hour to myself over the weekend, I sat down to plan. I didn’t want to be distracted by a computer or phone, so I opened my sketchbook. Then I read everything in it. Then I carefully chose a blank page. Then I chose a pencil. A yellow pencill! It needed more lead. I loaded the lead. I twirled the pencil. I couldn’t commit to writing on the actual paper, so I pulled out yellow post-it notes instead. I pulled out more. Then I noticed everything was yellow so I took out my tripod to shoot: Write a word. Take a picture. Peel up the post-it. Take a picture. Place the post-it. Take a picture. And so on. I don’t really recommend stop-motioning any process that you want to be efficient, or useful for that matter.
Procrastination is the shadow side of Yellow, which embodies its opposite: Will Power. Confidence. Action. Yes. Procrastination is one of my slipperiest forms of self-sabotage, since it so often masquerades as something productive. Whatever I end up doing instead is something that also needed to be done! Right? But when even scrolling Instagram can be construed as “artistic research,” it’s a slippery slope. When I procrastinate, it is often because I am scared to work on something. When I procrastinate on planning, it is because I am scared to state what it is I want or the steps to get there.
But how the hell can anyone plan right now? I laid out the next nine months for myself because that is how many square post-it notes fit on the square piece of paper and, well, nine is a great number of months to develop something. But nine months sets us right back down at the end of another flu season, at the beginning of another presidential term. I don’t even know whether it will be possible for me to go back to work next month, let alone next year. And yet I have so much relative certainty, comfort, and security. My family will be okay and I will be okay no matter what I choose. So what do I choose to do with that?
“Don’t worry about how, just think up what. ‘How’ will work itself out and fall into place.”
Years ago I wrote that on a piece of (green) paper and hung it above my desk. I think I had been fretting about the details again, or just worrying in general, which my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage makes me quite skilled at. It also makes my stomach especially sensitive to these worries. Call it IBS, call it a suped-up solar plexus, but my gut just thrives on stress. When I say “gut” I don’t mean my intuition, I mean the churning pit of anxiety in my belly region. Maybe those are the same thing. But that ball of nerves is so good at exaggerating stress to get me to act or, just as often, to stand in the way of my action.
So sometimes I need to tell my gut to calm down. To remind myself not to get lost in the details and contingencies because they are endless, and they are besides the point. Don’t let worry stop you from first stating what you want. If you don’t know what you are aiming for, how could you possibly get there?
Declare your destination and then a path can emerge. Keep declaring sub-destinations on the way there. Anticipate what you can, address in real time what you can’t.
Also remember it’s okay sometimes to take a goddam break.
18. Yellow Green. Well, yellow is power and green is love. The Power of Love. The number 18 symbolizes Life, from the numerology of the Hebrew word “chai” (with a guttural “ch”). So. What do we have to learn about the power of love and life right now?
I keep thinking of the quotation from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Protest is an act of collective love. Darkness and hate may not be the right approach, but neither are light and love mutually exclusive from anger and action.
Speaking of light, yellow green is also the color most easily seen by the human eye, at the middle of the visible spectrum. This is a moment of visibility, of shining a light on darkness. Police violence against Black people is not new. Neither are systemic oppression, racism, and white supremacy. The murder of George Floyd has made these things visible again in a new way and on a new scale, especially for people who have the privilege not to suffer it on a daily basis. Now we need to make sure these things stay visible, lifting up a vision of true racial justice and working until it is realized.
Like Kareem Abdul-Jabaar wrote in an op-ed in the LA Times this weekend: "Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible—even if you’re choking on it—until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air."
So keep your eyes and your heart open. Especially now from home as a white person, it is so much easier to retreat. To use the excuse that my voice won’t make an impact anyway. It is scary to speak. I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing and getting called out, as if embarrassment caused me lasting harm. It is a privilege to fear only social discomfort. But being truly anti-racist will take a healthy dose of getting the fuck over it. Again and again. So I will take a deep breath (because I can) and do the work.
There are incredible activist organizations sharing the love and rage, follow them and what they tell you to do: @mvmnt4blklives @colorofchange @blackfutureslab @showingupforracialjustice @antipoliceterrorproject @gather4justice @culturestrike, and in Minneapolis, @reclaimtheblock.
My prayer is this: I will not shut my eyes, my mouth, or my heart. I will see, I will speak, I will give. And most importantly, I will shut up and listen. I am and will work to stay angry.
19. Yellow Blue. The Power of Communication. Just like Yellow Green and the Power of Love, this is showing up everywhere right now as people fill the streets and the airwaves with demands to defend Black lives and dismantle white supremacy. So, you tell me how the power of communication is showing up for you. And if you want to hear it, I’ll tell you a story.
On my weekly dose of alone time this Sunday, I went on a walk up the mountain that is Bernal Hill. At the top right now is a community altar celebrating the lives of Black people killed by police. This is in addition to the altar further down the hill in the spot where Alex Nieto was killed by police in 2014. I stood there for a long time, breathing, praying, settling into the discomfort of not knowing what to do with my complicit white self in this sacred space in the middle of a public space.
I stepped away and sat down under another tree nearby. I wrote a letter. It felt too personal and too space-taking for its text to be visible on the altar. So instead I wrote on the back of it in Hebrew, a phrase I’ve been thinking about a lot the last couple weeks: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” or “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
Even with Torah text on it, this piece of paper in my hands didn’t feel special enough to leave on an altar. So I decided to transform it into a bird. I folded and refolded the paper, too proud to look up instructions but knowing my hands would eventually remember how to make a crane. In the midst of all this folding I wondered if perhaps an origami crane was an appropriative gesture, and that if it was hard for me to make then maybe it was because I should stop. Ultimately I figured that if I figured it out, it was meant to be, and if I didn’t, then it wasn’t. But maybe that was just me wrestling my whiteness into this bird shape.
It was a windy day, and it is a windy hill. I realized a paper bird would fly away almost immediately unless it was weighted down. The idea of a bird with rocks pinning its wings seemed depressing enough that I almost just brought it home with me where I could ceremoniously burn it later. Then I turned the bird over and saw a small hole leading to the closed container of its belly. I filled the hole with tiny pebbles. Instead of weighing down this bird, I could give it weight. Instead of restraint, these rocks would be its strength, so that it could stay to do the work of honoring these memories.
While I was folding, three friends were hanging out at the top of the hill right next to the altar, though seemingly not there for that reason. Their conversation was light-hearted and loud, so I mostly tuned it out. Then I heard: “That’s not a dove, it’s a hawk! It’s about three times bigger than a dove! I need to take you to a birdwatching class if you think it’s a hawk...” I turned to see what they were looking at, and there was a giant, beautiful red-tailed hawk on the branch above the altar, as if it were keeping watch over it. Then the hawk spread its wings and took off over the city, circling around the hill.
Doves are a symbol of peace. Hawks are a symbol of power. Hawks are hunters, keen observers, and frankly, they get shit done. That person was right: it is strange and even funny to confuse a hawk with a dove. In fact, hawks eat doves: one time biking to work I saw a hawk swoop out of nowhere to snag a pigeon from the sidewalk. Hawks are fierce. Hawks are not doves. So it was power—not just peace—presiding over that altar.
Rest in Power:
Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Michelle Cusseaux, Laquan McDonald, George Mann, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Matthew Ajibade, Frank Smart, Natasha McKenna, Tony Robinson, Anthony Hill, Mya Hall, Phillip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, William Chapman II, Alexia Christian, Brendon Glenn, Victor Manuel Larosa, Jonathan Sanders, Freddie Blue, Joseph Mann, Salvado Ellswood, Sandra Bland, Albert Joseph Davis, Darrius Stewart, Billy Ray Davis, Samuel Dubose, Michael Sabbie, Brian Keith Day, Christian Taylor, Troy Robinson, Asshams Pharoah Manley, Felix Kumi, Keith Harrison McLeod, Junior Prosper, Lamontez Jones, Paterson Brown, Domnic Hutchinson, Anthony Ashford, Alonzo Smith, Tyree Crawford, India Kager, La’Vante Biggs, Michael Lee Marshall, Jamar Clark, Richard Perkins, Nathaniel Harris Pickett, Benni Lee Tignor, Miguel Espinal, Michael Noel, Kevin Matthews, Bettie Jones, Quintonio Legrier, Keith Childress Jr., Janet Wilson, Randy Nelson, Antronie Scott, Wendell Celestine, David Joseph, Calin Roquemore, Dyzhawn Perkins, Christopher Davis, Marco Loud, Peter Gaines, Torrey Robinson, Darius Robinson, Kevin Hicks, Mary Truxillo, Demarcus Semer, Willie Tillman, Terrill Thomas, Sylville Smith, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Paul O’Neal, Alteria Woods, Jordan Edwards, Aaron Bailey, Ronell Foster, Stephon Clark, Antwon Rose II, Botham Jean, Pamela Turner, Dominique Clayton, Atatiana Jefferson, Christopher Whitfield, Christopher McCorvey, Eric Reason, Michael Lorenzo Dean, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, & George Floyd.
Say their names. Type their names. How could this font need to be so small?
20. Yellow Purple. When you’re too worried about how something is going to look, you’re not going to do as good of a job.
Leaving the house more means I need more than two masks. The only usable mask fabric I seem to have lying around is neon yellow. I do have some greenscreen-colored fabric, but somehow it feels like that is copyrighted by Stephanie Syjuco (which I know it isn’t for so very many reasons, but the feeling and deference remains). Either way, her prolific mask production led me to the Deaconess pattern which is easy to make if hard to keep consistent and has done us pretty well. Search for “deaconess mask pattern” and you’ll find it.
No matter how simple the pattern, stop-motioning the process meant I still fucked this one up. You can’t tell from these pictures, but after taking them (and you can see the shutter release button on my watch throughout the animation) I had to rip out the seams on all the pleats because one side was way less scrunched than the other. I didn’t photograph that part so I wouldn’t keep messing it up.
Like I said: when you’re too worried about how something is going to look—like when you are documenting something for the purpose of sharing it on social media—you are not going to do as good of a job.
Sound familiar? When your activism takes place on Instagram, arguably your efforts are primarily concerned with how it is going to be received. But when so much of our social interaction takes place in the bounds of this medium, how can you not spend effort on effective communication? Which in this moment means the effort of aestheticizing your activism?
There is labor involved in crafting a post: creating or curating imagery, finding words that are authentic but also useful and (especially if you are white) not accidentally ignorant or even harmful. Much of this labor is necessary to flood these shared media channels with content about the renewed and expanding struggle to defend Black lives and end white supremacy. But if too much of your labor is spent on saying just the right thing (again, talking mostly to white people here), it can replace your labor in the “real life” spaces where oppression happens.
So is the time it takes to craft a post time well spent? Let me be specific: is the seemingly inordinate time and thought that I squeeze in to craft a post well spent? Of course, the “I” is part of the problem. I am centering my own experience, which is itself an act of white supremacy. The time I spend worrying about the time that I spend is time preoccupied with my own (white) appearance. The effort and care it takes to be good can be dominated by the worry of how to be perceived as good. Sure, they overlap. But beyond overt racism, which I am also working to root out in myself, this obsession with perception has been for me the biggest barrier to truly showing up.
I wonder if I am alone in this. It’s embarrassing to say out loud.
I did manage to wrangle my kids in the car for a caravan protest yesterday. Though not something everyone can do right now, being with other people in the streets, even from a car, can snap your heart back into the right place. Until you need to snap it again.
Yellow purple. The power of wisdom and self-knowledge. The power of presence. Saying yes to mindfully shutting up and showing up.
21. Yellow Black White. The Power of Interconnectedness. The Power of Transcendence. The Power of Black and White. This is yet another one that I want to say speaks for itself. There are so many ways to read those words that I don’t even want to offer my own interpretation. Maybe that’s a cop out, but the truth is that I am just tired. Literally sick and tired. For the last week. During a pandemic.
A low fever hovering between 99.5-101°F. Fatigue. Intermittent shortness of breath. I got tested on Day One of my symptoms, which I later learned is too early. It came back negative. On Day Six I got tested again, twice, actually (long story). I await results, and remain sick and in doubt, questioning my own symptoms because of what a test told me.
