Mayhem

janet 1 form - 1.jpg

This vintage dress came from the home of an impressively hard-working farm family.  I was lucky to come into a large collection of dresses that were made by hand or factory, heavily worn, mended, and re-made over a long span of time.  I am offering some of them in my Etsy vintage shop but want to keep a record of them here.  They are just the way I found them, laundered but with none of my own embellishment or repair.  They are too brilliant as-is!

janet 1 - 1.jpg

This dress started as a button-front nightgown, but its inventive owner restyled it into a strapless one-piece dress that drapes beautifully.  With a make-do aesthetic, they created subtly capped straps with a low-cut sweetheart neckline (a bit like a Queen Anne meets JLo).  This bodice meets a high waistline with a flowing drape detail in the center, so that the fabric gathers down the front and hugs the hips despite the a-line, almost-tent style long skirt.  A gore has been added to the front where the button-front used to be, and some buttonholes remain.

janet 1 closeup - 1.jpg

The straps and bodice are hand stitched with pinkish-red floss-like thread on both sides that look like gashes, and the weight of the dress has created claw-like tears.  Parts of the neckline are embellished (and reinforced) with couching of gauzy fabric and huge white thread.  The plunging front and back are held together with a contrasting blue thread and a bit more red for good measure.  The long, open sides have also been reinforced with hand-stitching and binding.  A lovely example of what one of my embroidery teachers called Frankenstitching.
 
The fabric is a nylon or poly-cotton and soft with a hint of shine.  The hem is raw, with small slits in front and back.  Random discolorations hide in the folds, and tiny stains (or what I prefer to call eco-print) dot the very bottom in the back.  Small holes and tatters punctuate.  As you'll see, relative to my future listings, this fabric is in good shape!  Perhaps most interesting are two eye-size holes that look to have been intentionally cut into the back middle of the skirt.

janet 1 b roll - 1.jpg

Due to its construction with open sides and stretchy fabric, this dress will fit a huge range of sizes.  
Length (from top of shoulder to hem:  49"
Bust:  open (the bodice measures 12" but this does not account for open sides)
Waist: open
Hips: open
Measurements are taken flat, so double where appropriate (bust, waist, and hips).

This dress is the first listing in what I have named the Janet Collection, after Janet Leigh.  The dresses in this group look wonderful layered, as in the last photo.  With the range of fabrics, they could have been made and worn from the 1950s through the 70s.

janet 1 b roll - 2.jpg

I'm awestruck at the creativity and resourcefulness that went into this dress design, and how necessity sparked Southern Gothic glamour.  Today, this piece can go straight from the bed to club and back.

I hope you see the beauty in it that I do.
 

janet 1 me edited - 1.jpg


P.S.  
These "rag-and-bone" dresses are works of textile art, historical artifacts, and can also be viewed as folk and outsider art.  I offer these pieces in full recognition of the hard lives that created them.  The stitching and wear are a map of material culture, remnants of a lifeway in the U.S. South.  With wear, the clothes will continue to tear, and hopefully survive.  They can also be treasured as collectibles, perhaps in remembrance of a society in need of mending.

Posted on July 31, 2018 and filed under craft, vintage, stitching, farm.

This is what happens from reading The Velveteen Rabbit to my child

I've been thinking a lot about children and animals lately due to interest and circumstance.  I wrote this a while back and it probably needs a good update, but I thought I'd post it here because I like it, and I want to think more about it all.  It started off as an essay on representations of child-animal relations in a few strands of the following sets of discourses:  popular culture, developmental psychology and psychoanalytic theory, and feminist, gender, and/or queer theory.  It ended up being mostly a close reading of The Velveteen Rabbit.


velveteen rabbit.jpg

    This short essay will traverse a range of cultural texts and discourses which portray children and animals in relationship, but will focus primarily on the treatment of child-animal relations in the theoretical work of Kathryn Bond Stockton and the 1922 children's book The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.  Inasmuch as both the figure of the child and the animal have been overdetermined in Western popular culture, I have focused on texts which reveal a movement between and among the child and animal and their binary opposites, the adult and/or the human.  Rather than suggesting any purposeful growth or trajectory, these texts describe a triangulation of child/animal/adult associated with the queering of heteronormative development.  My intention is not to provide an extensive analysis of any single text, but to highlight a pattern of movement which is mediated by the animal.

    That childhood is a cultural construction centering on notions of innocence, particularly around gender and sexuality, has been well-established by scholars of childhood studies (see, for example, Allison James and Henry Jenkins).  In popular culture, child-animal relationships are often idealized, each used as a backdrop to construct and and naturalize the other.  The popular notion of an essential kinship between human and animals was also undergirded by Freudian theory.  Freud imagined a totemic, preoriginary space where human and animal were not yet differentiated.  At least three of Freud's most famous case studies, Little Hans, the Rat Man, and the Wolf Man, involved childhood preoccupations with animals.  In Totem and Taboo, Freud described a "great resemblance between the relationships of children and of primitive men toward animals" (126).  Unlike "civilized men," children “have no scruples in allowing to rank animals as their full equals.  Uninhibited as they are in the avowal of their bodily needs, they no doubt feel themselves more akin to animals than to their elders, who may well be a puzzle to them” (126-27).  Without getting too deep into Freud, since he appears here merely as a straw man to our queer child, it is important to note that he positions adulthood within a civilizing discourse, which as we know of Freud also includes heterosexual development.

    On the other hand, as children are not yet fully hailed into the social order, they continually mark the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior (James 6).  Childhood studies has focused on the ways in which children expose the fragility and vulnerability of social norms.  Popular constructions of childhood are in many cases supported by animal narratives, but also undercut by alternate possibilities.  For example, the "animal snuff" children's literature and film genre of the early 20th century, including such works as John Steinbeck's The Red Pony and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling, presumably indoctrinated children into their place and the place of animals in the symbolic order.  Yet Jonathan Burt has noted how animals in film serve to puncture the diegetic and leave trauma unresolved (Burt 121).  Further, the place of each text within child-animal relations must be historicized; as literary scholar Jennifer Mason convincingly argued, animal literature at the turn of the century constructed masculinity on different terms than in the Victorian era.  All of these are complex questions that merely serve as a backdrop to my discussion of texts which position the animal as bardo, or transitional figure, which interrupts normative development.

