Monday, October 18, 2010

Thank You.

Well, the performance is over.  I never wanted this work to suggest that "now I know what it means to live in poverty."  Empathy and understanding are lifetime goals of mine, goals that may never be fully realized.  The fact of the matter is, after the piece was complete I got to go home, to my real home where the heat kicks on in winter-time and fresh water is only a few short steps away.  For some people that idea of home will never be realized, and this piece simply keeps me mindful and motivated to help those people.  I am truly blessed to have a warm bed at night and good idea where my next meal is coming from.  Some people, many in this very community, do not share that luxury.  I must never forget that.

I want to thank a few people specifically.  Jason Lanka, thank you for being my mentor and my inspiration through the whole process of this piece.  Zac Barnes, thanks for taking me to the gardens and showing me the power of food.  Lee Wegener, thank you for exceeding all my expectations in documenting this piece.  I want to thank my closest friends and family who have supported me over the years.  A special thanks to UWEC and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs for putting their trust in me, letting me use the space, and giving generously to my project in the form of a grant. 

And Maria… where do I begin?  I won’t even begin to list all the individual things you have contributed to this piece but I will say that you are my rock, you are my muse, and you are the love of my life.  This piece would not be possible without you because everything I know of myself is not possible without you.  Thank you for opening my eyes to so much world. 

Lastly, I want to thank everyone who visited me at the shanty, to everyone who followed my blog from afar, and everyone, everywhere, who fights on a day to day basis for social justice around the world.

To all of you.

From the more sincere corners of my heart
Thank you.


17 & 18 October 2010

Rose is a wonderful woman with thick-lensed glasses and a short practical haircut.  It’s the type of haircut mothers give to wide-eyed daughters with scrapped knees, so they can better see the world. 
I needed to get onto the roof of the art building yesterday.  I simply needed to.  With my journey coming to a close and my rock walls all but complete there was only one thing my artist’s mind could fix on—photo-documentation.  I needed photographs of my shanty and the surrounding area from a high point to show the world how I toiled on my knees for the past week.  I wasn’t sure if I could get permission, what with insurance policies being so tight around campus, but I was pretty confident that I could flash my patented boyish smile at a lady-janitor and I’d be just fine.  Then I realized my boyish smile was framed by six days of patchy stubble and the jumpsuit I haven’t taken off in a week was starting to smell a little funky.  I wasn’t exactly feeling like Mr. Charming.  I figured I ‘d go for it anyway.
That’s how I met Rose.  I didn’t recognize her at all.  She probably doesn’t work much in the fine arts wing, but as soon as I entered the door she meet me with a grin.  It was the kind of grin that pushed her thick-lensed glasses even further up her scrunched nose.  A full-faced grin.  She had been watching me, she said, and loved what I was doing.  She didn’t ask the usual questions however, it was as if she already knew. 
My piece has a lot to do with boundaries.  I’m not sure how many times this past week I have said the tag-line: “so the stones have become a sort of symbol for the boundaries we construct between ourselves and others.”  The sort of boundaries that impede this sense of empathy and understanding that I am trying to achieve.  I usually demonstrate how people would come up to my walls, curious and interested in what I was doing, but almost always stop dead in their tracks before their feet slip past that which separates “my space” from theirs.
I am usually very polite to the custodial staff at the art building.  I smile, I wave, and for the most part I do everything in my power not to make their job any more difficult than it already is.  I have never really gotten to know them however.  Perhaps I write them off because they push a broom; perhaps I’m just a little shy with people I perceive to be “older and wiser” than I.  Perhaps a little bit of both. 
Rose got to talking about her spiritual journey to me (my piece seems to strike a chord with this side of people).  She told me that she was praying with a friend the other day and she had a “mind-picture” as she likes to call it.  She told me she pictured a giant hand.  Tied to the middle finger of this hand was a string, and on the end of that string was a yo-yo.  The hand, according to Rose, was that of “God, or a higher power, or whatever you want to call it.”  She told me that string would never come off even if the yo-yo on the end was flying in all different directions.  And she was that yo-yo.  I was that yo-yo. 
You start out in the hand and it’s safe and secure.  Eventually you need to go out, and you need to make mistakes.  However, you can always come back to rest in that hand.   All three are equally important: the journey, the mistake, and the rest.
So here I sit on my last morning of this latest journey.  Sure I made some mistakes along the way but right here, right now, with a depression era quilt draped over my legs and the sun peeking through the clouds, I’m at rest.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

From Maria, With Love

16 October 2010

It has been looming on my mental calendar for days now.  Friday night.  My shanty lies right on the path that leads from the dorms to Water Street, the bar district.  I was lamenting this evening because I know what goes down.  There was a time when I too called up all of my “of-age” friends for a favor.  The end of a long grueling week of tests and projects often times culminates in one, sometimes two, nights of pure debauchery. 

