I know so little

We call them bodies, the lakes. Bodies of water. Great and larger lakes, oceans, straights and inland seas are bodies. I’ve amended my understanding of this term through travel in the world in a learned understanding that context is all-important.

The largest lake in Ireland, Lough Neagh, is about one fortieth the size of Georgian Bay, upon whose shores I spent my tween and teenage years (and where my tiny cabin is now). Compared to the other Great Lakes, Georgian Bay is little – just a bay, even though it covers more area than Northern Ireland.

Context is all. All six Great Lakes have been ten minutes or a few hours away by foot or car throughout most of my life. Huron, Ontario, Erie, Michigan, Superior, Georgian Bay. The land I live on and travel through is full of rivers and waterfalls that feed the lakes with groundwater and snowmelt. Water’s pretty high this year, we say to one another, yep, just like the ’80s. Had to raise the dock again. Every one of the locals has a favourite spot on a favourite shoreline; we mark the days with sunsets or sunrises over the lake.

As a kid I believed that the whole world was just like it is here – abundant and generous with water. As an adult I came to understand that my soul and my white female body is forever linked to these enormous freshwater seas we call The Great Lakes, bodies that for 10,000 years and more have had other names. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The older names sound like the beginning of a long and complex story; full of a kind of wisdom I’ve always longed for: Waaseyaagami-wiikwed, Shining Waters Bay. I begin to learn that story in my middle age, and just how much of a recent anomaly I am within it, me with my white female body.

Yesterday I listened to the long version of the excellent, compassionate and enlightened Krista Tippet’s interview with a man whose name sounds like the beginning of another good story I can learn from: Resmaa Menakem, a trauma therapist from Minneapolis. The interview occurred in the On Being studios just before our pandemic lockdown. I could hear Resmaa observing Krista’s white body cringe as they discussed racism and white supremacy. I could hear the squirm he was seeing in her voice, as she struggled with choice points about what to ask him, how to ask him… for help with what she doesn’t and cannot understand about being black, from her experience in a white woman’s body.

I’m grateful for this interview because this is my struggle too, especially and specifically right now right here. If you’re white, I recommend you give yourself a good hour to listen to it, then another hour to walk through the park with what you’ve just heard.

Good Lord, but it’s well beyond time to pick up the burden of my white person inheritance and feel its’ actual weight. More appropriately, to take the weight off the backs of the BIPOC people who have been carrying it for me all my life. To observe what I have assumed without question, and how this has translated into behaviour through fifty seven years of living in a white body. In a system where to be white is to be supreme and privileged over all other people of colour.

Start there, says Resmaa Menakem. Say it, white-bodied people: White Supremacy. Look straight at what that means, and how you benefit from and support the system. Then stop talking. Just notice what happens in your body. It’s your job to change the system, but not just with patchwork policies, empty slogans, and lists of books you’ve read that prove how enlightened you are. You need to do this from a place of real, embodied understanding.

I know so little, but I learn, daily. Overwhelmed by the news, the full display of blatant callousness, rage and brutality from white people in power. How different that behaviour is from the intense but peaceful protests organized by BLM.

There’s a great deal more for us well-meaning white folk to learn about this long-rotted white supremacist system, a great deal of listening to do. Changing to do, in right action: for a start, my taxes over-fund the police, when they should be funding universal basic income. A start when I ask good but difficult questions, and make my wishes known in the system that has benefited me and my white body while excluding and punishing all other bodies. It’s not activism, it’s being human.

And it’s simple: if I don’t ask the questions and make my wishes known, I support the rotted system.

My story, and every story is valid, but it’s more important to hear the one that came up in my fb feed this morning.

Please read on. If you’re in a white body in a predominantly white neighbourhood, don’t just file it afterward and move on to make another coffee. Give yourself some moments to sit with Kyra’s childhood experience and notice how your body feels. Notice if you’re squirming, like Krista Tippet does in the interview. It’s okay to squirm. That’s how you know something’s wrong.

Ask yourself what you want to do about this.

In a rural population area of 350,000, a mere handful of the locals I grew up with were black. Two Anishnabe reservations were within a 40 minute drive but I remember little to no interaction between first nations people and the white people of Owen Sound. This is changing now, but we still have a long way to go.

I’m grateful to Kyra Nankivell who writes here about what it was like to grow up black in the same place I grew up white:

Kyra Nankivell is with Erick Baptiste.

