Friday, January 28, 2022

One Solar Year

I've begun a new project!  

One Solar Year is an observation of our shared, fragile, resilient humanity over the course of (surprise!) one solar year! I began the project at the previous winter solstice, and plan to write over a hundred poems before the next winter solstice, each inspired and combined with a portrait of wildness around my home. Our human experience isn't separate from the ecology around us; it's completely integral to it. The dewdrops, the haggard plants emerging from the snow, the wilting blossoms in the heat dome; they're part of our psyche, even when we don't notice them. I'm noticing them.

One Solar Year is an Instagram project, which may or may not become a book in the future. If you'd like to follow it, go here: https://www.instagram.com/onesolaryear/

 Thank you for your support. 🧡


Monday, January 24, 2022

Stay-At-Home-Feminist-Mom: Why I Traded my Early Art Career for the Privilege of Parenting My Children

Visual and film artist Lidia Patriasz paints the silhouette of my mother, Lyn van Lidth de Jeude, during a performance of my work, SuperMAMA, 2010. All the women who participated in this production were mothers; most were also visual artists or musicians, and these two were also preschool teachers. Photo by Adrian van Lidth de Jeude.

As a teen, I never really thought about becoming a mother. Finding the elusive “true love” — yes! But not kids. I was going to find a man who was supportive of my political views (and would understand there is nothing actually “political” about equal rights), and spend my life busting up the patriarchy with gusto! Through the amazing art career I had planned, I was going to save us from climate change AND our degrading societal norms, by showing the world what absolute tools for the patriarchy we’ve been, and getting us out from under the shoe of the Man. Yeah.

So… that didn’t go quite as planned. My man was not unsupportive, he was just mild-mannered and uninterested in the big angry mission I was on. But he loved me. And also: hormones. Somehow my hormones side-swiped my passionate goals, so that suddenly, and for a few years, there was nothing more important to me than having babies. (My teenaged self gets whiplash here: HUH?!) So I had my baby, and determined when he was nearly two that it was time to go back to my career… or have another baby. I chose that latter. The timing of this choice coincided with our first child’s registration for preschool.

Preschool is such a wonderful thing! These devoted people take our kids so we can go back to the work of tearing down the patriarchy! My mother in law tells of the glorious day she left both children at preschool, and walked away with her body upright for the first time in years! It’s the place you go to drop off your beloveds for a beautiful day of mind-building play and learning, and you — the newly freed mother — go back to your world-changing career!! YES!! (I was SO naive.)

In my case, the first two years of preschool were spent back and forth between nursing my youngest and tending to the eldest while he very slowly acclimated to a system that never worked for him: school. I said he acclimated. He never thrived. By the time my youngest entered preschool (where she absolutely did thrive), my job became accompanying my eldest to his Kindergarten, where he continued not to thrive.

It wasn’t a heartfelt thinking-through that led me to leave my career behind. It was just circumstance. I could never have left my son in that world that wasn’t serving him, and homeschool (unschooling, in our case), seemed like the best option. Nobody picks the second best option for their kids if they can help it. My husband and I rarely even talked about our life as a choice, and when we did, it was only that I apologized for not making any money, and that he reassured me my work with the children was equally important. I had found the equality I’d been fighting for: not in equal pay, but in being equally valued — at least by my partner.

Financially, staying home with my kids was certainly a sacrifice. On one income for the foreseeable future, we abandoned our dreams of owning our own home. We are incredibly lucky in being able to rent from my parents, which has meant we have a kind of home security unavailable to most renters, today. But it was a mouldy and rotten home, and has necessitated over a decade of my husband’s free weekends and vacation time spent rebuilding (he’s still not finished, actually). So we sacrificed free family time, as well. Of course all this meant that unlike many of our kids’ friends’ families, we rarely had money for vacations, new clothes, or sports and arts programs.

What we do have is an amazing attachment. That alone, and the benefits I knew it would have for my children’s lives, was enough to keep me home. It was enough to make every sacrifice of money, freedom, and career worthwhile. And I was so passionate about my work as a mother that it really became my life. I volunteered at various family-related organizations, served on and chaired various boards in my community, and founded and ran a few programs, all geared towards supporting healthy families in our community. I somehow never even saw the irony of becoming a stay-at-home-mom, after my passionately feminist youth, until people began pointing it out to me, as my kids grew older, and I continued staying home. It seems it’s reasonable for a feminist to have kids and attachment parent them, but then apparently one should put them in school and get back to work on smashing the patriarchy.

