I am a practitioner of the can-I-have-its, a collector of things. I am the sort who walks through antique shops touching everything, wondering what place these objects could hold in my life. I flip through the ikea catalog and salivate, just a little. I am, indeed, firmly ensconced in the material culture. As a result, I have a lot of stuff, a LOT of stuff. And as an artist, it's worse, because there is always some potential use somewhere down the road for that quirky rusty, something-or-other. In the last months I have been exploring the place of the gift in our culture, and the relationship between faith and fear and abundance and scarcity. I believe that the structure of artificial scarcity is not only self-perpetuating, but in fact, self-catalyzing. What happens when we believe that there is enough? What happens when we act on that belief? So in the spirit of the gift, I am embarking upon a mission to give away the things that I do not need. It is a practice of faith, and an act of rebellion against dominant capitalist culture. Is it a little crazy? Probably. Is it going to be hard? Absolutely. But here I go.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The pitcher breaks. You’re in the moving river.

Last night a pitcher broke, a celadon green pitcher that a friend brought me from the San Juan's sometime in 2002. It was the pitcher I always used to display flowers on my table. It had ridges from its forming on a wheel, finger divots, and when it broke, the earthy red of the terracotta burst through. I walked into the other room to avoid thinking about it, to abate the anger and sadness that arises when something is unexpectedly lost. It wasn't something I intended to give away, but its going elicited similar feelings in me. In the moment while I stared at the wall thinking of the pitcher, a line from a Rumi poem came to me. It seemed significant in light of all I'd been talking about all day—the gifting project and its nuances for me as an artist—"The pitcher breaks. / You’re in the moving river. Living Water, /how long will you make clay pitchers / that have to be broken to enter you? "

But as I flipped through Rumi's Open Secret, looking for that poem, I came across this one:

Unmarked Boxes

Don't grieve. Anything you lose comes round
in another form. The child weaned from mother's milk
now drinks wine and honey mixed.

God's joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flower bed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open.

Part of the self leaves the body when we sleep
and changes shape. You might say, "Last night
I was a cypress tree, a small bed of tulips,
a field of grapevines." Then the phantasm goes away.
You're back in the room. I don't want to make any one fearful.
Hear what's behind what I say.

Tatatumtum tatum tatadum.
There's the light gold of wheat in the sun
and the gold of bread made from that wheat.
I have neither. I'm only talking about them,

as a town in the desert looks up
at stars on a clear night.

It touched on something that is the metaphorical essence of this project for me, the flipside of the part of me that needs to make, that needs to house meaning. The meaning, the story, the joy, "moves from unmarked box to unmarked box." It goes back to the beginning of the project for me, why I started all this. A minister at the Unitarian church I sometimes attend said, "The way to cast out the fear of losing is to give your things away."

Things are containers for meaning, but that doesn't render them meaningless. They hold and carry meaning until the two part, until the meaning passes to a new unmarked box, until the box in your hand holds new meaning.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

And Now, the Linen Closet

I have this very tall, very skinny closet packed to the gills with towels, sheets, blankets, scraps of fabric, old pillows. Below is an assortment of heaven-only-knows-what—we'll get to that next/later.

I yanked and unstuffed all forms of fabric from the closet into a giant pile on the floor.

I then proceeded to sort it into piles of the following categories: keep which included the sheets I use regularly, a spare blanket or two, towels, the sarong I bought on my trip to Hawaii with my mom 10 years ago (though I may never wear it again, for now it stays via the 'I need it because I love it' clause), gift, return to rightful owner (oops), and the dreaded what on earth am I supposed to do with this? pile. Some time ago I saved my threadbare and shredded mattress cover because I couldn't bear to just toss it, but what does one do with such things? It would make great padding for a dog bed probably—that is, if I had a dog.

