Click on any animation in the grid to see its text below.
For four years, I diligently produced pieces in order, starting with Red Red and ending with Black White Black White. For the fifth year, I produced these pieces “out of order,” or in a different order: an emergent order. Using a deck of Rainbow Squared cards, I drew a new card each week to determine its color combination, going through the entire deck until all 49 pieces for the year were complete.
An emergent order also makes room for another new feature: guest pieces. For Year 5, every seventh piece is a guest piece. Since the project’s inception, I’ve fantasized about it as an open source formula. What might it look like for other makers to “do” a Rainbow Squared? At first I wondered about others committing to complete a full body of 49 pieces. Now I wonder about the formula less as one of creative productivity as much as spiritual inquiry: how might this (or any) symbol set operate as a lens through which to notice and make magical and narrative connections in your daily life?
You won’t know which is a guest piece by looking at the grid; they’ll be scattered across it. You’ll be able to pick them out by scrolling through the text though, looking for Pieces Seven, Fourteen, Twenty-one, Twenty-eight, Thirty-five, Forty-two, and Forty-nine.
Why Sacred Emergence? Much like Pantone declares a “color of the year,” my friend Monica Canfield-Lenfest declares a spiritual theme for the year ahead, and 2021 was Sacred Emergence. When I heard it, I knew immediately that this was the year to change how I followed this grid. In a time of chaos and upheaval, of so much suffering and so much growing solidarity, it felt right to choose an emergent strategy, a term coined by writer, activist, and dreamer adrienne maree brown in her book by the same name. Annd so I let chance determine the color combination instead of the calendar, opening up this practice to co-creators to see what emerges.
Each piece includes multiple animations not featured here.
To view each piece individually, check them out on Substack and subscribe to stay up to date with the project.
Every other year I’ve begun the Rainbow Squared cycle with Red Red. Red the color of blood, perhaps the most appropriate color to begin any cycle with. This year I am following the 49 in an emergent order, determined by drawing cards. The first card I drew was Green Yellow. The middle of the grid, though satisfyingly not in the exact middle, composition-wise. Like we are going up the traffic light, from red to yellow to green: let’s go.
Drawing Green Yellow compels me to share something. During 18. Yellow Green last year, I came up with a meditation and a symbol that have been an entirely personal part of my practice until now. Or perhaps they emerged. I didn’t share it at the time because I didn’t really know how, or maybe I didn’t even want to. But Green Yellow popping up first feels like a nudge.
I pictured Yellow and Green as the center of the rainbow, the most visible points in the visible spectrum, with the other colors swirling around them. I pictured the colors in a circle, a sort of pie chart color wheel with Yellow and Green taking two opposite quarters, and with Purple and Blue and then Red and Orange sharing the other opposite quarters so that the rainbow is split and flipped, with complementary colors either touching or facing each other. Or maybe that symbol came from my attempted drawings of the meditation, a sort of uneven asterisk made from three lines split into two colors at the apex, a pole with a squat X through it.
Maybe the visual will also help. It’s my first time digitally drawing images for an animation.
I’ll try to describe the meditation: a series of four full breaths, with each out-breath imagining a ray of light going through you up and down, then left and right, then front to back, and finally a sphere of light surrounding you. These rays of light each have colors, two actually. Maybe numbered steps would help:
1. First, ground. However you choose to do so. Visualizing an anchor into the earth, taking a series of deep breaths, or doing whatever you need to do to get ready to be present.
2. Breathe in, then breathe out while imagining a single shaft of light split into two colors going through you up and down, with purple emanating from your chest up and red emanating from your chest down.
3. Breathe in, then breathe out while imagining a single shaft of light split into two colors going through you left and right, with orange emanating from your chest to your right side and blue emanating from your chest to your left side.
4. Breathe in, then breathe out while imagining a single shaft of light split into two colors going through you front and back, with yellow emanating from your chest behind you and green emanating out from your chest in front of you.
5. Breathe in, then breathe out while imagining a sphere of light emanating from your chest and spreading all around you.
Red Purple, Orange Blue, Yellow Green, BlackWhite.
Bodily Wisdom. Creative Expression. The Power of Love. Interconnectedness.
Though this meditation emerged initially during Yellow Green, it feels important to root here in Green Yellow. Why? Because the Green and Yellow pole was placed front and back as a conscious choice. Purple above and Red below followed the chakras, Orange as left and Blue as right are honestly somewhat arbitrary (or perhaps I don’t totally understand it yet). But I very deliberately placed Yellow going backwards and Green shooting forwards. If you are shooting anything at anyone, it should be love, it should be Green. Yellow is power, in some ways a thing to leave behind, or to approach with care. So though I have dubbed it Yellow Green, the Power of Love, perhaps it was Green Yellow all along. Not just the Power of Love, but Loving as Power. Love Power.
I am writing this today on January 28th of the Gregorian calendar, and the 15th of Shevat on the Hebrew calendar, or Tu B’Shevat. It is the full moon of the waning winter that is celebrated as the new year of the Trees. Green Yellow is also leaves and sun, or photosynthesis. Drawing power and sustenance from a star. Trees are star-powered beings trees, even if we think of them as perhaps the most earthly of all creatures, rooted in the beautiful brown dirt.
Where do you draw your power from? How do you gather nourishment, and how do you share it?
I don’t wanna. I don’t wanna. I don’t wanna.
I have been dragging my heels on this second one, not able to bring myself to just sit down and make. I do have an excuse: we moved this week. Moving is labor-intensive and disorienting enough, then add in two small children and a pandemic, and well, there is not a lot of energy left over for anything else.
Everywhere I look there is something to do, something to unpack, something to organize. Everywhere I look there is something new to notice and study, from the uneven paint lines on the moulding to the neighbor’s yard out the window. My brain is working overtime, humming like an overtasked hard drive.
So it is no wonder that at the end of each day over these last five days, I am spent. After I close the door to the kid’s room at night is when it should be my time to work. But three nights in a row I just couldn’t do it. I’m just plain tired.
I could cut myself some slack, but here we are only on Piece Number Two of this new year. It is always harder at the beginning when I don’t quite know what I am doing and don’t have momentum yet. It could cut myself some slack and skip a week, but as much as I don’t wanna make this week, I also don’t wanna not have made anything this week. What is that impulse? Is it constructive or a compulsion? Not that those have to be mutually exclusive.
I finally mustered the will to start something at 10pm last night. In bed. I fell asleep while I was doing it. Those blue smudges at the end are my fingers slackening mid-stroke as I lose consciousness. That’s what we get this week: the genuine article. This animation is my second one using Procreate. Maybe I will use this technique all year, maybe not. If I do, I certainly hope to see these animations improve. But this kind of crude communication style is appropriate for Blue Red anyway.
Blue Red is the beginning of the Blue cycle, the cycle of Communication and Expression. And like all cycles, it begins with the body, with Red. So even while I am dragging my heels at getting to work on this self-expression project, I am hitting the wall of my body. Again and again.
What is your body telling you? How are you listening?
Well, Blue Purple might be Mercury Retrograde itself. Blue is Communication, and Purple is Intuition, Wisdom, Awareness: the color of all things “Woo Woo.” Blue Purple is Communication Woo Woo. At its best, Communication Woo Woo could be prayer or telepathy or something mystical like that. At its most challenging, Communication Woo Woo could be truly bad things like spiritual bypassing or more neutral things like planetary interference from Mercury Retrograde, the astrological excuse for communication breakdowns.
In terms of the orbit of celestial bodies, I mostly follow the moon. It is the easiest one to track with your own eyes, making it a basis for so many calendars, the Hebrew calendar included. Though I know I was an adult before I learned that you can tell what phase the moon is in just by looking at it. The moon both waxes and wanes from right to left, so the side the crescent or gibbous is leaning isn’t arbitrary. You can use its position in the sky to disambiguate because the time each moon phase rises and sets is pretty consistent too, relative to the sun. Every full moon rises from the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise, and every new moon rises at sunrise and sets at sunset (with some variations depending on how close you live to the poles). Understanding the shape of the moon and when it is visible means you can watch the moon make changes.
Mercury though. I don’t think I could even tell you where Mercury is in the sky. I do know it’s the planet closest to the sun, and that apparently because of the difference in speed of Mercury’s orbit and Earth’s orbit that sometimes it looks like Mercury is going backwards, hence “retrograde.” I now also know the story of where Mercury shows up in my own astrological chart: Mercury was rising in the sky just ahead of the sun in that August pre-dawn that I was born, so it is in my first house, Leo, which is ruled by the sun. I know that Mercury is also the planet that rules the sign my sun is in, Virgo. Mercury is the astrological planet of Communication, named for Mercury the Roman messenger god, or Hermes in the Greek pantheon. It seems communication is pretty central to what I’m here on Earth to do, so that tracks with my chart.
I feel pretty cool knowing that, but I don’t know how I feel about astrology overall. I use astrology much the same way I use this Rainbow Squared system: as a tool to notice correspondences and generate narrative interpretation. So when communication feels out of whack and the internet tells me that Mercury is in retrograde, it seems to make sense.
And yes, communication is out of whack right now. Maybe that’s why I’m sharing 2000 words this week, and have written almost double that. If communication were easier right now, this would be a lot shorter.
“Good luck with the juggling act,” a friend said as we were hanging up the phone last week. I had picked up her call in the midst of communication chaos:
Maybe it would have been practical not to answer the phone in this moment, but when I saw that it was Rachel calling I wanted to pick up. Because she is my friend and I love her, and also in retrospect maybe because I needed a witness to this maternal multitasking feat, this “juggling act.”
“Good luck with the juggling act.” I laughed when she said it because it felt true. Then the phrase rang in my head for a while afterwards, expanding and distorting over time. Good luck with the juggling act. The juggling act. Yes, everyday does feel like a goddamn circus. But do I want to be juggling? Is this the circus act I am choosing, the one where I dazzle my audience by doing so many things at a time and none of them well? Here I am, a clown, exaggerated emotions painted on my face, leaping then lurching from act to act until they all blend together, picking up toys and text messages and children and their feelings and my feelings and dishes and bills and obligations and animations. Please gasp as I swirl them all in mid-air, and laugh when I drop them! With me, though, not at me. Please.
There are times I do literally identify as a clown. I have a persona devoted to it in fact. And this new moon we just passed marks the start of the Hebrew month Adar, the month of joy and dressing up, the month of the clown. But not all jugglers are clowns. Someone showed me an image once of the ancient Canaanite goddess Asherah, a goddess that many early Jews worshipped long into their new experiment in monotheism. Asherah is often depicted as a tree, and in this image Asherah was a tree and a mother, her many dancing branches holding all the things that mothers hold at once. Which is to say that not all jugglers are clowns. Though not all clowns are silly, anyway.
But how much is juggling a super power of motherhood, and how much of it is self-perpetuated overkill? Is there something I could put down? How much of it do I perform for my own sense of self-worth and validation? Is it a professional hangover of some kind to continue to glorify busy-ness even outside of a business context? Or is it just real? Even in my moments of anxiety, I do seem to like it, or get something out of it at least. So what is that like for the people close to me? Is it something that they are supposed to console me about or something that they are supposed to cheer me on for?
After hanging up with Rachel and finally changing E’s diaper, I found D playing by herself and so very eager to play with me. She wanted to pretend to make a birth movie, a movie about people giving birth. I was obviously charmed by this idea, but it was late in the day so I suggested we go on a quick walk while we still had the chance. It would have been our first time leaving the house in three days.
So she screamed at me, deeply disappointed to be thwarted from her game, especially after being ignored for the last hour. She screamed pretty loudly. I didn’t have the energy to argue. In fact, I didn’t have the energy to engage at all. I had reached my limit. I left the room and retreated to the rocking chair in their tiny bedroom, somewhere I could be within ear shot but out of the emotional splash radius. D blessedly didn’t follow me. I sat.
Eventually E wandered in, happy to see me, thinking that me hiding my face in my shirt was a version of peekaboo. “Mama!” he pointed and laughed, then played next to me, occasionally chatting with me one word or sound at a time in his sweet baby voice. I smiled at him and echoed his words, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave that rocking chair. I couldn’t really move my body. I couldn’t find a way to unravel my knot of thoughts, each tangling in another and then another before I could even finish it.
In that chair, I started imagining making a Blue Purple sculpture: a writhing, tangled mass of blue and purple ropes and strings that I knot and wrestle into each other. I pictured this for a while, then realized with a start that I had already made it. A miniature version of it anyway. It is the remnants of the curtains I sewed the previous week that were hanging right next to me as I sat in this rocking chair. I always take my scraps of unusable sewing bits and wad them up into a ball as tiny soft sculptures. This one had a strip of purple fabric I ripped off the inner curtain where one piece was too long, and an entire bobbin of blue thread I had to unwind because it kept clogging the sewing machine. It also had the loose threads from the outer curtain’s glow-in-the-dark constellation fabric. The whole thing was blue and purple before I even knew that would be the next week’s colors.
Sewing curtains is part of the juggling act too, right? Such a sweetly domestic act, one I took on with almost ritual importance, selecting the (awesome) fabric before we moved and sewing it even before many of our boxes were unpacked. It was a way to nest, to energetically establish ourselves here in this house even if we don’t know how long we’ll be staying. D even helped me press the foot pedals on the sewing machine, though it didn’t hold her interest for long. Granted, in the other rooms I just threw some loose fabric over a tension rod, but somehow bringing the sunlight in and out of the kids’ room felt like something to do right.
I sat in that rocking chair next to those curtains still trapped in my thoughts, now with the added track of the sculpture I had accidentally already made, thinking about how to animate it. I was also thinking about wanting to write this all down, this knot of thoughts, feeling the throbbing urge to write that I knew I wouldn’t be able to act on until the children were asleep when I would already be too spent. So I sat there dictating text messages to myself from my watch, like:
“I don't even know if I'm experiencing daily life anymore or if I'm just thinking about how to interpret and document it”
“This is what self-care looks like in this moment. Hiding out in a rocking chair in the kids room while the toddler walks in and out and the four-year-old makes a film about birth”
Even in that moment of total overwhelm, somehow I just wanted to make. And yes, that absolutely contributes to the seeming chaos in my daily life, of trying to pull it all off. But if Blue Purple is Communication Woo Woo, it is also communicating with my intuition, and man I just have to keep going. I want to keep going. I want to juggle. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be agonizing.
Another thought kept popping up in that chair: “The way to fix this is to get up at 5am everyday to write.” And every time it popped up, I thought, wait, is that a healthy reaction to being overwhelmed? To try to take on more? But the more I thought it, the more practical it sounded. Not so much adding another ball to the juggling act as giving myself another arm.
I’m trying it. I’ve been at the computer writing before 6am four out of the last five days. Not totally undisrupted by demands for attention and milk, but mostly blessedly quiet. It is almost 8am and I can hear Justin doing breakfast. And some shouting, but only a little. Maybe I don’t need to be there every moment. There are some windows of time where I can focus on one thing. It will take discipline though. Something that is hard to maintain in this world ambiguously run by the orbiting bodies of planets and children. But not impossible.
What are the ways communication is breaking down for you? What are the ways it is really working? Where are you hearing and listening to your intuition?
Blue, blue, electric blue that’s the colour of my room where I will live. Blue, blue.
That’s the line that popped into my head when I drew this week’s card, Blue Blue. It’s my third Blue in a row. I swear I’m shuffling. It’s almost as if after the last two, this card came along to say: “No, really. Blue. Blue BLUE. It’s Blue time.” Okay. I’m paying attention.
Pale blinds drawn all day. Nothing to do, nothing to say. Blue, blue.
I had never thought about David Bowie’s song “Sound and Vision” in the context of quarantine. What it means to be living in one room, day in day out. I don’t even know what color (or colour) I would call this room I am in. Peachy beige? And I suppose I’m not really in this room all day because we are assuming at this point that everyone in this house also has COVID, though gratefully (blessedly) three out of four of us are asymptomatic. And the symptoms I do have are very mild, considering. Even so, when the weekend rolled around I finally claimed the opportunity to fucking rest, breathing freely in one room without a mask. So I laid in bed in that beige room trying to heal, maybe not totally unlike Bowie attempting to sober while writing that song.
I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.
One of my very first photo animations I set to “Sound and Vision.” It was technically part of my final project in a Color Theory class. I haven’t thought about this video in a long time, but it popped back into my head along with Blue Blue and that song. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn’t that far off from what I am doing now. Both in technique and in inquiry. Sure, the genesis was a little different: I’m remembering now that my stop-motion practice emerged from being stoned and taking far too many photos on my digital camera. But it remains for me a different way of connecting to and capturing a moment. What I do now is perhaps more intentional, but still in the spirit of discovery.
This “Sound and Vision” video was made before I would have (or could have?) easily shared such things on the internet. But I scoured a hard drive, and just as I was about to give up, I found it, along with another video I made at the same time. For both, I had taken all of my (very colorful) clothes and laid them out on my bed in rainbow order. I was probably stoned when I did that too. I followed colorful objects with my camera, looking for moments that matched, assigning significance when they did. I was 19 years old, which I know quickly was fifteen years ago because my sister is 19 right now. And somehow here I am again (or still) making stop-motions in my environment, searching for layers of meaning in colorful objects. The persistence of this practice caught me off guard. What am I looking for here? Whose breadcrumbs am I following?
I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.
So now, fifteen years later, here are all the blue things in our house. Not literally all of them because it was a lot of effort just to gather these ones, and certainly not all of the blue things I own because many are in boxes or in storage. But a lot of blue things. I arranged them and photographed them earlier in the week when I should have been napping while the baby was napping while my mom read to D over FaceTime. It felt like a natural thing to do: if I am constantly picking up and sorting toys and dishes and clothes anyway, why not make an installation out of it? So different from that clothing rainbow long ago, mostly in that my possessions have now grown to include a family. A family’s.
So Blue Blue: what am I trying to communicate and what is communicating through me? With a double color, it goes both ways. This week I am mostly desperately grateful not to have communicated viruses to anyone else. But in a longitudinal sense, as an artist, what am I communicating over time? Does everyone have something like this, some thing trying to make itself known through them?
Drifting into my solitude, over my head.
Most of the time I’ve spent isolating and resting in this blue blue peachy beige room has been spent reading (reading!) sci-fi, specifically N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy. Her characters listen to and through an angry Earth. Are colors another way that Earth speaks, and that humans speak to Earth? Color is just one tight band of electromagnetic frequencies when the full spectrum is so much more than what is visible. It’s all information, from radio waves to gamma rays. So what is so special about this particular small set of wavelengths? Is it the color waves that are special or the fact that our eyes are tuned to them? Our human eyes are tuned not just for these colors but for this particular planet, this blue blue planet with its skies and oceans.
There is a huge environmental and even human cost to our colorful objects. The mass-produced ones and their untold (and told) toxicities. But even ones dug from the Earth, the crystals and certainly the gem stones. Hell, even the fresh flowers grown and chilled and flown all over the world. The colorful objects I use to adorn myself and my kids and our environment are themselves symbols of how removed I am from their production and their impact. I am terrified of the power we have in this moment in history to conjure and create pigments. And yet I can’t pull myself away. So I collect. And I photograph.
Don't you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?
What are you here to communicate, and what is communicating through you because you are here?
I felt a pang of recognition as I pulled this card, Black White Red: Transcending the Body. I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to do lately, push myself past the limits of my own energy. I know I am not alone. It’s strange that it’s not more difficult, actually, or that my body wouldn’t speak up more loudly to tell me to pay attention. Maybe it’s just easy to ignore. Maybe we are reinforced to ignore it by a capitalist culture that demands it, where endless grinding is easier than taking care of yourself. Where for many people, taking care of themselves stands in the way of their subsistence.
The Black White series is about interconnectedness, and as the seventh and final color set, its messages are always on a collective, societal, or global scale. Black White is also the ultimate lesson of its accompanying color, which in this case is Red. Red is the body, survival, life.
Are we not currently pushing past the limit of the collective human body, let alone the Earth body? How many bodies are exploited to create luxury and power for the (very) few? How often have colors like Black and white and even red been invoked in this exploitation, as a twisted tool to determine whose bodies are expendable? How often is it people of color and Indigenous people who are stewards of the Earth’s body, using their own bodies and their own lives to defend it?
Right now water protectors are putting their bodies on the line to prevent construction of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline on Ojibwe land in Northern Minnesota. This pipeline is a violation of several treaties, crossing no less than 200 water bodies and 800 wetlands. Line 3 is technically an update to an existing pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Canada to its terminus in Wisconsin at the headwaters of the Mississippi river. Enbridge claims these updates are necessary for safety, but the plan is also expanding the pipeline’s capacity to transport nearly 800,000 barrels of oil a day. As Ojibwe attorney and activist Tara Houska said: “Same risks, same climate impacts, same violations of treaty rights” (Public News Service).
From the Stop Line 3 official website:
“All pipelines spill. Line 3 isn’t about safe transportation of a necessary product, it’s about expansion of a dying tar sands industry. Line 3 would contribute more to climate change than Minnesota’s entire economy. Minnesota’s own Department of Commerce found our local market does not need Line 3 oil. We need to decommission the old Line 3 and justly transition to a renewable, sustainable economy. Line 3 would violate the treaty rights of Anishinaabe peoples and nations in its path—wild rice is a centerpiece of Anishinaabe culture, it grows in numerous watersheds Line 3 seeks to cross. It’s well-past time to end the legacy of theft from and destruction of indigenous peoples and territories.”
Tar sands are possibly the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet. Their extraction decimates Canadian boreal forests, their transportation through pipelines puts waterways and lifeways at existential risk, and actually using them puts more and more carbon in the air. If the impact on the land, water, and people isn’t enough, what about the climate? We should not be building new pipelines at all, we should be decommissioning them.
Black White Red has different cultural meanings around the world, and certainly different meanings in different Indigenous cultures that I am not privy to. I am seeing though that Black White Red is showing up here not only symbolically but also very physically. These stirring black and white and red prints are the work of the Onaman Collective, specifically by its founding artists Isaac Murdoch and Christi Belcourt. They’ve shared the PDFs and JPEGs of their Protest Banner Art for free online, to download and use in support of water and land protection.
There are actions happening around the country. Print out these banners and put them in your window, and best yet screen print more to hand out. Personally, I can’t see multiple image files without thinking “animation,” so I made one. The revolution will not be GIFed, but sometimes GIFs help. You can share this one too, making sure to credit the artists.
Okay, there’s more:
This past weekend, not knowing that I was writing about this, two dear friends gifted D and E the book We Are Water Protectors by Ojibwe author Carole Lindstrom and Tlingit illustrator Michaela Goade. This lushly watercolored childrens’ book tells the story of an Ojibwe girl fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the author’s note, Lindstrom says:
“There is an Anishinaabe prophecy that speaks of two roads: One road is a natural path. It leads to global peace and unity that embraces the sacred relationship between humanity and all living things. On this path, all orders of creation—mineral, plant, animal, human—are relatives deserving of respect and care. We are instructed to use our voices to speak for those who have not been given a voice. On this path there is no ‘black snake.’ The Earth is not damaged, and the grass grows lush and green.
This prophecy, known as the Seven Fires Prophecy, says that if humans choose the natural path, then we will proceed toward peace and unity and a healthy Mother Earth.
The other road is described as a hard-surfaced highway where everything moves faster and faster, at an unimaginable speed. In this path, humans embrace technological advancement with little regard for Mother Earth.
Many Native Nations believe this path is symbolized by the oil pipeline, the ‘black snakes’ that crisscross our lands, bringing destruction and harm. This path leads to a damaged Earth.”
Honestly, when I read Lindstrom’s author’s note my first thought was: it’s too late. The black snake is here in so very many forms, not just oil. The speed on this highway is exponential, and there is no way that the dizzying momentum of technological advancement and perceived material comfort will let us exit. There is no way that financial power will let us exit. What other reason is there to build more pipelines besides profits and power? They can cloak this in the promise of jobs, but those jobs are temporary. When the pipeline is completed those workers will still be struggling and Enbridge will still be thriving. Switching to a natural path that embraces unity with the Earth will take no less than upending whole systems. Stopping this pipeline will chop off the head of one black snake.
But that is how the transformation has already begun. Holding up the dangling body of that snake as well as the waterways and lifeways thriving without is the way to illuminate the new path, or a very old path. Centering Indigenous people and their wisdom and leadership is the way to get off that highway, the only way. Tara Houska says that Indigenous people make up 5% of the world’s population but steward 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Giving Indigenous peoples the power and authority to take care of their land (which is really all of it) is the only hope for humanity, or humanity in any form that we recognize.
Black White Red reminds us that the body is real, that all bodies are connected, that the Earth is a body, and that Water is Life. That all three of those colors have been historically used as tools of exploitation to warp what is real about the body and the collective human body, and that this goes hand in hand with the exploitation of the Earth. That centering the leadership of Indigenous people, of Black people, of people of color is the way to live in balance with the Earth. Again, or for the first time at this massive scale.
Red Purple is bodily wisdom, embodied intelligence. The refrain I keep hearing is that line from Mary Oliver’s very famous “Wild Geese;” maybe you know it:
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Hearing that line makes me physically slump, set my ears back like a rabbit settling into its own fur. It’s sort of like relaxing, but with a pout. A vulnerable, incredulous, pleading pout. Like, please, could it really be that simple? Are you sure, Mary Oliver, that I don’t have to be good? And of course it’s not that simple, when loving what you love can be cause for your murder depending on the particulars of what and where it is. But even so, and maybe especially so, it is so vitally important to remember (again and again) that we are animals made of bodies that are here to love. That’s the baseline: loving is all you have to do. Being is all you have to do, and to let that being be loving.
My grandfather wasn’t familiar with Mary Oliver’s work before I shared it with him. This is notable because at age 96 he is familiar with many, many other things. A voracious reader of periodicals and historical non-fiction, he is also a lover of poetry. He talks about how as a young man he and his friends used to recite poetry aloud to each other as a source of entertainment. I think he also appreciates my love of poetry: he has sent me his copy of Poetry Magazine in the mail every month for over ten years. Maybe fifteen at this point. So at the beginning of the pandemic I sent him a copy of Oliver’s New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press).
He is not an effusive person, but I could tell my grandfather was excited because he called her a “down to earth writer” and asked me to tell him two or three poems he should read. Of course I pointed him toward “Wild Geese” (page 110), “The Summer Day” (page 94, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”), and a third one that I hadn’t encountered before picking up the book but is now perhaps my favorite (page 123, emphasis mine):
breaks from the blue-black
skin of the water, dragging her shell
with its mossy scutes
across the shallows and through the rushes
and over the mudflats, to the uprise,
to the yellow sand,
to dig with her ungainly feet
a nest, and hunker there spewing
her white eggs down
into the darkness, and you think
of her patience, her fortitude,
her determination to complete
what she was born to do—
and then you realize a greater thing—
she doesn’t consider
what she was born to do.
She’s only filled
with an old blind wish.
It isn’t even hers but came to her
in the rain or the soft wind
which is a gate through which her life keeps walking.
She can’t see herself apart from the rest of the world or the world from what she must do every spring.
Crawling up the high hill,
luminous under the sand that has packed against her skin,
she doesn’t dream
she is a part of the pond she lives in,
the tall trees are her children,
the birds that swim above her
are tied to her by an unbreakable string.
I find it hard to articulate the experience of having given birth, or in the case of the turtle, given life. Perhaps it takes place outside of the realm of words. This poem speaks to procreation as a shared animal activity, contextualizing it in a way that doesn’t rarify or fetishize the one doing the spawning but celebrates everyone’s place in it all the same.
When I first started writing this, I wasn’t sure why a soft animal body loving what it loves would make me want to write about my grandfather. He has taught me many things but perhaps none that have to do with that. But what is my relationship with my grandfather if not part of that unbreakable string? As my only living grandparent, a flesh and blood connection to the generations before me that made me what I am?
And yet this turtle is not only connected to her eggs and offspring. She is a part of everything, everything is a part of her. Our connections as bodies on this earth are about so much more than blood. Or maybe it is blood in an expansive sense, that the vast majority of our DNA is shared so closely among so many different kinds of organisms. We are all relatives, we are all kin. There is no reason to see yourself apart from the rest of the world or the world from what we must do.
There is a phrase from a Hebrew prayer that has become an expression: “L’dor v’dor.” It means “from generation to generation.” This concept is a hallmark of Jewish faith and culture, as the primary means of its propagation. You can point to matrilineal blood lines and DNA tests to see if someone “is Jewish,” but the blood is perhaps the least interesting thing about it. In the prayer, the phrase continues “L’dor v’dor nagid godlecha...mipinu lo yamoosh lay’olam va’ed” or “from generation to generation we will tell of your greatness...your praise will never depart from our lips.” Now, we can and should debate who or what that “you” is, but what I love is the emphasis on speech. It’s not about creating more people in a bloodline, it’s about passing down values through what we talk about, through storytelling. It’s about sharing love. If I have learned anything in this pandemic, when blood family is so far away for us, it is the surprising power of intergenerational chosen family.
I’ve been thinking about Ancestor Work lately, how to honor and connect with those that came before me, before us. It’s a bit tricky to know how to engage, but I have heard the advice from practitioners that it’s okay to go slowly. One new pandemic habit I’ve picked up (like so many others) is baking bread, very specifically challah for Friday night, for Shabbat. There is an old custom to take a bit of the dough and throw it in the oven as a burnt offering, following a commandment to offer the first portion of your bread to God. I don’t like the idea of intentionally burning anything in the oven, filling the house with VOCs for tiny lungs. But I like the idea of an offering, and I especially like the idea that it might be an ancestral offering. After finally overcoming the fear that I would be producing weird sacred bread trash that I wouldn’t know how to dispose of, for the last two weeks D and I have made a teeny tiny challah loaf along with our other two loaves and put it outside under a tree next to the sidewalk. It has blessedly disappeared both times. And I am totally fine if that means we are sharing it as an offering with our raccoon relatives.
Speaking of smallish furry animals, let’s talk about bunnies. Why bunnies? Red Purple made me think of Mary Oliver’s soft animal bodies which made me think of bunnies but also made me think of sending a book of poetry to my grandfather which made me think of generations which also made me think of bunnies, specifically the Fibonacci Rabbit Sequence and species proliferating over time. Maybe you know the Rabbit Sequence: one pair of rabbits is born, they reach maturity at one month, and then each subsequent month every mature pair of rabbits has another pair of rabbits. The formula continues on and on forever in the golden string, an unbreakable string: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…
This sequence is beautiful, and also dizzying. Beings creating more beings and more beings, generations and generations spawning like so many viruses, multiplying and proliferating. Red Purple is afterall also survival and intuition. Survival instinct. Where the drive to procreate and proliferate comes from, and maybe how humans have come to build all the things they have built, wanting not only their genes but their memes to live on forever. This is when “l’dor v’dor” is not a comfort to me but a source of anxiety.
But with anxiety often comes awe, and perhaps that is what also draws me to the Fibonacci Sequence, the golden ratio. That encoded in so much DNA is this formula: the unfolding of a fern leaf, the curling of a nautilus shell, patterns of swirlings branches. Another bit of bodily wisdom on a planetary scale. Universal scale?
You may know about my purple plastic rabbit named Rabbit, but what you may not know is that I initially liberated him from a children’s museum display on the Fibonacci Sequence. I carried him around for a few years like you might carry around a small dog, as my pet, as Art. Rabbit was (is?) a gesture to daily evoke the absurd and as living commentary on what I thought must be other people’s relationship to their own pets. In retrospect I think this was reductive, as I now have a deeper firsthand understanding of bonding with a nonverbal dependent. Rabbit is in some ways a body without a mind. But I think I’ve given him a spirit. So here in his honor is a purple rabbit; many, many, purple rabbits.
Red Purple is embodied wisdom. Your wisdom isn’t just in your body, your wisdom is your body. Your human self is your animal self, which is tied to every other animal, plant, mineral self. Where Red Purple could be a separation of mind and body it is indeed reinforcing their very integration. So while we are human, and while we are here on Earth (Space may be different), you have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Orange is my mother’s color, complementing her auburn hair and fair complexion with freckles. At some point in my childhood, orange clothing became more commonly available than it had been in the 80’s, and the orange-buying habit my mom had developed (“buy orange whenever I see it”) led to an orange explosion in her wardrobe. I couldn’t tell whether it was Freudian when, the first time I bought bedsheets and a duvet cover, I went with orange. Maybe it was just a womb thing, for comfort. For sleep. Oh sleep: such a fundamental paradox to check out of a world of reason and into a world of mystery, from light into dark, daily, to be reborn again, anew. Plato’s cave, often a womb metaphor (with orange light reflected onto its walls), guides us from the dark world that seems to make sense into the blinding white light of the outside.
A few years ago, my friend Ilyse asked me to update much of this website (for pay, Ilyse believes in paying artists), and I said yes even though my web-design skills are quite basic. So I have been close to “A Rainbow Squared” for a while now, and throughout that time “Black White” has perplexed me more than any other aspect of this project’s formula. I thought, rainbows are nothing like black-white and why does this rainbow skip the mystical color of “Indigo”? So I shook my head when Ilyse drew this card for me for this week, smiling at the chance to meditate on my discomfort around “blackwhite’s” place on the rainbow (squared). It wasn’t long before I felt quite lucky to have been drawn this card, the 7th week of this sequence, the fourteenth square on the grid (7+7, combining to a nice 777), and so, resting on a bed of orange (which represents “creation” in this project’s symbol structure), I feel nudged to share that I’ve been writing an essay about the dichotomy of light and dark.
To paraphrase it, the story started a decade ago, when I noticed how light and darkness are fundamental to all the cultural symbols I’ve been taught: positive and negative, 1’s and 0’s, existence and non-existence. With light and dark so near the center of my way of making meaning, I’ve been taught to emphasize the visual: when I ask do you “see” what I mean, “seeing” equates with “understanding.” To see is to know, but really? We are called to reinforce this “perspective” (ie, this “bias toward what can be seen”) with the moralizing of “move toward the light,” so that “light,” of course, equates with “good,” and “dark” equates with “evil” or “bad,” the things we fear.
If you don’t already “see” why this vision-based symbol system could be problematic, I’ll spell it out (so you can read it… with your eyes), like this: in a culture where light=good and dark=bad, a culture that knows by seeing, it kind of makes sense why we have such widespread w-h-i-t-e s-u-p-r-e-m-a-c-y. Even though we understand that white is not better than dark, we’re surrounded by innumerable metaphors suggesting otherwise; the primacy of vision is baked into our language, ignoring what cannot be seen. We need to reach beyond the visible if we’re going to create together a culture where all people are treated with dignity. We can tease apart the bonds of light=good and dark=bad, letting go of a system that is not serving us.
There is so much truth that cannot be seen!
And whenever we need to “see it to believe it,”
we lose the invisible, and we lose the dark.
Knock knock, who’s there: Orange you glad to be noticing this?! Dark is not the same as Bad, and Light is not the same as Good! We can grow new connections branching out from this reality! We can understand through feeling, tasting, smelling, and sensing with senses we don’t yet have words for. There’s so much more that we can’t see than what we can see.
And so, I’ve realized this week, the genius of blackwhite’s place in “A Rainbow Squared” is that it makes room for all that’s beyond the rainbow of the visible spectrum of light… And yet! There’s still much to be learned from tuning into specific colors and what they’re saying, via the combos on the grid: all we have to do is turn our heads and look: I shot the photos of this week’s animation within a few feet from where I’m sitting right now, at my desk. An orange box that used to belong to Uta Barth, a black-and-white drawing by Rachel Dwan, a collection of short stories called Octavia’s Brood, co-edited by adrienne maree brown, alongside a tiny photo of Edward Hopper’s home studio, his wife standing next to it. It started as a portrait but Hopper is cropped out so that his wife is no longer in the background of his foreground: her name is Josephine Hopper, a painter and a key player in her husband’s success as an artist (some might have called her support an “invisible force”). I feel lucky to be so near to these things, starting my day next to them.
Anything “in black and white” means text, so while I shot stills it was only necessary that I flip open my copy of Octavia’s Brood, (referring to the pioneering Black science fiction author Octavia Butler) and see what it offered. Chance/fate brought me to a story by Autumn Brown, sister of adrienne maree and co-host of their podcast, How to Survive the End of the World (highly recommended). In the story, a post-collapse society that lives underground (in the dark) is about to “surface” a woman who has committed a crime. Surfacing is their mode of capital punishment, since no one survives there, but [spoiler alert] the woman’s mother gives her an ancient bag of supplies (“It is the color I have always imagined the sunset would be”) so that when she is thrust into the light, she might live.
Orange, Black, and White, imagining a new kind of future together, with Octavia Butler as our guide. Let’s all stretch out from the rainbow of light, into the great unseen.
“Wherever we go, is there a way to get home?” D asked me while walking back from the playground.
“Oh wow,” I said. “That is a deep question.” I repeated it to myself out loud a couple times: “Wherever we go is there a way to get home…?”
I mean, the answer is a definite no. Right? As an example she might understand, I brought up Elsa’s ill-fated journey to a mystical glacier in the movie Frozen II. But as D pointed out (spoiler alert), Elsa does ultimately come back.