I had never considered that part of dealing with COVID-19 could be determining whether you have it. But false negatives abound. So do anecdotes: people testing negative at the same time and then hanging out and infecting each other. People testing negative multiple times until they had to be intubated and only then did their lung sample turn up positive. People testing negative because they didn’t catch it in their lungs at all and then spreading it by flushing with the toilet seat up. I’m not afraid of my own immune response here anymore, I’m afraid of infecting my loved ones and beyond. But it’s almost impossible to isolate myself from my family with two young children. All week I have been grasping for answers, but it seems there is no black and white with this virus.
Oh, but there is. In the United States, Black populations are 5 times more likely to be hospitalized for Covid-19 than white populations. The same is true for Native American populations. Latinx populations are 4 times more likely to be hospitalized. I may never get conclusive answers about what virus I have, but I am at this point reasonably hopeful that I am getting better and will not have to be hospitalized.
This virus reminds us how simultaneously connected and separate we are. It is bringing the world together and ripping communities apart. Or maybe it is ripping the world apart and bringing communities together. Maybe both. Viruses may technically be blind but the systemic inequalities that organize the humans they infect are not. You can’t transcend color if it’s killing you.
22. Green Red. Moving away from Yellow into the cooler-hued cycle of Green has been a welcome shift. And restarting each cycle with Red always means coming back to the body. My body has gratefully recovered from whatever illness took it over. I am still resting and still listening. Green is love, family, and plants. So it is itself a time for the body, or bodies, and collective bodies at that. Earth as body.
Maintaining a personal but ultimately public writing project in this time has been difficult in many ways, one way being that what I really want to do right now is not talk but listen. I wrote a lot this week, none of it that I feel okay about sharing. So here is a watercolor. I placed it on the ground at a home that is itself a work of art, aptly named HeartSong. I let the plants cast shadows and the wind animate those shadows while the owner of this house, herself an artist and mother of my dear friend, relieved me of pushing a stroller in circles to get my baby to fall asleep. Consider this a collaboration of those elements, the elements.
23. Green Orange. I have always loved trash, and am especially fascinated by piles of it. Piles destroy, rendering the utilitarian functionless. Piles also create, breaking down organic material into nutrients. So this pile of whacked weeds immediately caught my eye. Its formerly green plant matter is now seemingly dead but for orange nasturtium blossoms erupting all over. It’s been like this for over a week. I can’t tell if the flowers are new blooms or ones that never died. Either way, this pile seems like a living metaphor of the twin powers of creation and destruction. It is also a symbol of resilience, how like a phoenix the nasturtiums keep coming back again and again in their fiery blooms.
A call for composting is happening now all around us. Cancelling, defunding, abolishing: some old ways of doing things have to go. But as they go they won’t disappear. Even destroying a monument doesn’t erase the lasting cultural impact of whatever it represented. But that act of destruction fuels the creation of the new and makes space for it. Nature doesn’t destroy. Nature transforms.
Green Orange: Love of Creation and the destruction that is part of it. Also Leaves and Fire, a perfect symbol for compost. Green Orange is also the color of the nasturtium plants themselves, which I think have shown up more in Rainbow Squared than any other flower.
I love seeing nasturtium en masse taking over a landscape. Even kept relatively contained in our garden, they bring me so much joy. They are an endless resource for D’s creative play: bouquets for weddings and coronations, ingredients for feasts and potions. I pop the flowers and leaves right off the plant into my mouth almost daily. They’re chock full of Vitamin C! For our Passover seder in quarantine this year, I used nasturtium instead of going out to buy horseradish root: the perfect blend of maror and karpas. From the Latin for “nose twisting,” their powerful spiciness is even in their name. And they are surprising: their round lilypad leaves look like they should be poisonous but are not.
So here is to nasturtium and this pile of so-called weeds, those blossoms bursting out as if to say “imagine the possibilities if we defund the police.” Out with the old and in with the new, or out with the old and in with the even older: circular systems that value mutual care, mutual benefit, and nurturing and protecting life.
24. Green Yellow. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate what I am doing with this project. In part because doing it is articulating it. What I don’t have right now is big open chunks of time and space to consider and research and plan. I have small spontaneous chips of time to spring into action, which is the right kind of time to execute the pieces themselves, and pretty much only the pieces themselves.
Still, following a strict formula actually creates space for the unexpected. It invites chance or the Universe or even Ruach to enter and collaborate. But sometimes it’s too much, and my mind and my spirit and my ambition fan out as wide as the rainbow. Then I have to remember that I created this formula precisely because my time is limited. Case in point: I just had to stop writing to turn on the next episode of Muppet Babies (the reboot, which is, by the way, not as good as how I remember the original cartoon).
Speaking of Muppets, Kermit the Frog is a character who reps for the color green and for the rainbow. The Rainbow Connection. I guess I am one of the lovers and dreamers that Kermit talks about in his song, searching for why I care so much about rainbows. And it seems like rainbows are everywhere right now. I’m not talking about Pride flags, which are a symbol with its own radical history and now corporate co-opting that deserves its own analysis. I am talking about the window rainbows, #covidrainbows, #rainbowhunt, I don’t even know the hashtags because I am not tracking them closely. I should be though, right? I just don’t know yet how my work connects to that cultural gesture. Is it that rainbows are a symbol of hope after planetary devastation? That I understand.
I don’t think of rainbows as happy and carefree, like the phrase “everything is sunshine and rainbows.” I am fascinated by the macro of the rainbow, its everythingness. I am even daunted by it. The visible spectrum is a map and container of a certain kind of everything, like the human genome or Borges’s Aleph. That kind of metaphysical simultaneity is awesome in the true sense of the word: powerful and terrifying, holy and sinister. On this planet, I see humans churning out infinite colors in digital screens and manufactured goods, often at the expense of nature and its living creatures with their own colors, and disproportionately people of color. I see destruction on the horizon and already here, and I am not sure there will be a deity this time to send a rainbow when it’s over.
But as a friend reminded me this week, I am an Apocaloptimist.
Green Yellow. The middle of the rainbow, the middle of the visible spectrum. You could say it is in reverse rainbow order, but who is to say whether red or violet comes first. Green is love, family, leaves, earth. Yellow is power, yes, sun. Green Yellow is Earth Power, thriving on photosynthesis. Earthling Power. Our human eyes tuned to ROYGBIV to perceive our world, the only world we know at the moment, Earth. May we see the destruction all around us and also the love. May we feel the power of belonging to this planet and each other, and protect the only everything that we know.
25. Green Green. Brown hasn’t had a formal place in the Rainbow Squared grid. I’ve justified the absence to myself by saying Brown is not part of “the rainbow” or that Brown comes from mixing complementary colors. But I did take other liberties in determining the formula. I eliminated Indigo because it is just purpley blue. I added Black and White, which share the seventh place on the grid. Short of expanding this grid from 49 to 64 to give Brown its own spot, where Brown belongs and has always shown up is with Green. Brown is the other side of green. Brown is the branches, the bark, the soil. It is what Green comes from and also what Green becomes.
If it were sanitary and/or more legal, I would want my eventual nonliving body to be buried directly into the ground. Imagine merging with the Earth, your body feeding the bodies of the vast network of organisms that fed and sustained you. There are many reasons this isn’t possible at scale, the high levels of toxins present in an adult human body being one of them. But the idea still seems to me the most natural thing to do with a body after death. Perhaps the fact that it is no longer feasible is a strong indicator of how much humans have separated ourselves from the Earth.
The closest I may get is with placentas. One day, some place, I hope to plant them under a tree, fueling its growth as it dances up through time more slowly than we can see. Until then, what is left of the miraculous shared organs that sustained the life of my then-fetuses lives in Ziploc bags in the freezer. But I like to think of these placentas also dancing through time, their storied pasts literally frozen while anticipating their future merging with new bodies. To be honest I also delight a little bit in the grossness. Reproduction is a physical, messy, powerful business. From what I understand, decay is similar, if you don’t shove it in a box. Or the freezer, as it were.
Green Green. Brown Brown. Green Brown Green Brown. Brown Green Brown Green. The absolute middle of the series always holds special significance for me. There is some equanimity there, like a fulcrum on a scale. It is a turning point, but also a dwelling point. The long present between past and future, or perhaps including them. In that present there is only love, with love as a synonym for being.
26. Green Blue. Two Green Blue encounters from the last week:
The first encounter: I put the baby down for a nap inside and brought the baby monitor with me into the adjacent woods. I intended to write or to draw, but all I could do was sit and listen. The forest was so seemingly still at first, and the longer I sat the more loud and lively I noticed it to be. Casual chirping made way for squawking as I could hear birds call and respond to each other across the forest, conversing. Then in the distance I heard a gun go off. Someone was hunting, or doing target practice. The birds had been warning each other.
I sat for a while longer and then I heard the baby monitor go of, blue lights bleating in time with the baby’s cries. It hadn’t been a long nap, so I hoped that maybe the baby would get himself back down again. I stood there watching the baby monitor dangling from a tree branch, waiting. Then I noticed: blue lights in a green forest. Green Blue. So then I stood there photographing. So much of my art is made in that interval between silences on the baby monitor. Now the baby monitor was art itself. Green Blue may be precisely a baby monitor going off in the woods: love and communication, care through communication. Like those birds.
And then the second encounter: When was the last time I was in a body of water with a paddle in my hand? This morning I was gliding through the mist up a river that feeds directly into the ocean. The water was a mirror, caught in the stillness between the tides. I paused in paddling to preserve the silence, and again, the longer I sat the louder and more lively it became. I saw otters and herons and so many birds, but this time it wasn’t their throat noises that surprised me. It was the sound of their wings flapping. Every bird that flew by: flap flap flap flap. I could hear and feel the effort it must take to propel yourself through the sky, to stay airborne.
Then I noticed. The trees and their reflections were green, and the kayak was blue. My fleece was green and the life jacket was blue. Green Blue. Leaves and water. Connecting through listening. Loving through listening. Listening with more than your ears.
27. Green Purple. The first time I worked with my kid on Rainbow Squared was Green Purple last year. She had been playing in jacarandas that had fallen on the sidewalk so we brought some home to stop motion. She was so excited to help me, but it turned into a hilarious power struggle. I set up my phone on a tripod and asked her to move the flowers in and out of the frame however she wanted. Between each flower she whined asking when it was her turn to take the pictures. Eventually somehow we got through a whole pile of flowers. Then she set up her “phone” (actually a toy remote control) and directed me as I had directed her: “Put the flowers out one at a time and then pull your hand away after each one. When you’re done, pick up each one.”
After that I realized it would take more time before we would each be ready to relinquish enough control to collaborate.
This time, a year later, she and I were in the park while the baby was napping. On our way home I saw redwood sorrel and remembered that they are purple underneath: green purple. I crouched down to test photograph a few, holding my phone in one hand and spinning sorrel in the other. D asked immediately: “Are you working on Rainbow Squared? I want to help!” She plucked a sorrel and spun it too. Somehow the pictures I took of my own hands didn’t even save to my phone (the app I use often chokes on the many photos I take at once) but her hands did. And it was just that simple.
When things are out of control it’s easy for me to go back to a place of anxiety, tightening up and fretting over tiny things that don’t matter. Before I had a family I was the main victim of this scrutiny, but now with the stakes are higher. My urge to optimize may come from a place of love and care but it often accomplishes the opposite. It’s a pattern I know too well from my own childhood. It’s also a distraction from the things that do matter, and there are so many big things that matter right now.
Green Purple: Love and intuition, family and awareness, care through wisdom. Letting go and letting love. Staying open and present enough to recognize opportunities as they emerge, and also not fretting if they pass by.
28. Green Black White. It seemed a waste to just kill what turned out to be a male cannabis plant. So we turned it into monoprints. It raised a funny moment though. If D and I talk about the names of most plants we encounter, should we not talk about this one? She knows that her dad’s business gives people medicine to help them relax. This would just be connecting that knowledge with the plant itself. What is that lingering feeling then, that somehow cannabis is a plant she shouldn’t know about? She sees us drink beer and knows that alcohol is for adults, so why would cannabis be different?
