Tag Archives: Activist Art

The Cost of Our Current Conveniences

kinzua-damHere just before Thanksgiving, a national holiday that encourages gratitude for the gifts of plenty most citizens enjoy, I’m reminded of the First Peoples who lived here before European refugees, settlers, and immigrants arrived.

This past fall representatives of over 300 tribes have been gathering in prayerful demonstrations in North Dakota at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Their aim is to prevent an oil pipeline from crossing their land, threatening their water and the sanctity of their sacred lands. My grade school images of the first Thanksgiving where white and native peoples supposedly sat down together did not foretell the environmental racism that still continues 300 years since.  

All this and the fact that I now have a granddaughter who is Native American has caused me to look closely at where I stand and what I am willing to stand up for. The following piece is the result of what these experiences are making of me.

Floods No More

“Aren’t you afraid of flooding?” people ask

when they visit our home on the Allegheny River.

Floods can be monsters claiming everything you own and hold dear.

But our safety is insured by the Kinzua dam constructed upriver in 1965 on

Seneca tribal lands. 10,000 acres were flooded including ancestral burial grounds.

This broke the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, signed by President George Washington.

The lake behind the dam is known as Lake Perfidy (treachery and betrayal).

Unaware of this cost, from the edge of our newly expanded deck

I’m convinced we have the best backyard in all of Pittsburgh.

That’s White Privilege.

 

On Receiving a Book Award

The email to inform me that I had won a book award last week went to my spam folder. A voice mail message on my home phone delivered the news that Warrior Mother had won a silver in the category of “Inspirational Memoir – female” for the 2014 Independent Publishers’ Living Now Book Awards.

LNsilverMy first reaction was a feeling of not being sure how I felt. I sent my husband and best friend a note saying, “I think this is a good thing.” In spite of the ambivalence I’ve always felt about contests in the world of art-making and performance, the powerful role that individual taste and opinion play in the final judgments, and that at some point, the differences in quality between offerings are often miniscule – I’ve decided to decide this is a good thing. 

I got into this contest because last summer as my book was coming came out, my publicist suggested I do so. She warned it would take a year or so to get results, but if I won, that would be good timing to re-energize the sales of a book that would no longer be “hot off the press.”

This particular contest satisfies my social work heart in that it honors books that have the ability to change lives. “The Living Now Book Awards celebrate the innovation and creativity of newly published books that enhance the quality of our lives, from cooking and fitness to relationships and mature living.”http://www.independentpublisher.com/article.php?page=1861

And, I’m at the place in my life that I don’t want to pass up any opportunity to celebrate – my own achievements, and the accomplishments of people who contributed to Warrior Mother through the years; those that helped me live through the events I wrote about, the community of supporters such as my writers’ group who helped in the process of writing, the She Writes Press team that produced the book, and those of you who have been willing to read it, tell your friends about it, write reviews and help me perform it around the country. Please join me in this celebration. I’m sending each of you a high five and a gigantic thank you.

The Anatomy of Ecstasy

When my then five-year old nephew, Adam, who was an only child discovered that he had four cousins he said, “I feel so big. I’m bigger than a Giant!”

giantimage  Preparing to return from Atlanta after spending time with a group of amazing women and meeting many others in the larger community, I felt so full of excitement that I told a friend, “I feel like I could fly home without the airplane, though I do know that wouldn’t be a good idea.” 

 My friend and teacher, Cynthia Winton-Henry knows about this. She calls it “Flaps up, Flaps down.”  To demonstrate how to navigate between our Big self and our pedestrian, Little self, she directs her students to raise their arms high and out to the side as though they were a bird or a plane. This is “flaps up.” Then she instructs her students to put their arms down by their sides, “flaps down,” in order to return to their smaller individual selves.

womanspreadingwings Some activities require us to be in our Larger self. When I spoke with a numerologist friend of mine about what I needed to do to promote my book she said, “Last year was your completion year when you finished and published your book but this year is a number one year for you, a time of new beginnings. It isn’t a time to play small.”

