I watch videos of Lin-Manuel Miranda talking about Alexander Hamilton the man, about musicals and hip-hop, about how all these things pivot on the dream of the wordsmith.
Whether the orator, storyteller, rapper, singer, or writer, so many of us dream of communicating not just the intellectual concepts, the things represented by our words, but the feelings we have around them—not just at the time of recitation or composition but of all our bloody badges of courage and shame that led to us understanding words and feelings in particular ways.
I read Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ all in one night. Another night I read all of Art Spiegalman’s ‘Maus.’
Other nights, I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, Tad Williams’s Otherland series, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci series. I’m often stuck abed now that the doctor who has been seeing me as a favor for my chronic pain condition has discontinued his services, so I am left with constant pain and no way to manage it. Without insurance, without Medicaid, and with the charity clinic putting me on a waiting list to be most likely rejected by a low-cost pain management clinic, all I can do is lie and read.
Other nights I read Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick.
Some nights I read ‘Wasted’ or ‘Madness’ by Marya Hornbacher, ‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah, ‘Guts’ by Kristen Johnson.
Others it’s ‘Wintergirls’ by Laurie Halse Anderson, ‘Cinderella Dressed in Ashes’ and ‘The Grimm Diaries’ by Cameron Jace, ‘Fire and Hemlock’ and particularly the essay on ‘The Odyssey’ afterward by Diana Wynne Jones, ‘From Girl to Goddess’ by Valerie Estelle Frankel, ‘Trickster Makes this World’ by Lewis Hyde, ‘Healing the Mind through the Power of Story’ by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk, ‘The Illustrated Sourcebook of Signs and Symbols,’ by Mark O’Connell and Raje Airey, ‘The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking’ by Matthew Hutson, ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Bright-Sided’ by Barbara Ehrenrich,’ ‘The Willpower Instinct’ by Kelly McGonigal, ‘The Midnight Disease’ by Alice Flaherty, ‘The War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield, ‘Creativity, Inc.’ by Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull, ‘Silences’ by Tillie Olson.
When I was eight I read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ Actually I read a lot, but ‘Animal Farm’ was memorable in that I lay down on the floor at the end of the last sentence, burst into silent tears, and stayed weeping for about three days. I will never, ever forget the first book that made me cry, nor the horror I felt when I saw in my head a pig walk on its hind legs through the door. I couldn’t articulate the hopelessness I felt, the deep and profound grief. This all while being in total ignorance of what the allegory was supposed to represent.
I knew absolutely nothing about the history of communism around the world, the recent history of Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Commission, Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and Cuba, Mao Tse-tung and China, Baader Meinhof and the Red Army Faction. My knowledge of the purpose of the Berlin Wall was next to non-existent, in spite of a day-long in-classroom didactic where an arbitrary strip of duct tape divided the classroom and our three-grade combine class was split in roughly half not allowed to cross without obtaining a special visa from the teacher to, say, use the computer in what we referred to as ‘East Berlin.’ Those sorted into ‘East Germany’ could not get travel visas to go anywhere except to the ‘East Berlin’ computer.
My point is that George Orwell’s work didn’t depend on me having a literary analytical mind nor the political acumen of more than a concussed goldfish. It didn’t even require critical thought about my own emotions, inner life, or thoughts about why I was bawling for days on end and haunted the rest of my days by a pig on hind legs framed in a doorway. That book still wrung out of me exquisite game-changing despair and pain I have never really recovered from.
That’s why fairytales and folk tales and parables and religious stories exist and are passed on to children, even by those who are carriers of the ideas and feelings but not conscious ones. We don’t know why it feels imperative to pass these highly charged things on to the children but something in us impels us to keep on handing it down to those that come after like a sacred trust.
And that’s my point. We don’t have to understand in order to feel, and intellectual understanding in fact blocks empathy whereas art engenders it.
Any storyteller or writer or other wordsmith will be able to point immediately to the works that did emotional things like this to them as children, whether extremes be painful or pleasurable. We witnessed the blast, the fallout within ourselves and marveled that words could do this to us. Many of us were and are seeking desperately to put into words things we have been unsuccessful in communicating. The more unsuccessful we are the harder we strive, unless we give in to despairing silence.