Wherever we go is there a way to get home? Who is we? What is home? Usually people don’t intend to get lost. But there are certainly trips that people embark on and never return from, like an accidental drive off of a cliff, or a poorly-timed flight in a small aircraft. Or just this week, going to work as an Asian woman at a massage parlor. Or going to the grocery store.
Yes, you can get lost forever easily, all too stupidly easily. But maybe it isn’t the victims who are lost. Their lives were taken, not misplaced. It’s the murderers who lost their minds. Lost it how though? To what? To pain? To loneliness? To late-capitalist colonialist white supremacist patriarchy?
What does it really mean to lose your mind?
What does it mean to have a mind?
I guess that’s the question I was already wrestling with this week. I told Will Rogers (you might remember him from last week, Orange Black White) that this week was Purple Yellow, and that I was thinking about mind power. In response, he forwarded me our mutual friend Bradley Heinz’s thesis. Now, normally someone’s 70-page graduate school thesis written to satisfy degree requirements in medicine might not make for accessible reading, but when it comes to Rainbow Squared I take any of the universe’s bids for my attention seriously. And as it turns out, this was a great bid.
On Medicine, Mind, and Metaphysics: The Placebo Effect and The Hard Problem of Consciousness talks about mind power indeed. In it Bradley argues for a post-materialist scientific paradigm. I didn’t know what that meant before I read it, but to sum it up (hopefully without botching it), modern science operates in a materialist framework, in which everything in the universe is made of matter. The scope of a materialist framework is limited to what can be measured, which limits what is considered “real” only to the physical. This poses a problem when it comes to entities like the human mind or consciousness. As Bradley poses (emphasis mine):
If a computer were an apt metaphor for the mind-brain, a materialist study would aptly describe wires and logic boards and encasements, but would have no reference to an “internet” or “cloud,” core features of today’s technologies. As these various schools of thought within cognitive neuroscience have evolved and provided new theories of mind that try to explain how the brain produces consciousness, is it possible the field is making a clear logical fallacy? Is it possible we are mixing up or assuming a relationship of causation when all the evidence we have merely points to correlation? What if consciousness wasn’t produced by the brain at all, yet instead exists as an independent entity from the brain, and perhaps all of matter?
And it’s not that any of this can’t be studied. It can and it has. But rather than letting data speak when it comes to phenomenon that might point to an expanded understanding of consciousness—like near-death experiences, clairvoyance, or even accounts of past lives—modern science shuts down potential discussion before it starts, rendering it pseudoscience. See where that bias may be coming up for you even right now, before looking at the data.
The potential implications here are huge and far reaching, in the medical field and beyond. Bradley again (emphasis also mine):
Operating under the belief that the only “real” thing in the world is matter, that life is nothing more than a complex arrangement of constituent tiny dead parts, the universe could appear as a cold, lifeless accident, devoid of purpose, intention, or direction. It is plausible to consider links between this hegemonic scientific worldview and the state of the world. If collectively we believed in and our institutions operated under a post-materialist framework, could we continue to objectify and desecrate our natural world for profit? Would we be able to continue funding aggressive wars and military occupations of foreign lands for imperialist gain? Would we continue to register record levels of disaffection, despair, and even suicide?
Could we (please) be on the precipice of a paradigm shift here?
Oh there is so much more here to say about this, about everything, that I did say, that I deleted, that I had to delete. It’s just not in my scope this week or next or perhaps any time before my kids are in school ever again to write an essay about the spiritual ramifications of medical epistemology, let alone mass shootings. But the feelings are there, so many of them, trying so hard to come out as words.
I snuck away to my computer to write early the other morning. When I came back in the room, I was immediately stopped by little E pleading “Chair! Chair!” begging me to sit down with him so he could nurse. As I sat, I talked through the open door to Justin in the kitchen. I told him how no matter my initial intentions when writing, it never seems possible to just say something simple.
“Thum-puh,” E tried to repeat after me, pulling off of my nipple suddenly to say so. He latched back on to nurse some more, and then pulled back off to try to repeat the word again. “Sum-puh.” Then latched again, pulled off again. This is not the most comfortable sensation. But he kept trying until he got it. “Sim-poo. Sim-ple!” E locked eyes with mine, brimming with pride and seeking recognition. I think. Or maybe he was trying to tell me something, trying to have me get it, that he gets it. Simple.
Simple. Simple. Tell me, child, is anything ever? I can’t know what your cognitive experience is, but I bet I romanticize it as more simple than it actually is. Right now your mind is filtering and sorting so much, learning to assign language to your environment, learning to tell your mouth to make sounds that make sense to other people. The things I will need to tell you with words will certainly get more complex over time, as it already is with your sister. How to explain the inexplicable? How to explain the inexcusable?
Purple is the mind, consciousness, awareness, wisdom. Yellow is power and saying yes. Mind power. More than we can ever hope to understand. Maybe even mystical power, higher power, or mystical yes, admitting that there are things going on that we don’t and won’t understand. That we can’t understand how reality works, let alone how the mind works, or how the two are linked. We don’t even understand what the mind is, so how could we ever understand why it does what it does?
But how could we ever stop trying?
For at least as long as the pandemic has been going on, D has made “potions.” It probably started earlier than that, but I remember it mostly in the context of our many (many) hours together on walks (what else is there to do?). These potions mostly or entirely consist of foraged plant matter, leaves and flowers ripped up and put in some sort of vessel. It’s been a learning process for both of us, negotiating about which plants she can touch and which she should leave alone, learning to pick flowers only when there will be many still left.
We were outside together this week just the two of us, somewhat of a rarity. Of course she wanted to make potions. Somehow she located a cinderblock and declared it the perfect container: “You can have that side, and I’ll have this side!!”
D filled hers with what she considered a wide array of flowers and leaves. This week being Green Green, I filled mine only with green things. She declared this boring, and not very magical. She didn’t really buy it when I told her that colors are my magic.
“My potion is for healing people and creatures, what’s yours for?” she asked me.
“Hmm...I suppose mine is for healing hearts,” I said.
I mean, healing hearts is a tall order, right? Isn’t that the start of healing people and creatures? I didn’t feel like going down that rabbit hole with her, so we just sat making potions. Eventually though, I couldn't help it. I pulled out my phone to take pictures.
“Mom, you aren’t doing as much as I expected you to do. Just taking pictures,” she complained.
Sure. But isn’t making animations part of my magic too? Isn’t taking pictures a form of devotion? Of signaling to the universe what you want, what you love, what is yours, what is you?
Apparently I generated 26,606 images on my phone in 2020 alone. That’s an average of 70 a day. Many of them are duplicates to create stills for animations, or drafts of animations, or multiple file types. My phone is my studio, after all. But 26,606 is still a lot. And a lot of those are photographs of my children.
Now, I’m not taking the photos for social media. I try not to share the kids’ faces there or much of anything else besides my own art. I take many of the photos to share directly with loved ones and family far away. But a lot I take almost reflexively, as a means to mark and try to hold a moment.
Now that I have a second child, I feel acutely how much the little moments slip through the cracks. How much we already don’t remember about D’s babyhood. “We won’t remember this,” is something Justin and I say often to each other incredulously when something small and wonderful happens: a funny pronunciation of a word, or being led to look at something by an impossibly small hand. Maybe it’s a way of simultaneously celebrating it and releasing attachment. The gesture of taking photos might be an opposite gesture, one of grasping, of capturing. Pulling out the phone to take a picture is still a celebration though: it says “This. I love this. I appreciate this.”
But pulling out the phone also disrupts the very moment it is trying to capture. Does photographing it mean I get to hold on to it somehow? To keep it? Or do the photographs replace the memories, become the only memories?
I can claim that taking pictures is part of my magic, but it doesn’t seem to pass muster with this four-year-old. She sees it for what it is: a separation from being with her in the present moment.
Just about any symbol set could be used as a tool to notice and sanctify connections in your life and environment. I mostly embrace my Jewish heritage and its rituals and symbols. Lately, I have also chosen color. These are not mutually exclusive, and in fact may inform each other. You could also really use almost anything: numbers, letters, cards, stars, tea leaves, bones, conversations. I wonder then whether the meaning I derive from color arises from my own associations over time or objective classifications arising from the nature of the colors themselves. Probably both.
But what happens when you switch systems of meaning entirely, using the same symbols but with different meanings?
This week is Passover, or Pesach, the Jewish holiday celebrating the passage from bondage into freedom and the perpetual struggle for collective liberation. Passover is also the Festival of Spring: at the ritual Seder meal we symbolize this by placing a green leafy vegetable on the Seder plate, often parsley. This green vegetable is called “karpas” and it has its own blessing.
So drawing Green Green this week immediately evoked Passover for me. I even made sure to include parsley in that backyard potion. But this week, and the next seven weeks, the colors are going even deeper than that.
There is a 50-day period between Passover and the next Jewish holiday of Shavuot. If Passover is about becoming free, Shavuot is about receiving the Torah, or the means to living a righteous life. These are also each agricultural holidays: two out of the three harvest festivals during the year, when Jews would take their first harvest to the Temple, the other one happening in the Fall with Sukkot.
On the second day of Passover, an offering of an “omer” of the first barley harvest was taken to the temple, where the priest would use it in a “wave offering,” waving it in the six directions: north, south, east, west, up, and down. Only then could that year’s barley harvest be eaten.From that day on, it is commanded to count 49 days until the 50th day of Shavuot, when Jews would bring the wheat harvest to the temple. This is called Counting the Omer. This entails, well, counting. Literally. Every night (on the Hebrew calendars, days start at sundown instead of at midnight) you say a series of blessings and you count, like so:
“Today is Day One of the Omer.”
“Today is Two Days of the Omer.”
On and on until:
“Today is Forty-Eight Days, which are Six Weeks and Six Days of the Omer.”
“Today is Forty-Nine Days, which are Seven Weeks of the Omer.”
It doesn’t stop with numbers or the harvest. If Passover celebrates going from slavery to freedom, there was still so much healing for the Israelites to do before they were ready to recieve the Torah on Shavout. So these 49 days become a sort of spiritual healing program, following a 7 x7 grid of holy attributes, or sephirot in the Tree of Life of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Each week has an overarching attribute, and each day pairs it with one of the other attributes, cycling in a 7 x7 grid, like so:
Yes, this is basically like a 49-day sprint of Rainbow Squared. Or perhaps more accurately, Rainbow Squared is like a 49-week marathon of Counting the Omer.
I’m still processing the similarities here, which are staggering. I knew about Counting the Omer, but I didn’t really know about the attribute matrix, and I certainly had never seen it represented in colors. In that way, it did not consciously influence the Rainbow Squared grid, which I really conceived as a formula for artistic discipline. It is perhaps no accident though that these last five years has brought my practice closer to this Jewish practice.
So this year, for the first time, I am counting the omer. It is a commitment, but I like those. And I am not doing it alone: while each night blessings are done on my own, I am engaging biweekly with a creative cohort called “A New Gift” who is doing the same.
While I am in this 49-day process within my otherwise 49-week cycle, I’m going to think about each week’s overarching attribute and how they relate to colors. These attributes are hard to translate, and every source seems to have a different take. They each also have multiple meanings. The attributes or sephirot go as follows:
Week 1: Chesed - Lovingkindness, Unconditional Love, Grace, Mercy
Week 2: Gevurah - Strength, Judgment, Boundaries
Week 3: Tiferet - Harmony, Balance, Beauty
Week 4: Netzach - Eternity, Endurance, Dedication, Ambition
Week 5: Hod - Splendor, Awe, Humility, Acceptance, Order
Week 6: Yesod - Foundation, Creativity, Bonding, Sexuality
Week 7: Malchut (Shekhinah) - Divine Presence, Physical Reality, Manifestation, Leadership
So how do colors fit into this?
There are just as many color associations as there are meanings of each of these individual sephirot. In some systems, the colors are determined one by one, and in others they follow a certain rainbow order. The grid above uses the colors determined by Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, or Reb Zalman, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, as laid out in his rainbow tallit design.
In Rainbow Squared, Green Green is the very center of the grid: the middle of the journey, or perhaps the core from which all things emanate. Its significance is love, family, plants, Earth, opening your heart and living from it.
I think that Green might be a pretty good match for Chesed, the attribute for this first week of the Omer count. Green Green is where I have always located unconditional love and connection to the Earth. Chesed is also unconditional love, its full week always showing up right at the start of the festival of spring. The cycle of plant growth is connected to our ability to love unconditionally, its own kind of bursting into bloom, into what Taya Mâ Shere and Nomy Lamm call “heart expansion.”
It’s also no accident that love, grace, and mercy would be where we start the journey away from slavery into freedom. Slavery is an old story, but it isn’t over. Here is the United States we are still living daily in the deep effects of slavery, with a long, long road of repair ahead (one step on that journey may be passing H.R. 40). And there are so many people still enslaved today around the world. Some in ways that are abhorrent and easy to renounce though hard to see like sex trafficking. Some in ways we don’t often acknowledge or accept like the oppression of the many unseen people behind the creation and distribution of the goods we all think we depend on, who have no choice but to submit their lives to this cause
Chesed means seeing beyond the self, opening your heart until you can no longer tune out the suffering of others, especially when you might personally benefit from it.
Color it green, color it purple. Call it love, call it lovingkindness. Let us this year call it collective liberation, every year and every day until it’s true.
That’s what my Pesach potion is about.
Each week I draw a card from my Rainbow Squared deck to determine that week’s colors. At the same time I also draw a Tarot card, and this week I drew the Page of Swords. In the Tarot deck I use—the Prisma Visions deck by James R. Eads—each suit of the minor arcana cards is a contiguous panorama when you lay them out start to finish. In the Page of Swords, the figure is finally vanquishing a giant bird beast that has been terrorizing the previous cards. With one casual swing of the sword, the beast bursts into butterflies. Monarch butterflies.
In Tarot, swords are the suit of the element of air, which is thought and intellect, the life of the mind. So often what we think is an insurmountable, terrible thing can be addressed by starting with the mind, dismissed like so many butterflies. And sometimes what we think is no big deal is actually a swarm.
I’d been thinking about butterflies and violence after reading a passage in the 2010 book Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy, written by the infamous artist filmmaker author healer and master of Tarot himself, Alejandro Jodorowsky. If Purple is the mind and also magic and Red is the body, then Purple Red may be the perfect color for what Jodorowsky calls “Psychomagic:” the ability to heal oneself through ritual performance. Jodorowsky describes a psychomagician as less of a shaman or doctor than an adviser in helping the patient to be their own healer through poetic acts. In Psychomagic, written in interview format, Jodorowsky describes an incident from his youth in Chile that helped him to understand the nature of the poetic act:
The poetic act allows for expressing energies that are normally repressed or asleep inside us. The unconscious act is an open door to vandalism, to violence. When the crowds erupt into violence, when the demonstration deteriorates and the people begin to set cars on fire or throw rocks, it is also about a liberation of repressed energies. For this reason, acts of violence do not merit the title poetic act.
Were you and your friends conscious of this?
We ended up being so, after observing some dangerous acts perpetrated by hot-tempered individuals. These experiences shook us up and made us question ourselves seriously. A Japanese haiku provided a key for us. A student brought the master his poem, which stated:
take away the wings
and it turns into a pepper!
The master’s response was immediate: “No, no; it is not like that. Let me correct your poem:”
and it turns into a butterfly!
The lesson here is clear: the poetic act must always be positive; it must be constructive and not destructive.
The poetic act. Using your body to conjure poetry into the physical realm, out of the mind and into real time and space. Perhaps it is in this way that poetry, art, and spirituality can intertwine as ritual. An act not to be undertaken lightly or confused for the unconscious act, otherwise the result can be literally disastrous. Don’t pluck wings off of butterflies, give wings to peppers.
Anyone can perform a poetic act, deliberately setting the bounds for a ritual and even its desired effects. But I would say that what gives the poetic act its poetry is not only the author’s intention but the way that life intervenes and even collaborates. The way that life presents elements and circumstances you never could have planned or anticipated.
See, I wrote the above about butterflies and Jodorowsky’s book on Monday, April 5th, and spent that evening making images of a pepper and a monarch butterfly.
Then this is what happened on Tuesday, April 6th. That day was Day 9 of the Omer: Gevurah she’b’Gevurah. Strength within Strength. Justice within Justice. Blue within Blue.
I took the kids on a walk around 11am to a playground. Usually we get out the door way earlier, so everyone felt a little on edge. Or maybe I just felt a little on edge. I let E walk on his own, so the five block journey took half an hour as he examined every fallen berry. Once we finally got to the playground it was so close to lunchtime that there was no one else there, so we took our masks off. D was playing with little stacking cups in the sand as I watched E gleefully bound back and forth across a rickety bridge. Then D called out:
“Pretend that you have two babies and you are watching one of the babies and you made a perfect cake and you didn’t notice that the other baby was about to ruin the perfect cake.”
It was a pretty specific request, so I went along with it. I locked my eyes on E and cooed at him loudly, deliberately not looking while D dumped out a blue cup she had carefully packed with sand and fennel. “Oh noooo!” I play-acted, “My perfect cake is ruined! And I worked so hard on it!”
D laughed with glee. I wondered to myself how E must perceive the play, how he can probably tell the difference between when I am pretending to be mad and when I am really mad.
Then D asked to play the game again, where I pay attention to one baby but not to the other. So I resumed watching E on the play structure. Then I heard her right behind me: “Hey, mama!”
I turned around to look and was immediately clocked in the face with that blue cup, my mouth filled with gritty, filthy, playground sand.
Now I actually was mad. My whole body tensed, but I controlled my reaction into pent rage and stunned silence. D immediately bolted away and hid under a different structure.
She hid there for a long time. I spat clumps of sand into the bushes, finally taking a swig off the kiddie water bottle to swish and spit that out too (so much for keeping my germs isolated at the playground). Then I sat on a bench and waited in silence. Eventually D got up and ran closer to me, climbing on a ladder and artfully avoiding eye contact.
“Do you want to tell me what just happened?” I asked.
We got to the very first street corner, and that’s when we saw it on the sidewalk. A butterfly. A monarch butterfly. A dying monarch butterfly, sitting there on the pavement with its tattered wings up.
We stood there transfixed for a minute. This would be a notable encounter even if I hadn’t spent the night before making weird graphics about monarch butterfly peppers. And it was certainly magical for a child either way. We decided we wanted to help the butterfly, to bring it home to try to give it water or milkweed or something, or put it out of its misery, or just to examine it more closely. We looked for something like a stick to carry it on, and then I remembered the tiny cups in my backpack. I picked up the one it would fit in, the blue one, and put it in.
We walked home holding that orange butterfly in the blue cup. It kept moving, not just the wind flapping its wings but voluntary movements of its legs and head. Its body looked chewed or something. I couldn’t believe this little butterfly was still alive. I couldn’t believe any of it, that we were carrying it home in the blue cup, blue for Gevurah.
Gevurah is strength and justice and probably in its unchecked state what I would associate closest with violence. Not an association I had with Blue in my color work before, but one that was always there and is there for so many people, of course. Carrying a dying butterfly in the blue cup that my willful daughter had chucked at my face in some sort of demonstration of sibling resentment. Her own poetic act. Or was it an unconscious act? Don’t we need violence sometimes to speak truth to power? D showed me her fierceness, and I showed her mine back, though doing it fairly. I think.
What is this metaphor? Who or what is the butterfly here? And this cup, a weapon then used as a shelter?
Is this a poetic act?
There are just so many butterfly metaphors here. They are magical beings themselves, worms that turn themselves into goo and grow wings. Faith. Transcendence. Transformation. Beauty. I saw a stupid meme recently saying something like: “Butterflies: now there are bugs for girls!” The next time I saw a butterfly I imagined what might make a butterfly scary. What if there were a plague of butterflies? In the Passover story, two of the Ten Plagues are insects: Lice and Locusts. Could you ever have enough butterflies that it would be horrifying, debilitating? How many would that have to be?
Gevurah. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Wings may turn a pepper into a butterfly but only violence turns the butterfly back into a pepper, not even back into a caterpillar, but something broken. The poetic act must never be violent, must never be destructive.
It was wild to watch that butterfly die slowly. To be witness to it and then suddenly and inescapably party to it. When we got it home it had no interest in our water, of course. But there it was. I was so transfixed by the moment, I couldn’t think to do anything else but take pictures. If I couldn’t make it survive and I couldn’t bring myself to kill it, at least I could turn it into Art. But is that an act of violence too?
I forgot how to say “butterfly” in Hebrew so I just looked it up. Are you ready? Butterfly is “par-par.” Parpar. It sounds wildly close to “pepper,” huh? It even sounds wildly close to pepper in Hebrew, which is “peel-pel.” These words are almost identical when they are written out: פַּרְפַּר and פִּלְפֵּל
That connection floored me, but maybe it’s arbitrary. Butterflies and peppers: what does it mean? I mean, maybe there are just semantic threads connecting all things if you look for them. But isn’t that stunning in and of itself?
Purple stands for magic, for woo woo, so it seems Purple tries to demonstrate this by going a little extra with the synchronicities. The last Purple this year, Purple Yellow, sent me on a wild goose chase of lemon references that hasn’t even ended yet. This time it’s butterflies.
Is this project a poetic act then? Maybe it’s poetic infrastructure, a framework for poetic acts. Or maybe I am just crazily chronicling patterns, spattering them out to anyone who will listen.
I think there is something else here though, something more about life itself as poetry. I’ve always talked about Life as Art, but maybe Poetry is more precise. You just have to pay attention to find the rhymes. I just have to write them down to understand them.
In this way, the act of writing itself can be a poetic act. Writing is not merely a means to create poetry, but also a way to conjure it. Something happens between the spaces of living and writing. To do both regularly is to make more poetry happen to you.
Purple is the mind and Red is the body. The two together make poetry manifest.
May our actions be just and balanced; tempered by poetry, not violence. May our collective poetic acts be a kaleidoscope and not a swarm.
Red Red is the first color in the Rainbow Squared cycle. It always means the beginning of a cycle, the beginning of cycles. When Red Red shows up, I pay attention.
This one came at the beginning of a few other cycles for me. It came on the first day of my menstrual cycle, which is also Red. It came with the new moon, and in particular the new moon in Aries, the first new moon of the astrological year. This new moon like any new moon was also the beginning of a Hebrew month, the month of Iyar. Red Red also came the day after my first vaccine, the start of a new cycle of re-entry back into the world, or back into a world, anyway.
So maybe this is a time to start over here. To reorient the way I make these pieces, which have taken over nearly every minute of my free time, after the kids go to sleep and before they wake up and sometimes while one is napping. These pieces also consume what I think about in between. Each Rainbow Squared piece is its own little research project, its own little puzzle. And I love it. I love seeing the way the elements show up in my world and figuring out how they fit together. I even like letting myself be driven by creative obsession. I feel intensely motivated. But other things in my life are falling by the wayside, including my own sleep.
So it is perhaps time to bound my time here. I still don’t know what that means and I certainly didn’t do it this week, but maybe I can start to loosen my grip a little here. Bring this back to something closer to poetry, maybe more like stream of consciousness. I don’t even know if that will make these shorter; it’s actually the editing process that takes the most time. I am in some ways a maximalist: all the colors, all the photos, all the words. I work like a sculptor shaping a bust from a giant slab, rather than a painter building up a canvas mark by mark. But I suppose in this case I am also building the slab, sentence by sentence, frame by frame. And then editing them down again. Expansion. Contraction.
Which brings us back to Red Red. Beginning Beginning. Let’s talk about the beginning of a beginning, then. The Torah begins with Genesis which begins with this sentence: “Bereishit barah elohim et ha’shamayim v’et ha’aretz.”
The traditional translation is: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But the Hebrew word for “the” is “ha.” Both “heavens” and “earth” have a “the” before them in the Hebrew. But “beginning” doesn’t have a “the.” The word “Bereishit” then could be translated into something closer to “In a beginning,” not necessarily “the” beginning. It is a story afterall, and perhaps the authors of the Torah were calling it as much.
The beginning is still happening. The beginnings, so many interlocking cycles in perhaps multiple simultaneous streams of time. There is no “the” beginning.
This week I heard the Kabbalistic take on the Creation Story from Elana June Margolis, in my creative cohort for counting the Omer. I can’t totally reproduce it so I won’t try, but I will take some of the threads and weave it into my narrative here. And maybe even link it back to Red Red and the harmony of the universe that we are experiencing this week with Tiferet. (For more on counting the Omer, see Year 5 Green Green.)
In the beginning, in a beginning, or rather before the beginning, there was Everything. There was also Nothing. Everything was everything. No differentiation, everything a part of everything else. There wasn’t even an “everything else,” just everything. This Everything has since been given a name: Ein Sof, or “(There Is) No End,” “The Endless One.”
Eventually (what is time?) this everything had a longing, a fierce longing to create. In order to create something different from itself, the Everything had to make room. The Everything had to contract. This contraction also has a name: Tzimtzum. The Everything took its divine light and shrunk it infinitesimally. Then it exploded, shattered, divine light breaking into so many particles and waves and the spaces between those particles and waves, expanding again, infinitely. An expansion that is still taking place. A constant becoming.
The Everything is still in the process of differentiating itself into these divine sparks, turning itself into everything around you. Turning itself into you, in every moment.
Still, the sages say that these divine sparks are scattered, and it is up to us to bring them back together. But what if the sparks aren’t actually separate, and never were?
What if those sparks, like the light they are, were more like a spectrum? And all of us one flowing mass of particles with varying amounts of space between, all different points on that spectrum?
Humans have given names to the light we can see, called them “colors.” Isaac Newton canonized them as the Visible Spectrum, differentiating and designating bands of wavelengths as Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. But it’s really a continuum.
And even that visible spectrum is just one part of the whole Electromagnetic Spectrum. What we call “color” sits within a tight range of 740-400nm in wavelength, just 300nm when the full electromagnetic spectrum spans infinitely in both directions. There are longer wavelengths before “red,” before infrared, what we experience as heat. There are shorter wavelengths after “violet,” after ultraviolet, what emanates from the sun. And beyond. You’ve probably seen a chart like this, the waves we recognize as radio waves, television waves, cellular waves, internet waves, microwaves, thermal waves, visible light, sunshine, x-rays, gamma rays. All waves and particles pulsing around us, through us.
In this way there is light all around us, all the time, some it visible to us, some of it not. Light and information. So much information and always increasingly more, particles and waves taking up space in the otherwise mostly empty air. More than your eyes can sense. But not as much more than some other animals can sense.
Some migratory animals, including birds, fish, butterflies, and bees, seem to have a sixth sense that allows them to distinguish north from south. This sense may be a sort of magnetic vision based on a protein found in the retina called cryptochrome. “Crypto” as in secret and “chrome” as in color. This means that north and south actually may look different to these animals. And the electromagnetic waves of human activity might alter how these animals perceive them.
What other colors are we bathing in all the time? If other animals use senses we don’t have to navigate, how could they not sense this giant web of information we’re laying across the earth, across the sky, across the heavens and the earth? And what might it be doing to our own bodies?
The Cloud as we call it is also part of the electromagnetic spectrum. In this way, The Cloud is also a rainbow. Just like everything. Just like you. You are the bird. You are the cloud. You are The Cloud.
All waves, all particles. Reflecting light, absorbing light, emitting light. Points on a spectrum.
This is Week Three of the Omer: the sephirah of Tiferet. Tiferet is harmony, balance, beauty. The perfection of the cosmos, of the Everything. Tiferet is the boundless love of Chesed (the sephirah of Week One) coming up against the boundaries of Gevurah (the sephirah of Week Two), both shaping each other into the world we see.
Tiferet is Green, which is Red’s complement. Green is also what Red looks like to some human eyes that we call “colorblind,” including all three of my brothers and what I suspect might be my toddler son.
Mapping the sephirot to the body, Tiferet is the heart, sitting underneath and between Chesed and Gevurah. The harmony of the universe is the very heart pumping life through it, pumping blood through it. Red blood. Red, red blood.
Maybe in the beginning, in a beginning, this first contraction of the universe was not unlike a uterine contraction. God’s own uterus squeezing to let the universe flow out, not so much as birth but as blood. God’s menstruation, the destruction that makes future creation possible.
There is more than one kind of bloodshed though.
Some blood we give and give freely, give cyclically, give as a sign of life.
Some blood is taken. Taken by guns that pierce the boundaries of skin to draw it. Taken by police claiming to make fatal mistakes with Black lives, or shooting children who are following their directions. Taken by crazed men unleashing automatic weapons on masses of people.
Guns are the ultimate tool of separation.
We are all connected, we are all one. Sure. But our boundaries of flesh keep our lives intact, as brief as they are.
This cycle of gun violence keeps starting and restarting again and again, shooting after shooting.
This is not the Red Red I wanted to end on here. This is not the Red Red we have asked for.
Please, Everything, Nothing, God: make these cycles of shootings stop.
If only that worked.
Last week’s colors were the first pair in the system, 1. Red Red. This week we’ve jumped clear to the end with 48. Black White Purple. If Red Red had me thinking about the beginning of cycles and Infrared, this one immediately stirred up the end of cycles and Ultraviolet. Going from 1 to 48 initially induced a bit of whiplash, but ultimately I saw it as a continuation, the two together creating a container. There is a theme here of totality, of everythingness, of spectrums, of the whole spectrum.
The other night D was asking a string of “why” questions, in typical kid fashion. Most were pretty rooted in daily life, until out of nowhere she said:
“What is The Universe?”
Well. That’s a term that gets tossed around casually, blurring the scientific and the spiritual. I didn’t really know what context she had heard it in, so I fumbled through a long explanation:
“You know how we live in a city? And that city is in California? And California is in a country, the United States? And the United States is in a continent, North America? And North America is on Planet Earth? And Planet Earth is part of a solar system, with other planets like Mars and Jupiter and Saturn all going around the Sun? And the Sun is a star among all the other stars in the sky that might have their own solar systems? And all those stars are in space? The universe is all of the things in all of space together. The Universe is all of the things that exist, from super big and far away to super close and tiny, like all the cells in your body. The Universe is everything.”
“Oh,” she replied. Then simply: “I think that The Universe is magical outer space.”
The Universe is Magical Outer Space. I mean, that is certainly the way many people use the word.
I use the term “The Universe” pretty liberally myself. I suppose it has filled a hole in my speech where the word “God” used to be. I’ve moved away from evoking the idea of a god as God for many reasons, yet that doesn’t change my need to reference or communicate with a spiritual entity outside of myself. And somehow that spirit does feel like an amalgamation of all things, rendered sentient.
So what is it about the concept of totality that makes it seem holy? How is it that everything that exists when in aggregate is suddenly magical? Or even stranger, how is it that everything that exists would have some sort of authority as a unit?
I’m working on allowing the word “God” back into my speech. Or at least not censoring it. Not because it fits my personal ontology: it doesn’t. But it is starting to feel more restrictive not to use it. I have a more pronounced struggle with this in Hebrew actually, where the unutterable, unpronounceable name of God is most often said as “Adonai,” which translates to “My Lord.” Lord, Master, King: these terms of patriarchal power do not gel with my concept of divinity. But I am quite used to this word “Adonai,” and alternatives like “Ruach” for “Spirit” often feel paltry. “The Universe” doesn’t feel quite right either.
Maybe this problem exists by design: how could true holiness have a name? Could we just refer to it as The Everything? Maybe it is the Kabbalistic “Ein Sof” that I actually resonate with most: “(There Is) No End.” But my initial question remains: what makes Everything holy? Its ineffable oneness? Its boundlessness? Both?
I remember being a kid and having someone try to explain to me that God was everywhere and in everything. “You mean God is in this hamburger? You mean I am EATING GOD??”
All of the Purples evoke the concept of consciousness and its source on an individual level. So perhaps Black White Purple—the ultimate Purple, the penultimate Rainbow Squared color combination—would have us consider a collective consciousness, a collective intelligence. Not just on a human scale, or even a planetary or galactic scale, but a universal scale. A multiversal scale, even.
This is Week Four of the Omer: Netzach, meaning Endurance, Dedication, Eternity. How holiness transcends even the incomprehensible expanse of time. According to Reb Zalman’s system, Netzach is the color Yellow. Conveniently, Yellow is the complementary color of Purple. Together they are the power of consciousness. Perhaps the power of infinity. (For more on counting the Omer, see Year 5 Green Green.)
Blessed are you, The Everything, the Magical Outer Space in which, of which, and for which all particles shimmy eternal as one.
I’ve always thought of Yellow Green as the Power of Love. This time around I am wondering about the ways that it is Power and Love. If changing that preposition to a conjunction doesn’t seem like enough of a difference, we can also call it Love within Power.
Power reveals the ways that even Love can be a privilege. Sure: “can’t buy me love!” or “money can’t buy happiness.” But in reality—or in 2021 anyway—happiness is quite correlated with money. I would guess that access to giving and receiving love is supported by a certain baseline of financial security. Or maybe the Green we are talking about here isn’t just Love, it is also Money. So we can talk about Power and Love, and we can also talk about the Power of Money.
Love and loving have always come easily to me. I have many other hang-ups to be sure, but for the most part, I have always been surrounded by people who love me and who I love readily in return. We can chalk this up to many factors. One may be the relative ease and security of most of the adults around me as a child, that no one was truly struggling to stay afloat financially or even in their mental health. For all of their own hang-ups, I still had adults in my life that were able to give me attention, affirmation, and affection. As I moved into young adult life, this also meant I had a financial safety net to go along with that emotional support. Does this mean that these things are necessary or even guaranteed to produce a loving, happy adult? Of course not. But it certainly fucking helps.
I hurt someone recently. Or someone felt hurt by their interpretation of my cumulative actions and after a while the whole relationship just imploded. It’s super complicated, and not something I am going to unpack here. While there are many misperceptions that lead us to this moment, there are also some real dynamics that likely extend beyond the relationship in question. Including the ways I can take love and even financial support for granted because I have always had them. So I am chewing on that.
Another quality of love’s power is how fiercely it can spin out into hate. Just like there are many kinds of love, there are many kinds of hate. The kind of hate that is spawned by love stings like hell. But if you are able to somehow grip that hate from just the right angle, you can get outside of it enough to regard it. And maybe stare down the sting of that hate until it turns to grief. Then mourning, then maybe release, and then maybe peace.
Whether you are the one feeling or receiving that hate-love, the only way to move through it is to surrender. Feel what you are feeling. Accept what you have done, what they have done, what you can’t change. Be present. Be grateful. Be.
Which brings us to counting the Omer. This is Week Four: the sephirah of Hod. Hod is interpreted many ways, including surrender, acceptance, presence, submission. And also splendor, radiance. Hod is the counterpart to last week’s sephirah, Netzach. If Netzach is about endurance, Hod balances that with surrender. If Netzach is about eternity, then Hod is about revelation, fleeting as it may be.
Hod is also about humility and gratitude. Accepting your smallness, and also accepting the ways you have missed the mark. Not needing to be right or even righteous, just accepting your role and showing up to it. This paves the way for gratitude, for your place in the universe.
Hod is Orange. Orange is also about many things, including gratitude and compassion. If I were doing Rainbow Squared in order, each color would show up somewhere in the combination at least once every seven pieces. This time, following an emergent order, Orange has shown up only once in soon-to-be fourteen pieces, and it was the one I didn’t make.
So I welcome Hod this week, the warm glowing presence of Orange. The full moon was a chance to light stuff on fire and cry, to talk to the moon like it was a portal to a once-loved one’s ear, mind, heart. To share gratitude that they will perhaps refuse to hear but might feel. And surrender to the fact that it is time to let go.
Below is a practice that helps me surrender. I’ve actually already shared this; it was part of my very first piece this year, Green Yellow. It is the meditation that I do to get present for this work, for Rainbow Squared. I realized after I shared it that what I wrote was actually a little different from how I practice it. Which is fine: everything is interpretive, meditate however you want. But since we’ve come back around to Yellow Green, this seems like a good time to correct the record.
Rainbow Sphere Visualization:
A series of ten full breaths. The first nine out-breaths are a cycle of three visualizations repeated three times with a tenth and final visualization. Sort of like breathing with an ABC-ABC-ABC-D rhyme scheme. First a purple red ray of light going through you up and down, then a blue orange ray of light going through you left and right, then a green yellow ray of light going through you front to back, and finally a sphere of light surrounding you. Maybe numbered steps would help:
1. First, close your eyes and ground. However you choose to do so. Visualizing an anchor into the earth, taking a series of deep breaths, or doing whatever you need to do to get ready to be present.
2. Breathe in, then breathe out while imagining a single shaft of light split into two colors going through you up and down, with purple emanating from your chest up and red emanating from your chest down.
3. Breathe in, then breathe out while imagining a single shaft of light split into two colors going through you left and right, with blue emanating from your chest to your left side and orange emanating from your chest to your right side.
4. Breathe in, then breathe out while imagining a single shaft of light split into two colors going through you front and back, with green emanating from your chest in front of you and yellow emanating out from your chest behind you.
5. Repeat steps 2-4 two more times, ultimately imagining each colored shaft of light three times, for nine shafts of light total.
6. Breathe in, then breathe out while imagining a sphere of light emanating from your chest and bursting out, spreading all around you.