  I knew what she meant. This isn’t a time to lead with my insecurities. When I experience that excited/scary feeling in the pit of my stomach just before I step onto a stage – that’s the call to step into my Bigger Self. When I am in this Larger Self, all that I know is available to me, and I am open to inspiration, which in theology is described as a “divine influence. ” I know that I’m likely to be there when I’m centered in myself from deep inside, standing tall without apologies, and fully present to the environment.

Some activities take us to our Larger Self. In Atlanta, when I was with a group of women who were each in their Larger Selves, it seemed easy to be all that I am and to appreciate the wonder and amazement of each of them. During our time together it seemed that magic happened and magic has continued to happen since as the universe seems to be cooperating with our shared goals.

Atlanta group-58 One of the women sent an email to the group members and told of an experience she had while driving home. She heard a voice that didn’t sound like her own. The voice said, “Prepare to be amazed,” and it seemed to her like the matter-of-fact sounding message delivered at Cape Canaveral – “Prepare for lift off.”  Later that same day when she got home she had a chance encounter with a woman who, when she told her a bit about our weekend, offered to partner with her to achieve our desired goals in their community.

In the days since, many of us have been experiencing similarly amazing chance happenings that are likely to help us achieve our individual pieces of the desired group goal. As I reflect on this experience of communal flaps up and its aftermath in my life, I remind myself to take special care of my Little Self. Our bodies aren’t built to live perpetually in flaps up and my bodyspirit need some flaps down time in order to be prepared for more amazement.

 

A Different Kind of Gypsy

In the musical comedy theaterTravellers_Decorated_Caravan_(6136023633) the dancers are called “gypsies.” I suppose it’s because the nature of their employment involves changing jobs and moving around the country often. The first year I was in New York, I lived in 11 different places around the city, including the times I arranged to sleep on a friend’s couch.

This week I’m falling back on those learned long ago gypsy skills – moving around the world with a spirit of adventure, and practicing the spiritual discipline of extreme flexibility. I’m been in North Texas on what might be termed “a book tour.” With the help of my sister who lives north of Denton, I organized one book event in Fort Worth and two in Dallas. Sandwiched in between I attended a women’s retreat at a ranch an hour and a half northwest of Fort Worth.highways

I lived in this area of the world for over 20 years but having left eight years ago, I’d forgotten the amount of time people here spend in their cars and how carefully they plan their trips to miss the rush hours and the logjams created by road construction projects.  As a visitor it strikes me that most every roadway is being worked on, or expanded to accommodate even more traffic. Toll roads are under construction to swoop people over the top of the current roadways and make money for the state and the construction companies.

I’m now at my next stop, Atlanta GA. doing a home stay with a friend as I prepare for a Warrior Mother Performing the Book event this evening at Charis Books and More,  http://charis.indiebound.com/ the nation’ s oldest independent feminist bookstore. If you’re in the area, please join me as I help Charis celebrate their 43rd year as one of the “must see” places in the Atlanta area.charis

Healing Astronomical Grief

The evening started with a family ritual. My husband and I had been invited to attend a Friday night Shabbat dinner at a friend’s house. I felt honored to be included in what, for this family, is a weekly event. Prayers and blessings were chanted by the hostess, her husband, and her 94 year-old father. I was wishing I understood what the words meant, but the intimacy and celebratory nature of the meal needed no translation. Ritual elements such as the lighted candles, two loaves of challah bread, and the wine communicated the specialness of the occasion.

shabbatt.tableThe hostess’s father was the honored guest, a remarkable man who talked easily of his life in the Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland and of his journey to freedom after the war. As the meal was ending, our hostess invited us to drive to the Jewish Community Day School where she is the principal, to see the new Holocaust Sculpture on the school grounds. The project has taken over a dozen years, begun when a social studies teacher was searching for a way to communicate to his students the concept of six million Jews dying in the Holocaust. How could they, and we, understand the reality of such a humungous number?

At the teacher’s suggestion, the class began collecting tabs from aluminum cans, and years later, with help from parents and the larger community, the school amassed six million tabs.

closeup tabs

Next the school and its supporters searched for a way to display them in a meaningful way and the memorial, “Keeping Tabs” was created. An artist worked with the children to design the sculpture. The one that was chosen was a fractured Jewish star, laid out in such a way as to create a maze for visitors to walk through. Nine hundred and eighty glass blocks were then filled with the tabs and arranged in towers of varying heights.