We want, oh how much we want, to be heard, and to move the hearts and minds beyond those ears to connect with us on a deeper level, to share in what haunts us and demands to be expressed and felt and shared.
The fantasy about Alexander Hamilton overlaps with that in Orson Scott Card’s ‘Speaker for the Dead,’ in many ways. We who work with words listen to and watch things that move us greatly and fantasize about moving others, about taking others’ breath away just as ours has been, to hit that stride and sweet spot where the maximum amount of meaning comes out of the maximum amount of what we say, and reaches the maximum amount of open ears and minds.
I think, though, that all wordsmiths can also point with equal intensities of adulation and resentment to a handful of people with turns of phrase that made us want to turn in our word processors, our pens and pencils and quills and chisels. The ones whose work we loved but were so rarified in their skill that we felt that even striving to become anything like them would be an endless sea of heartbreak for us as failure would never give way to fruition. We love and loathe their work exactly because of how effective it is for us. “I can never be that good. Should I even bother to try?”
But still I want others to feel with me. Yet as a survivor of prolonged child abuse I was taught not to have and understand and deal with the emotions I had but to repress them in order to feel or at least perform others, until my actions became stolidly walled away from actual emotions, which would have to sneak over to infiltrate and influence me. I was taught that it was a survival imperative to, if I felt bad, act the opposite of how I felt. To fawn on and play up to the egos and needs of people hurting me so they would stop. To smile when afraid for my life of someone I’m speaking to, in order to fool them long enough to get to a safe distance. To say ‘okay’ when it isn’t so other people don’t hold over me the intimate knowledge of what hurts me the most and then hold their finger down on that button and claim injured innocence when I lash out because they won’t stop in spite of everything I say and do.
I was taught to fear others and I learned that lesson well. I was taught to hide away hardest when in pain so I would not be vulnerable to vultures and predators in my compromised state. I was taught to hide my mind instead of speak it, on pain of pain. I hid it so well even I cannot pick it out of the perpetual line-up in my head. It has grown and done things without supervision for more than thirty years, but there isn’t even a trace of haughtiness on any of the blank faces before me. No sense of triumph, no I don’t need anyone, especially you peeks behind the flat thousand-mile eyes. Not a chink to get inside the story of anything I see inside me anymore. It’s an elaborate find-the-lady game with myself, in a deck with all the queens steadfastly removed and immured in the laminated walls within me and papered over all alarming yellow. So much smoke no mirrors are necessary, and without vents or doors or windows, the brain-smog will never dissipate. Everything is a shadowy wraith, unrecognizable as either human or pig.
Who am I, what do I feel, what do I want to say to you, what do I wish you could feel?
The answer to all of these reduces down to one: I am so tired. And this may be the only truth I know. I blink and the figures and shadows vanish, scattered like flung seeds, tiny, insubstantial, gone.
I do not have the spoons to make videos or deal with the vast amounts of hate and bigotry generated by them. I was unprepared as one creator among millions to be such a target for malice, invalidation, and exhortations to ‘just kill myself’ from YouTube commenters, far in excess of those in similar circumstances seeking a connection or allies offering encouragement. Besides which my life has gotten even harder, and this is something people with privilege have difficulty understanding as not actually a representation of a lack of effort or will on my part, or deservedness.
I still need an outlet. It may just be writing for a while, and may make less and less sense. I notice that the more stressed and frayed my nerves become, the less coherent I feel even within myself and my thoughts on my own, and the less capable I feel of communicating this to others—and the more jaded I feel, that anyone in a position to do anything would rather step over my suffering so I shut up and die than anything else.
There are a lot of haters out there. And not a lot else, these days, for me. I struggle every day to survive and I wonder why.
Most of this video is readings of cool stuff other people wrote about ‘soul’ that I really relate to as a wholehearted atheist wanting a life where I mean it, every moment, especially the parts with art in them; followed by some of my own thoughts.