Cannabis is legal in our state, but that doesn’t make our country’s relationship with cannabis any less fraught. The ACLU recently released an updated research report: “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform.” Compiling data from marijuana arrests from 2010 to 2018, they found that across the country, Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though usage rates are comparable. That rate in one state (Montana) is as high as 9.6 times more likely. About 43% of all drug arrests are for marijuana, and over 89% of those are for possession only.
As the ACLU report says: “Marijuana legalization should be—and indeed is—a racial justice issue. But thus far, racial justice has largely been a peripheral or incidental goal of legalization, resulting in continued racist enforcement of marijuana laws, the exclusion of people of color from participating in, leading, and building wealth from the marijuana industry, and the failure to repair the harms done to communities of color by the drug war.”
So how do you explain cannabis to a preschooler? Maybe something like this:
“This plant is called cannabis. Humans have been growing it for years and years for the peace and insight it offers. In many places in our country it is still illegal, which means that you could get in big trouble for growing or even having it. Can you imagine going to prison for a plant? What is even more unfair is that just like many things in our country, Black people get in more trouble than white people for it, sometimes even having their lives ruined. This isn’t fair, and we need to work to fix it. It’s a very special plant that we treat with respect, and that you can get to know better when you are older and your brain isn’t growing so much.”
Green Black White: leaves and transcendence, love and interconnectedness. Also quite literally, Green and Black & White. Green like cannabis, green like money. Black and white like a range of human skin the plant itself doesn’t care about. Plants transcend our relationships to them. They have lives and businesses of their own. Humans can cultivate them for our own ends, or if you ask Michael Pollan, the plants may train us to cultivate them for their own ends. Either way, that a plant would be illegal is preposterous. That some can profit while others are imprisoned for the same use of that plant would be preposterous too, if it weren’t so predictable. Legalize cannabis and restore the lives that have been upended by the War on Drugs.
29. Blue Red. A couple weeks ago, the day he turned one, our baby also said his first and second words: car (“caah”) and bird (“buuuh”). He doesn’t say “mama” or “dada” even though he can make those sounds. It took two discrete objects in the outside world that seemingly appear and then disappear to trigger his brain to try to utter a word to express them. Since then it seems like he has been saying or signing something new every other day, as if there was a verbal communication button somewhere in his brain that got switched on.
It’s not as if he wasn’t communicating before, of course. Like any baby, starting after birth he used the acoustic umbilical cord, crying for us when he needed or wanted anything (perhaps the same thing when you are an infant). Now he has many different kinds of cries and uses his whole body and face to get us to understand things. We can communicate so much to each other through body language, facial expressions, sound, and context. But verbal language is definitely another level of complexity. Add in the alphabet and the ability to represent objects and concepts that aren’t there to people who aren’t with you, and words are nothing short of magic. Even still, communication truly starts with the physical and the physically present.
Blue Red: communication and the body, communication and survival. Whether you are a baby learning to coordinate your movements or you are an organizer coordinating a movement, it comes down to human bodies connecting and protecting each other in physical space.
Right now the virus is alienating us from communing in person in many ways. Which brings us to another Blue Red: the colors of the United States Postal Service. An apt combination for communications carried by bodies. Threatening the USPS before a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic can only be an act of (criminal) manipulation threatening our democracy, let alone the essential goods that the USPS provides for so many people. Consider this a prayer to protect the USPS and its workers, the communications and goods they deliver, and the democracy they enable. May all voices and votes be carried and counted.
30. Blue Orange. Perhaps appropriately for the combination of expression (Blue) and creativity (Orange), this week turned into a cascading self-referential rabbit hole of life as art. I found myself making three animations, the first of which you can see here.
This is what I originally intended for this week’s animation. It’s a direct reference to Blue Orange from Year 2, 2018. We were visiting some friends in Santa Cruz to play at the beach. My mom was in town. I grabbed my daughter’s new orange hat while she was napping and photographed it on top of my polka-dotted denim shirt. This past weekend, Year 4, 2020, I was texting with a friend whose parents just evacuated Santa Cruz and may need a place to stay. My daughter was running around in that same orange hat, which she has now been wearing half of her life. I am still making Rainbow Squared. And the California wildfires are getting worse and worse.
As many parents of small children may be able to relate, what I wanted to do most on my birthday this year was to spend time by myself in nature. Despite inconclusive air quality readings that day, I could tell that the air was bad. The sky was blue enough, but the light had an all too familiar orange cast to it, like a perpetual golden hour. Still, I wandered out into the orange-tinged blue sky to MacKerricher State Park. Along the rugged coast I found a small sheltered rocky beach and sat down there. Then I realized: the mussel shells were blue and the rocks had orange veins. Blue Orange. So for a couple hours I played Andy Goldsworthy on the beach: collecting, arranging, watching. And ever-documenting these colors that keep showing up.
Last night, after sifting, arranging, and sequencing the 627 photos I took at the beach, I finally had a video. But I also had the initial animation I made this week for Blue Orange, the one with the hat. I went back and forth on which to use and then finally had to go to bed. Today I took D back to the same little rock beach I had fallen in love with. I had told her to wear a swimsuit: no matter how cold the water it is, she can’t be near it without getting wet. When she finally took her layers off and got in the water, I noticed: she was Blue Orange.
I actually intended not to take any pictures at the beach today, having taken so many before. But here was the culmination: hat AND beach. I pulled out my phone and tried to photograph stealthily, squatting in the water up to my ankles. Of course D noticed. “Mama, play with me! You’re not playing with me!” Before I could put the phone away, she jumped on my back while a wave was coming and my butt dipped into the water. She cackled. And then we played, feet freezing and prickling but happy.
Blue Orange: creative expression. Water and fire. Communication and gratitude: gratitude for communications or communicating gratitude. Gratitude for staying in touch with networks of friends who can help each other out in a crisis. Gratitude for the people who came before us on this land and were also driven out under much different circumstances. Gratitude for what we still have and are able to share. Gratitude for being able to take time and space.
And gratitude for being born. As we collected shells and rocks today, D asked me, “Can we put this on our altar?” Then she asked me for the first time, “Why do we have an altar?” I answered with something about honoring all of the beings and forces of the world, including the ones that keep us alive. After hearing my explanation, she added: “And to honor being born! Not just being left in darkness.” Amen.
31. Blue Yellow. It was lunchtime, maybe a bit past lunchtime, and I looked in the fridge to find something to reheat. I found beans, but no rice. I spent a while staring at the fridge at a loss, then I realized all I had to do was some simple marketing. “D, do you know what we are having today? CEREAL LUNCH!!” This actually went over better than I could have imagined. Not only did D willingly stop playing in order to eat, she bolted into the kitchen screaming, “Yaaaaaaaay!!! Can I help you make it?!”
I opened the fridge again to pull out the milk and then I saw it sitting there, not on the middle shelf with the other leftovers but up with the dairy. Two heaping containers of cooked white rice. “Ooh,” I said, “I just found rice. I guess maybe today we should have rice and beans after all.”
Now, typically, rice and beans is D’s self-professed favorite food. But that day, it was a travesty. “Nnnnnnnooooooooooo!!!!” she raged, running at me with her arms out and pushing me with all her might. I reacted without thinking and pushed her back, harder than I realized. All forty pounds of her fell backwards onto the floor.
She looked up at me, eyes wide in shock, then ran away. Meanwhile, I was using my body to block the fridge from the baby who was desperately trying to get inside of it. He had just that morning figured out how to open (and open, and open) it. I sat there on the floor against the fridge door. “D, come back, come over here, I am so sorry!” She wailed from across the room. Finally I scooped the baby up and we both went over to her.
I sat down next to her and scooped her into my lap. Finally I sang her something we’ve been working on mastering, courtesy of Daniel Tiger: “Saying I’m sorry is the first step, then how can I help? I’m so sorry for pushing you, D. Even if you pushed me first I never should have pushed you back. How can I help?” She looked up at me and said, “Hug me.”
We worked it out from there, talking through what happened, and how it could have gone differently both ways. I let her know there is never an excuse for any adult to hurt her, even if she hurts them first. We talked about size and power, and about using your words to work something out. Then we got up and had cereal lunch after all.
Blue Yellow: communicating power, communicating with power. Raising or working with kids can feel like a constant power struggle. In some ways it is. It’s also a great exercise in “power with” instead of “power over.” I do have power over her, including the power to determine what we eat and when. That power drives D crazy, and she tells me all the time that “it isn’t fair” that I get to tell her what to do all the time. When confronted with this lack of control, she gets angry. That anger is then itself a tool to regain control over the situation and a representation of a different lack of control: over her hypothalamus.
I probably would have relented if she had the power to say calmly, “You know, Mom, when you said we’d be having Cereal Lunch, I got really excited! Then when you said we’d be having rice and beans, I got really disappointed because I was so looking forward to cereal. Could we please have cereal anyway?” But at four years old, she doesn’t have that kind of control over her emotions. At thirty four years old, I clearly didn’t exhibit control over my emotions either. We were each overpowered by our own anger. So after responding to her physical act of communication with my own far more powerful one, we both found our way back to words to work it out. But the fact remains that my power over her means that the onus is on me to control my anger and use of force, not the other way around.
It’s a tricky thing, teaching children how to approach anger. Especially femme children. I can and do give her all the Daniel Tiger tricks, like “take a deep breath and count to four,” or “use your words.” These are great and necessary tools, but the nuance is that I don’t actually want her to lose her anger, nor do I want her to have to apologize for it. I want her to have enough control over her anger to use it as a tool, not as a weapon. Or at least to know very deliberately how to use that weapon. I want that for myself too. There is so much to be angry about, afterall. So much to dismantle, so much to fix, so much to create anew.
32. Blue Green. When is an anniversary a deadline? We are now approaching five years since our wedding, and we still have done absolutely nothing with the photos. Not shared them on the internet, not even showed them to the people who were there. Once a year when the anniversary comes up, it feels like the opportunity to share the experience again. And every year it passes. But I have an excuse! One week before the wedding, I discovered I was pregnant. So at the wedding itself I was six weeks pregnant. Six weeks surprise secret pregnant. Only four people there even knew about it, none related to me by blood. Let’s just say I wasn’t initially that psyched about it.
Let’s also say the timing was divine (with the huge disclaimer that abortions are sacred too) in that being surprise secret pregnant put the weekend into perspective. A worrier by nature, I spent zero time fretting about any small wedding detail: “Who cares? Pregnant!” I celebrated like my life was about to end, because as far as I was concerned, it was. So I soaked in the ritual and the love and the fun with all the amazing people who had come from all over to celebrate with us, and celebrate hard.
The particular timing was divine in another way: the morning after the guests went home, I woke up and puked. And then I puked everyday, often multiple times a day, for months. Had I conceived any sooner it would have been a very different event indeed. Suffice it to say that the months after the wedding were a whirlwind of gripping nausea and existential angst that did eventually segue into excitement and joy but then were also occupied with a newborn leaving no time or energy along the way for things like selecting and sharing wedding photos.
So every October I say: it’s our anniversary, let’s do something with these photos! And then I remember that there are like two thousand of them and I can’t pick or stick to favorites because, well, that’s kind of what my animation practice is based on. I want to use ALL the photos. So two years ago I finally realized these photos needed to be an animation themselves. But then I only left myself one week to produce it, and I was working full time with a toddler. So that third wedding anniversary came and went and I ran out of steam. Then a year later on our fourth anniversary I was (delightfully) busy officiating our friends’ wedding, while two months postpartum with our second child. This year though! It’s our fifth wedding anniversary! THIS IS THE YEAR.
This is the year, alright. The year of pandemic, recession, state violence, uprising, climate catastrophe, a fraught election year. The world is literally burning, the sky turning colors I have never seen before in Northern California. I have so little spare time, so why am I spending any of it culling through hundreds of photos for an animation? It’s actually something I ask myself weekly with Rainbow Squared. But like with Rainbow Squared, the answer is that we don’t always know where art is taking us.
