Artist In Residence In Motherhood

It’s no secret that becoming a mother changes your life. In fact, the wordsIt’s gonna change everything! were perhaps the most often said to me while I was pregnant with my son and to which I developed a response that was a polite smile and nod disguising teeth set in annoyance. I know I know enough already! I was half irritated by the general disposition of people to tell pregnant women all about what it’s like to become a parent, as if they know exactly what you’re going through because they have a kid already or their sister had a baby last year or something. The other half of my irritation came from fear of this certainty of radical change in the makeup of my life and self, and the uncertainty that surrounded what would come next.

I didn’t want the change, at least not all of it. I wanted to become a mother and not let it change me without my consent. I wanted to have this baby and fit him right into my life. Sure, I knew I would have to carry diapers in my backpack alongside my journals and steel water bottle. I knew I would have to trade my cherished Datsun pickup for a car with working seat belts. But I could still do everything else the same, right? Yes, sort-of, and also not at all.

In the early spring of Joseph’s first year, I sat with my mother and my friend Rose on the in the window booth of an ice cream shop in Hot Springs, North Carolina where we were spending the weekend. It was still too cold for ice cream, really, but I had insisted. Rose and I reminisced through laughter about the nine months of my pregnancy. We had done a lot in that time: attending the earth-skills gathering Whippoorwill festival, visiting another friend at Wild Roots — an off-grid homestead in the mountains of North Carolina, riding in the annual 4th of July bike parade Freedom Thighsand starting a Bike Collective to name a few.

Rose congratulated me: Damn, you did a lot for a pregnant lady!

She didn’t want her life to change, my mom stated simply.

I said nothing and after a moment of silence promptly changed the subject.Don’t speak for me, I thought, My life hasn’t changed! Look at me, I’m in the mountains right now doing what I always do! I couldn’t have admitted it at that time, but I had an active resistance army building a fortress against the upheaval around and inside me, and I didn’t appreciate someone else pointing out what I wasn’t allowing even myself to see.

Many months later I knew that her analysis was spot-on. I didn’t want to lose my old life, so I sunk my teeth into it as deep as I could. Not knowing what could come after, I didn’t want to lose my identity and my community, which for much of my young adult years was defined by a decidedly not-kid-friendly lifestyle. We were a community because we rode cobbled together bicycles, because we went to punk shows and cooked for Food Not Bombs, because we ate food out of dumpsters, because we went into the woods with tarps and hand-me-down-camp-stoves, because we mended our socks and were vaguely reckless. None of us had kids, and for good reason.

In a certain kind of youth culture, “mom” is a derogatory term. As in the sarcastic Thanks, mom. Even as recently as a few weeks ago as I moved into a new one-bedroom apartment, a friend who helped me load boxes up the rickety staircase laughing said, You’re such a Mom, now! Look at you, you have a Subaru and an apartment and a grown-up job and everything! He was just teasing me in fun, and I didn’t take any offense, but he articulated an ideal that still exists in our community and, when I’m honest, in me. Mom means boring, means safe, means mainstream, means responsible, means grown-up, tepid, meaningless.

In my life, in times of sadness or deep turmoil, I take to the woods walking. My feet on the packed earth path is the only thing I have found that can hold me while I mourn, or while I search, or while I worry.

I spent a lot of time walking that first year of my son’s life, with his small body slung against my chest in the Ergo-baby, trying to understand what it meant to be the mother of this new life and be a person I can recognize at the same time.

Becoming never happens all at once. Becoming a mother doesn’t happen at the moment of birth, or at the moment of conception, it happens the first time you imagine yourself with a child in your arms. It grows the first time you look at your partner wondering if you could raise a child with them and think yea, maybe. It sparks at conception (you can feel it) and incubates right along with the baby (what kind of mother will I be?). You build a space for the child in your life. You buy diapers and blankets and onesies. The birth comes and you leap together across the threshold, jumping with both feet into the deep end, where there is no solid stone to be found anywhere.

It is like the riddle of the frog that leaps accidentally into a bucket, and as he treads the liquid he calls for help, but there is no one to hear him. Just as he thinks he is too tired to tread anymore and he thinks he will drown, he begins to feel something solid under his feet. He hops out of the bucket. The liquid was cream and he has churned it into butter.

This is how the early months of my child’s life felt to me, but months go by — you go back to work or you don’t, you learn the rhythm of the dance that soothes your baby best, you learn to leave the house with everything you need, to change a diaper on your lap. A new kind of normal emerges. You start to think you might make it after all. People say, You are such a good mother, and they are right.

The first time I had something solid to stand on and a moment to look around, it was easy to see that things in my self and life were different but mostly for the better. I had left my abusive partner, broken up destructive patterns of behavior, asserted boundaries, forged new friendships and restored old ones. I had to stop smoking and drinking and I even gave up coffee. I had a beautiful and safe place to live and a job that paid my bills.

Whew, I thought, glad that’s over. And part of it was. I had made space forMother alongside the rest of my identities, just like I made space for my son alongside the rest of my life. But between that first look around and the moment I am writing these words there were three moves and two job transitions ahead of me. I was and am clearly still in the throes of figuring out what it means to be the mother of this new life and be a person I can recognize at the same time, and suddenly I can see that this will probably be true for the rest of my life.