Seeing the memorial at night from a distance, the lit structures seemed to me a cityscape of ancestral skyscrapers. Walking up the hill from the parking lot on the curved pathway I felt the expectation that I would soon be visiting a sacred site.

cityscapeancestors

Upon entering, each narrow corridor offered different angles and perspectives and a play of light and shadow. Close up, the individual tabs in each glass window, mostly silver, with an occasional red or green one, brought tears to my eyes as I experienced each tab standing in for a person, a life snuffed out forever due to hatred and the evil of attempted genocide. I thought of the enormity of the world’s grief for these lives and all the lives that would have come from each of them.

keepingtabs.angles

Since single human bodies are not built to hold such overwhelming sorrows, the Sculpture does its sacred duty, helping us to honor those people who were lost and provide comfort to those left behind. The Hebrew saying and its translation over the doorway is a prayer for us all. –Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazekBe Strong, Be Strong, and May We Be Strengthened.” Strong enough to stick to our resolve to never allow such an atrocity again. 
The Jewish Chronicle – Holocaust sculpture dedication draws large crowd

Dancing on the Fringe

The streets of Edinburgh Scotland were filled, as they are every August, with performing artists and the tourists and locals who had come to see them. Rich and I, along with 22 other InterPlayers from around the world were among them. RichCatapillerphoto-16Pushing our way through the hordes of mostly young performers on the cobblestone street which is the Royal Mile, we observed the ritual of performers dressed as caterpillars and clowns, giving out flyers, barking as circus midway callers do, to draw attention to the free samples of their art on the makeshift stages of High Street. Though a little less flamboyant, and a good deal older than most of them, we too had came to perform on the Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Festival, the largest open access arts festival in the world began in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.  The juried arts festival is still in business but the Fringe, officially organized in 1951, has grown way bigger that that one. In fact it’s bigger than anyone could imagine an arts festival becoming. By 1959 there were 494 companies and by this year, 2013, the festival had over 40,000 performers in 359 venues. Unlike those original participants, we did have an invitation from Mairi Campbell, a well-known Scottish folk singer, http://www.mairicampbell.co.uk/

Meeting up with a dozen members of our US InterPlay community, and joining another dozen InterPlayers from Germany, Finland, England, Australia and Scotland, we formed an improv troupe. After practicing together for several days (which was a big part of the fun of it all, along with time spent with fabulous local home stay hosts), we came together at Venue #127, St. John’s Church in the center of the city. Our performance of the Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human was part of the Just Festival, a subset of the Fringe that focused on social justice, spirituality, and peace.mairiUBBH-17

Our well-attended performance was a fitting tribute to the festival’s themes as we danced, sang and told our stories in the moment and on the spot, highlighting what’s wonderful about being human and what’s not so great about it. As one of the elders in the group, this was my 9th performance of Unbelievable Beauty, having participated in the first series of performances in San Francisco CA in 1997, in Sydney, Australia in 2004, and in Seattle and Chicago in the years in between.  Each improvisational performance followed a similar format yet each was a unique and never-to-be-repeated experience for participants and audiences.

In the 50-page program for the Just Festival, which was a subset of the 390 page program for the Fringe, the program description read: “Re-igniting hope for human kind, passionate, funny, honest, affirming of real people and real living. Performers elevate both the miracles and struggles of every day folk in a daring, spontaneous, fresh way.  Directed by InterPlay founders, the program features InterPlayers from around the world. UK debut”.UBBH.Edinburgh1

And so it was, a never-to-be forgotten, Unbelievably Beautiful Experience!

Occupying Pittsburgh’s Market Square

Last Thursday’s One Billion Rising Pittsburgh event attracted over 400 people and was organized by New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, an organization that InterPlayer, Toni McClendon helped to start. These young, mostly African-American women put together on February 14th, with the help of volunteers of all ages, the most soulful, spiritually enlightening, community inspiring, two hour event in Pittsburgh’s downtown Market Square.