For me, art and spirituality are inextricable. Sometimes I might make art that isn’t aligned with spirit, but I never follow spirit in a way that isn’t also art. I am reminding myself with this seemingly frivolous wedding animation to embrace the sanctity of cyclical time in order to express appreciation and gratitude for the people who made it the blessed occasion that it was. The occasion wasn’t blessed because of our union: though it was between a cis-man and woman, it was also between a Jew and a gentile, so some would argue it was actually unblessed. The wedding was blessed because of the intention we put into crafting it as a ritual and the intention of our communities who witnessed it.
It isn’t the status of being married that matters to me: it is afterall a flawed and classist institution. But let’s be honest here. I love ritual, so I love weddings: having them, attending them, performing them. Crafting the ceremony for our own wedding is a big part of how I developed this very seven by seven framework and the meanings I associate with these colors. I got some sage advice along the way from Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens (who have gotten married hundreds of times) not to let the flaws stand in the way of the beauty, and to use the ritual itself to interrogate the institution. From their influence, we even had a planned objector. There are ways to do weddings right.
A wedding is a privilege any year, but that privilege is especially stark this year when we can no longer celebrate anything together in large groups, can no longer travel casually, can no longer breathe outside this time of year under a blue California sky. Making this video is a way of harnessing the now rarer power of that in-person event.
So this time I am giving myself a full month to finish it. Still squeezing it in between everything else, of course, including working on this damn (blessed?) election. It is a joy to use actual video editing software: one constraint I have for Rainbow Squared is to shoot and edit it all from my phone. Even here I sent myself screenshots and assembled them in ImgPlay. But how perfect is it that the Adobe Premiere interface has so much blue and green?
Blue Green: communicating love, expressing family. Communicating family, expressing love. Crafting ritual as a way to communicate love, and then crafting communications to further capture an event that was a forging of family and families, community. And for the love of communications, the love of animation, staying relentlessly true to your art form.
33. Blue Blue. I’ve been preparing for the high holidays, for Rosh Hashanah, which starts tomorrow. And by preparing I mean fretting. I fret every year, but this year is different. How can Zoom stand in for the feeling of physically gathering a whole community? How do you set aside sacred time and space while simultaneously capturing and holding the attention of small children? I don’t want to stare at a screen and pretend it’s the real thing. I also don’t want to get irritated that my children won’t pay attention to that screen and beg for screentime instead. But like so many things this year, we’ll just have to wing it.
I am reading This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared by the late Alan Lew. With a title like that, it could be about any number of current catastrophes. But it is specifically about “The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.” In the book, he shares a story about the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century Jewish mystic and founder of the Hasidic movement who is the subject of many apocryphal fables. In this one, the Baal Shem Tov is looking for someone to blow the shofar at his Rosh Hashanah service. This is a big deal: the ritual sound of the shofar calls the entire community to teshuva, to return to themselves and to each other. Rosh Hashanah is the start of the holiest days of the year, and the Baal Shem Tov a holy person.
A shofar is literally just a ram’s horn, so it doesn’t produce a wide range of notes per se. Instead of making a specific tone, you make a distinct number of sounds in sequence, either one blast, three blasts, nine blasts in quick succession, or one giant blast. But being a mystic, the Baal Shem Tov also taught his disciples an elaborate set of kavanot (intentions) to keep in mind while blowing the shofar, corresponding to different realms of the soul and reality.
One man (of course it was a man, patriarchy was and still is a thing) really wanted the honor of blowing the shofar for the Baal Shem Tov. He practiced all year, and knew the kavanot perfectly. But when he was finally standing in front of him to audition, he froze. Everything he was supposed to do left his head. He couldn’t play a single blast. So he wept. Sobbed. Heaved. His heart broke. The Baal Shem Tov looked at him and said, “Great! You’re hired.”
“But why?” the man asked. “I wasn’t able to do anything!” The Baal Shem Tov said, “Imagine a grand palace filled with ornate doors and locks, and a giant key chain with individual keys for each lock. To open all the doors, you could find and use each of those keys. But there is another key that will unlock every door. That key is an ax. Your broken heart is an ax.”
Especially for those of us who want so desperately to say and do the exact right thing (e.g. Virgos), it is so important not to let perfection stand in the way of action. Sometimes there really is no one right thing, or everything we prepared is all wrong and we are left where we started. That’s okay. Sometimes what is needed is for you to fall apart. And then get up again.
So how do you meaningfully convene community in this digital diaspora? It will take time to figure that out. Not just for Jews, but all of us. Zoom doesn’t quite cut it, but at least heartbreak is readily accessible this year. Fretting about the room where I pray being a mess or the fact that I don’t have a printer and will have to follow along on my phone doesn’t really matter. I don’t want to excuse a lack of effort here (again, Virgo), but fretting over those details is missing the point.
There is no right way to pray. Every year around this time I yearn for the specificity and rigor and beauty of the rituals I grew up with, even amidst ambiguous feelings about the liturgy and even sometimes “the” community, and definitely the impact that organized religion has had on civilization. I even berate myself for not doing more “Jewish things,” lamenting the challenges of raising Jewish kids with a non-Jewish partner. But ultimately, there is no right way to communicate with the divine.
Blue Blue: communication, expression. I usually say blue is water, but it is also sky, especially when like yesterday it was blessedly, finally, breathably blue. And yet as it said in the Torah a couple weeks ago, in the chapter that also happened to be my Bat Mitzvah:
“Lo bashamayim hee,” or, “It isn’t in the sky.”
Don’t look to the sky for the answers, though she will certainly give you some if you live in one of the burning flooding bleeding parts of the United States right now. Don’t look to any sort of disembodied floating god character for redemption, and certainly don’t wait for any sort of heaven or afterlife. What you can do starts here on earth, right now.
The necessary repairs before us are massive, certainly more than any one person (or set of consumer choices) could ever accomplish. The work is here in real time and space, maybe digital, but in actual connections with actual people. All you can do is what you can do, which may not feel like a lot. That’s okay. Go with it. Break open. It starts there.
34. Blue Purple. My partner wears purple t-shirts. Pretty much exclusively. Like a white undershirt, only purple. He doesn’t sweat (or stink) nearly as much as I do, nor does he really ever wash most of his clothes, so his small share of our perpetually massive laundry pile mostly consists of these purple t-shirts.
The world is crumbling, and still, there is laundry. Always the laundry. Even amidst the urgency of pandemic-fire-hurricane-state-violence-systemic-racism-recession-election, the mundane tasks don’t disappear. It’s hard to reconcile sometimes, the back and forth between existential threats and routine maintenance. Sometimes as a parent I fear I’m too bogged down in the latter to do anything about the former. But maybe that’s a more universal problem: how can you contribute to systemic change when you are preoccupied with your own daily tasks? Especially in a system that is designed to keep you distracted, either by your own subsistence or your own perceived comfort or your own consumer identity?
I made another animation for Blue Purple before this one of folded laundry, but it didn’t quite fit the bill for “Blue Purple.” I found a purple crab shell on the shore. To me the water signified “blue” even if the sand underneath it wasn’t. Still, it feels like part of the journey this week. Hours before Rosh Hashanah started, I walked along the beach while the baby napped and friends watched D from a social distance. For a while I was singing to myself, being present in the moment and grounding in my surroundings. But ultimately I couldn’t restrain myself from pulling out my phone and taking pictures.
My phone often mediates my experience of a landscape, usually as the window I watch it through while snapping picture after picture. Now I am also using my phone to identify plants and animals with image recognition through iNaturalist’s Seek app. A tiny crab hung out with me for a long while on the beach, and in return I kept my phone pointed at it for ten minutes as I both stop-motioned it and tried to get Seek to identify it. It got as far as the genus: Petrolisthes. Later I narrowed it down to two possible species: Petrolisthes Eriomerus (Flattop Crab) or Petrolisthes Cinctipes (Flat Porcelain Crab). As it turns out, the difference between these two are blue vs. red mouthparts, and this crab seems to have both. But blue + red = purple. Blue Purple.
Honestly I am not sure whether I would have cared about the Latin name of this crab before using Seek. I am not actually sure how much I care about it now. On one hand, learning the names of the species in my ecosystem is a form of connection, and the power to point and identify is truly awesome. On the other hand, this app makes me compulsive about capturing any species I encounter. Is this an actual connection with nature? Half the time I don’t remember the name even right after I find it. Sometimes this seems like one more distraction from being in the moment, keeping me from communing directly. Is my phone augmenting reality, or replacing it?
Shortly after I returned from the beach, our phones all started buzzing to alert us to another reality: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had just passed away. Someone who by all accounts defied routine bodily maintenance like sleeping or eating in order to fight for justice. Someone whose fight for justice in the end was fighting to stay alive to maintain our democracy. I like to think of crabs as a symbol of resurrection, or at least transformation. On the beach, I had thought I was photographing a dead crab shell (Pacific Rock Crab) but later realized that it was actually a molted shell. Its crab had grown a whole new skin and squirmed its way out of that one. And like that, life transforms and goes on. With all the mundane and momentous. Together.
Blue Purple: communicating with awareness, mindfulness, wisdom, intuition. Whether you are communing with nature or soul searching during the Days of Awe, daily reality is never far away. That reality contains both maintenance tasks and shattering news. It’s lulling and jarring, and it’s all part of it. Use what you can as a tool for connection, and dissent or disengage when you can’t. Remember that laundry is a construct, just like capitalism.
35. Blue Black White. These images (again) aren't visually blue but symbolically blue. “Blue” water running through Black White sand, shifting and animating patterns as the tides go out. Each wave brings a new composition, similar but never identical to the one before it. Chaos if you are a speck of sand inside of it, order from above. Intermittent, rhythmic chaos and order.
During a live-streamed Yom Kippur service this week, someone shared a personal reflection for the hundreds who were tuned in. She said that when she hears people describe this time we’re living through as “chaos,” a voice in her head replies: “perfect order.” Rather than a reassuring thought, this voice is admonishing. Chaos implies the irrational, but everything going on right now follows a logical progression. Burning forests and flooding cities? The consequence of unchecked extraction and consumption. Recession and widespread destitution? The consequence of an economic system designed to subjugate. Police brutality against Black people? The consequence of our country’s very foundations in racism and enslavement. Yup, seems everything is lining up.
But if things are following an order, that means a different order is as simple as changing the inputs. The process itself isn’t and won’t be simple, but the logic is. A new world is possible. Questionably probable, but certainly possible.
A new world is already emerging bit by bit. Look at the fact of digital services in the first place. So many people devising ways to meaningfully congregate and connect over video, singing in unison with someone on their screen or in a jumble of disjointed voices in discordant but also perfect order. We are transcending some fundamental challenges in communication to create new ways of being together across space and time zones. Marking the calendar with festivals and holidays is always how we weave order and collective meaning into our lives. The cycles keep spinning, bringing the changing seasons again and again even as the seasons themselves change.
Blue Black White: finding new ways to commune and communicate. Expressing truth in service of the collective. Your life itself as your medium of expression. Transcending the status quo to speak new worlds into being.
This one I’ll be chewing on for the next year, this my 35th year of life. It’s the last of a seven year cycle of Blue (for now anyway, I hope to live to see it come around again). Blue is communication, expression, language, honesty, truth, humility, sky, water. Black White is interconnectedness, interdependence, transcendence, light, darkness. What am I here to express into the world, in service of the world? What does the collective need me to contribute that perhaps I am uniquely suited to give? How do I best shut up and listen?
36. Purple Red. The start of the second-to-last color cycle. This was a marathon week where I tried to do all the things. It was busy enough that I didn’t make time for Rainbow Squared. I also didn’t make time for rest, even though this week I also began a new cycle. Even now, the kids are asleep and I could be sleeping but I am typing. Grinding. I often complain about piling too much on my plate, but I think part of me must love taking on too many projects at once. The adrenaline of the time crunch, the dopamine of getting things done—even the freak outs just seem like a requisite part of the process.
