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.

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?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A story of a painting

The other day I started digging through the stacks in my studio. Oh, the stacks. Stacks and piles, piles and stacks... In any case, I came across this watercolor painting that used to hang in my grandmother's home.
A friend of hers painted it in 1934. It's of the Chicago skyline, I believe. When my grandmother passed away ten years ago I tucked it away to give to my then boyfriend. It was one of those cheater gifts--being as how we lived together, being as how I expected we'd continue to live together. I wanted him to have it, but that can easily be a pretty hollow gesture when you think that means you still get to have it too. When we split a couple of years later, it somehow ended up on my side of the divide. I had it on my wall for a while, but it never felt quite right, so it was relegated to those previously mentioned stacks. I suppose I figured it would remain in a box, or at the back of the closet for the next 40 years or so, collecting dust and the added weight of passing years of nostalgia, and someday I'd pass it along to some next generation, or the story of it anyway.

That's what these things are, I think. They're vehicles for narrative. They are armatures upon which I've projected stories of what was, what never was, what might be, vessels to house memory, vessels to house potential. So (not without a little twinge of childish and petty regret [pregret, rather?]) I sent an email to the man to whom the painting actually belongs. I was happy to discover that he still remembered and wanted it. Maybe that's a piece of it. I love things, truly love them. I hold onto them for fear that they may not continue to be loved, may not be properly cared for. In this case, at least, my fear was assuaged.

I will return it to him this weekend.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Friday, September 3, 2010

And so it begins

It is a Friday, and I've gathered bags and bags of clothing. There is a day shelter at the Unitarian church I sometimes attend, and this week I will be donating my clothes there. It was important to me not to just drop them off at goodwill, or another local thrift store. I wanted to make a direct gift, no exchange of money. It was surprisingly hard for me to find such a place.

But I found it, and today I fold and sort, take little trips down memory lane. The red velvet jacket with the crocheted black trim that I got from a friend when I was 17.
It was, for a while, my fanciest thing. I'll admit to peeking at that embroidered Saks Fifth Avenue label more than once, with just the tiniest bit of glee.
Haven't worn it in probably 10 years, but it was hung in the back of my coat closet, serving as a time capsule, an embodied glimpse into times-gone-by. It's moved with me at least 3 times without being worn. And then there's the turquoise suede jacket with the perfectly round moss green buttons that I sewed on it.
That one was a favorite at some point during 2005. Loved, to be sure. I fold each one tenderly and tuck them into the plastic bag.

These motions elicit little pangs of fear in me, alongside the warm fuzzy do-gooder feelings. I remember when I was very young--under 5--we had a toy drive in my small town for toys-for-tots. The donation center was the little radical local bookstore. I chose to give one of my favorite stuffed animals (this was before the rule of only new, fresh, still in the package toys was implemented in the organization). In any case, I gave my panda. I remember it foggily, its worn and loved ears, it's little glass eyes. I had heard once that the best, most important gifts were things that you loved, and I wanted to pass that feeling along. The next day, though, I wasn't so sure about my choice. I missed my panda. I imagined him alone in a pile of toys. What if no-one loved him as much as me? What if I had, instead of doing something good in the spirit of giving, merely abandoned my poor panda? These are big scary thoughts for a 4 year old... and, as it turns out, big scary thoughts for a grown woman too.