7. Open your eyes, or repeat steps 1-6 as many times as you wish.
Red Purple. Orange Blue. Yellow Green. BlackWhite.
Bodily Wisdom. Creative Expression. Power of Love. Interconnectedness.
Body and Mind. Form and Force. Gut and Heart. Spirit.
“Can you do May 5?”
My first response was a very clear “NO.”
too busy too occupied too worried too cluttered too anxious...can’t possibly.
then the beauty of this request bloomed.
simply Step In and fill this gap. Push a little into my cluttered head and join this intriguing art concept NOW.
Transcend my fears…
Step into the yellow light of
Get my assignment from ilyse:
21. Yellow Black White.
The Power of Interconnectedness.
Yellow is power, will, your gut, your solar plexus, the place from which you say Yes.
Black White is transcendence, light, the way it all fits together, beyond the self, interconnectedness.
Observe how the colors come to you.
There is time. Breathe. Simply lean in and enjoy what comes.
A hardware run for a few gallons of paint turns into a deep dive into the wonder of Paint Chips. I am compelled to make a collection, carrying away a huge stack of sample cards, each with an evocative word or phrase for a hundred shades of yellow!!
home again home again jiggity jig!
Up nearly all night in my studio exploring yellow and all things related to yellow. I touch nearly everything search group examine sort remember play mix organize connect to this story of yellow. I collect an amazing array of things. A set of recent yellow paintings center the bits I move in and out of these yellow fields. I capture hundreds of sequenced images in sets of 10 to 25. Working without any real concept or direction, I simply play.
Transcend things and time, just being. Letting go.
Big learning in this new creative sequencing, like sketching ideas in seeing and using Flipbook Thinking. Oh so many many many choices!
Ah, Shadows are interesting.
The night ends in a crazed sense of possibilities.
My studio mess, waiting for months, is now transformed.
Exhausted but moving through the day. By evening I am fragile.
Fragility comes with profound change.
Chaos of uncertainty.
Space, time, role, generations, “things & stuff”
plus simple body realities.
As the mist clears, I see this exquisite moment of change.
As the mist clears, I see this exquisite moment of change.
My heart settles.
Everything will be done.
Notes from a Yellow Journey
Undertaking this project at this time required a powerful jumping in. Crazy with all that’s happening in my life right now but I begin to see that Ilyse’s invitation to be a rainbow squared guest artist extends well beyond “art making” and into a sharing of an intuitive search for meaning.
Breathe. Step in.
So I will attempt to use my words and explain this golden yellow light of meaning that is a key in my creative journey.
I have a funny relationship between words and my art. I have always been a pretty good talker. I liked books, dictionaries, thesaurus debates, facts, truths, stories, studies, all of it. My professional life was made successful through my words and abilities to persuade, plan, and organize.
However, when I first dived deep into art nearly 20 (!!) years ago, I aimed to give up words as part of my art practice or at least I tried to set aside explaining and telling and persuading. While my Art making springs from abstract ideas, I have tried to let things emerge without too much brain work and explanation. More simply intuitive, visual line mark makings process
balance flow pattern tension entry point scope scale
So my essay began as a visual process oriented mishmash exploring the color yellow with black/white in relation to other realities of my life. Grammar, verbs, punctuation be damned as I played with spacing, fonts, alignment, color highlighting, scale and such, hoping meaning would seep through to the reader. I knew I wasn’t really doing the assignment properly but it felt “very janet” and did include the glory of insight embedded in my cryptic notations. I sent my arty draft off to ilyse with the caveat that she could/should send me back to my task. And she did, sweetly and with many words of encouragement and flexibility.
Yellow has a hundred shades of color and meaning as demonstrated by my beautiful paint chip collection. It can be bright and shiny like daisies and morning sunshine. Or mysterious, as the light at the end, of the tunnel, or of life. It is the glory of hope or the scrutiny of investigation. It is also the color of caution. Yellow is one of the three primary colors from which all colors emerge. I use yellow lavishly and I love the way yellow influences other primaries so dramatically. Yellow with blue makes all the greenery of life! Yellow with red adds the glowing embers of fire and sweetness of oranges.
For me, yellow has always reflected the essential glow of life spirit and energy. And I have lived with a robust can-do attitude to possibilities and why not?!. And I have backed it up with action and results. However in the last few years, I have been struggling and finding real limits to my energy. I have become distracted, discouraged and frustrated by working with others. I have been easily overwhelmed with too many things to do. I am muddled and muddied, feeling brittle like an old letter yellowing with time. I realize that I have been becoming “fragile.”
My studio all-nighter in search of the meaning of yellow was glorious. But at 65 years old, there is a price to be paid. Until now, fragile was a beautiful word for me that evoked precious treasure, delicate works of art. Now it carries a much darker side. Looking it up is even more disturbing: fragile—easily broken or damaged…“fragile items such as glass and china”...“you have a fragile grip on reality”…“a small, fragile old lady.”
Words listed as similar to fragile include breakable brittle frangible smashable splintery flimsy weak frail insubstantial delicate dainty fine eggshell tenuous vulnerable perilous flimsy shaky rocky risky unreliable suspect nebulous unsound insecure iffy dicey dodgy weak frail debilitated tottery shaky trembly ailing poorly sickly infirm feeble enfeebled.
Quite a list! And quite the Opposite of robust, strong and unstoppable !! It is easy to assume we are indestructible, but one of life’s most painful experiences is falling short of your own expectations. Facing these truths about myself gives real pause. Yet now I am smiling. “Less is more” and fragile can become ever more precious.
What is important?
As I found with my studio mess, things in life have accumulated, piled up, gathered dust, and been left for later. The “stuff” of my life is in dire need of sorting, cleaning, and clearing away. And while I have been working on this for the past few years, big change is imminent with no way to dodge or delay.
This yellowing has elevated this focus on “stuff” and the actions required to address it. So the bright yellow light of scrutiny and truth has come to play and the golden clarity of “importance” is shining on all “stuff” that makes up my life: space, time, roles, “things,” and simple body realities. I am now eagerly on task.
Generational Shift & Eldering
We are right now preparing for our oldest daughter and son-in-law to arrive here May 1. They will live with us for at least the remainder of the year. Early summer will bring an extra sweet arrival of the future, a first grandchild. She/he/they mean that everything is shifting into a new era and a lifetime reality of time and priorities are changing before my eyes.
Boom. Boom. Boomers from 1956 and 1950 vintage. I am 65 years old and Dave is 70 ½ and we are edging near to 40 years together. Looking back, time has flown by with passion adventure family community action struggle love hope kindness and effort. NOW. Here we are.
Looking forward, the scale and scope of the view have definitively altered. Standing inside the infinity pool, I can see right over that edge. It is not endless. As Dave has noted, life expectancy tables give him a decade or so. 10 years!
Yet being in this end of the pool reveals the possibility of another beauty: eldering. I am ready to Step to the side of the infinity pool and become a lifeguard, helper and cheering watcher. I can hand out towels and bring snacks. And this role can be true not only towards my daughters and son and their partners and all potential offspring. It is true for our close circle of youngers including nieces and nephews, and our children’s friends, and younger friends of my own. For me, it stretches to thousands of those I have connected with as artist, mentor, advocate, friend and supporter. And generally widens to rightness, fairness and kindness for all life on earth. I have always admired the idea that actions can be framed by thinking seven generations forward. Drawing on a four generational scale is a good starting place.
Dave and I began 2020 with a commitment to explore our priorities and dreams in this new reality and deliberately frame our time and actions forward with care. Sorting what is important and what is clutter. Prepare ourselves for a true generational shift in efforts and perspective. Then Covid began and placed everything and everyone in a similar vice grip. A true globalization of perspective.
Yellow light means proceed with caution and care.
So discern carefully in this time of great change. Know what is important and who or what you are committed to serve. Then put your “stuff” in order and live well.
Yellow + Black/White
Sequence… Segments...Bits to a whole
Transcend Worry thought trying
Let go. Let go. Let go.
It helped me get a
handle on myself
and my life at an
exquisite moment of change.
Age stamina physicality with a hopeful twist and Generational shift.
Tension and balance between
Outward & Inward
Fear & Action
Time longevity mortality
Begin & End
The brightness of yellow,
in a hundred different shades, each with its own evocative name.
black & white
Black and white each encompass
So I offer my essay
Purple Purple. Purple Squared. P Squared.
The Purple One, Prince. Purple Rain. Purple Rainbow.
I’ve been thinking this week about what it means to be “you,” to be a self. The whole project of identity and expressing that identity. Musicians I admire like Prince and David Bowie I actually admire for their identities, more for their embodiment of their artistry than their individual compositions. The ways they channeled their beings into creation.
Purple Purple is your inner wisdom, your third eye, the center of your head, your mind, your consciousness, your you-ness. Your woo-ness. Woo Squared.
What does it mean to go deeper and deeper into your inner weirdo? Get crazy? Get nuts?
I am not ready to tell you all about P Squared or about the time I dressed as them for three days in the desert and wrote songs about the end of the world. But I’ll tell you that it happened.
I was afraid that motherhood would prevent me from being as weird and as selfish as I might need to be to truly realize my artistic vision. I have tried to claim more of that space with this project, but honestly, it is probably true.
And maybe that’s the source of some of my admiration for these gender-fluid male performers. I admire their freedom. Oh, I have no illusions about the toxic bounds of fame and even record labels. But in Prince and Bowie I admire their freedom to cultivate identity like a flower, shedding petals and then emerging as something new. Sometimes I feel like I am some kind of rose holding onto every petal I’ve ever grown. It’s beautiful in its way but it’s also a rainbow mess and it’s heavy and dismissable.
Sometimes I just want to strut with my shirt off.
These past two weeks are the last of counting the Omer for this year, Weeks 6 and 7: Yesod and Malchut.
Yesod means foundation, activation, bonding, and identity. It also means Sexuality. Yesod is represented by Red. Last week I refound this clip of Prince performing “Darling Nikki” in 1985. I looked it up because, in clearing out our house to pack up and move all its contents, I discovered a box of no less than fifty porno mags. And yes, they were mine. I had used them to build a costume for my first burlesque performance to the song “Darling Nikki,” lining a red trench coat with pictures of naked women. If you know the first lines of the song (which is actually a slut-shaming diss in the movie Purple Rain, but that movie has a lot of problems), then the concept makes sense.
When I had the idea for this porn-lined coat, I knew I didn’t actually want to buy the magazines myself. I figured there must be many, many magazines lying around in the world. I looked on Craigslist, and sure enough, someone was giving away a box full: “PLAYBOY MAGAZINES 2002-2014 - PRICE REDUCED!” I was nervous about going to pick them up somehow, so I made Justin come with me and wait in the car. When I got to the door, it was another woman giving me the magazines. A mom even, though I wasn’t one myself at the time. We laughed with relief when we saw each other, since each of us had been nervous about an encounter with the other: me wondering who might be giving away all these magazines and her wondering who the hell might be picking them up.
Why am I telling you this story? The whole thing just feels like Yesod to me. Art project collaging porn, Prince twisting his hips, two people bonding over a transfer of goods and the specter of identity. Me dancing burlesque to Prince because I don’t want to be with him, I want to be him.
Prince is perhaps the perfect segue between the sixth week of the Omer to the seventh, from Yesod to Malchut, from Sexuality to Sovereignty. Malchut literally means Kingdom. It is about the divine presence in the physical world, or the concept of Shekinah. Malchut is represented by the color Brown.
When I think about the beauty of the physical world and its systems, I think about worms. Wriggling in the earth, the very Earth, living in and creating the soil. Worms are hermaphroditic, each with male and female reproductive organs. Any worm of its species can reproduce with any other worm. These beautiful creatures in the beautiful soil are so easy to dismiss as dirty. But they are the very stuff we are made from, the nutrients in our food, the substrate of our planet.
Purple to Red to Brown. This week we count the final days of the Omer, ending after 49 days with the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is the holiday about receiving the Torah, receiving divine wisdom. This week, may we all be vessels for the divine, channels for divine light traveling, traveling, traveling the path of the sephirot:
May we act from a place of lovingkindness (Chesed)
May we have boundaries around our own violent inclinations (Gevurah)
May we see the harmony in all things (Tiferet)
May we endure in the generations-long task of building a better world (Netzach)
May we surrender to the ever-complicated truth and not always being right (Hod)
May we nurture our sexuality and our bodies as the basis for our human connections (Yesod)
May we honor the Earth, the very living and divine system we are just a part of (Malchut)
May we remember that the ends do not justify the means, that if the means are horrific then the ends are a lie anyway. The worms in my worm bin eat our food waste and poop out brown gold, the very richest compost. But I can’t feed them just anything: onions, garlic, spicy peppers, citrus, these things would kill them and their environment. The Land of Flowing Milk and Honey, the land reclaimed to give refuge to a perpetually displaced and oppressed people, cannot be built by brutally displacing and subjugating another people.
This journey over the last seven weeks shows how we are each a channel for the divine, how divine light travels through our crown down to the soil. This model is fractal: the way the divine travels through each of us is the way it travels through the world. Right now in Israel and in Palestine the channels are clogged. I don’t have a solution, and it certainly doesn’t look like anyone else has one either. But maybe this is where Purple Purple circles back around: Purple Purple, P P, P Squared. Pray for Peace. Pray Pray Pray for Peace. Pray for Palestinians. Put down the weaPons. Please Pause the Perpetual Pursuit of Power, the world over.
Strolling down the sidewalk, the kids and I noticed an unusual purple flower. This flower had thin green leaves underneath each petal, emanating from its head like a star. After stopping to admire it, we did what we often do: “Seek it!” Seek is the name of a phone app by iNaturalist where you can identify species in real time. You open the app, hold up your phone camera, and wait for Seek to cycle through the plant’s order or family or genus until it zeroes in on its species. Magic.
We learned that this particular flower happened to be tragopogon porrifolious, more commonly known as salsify. Other names include goatsbeard, oyster plant, Jerusalem star, or star of Jerusalem.
Star of Jerusalem.
I mean, here I was, just trying to identify a flower. I noted that it was a Green Purple flower, sure, but I really just sincerely wanted to know what it was called.
To be honest, I have been consumed with Palestine and Israel this week. I was probably going to write about it anyway, I was just waiting for the thinnest of pretenses. And then I saw the Jerusalem star. Thanks, Universe.
Like many people, I have often shied away from voicing my opinion about the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” I’ve said that it’s too complex, too nuanced, that there are too many players and too many intentions and too many facts and dates that I couldn’t possibly know enough to talk about what is really going on there. And in many ways that is true. There is certainly antisemitism wrapped up in some anti-Zionism, and even in some Christian Zionism as well. Best just not to go there, right?
And let me clear about something: no Jewish person owes anyone their opinion of Israel Palestine, and to demand it from them is also antisemitic. Zionism and Judaism are two interconnected but separate things.
But this time, this wave of war more than any other, I feel called to speak up. To speak to the experience of being an American Jew watching from afar, to try to peel back some of the many layers of rage, devastation, betrayal, fear, and longing, coming from a place of privileged comfort to be safe on this soil in this time. I wouldn’t call these words a complete account of that experience or even a prelude, but it’s a gesture. When silence is such a huge part of the problem, that gesture is important.
I grew up going to a Jewish school. In that school I learned to speak Hebrew, to pray in Hebrew, and to love, respect, and even yearn for the state of Israel. I learned that it was called Palestine before Israel, but I heard no mention of who actually lived there before 1948, except that those people didn’t want Jews there. I never heard the word “Palestinian,” and I certainly never heard the word “Nakba.”
See, the conflict may be complicated, but there are some things about it that are really quite simple: forcibly removing people from their homes so that you can have a home is wrong.
It is hard to put my thoughts to words not only because they are complex but because so many American Jews have done it already. In particular, this stunning essay from Peter Beinhart, editor-at-large at the decidedly leftist publication Jewish Currents: Teshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Refugee Return.
“Jewish leaders keep insisting that, to achieve peace, Palestinians must forget the Nakba, the catastrophe they endured in 1948. But it is more accurate to say that peace will come when Jews remember. The better we remember why Palestinians left, the better we will understand why they deserve the chance to return.”
I urge you to read the whole thing. If you are looking for something shorter than 6500 words that speaks more specifically to the American Jewish experience, here are a couple of Twitter threads: one about how Jews are taught that Israel is intrinsic to our identity, which reinforces that speaking out against Israel negates our identity, or this one about how being an American Jew is a mindfuck.
I suppose what I can uniquely offer is tying it back to the colors. Green Purple. Green, the color of Love, Family, Heart, Harmony. Purple, the color of Awareness, Wisdom, Spirituality, and Lovingkindness. Green Purple. Love of Wisdom. Wisdom in Love. Heart and Religion. Family and Religion. These all sound like nice things, but they do have a shadow side. We can do terrible things in the name of love, and certainly in the name of religion.
Two blocks after we found the Jerusalem Star, we encountered this broken serving bowl. It’s actually been sitting there for a few weeks now. I think it was initially put out on the street with a pile of other free items, but then it broke so no one took it. This bowl is also Green Purple. It has eggplants on it, a plant I associate with the Middle East. It is a large serving bowl, one used for hospitality, for welcoming guests: a value important in both Jewish and Muslim cultures. And this bowl is broken. Not the most complex of metaphors there.
But the longer this bowl sits there in a broken pile, the more it becomes a new object. Not a bowl at all anymore, but a trash sculpture. I wonder about who actually left it there and is continuing to leave it there. Did they move away, or do they see it everyday and just walk by? Do they hold out hope that someone else may still pick it up for another use, like a mosaic? Do I want to pick it up for a mosaic? What can be built of these broken pieces? Sometimes I think about throwing it away myself, but I’m always with the kids or some other excuse. So there it sits.
I’ll sign off with the last tweet from Marisa Kabas’s Twitter thread:
“i don’t have any answers. i don’t know how we fix it. all i know is that i exist solely because my grandfather was able to escape oppression while his family perished. and i’ll be damned if i’m told the death of palestinians is the price we must pay to survive.”
This is a warning that perhaps most rational people don’t need to hear: don’t talk to a child about astrology.
D’s fifth birthday is coming up. So are all three of my brothers’. In fact, either she or one of my brothers is having their birthday each week from the end of May to the middle of June. All four of them are Geminis.
“What’s a Gemini?” D asked me after I mentioned this a few days ago. So I casually explained astrology. Basically, that people create stories based on the position of the stars when someone was born, and that being a Gemini means that the Sun was in the constellation of Gemini when she was born. To contextualize it in terms she might understand, I told her that each of the signs has an element associated with it: water, fire, earth, or air. I told her that Gemini was an air sign.
That was where the trouble started.
“Air? An air sign? WHY AMN’T I WATER???” It isn’t that she has a particular love of water, it’s that she has a particular obsession with the fiction of Disney’s Frozen. The elements play a big role in the plot of the movie Frozen II, with water playing the biggest role because, well, the movie is about ice powers. Anything that shatters D’s identification with the main character Elsa causes cognitive dissonance.
I had clearly already gone too far for D here, but somehow instead of trying to back up or change the topic, I went deeper.
“Well, being an air sign just means your Sun is an air sign! I am sure you have other planets that are in water signs!” Which is true, but that still didn’t mean she knew what the fuck I was talking about. I knew off the top of my head that she did in fact have air signs for her three biggest placements: Sun, Moon, AND Rising. But like some kind of astronaut searching for signs of water on another planet, I decided to pull up her birth chart on the internet.
“Look D! You have two planets in water signs! Your Mars and your Neptune!”
Of course this was not helpful. Having more information she didn’t understand just sent her into a deeper spiral. Finally I got the message that it was time to de-escalate, but she wouldn’t let me stop talking about it. She demanded I repeat the information to her again and again, and then demanded that I account for the astrological placements of everyone she knew. How many water signs did her little brother have? Her Dad? Me? Her neighbor friend? And how many water signs does she have again??
It sucks to be put in a box at the tender age of not-even-5-years-old. It’s probably terrifying to be told that who you are is beyond your control. In some ways it is true, all too true. But astrology doesn’t have to be one of them. She doesn’t understand the nuances of narrative and interpretation, that astrology is a tool for inquiry, not a stamp of fate. It can be wonderfully affirming when you are mature enough to handle it, and deeply troubling when you still sometimes think you are a movie character. The fact that I was using fancy words she didn’t understand and talking about stars and planets and information I found on my phone probably made it seem more real and even more inevitable. And more intolerable.
This is all to say that I cheated this week.
I’ve been waiting patiently for Orange to show up for seventeen weeks now. If I were following the grid in order this year, I would have encountered each of the colors at least twice by now. But this year I’ve been creating the Rainbow Squared pieces in an emergent order, determining each week’s color pair by pulling a card from a deck that I made using images from Year 2. After I complete a piece, I sit down and draw the next card, going through the whole deck until ultimately all 49 are complete.
But so far this year, Orange had appeared exactly once and it was a piece that I didn’t make myself.
Which brings me to the cheating. This past weekend we all went to visit some friends who work and live on a ranch: our first “weekend trip” since the start of Covid. I brought along my Rainbow Squared deck because I knew I would need to pull the week’s colors. In this way drawing the cards became a little event. I wasn’t on my bed or on the floor, my eyes weren’t crusty from waking before dawn or bleary from the end of the day. It was a resplendent afternoon in the outdoors, with one kid napping and the other making potions with my friend who lent me her mountain bike so I could ride to an oak grove and conjure colors under a tree.
For each reading, I sit down and meditate, setting out all the previous cards in a grid. It was windy, so I carefully selected seventeen rocks to put on top of each one. I shuffled the rest of the deck as I repeated a mantra to myself: “May my will be God’s will so that God may make God’s will my will.” I’m not sure how I feel about this mantra, but in an effort to bring the G-word back into my spiritual practice, I am trying it out. I like it because it is aligning my intentions with a higher power. And I don’t like it because I am suspicious of the idea of this power.
Sitting under this tree shuffling cards, I was nursing pain for what the religion informing my spirituality is being used to do. This word “god” started to rankle me again. “God” was colonized long ago or maybe it was always this idea of “God” doing the colonizing, as so many many people throughout history have claimed the mantle of holy work to murder, steal, and oppress. Why would I want to claim to do God’s will? But also, who am I to claim that I am doing God’s will?
And who am I to claim that I am doing anything but?
So I pulled a card. It was a fine card, but it was not one I wanted. I sat there staring at it in my hand. What do you do in that moment, when you have meticulously set the bound of a ritual to summon your fate? This project is all under my creative control: I generate the puzzle and its solution. But I quite intentionally invite spirit or at least the laws of chance to collaborate. Can I defy that?
Then it clicked: this is all part of it, what you decide to do in this moment. If you don’t want that card, take the fucking deck and reshuffle.
Take the deck and reshuffle. Until you get what you want. In your creative practice, your hand is in your hands. Deal with what you’ve been dealt. Or re-deal.
Orange Blue: Creative Expression. What you create, what you express, and what you put into the world, including yourself and your identity. What are the ways that your cultural practices or societal roles guide your work? And what are the ways that these practices and roles hinder your work? How can you re-deal, shuffle the deck, or create a new deck entirely?
Orange and Blue are also Fire and Water. I have elemental associations with each of the colors, but these are the strongest. In playing with their alchemical symbols, I noticed that the four overlapping triangles produced a different shape: the Star of David. A six-pointed star evoking the six directions: north, south, east, west, below, and above. A symbol of Jewish identity. And also separately the symbol on the Israeli flag. Our relationship to this star and our relationship to the stars are also within our control, or at least how we use them to orient.
Orange Blue is also Gevurah within Hod, or Boundaries within Surrender. The boundaries set by our cultural systems can be amazing tools for self-discovery and collective harmony, serving as guides and standards. You can surrender and submit to those boundaries and find power in their structure. Or you can surrender by defying the boundaries, releasing them to find a whole other kind of power.
Purple: Awareness, Mindfulness, Consciousness, Wisdom, Beingness, Identity.
Orange: Creativity, Gratitude, Splendor, Surrender, Fire, Passion, Sexuality.
These colors have so many meanings, yet by the end of the week the relevant ones always crystallize. For the many Purples that have popped up lately, I’ve been thinking about Identity. Purple Orange this week is Creativity within Identity and Sexuality within Identity.
Appropriately, this week we began June and Pride Month. Purple is Red + Blue and Orange is Red + Yellow, so all of the primary colors are present in this pair, the whole rainbow.
Which brings up a lingering question about this project: how does Rainbow Squared relate to the rainbow as a symbol of LGBTQ pride? Rainbow Squared is in some ways about all rainbows, exploring how colors relate to each other and express themselves in the world. The pride flag is definitely included in that. But perhaps what really makes these rainbows queer is that I am a queer person.
I also present and live as a mostly cisgendered woman in a committed heterosexual relationship. From the outside, I am a mother and a wife (even if I don’t use that word to describe myself). With these roles come so much privilege, recognition, and support. I am daily validated for maintaining the stable family unit so central to the functioning of the status quo. If I enjoy these benefits, I cannot and do not claim to be marginalized. And yet.
These roles are a large part of who I am but they are not the entirety, are never the entirety for anyone. In them I do not feel whole because I do not need to feel whole: I have so many other parts. The rainbow celebrates those parts. Those parts of myself that love across the gender spectrum. The rainbow even celebrates those wild parts that love not just anyone but everyone, and not just everyone but everything. And the rainbow doesn’t just celebrate the parts, it celebrates the whole. This rainbow that I romance weekly is a queer lens on the world, bounded in many ways by my participation in mainstream familial institutions but also simultaneously unbounding it, saying there are more ways to be, so many more ways to see. But first you have to see them, you have to bless them, you have to create them.
Today I have officially been a parent for five years. I expected it to transform me utterly, and in many ways it has. More surprising and so affirming to me though is the ways that it hasn’t. I was so terrified when I found out I was pregnant the first time. For months I privately mourned the loss of myself, as if I would come out the other side a different person, interested in totally different things, valuing totally different things. Looking back, maybe that fear wasn’t about me somehow transforming myself through pregnancy but about mainstream society overtaking me in my new role, swallowing me whole, queerness and all.
Well, one dominant lesson from parenthood thus far and that I learned pretty quickly was that I am actually the same fucking person. Who I was before and who I am today are points on the same continuum, the same spectrum. The same rainbow. And it is perhaps in no small part thanks to this rainbow that I have preoccupied myself with ever since becoming a parent. Devotion to my creative practice and spending so much time loving what I love has been instrumental to my sense of self, my sanity.
My relationship to Pride Month has certainly changed in these early days of parenthood. Even if they are not the whole of who I am, my roles as mother and partner are still so descriptive of how I spend my time. This week in the midst of moving house I somehow also managed to spend hours on the internet looking at future trash to purchase for party favors, so I guess I have changed a little. These roles also make it harder to stay in touch with those queer parts of myself, to claim that that “B” is for me and even that “Q.” I am hoping this Pride Month to bring those parts out a little more. This year and maybe even the next few I may sit on the sidelines a little bit, figuring out the right balance of visibility and advocacy, of stepping back and showing up. Today I celebrate living in my fullness. And I celebrate you in yours.
Usually when I draw the week’s color card for Rainbow Squared I try to clear my mind as much as possible. This week though, I felt compelled to ask the cards a question.
My question for the cards was more like a field of inquiry. I asked something like: “Other people. This project and other people. The internet and audiences and followers and attention and approval and me and this project and other people. Do I care? Discuss.”
The cards answered: Yellow Yellow.
In Rainbow Squared, I consider the double color cards as especially significant, like the major arcana of the Tarot deck. Out of 49 combinations, there are 7 double colors in the grid: Red Red, Orange Orange, Yellow Yellow, Green Green, Blue Blue, Purple Purple, Black White Black White. When one pops up, it tells you to pay special attention.
In addition to a color card, each week I also pull a Tarot card, and this week it also happened to be a major arcana card: The Sun. I associate Yellow with the Sun already. Double Yellow, double Sun, during this week’s solar eclipse. Okay.
Hello Sun. Hello everybody under the Sun. Hello Yellow. Hello Yellow Yellow. Hello Power, Will, Yes, Energy, Endurance. Like the power of the Sun, infinite power to feed and fuel all living things, along with the power to burn them. Colors fade in the Sun so fast, unless they belong to a thing that lives and grows. Like leaves, like you.
The internet is another resource with a twin power to fuel and to burn, specifically from its sheer capacity to expose us to more people than ever before. Sure, this includes strangers across the globe, but also everyone we have ever met. People who wouldn’t otherwise remain in our attention streams like old schoolmates and distant cousins and hookups. It quite changes the game of who we interact with, who can be part of our communities, whose activity we can passively monitor and who can monitors ours. And the internet also transforms exactly what that activity is.
To be an artist in this age, it isn’t enough just to make work. You also have to market that work, market yourself. You and your work are a package that becomes your brand, that you constantly repackage and market in order to build an audience for that work. Which sometimes feels empowering, but more often feels, well, dirty.
But why? For other businesses, there is nothing shameful about building a brand or a customer base. And hell, I’m not even trying to get anyone to buy anything. But maybe commerce is the thing here. Money creates a shame trap around art. Money somehow taints the enterprise of artmaking which “should” be done for its own sake, while simultaneously deeming a failure anything that doesn’t have commercial success. I thought making animated gifs might keep me out of the commercial art market altogether for a while, but now there are NFTs. Which are truly, hugely empowering for a whole class of digital artists who can finally be remunerated for their work! And also require the same brand-building as any other current artistic enterprise, if not far more.
I suppose I have also been socialized to judge others who seek attention. Personal brand or not, my work is wrapped up with my life, so asking people to look at my work feels like asking them to look at me, look inside me even. But why does that feel bad? Is it because it is icky or because it is vulnerable?
This week my mom is in town for the first time since before Covid. It is wonderful and wild for her to be here in many ways, including the unconscious validation from having her finally witness my now full blown motherhood of two fully mobile, verbal humans. It makes it feel real in a different way, not that it wasn’t real before. It also means that I have a little bit of daylight time alone to get other things done, as well as listening to things while I do those other things. Like binge-listening to the podcast "Under the Influence" by Jo Piazza, which is about mom influencers on the internet, a multibillion dollar industry. It. Is. Fascinating.
Do I want to be an influencer? No. Do I want to be an artist working from the material that is my daily life and sharing that work on the internet? Yes, and in fact, I would say that I am currently doing it. But like with anything else, I want to be successful at it. How do I measure success for a project that is still unfolding? Well, measuring success on the internet means eyeballs and engagement, means followers. What I do online isn’t exactly optimized for social media. Instagram is just not designed for sharing or reading long form essays, which is why I switched to sharing via Substack and am happier for it. But I still have a nagging feeling that it needs more followers to be valid. This nagging doesn’t dictate my practice, I still show up each week creating exactly what I want to create, commercial appeal be damned. But the more professional side of my brain keeps telling me that I need to build a bigger audience. Or is that a different side of my brain? Either way it feels shameful because seeking attention is shameful.
Fuck that shit, though. We love to hate femmes who seek attention and especially on the internet. It’s wrong in so many ways, but especially how it puts moms especially in a bind where they are judged or ripped off either way. These people, these women, should not be the subject of anyone’s hate. It’s a system that pits us against each other and doesn’t compensate caretakers or creators or arguably most people for the work that they do to contribute to society. So go out there and shine your goddam light. I can’t promise I won’t judge you, but I can promise that if I catch myself judging you I will name it and give you and myself some grace.
I was thinking about all of this as I used my own face as the subject of an animation, a first for this five-year project. While E napped, I hung some yellow fabric in the front window and sat in front of it painting my face with a yellow crayon. This window is perpendicular to Justin’s desk, so I was perched right behind his giant computer monitor while he was on a call with an aspiring internet storyteller. As “perhaps the founding father of personal blogging,” Justin takes calls like this occasionally. I could only hear Justin’s end of the conversation as he gently guided another white male toward thinking about whether his work actually benefits society. Does it need to? Either way, unintentionally listening in while I sat there with my shirt off taking pictures of myself, the moment felt poetic. The trajectory from sharing your life on the web in the 90s to sharing it now is weird and getting weirder. I guess I’d like to keep it as weird as I can over here. While still being accessible enough to grow an audience, of course.
Yellow. Yellow Yellow. Power, Sunshine, Attention. Attention is unwieldy, especially in the conglomerate. Be mindful of where you put that attention, and also of how you seek it. But don’t be afraid to seek it. Do whatever the fuck you want.
Nine out of these past twenty pieces have had Purple in them, nearly half. You can check the grid yourself. I determine each week’s colors by shuffling a deck of 49 different cards, and Purple just keeps showing up. In fact, Purple Green was the card I originally pulled when I decided to reshuffle and got Orange Blue. Purple wants to be here.
Purple is Mind, Mindfulness, Awareness, Wisdom, Self, Identity. Green is Heart, Love, Family, Leaves, Earth. So what does this Green tell us about Purple?
This past weekend we went to visit chosen family in Mendocino County. It was a reunion with the incredible humans that made up our germ pod for most of the pandemic, and it was also a reunion with the trees. The Redwoods. Coast Redwood, California Redwood, Sequoia Sempervirens, whatever you call them: the tallest living trees on Earth and some of the oldest too. But what struck me about seeing them again this time and perhaps at this time of year was not their age or their stature but all of the new growth.
Fresh redwood growth is such a vibrant green. On established trees you can see small branches of the new needles extending off the deeper green older ones. And on totally new growth, the whole shrub is that bright, new green, bursting with sheer potential. Potential to grow continuously, to tower over and outlive so many human projects. Potential to outlive the human project altogether.
Looking at new redwood growth also makes me think about its origins, how it came to be and all the other trees it is connected to. Because in all likelihood, any given redwood reproduced asexually. Redwood cones have a surprisingly low germination rate, so sexual reproduction by redwoods makes up only a small percentage of actual redwood trees. Most redwoods come from fallen branches, stumps, or sprouted from their own roots.
Yes, most redwoods are clones of other redwoods. New trees sprouting from dead parts of other ones, or right out of their trunk, or underground from the very same root system. Different manifestations of the same organism, connected. Redwoods demonstrate that there are many ways to make a family, many ways to reproduce, many ways to create and connect. And redwoods not only keep generating new redwoods, they create homes and habitats for other plants, bugs, birds, reptiles, mammals, fungus, and maybe even beyond. Redwood trees revel in community, and what I would call queer community at that, trees nurturing other trees and every other kind of creature besides.
And yet new redwood growth is also a reminder of loss. How many ancient redwood trees used to stand on California’s coast line, old growth forests decimated for extractive industry. We can never bring back those millenia of growth and interconnection. Preserving second growth redwood is a challenge even now, as the debate over logging in Jackson Demonstration State Forest in Mendocino County plays out. It is perhaps hard to trust Cal Fire’s interests when they are ultimately the operation that profits from the materials. Frankly it’s hard to trust any state or government power, even when they claim to be doing good.
Yesterday the United States officially recognized Juneteenth as a national holiday. This is a good thing, AND it is not enough, as journalist Mara Schiavocampo shares in an opinion on CNN. I spend most of my internet time in a (beautiful) activist bubble, so it was exciting to read this on mainstream media. Also exciting for government officials themselves to speak out like St. Louis Rep. Cori Bush:
It’s Juneteenth AND reparations.
It’s Juneteenth AND end police violence + the War on Drugs.
It’s Juneteenth AND end housing + education apartheid.
It’s Juneteenth AND teach the truth about white supremacy in our country.
Black liberation in its totality must be prioritized.
Purple Green. If Purple is mind and Green is heart, then Purple Green is about keeping the two connected. Or more specifically, not letting the mind dominate the heart. Not letting social conditioning dictate who is in your family or how you love. Our expansive family connections are the basis of our identity and being; our relatives extend far beyond our own blood lines. Not letting extractive systems dictate what or even who is valuable.
Wow wow wow. Is meaning just dripping from the world waiting so juicy at every turn? So that any card I pull would be meaningful? I don’t know, but as a dabbler in Tarot myself I have deep respect for divination systems including this one.
I receive my color set at 1:36 am. I am awake, alone in bed yet not alone. My partner J is away for a few days and I’ve woken to the feeling of our baby moving in my womb, little hands and feet thrumming about so strongly I feel burning in my throat as my stomach contents are pushed around and upward from the inside by our little bean, little being. I don’t often wake in the night actually, which is a blessing in a 34 week pregnancy. So I’m not upset, just mindful. I pee, I drink water, I reach for my phone and see that ilyse has sent me the Rainbow Squared colors. And I click in and see a photo of orange & red and to me it’s clearly blood, it’s body, it’s growth, life, it’s me creating (orange) a baby body (red) and as much as the red of survival, cycles, and physicality is on the nose, so too is the creativity and gratitude, the splendor surrender fire passion pleasure of orange.
Receiving this card from Ilyse slaps me across the wide part of my shoulders, envelops me like a surprisingly strong hug that takes your wind just briefly, undeniably IS me in this moment.