I certainly didn’t make time for the holidays that happened this week either. The Hebrew month of Tishrei that falls in September/October is itself a marathon of Jewish holidays. It’s all I can do each year to get it together for the High Holidays, and by the time the weeklong harvest festival of Sukkot comes around I am never ready.
Sukkot takes prep. The holiday entails building a sukkah, or a hut with a roof made of loose branches so you can see the stars. You also need to acquire a ritual bundle of branches called a lulav. As a kid, my dad always built a sukkah and he and my mom hosted different guests in it all week long. Sukkot is a holiday of joy and the most Pagan of Jewish holidays, which means I should (and do) love it. But I never give it time.
There is just always so much else going on, which I think is precisely the point. Some of Jewish practice is about it being a pain in the ass, or being disruptive anyway. Disrupting your oh-so-important daily life to sanctify time, to stop whatever you are so busy doing to consider the broader arc of your life and human history. To remind you that it is all arbitrary but also if you don’t make time for the things that matter they won’t happen. No one is going to strike you with lightning if you don’t shake a lulav or sit in a sukkah. But it is a missed opportunity for connection, for being aware and in sync with the Earth and its cycles, including your own. But it’s also not an occasion to beat yourself up: as these cycles continue, there will be more opportunities.
So yes, this year we phoned in Sukkot. We didn’t build a sukkah, let alone sit in someone else’s. I did, however, make a lulav for the first time. The rabbinic laws around the lulav and etrog are so strangely specific that I honestly had never considered until this year that I might create my own. A traditional lulav is made of four symbolic species: palm, willow, myrtle, and a whole fruit called an etrog. Usually lulavs are imported by air from Israel and Palestine where these plants are native. Instead, I used species growing here in Northern California, both native and cultivated. There is a lot of beautiful symbolism behind the “four kinds,” yet somehow we ended up with eight:
Coast Redwood - for palm, its trunk also representing the spine
Sword Fern - for willow, its leaves also representing lips
Lavender - for myrtle, for its fragrance
Rosemary - also for myrtle, for its fragrance
Cherry Branch - for etrog, because there is a tree in front of our house, and also for cherry-picking which Jewish laws to observe :-P
A Pear - for etrog (complete with a stem) picked from a friends’ orchard
Later in the week we added:
Cannabis - a late addition once I found a branch without buds in a friend’s garden, representing our family trade and what I call “esev kadosh,” literally “holy grass”
An Osage Orange - honestly, I had never even seen one until I was scrolling Instagram and saw a picture of @devotaj_arts using it as her etrog this year. Then an hour later a friend came to visit and happened to bring one as a gift for D. We added it to the bundle.
Our DIY lulav does not map perfectly to a traditional one. When you are collaborating with a four-year-old it is hard to say no to each request to include another beloved plant. The design was emergent: we gathered branches at our friend Janet’s house and when we asked for some string to tie it with, she gave us blue, purple, and red ribbon. Purple Red. Maybe some people would say that what we were doing wasn’t truly observing Sukkot. But we were certainly observing something, saying the blessings and shaking that bundle in the six directions: East, South, North, West, Up, Down.
Purple Red: awareness and the body, awareness of the body, awareness of the Earth’s body, embodied wisdom. Intuition and spirituality expressed through daily life in real, physical space. Ritual is a dance between the spiritual and the physical plane. You can always go deeper, but first you have to start. And sometimes to start you have to stop. Stop grinding. After the election, anyway.
37. Purple Orange. I am grateful for the pumpkin from our friends’ garden, the first time we saw them in four months and perhaps our first Halloween pumpkin we knew who planted.
I am grateful for the purple leatherette outdoor reclining chairs being given away by a senior center that our friends found and hauled onto the otherwise empty deck we share. I am grateful to still be able to live in a place that was meant to be temporary four months later.
I am grateful for living in community and all its richness. I am grateful for friends cooking dinner and cooking dinner for friends.
I am grateful for the creative spirit that swoops me up even when I think I am doing something as simple as photographing a pumpkin on a chair. I am grateful to spontaneously squeeze in artmaking in the twenty minutes before dinner is ready.
I am grateful for the cherry tree reflecting on the surface of my phone and expanding the frame of the animation. The birds ate the cherries before we could, but I am still grateful this tree exists.
I am grateful for this “phone” and having access to such a tiny powerful computer. I am grateful that our family has access to multiple such computers so that I can run and grab my partner’s phone to photograph mine when it suddenly transitions from tool to subject. I am grateful for the earthly and human resources embedded in these computers and their manufacture. I am grateful for the hands and machines that built these machines. I am simultaneously grateful for the unfolding of the extractive systems that perpetuate inequality and destruction and brought us to this moment in history, and whatever impact this may have on our future access to these technologies.
I am grateful for the practice of “Grateful” and for the friends we adopted it from: the simple act of holding hands before a meal and each sharing one thing we are grateful for. We’ve probably done it a thousand times at this point, and I am grateful for what it does to our brains and hearts, as well as to the smaller brains and hearts we are responsible for nurturing.
Purple Orange: mindfully evoking gratitude, awareness of the influences and resources that nourish your existence in the present moment. Approaching your creative practice with reflective wisdom. Just like any fire, creative passion can burn out of control. Being aware of its force can get you enough distance to mindfully harness or even dismantle it.
38. Purple Yellow. Back in April, I did Orange Blue as a watercolor. Then by happenstance I also made a watercolor for Green Red. So this time, for the third and final complementary color pair led by a secondary color, I intentionally chose to do a watercolor. What I love about painting with any set of complementary colors is that the pair actually contains all three of the primary colors. Purple Yellow = (Blue + Red) + Yellow. Complementary colors are not just opposites, they complete each other. There is a wholeness there, a mutual totality and polarity.
In terms of meanings, Purple is the color most often associated with royalty. It is no accident, afterall, that the artist named Prince Rogers Nelson dubbed himself The Purple One. Also associated with a different kind of power is Yellow. In our house there are many daily power struggles, but one frequent one seems to be around royalty play. It seems like the majority of D’s pretend play and made-up stories are about queens and princesses and kingdoms. Namely, her being the queen. I kind of blame Disney, and ourselves for exposing her to Disney. At first I bristled at the genderedness of it, how female rulership equates to fancy dresses and jewelry. As I’ve relaxed into her love of all things femme, I realized that it is the political aspect that challenges me most.
Frankly, I don’t believe anyone should be born as a ruler. I even bristle when liturgy refers to “God” as a “King” or “Melech” or “Sovereign.” I try to gently disrupt the royalty narrative when it comes up in her play. I tell her that the people have the power as a collective, that no one should hold that much power over anyone else. It is foreshadowing much bigger conversations we will need to have later about generational wealth and privilege, but one step at a time. For now I think we are making headway. Today she told me that she is a queen but that everyone in her kingdom has power. Baby steps.
I found a rhyme to reinforce this lesson, in the form of “A is for Activist” by Innosanta Nagara. I picked up our board book copy again this week and encountered the letter K:
Kings are fine for storytime,
Knights are fun to play.
But when we make decisions
we will choose the people’s way!
For kids, play is sometimes very real, even painfully so. There is a fine line between pretend dynamics and how they actually treat people. But there is also a fine line between my demonstrating fairness and squashing her interests. So for now I’ll follow the letter K here and just make sure to be clear about the ways that fantasy is separate from reality.
Writing that down prompted me to see if there was any connection between K and Purple Yellow. It looks like K is the 11th letter of the alphabet, which is numerologically 2 (1+1=2). Purple Yellow is the 38th pair in Rainbow Squared, which is also numerologically 2 (3+8=11, 1+1=2). There you have it: Purple Yellow is the letter K. I can’t make this shit up.
K is a letter that I have a history of overthinking, starting with that one time in high school I got stoned behind a Caribou Coffee where my friend was working (sorry, Mom). I started tripping out on the fact that the Spanish language doesn’t really use the letter K, pretty much only for borrowed words like “kilometro” or “kétchup.” My (very) high theory was that this is because “Knowledge” starts with a K, and ultimately we can’t know anything. Whoa. Yes, I realize now that this comparison is laughably inconsistent since “Knowledge” is in fact a word in English. It’s not like the word “Conocimiento” doesn’t exist. And yet, I remain suspicious of the letter K.
What does that have to do with Purple Yellow? I’m just calling out the connections where I see them. This little system of colors and meanings is building itself. Rainbow Squared is a knowledge system with dynamic correspondences and relationships. Like any symbol set, it is itself a whole world, a contained unit. I heard a quotation this week from a different Rogers, Mr. Fred Rogers:
Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.
Purple Yellow: the world captured in a pair of complementary colors, polarity and totality. Acknowledging difference while dissolving boundaries in the service of wholeness. Awareness of power and power dynamics, awareness of our sun that we circle in the vastness of a system of which we are each a tiny speck for a tiny moment in time. No kings, no queens, no princes. The people have the power. Maybe not even people. Atoms. Facets of a jewel.
Somehow as I was painting this, the phrase “cosmic pizza” kept popping into my head. If you look hard at the painting you can find one. Insert your own metaphor for the world as a pizza here.
39. Purple Green. At just shy of 15 months, E is too young to know what Halloween is. But anyone who has spent time with him knows what he would want to be: a car. He loves “caaah”s, which is what he calls anything with wheels. Most mornings well before dawn it is the first word he says after nursing, responding to the sounds on the street and asking to be propped up to look out the “dindow.” He also loves birds, books, and baby dolls, but there is something particular about cars that captures his curiosity.
You may know from my politics that I wouldn’t necessarily choose for him to be a car. Just like I wouldn’t necessarily choose for D to be “All the Princesses at the Same Time,” which is her costume this Halloween. But here we are. As parents and caretakers we help kids become who they are, not who we want them to be. Their love of cars and princesses don’t define them anyway. Plus I am pretty tickled at turning this box from a bike helmet (see 36. Purple Red, three weeks ago) into a wearable car. E’s body will go through the front and back and his arms will theoretically go through the holes so he can crawl around while wearing it. He took his first steps last week but he’s just on the verge of fully walking, so it is a poignant time for a crawling costume. Though I’ll be happy if he keeps it on for five minutes.
I was working on this car today while my friend’s wonderful mother who is now my own wonderful friend hung out with the kids. We do this most Thursdays now, which has become my “studio day.” Today I went back and forth between life admin, painting this purple car, and writing. I brought along my paper copy of the book “Postmodern Magic” by Patrick Dunn, which has been a good reference as I try to formalize some of what I have always done by intuition. I haven’t picked it up for months, but when I opened to the page where I had stuck my bookmark, the entry was about the meaning of encountering (no joke) a purple car:
EXERCISE Training a Symbol System
Set out on a magical walk...Mentally associate the first thing your eyes light upon with your symbol system. For example: “A car. It’s purple. That’s the color of Thunder in my system. A car is a tool for traveling; therefore, it symbolizes River. Thunder over River means fury over mystery, or anger over travel—it could mean frustration.” Or, if you prefer a premade magical system, your analysis might go something like: “Purple is the color of Yesod, hence, sex and magic. A car is a type of chariot. The chariot tarot card is related to the Hebrew letter Chet, which is number 8—a number of chaos as well as structure. So, a purple car could be a symbol of chaos magic…
My hands were still covered in purple as I read it, and as I am typing this now. So do I take the theoretical meanings listed in this book as the meaning for my own summoning of a purple car? I definitely have frustration over travel right now. Maybe more of a fit though would be that this purple car I made today is itself an example of chaos magic. Now, I don’t know enough yet about chaos magic or the British men who started it to fully ascribe to it. But it does seem that accidentally surfacing a specific reference to the very object I am working with while using a symbol set that I created myself and cultivate through regular practice might be chaos magic. As the Wikipedia entry says: “chaos magic consists of a set of techniques for deliberately engineering synchronicities.”
What makes it feel more special is that part of the reason we chose the color purple for this car costume is specifically because purple cars are so hard to find. Lately on our walks D and I have been playing the game Car Rainbow, where you try to find a car for each color. We know we can often count on the purple bus for the Senior Center, but when we don’t walk that way we often don’t find one at all. So Purple Car was already a sort of symbol for us of something exciting to encounter and a little rare. Also, purple tends to be our default color for making costumes (see the gorilla in 41. Purple Purple, Year 2).