While I love community involvement, last night I had a few too many unwelcome guests stop by the shanty.  The night started out calm, a few mildly cheerful young co-eds popped their curious heads in.  We shared some laughs, they tried to give me pizza; it was delightful.  I went to sleep around 11:00 pm I’m guessing, and shortly thereafter I started hearing the party just down the street. I don’t have room to mention every late night visitor, so I will skip to the last, and the worst. 

Around bar close, a young man in a button-down shirt started stumbling around the perimeter of my shanty.  He saw my wooden chest and immediately began digging around.  I bolted up in bed and yelled at him.  He stumbled backwards, tripping on a nearby rock wall, clearly out of his mind.  He picked up a stone and cocked back, as if he was going to throw it at me, and I yelled again.  He abruptly turned and threw the stone at a nearby tree with a mighty heave.  The stone crashed into the bark, leaving a scar, but it fell harmlessly to the ground.  He kicked another wall and then bolted off towards Water Street with the most maniacal laugh I have ever heard outside of Hollywood.

At first I was livid.  I wanted to chase after him with the stone he had threatened me with and hit him over the head with it.  Then I got to thinking about Nicaragua again. 

I thought of kids on the streets begging for change not to buy food, but to purchase food.  Huffing is a major problem in Latin America, especially with street children.  Glue is cheap, its legal, and it helps you feel numb: the perfect narcotic for someone to escape their own reality. I remember the first time I saw one of these street children with his eyes glazed almost shut and his chin drooping to his chest.  It tore me up.  I thought of myself at that age: watching cartoons and building forts in the woods behind my house.

Huffing, like alcohol, shatters all inhibitions.  On top of that, shanties, while there is usually not much to take, are easy to break into.  Families regularly have to be on watch for gangs of these street children at night who break into homes to steal, to rape, or perhaps just to feel the power linger in their adolescent bones days later. 

I never want to say that I completely understand, because I don’t think I ever will.  But last night, I got a taste. 

15 October 2010

The Quilt

I looked at the individual stitches for at least ten minutes.  Each tiny triangular scrap bordered by finely hand-lain stitches about a millimeter long.  Professor Analisa DeGrave stopped by yesterday and handed me this quilt.  Like I have said, the community has been so amazing throughout my entire project that my one sleeping bag has turned into a literal heap of warm and cozy blankets. 

The nights are bitterly cold, so it goes without saying that these gestures were more than appreciated.  This quilt was different, however.   When she handed it to me, she locked onto my eyes and told me that it was a family heirloom from the depression era.  I promised her that I would guard it with my life, and I have.  But in looking at the stitches, and talking to Analisa, this quilt, this wonderful gesture, has come to embody this entire experience for me. 

I got to thinking about the person who made such perfect stitches. They were at one time cold, that much is for certain. But instead of going out and buying a blanket, they decided to create something that had never been created before.  They probably had no idea it would be passed down from generation to generation and land on the shivering body of a college student in a shanty.  Just like the materials of my shanty, from each grain of rice to each scavenged barn board, the individual scraps that make this quilt whole are precious.  Even the word “depression” conjures up images of huddled masses standing in unemployment lines, under quilts just like this one.  It has it’s own history.

The people I’m trying to understand also have a history.  They have struggle and pain in their pasts just like we do.  They have a body that shivers at night and feels hunger during the day.  They put together their last precious scraps to construct a life for themselves and their families. 

They are just people.  Anyone can identify with that.

A Short Clip

Here is a short clip of my day-to-day life shot and produced by Lee Wegener:

Friday, October 15, 2010

14 October 2010

A woman asked me today:
"How can you justify the community aspect of your work?" 

So justify I did!  I told the student that in my experience, the sense of community I have felt in Latin America easily outweighs anything I feel in the states.  Just when I was picking up steam about people in the U.S. forgoing human contact for facebook and tweeting, she interrupted me:  "No, no, that's not what I meant, how come you live this isolated life and won't let anyone help you?"  To which I replied: "I never said you couldn't help me!" 

So that's the story of how I got my first volunteer off the streets.  She wouldn't be my last. 

I was down by the river collecting rocks alone when two shadowy figures began to approach me.  I picked up a stone, poised and ready to attack if need be (fight or flight is on red alert when you sleep outside).  The blurry figures began to clarify as two smiling faces that I had remembered from just two days earlier. A cheerful voice said: "I told you we'd be back to help!"  These were the same two guys I mentioned in an earlier blog about stepping over the original rock barrier.  Back to lend a helping hand. 

So there I was, conducting workflow like a tone-deaf maestro.  But we had fun.  I always hoped people would want to participate, but never actually thought it would happen to this extent.  Together we put up five rock walls today: a new record!  I cordially invite anyone and everyone to participate in the fun that is physical labor... I mean, the artistic process.

Already the walls are feeling less and less like barriers and more and more like overstated harmonious welcome mats.  Just let yourself in to the lives of others, you don't even have to take off your shoes. 

Please see the article written about my shanty from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire news bureau: