Thanks to Johanna Walker and Nina Rolle for inviting me to be a featured storyteller at the September 2016 Truth Be Told! It was a thrill and a surprise to win, with so many other great stories on the stage that night. I hope you enjoy “Good Lord Willin'”– my tale of the Big Thompson flood of 1976. The theme for the evening was “Aftermath.”
I went to see I Live for Art at the Boulder International Film Festival expecting to be intrigued by other people’s perspective on creativity and the struggles involved with creating art. The gender-neutral language of the description led me to expect, without much conscious reflection, that the film would include female artists. When I realized every face on the screen was a man’s face I started counting–five so far, and all but one white. It got to six men featured, plus a couple of male back-up musicians. Deep into the film we had our first images of girls–little girls, dancing with the delight of dress-up and freedom at a festival. Then young women, also dancing at the festival, unabashed in their displays of physical beauty (as were the men, to be fair, filmed dancing at the festival). Never a woman’s voice, just the implication that women’s creativity is limited to dance.
While I was too frustrated (and suffering a headache from the soundtrack) to stay for the discussion with the film-makers afterward, a friend who did stay reported that the directors, both women, said that they felt, as directors, that their voices were represented in the film. To me, that attitude feels like affirmation of the male bias in society, where even women find men the only appropriate subject, and their own voices stay in the background, hidden behind the facade of masculine creativity.
I’d love to believe that we’re post-sexism enough that we can regard males’ voices as representative of human experience. However, I felt so little connection with the experience of the men in the film that I commented to my spouse afterward that it seemed to me the experience of creativity differed at some fundamental levels between men and women. He asked me how, and I struggled to find words to wrap around a gut feeling, but the first thing that came out was that they all had an assumption about their art that I’ve never felt, which boils to down to a self-assurance: the idea that of course I will pursue my art. Even though they expressed moments of profound doubt about the process itself, none of them questioned their fundamental right to spend their lives creating art.
I’m not sexist enough to think that this double-handful of men represents all men’s experience either, but recently I’ve encountered this deserving attitude among other male artists, and when I think about the female artists I know, I perceive a depth of questioning not present in the men. In certain fields, entitlement isn’t even well-hidden, such as publishing. (For one example of a discussion of this problem see this New York Times article on how literary books by women are viewed compared to those by male authors, or this, regarding the Caldecott award.)
Heart Cave by Laura K. Deal
The more I thought about it, though, the more I had the feeling that another fundamental difference between my experience and the creators in the film is a sense of sacred in the pursuit of art. The only time a discussion between artists in the film got close to that idea, it was squashed under the materialist point of view. Michael Meade, a storyteller and mythologist, provided a refreshing counterpoint, with his discussion of reaching down into the deepest levels of awareness, and Amit Goswami, a quantum physicist, talked of archetypes, but the artists themselves shied away from the sacred in their work. Perhaps that’s why their art didn’t move me in any way.
So if it’s sacred, why don’t I feel the fundamental right to assume that the world should experience my work? As a woman in my fifties, I was raised in a world where women’s voices didn’t matter as much in public arenas. Most of the famous women I learned about were movie stars, not the movers and shakers of political and professional life. The teachers in the elementary schools I attended were almost exclusively women, with more and more male teachers as I grew up, associating women with childhood–something less than the full adulthood represented by men. (This pattern hasn’t changed much, as my daughters experienced the same trend.) Mothers primarily stayed at home, channeling their creative energies into parenting and housework. Abandoning either for a full day of painting or composing music or professional work was a rare choice.
My generation was in the forefront of figuring out how to balance the various callings and rising expectations of changing gender roles. I’ve had the privilege of being a stay-at-home mom, with a spouse supportive of my creative efforts. I’ve come to understand that parenting is the most demanding job there is, in terms of creativity, but it was never the only channel that wanted filling. My problem isn’t doubt about any particular project’s artistic demands, which was the focus of the artists in the film, though I certainly have faced those doubts. My problem is doubt at a deeper level–is it right for me to shift the channel to more introverted, selfish pursuits, away from the demands of motherhood and housework? Even as my children have grown and the demands of motherhood have lessened, I still question, every day, whether the art I’m embarking on is the right way for me to be spending my time. Wouldn’t it be better to serve the community in some way, or get a job, finally? Do something “useful” with my life?
I’m well aware that this neurotic questioning isn’t universal to women, or even women in their fifties, but when the curricula in our schools still include the canons of great male artists, great male writers, and great male musicians, with generally only passing reference to some token women, our daughters are still being taught, at a fundamental level, that their art doesn’t matter as much. When modern films like I Live for Art reinforce that message, it’s clear that we still have a very long way to go.