Purple Green: awareness and family, intuition and love, sky and leaves. Using wisdom in how you care and show up for the people you love, honoring them by helping them be who they are even when it’s not always who you are. Using intuition to interpret the symbols all around you, finding patterns and meanings like reading leaves silhouetted against the sky.
40. Purple Blue. In September, I wrote down the year’s remaining color pairs in my calendar. When I saw that Purple Blue landed on Election Week, I gasped. I was overcome by an undeniable wave of relief. It could only mean that the result of the current Purple Battle in the United States would come out Blue. Yup, magical thinking at its finest! Or is it? I’m constantly scanning my environment for color cues. Usually for it’s more like a game, but how can anyone help but try to read or even determine the future right now?
When the baby woke up before dawn on Election Day, I grabbed a hair tie for him in the dark. When the sun rose I saw that it happened to be (navy) blue. Out of a bag of 300 hair ties in 30 different colors, mind you! Later that day I got my period and I couldn’t decide if it was a good omen or a bad omen. Bad because it’s a red tide, but ultimately good because, well, behold the political power of my fucking uterus.
Then on the next morning, while still awaiting the outcome, the baby was crawling around with his cheeks puffed out like there was something in his mouth. I fished out a red sequin. “Don’t treat everything like a divining rod,” my partner told me when I registered horror at the color. “Or you’ll go crazy.”
How could I not be going crazy right now? We all knew that this wouldn’t be over quickly. I was prepared for the anticipation, but what I didn’t anticipate was the grief. Until now I was still holding hope that while many terrible people hold positions of power in this country that a clear majority of its people might still feel that enough is enough. Yet as of this moment there are 68,998,189 votes for a racist, psychotically narcissistic, wannabe-despot. That’s 68,998,189 people who have also experienced the last four years and decided they wanted more.
I am trying to remind myself to be more mad at the system than at those individuals, that their ignorance and/or pain and/or even hatred is a symptom, not the sickness. I am trying to remind myself that the work to be done always has been and remains bigger than a political contest. So I will keep looking for signs that things are going to get better. But either way, this election and each vote it counts are signs that yes, things are pretty bad. As if we didn’t know that already.
And yes, I have been screenshotting the election results. The compulsive and repetitive act of capturing the images, cropping them, and lining them up has been a source of focus and comfort over these last few days of waiting. It was the only thing that got me through a pretty substantial personal freakout yesterday (menstruating around Election Day is hard). Throughout the election in fact, making memes with the group 30 Friends Organizing has helped me stay sane. That’s how it often works with changemaking: both you and the world benefit when you offer up what you are good at and like to do.
Purple Blue: intuition and communication. Does the Universe communicate through signs and symbols? If it does, where does it stop? Remember that magical thinking is not the only tool you have to assure a fair election. You can, for instance, make memes for the resistance.
I also learned this week that red and blue have both been used through the ages in Jewish culture as colors of protection. Whether red or blue, may the results of this election be protected, for each vote is a voice. And call it my intuition, but I think that most of those voices are blue. Either way, may the power of Purple heal the divide between Red and Blue. May the people of the United States and of this planet come ever closer to unity in the face of so much and so unevenly distributed struggle.
41. Purple Purple. Last Sunday was windy. Wildly windy. Like 20 miles per hour windy. But it was sunny, and we had time during the day to be together, and we are still living in appreciation of being so close to the ocean. So the nuclear family went out for a walk. The air was pretty cold but we were all in good spirits as we walked to the Pudding Creek Bridge. It is an old trestle bridge built in 1915 to transport logged redwoods by train to the mill, majestic trees taken from what used to be Northern Pomo land. The bridge was rehabbed relatively recently and is now used for foot and bike traffic only, for people leisurely wandering the headlands.
We thought it had been windy already, but once we set foot on the bridge is when the wind really started blasting. This bridge essentially connects two sets of cliffs, so there is no wind break between you and the full blast of the Pacific Ocean. As we crossed, the stroller threatened to take off like a sail and we made D get off her scooter so she wouldn’t get blown away. She was less than thrilled.
On the way back we crossed the bridge again, and my partner was determined this time to stand in the middle of it getting blasted in the face for a full ten minutes. Hey, we each have our own spiritual practices. After a while, I retreated with the kids to the other end of the bridge to huddle for warmth. That’s when I saw this lock. Purple on purple.
There are a decent amount of other locks hung onto the cables on this bridge, and I wasn’t actually sure what they meant until I looked it up just now. Apparently people put locks on bridges as “love locks” then throw away the keys, symbolizing their lasting love and/or commitment. Some bridges attract thousands of these locks and then their sheer weight becomes an engineering problem. But this bridge is 527 feet long and there are only maybe 25-50 locks on the whole thing. Anyway, I’d love to claim that I knew these locks were symbols of love before I photographed this purple on purple one with my partner staring out at the ocean in the background. Especially because purple is his color. But I didn’t know, and that’s not really where my mind was.
Purple Purple and this lock led me to think and write about so many other things this week. Like whether intuition is a source of personal power or delusion, or how religion is a form of magic that won’t admit it, or what it looks like to hoard, or how much more work lies ahead for this not Purple but Red, White, and Blue country. Or maybe I should say this Red and no thanks to whites now Bluer country. But for now, let’s stick with the bridge.
There is a Hebrew song that goes:
The whole entire world
is a very narrow bridge
and the main thing is
not to fear at all.
Kol ha'olam kulo
gesher tzar me'od
lo l’fached k'lal.
It’s ultimately a mind game: there is so much to fear, and yet you can’t move forward on this bridge called life if you let fear dominate. I spend so much of my time in anxiety. I make so many decisions or rather avoid so many decisions out of fear: fear of fucking it up, fear of scarcity, fear of varying scales of calamity. But never real fear for personal safety or financial security, for myself or for my loved ones. My class privilege shelters me from so many of the dangers that lurk under the narrow bridge. No doubt there are many more dangers where those came from. But if I dwell in ultimately indulgent hypotheticals then I can’t act, and then I can’t take part in repairing this fucked up bridge that is so much wider for some and narrower for others in the first place.
For this song, in my head I always translate the Hebrew word “ikar” as “key.” As in, the key is to have no fear. The key to crossing this bridge, and perhaps even the key for this purple on purple lock is to not let fear prevent me from action. But that metaphor actually only works in translation. “Ikar” isn’t a key that would open a lock (that would be “mafte’ach”), rather it’s “key” as in “essential,” “the gist,” or “the main thing.” But maybe not giving into fear is the key that I need to open that lock. Unless I was deliberately choosing to pause and stand in the middle of the bridge to let the wind hit me in the face.
Purple Purple: awareness, wisdom, intuition. Fear is a product of your mind. There are times when fear keeps you safe, and many more times when it keeps you locked up. Don’t let fear stop you from taking courageous action, or even just from moving forward. There is too much at stake. In the words of the great voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
42. Purple Black White. At the end of October as the moon was waxing, I started a dream journal. It wasn’t a particularly intentional decision. I had bought two small, blank, square sketchbooks using a birthday gift certificate and they were just sitting around. I have had a practice of writing down dreams for years, but only once or twice a month when they are clear and usually in the “Notes” app on my phone. It is easier and faster to type them out and certainly more legible, notwithstanding autocorrect’s word salad. But when I am capturing a dream I am trying as hard as I can to stay in the dream state, and the blaring light of a phone immediately upon waking is not really conducive to that.
So, starting almost four weeks ago now, every morning I write down what I remember of the dream I was having before waking up. Since my alarm clock is literally a baby, this means that he is usually cry-whining from the other room while this happens. Writing in a rush half asleep in a dark room makes a lot of this text impressionistic at best, more like evidence of something having been written than something one could actually read. But the action of writing it down helps it stick, and helps each subsequent dream stick a little more.
I am not sure exactly what I am looking for in this dream work, maybe establishing a discipline and creating a connection, dropping a fishing line to another realm to see what I reel in. I dream often about elaborate art and visual media, but in these dreams I am aware that it is someone else’s work. I often wonder if I ever attempted to produce this dream art in real life, would that be plagiarism? However, in the almost four weeks that I have been keeping track, rather than art perse, I am dreaming about ritual objects. The clarity of these images stand in stark contrast to the chaos of most of my dreams, which always seem to take place in crowded public spaces, city streets, rambling buildings, malls, restaurants, warehouses, festivals, both pre- and post-pandemic.
The first dream I recorded was a group of people standing huddled on a thick black line (either on the ground or like a floating graphic design element, I wondered) shaking ficus tree branches in a prayer circle, praying for right relationship with the natural world. I dreamt about “priestly garb” in the form of two full body robes, one black and one white, each with full head coverings with elaborate mesh beadwork fully covering the face. I dreamt about making a black and white striped cardboard tallit (prayer shawl) with wooden rods and feathers that with a flick of the wrist transformed into a fabric one lifted up by our hands like a full chuppah (wedding canopy) with a crowd gathered conversing underneath.
It’s perhaps notable that these ritual objects often include black and white symbolism; I can recall past significant dreams about pairs of black and white animals (cats and bears specifically). I think in recording my dreams I am hoping to reach and capture more discreet symbols and experiences like that, though what they add up to I can only guess. I’m not sure whether I will keep up this exercise either. For one it is hard to keep this alluring journal on my bedside table my own, and you can already see where I relented and let D add her own drawings. But it feels like something intentional I can do to search for signal in the noise, both in daily life and in this other fleeting realm.
This week we also entered the Hebrew month of Kislev, which as I just learned according to Kohenet Ketzirah Lesser is the month of Dreaming. The daylight is dwindling and we prepare to celebrate light and darkness. The Torah tells the story of 10 different dreams, and 9 of them are read aloud during Kislev. Our bed sheets happen to be purple and this journal is white and my pen is black, so I had already been planning on photographing them for Purple Black White. Rainbow Squared as a synchronicity generator strikes again. I have a feeling that dream work makes way for more moments that rhyme.
Purple Black White: Intuition and transcendence, your mind a means of transportation. Inhabiting your dreams to transcend the limits of daily reality. Committing to plumbing the depths, even if most of what you find there is just as incomprehensible as anything else that happens in a day. Creating space for another realm of experience.
43. Black White Red. What’s black and white and red all over? Perhaps it’s no surprise that when I was looking around for this color combination it came to me in signs, in literal signage. Information. I understand that the newspaper pun is “read” not “red,” but still: the color combination is ubiquitous in displaying information. Black and white with red is a certain kind of basic, supposedly the first colors on which babies see the world. It conveys a certain importance, or at least a certain bureaucraticness. Writing all this brings to mind the work of Barbara Kruger, of course.
And thinking of Barbara Kruger on Black Friday of course evokes the phrase and image “I shop therefore I am.” (Though it is, like all her works, Untitled).
Oh, Black Friday. Another Black/Red combo, the supposed day that most retailers go from being “in the red” to being “in the black.” Though that story was invented to put a positive spin on the name, which was actually coined in the 1950s by Philadelphia police officers, who worked overtime to control the hordes of shoppers and Army/Navy football game fans flooding downtown that day. So, um, take your pick: consumerist orgy, mass policing, military display, or just the fact that it is the day after the already fraught colonialist Native American genocide erasure/apology of Thanksgiving. Black Friday is not the best day.
But it’s easy for me to critique: I am not shopping the deals because I can afford to buy pretty much whatever I need all year round. And it’s not like I’m not a consumer on other days, as much as I may try to limit it or dream of alternative realities. I guess what I am saying is: where do I have the latitude to cast judgement? Ever? Today at least, I am very much in the black and in the red anyway.
Starting another cycle, the seventh and final Rainbow Squared cycle which is Black White. And every cycle always starts with Red as the secondary color, which means coming back to the body. Our physical human body, and all of the material goods and possessions that extend out in its wake. And how we feel in that body. This week, I’ve been smothered by fear and anger, a feeling of being trapped in my little animal body and its surroundings.