Likewise, I found 2 torn sheets jammed in the back behind a balled up tablecloth that I must have saved because I was sure I would eventually use them as scrap fabric. Seems reasonable, right? Well sure, but how long do I keep that pile of torn sheets before admitting that maybe I won't be turning them into fantastic sewn things anytime soon. I still don't want to just throw them away. (I love that terminology, by the way, as if when we're done with something we can just throw it in the general direction of away from us... and poof, gone!) It goes against my nature, and very much against the nature of this project. Our local crafty-recycling mecca SCRAP specifically forbids sheets under their 'fabric and notions' donation request list. Maybe you can help me. Know of somewhere to donate fabric scraps? Of course, as I write this, my mind is already whirling with art project ideas for these. Use what you've got, right? I can't tell yet if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A few easy ones

So here's the fun part, looking through my stuff and finding ways to gift to people I know and care about.

A dear friend of mine is nothing if not orange and 70s floral loveliness. This salad set of my grandmother's gets packed up in a box and sent across the country this week.

Someone I care about a great deal just moved into a new apartment and upgraded from a twin to a full bed. He's been making do with a stack of overlapping twin blankets. Cold nights are coming and I have how many comforters and duvets? Ok, just one extra comforter, but several duvets. In any case, the (now quite faded) forest green comforter that a friend's family gave me when I first left home is covered in the sage green duvet ready to go home with him.

My old television and its speakers left with my downstairs neighbor, and old cowhide that's contributed to a few projects in its day, a leather wallet or two and the like (and has so much potential for great projects. Can one hoard potential? I don't know, but I've sure been trying. Someday I will learn how to make purses, and I've been holding on to this one for that reason for, I don't know, almost 10 years?) Well, this one goes to my dear mother who has a creative endeavor of her own for which she's been hunting pelt and leather scraps.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Thinking too much

Alright folks, it’s official. I’ve been thinking too much. This is how it always seems to happen: I get a new idea and I’m super excited about it. It becomes all-engrossing; it's full of possibility and potential; my fingers itch for the doing, and I dive in. It’s big and it’s scary and it’s fulfilling in all the right ways. Then something new about the project reveals itself to me, and I start to think more deeply about it. I examine it from every angle. I lay awake at night pondering the implications. Suddenly each move is important. Suddenly, how I approach it becomes a potential shift in trajectory, in meaning. Suddenly, finishing that painting (or clearing out that closet) matters too much.

I have thought myself into paralysis.

Now, it’s not as if there aren’t multiple layers of meaning to parse out here. There are. And it’s not as if I’m not deeply invested in mining and carrying out the many layers of meaning in this project. I am. Very much so. Too much so, in fact, and therein lies the problem. The very thing I’ve been seeing unfold as a major theme of this endeavor has simultaneously become its roadblock: attachment. Oh attachment. It binds me to things, to moments, to people, to potential, and when it surfaces, fear steps in. I sit still, and I close my eyes; I can’t get up; I can’t let go, and I can’t take action, any action. Of course that means I can’t really participate either. I've precluded my own engagement.

So what is the relationship between fear and attachment? The boilerplate answer, of course, is that once we become attached, we fear loss, and that certainly can be true. But I'm not sure that's it, exactly. Because for me it engenders that paralysis, that heaviness that makes action seem implausible. The fear of action is the keystone, the fear of doing it wrong (whatever that means). Once something becomes important to me, once I become attached, I know the thing my actions are in service of, and I want to do right by it. I feel responsible. I project a certain reciprocity of attachment. Once something becomes important to me, what I do for it becomes more important as well. I don't want to disappoint.

So here I sit with this gifting project, thinking and thinking and thinking—about the nature of the project, about the layers of meaning, about the best way to proceed—poised in the middle with one foot in and one foot out, wanting to move forward while feeling the weight of that familiar tug of fear. I've become attached, attached to the meaning of a project that is—among other things—examining the very nature of attachment.