    A lens for reading the figure of the animal in relation to the child, and for understanding this movement in and around child-animal relations, is provided by queer theory.  In No Future:  Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman is not ostensibly concerned with animals, but he argues that the figure of the Child has been constructed as a symbol of what he called "reproductive futurism."  As political battles have been waged over the terrain of childhood, a reproductive imperative has been disseminated throughout American society, and threatens to effectively silence all opposition.  His dense, psychoanalytically-based theory provides no real alternative, because to look for a solution would be to give in to futurity.  Yet in his final chapter, which provides a close reading of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds, he reads the menacing crows (with their predilection for children) as "the arbitrary, future-negating force of a brutal and mindless drive" (127).  Not exactly harbingers of hope, but heroically apocalyptic, the birds threaten the process by which aggression, sexuality, and death are all redeemed in the figure of the Child.  Edelman does not draw attention to any categorical workings of animal figures in the dismantling of futurity, or elaborate on material child-animal relationships, but Kathryn Bond Stockton takes up where he leaves off.

    Stockton's article, which appears in the anthology Curiouser:  On the Queerness of Children, is titled "Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child:  The Ghost, the Homosexual, the Freudian, the Innocent, and the Interval of Animal."  Stockton links the queer child with the animal through the concept of "sideways growth."  She insists, “We are going to see that concepts of the queer child demand that we talk in terms of growing sideways” (279).  Rather than simple movement, growth denotes an expansion in meaning.  Like metaphors, sideways growth is often the result of juxtaposing different sorts of people and things.  Like metaphors, sideways growth requires an interval, however slight, in which meanings are suspended and have a chance to coalesce and grow into each other.  Stockton's quintessential vehicle for the child's sideways growth is the animal.  Taking up the figure of the family dog, she explains:

the dog is living, growing metaphor for the child itself, as we are going to see, and for the child’s own propensities to wander into sideways growth. The dog is a vehicle to the child’s strangeness. It is the child’s companion in queerness. As a recipient of the child’s attentions (its often bent devotions) and a living screen for the child’s self-projections (its mysterious bad-dog postures of sexual expression), the dog is a figure for the child beside itself, engaged in a growing quite aside from growing up. (280)

This ani/metaphor is what she calls an "interval of animal."   It is not specific to the dog, but can be ushered in by other animals and other queers as well.  It can happen on the threshold of adulthood and interrupt "developmental models based on one's steady progress toward genital maturity and one's 'growing up' to reproductive goals" (281).

    For Stockton, the animal is an abstract principle - specifically, a time machine - which affords the child a pause on the brink of adulthood.  This ability to collapse time has to do with the inability of the animal to "grow up" according to human standards.  Moving deftly among novels, films, and children and animals, Stockton shows that if a child can "be dog," for a time, imaginative possibilities come into play which are impossible in real time (300).  In this way, like Hitchcock's birds, the animal is a privileged figure in thwarting, or at least forestalling, reproductive futurity.

    Up until this point, however, these theorists seem concerned with the animal insofar as it can aid the child.  But what of the animal side of the relationship?  Is the relationship described by these theorists devoid of mutuality?  Stockton acknowledges that animals are material presences, metaphors that children can reach out and touch, but the animal is more valuable in her framework for what it can do or be for children.  Is her characterization of the animal based in the same sort of imperatives she is looking to overturn in relation to childhood?  While the animal may figure as a playmate or ally in resistance during the interval, it is still a player in human drama, a one-dimensional wet nurse, and seemingly a fleeting presence.

    Stockton turns to the evocative concept of becoming-animal to elucidate the workings of the animal interval.  In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari confess, “We believe in the existence of very special becomings-animal traversing human beings and sweeping them away, affecting the animal no less than the human” (237).  Deleuze and Guattari explain that if one is able to endow their own existence with the relations of movement and rest, they will become an assemblage of affect and drive rather than a subject.  Such "unnatural participations" are made up of elements which continually come together and separate.  This movement is not constituted by a metaphor or a resemblance, but elides the subject-object binary.  Deleuze and Guattari insist that “Becoming produces nothing other than itself.  We fall into a false alternative if we say that you either imitate or you are.  What is real is the becoming itself” (238).

    Although less evident than in Edelman, Deleuze and Guattari are also motivated by political concerns (Deleuze 292).  These becomings, which include “becoming-woman,” “becoming-imperceptible” and “becoming-minoritarian” all work toward the dismantling of a humanist discourse of stable identities which undergirds structures of oppression.  Further, Deleuze and Guattari insist that the other not be constituted through identification or projection in the psychoanalytic sense, for so doing would deny its very otherness (Deleuze 259).  Deleuze and Guattari are not particularly concerned with the status of children, but they suggest that children are susceptible to becoming-animal, and continually undergo becomings (286).  

    Unlike Stockton, Deleuze and Guattari insist that metaphor is anathema to becoming - to think of becoming animal in terms of resemblances or analogies is to fail at becoming, and to fold the animal and human back onto themselves.  And although they do not go into great detail on the becoming of the animal, they insist that the animal is also drawn into the assemblage and changed by the process of becoming (285).  Stockton's interval is also more suggestive of an openness to sexual possibilities, enabled by the animal but with other humans, than with any symbiosis of human and animal.  But we still have yet to see an animal actor.

    My reading of The Velveteen Rabbit, Or How Toys Become Real by Margery Williams, is intended to supplement and extend Stockton's examples of queer childhood, which as she acknowledged, were by no means exhaustive.  She also provides a working hypothesis in her statement, “Queers, one observes, trail children behind them or alongside them, as if they are wedded, one to another, in unforeseen ways.  This interests me.  But so does the seeming flip side of this axiom.  Scratch a child, you will find a queer.” (278)  How the child-animal relation is always, in some sense, queer, may yet become more apparent.