At bedtime the other night, I just wanted the kids to be asleep already so I could finally be alone. We read a book for D, and then I was rushing through a book for the baby. A board book called “Mama Loves You So” by Terry Pierce. Imagine hearing someone through gritted teeth practically muttering the words: “Sweeter than a meadow’s scent, tender as a doe. Soothing as the wafting breeze, Mama loves you so…” Justin couldn’t help but laugh at me as I read, and so I laughed at myself and told him to shut up. Which of course D thought was hilarious and then kept repeating with an attitude: “Shut up! Shut up!” and so pleased with herself.
Oh, we can laugh about it. But the vicious cycle of constant togetherness and Revenge Bedtime Procrastination takes its toll. After we got the kids down, Justin waited a beat and then asked me as neutrally as he could muster: “What day of your cycle are you on?” I checked, and lo and behold, it was Day 21. My historically saddest day. Fuck the misconception that PMS is what happens to you the day before you bleed, or even when you are bleeding. About a week beforehand, when any high of ovulation has totally worn off, my PMS kicks into full swing. Any irritation I might have at Justin for pointing that out is alleviated by the fact that he knows me so precisely, and can use the data I’ve tracked for years to interpret my emotional state. Like Black White Red, I am made of blood and data.
Black White Red: transcending the body means living into it. Acknowledging its needs and understanding what are merely inherited habits, habits that impact all the other bodies on this planet: human, animal, plant, material. Look for the signs, look for the information, though never take any single piece of it to stand in for the whole truth. The Black White cycle is the sublimated version of all the other colors, going beyond the personal to the ways you are interconnected with everyone and everything else. And like everything else, it starts with the body, your body. To quote Kruger again: “Your body is a battleground.”
44. Black White Orange. When I made tea for all of the people who wanted tea after the big meal last week, I held on to the wrappers and brought them to the table with me. Then I carefully ripped each down to individual squares in order to fold into trash cranes. Naturally, once I had made cranes, I wanted to stop-motion them. I propped my phone between cups and started taking pictures, even while other hands cast shadows and every movement jostled the table. That was all part of the game. Not the board game that we were playing, but the game of trying to create an animation in the midst of daily life.
Yes, I was slightly stoned from a low dose high CBD gummy I had eaten a couple hours before (I am a notorious lightweight). And yes, my trash arranging proclivities are heightened under the influence. But I think the high mostly served to compel me to keep going, to play this game within a game, to keep folding and squinting and scooting and clicking even with other people around (we have a big pod). And of course once I realized I had folded a black white orange crane and that the table cloth was white, there was no turning back.
This trash crane is not a sculpture so much as an artifact. Just like this whole project is not animation nor is it writing, but closer to performance. The making is the performance and this is the documentation, the evidence of devotion to artistic and spiritual practice. Now I’ve found ways to not only fit “studio time” between everything else but actually during it. So is this work good just because I managed to find the time to make it? Of course not. But what is the work exactly? The product is at times sloppy and inelegant, but is the work in the product or the practice? Is it artistic or spiritual? One or the other, both or neither?
Black White Orange: transcendence and creativity. Devotion to craft. The drive and passion to make as a life force, as a reason for being. Life itself as art, though no one said it was necessarily good art.
Like in this poem by Frank Bidart, Advice to the Players:
There is something missing in our definition, vision, of a human being: the need to make.
We are creatures who need to make.
Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands, our fate is to make something—if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives.
45. Black White Yellow. My white cheeks are black and yellow right now. It is hard to capture on camera (and you can see I tried). They’ve gone from chipmunk cheeks to these bruises, which I think is healing progress. I just had gum graft surgery, or flesh from the roof of my mouth cut out and stitched onto my bottom gums to cover up where some of the roots of my teeth were showing.
When I was doing Yellow Black White back in June, I had been sick with a fever for about a week. I was thinking about sickness and communities, about how privilege shows up in a pandemic in an unjust system. Here I am recovering again, this time from an technically elective but necessary-if-I-want-to-keep-my-teeth kind of procedure. Another privilege, another dance with recovery. I am thinking again about sickness and community, this time about how healing is ultimately a confrontation of personal power.
Yes, right now I am relying on my body’s own amazing systems to heal and regenerate. But in this process I am learning how much of my power isn’t located in my own body at all. In a temporarily disabled state, I’ve had to accept and ask for help. A lot of it. The logistics involved in getting back to the city and then to and from the procedure in a pandemic with a toddler and then the care for each of us and the drive back and a liquid diet and so many cycles of pills and potions for pain and disinfecting and defungusing and still the childcare: it’s a time when you can’t quite do it alone. A humbling reminder that when your personal power is diminished, your community power takes over. Black White Yellow means that interconnectedness is your power.
Which brings me to Chanukah. Oh Chanukah, oh Chanukah. I feel so torn about this holiday. And the whole “holiday season,” of course. Like interconnectedness and power, this holiday is ultimately about group power dynamics and identity. The Maccabees stood up for who they were and what they believed in. But who were the Maccabees standing up against? The Greeks, sure, but also other Jews. Assimilated Jews. The Maccabees likely would not have approved of the way that I practice, or my “mixed” marriage. They may have even forcibly circumcised my son. So I am not that psyched about celebrating the Maccabees’ military victory and the violence they inflicted on other Jews, or their narrow view of what being Jewish could look like or mean.
I try to focus on the beautiful parts of the holiday, celebrating light and darkness, revealing and reveling in who you are. I even like the story of rededicating the temple, the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days instead of one which was just enough time to make more. But there is always part of me that is deeply uncomfortable about omitting that part about the heroes being religious zealots.
I’m not trying to cancel Chanukah. It just feels like often we as Jews either don’t know about the full story or intentionally don’t go there for fear that we’ll lose some precious corner of holiday real estate. “Oil and water don’t mix” is one subtext of this holiday, and I will always celebrate my Judaism as a distinct part of my identity. But to what extent must it exist as an opposition to something else? Insisting on celebrating Chanukah because it isn’t Christmas or insisting on Chanukah because it’s like Christmas, it’s all reinforcing religious hegemony. Like I said, group power dynamics.
In what would otherwise be unrelated news, Pantone announced its colors for 2021. And ready for this? The colors are PANTONE 17-5104 Ultimate Gray and PANTONE 13-0647 Illuminating, Gray and Yellow. In other words, the colors are BlackWhite and Yellow. Here’s what the Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute (yes, that’s a thing) had to say about it:
“The union of an enduring Ultimate Gray with the vibrant yellow Illuminating expresses a message of positivity supported by fortitude. Practical and rock solid but at the same time warming and optimistic, this is a color combination that gives us resilience and hope. We need to feel encouraged and uplifted; this is essential to the human spirit.”
I think resilience and hope tracks with what we associate as the Chanukah spirit. And I am heartened that in a year that the United States was so fraught with Red vs. Blue, that Pantone looked at the trends and speculated that people are opting out of that spectrum entirely and going Yellow. But hey, even if that election is behind us, Black and White is still there waiting for us to deal with it. Yes, a rock.
To be honest I don’t know what to make of this wild Pantone synchronicity. I think I’ll have to think about it. The synchronicities in this project for the last year have been staggering, not least because I don’t know if that means it is all very meaningful or quite meaningless. Am I tapping in to something generative or frivolous? Both?
Let’s just document how deep this rabbit hole is getting here, as the symbol set branches out from colors to numbers. Consider it research:
▪️ 45 = Black White Yellow. 4+5=9
▪️ 21 = Yellow Black White. I’ve always considered 21 a “holy” number
▪️ PANTONE 17-5104 Ultimate Gray = 18 = חַי (chai) or life and a Jewish lucky number, 1+8=9
▪️ PANTONE 13-0647 Illuminating = 21 = 3x7
▪️ 7 candles on a menorah (the kind that used to be in the Temple)
▪️ 9 candles on a chanukiah (the technical name for what we light on Chanukah)
▪️ 9s kept showing up everywhere yesterday. #9? #9? #9?
▪️ 45, our own outgoing despot. Antiochus?
46. Black White Green. My phone permanently froze the other morning. After trying many sequences of button presses and finally live-chatting with Apple support, I ultimately needed to restore it. That meant wiping its little brain clean of any memory of our time together, and then putting all of the same information back on from the “cloud.” What a miracle, what a weirdness, this digital life.
In that time when I thought my phone’s life might be over, I mostly thought about this project. Just four pieces left to make this year, and my phone–my production studio–out of commission. Okay. So when I sat staring at it, waiting for it to send some signal to the computer, of course I noticed that the screen was frozen on a white apple on a black background. Black White. Black White with an apple that we could arguably think of as a reference to something Green. I ran to grab Justin’s phone to take pictures.
So what does a frozen phone have to do with interconnectedness and love, or interconnectedness and family? Ha, well, when I write out that question, it becomes glaringly obvious. In these pandemic days and even before now, living multiple time zones away from my family has meant that the phone is how I connect. It’s how so very many of us connect. Our very relationships have been digitized, likenesses and words captured and transmitted to other screens.
Just this past week we went to my cousin’s son’s live-streamed bar mitzvah. I performed in a Rent sing-a-long on Zoom. I lit Chanukah candles with two different groups of people, including one with all my siblings and each of my parents across six screens. Of course instead of a simple candle lighting, it turned into a pleading digital intervention for my dad who was planning to fly to attend a family wedding in person. That completely fraught yet somehow touching exercise in argument-as-affection just wouldn’t have happened outside of this pandemic. Not just because we were literally discussing Covid, but because we never hung out digitally before now. I didn’t go to my cousin’s first son’s bar mitzvah because it was across the country, but now we got to “go” to his second son’s.
I am not necessarily saying that Covid has brought us together in positive ways, but it has certainly brought us together differently. We are sharing and experiencing major life events through a digital medium, from casual conversations to rites of passage ranging from religious adulthood to weddings even to final phone calls.
We’re even experiencing our daily life digitally. Our documentation of our kid’s lives has gone through the roof as we take photo after photo of their passing days. As a rule we don’t share their images on social media much, but we do share them through a private photo stream with family, friends, and framily. This channel is how so many of my loved ones are watching my kids grow up from afar since they can’t experience it in person. I spend a non-trivial amount of time taking and selecting photos to share with that group. This compounds my impulse to grab my phone and snap pictures at every precious passing moment, all of their ever-new and even ever-repeated feats and interests. Sometimes I feel like I experience their childhood through the lens of my phone’s camera.
In some ways I think we may actually document our second kid’s babyhood more than our first because we understand more how quickly the time passes and how fast the memories fade. There is so much I don’t remember from just three years ago. Is photo/video a way to hold on to those memories, or do they somehow replace the actual memories? Is my phone remembering them for me? The phone is not only how we connect with our loved ones in the present, but how we connect to our past and bring it into the future.
Black White Green: interconnectedness and love and family. Transcending space to connect and share digitally, transcending time to capture and save passing moments. Experiencing and transmitting our selves and families digitally, making the otherwise private differently public. Transforming the fabric of our lived relationships.
Also for #46, my partner and love Justin turned 46 this week. He is a harbinger of digitally-shared self-documentation. And here he is now 25 years later with his own partner sharing (select parts of) their lives on the internet. So it tracks.
47. Black White Blue. What do Yule log embellishments, blown out birthday candles, and used pregnancy tests have in common? They are all bits of sacred refuse. Remnants of rituals, a special kind of future trash.
For the last 12 years, we have plunged into the (cold cold) ocean for the Winter Solstice. This year with our multi-generational pod, we did the first part of this ritual at home with a bonfire. This bonfire involved an improvised Yule log, which our matriarch Janet initially festooned with yellow and red curling ribbon. This plastic ribbon was ultimately vetoed and removed, and Janet returned to the fire with the log covered instead in dried ferns and white and blue tissue paper. White Blue.
The next day Justin finally finished eating his birthday cake (also made by Janet). He was about to throw out the candles when he asked me cheekily if I wanted to keep them. “Goddammit,” I replied, because when challenged to keep colorful bits of trash I can’t say no. But I actually did already have a vessel on my altar (not even my trash altar) for collecting the wax drippings of ritual candles. And what are birthday candles if not ritual candles? The contents of this black-capped (old iced tea) bottle were mostly white from Shabbat candles with one long broken blue Chanukah candle. Black White Blue.
