I spent a month in a small town in Colorado near the border of Wyoming this winter. Almost every evening, I watched the sunset crash into an alpine lake near the plot of land that housed six adult men, a seven year old and me.
Each morning, I awoke to a ring of white light around a comforter thrown over the window in my cedar trimmed room to block out the light…I’m not ready to wake with the sun yet. The cover has a tear in it that looks as if I’m being watched over. The cotton cloud underneath with the stringy eyes do make it feel oddly enough— comforting.
After spending half the year alone in quarantine, I craved the commune. It’s what I know best, having grown up in bunked bedrooms and living in other family members’ homes throughout my life. I opted for cooperative living in Berkeley, sharing meals, all-nighters, chores and dramas with 36 other people in a converted Tudor-style mansion named Ridge. We were perched on what we called “God hill” on the north side of campus next to the Graduate Theological Union. I never met God while there, my studies made sure of it. But I did find something close to the tribal nature of my giant family while there.
In Colorado, I had never been around so many men who anticipated my needs and centered my serenity. I played chess with them, they taught me how to play Dungeons and Dragons and we all made fun of each other in loving ways. I spent my days working in a sun-lit alchemy lab, surrounded by the scent of vinegar as people popped in to tend to delicate extractions, distillations and tinctures. I read excerpts from The Emerald Tablet some evenings, an ancient document that contains alchemical teachings. I watched glass chambers sweat the spirit of metals over hot blue flames.
My favorite part about spending time in the lab was playing with my 7-year-old friend. We decided to collect rocks one day and make up stories about them, give them jobs and roles in a fantasy world. I brought a giant piece of poster board the next day and we started constructing a world every day for a week. A dragon egg lair in the mountains, a pink superhighway, a lizard garden, a mine at the center of this town for people to work at and a shadow pyramid where magical encounters happened.
We tie dyed paper towels with kool-aid and made butterflies out of them. Every piece of our world was made from something we found on the ground or in the garbage. I eventually took the all the butterflies and turned them into another woven art project as we evolved into new playful activities.
I realized in every piece of guidance, every question I asked, or suggestions I made, I was acting as a creative director—we both were. Conducting deliberate and delicate movements to bring landscapes of ideas together in a way that is uniquely signified by every contributor to that vision. In this situation, the earth, waste and imagination were our collaborators. What we created was a microcosm of my practice as a creative. How to do more with less, embed care into each step of the process, recycle ideas in completely new ways, marry intuition with physicality.
I’ve struggled with the archetype of “creative director” for much of my career, because the reality is there are not many people who look like me in that position. Until the 3% conference was convened in 2011, only 3% of creative directors were women. Let alone women of color, or queer women of color at that. While those numbers are rising, I struggle to see myself as part of the data because I refuse so much of what it takes to be one according to the industry. Maybe that’s millennial of me, but I felt I had no choice. I didn’t have much starting out, but I knew my integrity, dignity and heart had to be my greatest assets because everything else is temporary.
One of my big intentions at the end of 2019 was to dissolve my identity, as well as the paradigm and praxis of the 2010s. My relationship to who I thought I was, how I worked, my lens on the world, what I am in service to, how I practice, on and on. Let it go. Invite the new. I could feel the world catching up to how I’ve inherently worked for over a decade, and it felt time to find a new path.
It felt so important to work with my hands again, to be in a new land surrounded by teachers. It was everything I hoped to find in one place. I let the dissolve wash away everything, including my fear of the dark (my bedroom salt lamp a covert “adult” night light hehe). Every night, I’d take an offering of food from my dinner out to the patch of dry grass facing the mountains and say a prayer to the spirits of the land, water and sky above.
The night sky is a special glow in Colorado, the dark is not so scary if you sit in it patiently and allow your eyes to adjust. A soft purple-gray haze hovers on the ground, and the moon cascades dramatically over wind-songs that carry messages across the plains. I could feel a congress forming, a swelling of love and affirmation that I was exactly where I needed to be. Present. No working for the future, no digging in the past.
In my final week, I returned to the work of Jabir ibn Hayyan, an Islamic scholar and scientist (or scientists as it is thought the name could be a pseudonym for a group!). I hated chemistry in high school, it was so boring and inapplicable to anything I could imagine doing in life, but found his work as the “father of chemistry” to be more in line with my interests. The Jabirian corpus is a body of work that spans across alchemy, cosmology, numerology, astrology, medicine, magic and philosophy. How synchronous it was to find in my readings that the name Jabir means “comforter!”
So this was my guidance. The conditions of comfort I found all around me in Colorado—from the healing hearts of complete strangers to the child-like wonder that helped me find my creative voice in new ways—keep my attention on these things.
On my last drive to the lake, I sang “This Time Around” by Jessica Pratt to the mountains, a song that has kept me company all year.
The part that gets me every time:
I don’t wanna find that I’ve been marching under the crueler side of the fight
It makes me want to cry.
When I first read these lines, I felt gutted. Like yes, hello, that IS the feeling…the things that I’ve waded through and have fought for…for myself, my community, my vision, my creativity to have a place in this world. Did it have to be so hard and so cruel? When I realized it didn’t, it did in fact make me cry.
The past two weeks I’ve been quite ill, and it’s been hard to do anything but be in comfort and rest. My spirit was finally able to hit my body, and with that came an emotional down pour the first week. I’ve had to realign my commitments and accept the fatigue as a gift. It’s showing me a path to the kinder side of the fight. Being more kind with my inner critic and with the world around me.
My virtual commune has come to the rescue over the past couple weeks, and I am reminded daily that this time for pause will be better in the long run. For all of us.
Aunty advice: Remember to take the time to stew before you do!
That said, here are a bunch of titles I’ve been marinating in from Trident Press in Boulder:
The Silence is the Noise by Bart Schaneman
This is a story about the complicated relationship we have with the places we know best, the pull of the outside world, and finding something to love.
Architecture of the Off-Modern by Svetlana Boym
Svetlana Boym's Architecture of the Off-Modern is an imaginative tour through the history and afterlife of Vladimir Tatlin's legendary but unbuilt Monument to the Third International of 1920. Boym traces the vicissitudes of Tatlin's tower, from its reception in the 1920s to its privileged recall in "the reservoir of unofficial utopian dreams" of the Soviet era. Boym offers an alternative history of modernism, postulating the "architecture of adventure" as a poetic model for "third-route" thinking about technology, history, and aesthetic culture.
Utopia by St. Thomas More
Sir Thomas More (1477 - 1535) was the first person to write of a 'utopia', a word used to describe a perfect imaginary world. More's book imagines a complex, self-contained community set on an island, in which people share a common culture and way of life. He coined the word 'utopia' from the Greek ou-topos meaning 'no place' or 'nowhere'. It was a pun - the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means 'a good place'. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised?
America at Play by Mathias Svalina
America At Play is a collection of instructions for children's games. Part poetry, part whimsy, part despair, games such as "Freight Train Tag," "Baptism," & "World War" teach valuable lessons, such as how to play & how to be American. It is, Heraclitus said, reality's nature to remain hidden, but its rules are easily observed.
Major Diamonds Nights & Knives by Katie Foster
Major Diamonds Nights & Knives is a poetry project modeled after a deck of cards. While writing this poem, Katie Foster felt possessed by a spirit who died in childbirth. She tried to tell her story as best she could.
Blood-Soaked Buddha by Noah Cicero
Blood-Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal is a lucid philosophical treatise. Rather than entertain dogma, Cicero approaches a discussion of Buddhism from the refreshing perspective of the everyman, providing a profound spiritual analysis as well as a sharp critique of capitalism. There are even some pretty good ghost stories.