    In The Velveteen Rabbit, we have an animal protagonist, Rabbit, who is given as a gift to a boy one Christmas, only to linger and be forgotten in the toy cupboard.  He learns from another toy of the possibility of a different type of existence:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand.” (8-9)

    One evening, when the Boy couldn't find his favorite china dog, his Nana gave him the Velveteen Rabbit in frustration.  At first the Rabbit was uncomfortable sleeping with the boy, but he grew to like it, and as time went on he was very happy as the Boy's constant companion.  Then, when the Boy left the Rabbit out in the garden, and Nana grumbled about running after his old toy, the Boy proclaimed that the Rabbit was REAL, and the Rabbit knew it was true.  Even though his velveteen had worn away, a look of wisdom and beauty shone in his boot-button eyes, so much so that Nana said "I declare if that old Bunny hasn't got quite a knowing expression!" (13).

    In the nearby woods, the Rabbit had an encounter with real rabbits (rather than stuffed rabbits who had become Real), and was impressed.  He thought, "They must have been very well made, for their seams didn't show at all, and they changed shape in a queer way when they moved" (16).  Even though he protested that he was Real, he realized that he couldn't hop or play, and that his hind legs were different.  When the Boy became very ill with scarlet fever, the Rabbit was tossed out for being contaminated.  Alone in the trash heap to be burned, the Rabbit became so sad that he cried a real tear.  Then a nursery magic Fairy appeared and made the Rabbit Real to the rest of the world.

    Likely, the Velveteen Rabbit story was intended as an allegory, where the child is intended to identify with the Rabbit, and thereby learn to take good care of toys and to feel kindly toward small creatures.  Despite the various becomings, one reading of the story still culminates in a predictable Oedipal trajectory in which the Boy is required to renounce the Rabbit for a more proper object of desire.  The Rabbit also accedes to his own proper place in the woods - away from boys and their beds.  The anthropomorphized Rabbit and the Fairy-ex-machina both work to absolve the Boy of any guilt or blame for the natural order.  Yet if we scratch the surface of this story, we find a queering of this dialectic through traces of the animal interval and becomings.

    In this diegesis, it is the Rabbit rather than a child who is placed in a growth trajectory.  The movement from stuffed animal to Real stuffed animal is occasioned by the Boy, and as we know from the Skin Horse, children are the purveyors of the nursery magic.  As the Skin Horse forewarned, the process of becoming involves physical discomfort.  The narrator recounts, "That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy's bed.  At first, he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe" (9-10).  Moreover, although we are told that the Rabbit doesn't notice or mind, the author describes in detail how, in becoming Real, the Rabbit's beautiful velveteen has worn away, the tail become unsewn, and "all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him" (12).  It is difficult not to hear a hint of sexual coming-of-age in the Rabbit's becoming.  The reader is given to imagine other acts, not described outright but that seem likely in spaces of childhood, and which may have contributed to the Rabbit's becoming-Real.  These acts may have at least initially disturbed the Rabbit, who was not only quite sensitive, but a fearful, prey animal at that.

    There is also something slightly queer about the author's focus on Rabbit's physical degradation.  The decline of a physical self which coincides with the growth of an "interior" beauty or wisdom may be a common enough narrative theme, the Boy's affections are nevertheless rapacious.  As we know from the Skin Horse, becoming Real only happens to those who are sturdy and don't mind being hurt.  Further, the Boy is oblivious to the Rabbit throughout much of the story.  Although the mise-en-scène centers on the Rabbit, he is still clearly on the periphery of meaningful activity which is the domain of the human.  He exists at the whim of the child.  The interval of the child, while it no doubt affords growth to the Rabbit, is not entirely pleasant or kind.

    The Rabbit's initial becoming is something of a sideways growth, but in quite a different sense than described by Stockton.  Despite being Real, he is physically immobilized.  He cannot play or dance with the wild rabbits, although he longs to.  Full of emotion, hopes and fears, he is powerless to leave the garden, the woods, or the trash heap, without human or fairy intervention.  Despite being happy, he does not seem to experience freedom and alternative possibilities during the interval of the child, but only frustration.  His happiness is dependent on stasis - that his physical disintegration holds off, that he continues to receive the Boy's affections - and that the Boy does not grow up.  This project is futile, as evidenced by the Rabbit's expulsion from the Boy's bed when he is deemed a contaminant, and therefore incompatible with childhood.  In this sense, the interval of the child is merely a homologue of the animal interval rather than a true reversal; despite the animal's growth and participation, he remains unchanged.

    It is not until the Rabbit's second becoming - when the flower Fairy makes him a Real rabbit - that the Rabbit grows "up."  Although the child facilitated this transformation as well, since it is limited to stuffed animals who have undergone nursery magic, there was also a drop of the Rabbit's own agency.  The tear he shed was Rabbit's first physical act (albeit an involuntary one), and from it, the Fairy flower sprouted and released the Rabbit from the snare of the human world.  The Rabbit will no longer be full-frame in this story, but his becoming is complete with an entrée into rabbit society, and presumably the reproductive possibilities that come with it.  Unlike the animal described by Stockton, the Rabbit is now neither anti-generational nor purely symbolic.

