Scenes from Winter (Tough Times Never Last)

It’s the part of winter that feels like it’s ALWAYS been winter,
She said.

reminding me of when someone else told me,

“I’m in the part of pregnancy that feels like I’ve always been pregnant.”

Endurance
and grinding toil
and holding out
and waiting
waiting waiting.

Even when we reach the destination it can seem too little too late.

Or too much.

It’s been hard, hard, hard for me. Since December.

I could attribute it to legitimate national causes, but actually it’s interpersonal.

A lot of things happened this winter. A lot of things have BEEN happening, of course. But since December a lot of other things happened. Things with close friends — friends who didn’t die and so I cannot freely tell the stories. Not directly anyway.

I will say that one was a brush with death. A major one. A narrow escape. On the tail end of a tragedy we very narrowly escaped another one.

This was actually the THIRD major medical crisis since April, the third time someone I am extremely close to could have died, or almost died. (Or did die, as with Travis.)

Three brushes with death in nine months is rather a lot for a person not living in an active war-zone.

There were other things, too.

These things didn’t happen to me, but came blasting through me. And a month later I washed up on shore, caught up with my external self, and was filled with wonder and sorrow and, for the first time, felt the sharp pang of despair.

I’ve found myself doing things I’d never, ever done before even in my darkest times — finding myself unable to get out of bed, succumbing to numerous strange bodily ailments, feeling no hunger whatsoever, and unable to draw anything, which for me is very, very strange indeed.

I find that I am so disconnected that I scarcely know what I think about the whole thing when I am at my best, and when I am at my worst I am merely blinded by anger, or sometimes sorrow, often fear, and am petrified with dread. (About what has already happened, what MIGHT have happened, and what MIGHT HAPPEN in the coming days.)

These feelings sync up so nicely with the political situation that I often don’t explain it, I just meet others’ bleak outlook with my own and we can carry on nicely.

Or at least, nicely enough.

Lately though ‘nicely enough’ hasn’t been enough. Because there are times when it becomes downright…heavy.

In despair, I talk to Anthony. Because what is a gentle soul supposed to do in times like this?

I am feeling left behind — like if I don’t muster up and do Something About This now I will be irrelevant — because living in such politically significant times yet NOT doing overtly political work is almost like treason. Like you don’t deserve to live where you already are. Like your existence is out of place.

The pace of life is increasing, and I am unwilling or unable to keep up at that speed. “Trying” leaves me exhausted and disconnected, more than I already am.

Anthony reminded me that to preserve the sense of calm in a state of chaos is no cowardly act. Could be considered revolutionary. To be “left behind” in this case might mean one remains unique, interesting, striking, worth hearing. To be different is still useful. Like a breath of fresh air.

At the very least, it means the things that truly interest me are not crowded. Chummy and comfortable is the line outside the Aladdin theatre in the light rain a few weeks ago, presenting my phone eTicket for the first time and for the first time entering this building. To see Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform for the first time with my own eyes.

The founder of the group, Joseph Shabalala, had a series of recurring dreams over a period of six months in 1964, featuring a choir singing in perfect harmony. It was a beautiful sound — very close to the traditional isicathamiya harmonies that he was already performing with his choir at the time — but it was somehow softer, filled with more love, more beauty. He restructured the choir, bringing in some relatives of his (family voices after all blend in ways that friends’ voices cannot.) He strove to teach his choir the harmonies he’d heard in his dream.

I first learned about them on Sesame Street. I have always loved their sound, have always found it soothing, and the recordings of theirs have been a great harbor of solace for me during all these days of turmoil.

We love them and clap so much.

Because they are so different.

Because they are so themselves.

The motions they do during their songs which seems so…right somehow. There is a great general showmanship to their motions onstage, which is a blend of vaudeville and something deeper. To say “childlike” is patronizing and colonial — and anyway it doesn’t capture it. It’s…deeper. Richer. It’s a cultural inheritance where movement and song were never sundered from one another, where people’s spirits were never subjugated to the extent that they internalized “what will people think of me?” as we have in the West.

At intermission everyone seems to be talking more with their hands.

There is a kind of warm-spirit awakened by this music. The family in my row shares handfulls of carmel corn with me.