In addition to the stage where dancers from the August Wilson Center performed, and hundreds of women danced Debbie Allen’s Break The Chain, another corner of the square contained a tent the size of a solitary confinement space in a prison. The construction held artwork and petitions to obtain release for women incarcerated for defending themselves against the violent acts of intimate partners. A candled altar space occupied another corner, a place for remembering women from our community who have lost their lives to violence, a resource tent offered information about organizations addressing this vital issue, while the Comfort Tent offered support and respite for anyone strongly affected by this topic of violence against women.

When I shared information about this event with Coke Nakamoto, a dancing social worker friend in California, her comment said it all. “Absolutely love the consciousness brought to the Pittsburgh event. What vision and understanding of the bigger dance beneath the dance!”  No wonder I feel so honored to take the over 15,000 steps my fitness tracker counted that day, (three times the national average) to support these women in bringing their vision to such a spectacular reality. 

Martin and Me

Our InterPlay troupe participated in several Martin Luther King celebrations this past weekend, which got me thinking about what my kids used to call, “the olden days.” I remembered the time I almost got to meet Dr. King in person.  

Dr. King was scheduled to speak at a Black church in Detroit, Michigan, where my then husband was a news broadcaster. As a member of the press he was invited to attend the event as a special guest and I came along as his wife. The church was crowded with people, and the excitement in the air was palatable. We were immediately ushered to the front and given seats on the stage. As I turned around to survey the audience, I realized we were a couple of only a few white people in attendance. I remember this surprising me at the time, because Dr. King was a well known public figure, and I for one had considered this evening a wonderful opportunity to see and hear him in the flesh.

After some preliminary introductions, the MC of the event made an announcement. “Unfortunately I have some sad news this evening. Dr King will not be able to speak to us this evening. He has been arrested and is in jail.” There was a hush and then a great commotion in the audience as people came to realize the realities of this situation.

The speaker continued, “But we are fortunate to have Dr. King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King senior as our speaker this evening.”  I don’t remember the words he spoke, but I can still see his small frame at the podium, the worry and concern for his son on his face. As I told the kids at the MLK celebration at the Kelly-Strayhorn yesterday, the whole audience joined Martin’s father in his concern for his son, because at the time, none of us knew how things were going to turn out. 

And now that we do know how it turned out, my compassion for his father reaches even deeper and broader. Martin Jr. has said, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice.”  I’m grateful to have lived long enough to experience that bend.

Activist Art Shows The Way

After reading Mary Thomas’s excellent article about the Pittsburgh Biennial activist art segment at CMU, I was disappointed it wouldn’t be staying around longer.  After seeing the exhibit on the last day, I felt more disappointed it wasn’t staying around so I could bring my out of town holiday guests.  The exhibit left me with a pervasive sense of sorrow that I couldn’t share, even with my companions as we walked across campus. We discussed the three-story sculpture of people walking single file up a silver pole, into the sky.  Someone pointed out, the pole used to be graceful and slender, but after many bouts of being bent in the wind, it was remade for safety’s sake.  The present version has the people walking on a thick cylinder, along the same trajectory, but the present platform seems to overpower the human figures. 

Our tour began with a section of billboards, powerful shoot-outs on themes of economic equity and immigration. One of my favorites, an artful rendition of barbed wire attempting to cover the message,  “A millionaire stole your job, not migrant labor.” An instillation of small tea tables, “Feminist Matter(s): Propositions and Undoings,” by the subRosa collective contained artifacts of women artists and scientists and stories of their struggles for recognition.

This one hit home personally. Having been a faculty member at various universities, and having been told that what I considered worth investigating and teaching, (career paths of professional women leaders, movement and non-verbal communication in therapy) were subjects not worth pursuing.

In meditation in my women’s group the following Monday I got a deeper understanding of the show and my sorrowful response. I saw an image of a wrecking ball taking down a building and a large shovel scooping the rubble into a landfill. In contrast, came images from the instillation, Transformazium’ – women deconstructing a condemned building, patiently disassembling it in order to reuse the materials.  

 The patriarchal system never worked for women, but it never worked for most men, and minorities, and children either. Now as that system is in advanced disrepair, we must carefully disassemble its parts, so we can reuse what still has value. And as with the campus sculpture, special attention needs to be paid to the balance between people and technology.