The irony does not escape me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On the Nature of Needing

I've continued digging through the kitchen and now the floor and counters are strewn with tupperware lids, teapots, special little dip bowls, and more. I'll get to talking about that soon, but I want to take a little tangent for a moment. In my description of this project, I said, "I am embarking upon a mission to give away the things that I do not need". That immediately begs the question of how one defines need, and as I've worked my way into this project, I've found my notions of that concept beginning to change--or at least become a little slipperier, a little harder to pinpoint. Without getting so existential and abstract that I begin to question my need for clothes or forks and spoons--though that question is there, I had an uncle who lived with a single fork, spoon and knife, a pure and admirable rejection of material culture. Most of us can't do that though... right? Or can we?

Ok, I said I wasn't going to go that far, at least for today. So taking as a given some physical material essentials, clothes, dishes, a pot, a pan, silverware, etc... what does it mean to need? And how many different kinds of needs are there? My life is slightly easier since I bought that middle-sized pot at goodwill a couple of weeks ago. It serves a concrete purpose in my life, makes my life easier. But I'd be hardpressed to say I need it more than the doll that I've had since I was 4, who still lives in my bedroom closet, or my photo albums.

But what is it to need? What exactly is a need? I often think of Maslow's Heirarchy, though I don't completely buy it.

Here's how Mirriam-Webster defines need:
need noun \ˈnēd\
1 : necessary duty : obligation
2a : a lack of something requisite, desirable, or useful
b : a physiological or psychological requirement for the well-being of an organism
3 : a condition requiring supply or relief
4 : lack of the means of subsistence : poverty

need verb
1 : to be needful or necessary
2 : to be in want

What immediately strikes me is that need is defined as a lack. Therefore, is it a stretch to say that we only need what we don't have? That need is a desire, a wanting? We cannot, by definition, need the things that we have. Something about that construction of our language fascinates me. A need is something that is forever suspended in the external. In order to exist, it is and must remain perpetually out of reach.

So, if I am giving away the things that I don't need, am I giving away everything I own? No. Far from it. So far I'm defining the things I need as the things I have use for, the things I love, the things like that gravy boat that contribute to real joy and meaning in my life, the things that allow me to share that joy and meaning with others. Silly maybe, but I will certainly keep one set of extra blankets so that I may provide for guests.

In any case, part of my intention here is to try to allow room for that definition to start to wiggle around, and after some time and poking and prodding, we'll see what it morphs into. Most of all though, I'm trying to investigate the feelings of desire, attachment, and fear that seem to be so deeply embedded in our relationships to things.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Trepidatiously Entering the Kitchen

I live for Thanksgiving. Really, more than is reasonable. Nothing makes me happier than making a big ridiculous meal for people who I love, a day full of good food, good company, wine, gratitude. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it.

As a result (or so I tell myself), my kitchen is way overstocked. Anything that's rarely (or never used) is mentally filed into the I'll use it on Thanksgiving folder. There are things that will (at least for now) stay in that file: The big platter for the turkey, the roasting pan, the gravy boat. I'm fine with that. These are things that actually contribute to joy in my life, contribute to something meaningful. But, I opened the 'baking cabinet' the other day. (If you've ever visited me, you know it as the one under the microwave that, when opened, causes a crashing cascade to the floor.) What a sight.
Now I may be able to convince myself that I need to keep that gravy boat, but 9(!) pie pans and cake tins. At even my most highly-attended thanksgiving I'm sure I never made more than 4 pies.

Ooh, and look at this lovely souffle dish. (That is what this is, right?)
And how many souffles have I made in my 31 years on this planet? Exactly none. But, for the ten years, plus or minus, that this has lived in my cabinet, it has waited with baited breath on that familiar precipice of but I might. (To be fair, it has been known to house stuffing or sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving. Still.)

And these pretty shiny French something-or-others.
Tiny cheesecake pans? Little flute-edged tart pans? I'm sure there is a fancy name for them. I'm sure in my fantasy life I'd use them all the time. But... I don't.