There was something very moving about hearing dream-gentle sounds from a place that has seen apartheid.

It made me hope that perhaps there is still room for gentle wanderers after all.

This is the song I have had stuck in my head for the past few days, and I find it very soothing.

Tough times

never last

(but) strong

people do

North and South and East and West

Up until November 8th, I was preparing a historical piece on Sarah Josepha Hale — my latest historical figure crush, the woman who canvassed for years to secure the Thanksgiving holiday in our national pantheon.

To my (albeit limited) knowledge, she was not an advocate of the Henry Wordsworth Longfellow rubbish about Pilgrims and “Indians” — rather, her interest was in unification. To bring an injured, quarrelsome, partisan country back to the table of togetherness, after such divisive times as the Civil War.

If anything, her efforts are even more relevant now.

I made a point of not entering the fray this year — of paying no attention whatsoever to the lead up, dispute strong, strong urging to do so.

There were other more important things happening this year, and because my workload at the time was light, because my day job was simple and brainless, I was uniquely positioned to really sink in and focus on my sick friend, and I wanted to. So I did. To the utter exclusion of other concerns.

I live with political radicals, and I think they really looked down on me for taking this stance. I had several tense discussions with people in the months leading up to the elections: defending my decision to not put candidate-specific stickers on my car, and not participate in phone banks — things I wouldn’t do anyway in normal life. During the three months of cancer I even found myself indignant at their insistence that this larger issue was more important than my specific one — particularly as many of those people knew Travis a lot better than I did.

I’m trying to really remember this feeling — indigence that a larger issue being deemed “more important” than mine — as I suspect it is very similar to how a conservative voter has felt for the past eight years, and why we are where we are right now.

I project, though. Because I really haven’t had many substantive conversations — and it seems like nobody else has, either. And to walk into a screaming stalemate this late in the game is bewildering, particularly for someone like me that prefers to sit alone and draw. I find myself Googling things like “how to talk to people” , and wondering who to go to for a reading list. There is AMPLE material out there, but as I felt during the three months of cancer – time is of the essence. Is reading up on things and talking to people too little too late? Is that the world we are living in now?

I know deep in my heart of hearts that this will not do. That we must find a way to come together and discuss these issues with one another. I know deep in my heart of hearts that unity is more powerful for EVERYBODY in the long run than different factions at war. I truly believe that.

But it is hard to move towards that openly listening to the people I am listening to on my social media feeds. Hearing the stories of marginalization from the marginalized. The truly horrifying instances of major, blatant things that trigger a blue voter into a frothing rage, and the same event that is just completely under the radar of a red voter. And the anger on both sides, the easy dissemination of false or misleading information. What is real? What is true? How do we find out? How do we ensure justice is done? How do we serve the needs of the people who need it — both the refugee and the rural farmer? The black man and the white woman?

It’s a good thing Facebook wasn’t around in Hale’s day. We would have just gone on killing each other. I worry that’s where we’re headed.

Social media discourages the very thing that I feel is needed — conversations with people with whom we disagree. Not unfollowings, but respectful, earnest questions and uncomfortable silence. Not lectures, not arguments even. Just real conversations, getting a sense of where each side is coming from. Because the stalemate we have reached is too rigid and brittle.

I have been encouraging people to do this, to talk to people. To try it at least, to muster themselves up and get a little brave. To ask questions and listen. (I mean, really listen.) I myself have been doing it, little by little, at a time when I still find myself wandering from room to room, churning my hair around and sobbing. There has been so much to grieve this year and stress is high for everyone, for all kinds of reasons.

But we can’t wait until it feels easy.

I don’t think it will ever feel easy.

We just have to start somewhere.

Private battles

The other day I was at Lauralhurst park on my lunch hour, sketching for this picture — one of two for my friend-who-died’s daughter, so she’ll be able to see what his fatherhood was like. These have been very satisfying pictures to work on, though of course they are intense to work on as well.

Two ladies in their 60s came up to look over my shoulder at what I was doing. One of them started fumbling desperately for her glasses, realizing she may have lost them or dropped them somewhere. (She hadn’t, she eventually found them in a bag.)

“UGH. Never get old!” she said to me. “When you get to be 60 they should just take you out and shoot you.”

It was so cosmically messed up, telling a person who was drawing to a toddler about her dead father that it’s better to be dead than enjoy long years of life with the people you love.

I wanted to say this to her, but I was too thunderstruck to speak.

There’s that saying about how you never know what quiet battles people are fighting on their own, and so you shouldn’t go cavalierly diminishing folks or taking it to heart too much if someone is short with you or doesn’t give you back the kind of energy you are giving out. I always know that in the back of my mind, but it’s been interesting to be living that lately. To hear people say glibly, “I just DIED.” and think, no. No you didn’t.

Of course, who knows what health issues this lady is struggling with. Maybe she used to have a sharp memory and never used to lose anything. Maybe she just heard bad news. Maybe her lunch wasn’t agreeing with her. Maybe she too was annoyed that someone’s dog had just plunged into the pond and chased all the teenage ducklings away. I don’t know what quiet battles she is facing. They must be doozies.

The courage of our hearts

On March 9th my husband’s friend/boss was killed by a tree.

About three weeks later, a woman I know — a cleaning client — died after a long, arduous battle with Parkinson’s. I have written a LOT about that one, but haven’t yet had the heart to post anything about it.

So I was already in a contemplative mood when, two weeks ago, I was told that a dear friend of mine has aggressive, stage IV cancer. He has roughly 6-8 weeks.

I come from southern church people — not the deep south kind, but the great plains kind. Hardy work stock. And I’ve shepherded several friends through deaths that “should not have happened,” if you think life is a tidy neat little bundle that should make sense.

So my reaction to this news was not to pine, not to get angry, not to say “why them”.

My reaction was: prepare every vessel that floats.

There is a lot happening every day. Every moment is precious. Anthony and I are mobilized on different fronts, helping different people. We have met up in random neighborhoods while in route to other places to have trench conferences and share intelligence. We duck out every so often for quick decompression — here a weekend camping get away, there an hour for ice cream.

I won’t write much about it hereafter but soon you’ll doubtless start seeing messy ink auto-bio sketches, and that is why. (***EDIT: I am actually going to be posting most of these on a separate tumblr, because it turns out there is a LOT of them, and I would rather see them in chronological order.***)

My personal Facebook account is filled with all sorts of useful tools to help out the key players — very quickly myself and another good friend of theirs became the sort of assistant managers of this crisis. Here, Chez Kumquat, (***actually there, on the tumblr***) is where I will be churning through the more messy aspects; the grief, the things I notice and can never stop noticing because that’s what an illustrator does, and (most importantly) the lighter things that lift the spirits.

Those lighter things are particularly important.

Emotions and politics

“There are two answers to things they will teach you about your land: the real answer and the answer you give in school to pass”

I’ve been holding off on talking about our recent move — because how interesting is that to anyone but me, really — but also to do so seems so petty and selfish given recent events.

There is such an outpouring of emotions right now.

Fear and anguish over international situations.

Grief for death — both celebrity (Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall), and civilian (Mike Brown in Ferguson).

Anger for Mr. Brown’s death, and the deaths of so many others like him.

That was not what the most recent pictures I finished were about. The pictures I finished were more about a nastiness that flares up quickly, especially when we talk about something tangled up in a great deal of passion. The pictures were more about interaction between two individuals.

The anger expressed in Ferguson is not the weeping of one person. The anger in Ferguson is the weeping of grandmothers, aunts, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, grandfathers, uncles, wives, and mothers. The weeping of neighbors, grocers, barbers, mail carriers, house cleaners, mechanics, lawyers, doctors, computer hackers and gardeners.

It is the weeping of people stuffed into the bowels of a ship and ripped from their lives into generations of servitude. It is the weeping of people tortured and hung from trees. It is the weeping of people being treated as livestock. It is the weeping of the fights that have been fought and for the change that has not come. It is the weeping of generations of hurt, mistrust, assumptions, false accusations, judgements, and sideways glances.

It is the weeping of people who were told they were free but were never given the lives of free people.

We weep with you, Ferguson.

Or at least, I weep with you.

And many, many people like me weep with you.