‘Rock My Soul: Black People and Self Esteem’ by bell hooks
‘Imagination, not intelligence, made us human’ talk given by Sir Terry Pratchett
I’m proud to be a weirdo, but I also discuss in this video the problematic aspects of me self-identifying with what is to many people actively a harmful slur against the mentally ill (which I am, very much so), and explore that tension. It gets pretty heavy at one point.
‘What calling women ‘crazy’ actually does’:
A while back I made a really embarrassingly error-laden not-at-all-researched post some time back about art and Edith Piaf in which I joyfully used the term ‘crazycakes,’ and I’m owning that right now. Though I meant it to celebrate how awesome I think Edith Piaf is and was, the term is still a problematic one. Here it is, in all its wrongness, with a new disclaimer discussing this.
Also I do a bit of an update about myself personally and how I want to try to do a lot more ‘Art & Soul’ videos if I can manage to.
My next video (and it’s shot & almost ready) will be at least a little more positive; it’s a Fierce PRIDE one and I enthuse about the arts. I’m aiming to post it tomorrow to move on as soon as possible to something positive, because I definitely need to.
I’d like this to be my last prolonged swing-for-the-fences rant for a while. I do need outlets for my anger, and I think it’s important to address these things and defend myself and raise awareness about these issues, but there’s a point where I don’t want to be yelling so loud and long at the deaf that I run off people who are actually willing to listen and too busy being awesome and making things. That’s catering to the exact wrong audience, and falling into the same trap of orienting myself to and spending all my energy on exactly the energy drainers I want the least in my life, that have made me more misanthropic and suspicious and angry, and also prone to this defensiveness. I get the feeling the very people I’m railing against are trapped in this same constant cycle for the same reasons. I’m making choices as I go to figure out when I need anger to take care of myself, when to stand my ground and speak out and when to eject and go talk about art. I want to start a series talking about the arts to try to encourage at least a periodic focus for myself on something positive. The definitive positive attractor in my life, in fact.
I may possibly need to screen comments since I am in a bad place right now, and clearly volatile and reactive. Although I still see the comments (which is the problem, and unlike Ashley Judd I can’t afford to hire someone to screen them for me for my psychological well-being—I don’t need more stress on my plate), and I don’t want to turn them off because I really appreciate the nice ones and the messages I get on my channel. That’s the problem with comments—mostly only strong feelings (or extreme boredom) move people to reply, so they’re either really nice or pretty vile. That’s the internet for you.
And it’s easy to say ‘just let it roll off your back’ when you aren’t the target; just as it’s easy to say ‘hugs don’t hurt’ when you’re not a burn victim. If you’ve been rubbed raw by verbal abuse most of your life it leaves you very sensitive to it, and if you’re bleeding internally you can still die from it. Resilience is easy to take for granted if you have it, and not understand why other people don’t just bounce back, suck it up and deal. Then again, most people I meet who say ‘suck it up’ or won’t ‘walk on eggshells’ are also prone to endlessly complaining when the pain or problem is their own. Go figure.
I’m also aware I’m mumbling more. I don’t have the spoons to fix the audio. It’s hard enough just to make a video at all now, and get it uploaded. I know I’m also not responding much to other people right now, and that weighs much heavier on me. I think maybe I’m afraid what might come out of me is anger or misery like this. I know it sounds bizarre that I might not be replying to you because I care about you and I’m afraid of me right now, because I know how cold it can feel to contact someone and get silence back.
Disclaimer: This post has a wealth of factual, aesthetic, and wincingly bad etiquette errors in it. Chiefly among them is that I never got around to discussing why it is I self-identify as ‘crazy,’ which to many people is, rightfully so, a slur against the mentally ill (which I am) and continues to be used after a long and horrifying history to abuse us. I finally made a video about it here. I also failed to do ANY even cursory research about Joan Jett to realize that she herself was following in the footsteps of and modeling herself on Susan Kay ‘Suzi’ Quatro, the first female bass player to become a major rock star and break down that barrier for women in rock ’n’ roll. I had no inkling of her, like much of pop culture. Now I do.
There are no doubt even more errors in this article which I just stream-of-consciousness wrote after listening to the song I discuss at the beginning. I’m leaving the article up to (a) show that I get stuff wrong, mostly to myself but also to others, (b) keep myself humble and remind myself to fact check, and (c) be real.