Well hold on! What if my work as a mother IS smashing the patriarchy?! Is feminism now relegated to single, childless women, or those who leave their kids in the care of others? What does that say about our respect for other women? Day-care workers and teachers are some of the forgotten sacrifices in this equation, disrespected in wages, benefits AND the mainstream feminist viewpoint. Like stay-at-home-mothers, they’re the people feminism blindly relies on to raise the next generation of feminists, while feminists are out doing “more important” things.

In the process of changing the world, there is NOTHING more powerful than raising children.

The way we raise our children determines how successful each generation of women will be at improving our lot. When caregivers aren’t valued as much as our economy values shareholders and industry-builders, we all lose. That goes for daycare staff, teachers, AND stay-at-home-mothers and homeschooling parents. Many stay-at-home-mothers are the volunteers in our communities who make the programs that support women and children. 

And all that is not to ignore the unbelievable power of setting an example. As parents, we are the greatest teachers our children will ever have. When they’re sixty they’ll find themselves blindly doing what they saw us doing. There is no such thing as “do what I say, not what I do”… our children will always do what we do. So when they see us living powerful lives, when they see our partners respect us; when they see us respect ourselves, they will follow suit. And if we take in other children to care for, we’re influencing those children, too, and their children’s children. In everything from the choices we make in life, to the ways we speak to our children to the ways we glance at ourselves in the mirror, in passing, caregivers are POWERFUL. We’re the grease in the wheels of feminism. I argue, actually, that women who put down other women for choosing to stay home with children are just part of the blind patriarchy. 

Without regular vacations, without owning a home, without being socially acceptable, I am privileged. I’m privileged to have watched my kids grow up; to have shared my own life with them, and to have grown alongside them. I’m privileged to have had opportunity to make a difference in my community, and to model that for my children, so that, as young adults, they’re now busy doing the same. I’m privileged to have developed a very close relationship with my kids.

The experience I’ve had in staying home with my kids and unschooling them is not available to all women: especially not to single mothers, or those with partners who are not supportive of the idea. Even as I now struggle to develop a career as a middle-aged woman with disability and not much documented work experience, I know how lucky I am to have lived the life I chose. My career has shifted from some-kind-of-subversive-artist to an artist that is deeply rooted in my own experience as a stay-at-home-feminist-mom. The first big installation I created was about giving voice to other mothers. Being a parent has given me a perspective on humanity that was deeply needed for my art-making, but not available to me until I’d had the experiences I have.

I didn’t trade my values and career for having children; I traded my early career for the extremely powerful, feminist privilege of parenting my children, full-on. Or, to shift the focus a little, I am using my chosen experience as a stay-at-home-feminist-mom to build a stronger foundation for my career, and thus hopefully to smash the patriarchy, even harder.

~ ~ ~

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Thursday, December 2, 2021

How to Prepare for Scarcity and the Great Inflation

Illustration by Taliesin River

"You’d better prepare for the greatest inflationary wave in human history." That's the line that stuck out to me, near the end of umair haque's REALLY good article, "Why Everything is Suddenly Getting More Expensive -- And Why It Won't Stop". If you haven't read this article yet, or aren't already familiar with the idea of the Great Inflation, and how we're now paying for the affordability of past generations, I recommend reading that article before reading this one. 

umair's article was very helpful to my understanding of why our groceries are getting so expensive or why, for example, I looked into second hand electric cars a few years ago and could find plentiful good options under 9K, and now there are none. So we know the Great Inflation is happening. My question is, how are we preparing?

Emergency kits and Go-bags are not going to cut it. Home preparedness is totally underway at my house. After this year's excruciatingly horrible wildfire season, we made plans to back up our family photos and prepared a little waterproof box for our phones, wallets and hard-drive, for when we'll inevitably have to jump in the ocean and swim. After this year's heat-wave, we bought an air conditioner that doubles as a dehumidifier for the now annual warm-and-foggy (read: in-house-moldy) season. After the deep freeze we insulated our chicken-coop. After the current flood-caused highway (and whole-town) washouts, we put emergency supplies in our car. After gas prices jumped and the flood-caused supply chain disruptions made gas rationing necessary, we looked into electric cars. I already told you how that went. 

But what's next?? We all know that none of this is enough. We can hardly predict the next climate-change-related disaster. Who knows how we should prepare? The one thing we all have to do is learn to live differently. And the change needed is so drastic we can hardly fathom it. Personally, I need lists to help me fathom. So I'm making one. In my mind it breaks down to three broad sections: things we need "much less", "none" and "more". My list is not complete or well-organised, but it helps me sort out my mind, so here goes:

We need much less of this:
Most things in this first section should actually be on the "none" list, but at the moment our culture is such that we're going to need a transitional phase. I guess that's what this is. This gives us time to learn and share some skills we've abandoned and get prepared for the time when, whether we like it or not, all these things move to the "none" section.