JtSpeune 5 ato mSn11fsnmurof:rg2l0h eidSueAatdM  · Black in a White Town – SHARE THIS PLEASEFor context, my full name is Emma Kyra Nankivell and I started going by my middle name in grade 10 to “feel more black” among other reasons. I want to share my experiences because I’ve been told that it really helped people recognize their ignorance and try to understand. So here it goes…I’ve always described my experience growing up in Centre Wellington by this simple line, “The first time I saw a black person in school was like grade 9.”Although, I never fully understood my situation until Erick (my bf) looked at my CWDHS 2018 yearbook and saw pages and pages of white kids in every grade. He was just in awe. And honestly I never saw my yearbook like that… That was a “wow” moment. Like holy sh*t I actually grew up in that environment. Obviously I wasn’t an idiot and there was racism but it became so NORMAL to me.Here are some very specific experiences:

1. Finding out my best friend had a confederate flag in her basement
2. Being asked countless times to punch “N****r cards” so people could say the word.
3. My school invited a group from Brampton to perform for black history month and they didn’t even invite me to the assembly. On top of that, everyone was asking me who the group was and why they were at my school. AS IF I KNEW.
4. Getting my hair braided and having almost every TEACHER ask me if I went on vacation.
5. Going to track & field meets in Guelph and actually seeing black people was the first time I felt NORMAL.
6. PEOPLE TOUCHING MY HAIR 24/7 and people asking why I don’t straighten my hair.
7. TAKING INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS AND HAVING CLASS DISCUSSIONS ON ISSUES IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES WAS LIKE ME AGAINST EVERYONE. “Why don’t they just raise minimum wage”
8. Someone drew swatstikas on the bathroom stalls
9. Having a black friend over, walking around Elora and getting 628379191 texts the next day saying “who was that”
10. Countless black jokes that weren’t funny at all. “Hey Emma what sound does a chainsaw make? Run nikkaa-nikkaaa-nikkaaa”
11. Explaining to people what black history month is, then explaining black history
12. BEING TOLD EMMA IS A WHITE NAME. “Seriously your name is Emma??” *confused look*
13. Always being “the only one” or at least feeling like it!!
14. BEING CONFUSED WITH THE ONLY OTHER NON WHITE GIRL IN THE ROOM BY PEOPLE & CUSTOMERS AT WORK HOLYYY. Like no I’m not that person.
15. People assuming the only other black or even just non white person is related to me. Like whattt?¿
16. Never seeing a shred of my culture displayed, understood, spoken about. Only ever talking about Jamaica when “those poor nations” came up.
17. People comparing their skin to mine after a sunny day/week. “Omg I’m almost as tan as you hahahaha”
18. Being told I look “aggressive” with my hair braided
19. “Where are you from” ummm I was born in Guelph “no like where are you actually from?!”
20. I played hockey for 10 years of my life and I can count the number of black people I saw on my FINGERS. It was super discouraging and you best believe that when people “talk sh*t” racism was fuel for the fire. “Monkey” “N***r” “Why r you even playing hockey?” “Do your parents have the money for this?” “Why don’t you go back to Africa”
21. I was nicknamed “Mocha” on one of the teams I played for.
22. WHEN I WORKED AT MCDONALDS IN FERGUS SOMEONE ACTUALLY REFUSED TO LET ME TAKE THEIR ORDER. THEY ASKED FOR A WHITE PERSON. THAT WAS 2017.
23. Girls at my high school asking me to hook them up with my black friends… As if it was something on their bucket list.
24. People trying to guess where I’m from, like it’s some kind of fun game.
25. I actually tried to switch schools after crying to my parents and saying “I hate it here, no one understands me.” I remember going on a tour of the new school and the guidance counsellor asked me my main reason for switching, I said “There’s not enough diversity at my school” and then we spent a couple weeks trying to figure out how to “legitimize” my reason so the board would allow the transfer. CRAZY.

After Ahmaud Arbery was shot while running, I was genuinely afraid to let my bf run in my neighborhood alone. I still am. I get anxious everytime he goes on a run or bike ride by himself… THIS IS NOT JUST AN “AMERICAN PROBLEM” THIS IS VERY VERY REAL IN CANADA. The fact that people are brushing off RACISM as just some American issue is DISGUSTING. WAKE TF UP PEOPLE. I need everyone to reshare this. I know my following is predominantly white people and it’s hard to admit that you’re part of the problem but it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. Y’all are getting tired of hearing that black lives matter, TRY BEING BLACK. I love everyone, idc if ur black, white or purple. But right now we all need to get behind this because I don’t want to raise black children in the society we live in. #blacklivesmatter#sharethis#blackpower#useyourvoice]

CNAL 2019 -why jump on a plane?