Also Ms. Edith Piaf, I think you are and were brilliant and vibrant and that’s what really matters. Your awesomeness continues to shine.
Les blouses blanches
…‘The White Coats.’ It's the title of an Edith Piaf song but the version I glommed onto and love is by Martha Wainwright, who won me over with her song ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,’ which she later admitted was about her father, the esteemed folk singer Loudon Wainwright III who has had… family difficulties in a sprawlingly complex and very talented musical family which also includes his son and Martha’s extroardinary brother Rufus—but also her duet with Snow Patrol ‘Set the Fire to the 3rd Bar.’ She did a whole album of Edith Piaf covers, and there are a bunch of videos of her doing them live in very Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmeresque cabaret fashions. One of the live shows she’s performing with her (now dead) great mother Kate McGarrigale playing accordion.
Kate McGarrigale also wrote this beautiful song ‘Proserpina’ (Romanized name of Persephone) from the point of view of the mother (erroneously referred to as ‘Hera’ in the lyrics?!), and Martha covered it after the death of her mother and there’s a gorgeous video of that online too.
But initially I was just going to write about how I’m kind of not actually learning French because I’m stubbornly bad at learning. I keep trying all these ways to trick myself into it like ‘Duolingo’ which is kind of a game and very fun. And then also watching familiar movies I’ve seen countless times dubbed in French, and ‘Amélie’ with the subtitles off, and playing an unbelievably addictive resource management game called ‘Sunken Secrets’ with the language set to ‘Français.’ And also Audio Hijacking all of Martha Wainwright's live performances of Edith Piaf covers and tossing them into my current shuffle playlist.
So I’m not learning French. Not one bit. If I had to speak it or write it I would fail 1000% of the time. However, I’m gradually recognizing what many French words mean through repetition. Sort of like how I can recognize someone’s face but not put a name to it, and know the context of how I know them but not even be able to give you the first letter of their name. And I’m listening today to Martha singing ‘Les blouses blanches’ and the creepy piano in the background…
…and I suddenly am laughing my ass off because I realize that Edith Piaf was CRAZYCAKES and instead of imploding with it she waved that flag from the ramparts and became a beloved cultural icon that still resonates today. Like wearing her scarlet ‘C’ for all us other Crazycakes people to also fade out of the woodwork and, say, cover her song laughing madly to the accordion and applauding madly because we all recognize that men in white coats and women in white dresses with hands that sang and flowers with light all around them are exactly the same. I’m not crazy, it’s that hand that’s laughing, and we will love each other forever. HAHAHAHAHAA!!!!
And we’re all things in Edith’s white-dressed dream: the men in the coats, the woman in the dress interred three years for being crazy, the hand, the flowers, the light, the laughter, the crowd, the French people, their culture, the music, the musicians, Martha Wainwright, her dead mother, the accordion, Edith’s own death, all the decades between and yet the memories and words and music living on and on, because we are all still interred here on this Earth with our cousins and grandmothers and the bones of our ancestors and wisps of zygotes of the future cyberbarons of thought to which our laughter and words may echo or dissolve.
Je ne pas une pipe
She is not crazy/she is crazy. This is a drawing of a pipe, and it is not a pipe, and yet it is a pipe in that it is a representation of a pipe and the word ‘pipe’ is also a representation of a pipe, and images are treacherous and so are words.
(For the next part there are deliberately not images, so you must dredge up, dust off and use your imagination, whatever is left of it.)
Here is a Campbell’s tomato soup can. It is like millions of others, in pantries and landfills everywhere. It is not art. Here are the drawings of the current design of the can, which both are and are not art; they were made by people as options to advertise and inform, but will be mass produced if effective or thrown away and forgotten if not.
Here is a photograph of the can on a grocery aisle. It is not art. Here is a photograph of the can, dented but not broken, label peeling, covered in ash and dust, after a natural disaster or a pollutant leak, next to a broken doll. It causes an emotional reaction. It is art. Here is a painting of many cans of Campbell’s tomato soup. It is art. Here is a photograph of that painting in a gallery made by an ordinary camera phone of a tourist. It is not art.