Travel: As fuel and steel prices rise, it's going to become impossible for most people to travel, anyway, and the many industries that depend on travel tourism will die, regardless. But on top of that, it's already becoming impossible to commute for work, to send our children to non-local schools or programs; to visit our parents. We're going to have to use our great ingenuity, as we have already proven capable of during the pandemic, to work around this.

Dependence on government: I'm not sure what makes us think that the government will just keep creating resources to fix and replace those destroyed by climate change, but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that right now our government and military are pretty taxed just dealing with the constant march of disasters. At some point that's going to break. There won't always be soldiers available to build dikes and put out fires. We might as well get used to that, and expect to do the work, ourselves. Yes we can.

Clothing: I have such a clothing addiction! I think I buy very few things--just a garment or four a year for each person in my household. And recently I try to buy sustainably. But I also still own, alter and wear many clothes from my teens, and every decade between then and now. I probably have about ten times as many clothes as I actually need, and it's not like giving them away would be any more sustainable. Some parts of the world are drowning in our "donations" (take time to watch that if you, like me, still thought donating clothes was helpful). The only actual solution to this is to stop buying, entirely. I know I have enough clothing to last the rest of my life, if I do more mending. And I could clothe the rest of my family, too.

Non-local food and industrial agriculture: We know that industrial agriculture, along with fossil-fuel driven production and transportation, is a disaster for our future. Thousands of chickens and cows just drowned in my province when the artificially-drained land they lived on flooded, because of climate change. Our flimsy, human-made systems are going to crash so hard they can't recover. We might as well accept that now, and start something new so we're ready when they're gone. There are many viable solutions for this problem, and they begin with all of us eating more simply. 

Imported food: We can do this now. My family is Dutch, and we LOVE our imported cheese. My family is also Mexican, and we--wait! We already figured out how to make our own tortillas from local corn! This isn't going to be as hard as I thought. This isn't as big a deal, perhaps, as how our food is produced, but it's one way we can make a difference to our impact, and become more engaged in local food production.

Fossil fuels. Resource Extraction. ALL. THE. WASTE: We're already making some progress with this. As we limit our needless use of office buildings for computer terminal work than can be done online, we will need less concrete and steel. As we commute and travel less, we'll need fewer highways and less fuel. As we drive less, fewer cars. And on it goes. The stuff that supported our wasteful consumerist existence will no longer be needed, and we can stop pillaging and burning our earth's resources.

We need none of this:
We already know these things are destroying us, and we can eliminate them, now. Yes, there will be devastating job losses, and huge shifts needed in our culture and thought patterns. We'll have to get very creative. But you know how when a close family member dies we're devastated and we don't know how we'll ever recover? But then we do, and we grow. And we end up somewhere new we never could have imagined before the loss. This will be the same.

Tourism: Yep. That's probably the end of the travel industry. Airlines. Cruising. Little plastic souvenirs and the trusted income source of so many communities, including mine. We'll find other ways to enjoy our world, along with other ways of supporting our communities.

Careers that depend on global travel: So much of our current air-travel is related to needless work-travel. It's the end of my career as an artist who exhibits in Amsterdam. A few years ago I might have said, "at least I got to do it once..." Now I'm kind of embarrassed I didn't make this realization before that. Lucky for us, technology has brought the world to our handheld devices. We can make the most of this.

Needless consumption, supporting mega corporations, escapism: I, like most of us, grew up in an age where Christmas was actually about presents; about light shows in shopping districts and buying stuff to feel happy. I learned to satisfy my soul by shopping, by travelling; by escaping my real-world life into screens, food, shopping, and travel. Now that that world is falling apart, it's no longer satisfying to fulfill those consumption needs. For Christmas I want to be released from the "age of stuff", as my friend recently called it on Facebook. Oh yeah. Facebook. That has to go too. I'm going to have to actually go to out and talk to my community members in person. I hope I find some walking around without their phones.

So now what? Now that we've dispensed of most of the biggest industries in the world, most of the jobs, and everything we actually loved about life... how on earth are we going to survive? Well, maybe not on earth. The billionaires are already playing with spaceflight. Let them move to Mars. The rest of us will dig deeply into that "More" category, and thrive. 

We need more of this:
This is the beauty section. This is where we take all the grief and fear from the previous two sections of my list, turn it on its head, and marvel at all the joy we've found.