    Moreover, rhetorical details and structural devices mimetically perform the theme of becoming.  Even the signifiers assigned to the Rabbit and the Boy, with the use of unique identifiers ("the" instead of "a") and capitalization but without proper names, gesture toward a child-sized universe and not-yet-formed identities.  As subject and object status are continually deployed in relation to both children and animals, the Rabbit traces that ambivalent path of growth toward fully-developed subjectivity.  Simultaneously object and subject, the Rabbit is a metaphor for the developmental phases in a child.  The Rabbit-in-process metaphorizes the use of stuffed animals as tools for navigating internal and external reality.  As with D.W. Winnicott's "transitional objects," the Rabbit is gradually decathected (Winnicott 14).  The narrative movement from stuffed, to stuffed-Real, to Real, is also a play on concepts of the material and semiotic.  Indeed, the Rabbit's dingy ears and fraying seams can be read as the Rabbit's own meconnaisance as a stage in becoming-Real, particularly when looking at the wild rabbits who were so like him, yet so different.  Their cleverly disguised seams mark the trace of the material animal in the semiotic, and the semiotic in the material.

    The notion of queerness being fostered through child-animal alliances seems quite Real, and yet any analysis becomes difficult when the concepts of "child," "animal" and "queer" are almost endlessly polysemic.  Stockton's claim that "all children are Q" (280) spills outward onto a tangle of cultural logics worthy of cat's cradle.  As I hope is apparent from my queer reading of The Velveteen Rabbit, the theoretical concepts of the "animal interval" and "becoming-animal" come to life as they are reiterated and varied within cultural texts.  I had intended to treat a number of other texts in this essay, including Uncle Remus, feral children, and Donnie Darko, each of which would add elements to the discussion of queer dances of children with animals.  But I'll stop for now and leave this conclusion as a palimpsest, suggestive of lines of flight that could take shape at another time.


Works Cited

Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London:  Reaktion, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari.  A Thousand Plateaus:  Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi.  Minneapolis:  U of Minnesota P, 2004.

Edelman, Lee. No Future:  Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham:  Duke UP, 2004.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo.  Trans. and Ed. James Strachey.  1912-13.  New York:  Norton, 1999.

James, Allison, Chris Jenks and Allen Prout.  Theorizing Childhood.  New York:  Teachers College Press, 1998.

Mason, Jennifer. Civilized Creatures.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond.  "Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child:  The Ghost, the Homosexual, the Freudian, the Innocent, and the Interval of Animal."  Curiouser.  Eds. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley.  Minneapolis:  U of Minnesota P, 2004.  277-315.

Williams, Margery with William Nicholson. The Velveteen Rabbit, Or How Toys Become Real. 1922.  New York:  Doubleday, 1999.

Winnicott, Donald Woods. Playing and Reality.  1971.  New York:  Routledge, 2005.

Posted on May 18, 2018 and filed under childhood, animals, academia.

Why so blue?

One of the men asks, Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.
— Maggie Nelson, Bluets
 All images © under the pyramids

All images © under the pyramids

The idea that "something blue" should be incorporated into a wedding is from 19th century Britain and was meant to ensure luck, prosperity, and fertility. "True blue," I suppose. I don't tend to associate those particular qualities with this color – do you? Still, there's still something so charming about the custom. And surely something sublime about blue, especially when it is hand-dyed in its most delicate and deep and varying shades.

pale 2.JPG

I've had an indigo vat for years now, and have tried dyeing every conceivable sort of object – clothes, curtains, and all manner of other linens, papers, unstained wood, bones, my hair. Once a poor lizard fell into the vat and went to his rest, all in blue. I've gazed into the blue pool and tried to scry. I've seen myself and much more than the moon's reflection. An indigo vat is fermented plant material. It's alive! In more obvious ways than most things.

paler 2.JPG

The first ceremonial cord was unplanned, but dyed a perfect shade, the palest wisp of indigo. My dear friend Mathyld adorned it with elements meaningful to her and used it as a handfasting cord in her own wedding! Then we decided to collaborate to create some for our customers, and we started, with, well, white! Another color laden with immense history and symbolism. White in wool is not the same as #ffffff – its shades are much richer, like milk or clotted cream. We also used other colors of wool from our sheep friends, who are not blue. I've been meaning to dye some blues since we started offering our cords, but a person with the most beautiful pale blue eyes came along and commanded all my attention for many moons.

pale teal.JPG

As you might've guessed, we finally have blue colorways for our Ceremonial Cords! After I spin and dye them, I send them to Mathyld in Paris. Upon order she adorns them with handcrafted sterling silver charms and glowing gemstones.

pale teal 2.JPG

Our cords are customized with your choice of runes, symbols and stones. They are entirely handcrafted, with the purest materials and intention. They are perfect for handfastings but have other uses too ... just ask! These cords are designed to be treasured as heirlooms and come tucked inside keepsake boxes with adorable, detailed booklets.

teal 1.JPG

You can find all the details in both our shops: Petit Bones and under the pyramids. There is also a listing for those who'd prefer the natural, undyed cords. We'd love to create a cord or cords with just the right symbolism and meaning for you.

teal 2.JPG

Read and see more of the background of this project!

 

Thank you Mathyld for making magic with me, and also for the lovely photos! All images © under the pyramids. 

Posted on January 21, 2018 and filed under craft.

Paperback Launch!!

I'm so glad this moment was captured (thanks, bro!) because there was nothing like seeing my book in print!!!  It's available on Amazon and can be ordered in bookstores now!  Soon I'll branch out to the other ebook sellers, and I'm planning on doing an audio version too.

There were some printing glitches with this proof copy ~ some strange squiggles in random places!  They were kind of cool looking (like little larvae) and I almost left them ... but, well, no.  Then the ink was inconsistent so about 1/3 of the pages were a good bit lighter than others.  As it turned out, the photo of myself I chose for the back cover was way too tiny and dark, so I chose a more normal-looking one.  Between the holidays and weather it's taking longer than seems reasonable to get a bunch of print books to send out review copies!  I've learned that everything takes time in this publishing process... if I've promised you a book, it's still coming! 

It seems fitting to go ahead and start sharing the beginning of my ethnography, where my story really begins, over hereThis is where I'm posting the first part of my book chronologically and with photos and extras to fill in some blanks.  How cool is it that I can publish an entry dated Jan. 14, 2005!?!

Posted on January 17, 2018 and filed under book.

Pet Tender

Hello, lovelies.  