It’s a few weeks later. Time is flying by, I’m almost 36 weeks pregnant now and the little body inside my body is getting stronger every day. We watched the movie “Alien”, the original 1979 one, and it was not disturbing to me at all, because my little alien feels just perfect, so right, even when I can literally see their physical movement from the outside! There must be so much red and orange in the womb-world, eyes that are developed enough now to perceive, see through placenta and viscera, through stretched skin, I imagine like orange tinted glasses. I sun my belly sometimes just wondering if that brightens their world from deep shadowed carmine, wine colored realms into more apricot, cantaloupe, golden yellow zones.
J & I moved to the coastal redwoods recently, to nestle in with blood family for this baby time instead of our friend-family in the city, and our new place is filled to the brim with greens and browns. The calm peace of trees and ferns and soft moss. I told ilyse there was no red and orange here.
Which is not true of course, but as I looked around for creative inspiration all I saw was human-made things. Our orange tent, set up for glamping guests now. A red plastic cutting board. A soft red velour pillow. These dead objects don’t spark anything. I dismiss them, looking for something to vibe with the thrumming life of the first inspiration here. But the trees stay green just changing light to dark, even the flowers are stubbornly yellow, pink, white.
But I’m softening now, finding the crack in that reaction. It’s tempting to try to identify and exclude the things outside of the growing decaying world and our own red blood bodies, to say that they are somehow separate or count differently because we “made them up” or “invented them.” But is there anything “outside” of nature? People are nature, so what we do is also nature. Yet when we talk about “natural” vs. “non-natural” things, we’re trying to give language to a distinction that is interesting. They feel outside the cycles of blood and survival, but it’s in this separation that there’s something to dig at, something I dig at often in my life and work. What is our conception of life systems? What is the Interdependence of things and people?
The “non-natural” distinction fails us because all these human made things are real and really part of the world. Even the bits of plastics in my body. In the body of global life. How we make and use them really does affect us, each other, the global climate system, and all living things. Just like the trees and the moss and the organic membranes in my body.
I’m 37 weeks pregnant now, and I think Baby has “dropped” which means at least for me that it feels like their little head bone is touching my skeleton from the inside. Weird pressure on the pelvis. I walk a little more bow legged. Yet I am also even more in awe and in love with this being, I can tickle a foot stuck up in my ribs and feel a response, another life, another being, perceiving the world and moving in it.
Life is a gift. Life is a leap. At least for humans it’s not all that comfortable to make life. But comfort is not the reason to live. I feel deeper than ever gratitude for help and support, all the difference a kind word from my mom makes, gifts I could not pay for. I feel how foreign aloneness is to life, how ridiculous it is to look at the world transactionally. How much with others, interdependent, is the way, is the real. Other people. It’s impossible without them. Us. And so much more beautiful.
Gratitude, splendor, and surrender to the process of creating life and being.
“You can’t step in the same river twice.”
This phrase popped into my head a few times over the last couple of weeks. I never thought about where it originated until now. Looking it up, it is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Well, even if he has “clit” in his name, he’s still pretty cranky, according to that Wikipedia page. Maybe it’s better to quote Octavia Butler here: “God is change.” As in the first tenet of the religion Earthseed in the Parable of the Sower:
“All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
∞ = Δ”
Oh, Δ. The symbol for change. Right now Delta is more than a symbol, a mutation spreading disease and fear as Covid-19 transforms. But don’t be afraid of change, perhaps coronavirus tells us. Or brace yourself for it.
Or maybe we don’t need to talk about coronavirus right now.
Change may be the only lasting truth. But truthfully, the reason I brought up change in the first place here is that lately water has been making me think the opposite. Rather than not being able to step in the same river twice, it feels like every river is the same and I can never actually step in a different river.
Not because the river isn’t changing. Of course it is. But all bodies of water are connected: rivers, lakes, oceans, even our own animal bodies. Perhaps every body of water I encounter is indeed the same body of water.
So here are two different experiences of two very different bodies of water last week.
One: We’ve been jumping into the ocean for maybe 13 sets of solstices now. The most visceral of rituals, it quite simply involves taking a cold plunge into a body of water around sunrise or sunset on the winter and summer solstice. Though so many things have happened over those years, each time the sun returns to the same spot, I return to the same ocean, and I am still the same person. Even if I don’t behave the same way, or the ocean for that matter.
When I offered my naked body to the waves this solstice, the ocean answered by tossing my body out. I had run into the cold Pacific screaming with boldness and glee. I was lingering up to my thighs for a while in the crashing waves, perhaps the last person in the group to fully submerge. I finally made the decision to go under, and the wave that was approaching at just that moment happened to be, well, huge. In the second or two that I watched the wave build and tower over my head, it felt like my only choice was to dive right into the wall of water in front me.
I was immediately tumbled backwards, first onto my butt and then on my back and then on my head and then back onto my butt, finally spilled out onto the beach sitting up. My back was scraped and scratched and my hair was full of sand, but it felt like the ocean was greeting me, dominating me, teaching me. Saying: “Hi There. I’m powerful and you’re small. Happy Solstice.”
It was not the first time the Ocean has taught me this lesson. I didn’t not like it.
Two: Instead of turbulent, infinite water, this was placid, contained water. A gorgeous lake nestled in rolling hills, or what to my Midwestern eyes I would call mountains. Away for the weekend (the weekend!) with friends (with friends!) and without children (without children!) and without my partner even.
It was very hot out, and I always bristle at the idea of dragging my pale ass to a beach in the middle of the day because it means a constant campaign of sun protection. But I also always forget how goshdarn pleasant it is to swim, to be near water on a hot day. So I swam and swam. I swam out to the middle of the lake. I could see my friends getting farther away on one side, and on the other side I could see a mother who was there supervising three children. And me in the middle, being myself. Looking at my life from above. Held by the water, floating and wondering.
That whole weekend I was able to inhabit a self that I hadn’t spent more than a couple hours with in years. A self that can sit and chat without constant interruption, a self that can catch up with old friends and make new ones, a self that can participate in and lead group ritual, a self that can perform as a stripping space pickle. A self that can accidentally smoke too much and stay up too late in a hot tub watching the rising Moon chase a star that turns out to be Saturn. A self that can swim without supervising anyone else.
So I swam and wondered about this self I am creating, this rainbow self, with all of these colors and cards and pictures and words. What is this practice I am going deeper and deeper into? What is the significance of all this pattern recognition, this pattern generation?
Coalescing a story around symbols each week is not unlike trying to coalesce a self around your circumstances. Where you born, who you were born to, what genitals you were born with. Who you keep close and what you hold sacred. All the things that have happened to you and all the things you choose to do with your time.
We are constantly trying to make sense of the fragments of our experiences, trying to integrate them into a self. Looking at some colors or cards or constellations and crafting a narrative from how they hang together is not so different from daily life, putting together the pieces of a self.
Sometimes people tell me that they admire my ability to stay myself through parenthood, or motherhood specifically. To stay active and weird. And some of that comes from some serious commitment and effort, in the case of this project anyway. But mostly I can’t help but be myself, tenaciously. Can anyone? One of the biggest surprises of motherhood so far has been how much I am still the exact same person.
I somehow expected that motherhood would totally transform me, and when I found out I was pregnant I was terrified. Not of the idea of having a child, but of losing myself. I was convinced that the self I had known was about to die and be replaced by some Mom Self. A Mom Self with new concerns and preoccupations, all of them different from the ones I had before and all of them categorically selfish, irrelevant, and boring. A totally judgemental and even patriarchal fear perhaps, but I was not in a rational place.
As it turned out, I was still the same person. I am the same person. And utterly different. And essentially the same.
With parenthood does come new parts to this self too. I didn’t anticipate liking those new parts, but I really do. It’s fun being a parent, seeing the world through literally new eyes. It’s gratifying. There are parts of my Mom Self that scare me, but I am pretty sure those were always there and are just finding new triggers.
Our selves are expressed in relationship to others, in communication with others. So perhaps being a parent doesn’t create new parts of myself, it actually creates new relationships that bring out those parts. I like these little people that we are raising. I like them a lot. I like talking to them, I like holding them, I even like wiping their snotty noses and reminding them to blow.
When I pulled Purple Blue this week, I drew a Venn Diagram. Two circles representing two halves of myself, or two different selves. The family self and the priestexx artist performer self. I captioned it: “Fear of Sacrificing a Self. But what is the blend?” And next to that: “What color do they make together?”
I spend so much time thinking about combinations of colors, but I don’t often think about what color the two mixed together would be. In this case, if you mix Purple and Blue, you actually get more Purple.
If you have parts of your identity and your sexuality that are expressed in relation to other people, then it can feel like who you spend your time with shapes who you are in that time. It was the tail end of Pride Month, so I took those circles and colored them Magenta and Blue, combining to make Purple, using the hexcodes of the bisexual pride flag. I spend my time these days in partnership with a cis mostly-het man, and I hope to for the rest of my life, with that particular person anyway. That does not erase my queerness. I don’t have to choose a magenta circle or a blue circle, or even dwell in where the circles intersect. They are all part of me, all shifting and changing but contained in a self that is always the same.
I don’t know if these metaphors add up, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Every moment you are alive you are expressing a self, expressing your selfness. A self might be many intersecting circles, each ultimately separate. Or perhaps a self is just their intersection, the way these individual expressions of self blend over time. The self may be the integration, it may be a multiplicity, or it may be individual states, expressing different identities at different times like putting on different outfits.
Purple is awareness, wisdom, identity, self, woo. Blue is communication, expression, and water. Purple Blue: expression within identity, within self. What parts of yourself do you express at any given time? How do you communicate them to the world?
Whether and no matter how you act on them, they are still there, still part of you. Still part of a self that is a container for the constantly changing.
D came home from day camp with a yellow cootie catcher. If you don’t know or don’t remember, a cootie catcher is basically a paper fortune teller. It’s an origami shape that you can write messages all over and then manipulate with your hands, and then play a game where you have someone else choose their fortune.
Let me take you through the sequence:
1. First, pick a color: Yellow, Blue, Green, or Pink. Okay, Yellow: Y-E-L-L-O-W. I moved the paper back and forth, once for each letter, for a total of six times.
2. Great, now on the inside there are numbers, so pick a number, 2 or 11. Okay, 11: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11.
3. Now in a different spot inside there are two more numbers, so pick a number, 3 or 10. Okay, let’s lift the flap under 3!
4. Here’s your fortune! You get: Dirt!
When you get Dirt, D squeals with delight. Why? Because it’s the worst one, of course! See, the possible fortunes in this cootie catcher are Cake, Pie, Ice Cream, and Dirt. According to D, Cake is the best, and Dirt is the worst. And you got the worst one.
“But Dirt is actually great because without dirt you wouldn’t have any food!” our neighbors shouted back to her when she told them their fortunes out the window. I had just told her the same thing. I also told her that since I’m not really big on sweets that I’d probably prefer dirt anyway, or certainly ice cream over cake, personally. And why is she fetishizing sugar? Anyway, D doesn’t want to hear it, of course.
Each time she pulled out the cootie catcher it turned into a lesson in subjectivity. That even if each person can’t choose their fortune, they can certainly have their own attitude about it. But for D, like for so many kids or even adults, this game is about control. About Power. It seems that the thrill of the cootie catcher is not simply in relaying information, but about determining fate. So maybe this was a teaching moment, or maybe I was just getting in the way of her play. Shaming her even?
Yellow Orange: Power and Creation, Power and Creativity, the Power of Creativity. Crafting a paper fortune teller is certainly an exercise in power and creation. But what holds the Power of Creation if not Dirt itself? The very substance from which we spring and sustain ourselves and stand on, and to which we will all return?
Oh, there is so much more that I was thinking about this week around the Power of Creation. Some weeks I write and write and write, and other weeks I read and read and read, perhaps procrastinating, telling myself I am amassing research until I am full of too many references and too little time to do anything with them. But this project is about the practice, the making, the process. Right? It is not about the final product or even you, the audience, even if I accidentally moved the project away from Instagram onto an email newsletter and Email Newsletters Are a New Literary Genre.
There it is again, the power of creativity in a world where we are all creators. Everyone on the internet broadcasting themselves and their preferences, their real actual selves. Sure there is a spectrum, from those doing it only passively through their surfing habits, to those just dabbling in social media, to some creators at the creative genius level. Like artist and internet master Lil Nas X.
Among the delightful things I learned from that article by Jazmine Hughes is that Lil Nas X is into Numerology. When he first started getting famous he saw the number 66 everywhere. Now Lil Nas X’s new number is 79. He cites the meaning as: “continue listening to your spiritual practice and/or career path and your Divine life purpose.”
We started off Yellow Orange with a number game, right? The cootie catcher. Well, both 66 and 79 are out of the realm of this 49-piece grid, but if we want to link it back to Yellow Orange, we can use more numerology. 79 → 7+9=16. Yellow Orange. And then 1+6=7, the building block of this whole system.
In other numerological news I also discovered this week on July 7th, 7/7, that the name of this project is 7x7. Writing about D’s cootie catcher inspired me to make a tiny Rainbow Squared cootie catcher (I told you, deep procrastination happening over here) and as I was counting letters I realized that “Rainbow” and “Squared” are both seven letters long. How did it take me five years to notice that?
Do you want to hear more about what I was thinking about this week? Is that what this is about? Well, I was worrying about UTIs (pee! Yellow!) and IUDs (copper! Orange!) and whether they are linked, which sprung me back to how fucked it is for almost all birth control interventions to disrupt female instead of male biology. Talk about the power of creation: I’m just sitting here cycling, it’s the sperm we should be trying to stop. I also reread this article from 2017 by Claire Dederer asking What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men? It takes a wonderful left turn at the end about motherhood and “art monsters:”
“If I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?
Every writer-mother I know has asked herself this question. I mean, none of them says it out loud. But I can hear them thinking it; it’s almost deafening. Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.”
But in the end, everything I spend so much time wishing I had more time to make will also return to Dirt.
Maybe even the internet is Dirt. And it is made of us. If we are all content creators (which we are), then we generate the very material the internet is made of. We churn the compost. Yes, we are all content farmers, nurturing algorithms and peddling identities through our very viewing habits, let alone what we post and publish. Maybe the dirt is the internet, or maybe the dirt is our own lives, the crops are the content, and the internet is the farm?
I don’t know. But I do know that the internet is also ultimately filled with younger and younger people making cool shit I don’t understand that I probably shouldn’t preach to them about.
Just like the cootie catcher.
Blue and Orange are complementary colors, opposite each other on the color wheel. Blue is the color of water and Orange the color of fire, another set of opposites. Yet both of those elements represent creative forces. Water represents the emotional, intuitive realm, and fire represents your craft, your passion, what you create.
Blue is expression and Orange is creativity. Those sound quite similar, but the urge to create is perhaps different than the urge to express or even to communicate. It is one thing to make a thing, it is quite another to share it with the world. Blue and Orange also originate from different parts of the body. Blue comes from the throat, the noises you make, the words you speak, the songs you sing. Orange comes from your sexual organs, your loins if you will. Orange is what you create with your body. Not just reproduction, but sexuality itself. And not just sexuality, but anything you create from a burning urge inside of you.
Anyone who has given birth can tell you that your throat and your loins are quite connected. A midwife taught me that what you do with your mouth during labor affects your vagina and vulva. Making out is certainly helpful (lips and lips, afterall) but this also includes the sounds that you make. Long, low, resonant, deep sounds during labor open your mouth and your throat and all the channels in your body. High pitched screams are tempting, especially in the face of fear, but they make you tighten up. Hell, this probably also works for all of your orifices and what comes in and out of them. What comes out of your mouth directly affects what you can put into the world.
For five years, Rainbow Squared has been a way for me to make. Like Blue Orange, to create from a burning urge inside of me and speak it into the world. What started as an exercise in artistic production has turned into something else. Over time it’s become less about what I create and more about what I notice, what I am in communication with and what is communicating with me. It’s an exercise in paying attention.
I am finally reading the book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. As another artist who works with trash while keeping it contextualized as trash, I have had an artist crush on her for a long time, and this book does not disappoint. Ultimately, pulling away from the infinite feed of internet content is not only about removing your attention, but also about putting it somewhere else. Odell gives her deep attention to the natural world around her, cultivating a relationship with her bioregion and to the birds, plants, and organisms she encounters. I guess you could say I give my attention to the physical world around me, cultivating a relationship with color.
Having a weekly practice of artmaking is actually itself a way to resist the attention economy. It’s no accident that this practice has taken the place of television for me: it’s not only that I don’t have time to watch it, I kind of don’t need it as much anymore. In a way, this is my TV. Not the content that I am generating, but the process of making it, the conversation with the world. This project has also taken the place of a lot of time I would otherwise spend on social media. While I certainly still scroll the internet, I probably do less of it, and only a small percentage of it is in social media channels with people I know personally (for better or worse).
And of course, I am generating content here and posting it on the internet. Yet maaaybe this very intentional approach to self-chronicling is something different. Afterall, there is something about the structure of this particular content that makes it anathema to social media. Would you want to read this in your infinite scroll? Do you read it in your inbox? It has always felt weird to try to insert this work into social media, but that’s where the people are, right? And you (yes, you) engaging with the work is part of it for me. Gloriously though, it’s not the only part of it. If the making of the work is itself a performance piece, in some ways I am probably the number one audience member for this work. It is gratifying just to make it.
But what has also been deeply gratifying is having other people make it. I am so excited for other people not just to read it but to do it. Every seventh piece this year is a collaboration, with three so far and the fourth in the works. Next year there will be way more (maybe you?). And like with each weekly piece, the process is the best part. This is spiritual work, divination work, channeling someone and drawing the card for them that will determine the colors that set them off on their own personal journey of inquiry. I didn’t realize until writing this week’s piece that I even use that word “attention” to guide them in their process, telling them over email:
“Ultimately whatever you are learning or discovering while you happen to be paying attention to these colors is what you are meant to share. Honor your own experience as the art itself and the right images and words will emerge from that.”
In this way, Blue Orange is more than an individual expressing creativity. It is that individual communicating with creation, a reciprocal act.
I drew this card in the Yoga Room at the San Francisco International Airport. Yes, there is a Yoga Room at the San Francisco International Airport. Like many things about the Bay Area, this is something that simultaneously makes me scoff and that I also secretly enjoy.
I was on my way back to my hometown in Michigan for the first time since before the pandemic started. So I had flying on my mind when I drew Orange and Purple, and immediately thought: Fire and Sky.
Each of the colors in the Rainbow Squared system has an elemental correspondence: Red is Blood, Orange is Fire, Yellow is Sun, Green is Leaves (Earth), Blue is Water, Purple is Sky (Air), and Black White is Light. Hence Orange Purple as Fire and Sky. It made me think of a wild photo my friend Jimmy took last year when he had to hop on a plane to escape the smoke choking his asthmatic lungs.
Last week when I was in the air, the sky was basically the color it should be: white clouds and blue skies. But drawing the Orange Purple card as fires rage all over the United States, I was struck with a pang of fear that perhaps the sky in the Bay Area would turn orange again, that maybe boarding this plane would be escaping that fire.
Then just a couple mornings later, waking up in Michigan, I noticed that the light streaming through the window had a familiar orange cast to it. It was lovely in a way, like the golden hour at dawn and dusk when the sun is low, except this didn’t disappear as the sun continued to rise. I knew immediately to check the air quality index, and sure enough, the AQI was 122: unhealthy for sensitive groups. Still I thought this orange sky must be some by-product of pollution and humidity, that the hot summer air was trapping particulate matter or something. But sure enough, what was turning the sky was orange in Michigan and so many other places was forest fires.
I know that my sense of color may be more honed than most: some people I talked to about the sky that day said, “The light is orange? Really?” But in the 35 years I have lived in or visited Michigan, I have never seen the sky look like that. Just one among so very many signals that things are not normal. Climate catastrophe is here, has been here, is speeding up. Everywhere.
I’ve lived in California for nearly 13 years now, and I still have a hard time calling it my permanent home. Not because I don’t feel rooted there; I do, maybe even more so than Michigan where I haven’t lived for longer than a couple months since I was a teenager. There are many special things that tug me back to Michigan, including the fact that most of my blood family is here. But the biggest reason it is hard for me to admit to myself that I might live in California forever is water. It feels kind of, well, ill-advised to leave a region that holds 20% of the world’s fresh surface water for one racked by drought even before the effects of climate change. Michigan has so much fresh water you can even recognize it from outer space, bounded by those Great Lakes.
And of course Michigan’s relationship with water is fraught. Though there is now a water shut-off moratorium that will hopefully become permanent, the City of Detroit was turning off water for thousands of residents due to nonpayment. And Flint poisoned its citizens with its water supply, a crisis that lingered on as long as it did in a documented act of environmental racism. Though water is a human right, quantity does not guarantee quality or even access depending on who you are.
The climate crisis impacts different populations differently. Even my question of where it makes sense to live drips with the privilege to be mobile, to even feel like I’d have the option to live anywhere I want. The option to have moved to California in the first place, or to be able to travel back and forth to see my family.
This was the first time I’ve been on a plane since before the pandemic started. I grapple with a good deal of eco-guilt (or, let’s face it, every type of guilt), so there are ways that flying being impossible for a while was actually weirdly comforting. It was another choice I didn’t have to make between seeing my blood family and my principles. The choice between seeing them and expending mass amounts of carbon. That’s part of why it feels so unnatural to live so far away from family. Or perhaps the unnatural thing is to live so far away and still expect to see them often.
Orange and Purple are two of the three secondary colors, the third being Green (as opposed to the primary colors of Red, Yellow, Blue). And indeed, being in Michigan, I am struck by how Green it is. Trees upon trees and bushes and LAWNS, lush leaves everywhere. You can just see the water pumping through the landscape. Green is leaves and it is also family. Michigan is where my blood family is and has been for four generations, after coming over from Eastern Europe. Orange Purple is in some ways a lack of Green, and Michigan is Green thing, a Green place. A place I don’t live.
I talk a lot about Orange as Creativity and Creating, but Orange is also Gratitude. If Purple is Sky and also Magic, Orange Purple might then be Gratitude for Sky. Gratitude for Sky Magic even, for the technology of air travel (I won’t go into gratitude for the technology of space travel here, because fuck the billionaire space race). It feels like magic that I have the access to hurdle myself through the air in a metal tube and touch down 2500 miles away. I don’t want to be ungrateful for that.
I don’t want to be ungrateful.
I also don’t want to be a party to this devastation.
Even if water is a life force, is life itself, this week is a stark reminder of its destructive force. Michigan itself has been flooded by rain, and look at the horror in Central China or in Western Europe. Choose drought or choose flood, but climate change is here.
Orange Purple is also Creating with Awareness. Up in an airplane looking down at the world, sitting so very close to so many strangers, I thought about what we are creating, together. It isn’t up to each of us, that’s a lie. But maybe it is up to all of us. What we do as our blue green world turns orange.
They say that in the Midwest there are only two seasons: Winter and Construction.
This past week we clocked at least 600 miles of Midwest driving, with a decent amount of road work going on. I was behind the wheel for most of those miles, including when I took the photos for this animation (disclaimer: do not try this at home; we were going much slower than it appears and it still wasn’t the smartest thing to do).
From the asphalt to the paint to the signage, Black White Yellow is the color of the road. Or the road as of the 20th century, with the advent of cars. Black White is interconnectedness, transcendence, light. Yellow is power, energy, sun, yes.
Driving long distances is a strangely collective activity, and not just because I was at the helm of a minivan with three generations of passengers. Driving is a dangerous dance with strangers in metal boxes, speeding up and slowing down with and in spite of each other. The separation of those boxes can make the interaction of driving feel impersonal, but (at least for now) there are humans making decisions that directly impact your personal safety.
Beyond the literal collectivity of driving, it’s also a decent if often used metaphor for life. You know, we are all on the road together. Or maybe it is that there are many roads, many interchanges, many entrances and exits, and not all connected. Many types of vehicles, many types of passengers, definitely not enough types of fuel. Individual contexts and stories all so different from each other and yet traveling through time and space together.
Okay, maybe it is just that I am from the Motor City and I actually secretly love to drive. But I also hate cars and try to organize my life around using them as little as possible, though that has certainly slipped a lot in recent years with the pandemic + two kids.
Still, when I stop to think about not just the carbon I emit while I am driving but the carbon emitted during the travel of all of the things that I consume and throw away, and then expand that to think about all of the travel of other people and their things, it feels daunting and hopeless. Not because there are too many people to all make more ecological choices: I need to remind myself that it’s so much bigger and in the hands of so many fewer than that. It feels like the whole human project is a vehicle with no brakes, but maybe it is that we don’t have the right people behind the wheel. We don’t have The People behind the wheel. Could “we” ever?
I don’t really have anything uplifting to say to wrap this up, and this driving metaphor is getting tired. I’ll just point to what I said about Black White Yellow for Year 3:
Restoring power to the many through collective action. Smashing systems of oppression and violence with a shining Yes to what’s possible.
Well, at this moment, even saying yes to what’s possible seems kind of impossible. Maybe the road we’re on is a loop, like this animation.
And like maybe there is no more winter, only perpetual construction.
Two days ago I opened my eyes at 5:45am and the kids weren’t awake, so I jumped out of bed with every intention to sit at the computer. After going to the bathroom, I passed by the bed again and decided to lie down for just another minute. A minute turned to 60, and at 6:45am I finally got up and began to type.
Of course this is precisely when E came bursting in the room with his long blonde hair streaming over his face, shouting: “I want some milk please mommy!” So I sighed, moved over to a comfy chair, and scooped him into my arms. Then we did what we've been doing multiple times a day for the last two years.
Yes, two years ago this week I gave birth to my second child. And now I can say that I have nursed two kids for two years each, and counting. That’s four years of breastfeeding. That’s like a whole high school diploma’s worth of breastfeeding.
Nursing is certainly easier now than in the beginning days when there was so much to figure out: how to latch without pain, whether they were getting enough, how to get them to sleep through the goddam night without doing it. Now that he no longer depends upon my supply for survival, nursing is more about nurturing than nutrition. Of course it was always mostly about bonding. But now instead of marveling at his impossibly small body, I marvel at his still small but much larger body. He’s all limbs, his legs twisting and kicking and pushing athletically against me as he nurses, using his face like a fulcrum to spin the rest of his body.
Red Green is the body and love. Love within body, embodied love, loving your body, loving with your body. Feeding someone from your body or eating from someone’s body is itself an act of loving, rooted in physicality and physiology.
Of course children don’t need breastmilk to survive or even thrive. I was talking to my mother-in-law about having kids in the 1970s, when after giving birth in the hospital they took the baby away and put it in a nursery down the hall and then sent you home with a box of formula. Her kids turned out fine enough; I married one. The advent of formula was probably pretty liberating. Breastfeeding is challenging and sometimes even impossible work, and formula democratizes the caretaking a bit. Besides that, breastfeeding is a privilege. I had a job where I could take breaks to pump and maintain my supply. When the pandemic disrupted that the second time around, I could still afford to stay at home and make nursing easier.
But while breastfeeding or chestfeeding or bodyfeeding is not by any means a requirement for raising healthy children, the choice to do it is a human right. A human right in every sense of the word, since it is a choice about our very bodies.
I guess I am reflecting on nursing now because I don’t know how much longer we’ll be doing it. I had a loose goal of making it to two years, citing WHO recommendations. But really it’s because I like doing it and I wanted to do it. I can still use my body to love my kids or anyone else for that matter without lactating. But wow is it a super power, or a super ability anyway, and once I stop this time I won’t get it back.
I remember one discussion with D when it was getting to be time for her to wean. She was 27 months old, and we were all in the car driving home from a long day’s excursion. I talked to her from the front seat, listing all her peers who don’t “nook” anymore: “M doesn’t nook anymore, A doesn’t nook anymore, O doesn’t nook anymore. And soon you won’t nook anymore either.” It wasn’t the first time we had talked about it, but somehow this time she was really taking it in. She agreed and then got quiet for a second. “I feel a little sad,” she said. “I feel a little sad too,” I told her. “Let’s hold hands.”
Nursing is a relationship, and is ultimately different for every duo. Red and Green are complementary colors, a powerful pair that between them contain all the primary colors: Red and Blue + Yellow. For Year 1 of Rainbow Squared I painted Red Green as The Lovers card in the Tarot, itself about relationships, pairs, and polarities. Perhaps Red Green could also be thought of as The Feeders, not so much the process of two becoming one but the process of one slowly transitioning to two.
Yes, you and I are slowly separating. I grew you and birthed you and nursed you and one day I’ll wean you, watching as you become your own person more and more. Yesterday you told me: “I want a cake for your birthday!” Pronouns are confusing, though I’m sure that soon you’ll understand them better than I do. But yes, E, your birthday is my birth day, and vice versa. You are me and I am You, and we are as close now as we will ever be again to an I-You relationship. What would Martin Buber say about nursing? Or in this case, shall I say Martin Boober?
Well, I said it.
Red: body, life, survival, blood, cycles, physicality, livelihood
Black/White: transcendence, interconnectedness, light, polarity, culmination
I’m nineteen, with my best friend H in Montreal, where we’ve just taken our first road trip up north from New Jersey where we went to school together. We wander in the day, and night comes and we meet a band of retro bicyclists. Guys our age, maybe a little older. I still have a photo of them, all black and white and chrome on pavement. We were tipsy on champagne we had swigged from the bottle. They offered us dry, shriveled mushrooms, which we accepted and chewed, the psychedelics coming up as the people drained from the streets and the real night began.
My clearest memory is of me and H in the bathroom of the apartment of one of the bicyclists. It was all black and white tile and fixtures with big mirrors. The apartment was grubby and unremarkable, but the bathroom on mushrooms was this infinite, cold palace: black and white extending forever. H called me in because she got her period. She was sitting on the toilet, showing me what she’d found. In my state, the blood seemed to smear all over us and the bathroom, a crimson blight in that colorless space. In our high-ness, the situation felt incomprehensibly complicated, but I tried to scavenge something to help. The boys had no toilet paper or paper towels. I can’t remember what we ultimately did, maybe found a scrap of fabric or washcloth. It was inexplicable to us that they would have nothing in the house to sop up the blood our bodies leaked every month.
As it turned to morning, one of the guys tried to seduce H by rolling some kind of beaded bracelet on her skin, so we left. It was always happening like that for us back then, the boys ruining the vibe by trying to get sex. They didn’t understand.
Red, black/white. The blood in the black and white bathroom. The blood that breaks the barrier between childhood and adulthood, that prepares the body for sex and motherhood. The blood of first penetration, of rape. The white of childhood underwear. The way women often switch to only wearing black underwear after we start menstruating, because you never know exactly when you’ll bleed. Red is the sex that was always underneath our world, but which we couldn’t see until we became adults ourselves. Red was the sex that began to muddy the waters of pure friendship.
H was my confidant in this whole murky transition into adulthood. We were the ones saving each other when one of us was too high to be around some clumsy, fumbling guy. But soon enough, I would question my feelings about H, my emotions culminating in a panic attack in a sushi restaurant parking lot. How I may be in love with her, how sex could ruin a friendship, how queerness could mar my life. How that kind of love for her could be a betrayal. The red that perforates the conventions of love and relationships, that blurs the lines of friends and lovers, the red that queers my childhood world. The violence of tearing down the black and white world as you knew it, as you were taught.
Then, in another betrayal, I sleep with H’s brother. A sin in her book and, as I would wonder later, perhaps a much simpler way of burning down the complex architecture of our friendship. I trade the indelible shame of queer feelings for the simpler ones of sex behind someone’s back. This is the second time I am manic, the first time I ruin my life because of it, the first time I lose a love (H), and the only time that my life collapses for months in heartbreak. This is the white/black of mania and depression, set on the backdrop of the red of sex, the rose red of the carnal romance novel, the red of loves kept secret.
Black/white is the polarity of my mind, a feature of my life it took me eight more years to grasp. It was the black, white, black that characterized my moods beginning when I came of age, cycling through, damaging friendships, cultivating art, and ultimately landing me in a relationship so intimate and stable, it forced me to figure it all out.
Black/white—the overly simplistic representation of emotional extremes. In between those lay all the shadows and highlights, a value scale I impose on life now that I can’t un-see. This new voice tells me, ‘that’s mania’, starting to peek out through my sleepless nights. ‘That’s depression,’ whispering thoughts of death and disconnection. We-who-are-chosen-for-this-kind-of-life experience the widest range of human emotion, the most detailed spectrum between those poles of black and white. Black, white, black, white, black, white. It’s the relief of knowing the blackness will pass and the sickening feeling that even when it has passed, it will return again someday.
Black/white is also the transcendence of these emotions, which, in a counterintuitive twist, I have only found through red—the body, the physicality. Running is my main tool. I run and my body transcends anxiety and depression. I run and the dark curtains part to let in bits of light. And when my mind is hot white—the joy and franticness threatening to harm my relationships and stability—yoga, stretching, walking, dim the brights and still my mind. Grounding myself in my body allows me to see the moods for what they are—transient and distinct from the me-ness below them.
The body is my escape, but also my burden. This year, I had a dramatic, debilitating reaction to the vaccine. Migraines. At first, weeks in bed, shutting out the light completely, the volume on my headphones as low as it could go. I listened to a mix my boyfriend made me on repeat while I rested under my blankets in blackness. The black, the dark, the only safe space from the sunlight piercing my eyes.
The red, the body, the pain was inescapable. Black/white is interconnectedness, interdependence, the way my sick body made me rely on others. My housemate making me food, my boyfriend researching migraines and doing my taxes. Then, when I could emerge from my bed into the months of milder migraines that were to follow, my doctor researching alternative treatments, my bosses adapting my bartending work to avoid sun.
The pain forced me to withdraw from all screens—computers, phones—to rebuild my life offline, grounded only in the real, material world. Me, separated from the online world built of binary 0s and 1s, black/white code. The vulnerable body a reminder that none of us are truly separate individuals, regardless of what Western culture teaches.
Red/black/white are the colors of my migraine glasses—special red lenses that filter out certain light and keep my eyes from feeling like they’re being rubbed with fine-grained sandpaper all day. I wore these glasses every day for months, only now taking them off for my better days.
Black/white are the supplements I take to heal—quite literally a black pill and a white pill, CoQ10 and Magnesium.
And the tattoo I etched on my skin to remind myself that there is no beauty without darkness, that I am not capable of feeling the pleasure of existence without its counterpart? A black and white rendering of the red opium poppy. The poppy itself is red/black/white; its bright red blossoms are a background for its black-and-white center. That poppy is excruciatingly beautiful, but it’s pods have a deep history of war, addiction, slavery.
If I had to pick a color to represent all colors, it would be red. It’s the first color we see as infants, before our vision fully develops. The archetypal color intersecting with the archetypal shades, black and white. These are not the colors of our soft forests or of our oceans, of our hands or faces. They’re of blood, warning, sex, death, chaos, madness. Red, black/white. Red the first color and black/white the last color in this project’s spectrum, offering closure and completion, or perhaps just a transition to the next cycle. We bleed, we celebrate and mourn, we fall sick and get well, and know that just as surely as something passes, it will come again.
Among the toys that I spend so many hours of my life managing and sorting and rearranging and complaining about, there seems to be a preponderance of red and yellow ones. Many are either red or yellow, but many are both red and yellow. In fact it seems that Red Yellow is probably the most popular color combination among our toys, maybe any toys. Why?
Red and Yellow are both primary colors. They are also both warm colors. Red and Yellow don’t overlap so there is a good deal of contrast, but they aren’t quite opposites either. Both are pure, bright, and attention-grabbing. Both say “look at me!” And maybe both say “buy me?”
Red is body, blood, the physical realm. Yellow is power, will, saying yes. Red Yellow is Body Power. Or maybe something more like Physicality Power? The power of the material world. The power of inanimate objects. The power of toys.
When I look at toys, I see a mess. I see one more thing that I’ll have to deal with, in perpetuity. I see entropy. I see mass production and conspicuous consumption and waste and anxiety.
Okay, I don’t only see those things. I also see fun and pleasure and charm and warmth. But I can tell you that when kids look at toys, they see something that I don’t anymore.
Much has been said on this subject in the narrative realm, where Disney franchises like Toy Story or Doc McStuffins are born. The magical connection between kids and toys, the connection that breaks in adolescence when apparently your imagination breaks too.
But isn’t that depressing? I fancy myself an adult that is pretty in touch with their imagination. If I dare quote Pablo Picasso, he said something like: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I resonate with that. I mean, how much of my time do I spend thinking about rainbows, for fuck’s sake? But while we could perhaps classify the time I spend making art as some form of deep play, it’s not the same as imaginative play. Arranging a pile of red and yellow toys and moving them around in front of my camera is not the same as imagining that I occupy a shared reality with some living form of those toys. And that is a huge difference.
I marvel at the sheer capacity that kids have for play. Even as D slowly outgrows imagining that her toys are actually alive, these things become props for her more and more elaborate role-playing games, rich with symbol sets and casts of characters. Her imagination seems boundless, and her stamina for any given game is just so much stronger than mine will ever be again. I relish the sheer creativity of what she comes up with. Yet while we are playing together, I often find myself trying to figure out how I can incorporate a quick nap into the game and not have it break her fantasy (you can do a surprising amount of parenting while lying down, I have found). I can pretend to play pretend, but I am just not there in the same way that is.