I'll admit, even, with a little shame that I have never used my flour sifter. I've thought of repurposing it to sift rosin onto a copper plate for making aquatints, but it's never had a use in my kitchen. I hear mothers everywhere (not mine, mind you, but that sort of ubiquitous stereotypical mother that almost no-one I know has) groaning. Maybe they're not mothers; maybe they're pastry chefs. Anyway. No, I don't sift my flour. Never have. A perfect me might, but once you can't use wheat flour anymore, even the hope for an absolutely perfect baked good is as good as gone. That ship has sailed.

I can't help but begin to wonder, am I stockpiling for a life that I don't have? A future life where every detail is attended to, and every thing has its perfect place? Have I been hoarding supplies for a fantasy?

It reminds me of what my boss at my first real grown-up job used to say. We've all heard it. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. I know she meant sharp and conservative: black pencil skirts and simple black heels, blazers and understated jewelry... and I wore it, but I often thought of how surprised she would have been if I'd shown up dressed for the job I really wanted--jeans covered in ink and messy apron. The classic artist's uniform. My desires have shifted a lot since then, artistic genius and solitary studio life losing much of its romantic appeal, but that image within an image, the memory of my projected fantasy remains strong and clear. I wonder if I've perhaps been dressing my kitchen in much the same way.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Last week I had an old dear friend in town. We took a trip to the beach; we went to the Japanese Gardens and the Rose Garden; I brought her to my trapeze class; we visited a local winery where a friend of mine is the winemaker, and we also (gasp) shopped. I picked up and put down a lot of things that felt, initially at least, like they might lend a new sort of glowing shiny joy to my life. If I had THIS, just think how much happier I would be... In the end, most things landed back on the shelf, save for three purchases at Goodwill. I know, I know. I could sit here and justify, and I probably will, at least a little. See, I have been cooking with a giant pot and a tiny pot for years now. Anything middle-sized inevitably bubbling over the tiny pot (me being the sort who will convince myself it will all fit, rather than dirty a pot too big to easily wash in the sink that's likely already filled with dishes). There was a nice sturdy, copper-bottomed stainless steel pot of the perfect in-between size sitting on the shelf. I hemmed and hawed and picked it up and put it down for far too long, but ultimately, the pot won. It's already been used and appreciated, alleviating some of my guilt. The other two items, well, there's less excuse for them--a pretty red blouse, and something that is still labeling itself as a potential gift, so will have to remain a mystery.

The thing is, this project is making me think differently about wanting and needing. Maybe it's partially because I've made the process visible, but I think, too, it's made me stop and think about what's fueling those (still oh-so-present) consumerist desires. What drives me to believe that a new pair of boots will make my life better? In Ways of Seeing, John Berger talks about how advertising's job is to sell you your future better self. This future better you is just one purchase away. Glamor, prestige, true happiness--all wrapped up in a fancy watch, a bottle of liquor, the perfect pair of jeans. Advertising, consumerism, capitalism... they all depend upon that split between my present and future self, on the desire that spans the space between. The question becomes, then, what is the true root of that desire?

Berger says, "The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual powerless. He lives in a contradiction between what he is and what he’d like to be... Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.” (p 148-9.)

Something to think about.

Works Cited:
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing;. London; Harmondsworth: British Broadcasting Corporation; Penguin, 1972.

Friday, September 17, 2010

As the Things Actually Leave the House: Part Two

On Friday of last week, with Justin's help, I finally delivered the clothes to the family day shelter at the Unitarian Church. (Portland area folks, check them out here if you want to help. They're doing great things.)

Here's the pile in my studio before we packed up the car:

You think we could have packed any more into the car?

Probably not:

It was Friday afternoon, and when we arrived, some tiny little warning bell rang in the back of my head. It was quiet and easy to ignore... until I read the sign on the door. Church offices open Monday-Thursday. I heaved an overdramatic sigh of abysmal failure--mentally calculating the time and energy (my own as well as Justin's) that I had wasted by not planning properly--but I pushed the buzzer anyway. To my surprise, the kind voice of a young woman responded. I stated my name and my business, and she buzzed us in. We climbed the varnished wooden staircase, chuckling and elbowing each other on the way up. The space was bright and airy; the woman's face was warm, her manner welcoming. She chatted with us for a few moments, then called a sexton over a walkie-talkie, asking him to meet us at the curb. We thanked her and returned to the street to begin unloading the car.