Let me tell you about a dream I had years a few ago.

I found myself standing in the lush tall grass at my old homestead.  It was the first real home I made for myself.  It was just a little wooden farmhouse with a sharply pitched gable and a massive oak tree perilously close to the living room window.  Sometimes I thought the oak was going to swallow us up, or its roots unearth the house.  But it was covered in mistletoe.  It was my protector.  

This is the place where I grew into my own. I moved in with my donkey, dogs, and cats. Everything inside the house was crooked, from the doorways to the fireplaces to the wood slatted walls. I stained the living room a deep red, whitewashed my bedroom with sky blue, and replaced the pineapple wallpaper in the kitchen with a shocking shade of chartreuse and forest green beams. The woods were full of kudzu and morels, ditches full of glass, pasture overgrown with rusted farm equipment, all secrets to be discovered.

One day, I just stopped going to my law firm job. I got a roomie and we raised goats and had a fling. I went back to grad school in Women’s Studies. Got a tattoo of my dog. It was the rebellion that never happened in my teenage years. It's where I first met my beloved, my husband, who came to live with me there.

When we moved out fifteen years later, I left part of myself. My soul was lodged in that place. It felt as if that structure was my very skeleton. I wanted to live out my days and die an old woman there in that house on Rainbow Drive. But I didn’t.

But, now, the dream. I was back there, standing in the weeds, and an old woman walked out my front door with a bucket. Dogs and cats rushed around her, eager for feeding time. I realized they were my pets, my friends, the ones who died there. Her face was grizzled and surrounded by a bonnet of sorts, one with a frilly yellow flowered trim and a kerchief over it. She has on a black dress, also covered in tiny flowers, and an apron or maybe two. She wore sensible boots and all the pets gathered and anticipated her walk down to the barn. 

I see Figaro, and then Gideon and Gigi, my kitties. Then was old Duncan and devoted Pooka, dogs I “rescued.” Inky, the mysterious white cat left behind by the former owner. Goats and chickens. And my Idgie, the dog who forever marks my shoulder, but she didn’t seem to see me, just the old woman.

The woman saw me, and as if she knew what I was thinking, she said,

Well, me, I’m the pet-tender.

I was so taken in by this scene, but dumbfounded. Who was this woman taking care of my dead pets? She exclaimed,

It’s no matter that they’re dead. They still need to be cared for!

Well, of course, I thought. How could I have imagined otherwise?

She invited me inside my kitchen for tea. We sat, next to my old 70s woodstove. It all looked different, but the same. Her table was round and she had green dishes. She poured our cups and covered the pot with a tea cozy. We talked for a time, although I couldn’t tell you what we said. There was comfort to our conversation, but also a challenge.

After I woke, I thought she must have been an older me. But was she the me of a parallel universe, a previous incarnation, or me in a few decades? Or maybe just the dream-me. And it dawned on me, for the first time, that the rusty old bridge over the creek past the barn and down the hill, it was the Rainbow bridge, where the animals could cross over, and back again. 

Aunt Leaf

Needing one, I invented her – - -
the great-great-aunt dark as hickory
called Shining-Leaf, or Drifting-Cloud
or The-Beauty-of-the-Night.

Dear aunt, I’d call into the leaves,
and she’d rise up, like an old log in a pool,
and whisper in a language only the two of us knew
the word that meant follow,

and we’d travel
cheerful as birds
out of the dusty town and into the trees
where she would change us both into something quicker – - -
two foxes with black feet,
two snakes green as ribbons,
two shimmering fish – - – and all day we’d travel.

At day’s end she’d leave me back at my own door with the rest of my family,
who were kind, but solid as wood
and rarely wandered. While she,
old twist of feathers and birch bark,
would walk in circles wide as rain and then
float back

scattering the rags of twilight
on fluttering moth wings;

or she’d slouch from the barn like a gray opossum;

or she’d hang in the milky moonlight
burning like a medallion,

this bone dream, this friend I had to have,
this old woman made out of leaves.
— Mary Oliver

Recently I went back to the old homeplace for the first time since we moved. The driveway was barely visible, but the old "No Trespassing" sign gave it away. The brambles were too thick to walk back to the house site, and I didn't want the little one getting scratched up.

So, I tossed flowers down onto the Rainbow bridge, along with blessings.

Posted on July 19, 2017 .

Strap me in

So, these overalls.  I stumbled into them, many pairs, and have been hoarding them like a dragon with precious treasure.  My own mother says she nearly fainted when she saw a pic of me in them.  She's very proper and elegant and always shudders at my little old man aesthetics. 

I see so much beauty in each and every pair, but it's just silly to keep them all.  Unless I want to wear them for the rest of my life - which isn't unthinkable.  They remind me so much of traditional and contemporary boro, and stitching classes I've taken with Jude Hill and Arlee Barr, techniques of layering and FrankenStitching (Arlee doesn't seem to want to have her work linked, but her class was amazing!), sashiko embroidery, and indigo dyeing (which I studied with Glennis Dolce).  It's even reminiscent of the crust punk style of layered patchwork, which adds in the grunge element.  And it's a tiny bit like my own make-do-and-mend, patchwork style of embroidery and appliqué.  But I can't take any credit for the immense work that went into these overalls.  Still, I can honor it, the work I think of many hands. 

It didn't occur to me until I looked at the photos that I should acknowledge the irony of wearing them around our place, and then even selling some.  Am I like a carpetbagger?  I don't have to wear them.  I don't have to work the land and mend my clothes.  I'm not dirt poor in that way (although one could argue that modern debt is a different kind of poverty).  I doubt the previous bodies in these clothes wore them as a fashion statement, so am I folking them over?  Maybe my assumption also comes out of privilege - they may have known how badass they looked.

overalls 5 ink - 3.jpg

The work these clothes evidence is the beauty in them.  So much care was taken to preserve the wearing of these garments, the complete opposite of our culture of synthetic disposables, and a new wardrobe with every season.  So I saved them from the landfill, and I adore them.  They seem to encapsulate most things I love: the land, family, farming, mending, preserving, DIY, caregiving, even questions of class and gender (who wore and who mended?), and also all that is ragged, tattered, abandoned or forgotten, melancholic, spectral and storied, the Faulkner-esque gothic art made out of the backbreaking labor and the color line, ghosts of the South that are still not dead. 