Local food (and other resources): The more of us go find sustainable, local producers to satisfy our needs, the more such producers there will be. It's not cheap to do this, so a huge part of it is valuing the food for what it's really worth. My partner and I decided to eat very little meat, a few years ago, and what we do eat should be sustainably produced. So in order to afford this (both ecologically and financially) we went from eating meat three or four times per week to a maximum of once a week. And we eat cheese about twice a month. I'm still looking for a really good local cheesemaker. When I find one, that cheese is going to be as expensive as it should be, but deeply, deeply appreciated. When you don't get something very often, it becomes so much more valuable. It's the scarcity principle, but this time it's working for us.

Sharing: My family has chickens, now. Sometimes we don't have enough eggs even to bake bread. Sometimes, we have enough to bake, make quiches, and share with our family. Those are happy times, when we feel rewarded by our ability to contribute. Like when my neighbour grew so many apples she asked us to come pick some. We ate so many apples that year. Sharing isn't always about food, or even objects. We make a point of learning and sharing knowledge with our neighbours, as well. Sharing isn't just necessary for the equitable use of community resources--it's necessary for our survival.

Finding sustainable ways to contribute locally: This is the joyful counterpart to the misery of losing jobs and entire industries; economical collapse that will be a natural fallout from rampant inflation. This is where we find ourselves working instead of for money, for survival. And I can tell you from my experiences supporting unschooling parents, teaching and writing for free, and raising plants and animals for food, it's the most rewarding work I've ever done.

Connecting with community and local ecology: We protect what we know and love. Those who know and love us are our resources, and will protect us. This is the foundation of a wholistic society, but it's also the root of love and joy, so... what more can I say?