Unexpectedly, it was in writing a manifesto for an open-source, self-directed Artist In Residence In Motherhood that I was able to identify and name this new acceptance of the complex part of my life that I am in the middle of. I based my manifesto heavily on that written by Lenka Clayton, the multidisciplinary artist and founder of this residency. It reads:

Like all new mothers, the birth of my child ignited a process of transformation — both internal in my person and external in the structures of my life — that is ongoing still even as my son has crossed into his second year. Among the tectonic shifts has been in the way that I myself and others see my career as an artist. It is a commonly held perception that the serious artist and the good mother are mutually exclusive endeavors. I actively reject this notion and choose to instead present the idea that my work as an artist strengthens my capacities as a mother and my life as a mother deepens my work: that they inform one another. I undergo this self-imposed Artist Residency in order to fully experience the unique challenges and structures of being both a Working Artist and a Single Mother, to make the best use of the material and resources at hand, and to allow these circumstances to shape the direction of my work rather than doggedly attempting to work “despite” them.

I have been trying to live my old life despite my new identity and responsibilities, fearing to feel the pain and loss and look clearly at all that I am no longer able to do, the people I am no longer be able to relate to, but this resistance is the very thing that causes the pain. Hoping to live and work and be in the same ways as old days only serves to make me angry and resentful of what is in front of me, to see motherhood as a limit instead of as a catalyst.

Naming this acceptance of transformation as a strategy for my work as an artist shifted immediately my conception of my role as mother. I can now see the new potential that is available to me because of my son, not despite him; different from the old to be certain but no less and very likely more — new kinds of beauty that permeate every moment, deepness of experience that is new material for my work, raw nerve endings illuminate new knowings about the world without and within, demands on my time create new ways of working breaking up habits that no longer serve my process.

Perhaps most profoundly, and most terrifying of all, are the new capacities of self unearthed by the demands of mothering. Motherhood has brought me to my most vulnerable places, but it has also brought me face to face with how strong I can be, how big I can be, and the sorts of superhuman feats I am capable of pulling off on five hours of sleep and whole lot of coffee.

Intimate Violence, the Trump Tapes, and an Apology I Didn’t Ask For

Trigger Warning: Violence Against Women

I have so many things to say about the Trump Access Hollywood tapes that I don’t even know what to say. I am tempted to say nothing. But, like Michelle Obama and millions of women all over the world, I can’t stop thinking about this. 

Trump’s words hit so close to home for me and for women, because we all know how true they are. It isn’t that Trump’s expressed beliefs about women’s bodies, that you can do anything you want with them, is so uncommon. Actually, this is the prevailing belief in our culture, as exposed by the fact that I don’t know a single woman who has not experienced sexual abuse or assault or domestic violence.

I am only 26, but I knew this by the time I was 17 and publishing my first zine with my friend Mary Downing. We called the zine Anonymous, and put out an open call for anonymous submissions, wanting to create space for content that would be censored if it was attached to a person’s name and identity.

The first submission we got was a page torn out of a journal: a story of sexual assault, and while this piece of paper weighed heavy in our hands, it did not come as a surprise. The teenage girl who wrote that submission understood our culture’s beliefs about women’s bodies as well. She wrote “I read a statistic once that stated that 1 in 6 women in America are raped. Numbers mean so little when they don’t affect you, hm? Five of my friends (six including K) have been raped, as well as my sister and myself. We are all under the age of 20. Does that seem like one in six? It doesn’t to me.”

I can’t believe I have to write this. I don’t want to write this.

The part that pisses me off the most is that I haven’t been pissed off (enough) before.

It’s not that I haven’t been angry. Almost two years ago I got out of an abusive relationship where my body was threatened in passive and active ways every single day. And trust me, after that I was angry. Inside my own head, I yelled at my ex for most of every day for many months. While I was driving to work, washing the dishes, walking down the street, mending a sweater.

That part, the overt violence, the literal abuse, feels at once too obvious to bother talking about and also still too raw to write down. We know that this kind of violence affects women in profound and devastating ways. There are resources for this kind of violence, not enough resources, but resources. The average person on the street will agree that it is not okay to hit your partner.

What makes me angry now is that for my whole life I have known that violence against women is not acceptable, and I have also known that the agency I have over what happens to my own body is minimal and will be ignored or removed by men in large and small ways at whim. I am angry because this has been presented to me as so absolute and so perfectly normal that I have accepted it.

Sure, I have protested. I have had fiery conversations with other women about our shared experiences. I have devised very clever responses to yell back at cat callers. I have been trained in and taught the comprehensive Sexuality Education curriculum Our Whole Lives, with a strong focus on sexual ethics and active consent. But still, deep down, I knew that at the end of the day, men could do whatever they want with my body, with no consequences at all.

Once, sharing a bed with a male friend in a room full of other sleeping people, he started kissing me, started to put his hand in my bike shorts. I turned my face away, took his hand and pushed it away from me, forced to try to communicate silently so as not to wake our sleeping friends. He tried again, and I again stopped him, pushing his hand more forcefully away. I lay there in the dark as he rolled away from me and eventually went to sleep.