Yet these recent Black White Blue ritual remnants really harken back to December 2018. During Year Two of Rainbow Squared, Black White Blue happened to fall when it was time to take a pregnancy test. And the test that Justin happened to purchase was white and blue with a gray LCD screen: it was in fact a one-time use digital pregnancy test. I got mad at him for selecting such a thing, but really I was mad that such a thing exists. A digital pregnancy test is to me the epitome of senseless e-waste. A product designed to be soaked in urine and discarded, there is no reason for it to be electronic. There is also no way that most people dispose of it properly. Are they packing it up with dead batteries and taking it to a hardware store? Or even like me, hoarding it and calling it Art?
Righteous product critiques aside, I decided to stop-motion the pregnancy test. I felt compelled by the magical timing, and I also wanted to give this single use e-waste a little more mileage by capturing it for posterity. I knew I would only have “one take,” so I set up my phone in my tripod next to a bowl to squat over. I dipped the stick and quickly thrust it under the camera, clicking with each blink of the digital progress bar. I was pleased with the result of the test and the animation, yet I never ultimately shared it. Even though I edited out the part where it indeed said “Pregnant” (and yes, digital pregnancy tests actually display words), it felt too vulnerable to signal to the world that I was even trying, especially when people from work followed my account.
Until now, two years later. I think I hope not to take any more pregnancy tests. I can see now that my stop-motioning was perhaps its own ritual to reclaim the act, doing it this time with joy rather than other times in dread. If you think about all the users of at-home pregnancy tests, most are probably fraught with worry, whether they are hoping for not pregnant or not another not pregnant. Surely these tiny obelisks are ritual objects, divining rods that read the present and a possible future.
I also still have the test for the pregnancy that would become my first child somewhere in my trash altar collection. Like a punk, I did ultimately use the stick in an animation for Year Two Orange Purple, which happened to coincide with April Fool’s Day. Of course I couldn’t have animated the live results of that pregnancy test: in some ways it was the impetus of this very project. I never would have embarked on Rainbow Squared without being thrust into motherhood. I am now so grateful I was in a position to become ready for that adventure. I’ll be clear here: if I believe a pregnancy test can be sacred, then I also believe that anything anyone decides to do with that information is sacred.
Black White Blue: interconnectedness and communication. Transcending personal expression to create shared ritual, the remnants of which turn to artifacts. People throughout history burning objects and consulting oracles that become beacons in and of time. Whether celebrated in an altar or ultimately a landfill, these artifacts tell stories that outlive their moments and even us. Ritual remnants. Sacred refuse. Future trash.
48. Black White Purple. “Suppose I were to begin by saying I had fallen in love with a color.” Thus begins Maggie Nelson’s book-length ode to the color blue, “Bluets.” Which is what I thought was the name of the purple mushroom we found on our first ever mushroom hunt. We didn’t have a guide book with us that day, but we had a guide in Noah, our friend’s-sister’s-partner-now-our-friend who led us to his favorite stretch of woods to wander. When we encountered this small patch of little brown-looking mushrooms, D accidentally knocked one with her foot and broke off the cap. Picking it up we could see their gills were a glowing bluey purple, a shade hard to capture and that I may also be in love with.
When Noah named this mushroom as a “bluet,” I held and beheld it for a long time, regarding it in a sort of color-reverie. This was further heightened when he explained that we would need to take a spore print to conclusively identify it, which literally entails placing a mushroom cap on a piece of half black and half white paper and checking later to see what color spores are left behind. I just had to laugh: Black White Purple. I took a full specimen of this purple mushroom and placed it in the band of my black hat for safe-keeping.
I didn’t know until I Googled it later that these purple mushrooms are “blewits,” not “bluets.” What does their coloring have to do with their name then, and what if I still love them? I went back to the book “Bluets” to see if Maggie Nelson might have anything relevant to say. I found this:
127. Ask yourself: what is the color of a jacaranda tree in bloom? You once described it to me as a “type of blue.” I did not know then if I agreed, for I had not yet seen the tree.
128. When you first told me about the jacarandas, I felt hopeful. Then, the first time I saw them myself, I felt despair. The next season, I felt despair again. And so we arrive at one instance, and then another, upon which blue delivered a measure of despair. But truth be told: I saw them as purple.
So maybe for Nelson purple isn’t blue. I still say it’s in the blue family. Either way these mushrooms and even some jacarandas remind me of a shade of purple I call transcendental purple. It is a color I sometimes encounter behind closed eyelids in certain states of mind, from meditative to spiritual to psychedelic. It’s a purple of knowing, of being, of glowing. It is a bluey purple, closer to indigo. Which I also consider purple.
I had a dream last week that I was in a classroom explaining Rainbow Squared to a group of high school students. I didn’t have any visuals with me except a whiteboard, which made it hard to demonstrate. “Why don’t you include indigo?” one of the students asked. I broke into a monologue about indigo not being a “real” color. How when Isaac Newton observed white light through a prism, he identified seven colors in the visible spectrum: ROYGBIV. But Newton actually included indigo to assure this holy number: seven notes in a (Western) musical scale, seven days of the week, seven known planets at the time. Otherwise there is no real reason to have a stop between blue and purple. And besides, I wanted to make room for Black and White. Which are included as one color because I too like seven.
But how much does IDing color actually matter? Of course I have strong feelings about naming colors, but color exists in your mind, so it is ultimately in some ways a judgement call. IDing mushrooms on the other hand is a more precise affair, mostly because of its potentially hazardous consequences. The blewit for instance has a toxic look alike called the cortinarius who leaves behind a rusty colored spore print as opposed to a lightly colored one. But mushroom speciation itself is also nonlinear, as fungi defy easy categorization. This fruit of mycelial networks is something between plant and animal, maybe even closer to animal, or something else entirely.
Our brief mushroom hunt didn’t yield a bounty, in part because the kiddos were still so strung out from the holiday the day before. But the walk was in itself a celebration of mushrooms, an excuse to pay attention to the forest and nerd out (bliss out?) on fungus facts. Like how Santa’s colors are red and white because of amanita muscaria, a favorite treat of reindeers who eat it and feel like they can fly. Or how psychedelic mushrooms seem to seek out human consumption, popping up on cattle dung and wood chips. Or like Terrence McKenna’s “Stoned Ape Hypothesis,” how homo sapien’s leap in intelligence came from entheogenic plants and fungi. Whether mycelium gave humans intelligence or even whether it is trying to reach humans now, mycelium certainly has its own intelligence.
Black White Purple: transcendence and wisdom, interconnectedness and intuition. Fungal intelligence running through networks, setting up systems of mutual care and information sharing that benefit entire ecosystems and their species. Transcending human knowledge to learn from the natural world, including color.
49. Black White Black White. For the last few weeks my housemates have been telling me that there was something I needed to see, but they didn’t want to tell me what it was. Finally they let out that this something was maybe trash or maybe art. They wanted me to encounter it myself and weigh in. Of course I was excited, “But truth be told,” I said, “I am picky about trash art.”
“Well, what makes good trash art?” they asked.
“Hmm. Good trash art is like porn: I know it when I see it.” To give them a bit more of an answer, I told them that trash art is usually best when it isn’t trying to hide the fact that it is trash. It isn’t trying to be something useful or pretty or cute, and it definitely isn’t trying to celebrate recycling. Good trash art should still be a stirring aesthetic experience, but the fact of its trashness should still shine through. Of course since I view most things as future trash, the category of trash art itself can be quite broad. But for the purposes of this discussion, we can say that trash art involves materials that have already been or would otherwise be discarded.
My response only made them more eager to take me to whatever this something was. A group of us went to see it the next morning, hiking on the haul road that runs along Big River in Mendocino, California. I got there last since I was lagging behind with E, who takes a long time now that he can walk and do things like pick up every rock to call it a “po-tay-toh.” But when we finally caught up, I knew we had arrived. Because immediately my own mind was hit with the question: “Is it trash? Is it art?”
Corrugated pipes everywhere, rusting aluminum and black plastic. Heaps of them, but also distinct almost delicate piles and standalone artifacts. Black White and more Black White. Then I saw one black tube standing upright, with a sliced scrap of tube laid across the top of it and then a short circle of tube on top of that. A tiny figure. “Oh, this is definitely intentional,” I started to say, and as I looked up my friend widened her eyes and gestured her head towards a person who was standing there with us, who she was talking to before I arrived. “Are you the artist?” I turned to the person and asked. And it was.
The artist is Susan Maeder, and this is her pandemic project, and also her 77th birthday project. (Of course I remembered this detail, 7x7=49). She lives nearby and hauled pretty much all of these pipes up from a pile next to the river by herself. We are talking large pipes here, most of the plastic ones probably a foot and a half in diameter and the crushed metal ones much larger. She lugged them and arranged them, highlighting and stacking pieces that are already sculptural.
“Sometimes I wish a Hercules would just come along and help me move more of it,” she said. I offered some suggestions for how she might engage others to help. “Oh no,” she said, “If I really wanted help I could get it.” After years of Tai Chi and Yoga she says she knows how to be grounded in her body, knows her strength and also when to stop. “I’ve learned that I am my own Hercules.”
She comes back here most days to take care of it, rearrange the pieces after the elements have had their way. She’s learned that rain doesn’t clean off the pipes, it just makes them muddier. But it is an ongoing practice, rather than a static sculpture or even collection of sculptures. Something that needs to be tended like a garden, and also like a garden comes alive in different ways at different times of day. She delights in all of the shapes and figures she finds, pointing out Victorian corsets, sea creatures, scorpions, dogs, even Oscar the Grouch. But she doesn’t expect or need anyone else to recognize those shapes. There is one piece though that she says is always where people spend the most time and is what draws people in. It’s the little figure with a circle for a head, the one that was also ultimately how I knew this piece was intentional.
We talked for a long time through our masks. She asked about my own practice, and I told her about photo animation, about how I like to break out of straight-from-the-camera video so that you don’t expect it to be reality. A signifier, not the signified. She immediately connected that to the ambiguity of trash art, of not giving the audience a fixed way to understand it. We talked about the lived performance of making, the moments of flow and beauty that happen when you are arranging trash, those moments that have an audience of one: the maker. That the artifact afterward, whether it is a trash sculpture or an animation, are really documents of an experience. There is a loneliness in that: other people can’t really occupy the space and time that the artist did or see what the artist saw. But they see something else, have their own experience. And that’s beautiful too.
I told her that we had chosen this trail today specifically in order to see this piece, that my friends had wanted me to be an arbiter of its Artness. And that quite honestly what I loved about it is how much it still looks like trash, still lives in that ambiguity. “People really want to be able to land somewhere,” she said. But there is power in not being able to land in one place, we agreed.
There is power in ambiguity and even in discomfort, especially now when so many want so badly to land (and to land others) in fixed ideas of gender, sexual identity, race, religion, nationality, property, entitlement, morality, what is “pure” and “right” and often constitutes what is Right. But nothing is black and white. What happens when we release our attachment to unattainable and oppressive ideals, get squishier about our boundaries, decolonize our minds from thinking there is any one right way to be?
Especially now that there is a vaccine, the temptation will be so strong to go back to “normal.” That if we just inoculate enough people (or enough of the right people) against this virus we could go back to the way things were. But we can’t go back, and we shouldn’t if we could. The system isn’t working. The way we have arranged ourselves and our lives is fundamentally broken, and now we have an opportunity to change it. The next step is learning how to take care of each other.
Susan acknowledges that one day someone will pull up with a truck and tow this all away without so much as communicating with her. And she is okay with that. In my mind, it will also be art in some form somewhere else, even in a landfill. And it will also be trash.
Black White Black White: transcending categories and arbitrary boundaries to truly live our interconnectedness. Eschewing fundamentalism and embracing ambiguity as fertile ground to root the new, grow the next. Our bodies, our material systems, our realities are all connected and interconnected on this planet with all of its bodies and systems and realities connected in the cosmos. Nothing lasts but really, what ever goes away?