Summer is winding down, and right now we’re eating red tomatoes and yellow lemons from our shared garden. It feels like such a gift to be able to eat these real living things that grew from the very soil we sleep on. Food gives us life. In play, kids give toys life. Toys aren’t able to hold that life, so maybe it goes right back to the kids.
If Red is blood, then Yellow is the electric current that keeps it pumping. In play, kids take the Red of the physical world and bring it to life with Yellow. A wooden tomato or a felt lemon aren’t real food, but not all hunger can be fixed with calories. The need for imaginative play is something different, something that kids have the power to feed themselves.
But remember, no matter the object, it’s all future trash.
“I think I look older in this outfit,” D said to me while looking in the mirror. She had put on a unicorn tank top, a unicorn sweater, and pink plastic flower-shaped sunglasses with pink lenses. “Do you think I look older?”
D is five years old. She is tall for her age, so she always looks older than five. “Sure, you look a little older,” I told her.
“How old do you think I look?” she asked.
“Well, how old do you want to look?” I asked. She thought about it for a second and said:
“Ten, I want to look ten. Do you think I look ten?”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
“D, that is double your age! That’d be like me saying, ‘Does this shirt make me look older? I want to look 70!’”
She laughed with me a little bit and conceded that, well, maybe she looked eight, or seven, or six.
I turned 35 this week. Old enough to run for president. Old enough that when I look in the mirror I am no longer trying to look any older. And maybe just now old enough to not take for granted that I’ll make it to 70 or 80 or 90 or beyond. My own mom relishes every year she gets older, each birthday past cancer standing for another year she gets to be on the planet: a reminder that aging is a good thing.
I look in the mirror at my own slowly changing body with curiosity. In my stronger moments, I look with love. Not wishing to reverse any initial signs of aging, but with gratitude to be here, to be embodied, to be created.
Orange is Creativity, Creation. Sourced in your loins, Orange can also quite literally be reproduction, or the reproduction that created you. Yellow is Power, so Orange Yellow is Creative Power. Created Power. The power I have because I am alive.
This birthday had me thinking about my ancestors, the people born before me. To be honest, I have a hard time trying to connect with the idea of my ancestors, people I didn’t know and who certainly didn’t know me. What really connects us? Is it DNA? Stories? Cultural practices? Land? What if you don’t know who or where you came from?
I do know pretty well where I came from: two lines of Ashkenazi Jews that settled in Detroit, emigrating from Eastern Europe (what is now Russia, Poland, and Lithuania) around the last turn of the century, looking for a life where they could be Jewish without discrimination. In fact, I am 95% Ashkenazi Jewish according to 23andMe. Does that somehow make my ties to those and other Jewish ancestors stronger? And what of my children who I suppose are only 47.5%? Is theirs somehow weaker? And what about our ancestors in spirit? Am I in a line with all the witchy queer artists who came before me?
I suppose it’s never actually one line anyway. I tried to draw a family tree this week, just the idea of a family tree without any names on it, but I couldn’t figure it out. I think the way a family tree is supposed to work is by starting with one person and tracing the line down only to the people related to that one person. Because if you start at the bottom and think about all the people involved in the people who made that one person it just branches infinitely. It’s impossible to source it back to one tree. It is a forest, a web, maybe even a super highway of genetic onramps and offramps and where could it have begun and how will it end?
I couldn’t really narrow down this idea of who my ancestors are, so I decided to be expansive and talk to all of them anyway. I’ve tried this before and it feels, well, awkward. I know that in my family there are traditions of casually talking with the dead, but none that were taught to me directly, and none about talking to a group of ancestors en masse. So I went casual about it. On my birthday, while I was sitting outside writing, I just sort of looked out and asked an abstract self-identifying mass of My Ancestors what they wanted from me on this day commemorating the fact of me being born as a result of all of them being born.
I asked and I got an answer. It wasn’t trumpeted from the sky or whispered to me by a bird; it was a more unceremonious and matter-of-fact kind of knowing. The answer I got from my ancestors was simple: that my task is to be alive. That is the difference between us, afterall, that I am living and they are not. I wrote it down, then also wrote: “to accomplish what I can only in human form?” Then I balked at the work “accomplish,” which felt too results-driven. I thought about crossing it out but instead circled it, writing “do” and “be” above it.
My task is to be alive: to accomplish, do, and be what I can only in human form.
Some of that is beautifully simple: singing out loud, squeezing toddler flesh, making art, making out, eating a lot of food. Being alive in itself can be healing. But there is also a need for active healing work, the kind done in community, countering oppression that I and those before me have been party to and also perpetuated, perpetrated.
I think my ancestors want me to spend time with this Map of Internalized Anti-Semitism for White Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, from educator, healer, and priestess Jo Kent Katz. There is more to this map than I can unpack here this week, but I will share her reminder that “...there is not something innate, different, or unique about white Ashkenazi Jews that creates these patterns. These patterns are manifestations of collective trauma.” She quotes her sister, Dove Kent, in saying: “Our grief connects us to others’ grief. Our terror connects us to others’ terror. The trauma Jews have experienced does not make us separate from other Peoples; it connects us to other Peoples.”
Orange Yellow. Orange is also Gratitude, and Yellow is also the Sun, is Life Force. As I celebrate another year spinning around the Sun, I am grateful for the electric life force currently coursing through this body. I am grateful for all the people who were born and lived before me, those in my direct web of DNA and beyond. May I use the power of having been created on this planet in this time to assure that many more generations of people may be born and live after me, after us. Human people and so many, many other species.
I don’t always have a clear visual when I draw the week’s colors, but with Black White Green an image that strongly came to mind was plants growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk. Black White is Gray and concrete is Gray, and leaves are Green, so it's obvious enough. But not only the colors but their meanings track here too.
Black White is transcendence and interconnectedness. Green is love and family. And so Black White Green gives plants growing out of the sidewalk another meaning: how true interconnectedness transcends human relationships, how plants and so many other species must be included in the notion of family.
I am finally reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a scientist, professor, mother, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In the section of the book titled, “The Grammar of Animacy,” Dr. Kimmerer makes it compelling and clear that what you consider family or indeed what you even can consider family starts with the words you use, and the very language you speak:
English is a nounbased language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent. Which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered.
I’ve known and felt the ways that English and so many other languages are limited by gender, but I’ve only thought about how that affects humans. I didn’t quite realize that gendered language limits our relationships with the natural world, making “it” the standard pronoun for singular non-human entities. Dr. Kimmerer says:
Imagine seeing your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, “Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.” We might snicker at such a mistake, but we also recoil from it. In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.
I have to admit that I have a complex and even intimate relationship with the pronoun “it.” Each time I was pregnant we chose not to find out the sex, and so I referred to the fetus as “it.” I was taken aback by how much that took some people aback. “How can you call your baby an it??” they would demand, aghast.
“Well, it is an it!” I would shoot back. “And it’s not a baby, it’s a fetus! It’s basically a science experiment at this point.” Was that not sufficiently reverent? Maybe. Sure, I delighted a bit in making people squirm, but that isn’t why I chose that language. Using “it” just felt right, even more so than “they,” which still evoked the idea of gender. “It” captured some of the mystery inherent in the whole experience of hosting, well, a thing inside of me. Reflecting now, perhaps it was precisely the slight dehumanization of “it” that felt right to me, politically correct even. Living in a culture that clearly devalues the lives of pregnant people, calling my fetus “it” allowed me to stay an “I.”
Outside of reproductive politics though, what about the rest of the natural world?
To whom does our language extend the grammar of animacy? Naturally, plants and animals are animate, but as I learn, I am discovering that the Potawatomi understanding of what it means to be animate diverges from the list of attributes of living beings we all learned in Biology 101. In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places. Beings that are imbued with spirit, our sacred medicines, our songs, drums, and even stories, are all animate.
So yes, the grass that defies city planning to burst out of the sidewalk is a living being. And maybe even the sidewalk itself: concrete as a substance is cement plus lots and lots of tiny rocks. How many degrees of human intervention strip the animacy from objects, turn then from beings to things? Dr. Kimmerer says:
The list of the inanimate seems to be smaller, filled with objects that are made by people. Of an inanimate being, like a table, we say, “What is it?” And we answer Dopwen yewe. Table it is. But of apple, we must say, “Who is that being?” And reply Mshimin yawe. Apple that being is.
Yawe—the animate to be. I am, you are, s/he is. To speak of those possessed with life and spirit we must say yawe. By what linguistic confluence do Yahweh of the Old Testament and yawe of the New World both fall from the mouths of the reverent? Isn’t this just what it means, to be, to have the breath of life within, to be the offspring of Creation? The language reminds us, in every sentence, of our kinship with all of the animate world.
The linguistic confluence that connects these words is indeed the breath of life itself. That is what “Yahweh” means, though ironically calling it “Yahweh” strips this meaning.
I actually first heard the name “Yahweh” in a high school social studies class. My teacher (who was not Jewish) said something like: “Jews believe in one god, a god they call Yahweh.” I was like, excuse me? Who’s that?
Throughout the Torah, God is referred to with a four letter word with no vowels, equivalent to Y-H-V-H or Y-H-W-H. This name is sometimes referred to as the Tetragrammaton, or the four-letter unpronounceable name of god. “Unpronounceable” is important there: the idea of anyone casually trying to say it outloud was totally jarring to me. I finally raised my hand and told the class that no Jewish person ever refers to or even talks about their god as Yahweh. I said that when we see those letters, we say them outloud as Hashem (meaning “the name”) or in prayer as Adonai (meaning “the lord”). To his credit, after my intervention this teacher stopped saying “Yahweh” and then referred to the Jewish god as Adonai for the rest of the unit. This name is also not one that Jews say casually, but I’ll take it. I will always remember the way he pronounced it: saying “ah-doe-nay” instead of “ah-doe-nye.”
My discomfort at having my culture botched in school is nothing compared to the mandatory government schooling that ripped apart Indigenous families in North America, often violently, including Dr. Kimmerer’s own family. Indeed, that “schooling” is responsible for Dr. Kimmerer having to relearn Potawatomi today.
That schooling can also be traced back to “Yahweh,” or more specifically to the idea of the god that the name refers to. Even the very act of naming god was used as a tool of subjugation and ultimately domination.
The best way I have heard Y-H-W-H explained was actually in the last book I was reading, Dancing in God’s Earthquake, by long-time activist and venerated Jewish Renewal rabbi, Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow. Rabbi Waskow explains:
I invite you to pause and try to pronounce this word, this Name. It is not “Yahweh,” for it has no vowels. It is not “Jehovah,” for it has no vowels.
For about the last 2,000 years, Jewish tradition has taught that we should not even try to pronounce it, but instead substitute the word “Adonai,” which means “Lord.” This teaching passed into the Greek of the Christian New Testament, where it became “Kyrios.” And then it passed into Latin as “Dominus.” But in the beginning, as the flame wavered in the wind and Moses shook in awe, it was certainly not these words of domination.
What was it then? Modern grammarians have pointed out that it weaves together the letters that make up the Hebrew for the past, the present, and the future of the verb “to be.” So they have suggested that it is a kind of Moebius strip of Being, time turned and twisted to come back upon itself, beyond itself: Eternal.
This is one aspect of the Name, rooted in the intellect of words, that is both profound and attractive. Better than “Lord.”
But let’s go back to trying to pronounce it. When I first, on the spur of the moment, decided to break the rule that said never to try pronouncing it, what came from my mouth was—YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh. Breathing. Simply a breath.
And when I invited others to “pronounce” these four letters, almost everyone created the same experience: Breathing.
For me, that first moment of saying, “YHWH,” by simply breathing—that first moment was transformative. My first thought was that this made good sense: Surely one of the real Names of the real God should not be only in Hebrew, or Egyptian, or Greek, or Latin, or Chinese, or Urdu, or Swahili, or English. It should be in all of them. And there is no sound that vibrates every human tongue except the sound of breathing.
My second thought was that it is not just human languages. Every life form on this planet breathes, and indeed we breathe each other into life. We humans, and all other animals, breathe in what the trees breathe out. The trees breathe in what we breathe out. We breathe each other into life. What could be a truer Name for God?
I so appreciate Dr. Kimmerer linking the Potawatomi language back to a transliterated name of The Western God. Though it registered for me the instant I read the word “yawe” in her writing, it isn’t a link I would have otherwise felt comfortable writing about. There is just so much destruction that comes from capital R Religion that it is hard to look beyond the history of pain to see the wisdom at its core. Rabbi Waskow’s work is to help us remember that wisdom, to unlearn some of the horrible clutter on top of it. As he continues:
Pronounce the Name that could not be pronounced, and it instantly became apparent that this Name, the Breath, this Wind, this Hurricane, this Spirit was universal. The Jewish people had no patent on it. If the Name could shatter Pharaoh’s power, it could endanger any domineering social structure that subjugated any people, every people. Even a structure that lorded it over the Jewish people.
How clever then—not wise, but clever—centuries later, to replace the Breathing with a word, “Adonai,” that meant “Lord.” It’s convenient to borrow the controlling social symbols of the Roman Empire to control this somewhat maverick community within the Empire.
Even more appropriate when Christianity took over/was taken over by the Empire to translate “YHWH” with “Kyrios” in Greek and “Dominus” in Latin. If you want to dominate, name what is most sacred “Dominus.”
And my second thought, I realized, was yet more dangerous. Does this Name of Interbreathing mean that not only human beings count? Does this Name mean that frogs and ferns, rabbits and redwoods, bugs and bacteria, also count? Could this Name dislodge the centrality of Homo sapiens and make us a thread in the great woven prayer shawl of the universe, the One, Echad?
Kein yehi ratzon: may it be so. If we are to be truly interconnected, it starts with recognizing our interconnection. To truly regard the living world as family, the way we talk about and to that world has to change. It’s no small feat to transform a language, but none of the feats of transformation before us at this time are small. But it does happen bit by bit: with every use of a singular “they,” we transform the English language. May we find more and more ways in the future to speak with true recognition and love.
I took these photos while walking early in the morning, two-year-old E strapped into a stroller. He was mostly patient as I took 300 photos of the ground, though he didn’t have much of a choice. Occasionally he called out, “Let’s go to the playgrouuund,” urging me along as I found yet another specimen, yet another angle, lining up my phone’s camera just so, stepping and clicking.
The tables turned the next day when the two of us were walking together again, this time without a stroller. I was the one then urging him along as he stopped to examine every speck along the way. Eventually we encountered some wild fennel, which is pretty plentiful in the Bay Area. We stopped to greet it, handle it, smell it. (Have I learned nothing?) We stopped to greet the fennel, handle the fennel, smell the fennel. “Hello Fennel!” E declared loudly, as I have taught him to do for plants, animals, waterways, woods. To him, even dump trucks and diggers are living beings. After a while, we had communed with the fennel or Fennel for what I felt was long enough. I tried to get him to move forward, to keep walking, onwards. “Come on, E! Let’s go!”
E looked up from the green stringy leaves and yellow seedy flowers he was rubbing into his face. “I’m fennelling!” he said, and he didn’t move. That wasn’t something I taught him. E turned fennel not just into a proper noun, but a verb.
Last week I went to a wedding. A destination wedding. Without my kids. Without my partner, who stayed home with the kids. Before heading to the airport I woke at 5am to determine the week’s colors.
I drew the card for Orange Green: Creating with Love. An appropriate combination for a wedding, it seemed. And one that also seemed appropriate for the landscape I was headed to of Southern Utah, with its green shrubs against red (orange) rocks.
But I wasn’t actually thinking about the colors specifically once I was on the airplane. I think I was just giddy to be on an airplane at all, and sitting next to my best friend, Jimmy. In fact, it was thirteen years ago to the day that we first flew together on an airplane when we moved to San Francisco.
I flipped through the movie selections on the touch screen monitor in front of me with glee. Time to watch things! Weeee! Finally something caught my eye: a retrospective documentary about the first children’s television network, Nickelodeon.
The plane landed when we were about halfway through the movie so we couldn’t finish it. But that’s when it dawned on me. That morning, the colors I drew were Orange Green. The title of this movie? “The Orange Years.” Even the thumbnail image was orange and green, for Nickelodeon’s iconic shade of orange and its accent color, slime.
Now “The Orange Years” wasn’t necessarily great cinema. It is a nostalgia fest, brain candy for millenials wanting to relive their childhoods. But Nickelodeon was a great part of my childhood. So while I felt a little manipulated, I was on board for the manipulation.
Of course, Nickelodeon was and still is a commercial enterprise. But apparently what set Nickelodeon apart from other networks at the time was an emphasis not only on kids but on creators. Most popular cartoons in the 1980s existed primarily to sell toys: G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony, She-Ra. Nickelodeon, on the other hand, deliberately sought out creators to make original content for its initial line-up of cartoons in 1991, content that was strange and even a little ugly. Rugrats, Doug, Ren & Stimpy: content created with love. Of course, the merchandising and toys came later, but the content came first.
Nickelodeon bet that kids wanted weird and gross, and I certainly did. The close-ups of boogers on Ren & Stimpy, the absurd consumer crises of Rocko’s Modern Life: even when I didn’t understand it, I loved it. Then there were the live action characters I wanted to emulate: Clarissa Darling of Clarissa Explains It All, Alex Mack of The Secret World of Alex Mack, even Little Pete on The Adventures of Pete and Pete. These characters were seemingly independent, creative, dressed outside of mainstream fashion, and were, yes, a little weird.
I think I would have been a weirdo whether or not Nickelodeon existed. But it certainly influenced the flavor of my weirdness, or let me claim it with a little more pride. Sometimes I think this television network penetrated the fabric of my identity.
I guess that’s something I should keep in mind with my own children’s media diet. I mean, I’m no Waldorf parent: my child is actually watching a movie right now so that I can struggle to edit this, far after my usual deadline. But my siblings and I watched hours and hours of television as kids. We turned on a TV and tuned to a channel and watched whatever was on. Now we don’t even have a TV, we have multiple multiple-use digital screens with apps to seek out and select specific media after much deliberation and scrolling. I think I am grateful that there isn’t a particular monolith doling out shows to my kids, but maybe the soup of the entire internet that they will be entering soon enough is actually a little scarier.
Speaking of being a kid, going to this wedding was sort of like going back in time. And it was great. People asked all weekend how I was feeling, and I asked myself the same question. I think I expected to feel some phantom pangs of obligation and caretaking, sort of how I imagine breeds of herding dogs must feel when they live in a city and start herding ducks or people instead of the sheep that their ancestors did. But I didn’t feel that way. I just felt like myself. And not even like a previous version of myself, just myself when I am actually able to be with other people, other amazing people. When I am able to talk to them without multitasking or being interrupted every other sentence.
So you could say I was able to be an adult last weekend, at a wedding without my kids. But you could also say that I was able to be a kid myself. In the best way. Not taking care of anyone else, just hanging out with my friends, going on (hiking) adventures, dancing my face off to 90s hits, staying up all night. I got to play. Not facilitating my children playing, but me playing myself, deeply.
And able to be in nature.
There are perhaps few places on the planet with as much natural splendor as Utah. Rocks jutting out of the earth everywhere, not just rocks but whole mountains and cliffs and canyons and towers and arches. If I was wondering last week whether tiny rocks are alive, the big rocks answered: yup.
Being in the presence of those rocks does something to you. Makes you feel present, but also makes you feel like you should feel present, makes you wonder if it is even possible to ever be present enough around beings like that. Maybe it's the Midwestern in me that is so used to flat land, but sometimes I can’t fully comprehend that the tall things in the distance on the horizon are actually there, or that I am here looking at them. Are those rocks even real? Is this a simulation? How would I know?
And why am I thinking about simulations when I am in nature? Perhaps I have filled my brain with too much media, not just Nickelodeon but all manner of cartoons and shows and songs so many songs and books and conversations and thoughts that I can never and will never truly just be where I am. Not just looking at what I am looking at, but being there, and being there with. I close my eyes to try to listen to the rocks sing their songs, and instead I hear: “It’s Log! It’s Log! It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood. It’s Log! It’s Log! It’s better than bad, it’s good!”
So, welcome to this week’s chaotic animation, which maybe for once does a better job of expressing in images than what I am trying to express in words about what it's like to be behind my eyes (any human eyes? I don’t know) trying to look out and not really being able to control what I am looking at.
Trying to reconcile the orange rocks and green shrubs of natural splendor with the orange and green brand identity of a television network. What is our relationship to the commercial entities that shape our consciousness? Maybe as problematic as any parent/child relationship.
Or as problematic as any human/nature relationship. Though certainly human people have lived in these rocky landscapes for centuries, if not millenia, and until relatively recently, the Ute and Paiute peoples that Utah is named for. It was the people who came later that messed things up, as the framed pictures on the walls in our hotel room would frightfully attest. Now as I walk these landscapes as a tourist I wonder if I’m experiencing them like more television, passively consuming nature like more brain candy.
But human existence itself is weird. Maybe it is all worthy of reverence: if it exists, it's holy. Right now we are in the Days of Awe, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. I certainly don’t feel present for these days this year; maybe it’s all the sleep that I (delightfully) sacrificed. But I did bring my shofar along to Utah, a ram’s horn that has been used as a ritual musical instrument since Biblical times.
The sound of the shofar is loud and bracing, designed to bring you back to the present moment. To remind you of who you are and help you to return to it. When I first blew the shofar last weekend in Utah, we all gaped in wonder as the sound ricocheted over the rocks and through the canyons, bouncing on and on and back and back. Maybe that’s how you talk to rocks. Or maybe I can dig into the memory of that moment to orient somehow. That moment passed and this one will too when I am still somehow sitting here early on Sunday morning trying to make this essay make sense when it can’t because, well, it’s maybe about how nothing makes sense. All I can do is create with love, to blast that shofar until the walls of my psyche come crumbling down.
Orange Green. My child self seeing its weirdness reflected on a screen and then ultimately reflected in its adult self. It doesn’t make much more sense now than it did back then. But here I am, still creating with love, boogers and all.
Hallucinogenic plants may have been the catalysts for everything about us that distinguishes us from other primates except perhaps the loss of body hair. All of the mental functions which we associate with humanness, including recall, projective imagination, language, naming, magical speech, dance, and a sense of religio may have emerged out of interaction with hallucinogenic plants.
So said the late Terence McKenna, an ethnobotanist, author, speaker, thinker, and one of the world’s most outspoken proponents of psychedelics. I first got into Terence McKenna in college, when I would stay up late nights in the studio listening to the Psychedelic Salon podcast. A labor of love by a man named Lorenzo, this podcast is apparently still running, sixteen years strong. It basically consists of hours and hours of archival interviews and lectures with psychonauts like Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, and Terence McKenna. At the time it blew my mind to hear people talking out loud about this stuff, to hear that people had been talking about it for decades. Millenia even, if you go outside the scope of ciswhite males in Western Culture.
The above quotation is actually from an essay by Terence McKenna called “Plan/Plant/Planet.” That link goes to a photocopy of it published in the Whole Earth Review in 1989, but I read it in his book The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History, a compilation of interviews and essays published in 1991. Honestly, listening to Terence McKenna speak is more compelling than reading his words on paper, but it is powerful to have a document to refer to.
It is Terence McKenna who introduced me to the idea that humans are not necessarily the most intelligent life on the planet, but that we may owe our intelligence to plants. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but spend enough time staring at a cannabis plant (let alone ingesting cannabis) and it certainly feels true.
I’ve been thrown way off from my usual Friday publishing rhythm, so last week I ended up choosing this week’s colors in a friend’s garden on a Sunday afternoon. I was hiding out on the other side of some bushes so my kids wouldn’t come over and start shuffling the cards around. The colors that emerged were Green Black White. Usually I let myself ruminate on the colors for a day or two before I start creating any imagery. But in this case, when I packed up my cards and stood up, I saw it immediately: a cannabis plant nearly as tall as I am.
Actually this plant was standing much taller than me, because it was sitting in a pot of dirt on top of a raised garden bed. It was covered in buds almost by not quite ready to harvest, sparkling with trichomes. So I did what came naturally: stared in awe, said hello, and took 500 pictures on my phone.
Green is love, family, leaves. Black White is interconnectedness, transcendence, light. This cannabis plant was all leaves and light, all green leaves and buds and light and shadow. I hadn’t ingested any of that type of plant myself that day, but I didn’t need to be high to appreciate this creature. While my final animation only uses the last 14 pictures I took, the photographing was its own communing, viewing up close through a screen, capturing capturing capturing, loving the plant’s light by committing it to more light, rendering it into digital images.
So a week ago my animation was already pretty much made in my camera roll. All that was left was to think about plants and interconnection and write it down. Easy enough.
A couple nights later I got into bed at 9pm expecting to wake up at 5am to write. It felt like an accomplishment: lining up eight hours of sleep! I took a little extra 40:1 CBD tincture to make sure I stayed asleep going to bed so early. While I have a lot of love for the cannabis plant itself, CBD tincture is the main form I can handle these days.
Well, I did wake up early, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. I was still in bed at 6am. And still in bed after 630am when the kids came bounding in.
The whole time I lay there in a sort of half sleep, thinking about writing about plants, then just thinking about plants, and then trying to think as a plant. Like, trying to be one. This perhaps made as much sense as any dream logic ever does. But I had picked up that Terence McKenna book again, and so his ideas had creeped back into my consciousness. “The animals move, migrate, and swarm, while plants hold fast,” Terence McKenna said.
Nestled in the dark sheets I was a plant, or maybe even a seed. I knew that it was really my animal body that wanted me to get up and do something. Be quiet, be still, I told myself. If you really want to learn from your plant body, lay in bed now and dream. Your survival might depend on it, according to Terence McKenna:
Until this point in history we have modeled our more successful economic systems on animal predation. Animals can potentially move on to another resource when they exhaust the one at hand. Since they can move to new food sources, they potentially have unlimited resources. Plants are fixed. They cannot easily move to richer nutrients, or leave an area if they foul or deplete it. They must recycle well. The fostering of a plant-based ethic that emulates the way in which the botanical world uses and replaces resources is a sine qua non for planetary survival. All capitalistic models presuppose unlimited exploitable resources and labor pools, yet neither should now be assumed.
Rest is one way to conserve my own finite energetic resources. So I lay there. Not a predator, not a hunter, not even a gatherer, but a recycler. Cycling through thoughts I’d already thought, breathing the air that was there in the room, processing the nutrients I’d ingested the night before. Taking in the sweet rest that was available in my bed, coursing it through my veins. Staying still.
Plants have a different relationship to time, measured by their relationship to light. Green Black White is number 28 in the Rainbow Squared System, which is itself a magical number having to do with time. 7 days for the moon to change phases, the new moon waxing to first quarter to full then waning to third quarter and back to new. 4 cycles of 7 make 28 days (or so) for the moon to cycle around again. Many human bodies live by this cycle at some point in their lives as well, shifting phases from menses to growing follicles to ovulating to building a uterine lining to shedding it with menses again. Black White is always about cycles, and Green Black White especially is about the natural world and celestial bodies and cycles.
Leaves certainly live in cycles with the light and the dark. I don’t know much about cannabis cultivation, but I know you can trick a plant into behaving differently based on the number of daylight hours you allow it, depriving sunlight and then blasting ultraviolet rays indoors. Much has been written about human relationship to light as well, the blue light coming from our screens tricking us into perpetual productivity. As we approach the Equinox I find myself looking forward to the daylight diminishing. Commuting in the dark sucks, even now when my commute is mostly school drop-off and pick-up. But I find it easier to write in the darker half of the year, when the sun isn’t yanking my attention outdoors.
Not that I need much help to write more, maybe just better. I looked it up and apparently I wrote 30,000 words last year and now 45,000 words this year already. Have I written about Terence McKenna before, I wondered? I couldn’t actually recall, so I checked. I went to http://arainbowsquared.com/year4 and did a Ctrl + F to search for “terence.” And I found one in Year 4, 19. Yellow Blue, but it wasn’t Terence McKenna. It was Terence Crutcher.
His name was nestled in a list of other names, names of Black people murdered by police. I had taken the time to transcribe it and the 99 others I saw on a piece of paper laid on an altar up on Bernal Hill in June 2020. But I didn’t take the time to actually learn each of those names and commit them to memory, much less to look up all the people behind the names.
Terence Crutcher was a 40-year-old father and musician who sang in his church choir. He was shot outside of his car by a white police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma on September 16th, 2016. That means this past Thursday was the 5th anniversary of his death. Terence Crutcher was tased by one police officer and then shot and killed by another, Betty Jo Shelby. He carried no weapon, though the autopsy found PCP in his system. She was charged with first-degree manslaughter but ultimately found not guilty.
I speak of Black and White as interconnectedness and light, but of course in the United States and in so much of the world, it is also race. Black and white. A white police officer shot and killed a Black man who was perhaps out of his mind at the time. I don’t know that the police officer was out of hers.
Police are trained to make split second decisions, to react instantaneously to what they perceive as threats. Terence Crutcher must have been reaching for a gun, the police officer said. Would staying still have saved him? We’ll never know, and ultimately that’s not the point, that’s never the point. But it is very possible that staying still for just another second or two after her partner tased Terence Crutcher might have prevented Betty Jo Shelby from then shooting him.
I’m certainly no expert on this case just from reading the Wikipedia page. And I can’t wish and I’m not wishing plant consciousness on anyone since I don’t even quite know what that means: would being under the influence of a synthetic hallucinogen like PCP qualify? But if animal bodies equip humans to harm each other, to divide each other into categories and hierarchies and systems of oppression based on those categories, it is tempting to imagine plant bodies as an alternative.
Terence McKenna ends the essay "Plan/Plant/Planet" with: “Our choice as a planetary culture is a simple one: go Green or die.” Saying “go Green” in the 1980s was a little less cringe-worthy than it is now that a couple decades of greenwashing have diluted the meaning. Even when Terence McKenna talks about recycling, he doesn’t mean turning plastic trash into different plastic future trash like it means now. Green Consciousness and “going Green” in McKenna speak is not about consumer choices, it’s about actually being Green. Not just preserving natural spaces but actually learning from and even acting like vegetation, which he says “constitutes by far the major portion of the biomass of the living earth.”
When I started writing this I thought it would be more about cannabis specifically. There is so much to say on that subject, and even on the subject of me as a white woman being able to write about that subject. But one thing that distinguishes cannabis from other plants is perhaps that cannabis knows how to speak to humans in a language they understand. Cannabis is what Terrence McKenna would call a “magical plant teacher,” and one who can perhaps translate for the others. But what are the plants saying?
In this moment, the plants are telling me to stop trying to talk to plants when I should be listening to other humans. That the drive to dominate, violate, and consume that has some humans divide other humans into categories is the same drive that separates them from the natural world. This drive doesn’t arise from the human condition or even the animal condition, but from deeply misinterpreting something about what it means to be an earthling. To be alive. Being a growing living thing among and with other growing living things embodies another Green force: Love.
Even capitalized, the word “Love” looks paltry. Love doesn’t look like something that could ever stand up against the atrocities committed throughout history to consolidate power, or stand up against the forces of white supremacy and patriarchy played out everyday in countless individual interactions. But it’s possible that Love is the only thing that ever could. A Green Love.
Let’s be honest here: I am burning myself out. I didn’t realize how much my consistent productivity each week was based on, well, not socializing. Or not doing much of anything else besides childcare and working on this project. The lingering sleep debt of time I did spend socializing three weeks ago combined with a seemingly insatiable desire to organize my weekly waterfall of words into ever-more elaborate essays means that I am giving this project more time than I have, or more time than I have if I want to stay mentally sound. When I pulled the colors for this week, I found myself begging the cards: please, something simple.
I think I got it in Green Red. Green is love, family, leaves, and nature. Red is body, survival, life, and blood. Green Red is my fourth Green in a row, the longest streak of any so far this year. Of course if I were doing the pieces in order from 1-49, I would always be engaged in some sort of streak of seven: e.g. Green Red would be followed by Green Orange which would be followed by Green Yellow and onward to Green Black White before a new cycle started with Blue Red. But because Year 5 is an emergent order, streaks are notable, magic even. If Green is Love, its repetition here is perhaps reminding me to have a bit more love or at least kindness for myself. The Red in there is a grounding force, a reminder to be in my body and basically calm the fuck down.
Yes, this project here is based on cycles of sevens. This reminds me just how accidentally Jewish it is: the Jewish calendar itself is built on so many cycles of seven. Everything is organized around the fact that the week culminates in Shabbat, the day or rest and reverence whose name actually comes from the Hebrew word for “seven.” But the years go in cycles too. The year that just started with this past New Moon, 5782, is a seventh year, or what is called a Shmita year. Shmita means “release.” Described as Shabbat Shabbaton (or Shabbat Squared, if you will), you can think of this whole year as a giant Shabbat. It is a year where the Torah commands its readers to let their fields go fallow, refraining from plowing, planting, or pruning. Anything that grows from the earth of its own accord is deemed ownerless and cannot be sold, and is left to be harvested by anyone who needs it. All debts are cancelled, building in a disruption to an otherwise potentially endless cycle of poverty or an endless accumulation of wealth. Historians say that it is doubtful that Shmita has ever been practiced widely to its full potential, and of course there are many loopholes. But as a concept, the promise of Shmita is profound.
Shmita also teaches us not to take abundance for granted. It’s made me look differently at the apple tree growing in our shared yard. I mean, I regarded it with reverence anyway. It’s an apple tree! A full grown apple tree! That never won’t feel magical to me. While none of the plants or trees in the yard belong to us, our neighbor and landlord lets us harvest to our hearts’ content. We harvested two full bags of apples to bring over to our friends’ new cider press, and with every apple I picked I was convinced I would be stripping the tree bare. But there are still so many more apples. Apple trees are the picture of abundance from the earth, fat fruits bursting off the end of each branch in plump clusters. Apples themselves are Green Red, each fruit starting out green and slowly filling with red. The whole tree is Green Red too, with each brilliant red apple in high contrast against the green background of the leaves.
I’m trying to take a cue from this amazing Apple to enjoy the abundance, reap and share what’s already on the land, and chill. Not only have I been running myself ragged with this project, but the Jewish holidays themselves have taken a toll. (I think?) they are mostly supposed to be a joy, but this year, as in most years since parenthood, the Jewish holidays feel like running a gauntlet. Tishrei is the Hebrew month that falls around September/October, and it starts with the new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah on the 1st, extending onto ten Days of Awe culminating in the fasting day of Yom Kippur on the 10th, then onto the weeklong harvest festival of Sukkot on the 15th, culminating with Simchat Torah on the 22nd. It is a lot.
It is hard for me not to think of the month of Tishrei as some sort of test for providing my family with a full Jewish experience that I am somehow failing. When I was just accounting for my own spiritual life as a single person it was already a lot to coordinate. Now being in charge of my family’s cultural education and still trying to keep my own spiritual shit together, by the time Sukkot rolls around and I somehow needed to remember to figure out how to build a temporary hut in our backyard before figuring out what to do with the kids while I am pulling them out of school and trying not to eat all day just four days before, forget it. We’re in a pandemic, we moved twice in the last year, and somehow after thirteen years of living in the Bay Area I still haven’t committed to any one congregation as a spiritual home. For Sukkot this year we gathered some branches and picked a lemon from another amazing fruit tree and called that a lulav and etrog. Then we hung a few paper chains on an old deck umbrella and called it a sukkah. That’ll do.
The thing is that Jewish holidays and rituals are designed to be done in community. The fact that pulling them off alone is a pain in the ass is kind of the point. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that Judaism itself is designed to be done in community, which is why these elaborate holiday celebrations and rituals exist. Living around other people who are doing the same wacky shit you’re trying to do makes it a lot easier to explain. I think this probably carries over to many ethnic and cultural groups, but Judaism certainly has turned it into an art. If everyone is celebrating Shabbat, it makes it easier to close all the stores or even turn off your phone. If everyone doesn’t eat pork, you’re never faced with awkward dietary choices. And if everyone is praying together, it makes it easier to take care of all the kids together and even feed everyone (problematic gender roles factor in here big time, but that’s another piece of writing). Community makes it possible to pull off so many things that can’t be done alone. Like the work of a harvest, and the work of taking care of each other.
Shmita is another practice that can only be pulled off collectively. It only really works if everyone agrees to do it. It was always designed as only an in-group kind of thing, with the Torah stipulating that it is specifically land in the Land of Israel to be left fallow, and debts among fellow Jews to be cancelled. Maybe that’s because those are the only places and people the Torah could really set rules for: it wouldn’t be right for a Jew to demand their own debt held by a non-Jew be released every seventh year. But given that Shmita may never have been perfectly practiced among Jews in the first place, it is interesting to wonder what it would like on a wider scale.
What if every seven years everywhere we let fields go fallow, declared their yields ownerless, and allowed anyone to eat from them? What if every seventh year we cancelled all debts so that no one consolidated too much debt, or consolidated too much power? But alas, who is that “we” here? And what about not only every seventh year, but every year, every day in a system where people go hungry because they are forced into debt and then punished for being poor?