(See, here I am, unloading the car.)

A sharply dressed tattooed young man with a fauxhawk and a generous smile came to greet us at the curb. He introduced himself and proceeded to help us haul the bags to the shelter.
After a couple of trips, still a pretty big pile left:

After we lugged the last of the bags over, and we all shook hands and exchanged sincere thanks, he asked if we wanted some sort of documentation of our gift, a receipt for tax purposes or some such. I waved away the idea and told him we didn't need it. It seemed to me that a reward (though my tax bracket is such that it wouldn't matter anyway--not much to write off against) would cheapen the whole thing. Somehow the idea, even, left a bad taste in my mouth. But why? I guess because of the thing that happens in my mind when I think of it now--the calculations. How many thousands of dollars were those bags of clothes worth? New? Used? Were they worth what I could have gotten for them if I had sold them? What I had paid for them? What the folks who designed and sewed them made? Was there some formula like the bluebook for cars--original retail minus a certain percentage for age, another for wear and tear? As if the dollar value had any bearing on the worth of the things, the worth of the action. The value of it, for me, was the feeling I got knowing that the particularly comfortable grey sweater that was swimming somewhere in the middle of one of those bags was going to be worn by someone who needed it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

As the Things Actually Leave the House: Part One

Last week the peacoat and the mixer left to live with my favorite couple downstairs. I like when the homes I find for things have faces and names attached. I resisted the urge to go on and on about the sentimental value each of the objects had for me (but, of course, Tim and James, if you're reading this, I didn't really resist, did I). The sunbeam mixer belonged to my grandmother, and my mother used it all through her childhood. My mother is quite the baker. Some of my earliest and sweetest memories are of barely being tall enough to see the top of the counter and 'helping' my mother bake. We didn't have electricity at the time though, so no fifties fabulous mixer, instead the paintpeeling green-handled egg-beaters that had belonged to her grandmother. But I digress. The peacoat that I wore all through my early rebellion years, and the mixer left with Tim and James. Happily.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Concert Seats, Collective Capital, and Sharing

The other night we gave away our seats at a show, a free show, mind you, but the auditorium was packed. Rows of standing folks behind us, and a line snaked all the way out the door and across the green. We were tired and had waited in line through most of our limited endurance. You know those nights when you really don't want to go out, but you convince yourself that if you get yourself out the door you will enjoy the amazing thing that you have set before yourself? Well, it was one of those. When we decided to bail, Justin (my boyfriend and fellow show attendee) suggested we find a nice pair to gift our seats to. So we did. A nice simple human exchange. But it felt good. A different kind of gift and nothing glorified about it, but something feels right about purposeful giving. He said later that he was thinking of "how good it felt to give those seats to those two people, and how it sort of convinced [him] emotionally of [my] project's value. About a way of being, a kind of energy."

It's made me think a lot about the spirit of this project, about what it means to give something away, on a variety of levels. Personal, political, social, energetic. There is the actual act of giving--the kindness of it, the desire to give something, make the world better for someone else, but there is also the implied ownership of it--that this thing, this object, this feeling, this moment, this whatever... is mine to give. There is a lot of power inherent in that, a lot of privilege. I've been thinking too, about how capital in this culture is individual, collective capital is hard, even, to conceptualize. We don't know how to value what's collectively ours. We are in a system of perpetual increase in the desire for personal gain, at what seems to me to be the expense of common good.