Angel wings encasing, protecting
not quite closing over
Spilling precious sacred secrets
Into the night from deep inside
Reflecting roots grounded
in earths of generations past
Strengthened and nurtured
By timeless gardeners’ love affairs
With ancestor flowers
To bring this one here, now
To joy’s full bloom
Showcased in mature beauty
Framed in darkness
Captured in Ghost Light
Before it and the image
Begin to fade.
When I find out Neil Gaiman is going to be in Fort Collins signing copies of Trigger Warning, I debate whether to go. Standing in line for anything is a serious commitment, and I know there are going to be a lot of people turning out for Neil. I finally decide to go. Because sometimes it helps to get closer to what’s possible in this world.
I get there an hour early, figuring I’ll be back in line a ways, but I can’t really get there earlier. I don’t expect to be six blocks back in a line that’s been forming since 11 a.m. It reminds me of when my sister and I tried to see then-candidate Obama at CSU, and the line formed faster than we could walk to the end. This time, a woman at the corner between blocks four and five meets my eye and we share a laugh over the length of the line.
Finally I find the end, and fall in behind a young man who reminds me of brothers I knew 30 years ago, one of whom gave me a ring once, and died too young. Neither of the brothers had such an impressive number of facial and ear piercings as my fellow Gaiman fan, though. It’s hard not to count them. I strike up a conversation with him, and he’s very personable. (Because my fellow Gaiman fans didn’t know I’d write this, I’ll assign them initials here. My first friend I’ll call R.)
R and I soon open our conversation to include the man behind me, who picked up his books from Old Firehouse earlier in the day and then went to do other things, and now regrets not waiting in the line sooner. He’s closer to me in age than R is. This fellow has gray in his beard, and I learn his name hours into our wait. (He can go by K.)
The line doesn’t move, but the day is beautiful, with sun (though we’re in the shade of a building) and a temperature in the 60s. Above us is the pure Colorado sky. Our conversation expands to include the two young women behind us. They are friends, and one reminds me of someone, but I can’t place it. (She’s A, her friend is M.)
In hour two, we’re up to block four. The breeze has kicked in and we’re still in the shade. To the rescue, volunteers from Old Firehouse show up bearing hot cocoa and hothands packs. What they have are thermal cups with cocoa and a stirrer in them, and a carafe of hot water to pour on the spot. Very clever. I haven’t brought my jacket and am a little cool, but dairy is not my friend, so I ask if next time she comes back, the cheerful volunteer could bring an empty cup and I could just have hot water. She remembers, and finds me again very soon. I’m very grateful.
My line companions and I trade suggestions for reading, and discuss what brought us to Gaiman’s work (for the two men, it was Sandman, for the women, it was his novels). I learn that the woman ahead of us has a medical condition where she faints when she smells smoke, and for a while I can’t help but imagine what a challenge that would be. In block five, we’re in an alley, and a car honks to make people move so it can pass. I watch the driver of the car exchange loud words with a man in line. The cop who has been walking the line makes sure it doesn’t escalate into more. This is the only uneasy moment in our long wait.
The line slows the closer we get. In hour two or three, we’ve come half the distance, generally surging forward ten feet or so and then waiting five to ten minutes to move again. By hour two, we estimate we’ll be in the building by six. By six, it’s looking more like eight. By eight, we’re nearing despair, but can’t imagine that it’s going to be two more hours. If I’d known earlier that our wait would be seven hours total, I might have bailed. But then I wouldn’t find out, in hour five, that K is Kevin Hearne, author of The Iron Druid Chronicles and an upcoming Guest of Honor at MileHiCon this fall. I love that he’s there, incognito, as a fan. It makes me want to read all of his books.
Kevin’s stealth brings about the highlight moment within our temporary community. Once we get in the store, he points out his books on the shelf, and then goes to get the first one in the series to show to A behind him, who’s curious about his work. As he brings it over to the line, the young woman ahead of me says, “Oh, I love that series.” I point to Kevin and say, “He’s the author.” She staggers back, eyes wide, and almost starts crying. She’s shaking as she says to us, “You didn’t see me touch that poster when we came in.” The poster is a blowup of the cover of Kevin’s book, signed. She gets an autograph, and he takes a selfie with her. Best author moment ever.