Here is a comparison of all these different images side by side, with captions. Is it art? Here is an article listing these different iterations and contexts of that same image. Is it art? Here is an article asking, “What is art? Context? Emotional reaction? Rarity? Zeitgeist? A congruence of factors? The eye of the beholder? The ease of the creation? The intention of the creator? The message or theme? The conveyance of that to the beholder? The value of that theme, with or without context? The rebelliousness against the mainstream, the taboo, the Banksy, the possibly illegal or banned or censored or scandalous? The scarlet A of Art assigned by the masses? The smell of burning books, the death threats perhaps carried out, ‘Je Suis Charlie’?” Is the article, itself, art?
Here is a movie about the pornography hearings Congress held about Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl.’ Here is the quote about ‘knowing pornography when I see it.’ This poem would not have been well known if not for these hearings, the Fahrenheit 451 of burning pages and incandescent outrage. ‘Howl,’ we understand now, is most definitely art.
But do we ‘know’ ‘art’ when we witness it?
Here is John Cage’s ‘4'33".’ It is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. It has been arranged for multiple instruments and performed many times in many places. It is, we know, art.
Here is a flash mob orchestra performing the opening theme of ‘Star Wars,’ strategically placed in many places of a square in Germany, captured by many cameras, as well as the reactions of the surprise audience, from delight to disinterest to irritation at needing to be somewhere else in a hurry. Is it art?
Here is a urinal, taken out of context and placed in an art museum. Is it art?
Here is a block of 1950s urban concrete housing for St. Louis, from the architect of the World Trade Center towers and the St. Louis International Airport Main Terminal, meant to address the problems of poverty, crime, racial segregation, homelessness, gentrification and urban decay. Within 15 years after completion the doomed housing project was nearly abandoned, decaying, dangerous, a crime-infested neighborhood of boarded-up buildings, failed lights and elevators and broken windows, its sad architect lamenting, “I never thought people were that destructive.” The number of factors contributing to the failure and eventual demolition of Pruitt-Igoe through the first half of the 1970s were manifold. Was this art? It had all the ambition and talent and vision and desire to be art. It met chaos theory, and died a most infamous, protracted, violent and ignoble death.
Here is a question: is the question ‘Is it art?’ a waste of time and energy? Are there more interesting and better questions that could be asked if that question were led away and given a drink of something soothing, and we agreed to not ask it, and ask what else we could ask instead?
What other questions might rush to fill the mighty vacuum created by such a weighty, overasked and overblown question? ‘Is it useful?’ ‘Does it make an impact, on someone, somewhere, no matter whom or what their privilege or socio-economic status?’ ‘Does it fulfill an aesthetic as well as informational or practical function?’ ‘Does it reveal something about ourselves to ourselves, perhaps even only privately?’ ‘Does it invigorate?’ ‘Does it PROVOKE?’ ‘WHAT does it provoke?’ ‘After witnessing this art, do people mill around, drink overpriced glasses of wine and go home and do nothing different, or are there niggling seeds that oh-so-gently alter choices in the days and years to come, or are we haunted forever, or do we experience a frisson right there and immediately make a life-changing decision?’
Cleolinda Explains it All
‘What is the impact of this?’ …not just on the perhaps only one person who is impacted by it, perhaps only the paint-addled starving artist or trolley-squashed vagabond-looking maddened (and ironically atheist) architect of the still-unfinished cathedral, or the one person who is still thinking an hour later about that one line from the film, or is in a grocery aisle suddenly seized with inspiration for no easily discerned reason other than a culmination of multiple chaotic forces—the impact that that one person has on others, with their words and choices.