Green can also be money, and Red can be livelihood through its connection to life and survival. Green Red can be the very stuff of subsistence and economic interdependence. Freeing the land and the people from constant service to the few. Breaking the chains of economic oppression and redistributing the wealth. Sharing your harvest, sharing your abundance, sharing your apples: they were never yours to keep anyway.
Sauce and spaghetti.
Explode to confetti.
Blood and bile
on bathroom tiles.
Guts and gore.
Pizza no more.
Yellow is power. It is also your will, the sun, your gut, your solar plexus, the place from which you say Yes.
Red is the body. It is also life, survival, blood, cycles, physicality.
Yellow Red is The Power of The Body.
The Power of The Body is a power that I have long tried to deny.
The truth is that for most of my life I’ve seen my body at best as a nuisance, and at worst as something to be despised.
As a deeply uncoordinated, asthmatic child, my gangly body got me picked last for every single sport in every single gym class. When I began to rapidly gain weight in middle school, my body then became the source of considerable teasing and shame.
If these weren’t reasons enough for me to hate the bloody meat vessel I was living inside of, my body also decided that around that age would be a great time to let me know that I’m a sexual deviant in all the usual ways that adolescence lets boys know who and what they’re attracted to.
To top it all off, around the same time, I began to have miserable autoimmune issues culminating in my developing a severe dairy allergy, losing 30 pounds worth of vomit in a couple weeks, and an all-around unpleasant roundtrip to death’s door. Once I figured out my allergens and successfully managed to cut them out of my diet, I went through adolescence basically overnight: from 5’2” to 6’1” over the course of a month.
My body looked very different to everyone else, but it felt exactly the same to me. A nuisance. An ugly nuisance that I couldn’t stand the sight of. There was no goal-weight that could ever make me truly feel skinny enough to stop seeing myself in the way my former tormentors had, my former friends. There was only not enough. Not thin enough to stop secretly skipping meals. Not full enough to be able to diet for very long before I found myself in desperation and need of a binge. Not secure enough to care at all about the lasting damage I would do to my body.
Like so many gay guys (and so many more girls) at that age, my self-worth was largely dependent on my potential to be a twink-ling object of desire, despite the fact that this was more of a theoretical ideal, given that there weren’t a lot of opportunities for me to be an actual object of desire as a closeted teen in a conservative midwestern suburb.
But on the rare occasions I thought there might be a chance of being around a guy I found to be cute and possibly even gay, I developed a troubling ritual. Beneath all of my clothes, I’d duct-tape my man breasts to be tighter against my chest, my stomach to be as flat as possible, or my thighs to be similarly smaller. Whatever I hated the most that day. I couldn’t really breathe or move very well in my man-corset, but I did feel as skinny as I could and that was the best feeling I could possibly imagine at that time.
By the end of the day, the duct tape would bond so thoroughly to my skin that my body hairs and often even the skin itself would come off with it, regularly drawing bright red blood. It was unbelievably painful. At some point during this period it occurred to me that I could just use an inner layer of paper or gauze, but in truth I didn’t feel I deserved that mercy and continued to direct my anger at my body, at my body. I could’ve exercised my way to the body I wanted, you might think. But to be honest, my teasing trauma from being the sad sickly child picked last on every sport was possibly even stronger than my other forms of self-hatred, such that I could never stomach the idea of letting someone else see just how deeply unfit I was.
One day, either because I’d been wearing the tape too long or too often, I tore off big swatches of skin larger than ever before. Some semblance of the scars remained on my chest for the next couple years around the nipples, and my nipples themselves almost entirely lost feeling for the next 10-15 years. For better or worse, no one really noticed my scars because I avoided taking my shirt off at all costs.
I still hate having my shirt off, to be honest. I’ve been in therapy for almost 20 years, and I still can’t stand it. Or to exercise in front of other people. I don’t even like biking or swimming or running in front of other people. It’s been around 12 years since the last time I engaged in any significant self-harming behaviors though, and a similar amount of time since my disordered eating habits stopped.
I wish that I could proudly say that I’d stopped because I genuinely learned to love my body at some point, as all the modern body-positive teachings that I very much objectively believe in have told me to so many times.
But honestly? The real reason I stopped hurting myself was because I started to realize that other people—other men, specifically—still somehow managed to be attracted to my body no matter how revolting I found it to be. And because I myself started to realize how many other types of bodies I was attracted to than the one single type that the media had told me I was supposed to like. And because I started to see at some point how vain, superficial and self-centered such an obsession with my own physical form was, even if it was a self-destructive obsession. And because of all the therapy, assumedly.
In truth, I don’t know that I’ll ever really love my body the way that I’m supposed to. In my mid-to-late 30s now, I gather that I can feel my age more than many of my peers. More back pain, more muscle aches. Less energy, less strength. I have no one to blame for this but myself—my sedentary lifestyle, my lack of exercise. Working too much. Partying too much, for too long. Eating behaviors that, while now un-disordered, are still quite poor. All evidence that I still can’t seem to love my body enough to take care of it.
I can keep trying to love it, at least. I guess truthfully all the trying was also a part of how I went from hating my body to the indifference towards it I feel now. So maybe, with enough work, in another decade or two, I might feel something better. Maybe even something like love.
Blue Yellow is Communication Power. Perhaps appropriately, Mercury is retrograde again, purportedly interfering with communication and technology. Yellow is also electricity, so Blue Yellow could specifically be electronic communications. Interference from and to electronic communications certainly dominated the news this week.
Also appropriately, I went last week to see the Nam June Paik retrospective at SFMOMA before it closed. Paik coined the term “electronic superhighway” in the 1970s to describe the future of global communications, and, well, here we are. Paik was the founder of video art, a classically trained musician, a member of Fluxus, and a prolific collaborator, so this show featured over 200+ artworks. Television sets in so many states of assembly and disassembly and reassembly: broken open, manipulated by magnets, stacked as sculptures, turned into cellos, turned into bras, heaped en masse playing psychedelic video mash-ups of digitally manipulated musical performances on repeat. A couple of works even incorporated a live candle lit inside the gallery each day.
Beyond manipulating hardware, Paik also created and broadcast content. Good Morning, Mr. Orwell was his first live satellite broadcast on New Year’s Day 1984, a rebuttal to George Orwell’s dystopian predictions for that year. A mash-up of live events happening simultaneously in New York and Paris, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell was an intentionally chaotic variety show of high art and 80s pop performers from John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Joseph Beuys, Allen Ginsberg, and Laurie Anderson to Peter Gabriel, the Thompson Twins, and Oingo Boingo, seen through Paik’s computer graphic filters. This satellite broadcast was designed to transcend geographical boundaries to reach your television set, simultaneously reaching others in their own homes across the world. SFMOMA projected this and another of Paik’s broadcasts, Bye Bye Kipling, back to back in a darkened room with a couple benches. Still, they nodded towards its original medium of transmission by choosing screen the pieces at specific times as opposed to a continuous loop. At more than half an hour each, this made for only 7 minutes of dead air between each showing, but it was some curatorially significant dead air.
Going to see this show was a sort of pilgrimage, both to pay respects to this father of digital art as well as to reestablish my own commitment to Fine Art: my first time being alone at a museum in I don’t know how many years. My mental map of SFMOMA still includes the best benches for nursing and all the places you can secret away with a screaming baby (tip: in times of crisis, you can lock yourself into the family bathroom on the second floor. It’s painted bright red on its walls, floor, and ceiling, which strangely acts as a sort of sensory deprivation tank). But this time instead of paying attention to the facilities, I paid attention to the art, wandering the rooms at my own pace and reading every piece of wall text I encountered. It was glorious.
But that much art at once was also maybe too much. After a while I found myself almost out of control, walking and looking and reading and walking and looking and reading not unlike I might scroll on my phone, needing to pee and needing to eat and needing to leave but not being able to stop. This compulsive viewing even followed me into the gift shop, where I moved my body from books to postcards to housewares to jewelry to tchotchkes looking and looking and looking with absolutely no intention to buy but browsing ceaselessly nonetheless. Years of social media scrolling on my phone has trained my dopamine receptors to keep repeating the same passive activity for the next and next and next hit. The sheer volume of content at the museum acted as a physical manifestation of Paik’s prognostications about telecommunications.
Maybe it was experiencing the physical world through a digital mindset, but in my zombie state I had a revelation about my own work. I’ve struggled with how and whether I would want Rainbow Squared exhibited in a gallery setting. I mean, it could be pretty straightforward: a projector playing this 7x7 html grid, even updating live to add a new piece whenever its created. But what about all the text? And what about showing individual pieces instead? And would the viewer be able to choose which piece they viewed or would they play in a single-channel loop? And would it be work from one particular year, or all five? What about future iterations with more collaborators? What about crawling the internet live for every instance of #redred or #redorange or #redyellow?
There are so many ways I could physically represent this work, but what I realized is that there is a fundamental difference between a projection in a gallery and a digital work in its native habitat. And in 2021, a digital work’s native habitat is a personal device, wherever the viewer happens to be. Whether you are experiencing it on a phone or on a computer or on a billboard, whether you are behind a desk or behind a counter or on a bus, the multiplicity of contexts for experiencing digital work is itself a context.
This project, Rainbow Squared, was born out of a situational exclusion from the Art World, that exclusion being early parenthood, and specifically early motherhood. Recently a couple artists mothers whose children are grown told me about how those early days temporarily changed the scope of their work. They turned to what they had on hand and what they could do in those in-between moments, working on a more intimate scale with more intimate subject matter. I could of course relate: the confines of motherhood made my own practice autobiographical, and it also made it digital. My phone was a toolbox I always had on me, and my studio was (is?) wherever I happened to be. If my work became more domestic, it was a digital domesticity.
The digital communications sphere is a domestic sphere. It is also simultaneously a professional sphere, to be sure. There is a major context collapse here, that you can use the same devices and interfaces to interact with your mom or with your boss, and you can do both from the toilet. You may even be reading this sitting on the toilet. You may even be reading this sitting on the toilet in the middle of the work day. You may even be reading this in your own home sitting on the toilet in the middle of a work day. And that is very different from standing in a museum or a gallery.
The good news is that the digital world is in many ways more accessible than a museum. Beyond the pain in the ass of lugging children along, location and cost alone prohibit most people from ever setting foot in a museum, or art gallery for that matter. And for better or worse, my work in the domestically digital sphere has turned into word sculptures, essays that it makes the most sense for you to be reading in the intimacy of your inbox or web browser. So while one day I would love for you to experience some iteration of this work among crisp white walls, for right now it makes sense for you to be taking it in at your own pace, wherever you are. We are being super intimate, you and I. Or at least I’m being intimate with myself in a publicly-available format, simultaneously hoping and not hoping that anyone will read it.
Of course the digital is the primary realm for so much more art than just my own. There are more and more (and more) creatives out there whose work exists only online, and only in environments created by tech companies. Environments where the plug can be pulled at any moment, and briefly were this week. Our work and our interactions live in digital structures that seem to be unbiased purveyors of public content but are architected by others for their own ends. Not unlike museums, where it seems like the work on display is there by some objective classification of artistic value, but in fact is determined by a relatively specific cadre of people using the algorithm of historical bias. People determine which content is venerated or panned, what is seen and what fades into obscurity.
In its architecture of perhaps the world’s largest digital social infrastructure, Facebook Inc. has created a global state of communications emergency. That is why Frances Haugen is blowing the whistle, ringing the alarm bells, or—like a call box on the side of the electronic superhighway—ringing the emergency phone.
Remember how Blue Yellow is Communication Power? California highways are dotted with Call Boxes, poles with big blue signs atop yellow boxes with phones inside to call for help in case of an emergency. Blue Yellow bastions of salvation in times where things have gone wrong. I appreciated the permission that art gave me to get out of the car and look at one of these things outside of an actual crisis. Actually, I looked at a few of these things: we stopped three times on this 55 mile stretch of highway because I wanted to get the right shots, and my family is very understanding. Or resigned, anyway.
These call boxes are in some ways a relic of another time. But while pay phones are all but gone, there is still a need for these emergency boxes. That need is decreasing of course: according to Wikipedia, California made 98,000 calls from these boxes in 2001, which dropped 80% to 20,100 calls in 2010. Who knows how many that would be in 2021 when mobile phones are even more ubiquitous. Still, cellular reception is spotty up on those windy roads, and things happen on highways. And so there is real communication power in these boxes, the ability to signal to another human that something is wrong and to ostensibly get help. If only they could be used beyond roadside distress.
Wherever you are reading this, and especially if you are reading it in the beginning of October 2021, be kind to yourself as the planets do their thing (if that’s your thing). Six are retrograde right now: Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. We just had a new moon in Libra, the same sign that the communications planet of Mercury is in. The new moon also means a new Hebrew month: Cheshvan, the one Hebrew month with no holidays. For me, this is a relief. This new moon I dusted and rearranged my altar, which was quite overdue. I also packed away my shofar, itself an emergency call box of sorts. And certainly a communication technology, if an ancient one. I am grateful for the coming silence.
Judy Chicago has a retrospective right now at the de Young Museum. My mom was in town and it seemed like something we could appreciate together. So even though I had visited SFMOMA two weeks before, I found myself taking yet another trip to a museum. And incidentally a museum I worked for a decade ago selling memberships. It is funny to have recently waxed poetic about going to a museum without my kids, and next to be going to a museum I used to work at with my mom.
We made the plan to see the show while I was still working on Blue Yellow. By the time we actually went, I was working on Purple Black White. Purple is awareness, identity, and self, and Black White is interconnectedness. The two together tell a story of self in relation to the collective. As I approach the end of Year 5 and anticipate Year 6, I am preparing myself to possibly launch a mass collaboration. So Purple Black White read to me as the story of my project, the story of 49 pieces about one individual’s experiences transforming into 49 pieces about 49 individuals’ experiences.
So I went into the Judy Chicago show thinking about collaboration already. As it turned out, collaboration was everywhere. Or at least collective artmaking, multiple people working to create a singular project or work of art. Chicago’s work spans so many mediums and scales, which makes the people she who must help her create it all so apparent. Many are attributed in the wall text: weavers, needleworkers, ceramicists. Many more are likely not: fabricators, installers, even the workmen we saw out front of the museum putting together the elaborate scaffolding for what would become the smoke piece Forever de Young
Walking around, it eventually occurred to me that not just the meaning of Purple Black White was present here, but that the colors themselves were there too. The wall text and graphics for the show were Purple Black White, or Purple White, anyway. Even Judy Chicago’s hair is now a signature Purple White, a mass of purple curls with a poof of white bangs.
I’m not surprised anymore when the week’s colors show up in my daily life. I sort of expect it, so that when it happens it's more of a “Hello!” than a “Holy shit!” It still feels magical, especially this year when I can’t know the colors in advance, determining each week’s color by pulling a card from a Rainbow Squared deck. But it feels like a pragmatic magic somehow, one that tugs on the threads of reality that are always dangling there. A magic that could be a product of our narrative driven brains or the nature of the universe or both.
Through five years of iterating on the same formula, I have created my own symbol set. The more I work on it, the more connections emerge, and the richer the symbolism gets. Or, I should say, the richer the symbolism gets for me. That’s the thing: I have created a custom divination system where each color and each combination has many personal associations and meanings. I can share those meanings with others, but it is still rooted in my experience. What would it look like for someone to grow their own set of color associations using this formula?
49 pieces is a big commitment for any one person. I should know, I’ve done it five times. But what about just one piece? I’ve done that five times too now, with five guest artists so far this year, each one a profound experience to work with. If this formula is modular, what would it look like for a group of 49 people to each explore an individual color combination, collectively creating a full set of 49 together? Could a group of 49 people create a symbol set that would be uniquely resonant to them, like my symbol set is resonant to me? Would it then resonate with other people?
Who are these 49 people? What is the organizing principle that brings them together? Is it the fact that they are all makers? Or is it the fact that they are all makers who happen to know me? Or, depending on the recruiting tactics I would need to use, is it the fact that they spend time on the same internet as me? I’ve had so much intimacy with each collaborator so far, how could that possibly scale? What does the make-up of that initial group of people determine about the resulting artwork?
Judy Chicago set a dinner party for 39. She arrived at this number from 13 x 3: three last suppers, three covens. An equilateral triangle made from three long tables, each with thirteen elaborate place settings representing a different “woman of achievement” in Western Civilization. The floor was made of 2,300 custom made triangular tiles with 999 more names of women written on them in gold. The 39 handstitched needlework runners with 39 hand-sculpted ceramic plates were made by a team of over 400 volunteer artisans over the course of six years, from 1974-1979. A stunning feat of collective effort, The Dinner Party is a work that has been celebrated and panned in almost equal measure.
The Dinner Party is not on view at the de Young Museum’s retrospective of Judy Chicago. The show does have sketches, test plates, and other paraphernalia associated with the work, along with a 45-minute video tour of The Dinner Party’s permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, apparently as part of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The video has subtitles but no sound and no bench in front of it. Elizabeth Sackler herself pops up at the beginning, which prompted a couple gasps and giggles from the women standing huddled in front of the video watching it play on loop. Myself included.
I appreciated that even the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (of which the de Young is part) did not shy away from the historical criticism of The Dinner Party in its wall text:
...The Dinner Party has drawn criticism for the lack of diversity among the women honored and the means with which Chicago chose to represent the few women of color she did include. In particular, her depiction of Sojourner Truth, which features three faces rather than a vulva, has been noted as dehumanizing the only Black female at the table through the erasure of her sexuality. Subsequent generations of feminist scholars have also criticized Chicago's focus on female genitalia as reinforcing the patriarchal constraints on gender identity that the artist meant to critique. While Chicago stands by her “essentialism,” she has acknowledged the concerns regarding Truth (which also extend to her rendering of Sacajawea). However, she also speaks of her fear at the time of furthering a racialized discourse that exoticized and sexualized women of color while desexualizing white women in Western society.
It isn’t and shouldn’t be up to Judy Chicago to determine who is included in history and how they should be portrayed. She had a lot of people working with her (for her?) to determine the 39 seats and 999 names in the piece, but they were almost entirely other white women. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if this dinner party didn’t attempt to represent all women in Western Civilization. You could argue that these 1,038 women merely scratch the surface, that having 999 names on the floor is a gesture toward the almost infinite number of women who remain unnamed. But 39 and especially 999 is still a lot, and surely there could be room at that dinner party for more than a couple women of color.
It is hard not to cry “white feminism” when looking at this work forty years later, to say nothing of the lack of queer representation. But even today, can any well-meaning white woman assemble a group of people for a project and have it be other than a product of the racist, classist, ableist system she is part of herself?
Am I comparing myself to Judy Chicago? Not exactly. I guess I am using Judy Chicago’s work as a lens to consider some aspects of my own, modular and large-scale collaborative as it may be.
Another aspect: the 49 people who may create Rainbow Squared next year would be creating a work that is ultimately my intellectual property. Even if it’s Creative Commons and everyone’s attributed, even if I pay them each a stipend (which I plan to), even if we mint the resulting work as an NFT and share the proceeds (which you can hold me to). The work as a whole might be a collective effort, but it would still effectively be “mine.” Maybe that’s okay?
Judy Chicago is a complex figure. I look at her body of work, her technical prowess, her relentless curiosity, and I see a dynamo. Her artistic choices aren’t perfect—hell, she just filled Golden Gate Park with smoke during fire season—but she is out there making them. But honestly the ridicule for those choices is pretty scary. I don’t have her notoriety and in all likelihood never will, so I don’t need to fear that level of scrutiny. But I still don’t want to put my everything into a project and have it be ultimately interpreted as the opposite of my intention.
I guess I don’t want to be a bad art friend here, and I definitely don’t want to be a bad art friend 49 times over. But as we might be able to learn from Sonya Larson, making art using other people’s work is ambiguous territory. Though I certainly feel fine about making animations out of other people’s paintings.
The image that the de Young museum chose as the icon for the show also happens to be Purple Black White: Through the Flower 2, from 1973. Made using sprayed acrylic, its symmetry and slick surface make it seem almost digitally rendered, like a computer graphic. Some might even say it is graphic in a different sense, one in a series of similar paintings that all depict petal-like shapes surrounding an opening, an abyss, a hole. The image of Through the Flower 2 is now splashed across the show’s website, printed on posters and bus shelters throughout San Francisco, and adorns t-shirts, handbags, scarves, stickers, puzzles, and the cover of the exhibition catalogue in the museum gift shop.
“Through the Flower” is a phrase that Chicago has used frequently in her work. Around the time of these paintings, she published an autobiography in 1975 titled Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist. She also chose Through the Flower as the name of her own nonprofit, founded “to manage the overwhelming public support of The Dinner Party” and that “focus[es] on education and continues to engage in numerous initiatives aimed at providing opportunities for learning about women’s history through art.”
But what does “through the flower” mean? The only words about it that I can find easily online from Chicago herself are these, quoted by Artsy.net from her autobiography: “I felt myself ...moving through the limits of the female role. I used the flower as a symbol of femininity...the petals of the flower are parting, and one can see an inviting but undefined space, the space beyond the confines of our own femininity...my longing for transcendence...my first steps in being able to make clear, abstract images of my feelings as a woman.”
I suppose it is not a stretch then to imagine these paintings are also vulvas. When one thinks of vulva flowers, one automatically thinks of Georgia O’Keeffe. Right? But as I learned this week while digging around the internet about The Dinner Party, Georgia O’Keefe never intended for her flower paintings to be sexual. That was hype created by her husband and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz to drum up viewers, and O’Keeffe resisted this reading of her work her whole life. Talk about your work being interpreted against your intention. Still, when I look at the plates in The Dinner Party, I see them all as what I previously associated with O’Keeffe-esque vulva-flowers. And in fact, Georgia O’Keeffe is the final and most recent place of the 39 set at The Dinner Party. Unlike Sojourner Truth and Sacajawea, her plate’s anatomy is quite unambiguous.
Here’s the thing with vulva flowers though: it’s not that flowers look like vulvas, it’s that vulvas look like flowers. This is no evolutionary accident: flowers are plant genitalia. And flowers can be any type of genitalia depending on the plant it comes from, female, male, or both. Some flowers match the sex of the plant they are on, some plants have flowers of each sex, and many flowers are both sexes at once. And they are all plant genitalia. Petals, pistils, stems, and stamens; labia, vaginas, penises, testicles, and buttholes. Whether plant or animal, it’s a whole garden of appendages and cavities, flesh for pleasure and/or reproduction and/or just existence. Parts that make us alive, make more of us, make us earthlings.
For the record, I am totally here for graphic depictions of flowers. Depending on the context in which they are rendered and shared, I’m probably here for graphic depictions of genitalia too. Well, at least graphical ones. I honestly don’t know where I land on the essentialism of using vulvas to represent the people who have them. I’ve certainly dabbled in it myself, as part of a collective no less. Is it the fact of having a vulva that needs historical recognition, or the fact of being a woman? Or is it both? Judy Chicago gives us one answer, but there are so very many. Just don’t ask Dave Chapelle.
Maybe there could never be a perfect Dinner Party: someone is always left out because someone is always throwing it. Even a Box Lunch couldn’t be much better. Has anyone ever suggested a Potluck?
My god, Purple is always a little unwieldy, being wrapped up as it is in self and identity and awareness and even magic. Purple in these pieces often ends up kind of meta. So it’s not really a surprise that this penultimate Purple would be a bit of a wrestling match to create and maybe even to read. I can’t sum up why this relentlessly personal project needs to become massively personal, and maybe it’s because I can’t quite pin it down in words yet. It’s an intuition, which is also Purple. I want to do right by anyone who has and would join me on that journey, but ultimately it’s an experiment. We’re making it up as we go along, so how could it ever be perfect?
Maybe that’s a way to think about Year 6 of Rainbow Squared. Potluck. I put out an invitation, people sign up for the dish they want to bring or I assign them one. They bring their piece, we set it out with all the other pieces, everyone digs in. Even people who didn’t bring a dish can come and eat. Will it be a representative sample of humanity? Will everyone be compensated at a market rate for every hour they put into it? Probably not. But I am not attempting to reconstruct a canon here. Just trying to gather some people for a metaphorical meal. A meal and a little magic. Think of it as 3 ¾ last suppers. Or 3 ¾ covens.
In the summer of 2015, I went to see a Nick Cave performance piece at the Dequindre Cut, a former railway turned greenway on the eastside of Detroit. It was one in a series of many performances from Nick Cave throughout the city of Detroit that summer, to accompany his large exhibition in the suburbs, Here Hear, at his alma mater Cranbrook Academy of Art. Incidentally, I went to Cranbrook for high school, and I happened to go see this performance with a friend from high school who had just moved back to Detroit.
At the event, we ran into my friend Zak Rosen, who incidentally is the husband of a friend from elementary and middle school. He is an audio producer and was there to cover the event for a piece he was working on about Nick Cave.
Nick Cave is perhaps best known for his soundsuits, fantastical full body costumes that totally obscure the wearer. This particular performance featured two people in head to toe raffia, one all in black, and one all in white, swishing and swirling and bursting with each movement.
Watching these two Black and White figures spin and dance and bounce off of each other under an overpass was a meditative experience. I thought about cosmic duality and the nature of the universe. How as the absorption and reflection of light, Black and White are total opposites but also an inseparable pair.
At the end of the performance, Zak came up with his recording gear and asked my friend and I what we each thought about it.
I spoke first, rambling about polarity, the simultaneous difference and unity of all things.
My friend spoke next, starting her reflection with: “It’s about race.”
Yes, it was about race. Of course! I still remember my (white) cheeks getting red in that moment. How could I be standing here in Detroit blabbering about cosmic polarities in the face of this very clear, even dire subject matter? How had I not done even a cursory Google search for Nick Cave’s soundsuits to understand that not so subtle subtext? And something I’d like to think that I thought at the time but probably didn’t: what kind of privilege did I come there with to not see that content either way?
Nick Cave’s soundsuits are elaborate, vibrant, voluminous, surreal pieces, masses of fur and fabric and beads and antique objects. They are made of kitsch but not kitschy, made of whimsy but not whimsical. Therein lies another duality. Because it isn’t what the soundsuits themselves look or even sound like, as much as what they conceal. As Nick Cave told PBS's Art 21:
I don’t ever see the soundsuits as fun. They are really coming from a very dark place. The sound suits hide gender, race, class, and they force you to look...without judgement.
Nick Cave’s soundsuits began in direct response to police brutality against Black people. As he told Art 21 in the full segment on “Chicago”:
The first soundsuit was in ‘92 in response to the Rodney King incident, the LA Riots.I was sitting in the park one day and just sort of thinking about: what does it feel like to be discarded, dismissed, profiled? There was this twig on the ground and I looked at that twig as something discarded, and then I proceeded to just start collecting the twigs in the park. And I brought them all back to the studio and I started to build this sculpture. I started to realize that the moment that I started to move in it, it made sound, and then it just put everything in perspective. I was building this suit of armor, something that I could shield myself from the world and society. And so out of that came this sculptural, performative kind of work. I think after the first sound suit I had a different approach to art work and I realized that I was an artist with a conscience. The moment I did was the moment that my life literally turned upside down.
Nick Cave’s art career has taken off in the last twenty-five years since he was the only person of color in his class at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. And while his work is certainly not for a white audience specifically, it holds a different sort of tension for white viewers, especially when they are drawn in crowds to newly rehabbed greenways in Detroit. Like the audience gathered at the Dance Labs performance in July 2015, which was diverse but skewed pretty white.
The people I was talking to that day were all white, and my slip-up that day was a very white slip-up. Not because I blatantly missed the content of an art piece, but because of how much shame I felt about it. About getting something wrong, and something relatively minor at that. That kind of perfectionism is a troubling symptom of white supremacy and class privilege. That kind of fear of fucking up doesn’t come from a place of wanting to be a good ally, or wanting to end police violence, or even wanting to dismantle white supremacy. That fear of fucking up comes from a place of not wanting to look stupid, or even worse, from a place of wanting to look woke.
That fear of being perceived as racist is actually quite different from a fear of being racist. One centers the self in the perpetual attempt to say the right thing, and the other centers the movement, being in service to do the right thing. But I don’t even know what the right thing is, one might say. I could get it wrong! Someone could call me out! I could be embarrassed! Yup. That’s how it is. Take a deep breath and get to work.
I’m not trying to get on a high horse here: even this, where I myself am exposing my own racism must be its own kind of self-preservation strategy. This too, where I am exposing the fact that I am exposing my own racism. But context matters. Rainbow Squared as a project is one that centers the self: it’s a creative and spiritual practice, and though it is shared publicly, it is ultimately personal. It’s a space where I and maybe you one day can wax poetic on your fuck-ups. As long as you are accounting for them.
In that moment in July 2015, I think I suffered my shame silently. Maybe I tried to save face by chiming in about race after my friend brought it up, but I’m pretty sure I ultimately got kind of quiet and let it pass. I’m not even sure anyone noticed. Zak turned off his recorder and we all chatted a bit more, likely exchanged speculations about when I would be moving back to Detroit (something I am still ever-threatening), and went our separate ways.
Then a few months later, Zak sent me a link to his audio piece.
Even though I was curious, I never listened to it. I never responded either. I don’t think I even clicked the link. I was afraid he was sending me the piece because I was in it, and if I was in it then I didn’t want to hear my moment of ignorance captured for perpetuity. I knew it would be two anonymous seconds at most, but I still couldn’t bear to hear it.
Now it’s 2021. Drawing Black White Orange for Rainbow Squared last week had me thinking again about what Black White means to me. And again, I thought of cosmic duality, the opposite swirling forces of the universe also hanging together in total unity. And this time, I also thought about the ways that does and doesn’t track to the language we use to describe the pigmentation of people’s skin, of Black and white’s tremendously destructive social history.
So Black White made me think again about going to see this Nick Cave performance piece, now six years ago.
Well, with the power of the internet, I found Zak Rosen's audio piece about Nick Cave and I finally listened to it. Even six years later, it gives great context for Nick Cave’s work and specifically his work in Detroit that summer. It also describes the performance piece at the Dequindre Cut that day in detail, coloring in my memory of what it actually consisted of.
This performance was part of Dance Labs, in which a local dance company would be paired with a local musician who would receive a box of costumes, a rehearsal space at MOCAD, and a week to come up with a public performance. The performance on Sunday, July 26th, 2015 was choreographed by Biba Bell with music by Frank Pahl. And apparently, in addition to the black raffia soundsuit and the white raffia soundsuit, there was another costume: a long piece of fabric with five sets of holes for five dancers’ legs, arms, and heads to come out of, so they could move together. The color of the fabric? Black lined with Orange.
And of course, my voice is not in the audio piece at all.
Which is perhaps the most perfect outcome of my worry over being exposed for fucking up. Not because I was off the hook, but because it was so self-centered to worry that I was ever on it.
A voice that was in the audio piece was Nick Cave’s. Zak Rosen met up with him at the Here Hear show at Cranbrook where they talked about one piece in particular.
[Zak Rosen:] “Can you describe what we’re looking at?”
[Nick Cave:] “So this is TM13 which is a Trayvon Martin sculpture that I had completed for this exhibition.”
[ZR:] The Trayvon Martin piece begins with a Black mannequin. It’s wearing jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie, hands behind its back. And then the mannequin is surrounded by hollow plastic figures.
[NC:] “Functioning as guardians in this place of innocence.”
[ZR:] “We’ve got Santa, Jesus,”
[NC:] “and a little bear, and then an angel on his back.”
[ZR:] Then the piece is completely covered in a beaded web, as if Trayvon Martin is trapped.
[NC:] “Very repressed and very tight to the body, concealing it, suffocating it, bonding it.”
[ZR:] But the front of the figure’s right foot is poking out of the webbing,
[NC:] “Providing a sense of relief to a degree.”
[ZR:] TM13 is grounded in the real world, but it’s elevated to a dreamier place. Cave makes us confront our country’s brutal relationship with race and violence. He critiques the way we treat each other. But he also reminds us how powerful the human imagination can be.
[NC:] “I don’t even know if I’m making art. I’m not thinking about it like that. I’m just lucky that I have this medium as a way of sort of expressing things that are difficult for me and the world.”
Black White is Interconnectedness, Transcendence, Light, and yes, Race. Orange is Creativity, Creation, Art. So here Black White Orange can be Interconnectedness through Creation, Interconnectedness through Art. Nick Cave seeks to speak to a wide audience, to bring issues of race and relationship to light through art, through whatever he creates. A self-proclaimed “artist with a conscience,” transcending and transmuting terror through creation. Transforming blow molds into guardians, transforming a discarded twig into 500 soundsuits, into so much more.
Every piece for Rainbow Squared is a documentation of the performance of making. These animations are what I tried to make while my kid was home with a runny nose, rolling his flat bed truck into my shot and constantly touching the camera because he insisted that my black and red tripod laid horizontally across the kiddie craft table looked like a railroad crossing sign.
Though I am sharing this on Halloween, this piece about costumes, about true-life horror, and even about pumpkins did not start out as a piece for Halloween. Black White made me think about Nick Cave who happens to make soundsuits, and the pumpkin was the Orange I had lying around because it happens to be Halloween. As I go deeper into long form writing, I go further off schedule, which is why I am still writing this particular piece on October 31st. But I suppose the synchronicity of Black White Orange is no coincidence. Connecting cycles of time through art.
In the early days of this project, I limited myself to what I could shoot, edit, write, and publish from my phone. This proved handy both when I was working full time and when the pandemic made childcare my full time job. I had to be opportunistic when a free moment blessedly emerged, whether on my commute or when one or both of the kids were preoccupied or sleeping. Working from my phone also constrained the scale, which I know now saved me from my own ambition.
In the early days of this project, I limited myself to what I could shoot, edit, write, and publish from my phone. This proved handy both when I was working full time and when the pandemic made childcare my full time job. I had to be opportunistic when a free moment blessedly emerged, whether on my commute or when one or both of the kids were preoccupied or sleeping. Working from my phone also constrained the scale, which I know now saved me from my own ambition.
Green Orange. Green is Love, and Orange is Creativity, Fire, Passion. My love of creating was the genesis of this project. Or maybe the genesis was more like fear. Fear of losing that love of creating, or fear of still very much having that love and not being able to do anything with it.
As you might know, I started making the work that would become Rainbow Squared in order to prove to myself that my life wasn’t over just because I became a mother. Nobody else needed that proof, or even suspected that I might be dying. Committing to a daily postpartum painting practice was a kind of art boot camp where I was both drill sergeant and recruit. I hate to use a military metaphor, but it was aggressive like that. And something I had to do to both bolster and break my own ego. At the end of 49 days of watercolors, I had destroyed my fear of not being able to do what I love, but I had also destroyed my excuse.
As author Kate Baer says in the latest installment of Write Like a Mother, no one cares that you are a writer except you. I would extend that to any kind of creative: no one cares that you are an artist except you.
No one else can show up in your place or even care if you don’t. You are the one who has to choose and choose and choose to make art, and sometimes it might be at the expense of everything else. When life got in the way of last week’s over-ambitious essay and I was running behind my self-imposed schedule, my body also decided it would withhold production. I found myself panic-googling “pathological constipation” from the toilet, and I don’t even want to tell you what I had to do after that. Which is to say that the mind-body connection is real. Sometimes you can take deep breaths and affirm your way out of your ailments, but sometimes you just have to glove up and reach into your own ass. It’s not pretty, but would you rather have someone else do it for you?
It’s up to you to show up. Having a formula has made it possible for me, as well as momentum. I think if I didn’t make every week, I wouldn’t make at all. I guess it still sounds like I am talking about poop, and maybe I am. For some people, creative output is practically a biological function.
For a while I thought I made art to maintain my sense of identity. It certainly did postpartum, when consistently producing even shitty work stabilized my mental health. But now I think it is something else. I don’t make art to create an identity, I make art because of that identity. I make art because I am an artist, and I am an artist because I love to make. Or at least feel a relentless impulse to make. Is that the same as love?
Green is Love and also Family, which brings up the very act of Creation (Orange) that I feared and still fear will stand in the way of artmaking. I created and continue to care for actual people, as well as a unit, a family. And I love those people, I love my family, I love what we create together everyday. But that doesn’t change my need to create art.
The other morning, the toddler was home from daycare again with snot coming out of his eyeballs. He ended up being home for over half of the mornings he would normally have been there over the past two weeks. I asked my partner to please, please give me some time, so he loaded Snot Eyes into the car to take Kindergartener to school so I could write for a bit before 9am. And even after they all left and all was quiet, with just a tiny window of time to myself, I couldn’t help but flip the laundry. The laundry I had started in the middle of the night when the Kindergartener woke us up with wet sheets.
As I was moving the mattress protector from the washing machine to the dryer, I thought: would an Art Monster do this? A true Art Monster would hit the studio (or in my case, desk) the second that the family hit the door. But maybe a true Art Monster wouldn’t be doing laundry at all. Or even have a family.
But then I remember how problematic the idea of the art monster is. I remember that I am in fact not a drill sergeant or a recruit, I am a caregiver. So is my partner. And we are other things too. We each take care of these children and each other on top of all the other things we are trying to pull off. Not earning a paycheck right now makes it feel as if caregiving should be my job alone, makes me feel guilty for the time and resources that I use to do anything else. But writing that down, I know it’s bullshit. The problem isn’t me, the problem is the idea that any mother or parent or even any family can do it alone, as the great podcast The Double Shift preaches. Not getting paid doesn’t mean I am not working, in caregiving or artmaking. And at the moment, I need to do both if I am going to do either. I get to do both.