Why travel away from studio and project – to build career? To provoke and push my smaller self who would so prefer to work away quietly in my studio, in my cabin among the trees?  To push the known boundaries of my awareness. To become apparent to unknown others, somewhere outside my comfort zone. To deepen cross-cultural fluency.

To shake things up a little. To listen for what I don’t know.

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Could it be for opposing reasons at the same time, as an answer to moments of yawning, terrifying boredom, a flattening of purpose and passion. A rather expensive, but also expansive curiosity about what might resonate from ‘away’. A chance to observe both stranger and self in convergence, however awkward.

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I remember thinking on the second morning that the CNAL conference felt like a folk festival, but without the music. Lots of quick connections after intense sessions, frustratingly truncated by a need to get to the next thing on the schedule. Lots of people without business cards, scribbling their names on torn bits of paper. Food in between that we absorbed too quicky because our brains were in high-speed processing mode.

Not nearly enough time to just sit down and just jam together.

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Talk  – a lot of high talk about art and learning, education and research, social change and inequity, the potential for empowerment through the arts, why vulnerability is strength. I took pages and pages of notes – ‘squiggles on a page’, as Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair called them, while delivering the indigenous creation story for us.

He did so in a way that we could recognize our own role and significance, our value in the living world. I was moved by and grateful for that – significant that my notes turned into drawings during his Saturday morning keynote.

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Youth were not present, and we talked about that too; how can we make space for young people’s voices, next time around? Figure it out, said Ben Cameron, Thursday’s spark of a keynote speaker. Make it possible for people who can’t afford to come, then be sure to listen to them when they do.

This is something that would dramatically change the content of the conference – if delegate and presenter space was held specifically for youth and for artists. Less talking, more doing.

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There was a tiny taste of powerful performance to remind us why we were there, from SPIN El Poetica, Mik Maw  artist Jennifer Alicia, William Prince… who were given the kind of slots performers dread (15 minutes), but delivered honesty nevertheless. We the delegates found deeper connection each time. Recognized and shared our own vulnerable selves.

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We are global now, says UNESCO, who urges artists to inform their practice with seventeen sustainable development goals (SDG’s, since we need more acronyms); science and policy is clearly not working. To support the their call for the empathy and inspiration that artists provide, David Schimpky quotes Solzhenitsyn,

Who might succeed in transferring such an understanding beyond the limits of his own human experience? …Propaganda, constraint, scientific proof – all are useless. But fortunately there does exist such a means in our own world! That means is art. (Schimpky’s emphasis)

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Winnipeg, where I’d never been. Which is, in fact, at the centre of Turtle Island, and so also Human Rights, the Inuit Art Centre and the National centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

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…The carpet here is grey, the upholstery a naples yellow. Naples yellow in paintings of sky so big it dwarfs tree, thought and action, demands humility. The people are honest, open and without pretention. Not grey or green, but many-coloured.

I found something purple to wear at the museum, the young woman who passed me in the train station threw it a compliment; that dress is really pretty.

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Thanks! I said, over my shoulder. No eye contact, but warmth that I appreciated after absorbing 2.5 slow kilometres of fact, photo and artifact at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Most moving experience ever, in any museum, anywhere.

I was glad I came a day early, so I had time to sit with it, sift through the complexities.

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…felt affronted when, in the midst of that gratitude I found the conference registration table had appeared in the lobby when I returned. Found myself guided into the line to be marked present and accounted for. Someone named Peter V arrived just then – an art educator from St. Catharines; we chatted & found friends in common, traded business cards, got our name tags.  I scuttled away to write before I lost what I’d found in the museum completely…. damned conferences, ugh.

(The next day Peter and I walked through the WAG together after hearing a very moving talk by Director Stephen Borys. He’s good people, as are many others I’d never imagined knowing, just a week ago.)

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Those who had the most impact came to the conference with detailed indignation, proactive proposals in answer to their frustration.

These few came without armour, save for self-awareness – you can’t demean someone who knows who she is, why he is strong, who and why they love.

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The world is complex. Our work as artists is uncomfortable, difficult, obstructive to any person or policy that aims to keep us distracted and superficial, afraid and heavy with anxiety. The most amazing thing, though, about our work as artist / performers / educators / workers is the love of it, the connection of it. The joy and the fun, which are inevitable.