Pointedly appreciating what we do have: This comes back to the scarcity principle. My family has been regularly cutting back our consumption for a few years, now. We're eating mostly rice, corn, beans and lentils, along with what we grow, ourselves, and locally-grown veggies in the winter. We really enjoy our mushrooms, now that we only get them when they decide to pop up in the garden, or when we find them growing in the wild. It's the same for our homegrown chicken, eggs and veggies. It's the same for clothes we've mended or repurposed. Now that we rarely get to see our family (because: travel), we appreciate phone calls so much more. I make a big deal in my heart of what we took for granted, before. And that leaves me feeling deep joy.

~~~

Maybe it's weird to be talking about deep joy in relation to climate change disasters and our current basic needs becoming unaffordable. But maybe we're just not seeing straight. The cost (as opposed the price) of our lifestyle has been astronomical since our parents and grandparents were children. Now we're finally paying for it, in climate change disasters and rampant inflation. That's going to hurt a lot, no matter how we slice it. But maybe some mental preparation can make the hurt more tolerable. 

Maybe, instead of dreading the fires or floods or the housing crisis, we can prepare by living more simply, by forming strong communities of people who support each other; by building and living within our means. Maybe instead of rushing to the stores to stock up when we hear there's a shortage of microchips, maple syrup, or gas, we can embrace scarcity. Those last few spoonfuls of maple syrup are extra special now; I can feel resilient by making do with older devices, and I can walk instead of driving. I can even stay home. I can change careers, if I need to. And most of us will. Maybe, instead of working ourselves to death and spending more than we earn on big homes; spending time and money we don't have on travel and products that cost us our future, we can work less, spend less, love more, and look at everything we do have as if it is a gift. Because it really is. And we're finally learning to cherish it. That cherishing--that appreciation and finding of deep joy--is how we prepare our minds for the inevitable.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Survival: Agility of Mind and Heart

One of the various road-collapses on the Coquihalla Highway in British Columbia.
Photo used with permission from Douglas Noblet, of Wild Air Photography.
Douglas has shared a series of these photos here, on Facebook.

I was looking at these photos by Douglas Noblet, this morning, which seem to be mainly of the Fraser Valley, and highway collapses of the Coquihalla and the Hope-Princeton, and I found myself wondering how long it will take to restore our infrastructure. Months? Maybe years for the Coquihalla? (More on what's broken, here: North Shore News

Then I realized that we're in climate free-fall, now. Any restoration is going to be hampered by increasing floods, blizzards, storms, fires, deep-freezes and heat-waves, not to mention the human issues like pandemics, supply-disruption, economic strife, labour and food shortages. Maybe the answer isn't how to get back to old-normal, but how we move forward instead of backward, and build new normal

The flooded Sumas Prairie in British Columbia.
Photo used with permission from Douglas Noblet, of Wild Air Photography.
Douglas has shared a series of these photos here, on Facebook.

Upon hearing that thousands of dairy cows (half our province's dairy production) have drowned in their barns, I am ashamed to say that along with immense grief, I felt an urge to go buy "the last milk". My cousin reports that stores are bursting with panic-shoppers. What was I thinking?! Milk?! Really?! Milk is not a "need". Thankfully we didn't buy any. 

But you know what is a need? Love. Community. Right now we have some of our extended family here, who out of sheer luck got briefly lost on their way home to Princeton, and managed to just barely miss being caught in the Agassiz slide. So they're stuck here on the coast while their town is flooded. The silver lining to this situation is that, while we haven't seen them in over two years, due to the pandemic, last night I got to feel their arms around me, again. It was a huge relief. 

I know these photos are terrifying. It's awful to wonder if or how our kids will manage if schools remain closed, as they are now throughout the flooded valley and other towns. It's awful to wonder how our supplies and jobs and communities will survive if these highways and industries don't get repaired soon. It's awful just to wonder what we'll feed our kids if they can't have cereal with milk and they refuse to eat anything else! I know--it's a fear borne of privilege. But it's fear. We feel so easily lost at sea with no answers; no clear vision of where we're going. This fear leads to panic shopping, competition, greed, and more reckless consumption. It's exactly how we got to this place in human evolution, and the only way out is to let go of the fear. 

Now I'm thinking about how we can change, instead of rebuilding. It isn't the cows' milk we depend on, nor the farmland it came from. The Sumas Prairie was created a century ago by draining an enormous wetland. It was never our land, to begin with, and the question of buying milk seems so meaningless, now. It isn't the infrastructure that creates land for industrial farming, or brings our groceries from afar, nor the schools that hold our children while we work to buy the milk. It's love. Love is what makes us resilient. Love is what has brought citizens and business owners in the town of Hope to feed and shelter travellers trapped by mudslides. Love is what gives us the strength to grow food in the first place, to share with our neighbours even when we barely have enough, ourselves, to hold up our communities and hold on to hope. Love is what supports us while our minds are doing the amazing task of being agile; of finding solutions to problems we never fathomed just a few years ago. Love is what creates agility of mind and heart, and gives us the power to survive. 

The new normal we need to be building will become evident as the old normal is no longer available. For me, it is found in the arms of my loved ones. If I never drink milk again, and if my whole "normal" becomes something I can't even fathom, right now, it will be built on love.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Travel is Becoming Unethical: Hyper-Local Exotica in Artistic Experience

"Mama Running in the Water"  photo by Taliesin River