The other day I almost got assaulted by a motorist, a motorist in (sorry to make the story cliche, but the facts are the facts) an SUV. The 'almost' is questionable. I was walking to work, and a woman pulled in front of me just as I was crossing the street. I had to stop short and then walk around behind her. Not a big deal, but I was running late and pre-coffee, so I was a little grumbly about it. I bumped into the spare tire on the back of her vehicle. It wasn't on purpose, but I can't say I tried to avoid it, either. It was a poor choice. I let my irritation about my 'right of way' get the best of me. So when she rolled down her window and yelled 'Did you just f***ing hit my car?' I was taken aback, but not shocked. What came next though, totally caught me off guard. She careened around the corner, parked her car, and ran at me. I kept walking hoping that futile hope maybe if I ignore it, it will just go away. She was a lot bigger than me, and was spitting mad. She was screaming strings of expletives that I won't repeat here, the basic gist of which were the repetition of the previous question and that I had NO RIGHT!! (What is it with right? What is our tenuous and tenacious relationship with entitlement?) I couldn't think straight. My heart was pounding; I held my hands up in the air, and kept trying to just walk around her. She wouldn't let me pass, and kept pushing closer and closer. She was only a couple of inches taller than me, but had easily 60 pounds on me. Her face was inches from mine, her eyes were dark with fury, and she started doing that puffed up chest thing that I've seen secondhand, but never experienced. She was dancing from foot to foot and started shoving herself aggressively at me, shoulder and chest. I stepped back, and she came right with me. All I could muster was to raise my voice and tell her to back off, tell her not to touch me. She started shoving with her hands, and hard, and that's when I realized she intended to fight me--that she not only wanted to (which was glaringly obvious), but would actually carry out doing me physical harm. I glanced behind me and saw a man watching us tentatively, clearly unsure of whether or not to intervene. I called out for his help, and he walked quickly in our direction. He asked what was happening while she continued to scream. Then he asked if he needed to call the police to settle it. Somehow in my panic, making it to work on time mixed with the desire to flee and took urgent and immediate precedence. I took his entrance as a chance to get away, and walked quickly up the street, calling back to thank him for his help. I only made it a block or so before I started shaking like a leaf and burst into tears.

I thought that I could put it out of my head pretty easily. I was fine, no harm done. All day though, the experience played and replayed in my head. I kept thinking about the selflessness of the man's gift of his attention, his rescue. He saw someone in need and reacted. He saw something that needed doing and he did it. No premeditation, no lofty theory, just one human to another. My gratitude is immense. Who knows what might have happened had he not been there?

The other thing I kept thinking about (and here's where it ties back in to what I was talking about earlier) is how she clearly felt so deeply wronged. Sure maybe she was having a terrible day, sure she may have been already about to blow, sure there must have been other factors at play, but still... she felt wronged. Me touching her car made her feel somehow violated; something that was hers had been threatened. I started thinking about collective capital and individual capital, that pervasive idea of ownership, of right. I was a pedestrian, and I was in the crosswalk, that gave me the 'right-of-way' it also gave me very little personal space to claim. The space of my own body. Period. She was in an SUV, a giant hunk of metal. Her body was surrounded by something like 100 cubic feet of space that she could lay claim to. We were on a public street, something we all own, all share, a space we have (if begrudgingly at times) collectively agreed to maintain, share, co-own. She had her 100 cubic feet of car, and I had my, roughly 2 (thank you, google) cubic feet of self. Driving a car offers that, does it not, as opposed to, say, riding a bike, or a bus, or traveling on one's own two feet? Isn't that one of the luxuries of a car--the imposition of one's own personal space into the public sphere? Isn't that part of why we keep commuting to work singly in our cars when we know what it's costing us? We have this bubble of personal space amidst a sea of other anonymous people, and we have seemingly complete control over that 100 cubic feet of personal space. We can make it sound how we'd like it to, smell how we'd like it to, look how we'd like it to. No-one's elbow is digging into our backs as we stand amongst a sea of sweaty people swaying in the bus, no-one else's cellphone conversation interrupts our thoughts. The ultimate in control, yes? But in service of what? To what end?