P.S. Every single pair of overalls had many pockets that were full to the gills... what an archaeological adventure this has been...

Posted on June 7, 2017 .

Book Love: Deborah Bird Rose Lovefest

I've been meaning to read Wild Dog Dreaming for a long while, but when I first learned of it, it struck me as just so sad that I would have to wait... until that day, someday, if and when I could handle it.  It's hard being an animal lover and an empath, wouldn't you say?  Practically every type of work with animals, learning about animals, being-with and becoming-with animals is fraught with emotions I'm not capable of assimilating.  This is a problem, since I can't stay away from them!

 Sleppy Cavern by Rayamira on DeviantArt

Sleppy Cavern by Rayamira on DeviantArt

My summer reading list ended up being heavily weighted toward work by Deborah Bird Rose.  And it includes Wild Dog Dreaming, and I am so grateful!  This book may have changed my life, at least I hope it does - I want it to stay with me forever!  There are parts - including some photos - I could only glance over because they were just far too upsetting - BUT most of the book was mindblowingly beautiful and profound.  I really hope you'll read it yourself, and so I'm going to hit some highlights to entice you!

Much of the book recounts Aboriginal Australian beliefs and (hi)stories that have to do with Dingo life and law - at one point she even calls this "Dogsology," an "earthly theology"!!  She also has a section called Silent Dogs!  It has to do with the silenced dogs in the biblical Book of Exodus, and how their silence was forced, but also served as its own testimony.  It's all very deep and synchronistic for me right now.

But just imagine that your belief system goes like this (if it doesn't already, I mean):

  • Dingos are the ancestors of all humans!!  That's right! 
  • Reincarnation cycles across species.  So when we look at Dingos and all other animal others, we are looking at our fathers, sisters, mothers, kin. 
  • This means that all families, all kin - are multispecies.
  • This totemic, animist universe is full of persons, only some of whom are human.
  • God can be anywhere, incarnated into any creature, at any time.  So we better be good to them!

Deborah Bird Rose is very clear though that most humans have lost our way - we've lost the scent.  We need to find our at-home-ness again and embed ourselves in the world.  The attempted eradication of Dingos has been the a result of shortsighted colonial power-over and humans who believe we are The exceptional critter on Earth. 

So what can be done?  Bird Rose doesn't leave us stranded here.  She tells us of the Aboriginal practice of singing the ancestors back home.  They need to be sung back, by the Dingo angels and also by us!  Old Tim, an Elder she studied with, gives us these laws: 

  1. Do not turn away from animal death.  (I need to work on this.)
  2. Turn death toward life. 

So we sing!  Sing so that death is not final.  Sing so that death and life are transformed.  Sing them back, and sing ourselves back.  Call us back to love, to ethics, to connection!!

wild dog dreaming song.jpg

There's no way for me to really do justice to this complex work.  But I had to share!  I wonder what you think about facing our sad animal stories, about dogsology, and about turning toward life with our love ♥

Posted on June 5, 2017 .

Why should anyone be concerned about critters in times of great violence and upheaval?

Back in the day, when I was an idealistic young animal welfare activist, I was challenged with this question so often!  It was usually accompanied by a value judgment, and phrased as some version of:

"How can you spend your time with animals when there are so many injustices to people?"

I've spent years with this question, and if you're an animal lover, maybe you have too.  Of course, we have nothing to answer for, no need to defend.  We can just go on about doing our own thing.  But I like to have some good answers at the ready to help curious folks question their assumptions.

Now I've identified at least 5 ways of addressing this question (along with plenty of talking points!), no matter what's going on in the world.  Here's Gandhi's answer:

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." ~Mahatma Gandhi
  • In other words, in a just society, all beings would be respected.   Ethics are not only for persons or species in power.

  • When animals suffer, people do too.  Problems affecting animals and people intersect in ways more complex than we fully understand.  (I don’t like to make animal welfare all about us, but it’s persuasive to most people.)

Compassion knows no boundaries or hierarchies.

  • Caring about animals does not mean that we don’t care about election debacles, or racial profiling, or poverty, or rape culture.  But who gets to determine this supposed hierarchy of needs?  (Usually, those in power.)
  • If everyone devoted their attention to the cause célèbre, most social ills would go unattended.

  • To think that caring is finite is a scarcity mentality. Working for change is hard, but everyone can make a difference, even if that just means being kind to a critter.

  • Generosity and love ripple outward - infinitely.  

We are all individuals with unique affinities and talents.

  • We also have different knowledge and skills based on our lived experience.  It can be most effective to work with one’s own inclinations rather than conforming to someone else's dictates.

  • The same logic extends to the creatures and causes that call to our hearts.  How can someone else know who we have the passion and ability to help?

  • Telling others not to care is a form of power-over that does violence to individuals and communities.

  • One size (or answer) never, ever fits all.

To say that we should help humans to the exclusion of helping animals is based in speciesism and human exceptionalism.

  • Not everyone will agree with this, but a growing number of very smart people believe that for the good of the planet, we must shift how we think about humans in relation to the Earth’s ecology.  

  • We must finally let go of the idea that humans have dominion over nature, and that humans are the most (or only) important species on Earth.

And if all else fails, bring it back around to self-interest. 

  • We should care about animals because we are them.  There would be no us without them.  They have shaped humans, and are connected with human lives, in countless and inextricable ways.

  • The future of species is interdependent.  In a very real sense, if they go, we go.

These are pretty much my go-to responses if I decide to engage with someone who is critical of my choices or values.  Hope they help stir some inspiration!