Sometimes it isn’t the initial thing itself. Do I listen to Edith Piaf performing Edith Piaf? Well, only one song, ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,’ and it’s because of ‘Inception’ (which furthers my point that it wasn’t a direct impact of Edith herself but her impact on Christopher Nolan and his fielding her into me with such an impact). I feel I should love Joan Jett more than I do, because she metaphorically actually cleared roads where there weren’t any, roads that allowed P!nk to exist, and I adore P!nk, and I have a playlist of her songs that hit home so hard for me it’s like she’s writing from the back of my brain somewhere and laughing her ass off the whole time. She motorcycles up and down the now well-paved roads drinking straight from the scotch bottle “SO WHAT?!” at 4 a.m., but without Joan Jett and the Runaways there wouldn’t have been those roads and I might never have even heard of P!nk and she might just be in a trailer somewhere, as angry and silent as I am, and the world would be beggared by this.
‘Twilight’ fascinates me. Not the books. Not the movies. What enriched my life was Cleolinda Jones’s deconstructions (although they weren’t called that because the buzzword hadn’t hit its stride) as well as M15M versions of the movies, freely available on LiveJournal (yup, that’s how old this stuff is) and what I learned there. It was because of what Cleolinda wrote about ‘Twilight’ that (1) I actually learned what it meant to be a feminist and immediately and loudly became one, marrying my anger to where it was supposed to go, (2) (at the same time) read Gavin de Becker’s ‘The Gift of Fear,’ and (3) subsequently took rape prevention and self-defense courses, and these were the first things that did a damn thing about healing my rape/child sexual abuse/sexual assault and self-esteem issues.
That’s not all her deconstructions did, and as far as I’m concerned the writing she did about that series, its context, its impact, what it says about both feminism and women’s own fear of it, our own reactionary and often unconscious choices, our persistent love affair with toxic masculinity and this subtly and often overtly disturbing narrative we keep on repeat without thinking about it—it’s a masterwork and ought to be published and discussed in scholarly circles. She is hilarious, brilliant, self-effacing and loves the series for its ridiculousness as well as the cultural response, like pixy sticks for her brain, and is incredibly open about her own unreliable narrative while she simultaneously deconstructs and with amazing deftness points to the things that led to ‘Twilight’ with more awareness and depth than I’m sure Stephenie Meyer had, just responding to the same thing all the ankle-tattoo fans also responded to. Ms. Meyer tapped the live wire that was our secret affair, our love and shame, the weird corner of culture that feminism is frustrated with, and feminists are ashamed of when they find in their own personal baggage and angrily hide with lots of bluster. But it’s THERE. And Cleo explains it all, with such a humorous touch that the potential furious jealousy I could have felt at ‘Twilight’ getting published and making absolute pots of money melted away when I understood it not as a series of poorly-written teen fantasies but an almost inevitable cultural phenomenon with a long history of influencing forces.
It became fascinating to me, much more fascinating than even looking at a picture of not-a-pipe. The stories behind the many, many whys of ‘Twilight.’ Not just why it exists but why it was and continues to be responded to not just by people who love it but people who hate it, and people who write fanfiction about it and then turn it into books that then become problematic cultural phenomenons that spark tons of deconstructions and conversations about BDSM culture and abuse and places where these can, yes, overlap; and also a film and sequels and stuff.
But seriously, because this is the question that will never die even if you know by heart all the words to ‘50 Ways to Kill Your Zombie Lover,’ (don’t forget the refrain: ‘Klaatu barada nikto’) is this that you are reading art? Is there an Art at the end of this book?
Absolutely, definitively, unequivocally not. Nope. Non.
I feel I should add I DO NOT WANT ANY ADVICE. I DO NOT WANT TO (AND CANNOT, BECAUSE OF REASONS OF DISABILITIES YOU CAN’T HOPE TO UNDERSTAND) GO BACK TO ANY KIND OF SCHOOL THANK YOU VERY MUCH. To do so would be destructively if not fatally bad for me, and because I’ve had actually experience with this and my life and you haven’t, I’m the one who’s the experienced expert here. If you are ‘helpfully’ trying to ‘help’ me back to school (like it’s some sort of chuchlike savior for my mortal money-making soul on this Earth in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence) you have missed the point of the video and expect a visit from the banhamster. I have a velvet rope and am not afraid to use it. Okaythanksbye!
Shout out to all my fellow homeschool survivors out there!YOU ARE ALIVE, YOU BEAUTIFUL COURAGEOUS CREATURES! <3 <3 <3