The next day we got up and went on with our lives. There was no conversation about what had happened, but what surprises me the most in hindsight is that I felt no anger. I felt no need to initiate a conversation myself, to demand an explanation or apology. This person was and is my friend, is well-liked and respected in our radical activist community, and I took it as par for the course that “boys will be boys ” and men do this sort of thing. I just forgot about it.

Recently, this same friend and I were sitting on my front porch late at night and he asked me if I remembered this incident. I hadn’t thought about it since the day it happened, but I did remember once he told me the story again. He said, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. You tried to tell me to stop and I didn’t listen. That was fucked up.”

The act of this apology was a really humble and vulnerable and strong thing for him to do, and is a testament to his character and the thoughtful way he aspires to live his life. If you’re out there reading this and you think you owe somebody an apology, go do it today. If you don’t know how to apologize and you need some guidance, read this article.

This incident is a drop in the bucket when you look at the scale of violence women experience every day, or or even the scale of violence I have experienced as an individual. I tell it to say that this conversation is not just for people who wake up with bruises the next day. It matters the way we are treated, and the way we treat each other, and we don’t need to sit around waiting for something “really bad to happen to us before we get pissed off. We don’t need to excuse our friends from accountability because we love them or because they are good people or because they do good work.

If you need it, take this as permission: be mad about the ways you are disrespected and dehumanized, if they are big and if they are small. Demand better. Demand apologies. Or don’t, but know that you deserve them. Get safe, be safe, and take care of yourself.

Watch Out

When I was a student at Sequoyah Elementary School, I spoke so infrequently that my fellow students took to counting the number of words I had said to them each year on their fingers. Every once and a while, I would say something like okay, or sure, or no and they would run to their friends, wide eyed, holding up three fingers, She said another word!

This was the time when I began construction on the castle walls and moat that now stand around my heart. I drew pictures, and taught myself to believe that I would rather be on my own anyways. Outsider became part of my identity, but the hurt that accrued in all those friendless years affects my life and behaviors in powerful ways even now.

During free time in class I drew pictures of myself, alone in the jungle, or horses running alone on the plains. In the lunchroom I scraped the peanut butter off my peanut butter crackers and made tiny sculptures of cats and horses, wondering how it was that other kids could be so loud. During recess I sat alone at the edge of the playground, building tiny log cabins out of broken twigs. Every day, I hoped that this one wouldn’t get destroyed, but it always did.

One year, my school sent us off to Great Smoky Mountains Environmental Institute at Tremont, for an Environmental Education camp.

I had been camping plenty, so I wasn’t radically transformed by this contact with the woods. But one night, they took us on a flashlight-less Night Hike. The children gathered in a nervous group, clutching flashlights brought from home, flashing the beams around wildly – the gravel road, the canopy of leaves, each other’s faces – as though trying to take it all in one last time before the light was taken from them. I stood off to the side, holding a chunky yellow flashlight and trying to have a brave face about the whole thing. After all, I had been camping before, and I wasn’t anything like those other kids. I wasn’t scared of the woods.

But in truth, all I wanted was to grab a fistfull of someone’s T-shirt and not let go. I was terrified they were gonna forget about me out there in the dark woods, that I was gonna be left behind for good this time.

We were allowed to carry our flashlights, but were instructed not to switch them back on except in case of emergency. A few kids couldn’t handle the temptation, and had their flashlights confiscated.

If you have ever dared to turn off your flashlight in the woods at night, you will know that the forest develops like a photograph on the back of your eyes. Your senses can tell you more than you ever imagined and even some things made invisible by daylight. The group of boisterous and irreverent kids was transformed by the dark into a trail of attentive and agile creatures. We walked slowly, sensing. No one spoke louder than a whisper, as though the night was a presence so sacred we did not want to risk being discovered trespassing through it.

I followed the bobbing T-shirt draped across the shoulder blades of the kid in front of me, and listened for the steps that fell behind my own. Ahead, I could see that the trail bent to the left, and that there was some sort of obstacle in the path. As we approached, Jason – the coolest and most crushable kid in the whole third grade – stopped. He put his hand on top of a rusted pole sticking up at the bend in the trail, he turned back and whispered to us two words: watch out.

That gesture changed my heart.

Eventually we reached a clearing where we all sat in the grass, still clutching our dark flashlights, and listened for owls. We walked out of the woods. We turned our flashlights on, pointed them at the gravel, walked back to our cabins. The next day I still had no one to sit with at lunch, I still built my stick houses alone, still knew I didn’t belong, but I had seen something: for one moment, in the perfect wilderness of the forest dark, it hadn’t mattered. It hadn’t mattered that I didn’t dress well and didn’t talk like other kids and couldn’t play kickball, we had just cared for each other.

I have carried this knowledge like a precious stone in my heart for all these years, because in this moment lies my hope. That no matter how divided we may be in the light of day, no matter how thick and high the walls around our hearts; when we are walking in the darkest night, swallowed up by sacredness and mystery and terror, we can still reach out a hand, we can still say watch out, and we can still take care of each other.