As Friday morning’s excellent keynote speaker Dr. Judith Marcuse says – there is magic in art, that can blink even the most entrenched, damaged souls into a world of imagination, possibility, support and healing. All it takes is a pause, an epiphany – a tug on the sleeve…

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This reminds me of Paolo Friere:  a moment of real reflection is all you need in order to think differently about the world, about your active role in support of it. Art provokes us, into reflection.

I flew to Winnipeg, and I’m glad.

 

#M_Other

My appearance belongs to you more than to me. This became clear through my work for #Selfie in 2014. It is a kind of negotiation – I choose my glasses, my haircut, my clothes, which are all clues about the way I would like to be perceived. You see these choices in living action in a way I never do, since mirrors and photographs don’t tell the whole story. You are better equipped to read the shifts and undercurrents of my external expressions than I can ever be.

The same applies in reverse: I can read more in your appearance than you can understand of your presentation of yourSelf. We all navigate our identity this way, learn about who we are through the responses of Other.

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This is a complex negotiation, in every case, since what I see and what you see will always be subjective. Actually, the more I read and observe human and other-than-human nature the more I’ve come to believe that there is no such thing as objectivity – only degrees of awareness around what we project, onto whom, and why.

This applies academically too, in both arts and science, though culturally we still cling to this idea of rational, impartial, objective inquiry as the base requirement of measurable, reliable Truth. In a summer institute research course I attended two days ago the PhD prof said [I paraphrase here] …all research – quantitative, qualitative, is biased, always. 

I’ve thought a lot about this, and I still think research is a good thing. Just know thyself, and name the bias.

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A corollary: if you made a drawing of me accurate to the finest detail, I would recognize more of you than mySelf – through the details you’ve noted and those you’ve disregarded, the respect and love you’ve invested in the drawing, the curve or the raggedness of the line you’ve used. Where you are confident, where not, etc.

You’ve learned the planes and lines of my face and body in the process of drawing me, I’ve learned about you from the choices and marks you’ve made. The drawing is in fact a map of the space where you and I connect. Also where we don’t connect. Interesting.

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Subject, object, space between. Always subjective: Me and Other.

There’s a concept that has taken root in me in the past decade or two, that “.a person, or animal, can only experience the world as being a certain way if the whole person, or animal, can understand the world as being that way.” (found this pithy summary in Beaton, 2014).

In other words, we can only fully understand what we have known experience of. Beyond that, the non-experienced world is invisible, visible in an extremely threatening way, or visible yet utterly, laughably, terribly misinterpreted (to make it fit the known experience – witness colonialism, white nationalism, patriarchy…).

When applied to portraiture, this idea becomes a potential problem. Do I merely make use of this person I am depicting to describe my own world, then? Hmmm.

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In counterpoint to the conceptualism theory is the Jungian idea of ‘collective unconscious’. That we know far far more than we are conscious of knowing. 

A flash of insight, an epiphany, a dawning awareness that comes always (eventually), when we sit at the great blank walls that mark the boundaries of our experience and ask difficult questions. A gut feeling, an unexplained irritation, a magnetic pull that draws us off the known path, and inevitably, to that border-fence of understanding with the questions we’ve hunter-gathered.

To draw them there, on the wall. To turn the wall into something else.

Maybe a doorway.

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The tug of curiosity as I walk along the rich, verdant summer streets of this new-to-me place. So many trees here, six or seven times my age. A cat who crosses the street just to talk with me. A seed caught on my clothing.

As the starling does, peering in at me in my morning routine, first one eye then the other, beak clacking – did the seed catch my dress out of a similar curiosity?

What would happen if I planted this curiosity somewhere wholesome? If I approached the possibility with healthy, Gaia-inspired intention, and watered it, tended it, painted it, made it into music, this seed I know nothing about?

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I look out of my incredible, brave body from behind my eyes and skin, from inside my ears and lungs, at the known and unknown world. If there is a tug of curiosity felt and answered in even a small way by me or by anOther, a connection occurs that transcends body shape, adornment, smell and sound, and also celebrates difference, insight, challenge to our known worlds.

I have an idea that this has nothing at all to do with gender, race, roles or power, which have been such a source of projection, trauma and abuse for so long. There is, however, a powerful, planet-sized archetype that we could learn a great deal from as we grow beyond that old, tired, experiential harness. This is the direction I’m tugged in.

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We can collaborate, respectfully, playfully, on the space between us. Human and other-than-human, inclusively. Is this where love lives.

Always subjective. Me and Other.

Ask difficult questions, know thyself. Me in Other. Me as Other.

M_Other.