Let's co-create helpful resources for other animal lovers!

Posted on May 17, 2017 .

A Failed Meditation on Silence

My latest piece on Rebelle Society, published August 22, 2016.

giphy_41.gif

 

Following a deafening trend among friends, I started a meditation practice. I decided to sit in silence, drink it in, and treat it as a friend.

As I began meditating in silence, my mind inevitably wandered. I tried again and again to come back to the present, to the silence. After greeting my usual litany of thoughts, I tried to let to go of thought, to go deeper. I ended up thinking about silence.

I thought about how silent it was sitting in my home. My thoughts drifted back to times when the power had gone off, when the lack of background noise was palpable. I remembered distinctly how the absence of the air conditioner or furnace, sounds which had accompanied most of my life, left me in awe. I thought I detected an even deeper silence, the absence of electricity, always humming away beneath my level of awareness.

It felt as though losing electricity created an opening in space-time.

As I tried to bring my thoughts back to the present, I indulged in reveries on silence. When my husband and I moved to the country in search of a simpler life, we decided not to install central heat or air in our old farmhouse. I even wanted try living off-grid, but he resisted. Whether or not to install a window unit air conditioner in our bedroom has long been a bone of contention because he has difficulty sleeping in the heat of summer.

Yet, the absence of an air conditioner did not guarantee silence. Instead, it created enough silence that I could hear the sounds of the night: grasshoppers, whippoorwills, rain on the metal roof. And contrary to popular belief, roosters crow all night, not just when the sun rises.

In the winter, we both enjoyed listening to the crackle of the wood stove. I kept an ear to it all night to listen for when it needed stoking or feeding, because if the fire were allowed to go out, getting out of bed could be almost unbearable.

In bringing myself back to the present, I thought (while trying not to think): Why did I find these sounds of ‘nature’, or even the expensive Norwegian wood stove, welcome and comforting, but other sounds unpleasant, even frightening?

No amount of noise will keep my husband awake, but the stifling heat of North Carolina summers has him up with the roosters. During an especially brutal summer, I relented and watched him install an overhead ceiling fan in our bedroom. Its slow tick with each rotation reminded me of a heartbeat, of the womb.

In subsequent sessions of not-thinking on silence, deeper memories surfaced of a time when my relationship with silence was more complicated. While attempting to remain in the present moment, I could not help but recall my childhood.

When I was growing up, my parents always had the television playing. They slept with it on in the bedroom, and there was one in my bedroom too. That’s just how it was. Eventually, I could not sleep without the background noise of the TV. When I went away to college, I had trouble sleeping in my dorm room (despite the antics in the bunk above me). My parents gave me a tiny TV that I could leave on a low volume right by my bed.

Years later, I finally jettisoned the nighttime TV. But for many more years, I continued leaving the TV on if I was home all day. I found that having this background soundtrack to life could be helpful in relieving feelings of loneliness, but it could also be insidious.

I curated this TV soundtrack so that I would never hear the news or anything that might encroach on my peace. There would still be the random commercial, perhaps a preview of daily horrors, that would catch me unawares and leave me shaking.

Although I had started to make friends with silence by sleeping with it, sometimes after a nightmare or anxiety attack, I would sneak The Little Mermaid into the DVD player and let it lull me back to sleep Under the Sea.

As I again brought my thoughts back to the present, and listened closely to the silence, I recalled the sounds of HGTV. When my husband insisted on keeping the TV, I had insisted that it remain on HGTV. While I was going about my day, an endless stream of House Hunters played in the background. These were the sounds of the homey comfort I craved, with no scary commercial interruptions.

After a few years of this, I started to notice the conformity that filtered through the programming. I became irritated half-listening to yet another young couple purchasing a $500,000 starter bungalow, or middle-age retirees purchasing a $1.3 million island. This background noise caused me to start seeing our 1920s farmhouse with new eyes; it shifted from shabby chic to decrepit dump.

Once this programming took hold of me, our farm no longer represented a way to maintain a simple life, a humane scale of existence and an escape from wage slavery. Did I actually want granite countertops and stainless steel appliances after all?

Envy had started to chip away at my carefully constructed sense of well-being. My chosen laugh track became a laugh-at-me track.

In trying to find my way back to the present, I remembered when I finally confronted my addiction to HGTV. I realized that it should not control my value system. I had intentionally chosen my home and lifestyle to get away from what I believed to be a materialist society that would have me chained to a desk in debtor’s prison.

Unwittingly, I had also chosen a soundtrack that infiltrated my subconscious and impeded the enjoyment of my home and the financial freedom it afforded. However, in the present, honest place of silence, I knew that even long after I turned off HGTV, I could not silence the words echoing in my memory when I thought of that place — words I would never say aloud.

I started to wonder if the silence I had longed for was not the equivalent of the Off button on the remote control, but merely a different station. Either way, it was an important button because it could shift my narrative and even my entire consciousness. But for every soundtrack I unearthed, I found yet another, earlier track.

Last year, we moved even farther into the country, and the sounds are completely different. While meditating in my new space, I remembered how at first I had railed against the popcorn ceilings in our new home. I perceived them to be outdated and aesthetically offensive. An HGTV decorator would immediately have ripped out both the ceiling and the laminate floors.

But in my attempt to reject trends in design (and in the interest of time and money), we left them. As it turns out, the acoustics of textured ceilings dramatically change the soundscape of a home.

As I tried to return again to the present, I rested in gratitude for the newfound quiet. I didn’t perceive any low-grade humming generated by electricity. I didn’t notice any noise from the appliances most of the time. Even with six dogs, the UPS man can come and go and leave a package on the porch without me even knowing. The only thing I heard as I was meditating was the sound of the cat purring next to me.

In my meditation practice, I truly did not want to think any more about silence, but to simply, finally, enjoy it. As I was trying to relax into silence, I heard the familiar sounds of the wind rustling in the pines, and the persistent rat-at-tat of the woodpecker in the Black Walnut tree outside the window. My alliance with silence is still uneasy. It is only welcome at times of my choosing. Ideally, it is also not silent.