One of my favourite natural events is when the meadow floods. That's when the rain comes fast and the creek that normally flows through the alder forest comes out around the trees to run across the compact paths between long grasses, creating two- to thirty-centimetre-deep creeks that speed along, where in summer, bare-footed dogs and children run. In winter, I've run these temporary creeks in bare feet too. I know the feeling of the mud and wet grasses between my toes, and the fear of stepping in drowned dog poop. The joy of the immersion is too great to be daunted by the threat of poop. As I've grown older, though, I've come to appreciate the benefits of good rain gear and tall boots, which allow me to dive into my landscape without physical repercussions.

Diving into landscape is something I've been thinking about a lot, lately: How, through residencies and travel and schooling or working abroad, artists aim to really immerse ourselves in different landscapes, to come home refreshed and inspired; often longing to return again to the exotic and wonderfully wild places we visited. We make art during or after these travels that sometimes explores the longing, the wildness or the bodies-in-place-ness of where we were; sometimes the brokenness of our human emotional existence across a diversity of different locations.

But pandemic and carbon-footprint considerations have led many of us to think deeply about the value and sacrifice of these muse-journeys. It's not only the air-travel that's a problem. There's also a problem with small villages taking a great percentage of their income from residence-tourism, or just tourism in general; when the actual residents of the community become dependent upon visits by people who will never actually become engaged in or contribute to the community as residents do, but only as grateful residence-artists. I live in a small community that gleans some of our income from tourism, and I know exactly how damaging a million tourist footprints are to the ecology of the place my own bare feet feel at home. I know how they take photos of this beautiful place, but never deeply understand the ecology; how they go home to write travel-blogs that extol the quaintness and quietness of my home but fail to capture the realness of our people; the political and social crises we feel, and even the imminent threat to the forests, fields, and beaches they're photographing. Once when I was small, my parents were out by the road cutting a tree into rounds for firewood--a gruelling job they did every year to keep our family warm--and some tourists drove up and stopped to watch them. They never got out of their car; just stopped to watch for a while and then drove away again.

I felt the other side of this problematic story keenly during my own residence in Amsterdam, a few years ago. I stayed and installed a project in the Goleb Project Space run by my friends Igor and Go-Eun. They welcomed and supported me graciously and while my experience was expansive, I noticed that the below-surface politics of the centre were very different than what I was experiencing as a visitor to the space. I wondered how my presence there had perhaps displaced others' work or intentions; how my ideas had changed the dialogue or intention of the group. Goleb is in one of the more mundane urban areas of Amsterdam, so I didn't think too much about my ecological impact, but one afternoon that changed. I was walking along the gracht (a small waterway for which we have no English word), getting closer and closer to an adorable family of coots, attempting to photograph them in what I thought was a remarkably interesting way, and a pair of men sitting on a bench nearby told me off for disturbing the wildlife. I reminded myself of the tourists I complain about, here in Canada. I had truly no idea of those coots' ecological value, nor who the guys on the bench were, or the stories they brought to that moment. It was all just an afternoon distraction from the project I was working on.

Then came the pandemic; the shutting down of most international travel. And the growing list of climate change disasters claiming our cultural, personal, and ecological heritage. Personally, I can't reconcile travel with artistic purpose anymore. I'm not even sure I can justify travelling overseas to visit family. So I'm thinking a lot about how we can be engaged and inspired by place without the inherent damage of travel.

The Un-Boxing Exhibition, arranged by Gudrun Filipska, Caroline Kelley, Lenka Clayton and Carly Butler of the Arts Territory Exchange, on arrival, here at Plas Bodfa, in Wales. Photo by Julie Upmeyer.

What if travel isn't necessary to become immersed in landscape, or even to experience exotic places? We've already proven quite thoroughly that many of the business- and organizational-meetings we used to travel for can be done over the internet. I joined my brother's birthday dinner by video-chat, and have attended a couple of symposiums by Zoom. Artists have always found ingenious ways of making art in collaboration and across time and space through the mail, telephone, internet, and travelling exhibitions or projects. For me and many others, the creative solutions were often borne out of financial or temporal necessity, but now perhaps we can make these choices also out of concern for our future. 

My work about my own Pacific Island, on a staircase in Wales.
Plas Bodfa. Photo: Julie Upmeyer

I'm including photos, here, of the Un-Boxing project I am honoured to be participating in, this year--a travelling box of works that examines ideas of place, travel, gifting, and time, as well as the delight of opening parcels. It seems a bit meta to me, and I can see how it might inspire a lot of searching and thoughtful dialogue. My entire experience of this show, so far, has been through others' lenses. For me personally it's reignited my passion for the hyper-local: If this is the view of my experience through others' lenses, what is the view of my experience, through mine? Or their experience of my contribution, re-experienced by me? I'm not a huge fan of navel-gazing, and now this sounds like meta-meta-meta, but maybe in trying to reevaluate our engagement with space and time and each other we can find new ways of experiencing. 

In a symposium I attended virtually today about mobility, spatiality and virtuality in Iceland, artist Zuhaitz Aziku of Strondin Studio suggested that we need to "make people realize that they're buying experience. Because you cannot ever buy experience." The experience is what comes from what we put into anything. Whether Zuhaitz intended this or not, he made me realize that experience doesn't need to be far away to be exotic. I've been exploring the exotic of my own backyard for over forty years. How can there be anything exotic in my own backyard, when my body knows every inch of it so well? Because, as Zuhaitz helped me to realize, my experience of this place changes with every moment. My intention and what I take away depends on how I engage, and that, too, changes with every moment. 