The day that I drew Green Orange, I found myself with green broccoli and orange pumpkin soup next to each other on the stove. Some weeks you can make great art. And some weeks you can make dinner. Both are creative acts.
Maybe that’s my new direction. This week’s essay is actually the TMI preamble you scroll through quickly to get to a mediocre recipe:
1. October 31st rolls around and it’s a Sunday. Say: “Oh shit, if we’re actually going to carve those pumpkins, it’s now or never!”
2. Realize you have no carving tools except dull kitchen knives that require a whole lot of yanking and stabbing. Basically the kids can only help you scoop out the pumpkin guts and separate the seeds.
3. Kids get sick of scooping out pumpkin guts and separating seeds pretty quickly and you don’t want to hear them whine, so you do the whole thing yourself. Besides, it’s fun working with your hands. Case in point: Kindergartener decides to turn the guts into a “pie,” repeatedly smushing them in a bowl with her probably filthy hands. When you’re both done, put the Jack-O-Lanterns on the street and the “pie” into a container in the fridge.
4. The next day, find a leek you forgot in the back of the fridge a few weeks ago from that time you were actually a domestic goddexx making actually delicious potato leek soup. Chop it up.
5. Sautee that leek in the bottom of a soup pot until it’s soft. 15 minutes?
6. While that’s happening, furiously try to clean the kitchen from breakfast and lunch. Also chop some garlic and toss it in too.
7. Pull out that container of pumpkin guts from the fridge. Is it edible? Sure. Dump it in.
8. Sautee the leeks and garlic and guts together for a bit.
9. Dump in a Tetra Pak™ of chicken stock from the grocery store.
10. Bring it all to a boil, then simmer until you get impatient.
11. Immersion blend it. If I had to pour this shit into an actual blender there is no way I would make it. Too much hot liquid pouring, too much clean-up. My partner already had an immersion blender when we met and it was part of why I kept dating him (okay, a really really small part, but still).
The soup is kind of done at this point. Take many sips and keep declaring it bland. Did you salt it? Add more salt, add more pepper. Add in a carton of heavy cream. Declare it serviceable.
Serve with undercooked or overcooked broccoli on the side that your kids won’t eat either way.
There, now this is a recipe, and Rainbow Squared can be a recipe blog. It will be the top hit for “Jack-O-Lantern Guts Soup” and I can put up ads on the side of the post. Then I will make money from my art and I can legitimately call myself an artist. Is that how it works?
No. I probably would have needed to record this. People get their recipes on Tik Tok now. Oh well, here’s an animation.
Green Orange. Love of creating, whatever the form. If you love creating, find a way to keep doing it and do it. It’s that simple, it’s just not that simple.
I don’t really know how to sum up this week’s color journey for you. And I think that is because this journey wasn’t meant for you exactly. It was for me. I mean, arguably that’s true every week, but usually the process here is that I bring you along with me and we all learn together. But Yellow can be a bit aggro, and Purple can be a bit mischievous. So somehow Yellow Purple reinforced at every twist and turn this week that this color combination is for YOU, “YOU” being me.
But who’s to say where I begin and you end? Part of what I love about divination is that once you start looking around for symbols, you see that everything can be connected. A deck of cards, an overheard conversation, a highway billboard, a particular flower, a two-factor authentication code. What we pay attention to weaves a fabric of meaning that is nothing short of the tapestry of our own lives. Consulting the cards lets you hover above the tapestry to consider it from a new vantage point, lets you study the warp and the weft and how they intertwine.
While I won’t tell you the details of my bucking bronco Yellow Purple ride, I will open the hood of this Rainbow Squared system a bit. Yellow Purple is the Power of Magic, the Power of Intuition, the Power of Awareness, the Power of Self. Seems as good a time as any to look at the inner workings of this divination system developing through personal practice.
This is going to get kind of technical. I’m a Virgo, I love details.
Rainbow Squared started as a formula for artmaking, and has turned into a formula for divination, or a narrative tool for gaining insight. Which would be funny for a project that started out as a postpartum marathon of tiny watercolors, but in retrospect the form factor was not unlike a deck of cards. Once I began the practice of Rainbow Squared in earnest the first year, I built Tarot into my weekly painting ritual, consulting three different decks before I ever set paint to paper.
In fact, each of the first 23 color combinations in Year 1 incorporates one of the Major Arcana of the Rider-Waiter Tarot deck into its design. If you look closely at the Year 1 grid, you may be able to pick out which is which. (Yes, there are only 22 Major Arcana, but somehow I did The Moon twice without noticing. I think it was a trick played by The Fool who showed up last.)
I don’t pride myself on my painting skills, so it was really Year 2’s set of Future Trash images that I connected with most and ultimately printed as my own Rainbow Squared divination deck. This empowered me to randomize the color combinations for Year 5, drawing a card to determine what colors I will work with that week. And I still draw a tarot card along with it each week for good measure.
Which brings us back to Yellow Purple. Yellow and Purple are opposites of each other, making it a complementary color pair. There are 6 complementary color combinations, and along with the double colors they comprise the 13 combinations that I think of as the Major Arcana of the Rainbow Squared deck:
1. Red Red
9. Orange Orange
17. Yellow Yellow
25. Green Green
33. Blue Blue
41. Purple Purple
49. Black White Black White
4. Red Green
12. Orange Blue
20. Yellow Purple
22. Green Red
30. Blue Orange
38. Purple Yellow
But Rainbow Squared isn’t just about color magic, it is about number magic. Each color combination has a number associated with it, as you can see.
I discovered this week that numerology is where the complementary color combinations get interesting: each combination boils down to the same number as its mirror.
20 → 2+0=2
38 → 3+8=11 → 1+1=2
The same process works with 4. Red Green and 22. Green Red (which both come down to 4), as well as 12. Orange Blue and 30. Blue Orange (which both come down to 3).
Since the complementary color pairs exclude the seventh column and row of Black White, this numerological magic isn’t actually based on the full grid of 49, but rather a smaller grid of 36. 36 is two times 18, and since 18 is the numerological representation of the Hebrew word “Chai” which means Life, all multiples of 18 are considered auspicious in Jewish culture.
And this is where more number magic comes in. A traditional Tarot deck has 78 cards, where about a quarter of the deck are the 22 Major Arcana and about three quarters of the deck are the 56 Minor Arcana, much like the numbered suit cards and royalty you’d find in playing cards. In Rainbow Squared, about a quarter of the deck are the 13 Major Arcana and about three quarters are what we could call the 36 Minor Arcana. 13 is also an auspicious number in Jewish culture. Beyond the 13 Major Arcana, each color shows up in the grid 13 times: 7 times as the background color and 7 times as the foreground color, with one time as both.
Purple has already appeared 12 times this year, which makes Yellow Purple our 13th and final Purple for Year 5.
ILYSE WHAT ARE YOU SAYING
I am saying that I’m building a divination system here. While I swirl around wondering what the fuck genre this digital, devotional, epistolary, confessional, performance art experiment is, there has been something growing slowly and surely alongside it: a divination system that has been shaped by me but is perhaps quite beyond me.
Rainbow Squared is just a formula. All of these animations and essays are exercises using that formula. The format, the structure, the medium, the subject matter could be anything and by anyone in any number of permutations. It just started with me. That’s why I keep iterating, and why I am so excited for other people to work with it. There is no final outcome here, only endless interpretations.
Even my current Rainbow Squared deck is just one permutation of a possible deck. I happen to really like it, and it is a deck that I am sending to each of the wonderful guest artists this year. But it is a deck totally customized from my own experience. Granted, using any divination deck comes down to harnessing your own intuitive associations with the imagery, even imagery you are unfamiliar with. But certainly reading from pictures of your own future trash will yield different insights than pictures of someone else’s future trash.
So, what about your trash? What would a deck look like if YOU made and used it yourself, “YOU” meaning you? You and all of your ideals and associations and experiences?
As I sent this week to the guest artist taking on Piece Forty-Two:
I have spilled a lot of ink on what these colors “mean,” but of course it is totally subjective, and that is the point. You are not beholden to my or anyone else’s historical understanding of the meaning of these colors. Your work will either explicitly or implicitly answer the question: how might this (or any) symbol set operate as a lens through which to notice and make magical and narrative connections in your daily life?
This is endlessly fertile territory, and yet I think I have answered this question myself pretty thoroughly. One day I hope another individual might take on all 49 Rainbow Squared pieces at a time, but to start with, let’s see what happens when we have 49 individuals each take on one piece at a time. What would the resulting “deck” be? What resonance might it hold for that group of 49 people? What about anyone else who might use it?
For now, I’ve got layers and layers of my own associations piled up in these color combinations. As perhaps a literal demonstration of this, I layered together all of the previous Yellow Purple images for animation you see above. Years 1, 2, 3, and 4 combined to become 5.
When I draw Yellow Purple, I think about so much more than just “Power” and “Awareness.” I think of making masks, think of hypnotization, think of navel gazing, think of secrets and jazz and the Moon and the Stars, think of the Hierophant as the gatekeeper on the path to visiting the High Priestess.
When you draw Yellow Purple, you might think about the things I tell you they mean. And then I hope you’ll think about where Yellow and Purple have shown up in your life, what they make you think of, what they make you feel. In those associations will be what there is to learn, and from that what there is to share.
Yellow Purple is saying yes to your intuitive power. Saying yes to the sea of symbols where everything and everyone is connected, and yes, is it weird. Intricately, bafflingly, deliciously weird. All one and you alone.
Not every color combination has an immediate association for me, but Blue Green is Planet Earth. As a symbol, the world can be evoked by something as simple as a blue circle with green or brown blobby shapes on it.
I once used blue green circles as the basis of a project I think of as The World. I made a large blue green world-shaped blanket that I took to public spaces for people to sit on and interview each other about what they thought were the world’s biggest problems. I made and gave away dozens of small blue green patches, “conversation pieces” to engage whoever asked about them in spontaneous dialogue about the world. The idea that anyone could make little blue green circles out of any material seemed like it could be some sort of viral craft project, a catalyst for the actual art which would be the conversations they prompted.
It wasn't a particularly strong body of work. Since this was in graduate school, I didn’t get away with it either. I was skewered for its tweeness, for its superficiality, for its ineffectiveness.
But getting skewered can be a gift, or at least a commodity. In the context of an MFA program, I was paying for the privilege of professors and peers to actually pay attention to what I was doing. I was paying for the privilege of time and space to make. And I was paying to be able to say I had an MFA when I left.
Except that I wasn’t paying, not really. Yes, a lot of money was spent on my behalf. But the funds I used to pay for two years of almost full tuition to California College of the Arts were not funds I earned myself. They were funds I was given access to for the fact of being born.
I went to graduate school debt free. I also went to university debt free. And private high school, middle school, and elementary school. For some people, that level of education and lack of debt allows them to work and save and consolidate more wealth to pass on to their children and on and on. For other people, that intellectual support and financial ease empowers them to choose not to make money the focus of their lives, and to instead “do what they love.” If you don’t need to equate work with survival, you can approach work as something that brings you joy and self-actualization. How nice, and how inaccessible for most people on the planet.
Doing what you love does not require being debt-free, but it certainly helps.
In an MFA program, I was probably surrounded by more people than I even knew who were coming from similar positions of privilege, people who could comfortably afford the ambiguous investment in an already non-remunerative career. But more people than I even knew were also taking on extreme debt to be there.
After getting a BFA in Sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis, I swore I would never get a second art degree. What value was I getting from the first, especially graduating in 2008? But I had enough of a safety net to move to San Francisco, and eventually found myself happily making participatory art with a collective and working selling memberships to a museum while living in a rent-controlled apartment. And then I was laid off. I found another museum job, but not before I heard about the Social Practice program at California College of the Arts.
This program was the first of its kind in the country, started by the late (great) Ted Purves, and is even credited with institutionalizing the term “social practice.” When I heard there was a word for the kind of art I was making, and that a program for it existed in the city I lived in, I knew I had to be there. And I knew I could be there, because, well, I honestly didn’t think too much about the cost. There was money set aside for my education. Money set aside to study with a community of what I could now call social practice artists.
Cassie Thornton was one of those social practice artists, a second year student when I was a first year student, among about seventeen in total. I don’t actually know her own personal relationship to debt, but I know that debt is and has been a focus of her work. Back then she was in the throes of a debt visualization project and shaping what would become the Feminist Economics Department. From the website:
The debt visualization project involves leading participants to imagine their debt as a substance, a thing, or a space. It is a way to witness the impact of economics on the unconscious, specifically the experience of holding, witnessing, or fearing predatory corporate debts. The process itself is essentially a discussion of the participant’s experiences with money or with owing; personal stories or objective thoughts about debt followed by a guided visualization. The material generated through this process is a transcription of a conversation that weaves the conscious and unconscious, intellectual and physical experience of debt.
Cassie was trying to talk to as many CCA students as she could about their debt. She put out repeated calls for participants, especially within our social practice cohort.
But I didn’t have any student debt. I didn’t have any debt at all. And on a newly visceral level, I felt how much of a privilege that was. It felt like deep shame. What did I do to deserve this education, to be here trying to get people to talk about “the world’s” problems when I was insulated from so many of them? I was grateful to the members of my family who worked and saved and invested strategically so that I could have these opportunities. As far as I know, the source of their wealth wasn’t particularly nefarious, but it was the same baseline of stolen land and labor as any other wealth generated in a racial capitalist system. This wealth was something I had previously dealt with by pretending to myself that it didn’t exist, which was no longer possible.
I became increasingly uncomfortable whenever Cassie asked me to do a debt visualization. I did my best to act casual, make excuses, tell her I’d schedule one and never do it. Maybe she could tell, or maybe she thought I just wasn’t interested. But I was acutely interested. Unraveled, even. Kept up at night by it. Then kept up by the idea that other people are kept up by their actual debt, and me being kept up by my guilt of not having debt was perhaps its own act of self-centeredness.
But I couldn’t just casually tell Cassie that I didn’t have any debt. I had been conditioned my whole life that money wasn’t something you talked about with other people, that it would make them feel awkward and encourage them to take advantage of you. Besides, I fancied myself an activist. I had even demonstrated with my classmates as part of Occupy SF earlier that school year. Though every time I chanted “We are the 99%!” I wondered if that would still be true for 90%, 95%, or even 98%... What did it mean that I was benefiting personally from such a fucked up system while wanting to correct it collectively?
After a few weeks (months?) of inner turmoil, I realized that telling Cassie was exactly what I needed to do. I may not have had financial debt, but I did perhaps have an energetic debt, a spiritual debt, maybe even a moral debt. The Debt of Privilege.
When we finally did a Debt Visualization, it was by all accounts–hers and mine–a wild experience. I’m not sure how to sum it up; I guess it’s how I would imagine hypnotization. I remember that we sat somewhere and talked, and then she facilitated my journey inward. I know I narrated it because she transcribed it, giving me a type-written document of everything I said in the form of one long, beautiful jpeg. That transcript of the Debt of Privilege is the text scrolling in the background of this Rainbow Squared animation, Year 5, Piece Forty-One: 32. Blue Green.
If you read it, it would tell you about going into the depths of someone else’s stomach and finding my debt manifested as rocks made of flesh that I split apart and then swallow and then follow into my own stomach in an endless loop. I don’t think there is a way to interpret that metaphor too literally, but the feeling of inevitability, of feeling like a perpetrator both connected to and othered from those around me is sort of what the Debt of Privilege felt like. Feels like, for me, anyway. I am trapped in my own loop, which in this case makes me perhaps the key to my own liberation, which is itself a huge privilege.
I’d like to say that doing that debt visualization with Cassie transformed my relationship to class privilege. And it did. But that was in 2012 and it is now 2021, and so the journey to do anything about it has taken longer than I would like. And I still have a very long way to go, perhaps a lifetime. Though just before I age out, I finally synced up with Resource Generation, a group that organizes young people with wealth and/or class privilege around the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power. A group that preaches and teaches wealth redistribution.
This is identity shaking work. It’s more than a little troubling to think that my artistic nature itself might be a result of my class background. I saw myself in this essay from Betsy Leondar-Wright, Are There Class Cultures?: “unconventional, eccentric, visionary, undeterred by impossibility.” But I’ve known I was an artist since preschool (which was incidentally also private school, but that’s because public funding for preschool was not a thing and really needs to be a thing). It’s not that financial stability gave me some magical spark of creativity. It’s that I’ve never had that spark extinguished by circumstance.
I was told my whole life that I could do whatever I wanted, and given the freedom and resources to do so. I’ve never not had a safety net. I could take risks, take time off, take unpaid opportunities. In 2020, when I needed to leave my decently paid, stable job in nonprofit communications in order to take care of my kids in the midst of a pandemic, I had the flexibility and cushion to do so pretty comfortably. I can even continue to choose to be primary caregiver after schools have reopened, to find the way back to my career path slowly. Caretaking is work, and I’m still waking up at 5am to have time to make art in my in-between hours. But I can afford part time morning day care for my youngest, and spend at least some of that time making animated gifs.
Still, the debt of privilege looms large for me. If society hasn’t held me back, I have held myself back. Though I feel I am an artist in my bones, in some ways my art has felt dirty to me because the comfort I’ve had to pursue it feels undeserved. I’ve held back from even trying to be a professional artist because I know the only reason I could even think about it is because of my class background. No one has accused me of this, and honestly it isn’t even totally logical. There are plenty of artists from every class background. And also: boo hoo? It feels wild to say this outloud because it feels fundamentally unrelatable. I am certainly not looking for sympathy here. Maybe I am just giving you honesty. Cringey, vulnerable honesty about my own experience: the only position I can hope to speak from if we are to relate to each other about what it means to be in “the world.”
For better or worse, Blue Green was my visual entry point into a project attempting to cultivate genuine conversation between other people about what it means to coexist. Exactly ten years later, Blue Green is my conceptual entry point for a personal piece perhaps attempting to do the same thing, only with more specificity.
See, Blue is Communication and Green is Money, at least in the United States. You are not your debt, nor are you your wealth, and silence about either only reinforces a predatory financial system and your own isolation. Talking openly about money and class is one small but tangible step towards shattering the myth of meritocracy.
Blue black white.
From darkness to light through water.
Communication to reveal interconnection.
Bring the hidden into the light. Wash it clean.
I am standing on one side of a river. Wading through is the only way to the other side.
Where I live, it’s the season of dying. Each day is a little shorter, night stretches out in all directions. Water from the sound comes inland in sheets of rain. It’s too much water for plants to drink, so they drown instead. You can smell the decaying leaves. Death has a sweetness to it. City streets look like little rivers, reflecting the moon and the street lights. Everything looks like everything else, wet and dark and shining. Blue and black and white.
When I was 13, my mom got into bed and didn’t get out for 6 days. I remember not knowing what was wrong. I remember making dinner for my younger siblings, and finishing up a science project with what we had in the house. Her friends came over and hugged me extra tight but did not offer any explanation. What happened after is cloudy and muddled. I remember my mom losing a lot of weight. We called her lollipop head, because she was so thin she looked like her head was on a stick. She stopped going places. She lost her old friends and didn’t make new ones.
What I know now is that my mother was slipping quietly into the tides of addiction. At 13 I was old enough to know that something was wrong, but too young to understand what it was or where it came from. I only really knew that she had changed. She was underneath something, and the deeper she went the further she felt. The distance between us was jarring at first. She was not the same person who had raised me, walking me to the library, teaching me how to waterski, pinning art to the fridge. As I got a little older, I got used to the distance. Eventually I came to identify with it. My independence was how I defined myself, and it kept me safe. I was afraid of her darkness, and refused to let it spill over into my life.
As soon as I could leave, I left. I decamped first to college, then to California. My calls home were infrequent. My visits mostly revolved around trips to the hospital or rehab centers. I still loved her, but I did everything I could to put space between us, to keep the line between us rigid.
I recently picked up Sabriel, a fantasy Young Adult novel by Garth Nix. Cliches aside, I was drawn in by the cover. A young woman with dark hair and sharp features stands in front of a white abyss. She wears a blue cloak embroidered with tiny keys. The hem of her cloak is a violent wave of water. Standing over her shoulder is a shadowy black monster with menacing eyes and sharp teeth. Blue cloak of water, black shadow, white abyss. Blue black white.
At its core, Sabriel is a story of magic, fate, and the inevitability of death. Sabriel is an Abhorsen, the last of an ancient lineage responsible for keeping the dead from returning to the world of the living. To maintain this border, she moves between Life and Death, slipping between worlds when there is work to be done. Light has a strange quality in Death–a heavy mist makes it hard to see further than a few feet. Death’s only real feature is a vast river, infinitely wide on either side. A cold current sweeps souls along, carrying them through nine portals. Past each portal, the river changes. Sometimes the river comes in waves, some portals bring deep sinkholes too dark to see. The final portal is the stars above the river of Death. There are so many stars they completely fill the sky, making one giant cloud, white and shining.
About a year ago, my mother’s addiction turned a new, black corner. I knew she was still drinking, but the lines I had drawn meant I didn’t really know. While I lived my life 2,000 miles away she developed Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome, a brain condition that occurs when the body adapts to getting all of its calories from alcohol. She was completely nutrient deficient. The lack of vitamins–mainly B-12–had caused what is essentially brain damage. It’s sometimes called wet brain. I only found out when my father, her faithful enabler, called me in a panic. My mother could barely talk. She didn’t know where she was, or what was going on around her. I struggled to wrap my head around what he was saying. My father was scared–this was deeper and darker than he had bargained for. He needed help and wanted me home. I did not want to go home. I was afraid of what I’d find. I was afraid to walk through the door, back into a life I had marked off from mine. I went home anyway. There was work to be done.
“Does the Walker choose the Path, or the Path the Walker?”
Throughout the book, the character Sabriel resists coming to terms with her bloodline and identity. This is especially true as it relates to her father, the last Abhorsen, who is lost somewhere in Death’s great river. She does not want him to die, even though there is great evidence that he is dead already. She cannot reconcile that his mantle is her destiny. She only wants to save him, even though she knows he is already gone.
When I arrived at my parents home my dad met me in the driveway, sobbing. In all my 33 years, I had never seen him this way. This was not how we communicated. I walked through the door to find someone who was decidedly not my mom. She was shuffling around, looking back and forth at nothing in particular. It was as if she couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her. Her voice was gone; she had nothing to say and no one to say it to. There was no light in her eyes, only clouds and confusion. She was alive in the biological sense, but she was a shadow of a person. A shell.
The next several days were, without question, the worst of my life. I tried to hold myself steady as I called doctors, rehabilitation centers, and psychiatric hospitals. I helped her eat, changed her clothes, held her hand while she stared hard into nothingness. We exchanged almost no words. Anything I said drifted past her, and the few things she said made absolutely no sense. As I arranged for her care, first in a detox facility and then in a long-term psychiatric hospital, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that this could not possibly be recoverable. Brains are too delicate, and the body keeps the score. I was sad for her, sure. But if I’m being honest, I was so very sad for myself. The line I had drawn between us was now an unscalable wall. We would never have the chance to go back, to make sense of the past, to understand each other. My saddest, most persistent thought was that she and I had already had our last conversation.
I wonder how much plants know. Trees can live so long, and do things that drip with intelligence. Smaller plants too have an embodied sense of reason, deciding where to reach, what to hold, when to shed a part for the sake of the whole. I wonder if they know that this season of death-by-water is not a real death, just a stage in their living. I wonder if they fear the flood, trying to hold the line, or do whatever the plant version of that is. The darkness will inevitably give way to lightness. The same water that turns the soil black and brings the leaves to rot will collide with sunshine to make energy. Do they know that the rest of their life, their blooming, is on the other side of this river?
After 20 years of missing each other, my mom and I have finally started talking. She’s alive, sober, and coherent now, three things I had largely given up on. Through our newly established communication, I am turning to face our duality and our interconnectedness. I am not my mother, and she is not me, but we are a part of each other. Despite my best efforts, there is no line separating us. The more we talk the more I understand, the line becoming a wet blur. What happens, has happened to her, happens to me too. Things she said to me when I was little still spill through my brain. Our voices sound the same. Her story is my story. Even our differences are related. Many of my adult choices–seeking sobriety, waiting to have children, prioritizing health, building chosen family and community–are choices I made because of her. In spite of her, maybe. But because of her, nonetheless. The more we talk, the more I understand. We sit next to each other like black and white on the same card, always touching, defining each other.
Hanukkah is an otherwise minor Jewish holiday, commemorating a military victory that happened after biblical times. Hanukkah has become more notable in recent years for its proximity to Christmas, both holidays celebrating light in the darkness that have taken on some troubling consumerist customs that perhaps have little to do with the original holiday. But this year, Hanukkah actually falls closer to a different holiday that it may have more in common with:
Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are both holidays based on old stories celebrating religious freedom fighters while glossing over some inconvenient bloodshed.
In the case of the Hanukkah story, bloodshed is certainly front and center if you tell the part leading up to the oil that lasted eight days. It’s just easy to miss exactly who was involved in that bloodshed. It’s a story of some heinous persecution to be sure, but with some questionable methods to overcome it.
In the 2nd Century BCE, a king from the Greek empire named Antiochus came to the land of Judea and violently prohibited the practice of Judaism on pain of death. He did it pretty ruthlessly, burning all sacred texts, installing statues of other gods in the deeply monotheistic Temple, sacrificing pigs on the altars, and hanging circumcised infants and killing their mothers.
Like I said, heinous stuff. Stuff that would convince most anyone to assimilate to Hellenistic culture as a matter of survival.
After years of being cut off from their religion and culture, many forced from their homes, many losing family, many Jews did just that: assimilate. Apparently some even tried to uncircumcise themselves so they could exercise naked in the new gymnasium in Jerusalem without shame. Yes, this is detailed in the Book of Maccabees. The Book of Maccabees talks a lot about circumcision.
So where do the Maccabees come into the story? Eventually officers from King Antiochus make it to a town called Modin, where they seek out a Jewish priest and community leader named Mattityahu. Mattityahu had five sons, including one named Judah who had the nickname Maccabee, which means “hammer” in Hebrew. These officers appeal to Mattityahu to step up as the first in his town to fulfill the King’s decree of making a public sacrifice, thereby disavowing his faith. They tell Mattityahu that all of the Jews left in Jerusalem have done it, and that if he and his sons do it, they will be rewarded handsomely.
Mattityahu refused. He shouted in a booming voice to all assembled that he and his sons would never, ever abandon their faith or heed the King’s words. He dropped the figurative mic and started to walk away. But then he saw someone coming up to make a public sacrifice. A fellow Jew.
And that is when Mattityahu snapped.
Mattityahu became “inflamed with zeal” and killed that Jew on the spot, slaying him on the altar no less. He also killed one of the King’s officers and pulled down the altar. Then he cried for whoever else is “zealous of the law” and still maintains the covenant to follow him. He and his sons and his followers abandoned everything they ever had in the city and fled to the mountains, seeking out others who had also fled persecution to band together as an army and become the Maccabees.
And so in that version of the story, the uprising that would save a religion began with the spontaneous murder of a member of that religion on an altar.
I can see how a priest might be irate at his fellow Jews for adopting Hellenistic practices. How after years of oppression and violence, and hopped up on the adrenaline of his own refusal, Mattityahu might be overcome with aggression. But if that was the first Jew killed by another Jew in this uprising, it wasn’t the last. This newly forming army went on a rampage, as detailed in the Book of Maccabees 1:2:46-49:
So they joined their forces, and smote sinful men in their anger, and wicked men in their wrath: but the rest fled to the heathen for succour. Then Mattathias and his friends went round about, and pulled down the altars: And what children soever they found within the coast of Israel uncircumcised, those they circumcised valiantly. They pursued also after the proud men, and the work prospered in their hand.
Maybe smiting “sinful” and “wicked” people sounds justified, but it also sounds like a way to describe assimilated Jews. Can you imagine being a Jew that has taken on new practices from a state oppressor, whether on fear of death or even personal preference, and then to have bands of zealots from your own people come after you? Or to “valiantly” circumcise you or your children? The courage and might that the Maccabees summoned to fight the power and ultimately take back their way of life is perhaps miraculous. But it’s hard to dismiss this violence against other Jews as mere collateral damage.
I had never actually taken a close look at this text before. Written by an anonymous Jewish author some fifty years after the events it details around 100 BCE, the original Hebrew of the Book of Maccabees has not survived. It is not considered part of the Tanach, which means it is not “canonical” in Judaism, though it is a canonical text in Catholicism and some Orthodox traditions (Christian Orthodox, that is). There is also a second Book of Maccabees written a bit later by a different author that details some of the same events. Of course like any book, the Book of Maccabees has a point of view. It’s hard to tell from reading it whether that point of view is in admiration, condemnation, or strict narration. And we can’t know that every part of the story is historical fact. But while the Book of Maccabees isn’t considered canon, the Maccabean Revolt is historically corroborated. So it gives the Book of Maccabees a different kind of authority.
But here is a funny thing about the Book of Maccabees: the reason this book detailing Greek oppression still exists today is because it was translated into Greek for the Septuigent, a compendium of all the sacred Jewish texts at the time.
Which means that a huge part of why we have this story about not assimilating is because living among other cultures got this text translated and preserved.
And that is the Power of Communication, the Power of Words: Yellow Blue. Hanukkah is in many ways a holiday about power. And like most Jewish holidays, it is also about words, like the blessings we sing over the candles that we have sung for millenia. But the fact that we still celebrate this holiday is its own miracle of words. Words meticulously passed down by rabbis and scholars in the oral tradition, and also preserved by scholars in the other cultures we lived among. The Power of the Word is a power from people in diaspora. It is a power developed out of necessity after being forced from the land again and again, to forge a connection that could not be broken by geography or even extinguished by murder. It is a profound power, and one that would come to be horribly abused. In the land once called Judea, the Power of the Word still has people who would otherwise be brothers fighting, killing each other with state sponsorship.
In some ways the bloodshed around Thanksgiving can also be linked back to that power. 165 years after the Maccabees took back the Temple, Jesus would be born to a Jewish family and spark another religion with so much beauty that would also come to inspire so much bloodshed. A religion that 1600 years later would come to the shores of Turtle Island along with Christians who were being persecuted by fellow Christians at home, who would then use the Power of the Word to extinguish the people indigenous to that land and take it from them.
I don’t have a solution. I am not proposing to cancel Hanukkah or even Thanksgiving for that matter. But if this is to be a holiday about celebrating light in the darkness, we have to look at the darkness too. Jews have been celebrating Hanukkah for 2,185 years. That is its own miracle, that people could tell stories and have discussions that were recorded and debated by rabbis and celebrated for so many years. I have so much love for that tradition, for the true magic in that transmission. And like everything in life, it is not without shadow, without pain.
And so I light Hanukkah candles. Not to celebrate or repudiate the Maccabees, but to stand in an unbroken chain with my ancestors, to link light to light. I make this choice to honor my own Judaism, even while making other painful choices to break tradition and physical links with those ancestors in ways that the Maccabees might have valiantly tried to correct.
Whatever the story, the text we have is the text that was written down, that was spoken by the people who were allowed to be at the table. The Book of Maccabees would not pass the Bechdel Test, which means there is so much more to the story. And so if we are to maintain a real connection with these or any traditions, and if we are to repair and transcend the violence around them, we have to bring in the perspective of the women, witches, and queers, to intuit them where they haven’t been recorded.
In the context of ritual, we can take symbolic acts to honor tradition while subverting it, or at least to complicate it. Acknowledging that there is always another way, another perspective.
How to perform any Jewish ritual is always the source of much rabbinic discussion. The way we light Hanukkah candles was actually settled two thousand years ago as a debate between two schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.
Beit Hillel lit one candle on the first night and added an additional candle each subsequent night, arguing that sanctity increases. Beit Shammai started with eight candles and lit one fewer candle each night, corresponding to the dwindling number of remaining days. As with most talmudic debates, the way of the optimistic followers of Hillel won and has become the tradition.
For the last couple of years in my home, we have done both. Tonight will be the last night of Hanukkah, so the full chanukiah you see in the animation above was actually from the first night of Hanukkah (“chanukiah” is the technical term for what we put the candles in, since it is commemorating the original menorah which had seven branches).
This year I find myself favoring Shammai, decreasing the light. There is plenty to be pessimistic about, to be sure. But what I like is that it feels more in tune with the story of the miracle of the menorah. This story doesn’t even show up in either of the Book of Maccabees, but in Talmudic description of the holiday centuries later.
The story goes that after a few years of fighting, the Maccabees finally reclaimed Jerusalem and the Temple. Of course they found it totally desecrated, with only one intact cruse of oil left, enough to light the menorah for only one day. It would take eight days to produce more oil to light it again. This was a problem, since the menorah was supposed to be constantly lit, a living symbol of eternal light. Then a miracle: the light lasted for eight days.
But what did it feel like each of those days? It probably didn’t feel like the menorah would burn forever, but more like it was almost always about to go out. Eight nights to go until we have new oil. Seven, six, five. Are we going to make it? Four, three, two, one, and the oil is ready.
Starting with eight and decreasing reminds us to appreciate what we have and to sanctify it, not to take it for granted. That making and consecrating olive oil takes land and trees and labor and time, and these are not infinite resources. To really appreciate each candle, down to the last one. To feel with that candle the precarity of tradition, maybe even the precarity of compassion, and to feel the responsibility to steward it. To know that that one light is still enough to light so many more.
So this year we are doing both: one chanukiah with an additional candle each night, and another chanukiah with one fewer candle each night to honor the light diminishing but not disappearing. And to celebrate a plurality of opinions, ideas. To remember that there are as many perspectives as there are Jews, or as the saying goes, even more: ask two Jews, get three opinions. I have a multitude of opinions just inside myself.
So for this holiday that is a powerful and complicated testament to the Power of Words, I offer my own words. They are not perfect, as none ever are. There is perhaps another longer essay here than I can manage to write in a week, or maybe even a more succinct one. Or maybe it is a series of essays, or a whole book. Hanukkah will come around again, and maybe I will write it. And my words will join with all the other words written and spoken and preserved and lost and intuited about this and every other human story, a story we are all still writing together, passing flame to flame.
Circling. Circling. Like a fish in a tank. Like a koi in a pond. Things are pleasant here, but I am looping. And looping by design: piece after piece, week after week, series after series following a formula and beginning all over again once it ends. What’s not by design is how each piece this year has started to become so damn vulnerable. I love it, I feel lit up and grateful to be doing it. I am also burnt out.
Can I admit that I am excited for Year 5 to almost be over?
Six pieces to go for this year, five of my own and then the final one by a blessed collaborator. Then I am done for a while with weekly personal essays. I’ll start the new maybe even scarier task of figuring out what’s next for this project. But I will step away from the kind of writing whose hours consume all of my free time, whether I am actually working on it or feeling guilty for not working on it. It takes every minute I can muster while my kids are doing something else, like right now when they are absorbed by the television (a rarity, I swear) and I’m supposedly cooking dinner.
I reached a new low the other morning. Or maybe a new height, depending how you look at it. I had managed to sneak off at 4:30am to sit down at the computer without waking anyone else up. I even had a thermos of tea that I had brewed for myself the night before. Then I wrote while I drank that tea, and eventually, inevitably, I had to pee.
The one toilet in this house is between the kids’ bedroom and the adults’ bedroom. The closer it gets to 6am, going to the bathroom risks waking everyone up and ending my time to write in peace. So that morning, I found an old 64oz plastic yogurt tub, and peed in it right there next to my computer.
I guess that’s sort of like poopsocking for online gamers, except for artist parents. I didn’t manage to bring a lid with me, so the bucket of pee just sat there wafting while I continued to write, a symbol of commitment or defiance or I don’t know what. Ingenuity? Shamelessness? Addiction? That this practice might be unsustainable?
But I need the regular sprint of it, or the marathon, as it were. I need the automated weekly deadlines. I worry that without deadlines I won’t have time to make art anymore because I won’t make that time. And I fear that if I don’t make that time, I will watch my artistic identity slip away. Caretaking makes individuality precarious, vulnerable to being overridden by whoever needs you in that moment. I want to be me so badly, I fight for it tenaciously and continuously even when I don’t know who exactly I am fighting for.
“I want to be understood,” was a phrase that tumbled out of my mouth in therapy recently. It tumbled only after first getting lodged in my chest, then stuck in my throat. Like my brain knew I was about to say it and felt so pathetic that it tried to pretend it wasn’t true. But it was. I didn’t want to say it, but it wanted to be said, and it came out like so many marbles. “I want to be understood.”
Doesn’t everyone though? Isn’t that some super basic human shit? Some teenage shit, even? The desire to be understood?
Like everything, that unmet desire probably starts in childhood, when your parents or caretakers don’t understand you. How could they possibly? You are a brand new human in a brand new world, and you are not them.
Being on the other side of it, I wonder at the ways I don’t understand my kids. I wonder at the ways I don’t want to understand them, just want them to put their toys away or just want them to wear some pants because it’s 43 degrees outside. I don’t want to take the time to empathize with their struggle for control, I just want to get out the goddamn door.
And I know it’s not their job to, but it’s not like my kids understand me either.
They just want me for my body.
Lately my kids have been fighting over who gets to sit in my lap, who gets to cuddle with me, clawing and kicking each other away to get closer to me. I think the competition is a huge part of my commoditization: they each want me because the other one wants me. But they are also tiny people looking for comfort in an overstimulating, confusing world. To them I am safety, I am warmth, I am home.
If I am those things to them, then maybe that is who I am. Safety. Warmth. Home. But that’s not all of who I am, and it’s not even all of who I am to them. And I can certainly be those things to someone else and not be those things to myself. I can be home to them and a foreign country to myself. I can be a mother to them and not able to mother myself, not even sure how I feel about my own lived experience of my gender in relation to that word. I can be desperately lonely in some corners of my psyche and at the end of the day still desperately want to be left alone.
Every day of parenthood contains total bliss and utter frustration both. The highs are high and the lows are low and they come in rapid succession. And I wouldn’t change that, I guess. And even if I am an adult, the world is still overstimulating and confusing. Their bodies give me comfort too, holding them, squeezing them, smelling them, brimming with their preciousness and how fleeting this time of physical intimacy might be. Loving them is not exactly a stand-in for loving myself, but it’s certainly interconnected.
Red is the body and Orange is creation, which makes Red Orange the Body and Creation. What you create by being in a body everyday just by being alive. And also what you create with your body. My body grew two new bodies. Those bodies became people who are separate from me but (for now) want to be close to my body because it brings them back to their own bodies. Centers them, reconnects them.
I want other people to understand me, but I also want to understand myself. Understand why I am still so afraid that motherhood might be holding me back. Understand why I am afraid that these things I created with my body are distractions from something else I need to create, instead of creations in and of themselves. Yet even if raising them is a creative act, even if I feel some sort of pride in their existence, that is not the same as them being my creation. I can co-create my relationship with them and I do everyday, but now that they are born I am not creating them. They are creating themselves.
If I’m honest, I think I still experience some trauma from having conceived accidentally. Perhaps that’s not something I am supposed to feel and certainly not something I am supposed to say out loud, especially not from my position in a (mostly) cisgendered and heterosexual-presenting married partnership. But it’s a jarring thing to live your life as your own body and to suddenly have that body become host to another different body. It happens to so many people in so many other more sinister and horrifying ways. Yet I am only in my own body, and trauma isn’t really rational. And I can still feel betrayed by my body generating another body without my mind’s consent while simultaneously appreciating its ability to do so, as well as appreciating and loving the person that it ultimately became (at birth, not conception).
Having been able to create other bodies with my own body is a tremendous gift, and despite any residual trauma, it is a gift I remind myself again and again not to take for granted. What happened to me despite my intentions otherwise is something that would be impossible for many people to do by accident. Conceiving often takes procedures and years and so many dollars and so little coverage from health insurance.
As a country, we can do better in supporting other people’s conception journeys. In supporting other people’s medical and health journeys, period. But the nonlinear effort involved is perhaps just part of the fucked up mystery of procreation. It’s a biological function, it’s nature, and it can’t always be controlled. It’s like fire, another Red and Orange force. When you try to start a fire sometimes it just won’t spark, and when you try to put out a fire sometimes it just won’t be contained, taking down everything in its path.
Creativity is a force. You can guide it, but you can’t really harness it, not really. It’s not totally within your control. You can commit to a practice and set up favorable conditions, make sure you’ve got a piss bucket by your side. But you can’t make the art appear. If it does, you can put it out there, but you can’t control how it’s received or how it spreads. You can’t make anyone do anything, really. So what can you do?
Circle and circle. And maybe someday find a way to jump out.
Jump out of what? Your life? I don’t even know what this metaphor is referring to anymore, the one from the beginning, about the fish tank. I don’t want out; I like this tank. Mostly. If we’re thinking systemically, I guess I don’t like this tank, but I do like the people in it with me. Mostly. Except when we’re at a shoe store. If you want to keep loving your children, never take them to try on shoes at a shoe store.
What I mean by jumping out is that I want to not care. Not to care about what I do as if that determined who I am, not to care about what other people think of my work as if their approval would mean they approve of me. It wasn’t true about my parents, it won’t be true about me for my kids, and it certainly isn’t true about whatever audience I am building or not building.
I am swimming circles in this tank, and what I want most is to get out of my own way.
I only had about twenty minutes to pull the next card while the kids were out of the house. So I sat down and got to work, doing a quick meditation, laying out a scarf to spread out each of the previous cards, and shuffling the deck. All the while though, I could hear a dog crying outside of the window.
It was the dog we share a yard with, a black miniature poodle named Fannie. I often feed Fannie when her owner is working long shifts at the hospital as a midwife, so we are pretty familiar with each other. I knew that her owner was working that day, and that Fannie was probably whining because she was lonely. Still, I barely had enough time to do what I needed to do, so I tried to ignore it.
As I continued shuffling, I tried to think about something else, or tried to think about nothing, I suppose. But as the four remaining cards passed through my hands, one in particular popped into my mind: Red Blue, Body and Communication. Communication within the body and between bodies. Nonverbal communication.
Fannie’s crying was an example of Red Blue right in front of me. Okay, okay, this was some nonverbal communication I needed to pay attention to.
I put down the cards and went outside to play with Fannie for a few minutes. I pet her and reassured her, amusedly noticing my red sweatshirt against her blue hand knit doggie sweater. “Wouldn’t it be magic if…?” I had the thought, but tried not to get too attached. Fannie calmed down, and I went back inside to draw the next card.
I guess I don’t need to tell you that the next card was Red Blue. The probability was 1 in 4. Not terribly low, but low enough to feel special.
Animals learn to cry to get attention. I suppose they don’t even learn, many are born doing it. In mammals, this crying is sometimes referred to as an acoustical umbilical cord. Before birth, the fetus communicates on a biological level through the umbilical cord and the placenta, having all of their needs met directly. Once the cord is cut and the placenta is buried or consumed or otherwise discarded, baby animals get their needs met by crying.
What makes humans unique among mammals is that we keep crying even after babyhood, even after we no longer need our parents’ attention (for survival anyway). Maybe that’s why domesticated pets cry too, a trait compatible with their human caretakers.
How appropriate that while my neighbor was delivering babies her dog was crying for attention.
Red and Blue often make me think of babies anyway. Tiny humans are the ultimate nonverbal communicators precisely because we expect them one day to express themselves through symbols instead of screams.
The very first piece for Blue Red was the painting these animations were taken from, a screaming baby still attached to a placenta.
When Red Blue came up this week it had me thinking about placentas again, but this time for a different reason.
I was thinking about placentas because I was thinking about viral DNA, and I was thinking about viral DNA because I got a COVID booster shot. Vaccines are themselves a certain type of nonverbal communication. Perhaps mRNA vaccines even more so than traditional vaccines: “m” stands for “messenger.” I tried to imagine my immune system making sense of the new genetic material that had just burst forth into my left arm. It was strangely humbling, realizing how little I understood the actual physiology. But it was also strangely intimate.
Beyond the act of injection, the presence of genetic material from other organisms or even other organisms themselves inside your own body is nothing exceptional. In fact, it’s the norm. Microbial cells outnumber human cells in our bodies, from some figures by 10 to 1 but more definitively by at least 1.3 to 1. The microorganisms that live on our skin, in our mouths, in our guts, in our vaginas, and our feces play perhaps as integral a role as many of our own human cells. Our microbes are part of who we are. And even within our microbiomes, viruses are by far the most plentiful organism, also by 10 to 1.
But what is perhaps wilder than the sheer number of viruses cohabitating inside each of us, is how much viral DNA is present in our own human DNA: 8%. 8%! 8% of our DNA is thought to come from ancient viruses. Known as endogenous retroviruses, these viruses entered the DNA of mammal ancestors, impacting so-called germ cells like egg and sperm to be passed on to subsequent generations. Some of this DNA might be helpful, some might be harmful, some benign. And some define what it means to be a mammal.
One of the most important biological tricks we picked up from this ancient mass cross-species communication? The placenta.
A virus infected an ancient proto-mammal and changed its DNA so that, eventually, many generations later, the eggshell transformed from a hard shell that exists outside the body to a sort of permeable layer that exists inside the body, which then becomes the placenta. And this was a huge advantage because it made it possible for the blood of the mother to actually feed the fetus. So it could get tons more nutrients. It wasn't limited to just, like, whatever yolk was inside the egg from the beginning.
I had already thought placentas were fascinating organs. I had never even considered how they might have evolved. (If you don’t know much about the placenta, or if you love placentas and always want to learn more, take a listen to that episode. Or cheat and read the transcript like I often do.)
Most other creatures don’t act as hosts to their fetuses or feed them from their own (red and blue) blood stream. Which is to say nothing of another mammalian trait, continuing to feed babies from our own bodies after they are born. Growing inside of another body is one of the wildest universal features of human existence. The fact that this was made possible by a temporary organ whose code was inserted into our biological ancestors’ DNA by a microscopic organism that may or may not be alive is nothing short of mind blowing.
Learning that the blueprint for placentas came from ancient viruses was a pretty big paradigm shift for me. Enough that it seemed fitting to invert a Blue Red image into Red Blue.
I mean, what the hell does it mean to be human anyway? To be alive?
This where pictures can perhaps do better than words. Can maybe evoke the feeling of smallness and splendor that comes from knowing that your big animal body is a composite of the stories of so many other types of bodies. That you carry these stories in every cell, that they’ve been carried for so long before you and will be so far beyond you. Taken at the macro and micro level, all beings coexist in one giant, ongoing, immensely complex communication. Communication constitutes our very coexistence.
Viral mutations made us the mammals we are. Millions of years later, the COVID-19 virus has turned human bodies into a mass communication technology, an automated and globally distributed viral factory. Humans have in turn developed our own communication technologies to turn off or slow down this production.
Vaccines teach our bodies to recognize COVID-19: another opportunity to learn from viruses. But the real learning here is not within our bodies but between them.
This virus is teaching us that the personal and the systemic are linked. Your choices are collective, and taking care of yourself is a way of taking care of others. Yet this virus also teaches us that taking care of yourself won’t work if others aren’t taken care of too. Without universal access to vaccines and health care, personal access can only be so effective. Taking care of each other is the only way to take care of ourselves.
And again a virus teaches us how to be human.
Just to see what would turn up, I googled “green blue”.
This search mostly returned flat squares of color, all different shades of teal and seafoam and even forest green. Above these Google suggested another related search that might be relevant: “green blue eyes.”
Well, my own eyes are green blue, or at least greenish blue, blue with a yellow ring around the center that makes them look green. So I clicked. Up popped a whole bunch of close-up images of eyes, including one that could have been my own linking to an article about something called central heterochromia.
I had heard of heterochromia, where someone has two different colored eyes. Many huskies have it. David Bowie didn’t have it. But apparently two different colored eyes is called complete heterochromia, whereas central heterochromia is two eyes that have the same coloring as each other but with a different color from the rest of the iris around the center of the pupil. It’s not particularly uncommon, but I hadn’t known it had a name.
When I got to lists of celebrities with central heterochromia, I knew I was going down an internet rabbit hole, fast. So I got up from the computer, grabbed my phone, and immediately set to work photographing my eye before the kids came back from an outing.
Have you ever tried to photograph your own eye? It’s not easy. Especially using a phone and no tripod, even a really nice new fancy phone. Especially a really nice new fancy phone: I didn’t even know where to look. Using the camera on the front wasn’t high resolution enough to get the detail in my iris that I wanted (incidentally, the detail that I am now paranoid will let someone hack my identity, but art is worth it, right?). When I flipped the camera over I didn’t know which lens to look into. And because I couldn’t actually see what I was photographing, I had to guess through trial and error, hanging my face over each lens in turn, clicking and hoping for the best repeatedly. Most shots were either uncentered, unfocused, or both. And then there were the reflections. Eyeballs are wet and shiny, making whatever light source is in the room show up in your picture.
But you know what’s harder than photographing your own eye? Photographing a five-year-old’s eye.
Later that afternoon as E was napping and I was editing and animating the pictures of my eye in Photoshop, D came over to see what I was working on.
She thought it was cool, which always makes me feel cool. So I told her about central heterochromia, and realized that she had it too. Realized that our eye color is actually quite similar, and wouldn’t it be cool to animate her eye too? “Yeah!” she agreed enthusiastically.
So I took her into some better light and directed her to go from looking surprised to smiling while moving her eyes without moving the rest of her face. That took a long time to figure out. Once we did, the lighting was still wrong. Once we got the lighting right, enough time had passed that she simply couldn’t keep still anymore, blurring all the pictures. She went from inadvertently fidgeting to waving her arms in the air and doing somersaults while I pleaded with her to sit still.
Then I realized that I was just shooting an eye arbitrarily, when left or right would actually have a huge impact on the final image. I made the quick decision that it should be the same eye as mine, so that juxtaposed in the animation our eyes would look like they were fading into each other. Like they were the same eye, like we were the same person, just aging and youthing and aging and youthing.
I somehow determined that I had photographed my right eye, so I started shooting her right eye.
But telling left from right is hard, especially looking at someone else and telling their right from your right. So I got it wrong. I had actually shot my left eye, and now I had shot her right.
I think it turned out better that way.
Somehow when it is a left eye juxtaposed with a right, we perceive the animated image as two opposite eyes looking at each other. And so with the artifice of the camera, and the artifice of arranging shots frame by frame, I can manufacture a representation of intimacy that actually feels kind of authentic.
And somehow when I flip and align the frames so that the shot is each of our “right” eyes, it doesn’t look like we are looking at each other anymore. It changes the tone of the image completely, transforming the narrative or eliminating it entirely.
Even beyond engineering it for the moving image, eye contact is itself a kind of artifice. You can never with both of your own two eyes look directly into someone else’s two eyes. You can look at both of someone’s eyes, focusing in that general direction, but you can only ever really look into one eye at a time.
Go ahead, try it with someone. You can even try it with yourself in the mirror. If you try to look into both eyes at once, your eyes blur and you focus on neither, or else you end up focusing in between the two eyes.
I learned this from my friend Dr. Daniel Steinbock, from whom I have been lucky enough to hear multiple presentations on the topic. (Though he has never published these, googling “Daniel Steinbock eye contact” did turn up a transcript of a commencement speech he gave in which he made eye contact with each of the students.)
It has to do with the way we see, which is binocular vision. Humans use their two eyes to create a 3-D image of their surroundings. One of these eyes is our dominant eye, either left or right. Usually when we are making eye contact with someone, we will unconsciously settle into a gaze where we find and focus on their dominant eye and they will find and focus on ours. As it turns out, my dominant eye is my left, and D’s is her right.
Whichever eye you settle on, you can only ever really look into one eye at a time, or else be kind of looking in between someone’s eyes without focusing on them. Eye contact is more like the idea of looking into someone’s eyes.
A similar complication of eye contact is video calls. To make it look like you are looking into someone’s eyes over video, you actually have to look into the camera. But then you are looking at a camera, not at that person’s eyes. And if they returned the favor, they would also be looking at a camera instead of at the image of your eyes. So then on the screen would be two images of people who appear to be looking at the person on the other end, only neither of them could see it because they’d be staring into a tiny black marble instead.
Apple has already “corrected” this problem of course, by adding an “Eye Contact” setting to its FaceTime video chat. With the setting turned on, your phone’s AI alters the video to make it appear as if you are looking the other person in the eye. Cool! And weird!
We use smartphone AI to alter our images in real time regularly. You’ve done it if you’ve ever used Portrait Mode, where your phone’s camera keeps who you are shooting in focus and blurs everything else. I use this setting often, and there is nothing bad about it per se. But as this article in Fast Company points out:
What that really means is that your phone’s software is essentially green-screening your loved ones. I get it—many people love this feature because it allows you to focus on a subject, not the background. Yet still, on some level, it makes my stomach churn: it means the software on our phones is inventing pixels when it couldn’t capture them. What it couldn’t do in the analog world it just faked in the digital one. And that’s a slippery slope.
“Green-screening your loved ones.” I had already literally put a green screen on top of an image of my child’s face before I read that line. Of course an actual green screen goes behind a subject and is digitally replaced by something else during editing. The green hue is used for its difference from human skin, for ease of digital deletion. Green is used precisely not to be seen.
But that’s why green is fun to play with. Layered over skin, it calls attention to its own artifice to emphasize what is real. That these photographs may not capture real time connection itself, but that they might capture the idea of connection. Even if it were in “natural” color, the eye contact in this animation never happened.
Green is Love and also Family. Blue is Communication. Whether we are with them in person or looking at them over screens, whether we are connecting or not even making contact, the Holidays are a collective exercise in family communication. Some parts might be lovely, some parts agonizing. Not least of all this year because COVID may have upended carefully laid travel plans and forced even more strained conversations about boundaries and protocols, or battles with illness or worse. But also because family is just challenging.
If you are around your family of origin during the holidays, you are bound to find yourself regressing into old roles. We are staying with my mother-in-law right now, so I’m not regressing myself. But I am here with my young children, where everyday just by living we co-create the family roles into which they will one day regress.
I can already start to see where the folds of my relationship with D might one day become wrinkles. Ways that we already frustrate each other, already communicate past each other. She is still very much becoming who she is, just as I suppose I am always still becoming who I am. As time goes on and we grow not just to become ourselves but to understand ourselves more, I hope we also grow to understand each other more. Or at least not less.
Looking into her eyes that have my color but are not my own, I remember that she is a different person. But I also remember that eye contact is how we began to understand each other as different people, learning to connect beyond our bodies.
For Red Blue I talked about the acoustical umbilical cord, how the initial separation of birth teaches animals to communicate through sound. One way we scale our communications beyond our parents and caretakers is through sight, through our eyes. We teach babies how to interact with other people by meeting and holding their gaze. By making faces at them and mimicking theirs, we teach them to read faces.
We are each composites of the connections we make and don’t quite make, frames arranged into lives that sync with other lives but never quite match. There are so many ways that my daughter and I might not connect in the future, like the ways I don’t connect with my own mother, or certainly like my mother with her own mother. But at least for now, my connection with D can often be as simple as eye contact. D and I can look into each others’ eyes and it just clicks. Through our eyes, we communicate love. I hope we can sustain that contact.
I took 1296 photos in 2 days across two cities. And then at least 300 more after that. Black White Blue kept showing up, and I kept trying to capture it.
After a while, photo animation becomes compulsive. If you think you might be getting a good shot, you need to snap many times in the same position, not knowing how any of it is going to turn out until you assemble it later. So you keep snapping and snapping, just in case. The images kind of accumulate.
I’ve been animating photos for almost 18 years now. Until this project, most of my animations didn’t really see the light of day, though that never stopped me from shooting. I guess I like the control of capturing and manipulating a moving image frame by frame. I like the honesty of the artifice vs. the perceived reality of video. But why I feel compelled to capture images at all is an impulse I don’t quite understand, an impulse that more and more people share as we habituate having a camera on us at all times.
Rather than a desire to capture a particular moment, my impulse to animate begins with already having captured a moment and then wanting to do something with all the raw material. Digital photography and now cloud storage gives us the ability to hoard photos.
Even now, my phone says that I have 95,831 photos on it. Of course, most of these are representations of files that are actually stored in the cloud, going back to 2015. That’s when I stopped removing old photos from my phone. I probably have copies of every other digital photo I’ve taken sitting in hard drives, if I knew where to look. I never delete any of them because they feel like not only art but artifact, a document of my life.
I don’t delete my photos because I hold on to the idea of one day stringing them all together into one giant stop-motion animation. Every single one. Some version of an entire life flipping by in minutes, and not unlike actual memory, in disjointed snippets.
I suppose it’s more of a conceptual piece, one that lives as an idea mostly because I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to doing it. The result would certainly not be something anyone would want to watch in its entirety. Would it be stirring and provocative like Tracey Emin’s bed? Or banal, like scrolling through someone’s social media feed?
Being as it is mostly a conceptual work anyway, I actually like the idea of turning anyone’s camera roll into a giant stop-motion. Everyone’s camera roll? I don’t want curated images, I want all of them. Documents and bug bites and half-closed eyes and dick pics and cat memes. I want the gaps of the photos you didn’t take, the moments when you were present enough not to pull out your phone.
I want the moments where you snapped many photos of the same thing looking to get the perfect shot, and how those moments would turn into moving images.
I don’t think enough can be said about how transformational it is for so many people to carry cameras and computers in their pockets. Creating piles of data and documentation that may stick around for generations, or may flicker out like so much energy. Much ink has been spilled on the subject of course, but I think we are still too close to it to fully comprehend the impact. Even a couple generations ago a photograph was an event, the physical copy a treasure. With all of these piles of photos, how could you even find the signal through the noise? And who would care to look except your own grandchildren?
This week I visited my grandfather at the hospital, aged 97.
“This is for the birds,” he said, gesturing with his head at the room around him. The room was small with no windows, fluorescent bulbs glaring down on a bed he was stuck in but couldn't quite reach the controls to adjust. Yet it was a quiet, private room during a pandemic. The second time he found himself admitted to the hospital in a week.
“Getting old isn’t easy,” Grandpa also said, so many tubes pushing fluids into and out of him. I’m sure it isn’t. Most people don’t make it to 97 though, so it’s not an entirely universal experience. And most people who make it to 97 certainly aren’t still co-authoring op-eds from a hospital bed.
Beyond his physical ailments, one of his biggest concerns this week was that somehow the New York Times Magazine had slipped out of his Sunday edition before he had a chance to read it. I was honored to be able to give him my mother-in-law’s copy, driving it from Chicago to Metro Detroit. Passing it from one voracious reader to another, each of them reading multiple newspapers a day. Each of them with long careers in law and bodies whose power doesn’t quite match that of their minds, at least at the moment.
My grandfather was in Room 47. This is my 47th piece for the year and happens to be about number 47, Black White Blue. This is the first time all year that the number of the piece lined up with the number of the color pair. As I navigated the hospital’s parking structures, wings, and hallways, I saw Black White Blue everywhere. In signage, in elevator buttons, and even in my grandfather’s room once I found it.
There was a certain Accidental Renaissance divinity to him in the hospital bed, looking like some Western art historical ideal of god himself all draped in white fabric. The folds of the white pillow radiated out from behind his head, a gauzy white blanket draped across his shoulders inadequately covering his thin arms. His wispy white hair, his white skin, his blue eyes shining.
I wanted to take his picture, but I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking. I’m actually not even sure how he’ll feel about me writing this, because he’ll likely see it. He is a loyal reader of mine, though he admits to me that he understands almost none of it. Come to think of it, he prints it out to read it, which certainly changes at least the animated parts. So maybe this written description of his own image is fitting.
Black White is about transcendence and culmination, and Blue is communication. With its place so close to the end of the cycle of 49, Black Whtie Blue may be the culmination of a lifetime of study and learning and transmitting, of five newspapers a day and so many other periodicals besides. Black and white print. Black and White and Blue all over.
What I was hoping for this winter was some White all over. A “White Christmas,” I suppose (did you know that song was written by a Jew?). I haven’t seen real snow in years, and hoped that coming to the Midwest in winter we’d finally catch some.
When we were in Chicago for Christmas, not only was there no snow on the ground, but it hasn’t even snowed yet at all this year. I put snow out of my mind, chalking it up to climate change with not only a little bit of grief.
But driving along I-94 on the way to Michigan, we saw little patches of snow by the side of the road. When we finally got out at a rest stop, there was snow on the ground. Grass sticking out of a mass of trampled footprints, but snow. The kids went wild stamping on it in their sneakers. I thought to myself, “this isn’t real snow,” but I restrained myself from sharing my snow snobbery. I was also grateful to see snow, but sort of sad that this was the snow they would get.
There was a little more snow once we got to my mom’s house, though also not up to my apparently high standards. Still we suited up and went for a walk, sloshing around in my blue rain boots.
Then that afternoon it started snowing in earnest. Like, snow falling from the sky kind of snowing. If it’s been years since I saw snow on the ground, I don’t know how long it’s been since I saw it fall from the sky. It’s magical. I forgot how snow isn’t always individual flakes but often big clumps of them. The kids and I were gleeful, running around with our tongues out. “Snow is a recipe for prettiness,” D said.
What is snow but White Blue, blue water turned frozen white? The sky was also white, blue turned white. And at night and in shadow the white snow itself is blue, trees black silhouetted by the sky. Black White Blue.
I didn’t want the moment of the snow to end. Even when we went inside I sat at the window like an excited dog. I won’t be able to take the snow with me, and the photos are a memory of a thing that happened, not the thing itself. They don’t capture the hush, don’t capture the soft sound that snow makes as it falls on your shoulder. Photos don’t capture the smell either. These are things that perhaps a photo can trigger in your memory, but live only in the moment itself.
We are almost to the end of this fifth series of Rainbow Squared. The final piece will be by a guest artist and the colors were determined long ago. This week I only shuffled two cards to determine Piece 47, also determining Piece 48 by default.
So here are all the cards laid out through the end of the series, all 49 in this year’s emergent order. When I took a picture of the full spread, I saw the blue border of the scarf on the black and white foam mat. Black White Blue.
The tarot card I drew this week was The Hermit. A card about yourself in relation to others and going inward. These holidays in the Midwest are not a convenient time to channel The Hermit, when I perhaps desperately want to be alone but find myself stuck inside surrounded by family. How I’d love to be that Hermit sometimes. How lucky I am not to be.
In some ways, this project is how I channel The Hermit, secreting away in corners of my mom’s house with noise-cancelling headphones, communing with my photos and words. The Hermit is also an appropriate card for Black White Blue. If Black White is interconnectedness and transcendence, and Blue is communication, then Black White Blue is about how our communications connect us to each other and the present moment, and how we can transcend them.
There is a time to embrace the connectivity, to fill your mind with content and even add your own documentation to the pile. There is also a time to turn it off and turn away, turn inward, or even just turn to what’s happening in your immediate surroundings. Being present was hard enough when it was just the moment that was happening. Now there are so many moments happening at once, more than you can fully attend to, more than you can occupy, more than you could ever capture.
Some I have to let float away.
I make these animations in many ways for myself, each like a tiny snow globe of a moment that I can click on, shaking it and bringing it to life. A way to put a frame around certain moments, by turning them into frames. And just like snow, they are also fleeting.
The digital is not forever. If I make it to a hospital bed at 97, my grandchildren might not be able to see the animations I’ve made even if they wanted to. Gifs will certainly be an outdated format one day, even if they live on in the blockchain. And these versions are painfully low resolution, aggressively compressed to total less than 10 MB so they can fit in an email.
But this piece, Piece 47, is a moment in time just like any other, as is this moment now that you are reading it. This moment at the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one. All these moments fall like snow, clumping together. Some of it sticking, most of it melting away.
I still remember my earliest artistic breakthrough: picking up the orange marker instead of the red marker to color a picture of my hair. People always told me my hair was red, so I had always used red, unquestioningly. But somewhere around age 4 or 5, I observed that orange would be a more accurate match. From then on, every time I chose orange to draw my hair, I felt a certain authority in the world of color.
I come from a family of redheads. All four of my siblings are redheads, as is our mom. Even though our dad is not a redhead, both of his parents were. Our hair varies in shades and years have certainly faded its vibrance. But we still turn heads when we are all together, so many redheads in one space being a bit of a spectacle.
While something closer to orange is the true color of our hair, redheads are discouraged from wearing it. Type “redhead colors” into Google and the first search term to autocomplete is “redhead colors to avoid.” Orange almost always appears on this list. Like any societal rules about appearance, this guidance is—of course—bullshit. Yet I have internalized these messages about which colors are “flattering” (which has way more to do with skin tone than hair color, truly) and to this day have mostly stayed away from wearing orange.
This is not true for my sister though, who strongly identifies with and proudly wears the color Orange.And I unintentionally set that in motion for her.
It is no secret that I love color. So it is also probably no surprise that color would feature in the first wedding ceremony I wrote, which was my own.
The Seven Blessings, or Sheva Brachot, are the cornerstone of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. They are seven distinct blessings that range from blessing of the wine onto blessing the couple to a community blessing. We wanted to honor this structure, but in creating an interfaith wedding we didn’t particularly resonate with the text of the blessings themselves. We wrote seven new blessings to be read aloud by everyone in attendance, each one corresponding to a value we wanted to bring into our relationship as well as corresponding to a color:
These blessings were each led by two different people in our lives who, as weddings go, also wore that color. My sister Hannah’s color was Orange.
These color correspondences are the precursor to the meanings I use for the Rainbow Squared system. I ultimately removed Indigo and added in Black and White together at the end. It was important to me to have seven color slots in this system even if it required some engineering, just as it was important for Isaac Newton when he designated the seven colors in the visible spectrum. Newton added Indigo and by some accounts even Orange to get to that holy number.
And in Rainbow Squared, Orange is still a bit of an outlier. We flip-flopped for a while on whether Orange would be Compassion or Gratitude, finally deciding that Gratitude needed its own distinct reference more than Compassion. I’m not sure if Gratitude or Compassion stuck with my sister either way, but the color Orange certainly did.
Our wedding hit Hannah at a pretty formative time. I was twenty-nine years old, which meant she was fourteen. Her life was already pretty different from mine at her age. When I was fourteen she hadn’t even been born yet. Whereas I grew up surrounded by brothers in an intact (if conflict-ridden) household, my sister was living alone with our freshly-divorced mother. The wedding also caught her in the throes of puberty. So maybe orange hit her just as she was coming into her own and became her color ever since.
I don’t know if there is a typical sibling relationship, but mine and Hannah’s probably isn’t it. With a fifteen-year age gap, she has always been as much my sister as my niece or something. A source of conflict between us now is actually that I treat her as older than she is, expecting more adult behavior from her than is necessarily fair. Yet I joke that she is my original baby, because somewhere in my subconscious she is definitely filed as a child. When I am around Hannah, I am constantly calling her by my daughter D’s name and vice versa.
Time sort of rhymes with us. Since Hannah was also fifteen when D was born, their age gap is the same as ours. Which means that looking at Hannah and D together is like a strange snapshot of the past, where she is me and D is her.
When Hannah looks at me, she sees some kind of future self. When I look at her, I see some kind of past self. I try to give her advice, impress upon her things I’d wished I’d known when I was her age. But as she points out to me, that never works in movies, and that’s not how it works in real life either. You just have to live through it.
Hannah is my teacher as much as I might try to be hers. She helps navigate family communication challenges, navigate the Gen Z internet, and even navigate the world of cosmetics, her learning more make-up tricks from YouTube than neither my mom or I ever figured out both growing up with brothers (the make-up in the photo above when Hannah is fourteen? She did it herself). She was my teacher even as a kid, showing me how to embody my own playful creative spirit, being present the way that only children truly are.
Fifteen years ago, when I was the age she is now, Hannah came with my mom to visit me at art school. It was right after I had discovered a dumpster full of (clean) styrofoam unpacked from a computer lab’s worth of new printers. My little section of the sculpture studio was covered in styrofoam bricks and packing peanuts. All of five years old, she walked right up to my desk, hoisted herself up onto the stool, and started playing with these found materials. She seemed a tiny avatar of myself, in a flow state that I could only ever aspire to. I picked up my digital camera and recorded it.
I’ve never forgotten that moment, filing it away in my memory as “The Artist in Her Studio.” But I didn’t actually label the file with that name, and lost track of the actual video long ago. This week I searched through boxes and hard drives, and finally found it among all my other photos from 2006. The resolution is a ghastly 320x240 pixels, but I suppose that’s just fine for a gif.
And here we are, Hannah is twenty and my own child is the age that she was in that video. I’m still an artist, and Hannah is too. Now we can collaborate in a totally different way.
Hannah is her own creative force. She’s studying musical theater as a triple threat: acting, dancing, and singing to boot. As a digital native and social media user, she also knows how to perform online. She has perfected the art of the selfie, taking it to new creative heights by digitally doodling on her images.
So when I found myself in Michigan over New Year’s working on Orange Orange, I knew that she was it. She was Orange Orange. I was so happy when she agreed to work with me. My initial vision was to shoot a stop-motion animation of her hair billowing as if by magic laying amongst her orange things. I didn’t have a tripod with me though. I improvised pretty well using a bench, a lampshade, a box of tissue, and some tape. Still it wasn’t quite stable enough for me to use my hands to move the objects around.
There is always a creative solution though. What if instead I took one still image and animated a drawing on top of it? And what if she made the drawing? Then we went wild.
It was so deeply fun staying up way too late the night before I left town, Hannah drawing on my mom’s iPad in Procreate, me pulling it into her own old laptop in Photoshop.
Apparently that experience inspired her. She said it even made her get over her ex-boyfriend! We’ll see if it sticks.
I guess Orange to me isn’t really Gratitude or Compassion, though those elements do pop up sometimes. Orange is Creativity, Passion, Fire. Something that my sister and I both share as performers and makers, a trait we inherited in different ways from both of our parents. A trait that we’ve also inherited as redheaded Leos (her sun is in Leo, mine is right on the cusp but I am also Leo rising).
Orange is making. Orange makes you keep going, makes you forget to remember what time it is. Orange is flow, and in flow Orange is fun.
My deepest visual attraction is black and white and usually geometric. I don’t know why.
It’s in my clothing, it’s in my art practice, it’s in my house—my sheets, my teacups, my credenza, my wallpaper. I’ve chosen to put black and white tattoos all over my body.
Black and white is my most authentic creativity.
Younger versions of me didn’t think I was creative, and present day me mourns that lack of vision. In art class, I was not the best at drawing, therefore I thought I couldn’t be an artist. When I dropped AP French for Art I, I followed a hunch that I would love it, but I was nervous that I wouldn’t get an A. I did love it, and I did get an A, but I figured it was because I did the assignments. I was much better at math, athletics, and music, and I couldn’t draw well, so I wasn’t an artist.
It’s still hard for me to separate what I’m good at from what I enjoy doing.
An identity trap tripped me up again in my early career when I was a data scientist. I was a numbers person, and numbers people are logical—you go to them for a reality check on what is actually happening with the business.
I didn’t know yet that logic and creativity were not at opposite ends of the same spectrum. Or that actually, “Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don’t get that.”
I didn’t embrace myself as a creative person until I hit my head on a pipe so hard that I had no choice but to sit with myself for a year. When my head struck, I saw flashes of black white, black white.
The next year was brutal. I was in pain every day. I was lonely. They say that recovery from a concussion is not linear, but I was making no progress. They say that not everyone makes progress. I thought that if I did not make progress, I would not choose to keep living.
I knew that was true and I couldn’t talk about it.
I didn’t want to burden others, I didn’t want to risk being hospitalized, I didn’t want to make the thoughts more real by giving them space…which you know, totally works.
I wasn’t close to actually harming myself, I wasn’t close to talking, and I couldn’t keep my pain inside.
Instead of talking, I drew a series of black and white self-portraits. This was me, hurting more than I have ever hurt.
Later, I found it quite comforting that 1 in 3 people with serious brain injuries have suicidal thoughts. I didn’t tell my therapist about mine until a year later, when I was wondering why I was so afraid of falling off our 22nd floor balcony. The realization hit me during the last minute of a session—a lightning bolt of life and death striking my consciousness.
Six months after I hit my head, it wasn’t clear what kind of work I would be able to do. My neuropsychological test results suggested my intelligence would not allow me to hold my previous tech job. So the idea of being an artist wasn’t just a dream; it was a practicality.
It’s hard to know how much of your identity comes from work, and the story about how you’re smart, until you lose it. I wasn’t ready to grieve my loss of identity because it was far too big. In the meantime, I started to refer to myself as an artist and do artist things.
At a portfolio review session attended by some local galleries, one quickly told me that the faces I drew were not really art. But some of my abstract watercolors were, and that I was a great artist if I continued to make these.
So I continued to make those. The pieces are me, but me through the lens of others.
My recovery took years. But eventually, I became one of the lucky ones who fully recovered.
Today, six years later, I’m a mom, I have a high stakes tech job, and I’m an extrovert who loves close relationships with friends and family and partners. I want to continue playing the role of myself in my life.
Tech is interesting and practical, and if I squint I can find a lot of meaning. I heard an artist on a podcast say that they did art because they literally couldn’t do anything else. I was envious because tech doesn’t scratch my creative itch like I crave.
I’m skeptical that I have the time to be creatively fulfilled during this phase of my life. Do I still get to call myself an artist if I haven’t made real art in years?
I made some fake art a few months ago. After watching scrapbooking ASMR content on TikTok, I ordered a bunch of washi tape, stickers, and a mini journal. I truly never intended for anyone to see this work.
Maybe I’m attracted to black and white because it’s so obviously a lie. Life is not black and white. Art is not “good” or “bad.” “Good” and “bad” are not black and white.
But art is the lie that makes us realize truth. My art was the only way I could speak when I desperately needed to express and understand my suffering. For that, I’m both indebted to it and in love with it. I miss it and its intimacy, like an old lover.
I don’t know what I can’t speak of today. The alchemy of the creative process is dormant in me, but it’s still there.