Then, almost seven hours in, I learn A & M have a creative writing club at their university. A tells us about a book she’s planning to write about her experiences abroad this summer. I gave her my card, encouraging her to let me know when her work is in the world. That prompts the discussion that her club is looking for speakers. Now I’m looking forward to visiting them and sharing my love of writing.
Finally, the moment we’ve all gathered for. Neil Gaiman! He’s flanked by assistants who pass our books to him as we arrive for our half-minute of connection. He looks tired, but is gracious to each and every one of us, thanking us for waiting in line. I tell him we’ve made new friends, and he said that’s what he likes to hear. We wait for our little group to finish and then say good-bye to each other, though it seems likely that some of us will cross paths again one day.
Heartfelt thanks to Neil Gaiman, for letting us all constellate around you for a time, for staying until you’d signed books for everyone in line (an 11-hour marathon that makes us all appreciate you even more), and for championing art in all its forms. My world is richer because of you, your work, and your fans.
Sometimes, you get the perfect gift. My deck of Ciro Marchetti’s Gilded Reverie Lenormand arrived in the post one day when I was stuck at home because of dangerous road conditions. I’d been scheduled to spend the day in a nearby town with my most enduring friend, so I was feeling pretty blue. It wasn’t my birthday or anything, but my sister knows how much I love Marchetti’s Gilded Tarot and she bought me his Lenormand deck as a “just because” gift. I fell in love with the beautiful imagery, and the more I explored it, the more I realized that I’d found an oracle deck that truly speaks to me. The simplicity of the imagery helps focus my mind on the archetypes represented in the deck’s 36 cards. And the way Lenormand is read, with the symbols influencing each other, is very similar to dream reading. I’m delighted to be offering Lenormand readings as part of the Healing Team at the Spring Dream Retreat hosted by Billie Ortiz on May 1-3, 2015. I am also available by teleconference for readings.
To give you an idea of what I do, I dealt a spread to read as a sample for First Church of Metaphor. We’ll read this for a woman who has chosen to keep her question to herself, so it’s unknown to me as the reader. Here’s the spread:
Gilded Lenormand Deck by Ciro Marchetti
The center card provides the focus of the reading, and the anchor is traditionally linked to hope and faith, so right away, when I read this for myself, I see a question about persevering in a hope or dream. Lenormand cards are always read in the context of the cards nearby, so let’s see what the cards can tell us about this central theme.
Starting with the top row, we have Mountain, Choice, and Heart. Mountain in the traditional Lenormand represents obstacles in our way. With Choice beside it, it can carry the nuance of turning aside and taking a different path, rather than trying to surmount the obstacles. With heart at the end of the row, I see this as a suggestion to follow my heart in the choice I make. Reading the three cards left to right as past/present/future, the obstacles may have dogged me for a while, and now I’m at a point where I need to make a choice, and my heart is already out ahead of me, leading the way.
The center row contains Fox, Anchor, and Child. Fox is traditionally the trickster, deceit or betrayal. Since it’s next to the anchor, perhaps it suggests that I haven’t given my all to my hopes, or that my hopes have been betrayed in the past. Perhaps as long ago as my childhood. The Child card also represents an early stage of development, whether of a project or of an insight. Since it’s so near the Choice card, I would even read the Child here as a possible new path.
The bottom row shows Book, Clouds, and Fish. The book could be a literal book, if I, as the querent, am a writer. Or it can suggest knowledge, sometimes secret knowledge. Followed by Clouds, which stands for confusion, doubts, and emotional storms. It is often read according to its position in the spread, which in this case is in the center column, or the present. In this position, the worst of confusion is behind me, and ahead lie abundant resources in the Fish. This row can also be read that the knowledge I need is about the confusion itself, and once I figure that out, prosperity lies ahead.
The cards can also be read in their columns, diagonals, and various other combinations. Sometimes the columns are read as past, present, and future. In the left column, we have Mountain, Fox, and Book. This suggests to me that there have been obstacles and possible betrayals having to do with some knowledge I worked hard to acquire. In the center, the present, Choice-Anchor-Clouds suggest a lot of questioning of my faith and perseverance. It looks like a crisis of faith, perhaps triggered by the obstacles and trickery I’ve already encountered. The final column suggests the answer, I think, with Heart/Child/Fish. Heart can signify love with another person or passions that I follow. In this combination, I see that my passions, when combined with a childlike wonder and imagination, lead to abundance.
Overall, the cards suggest a cross-roads. Is it worth persevering in the face of so many obstacles, so much confusion? There’s a choice to be made, and the cards want me to follow my heart.