I think we travel in order to escape the routine of our lives; to break our minds from the same parade of sensual input we receive every day. It's easier to take a different view if we remove ourselves from our routines. But maybe that's just lazy. Maybe we can train ourselves to look differently every day; to pass the same places but never in the same ways. Maybe we can practice closing our eyes and listening to things we normally only see, or lying down in places we normally only stand. When I stop running through the meadow and crawl, instead, I discover that rodents have created pathways under the mat of grass. I find insects leaving trails of detritus inside these covered runways. It's like an entirely exotic world to the one I stood in just a moment before. When I run through that meadow in the flood, I feel a kind of sensory freedom that doesn't in any way compare to the way that grass feels in the summer. I wonder where the rodents go when the creek runs through their pathways. If I learn all of this, it won't be exotic anymore, but something new will happen tomorrow; there will be new questions and new experiences and new ways of engaging with this space. There will be new ways of experiencing and inspiring. I won't have to leave this place to find them.

Can I live in place in my own backyard and call it a residency? I sure as hell reside here, and the more I stay home, confined by pandemic and financial restrictions; my own ethical concerns around carbon footprint and supporting large corporate airlines, the more I see the value in this. Maybe we can adjust the expectation of worldliness in our artistic practices for the benefit of our common future. And far from becoming navel-gazing meta, our practices will expand into our spaces in a way that they never could when we were busy escaping for exotic experiences. We can use our art as a means for researching, understanding, and bettering ourselves and our own communities, in place.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Why Feeling Matters in Public Policy

(I open my mouth and) Nothing Comes Out
Emily van Lidth de Jeude, 2016

Last night I attended a devastating meeting in my community. On the surface it was pretty run-of-the-mill: A bunch of councilors and a few municipal staff members slowly picking their way through various presentations, decisions, and amendments. They came to the end of the meeting having checked a few boxes, put a few requests to bed or to progress, and made a few small changes to the contentious bylaw that much of the population feels will rip the heart out of our community.

As a member of this community for all of my life, I've been passionate about the things that tie us together. Some of those things are the big organized events, like our traditional summer festival and Remembrance Day celebration; the fishing derbies that used to happen when I was a kid, and the raft race. The events change over the years, but always hold us together, and are facilitated by a huge number of dedicated creative people, who look at their community and see the need for celebration. We're also held together by the little things, like stopping to chat with an oncoming driver in the road, or letting the community cat into the car for a ride. We're held together by actions like calling a neighbour for help clearing a dead deer or sitting down with Bob for an ephemeral but deeply interesting conversation. 

Sometimes the holding together is very intentional. So many of us contribute time, ideas, and great heart to this community. In my own work and volunteer roles, I've been bringing newcomers into engagement with our wilderness, so that they can love and value this place as I do. As an artist I've grown in this rich stew of community to see the value of social practice around inclusion and diversity. I consider my work (both public and gallery-focused) a method of bringing out the voices of my fellow citizens and reminding us all of our personal benefit to community. 

Most of the artists I know are somehow engaged in broad community visioning, and feelings are our language. When we sit around talking together, we talk about the big picture. We talk about the vibe of the public spaces in our community, and the vague drifting of public sentiment; of community values. We talk about the social-emotional gorgeousness we're trying to promote, and the social change that is or should be happening. We see the big web of emotional connection that makes a community whole; that tethers us to the place we live, and we work in our sometimes-mysterious ways to keep it alive. 

Yes, these feelings and ideas can be vague, but we are masters of vaguery. The term "vague", like its linguistic origin in the French for "wave", might seem unthreatening. But a wave, however gentle, rarely comes alone, and sometimes builds slowly, unseen. Sometimes a tidal wave is a wall of water. Often it's just a going out of the tide, and then a returning, and returning, and returning, until the one unappreciated wave has enveloped a whole community. "Vague" is the feeling of community sentiment, and it can be just as devastating.

What devastated me about the council meeting was our council's lack of vision for that social web; that vague sentiment. During the meeting, various councilors mentioned that the bylaw was needed in order to "control" people, and that "not all people are our friends". They spoke often about controlling the population, but never about listening to it. They received a long series of letters asking them to consider the social damage caused by a pending bylaw that will severely limit access and enjoyment to our most popular public spaces. Letter-writers spoke about the casual gathering that will no longer happen after this bylaw is passed, and the councilors chalked it up to a lack of understanding on the public's part. The one councilor who opposes this bylaw spoke up to explain--again--his fierce opposition, and the idea that they shouldn't be pushing through a bylaw that is so publicly reviled. They carried on without acknowledging his words. Finally, they picked away at some of the wording of the bylaw, ostensibly to help people understand, without seeing the big picture. They didn't let any feelings they had to get in the way of their bylaw. They deafly ignored their populace, and carried on as though nothing had happened.

Is this a crisis of imagination? Maybe. Maybe we as a society are becoming less and less able to imagine a future we want to live in; to envision it so that we can create it. We're less and less able to see a future that is inclusive if we can't imagine how to converse or get along with those who we deem "not our friends". We know, in the abstract, that we need public policy that is expressly inclusive, but we, like our councilors, have forgotten how to include our neighbours. We've forgotten how to listen to the great vague voice of public sentiment.

The big picture in public policy is public sentiment. The public doesn't like this bylaw. We don't like that we haven't been consulted. We don't like that our letters were not read aloud, nor discussed for the many serious points they bring up. We don't like the feeling that a series of long complex bylaws will govern our footsteps and enjoyment of community spaces. We feel oppressed by this bylaw, and our feelings are what this community is made of. 

As our community becomes more and more developed; more populated, more busy, more anonymous, we're losing sight of the importance of neighbourly compassion in our social exchanges. As our municipal government takes on more control, we have relinquished the desire to affect change, ourselves. We've given up. We are increasingly more likely to call the authorities to deal with dead deer or fallen trees instead of hauling them away, ourselves. We used to use them for meat or firewood; we're no longer permitted to do so. And as our social agency is taken away, we're growing more likely to call the authorities when a neighbour offends us than to bring over a drink and have a chat. Our crisis of imagination has led to a crisis of public agency.

And when I realized that the vision of that big picture--that public engagement--is missing from our leadership, I realized that we also have a crisis of feeling. We elected leaders to do a dry job of picking through legal documents and approving or rejecting requests, but we didn't empower them to feel. When they post on public forums they are expected to remain impartial. We expect that the work of governing should be done without emotion, but it concerns emotion a great deal. We need our councilors to have compassion for the woman living in a tent behind the library, to prevent them from passing bylaws that would outlaw her presence. We need them to notice the people feeling alarmed and horrified by proposed changes and ask themselves how those feelings will impact the big picture of our community. We need them to feel, so that they can take our feelings into account; so that we feel heard and empowered to engage in our community.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Creating Hope as an Exit from Existential Fear

This has been a hard, hard month in my province. We're reckoning with our responsibility regarding both climate change and colonialism (which are inextricably linked). Our province is beginning to locate the remains of thousands of murdered indigenous children, at the same time as our towns, farms, wildlife and even humans burn, in the climate-change-fueled fires we're now accustomed to. And all the while we're trying to save the last remaining stands of old-growth forest on this land... with very little success, so far. Colonialism, capitalism, consumerism and industrial terrorism are huge foes and how can we not feel small and weak? Terror and hopelessness abound. Two generations of kids are growing up without hope. And now they're looking at their parents and seeing no reassurance, because we adults are scared, too. We have no idea how we're going to pull out of this one. I think the only way out is through. 

Yes, to some degree, it's necessary to recognize the fire and just run like hell. It's necessary to make sure our neighbours know about the fire. It's necessary to point out that the torch and gas are in our own hands. But then... where do we run to? Through the fire and out the other side? Where's the other side? And why even bother? The concept of "through" requires us to see an exit on the other side, and we have to want that exit.

The exit we want is joy. Harmony. Peace. Love. Those are things worth running to. So we have to find joy, again--or create it. We have to create hope. We have to find reasons to stop fighting and instead start working for change, and, even more importantly, we have to make that change joyful. We have to know that the place we're headed is the place we want to be going.

You get back what you put into the world. Most of us know that, at some level. And yet many, including myself, are feeling and putting out a lot of fear. I think I put joy into the world wherever I can, but maybe I can do more! Maybe instead of dwelling in the anger that my friends' missing siblings might be among those buried children, or instead of raging against the industries and "isms" that are creating climate change, I can make an exit door.

I know it's hard. Sometimes I just want to hide--bury my face in the pillow, or in the tear-soaked sweater of my partner, and wallow in my hopelessness. Sometimes I want to spend money I don't have on something I don't need and just pretend the whole scary world doesn't exist. That's OK for a minute, but then I have to look up again from my sorrow or my distraction and be real. 

I guess for all of us, the ways we "look up" and get busy creating our exit doors will vary. For me, it's working with other parents and teachers to find positive ways of encouraging exploration and discovery in learning. In helping others overcome challenges and find hope, I feel more hopeful, myself. But it's also the small things.

This is a picture of my salad. My family grew it in our garden, and picked it for dinner last night. We gobbled it up with a huge amount of joy. The diversity of colour, scents, flavours and ideas contained in this bowl looks to me like a visual story of hope for the people of our world. Despite all odds, and because of diversity, this abundance of life persists! And I eat it and am a part of my own ecosystem. And my wild and unkempt garden not only provides food for me, but shelter from the heat; shelter from the storm; shelter from the fear. 

My salad isn't enough to change the world. I know that. But in every small way that we cultivate hope in our own hearts, we bring more hope to all of our actions, and to the world. Maybe the small things we do at home give us courage or hope enough to make bigger changes in the world, like supporting those neighbours who suffer directly from colonialism, forest fires, and loss of hope. Having hope, too, is a great privilege, and once we've accessed it, we need to share it--by both small and large means. And when we all have hope, we can tackle the really big problems, like colonialism, capitalism, and consumerism. Or maybe those "isms", which thrive on a population devoid of hope, will just starve when we stop feeding them, and start feeding hope, instead.

So how do you create hope? What is your joyful exit door? What is your vision for a workable, hopeful future? How can we make positive change in our own lives and work towards change for our whole community; our whole world? How can we change our lives, our employment; our communications so that everything we do is working towards the future we want? And how can we be generous; how can we hold each other up, make joyful, hopeful futures for each other to run to? 

I want to be running toward something.