Posted on September 4, 2016 .

Book Cover Draft!

Here's a draft of my book cover!! Now I guess I should set a launch date, or find a publisher.

newer cover.jpg

The illustration is so special. Titled "God Only Knows," it was hand drawn for me ages ago by Allyson Mellberg Taylor, an amazingly talented artist who knew something of my story. She used ink made from black walnuts for the critter I think of as Thrash, one of the noblest pit bulls I've ever known.

Posted on July 1, 2016 .

How I Became a 19th Century British Lady Tyler Durden

miss havisham.jpg

Published on June 9, 2016 at Rebelle Society.

I recently changed my name online back to my real name, Jere. I’ve gone by Drucilla online for about eight years, and in that time, she took over my identity.

Drucilla became my preferred name for many reasons. I was named after my father, as was my brother. My first therapist thought that was significant. I never liked my name.

I remember being told as a young girl by a little boy named Maurice, “Jere is a boy’s name.” And in our childhood world, that was clearly a bad thing.

Even though I had gone through periods of wanting to be a boy, sitting there on the swingset with Maurice, not swinging, my face went red and I wondered what cruel trick my parents had played on me.

It was one of those early experiences when I first started to feel self-conscious, like something was wrong with me. I don’t know how old I was, but I recall looking at myself from the outside, perhaps in a way different from how I had before.

Sure, I changed my last name when I got married, divorced, and married again. I really wasn’t sure why I did that at the time, because I was a staunch feminist. But I realize now that it was a way of playing with identity. I wanted to try on different names for size (and husbands too).

Somewhere in between names, I decided that the whole idea of the self was made up of many different influences, images, and relationships.

I had a wonderful professor, Allaine, who once said, “They called me Al when I was a child, and now I’m Allaine. When I get older, I think I’ll be Maurice.” The connection to young curly-haired Maurice didn’t hit me until now.

Her point was that there is no single, unified identity, no necessary connection of names to people any more than words to objects. The self is constructed, and it’s best if we are aware of it.

I’ve lived with this idea of a patchwork self ever since. It’s not as comfortable as believing there is an essential, authentic self, if only I could find her, but it rang true for me and felt liberating.

I’ve become fascinated with the writings of the Eastern philosopher Krishnamurti, whom I fondly refer to as K. He challenges us to free ourselves from what we know, or think we know.

K says that we are made up of what we have learned from others — authorities and gurus we’ve accepted, and ideologies we’ve adopted, and therefore we are second-hand people.

I had never thought of the construction of identity as negative, but simply unavoidable and a space for creativity. But K inspired me to dig beneath the layers of my conditioning to see what I might find. My name seems like a good place to begin.

After a workplace scandal, my Google name was mud. I was applying for jobs, and what had been written about me online was painful. I had moved to an isolated rural area, and so I lived most of my social life online. I started blogging, and didn’t want to be linked to a history written by others.

Drucilla Pettibone popped into my consciousness wholecloth, like Mary Poppins floating down with her umbrella. Drucilla came from a similar time period, but she was windswept from the moors. No doubt she was an amalgam of heroines from Jane Austen to William Faulkner, but she felt rather fully-formed.

She adopted British spellings and phrasing quite naturally as part of her online identity.

Drucilla may have been my fifth name and fifth-hand identity, but she felt more like the me of that time. Could it be that Drucilla Pettibone was more channeled than constructed?

Drucilla even had a nickname, Dru. She allowed me to live free of baggage, bad memories, and old labels. I became an artist and shepherdess, and lived quite happily for a number of years.

As I moved in new directions from my former life, the moniker of Drucilla Pettibone shifted from a sort of alter ego to my artist’s name to a magickal name. She became more me than me. By that time, I was going by Drucilla in my real life too, not just online.

The reactions I got from old friends and family was odd. They ranged from delighted to confused to confrontational. One old friend refused to call me Drucilla. There was a sense among some that I was living inauthentically.

When I added the lovely extra letters to words like neighbour and favourite, or went to hospital or back to University, it did not feel fraudulent, but like a gleeful, mischievous sort of conceit.

I remembered Allaine’s words, and held fast to the belief that I was standing against the notion of a flattened, unitary identity. I was also creating the self I wanted to become: my own version of Tyler Durden. Or was Drucilla a vehicle for escape, a way to avoid introspection?

Until recently, I did not reflect overmuch on my identity because I resisted all those labels we tend to use to define ourselves. I have been conditioned to be gendered and heteronormative by my family of origin, individualistic and entitled by American culture, and analytical and critical by my education.

I experience all these identities as cages to be rattled. I’ve also found that I can live with them, rather than in them, by reaching out through the bars of my conditioning and touching other ideas, people and cultures. But the idea of a deep inward gaze of reflection is much scarier.

My legal name is a combination of my father’s and my husband’s. I am not kidding myself that it signifies some originary or true self. Yet there is some empowerment in returning to her (me). It feels a bit like coming out of one closet or another. My father has crossed over, and I’m proud to carry his name.

Having just one name will lessen my dissonance, peel away some layers of images. I’m curious about what I’ll learn as I get to know my old self again.

Now that many people construct online personas that are brighter, shinier versions of ourselves, we should be more conscious than ever that identity is not static. It says much about secondhand selves that changing my name online is enough to make it official; I’m now Jere again, for better or worse.

Immediately after I changed my name on Facebook, I got an email from a dear friend with the subject line: “Who is Jere Alexander?” Then shortly after, various old friends wished me a happy birthday, and new friends asked how to pronounce it and if they could still call me Dru. One woman said she would miss Drucilla Pettibone.

I replied that I would still keep her (me) around.

Posted on June 10, 2016 .

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie?

Sometimes I go back to thinking I should just let my dog memories be.  I can't live in them any more, not for very long.  Then the other day I saw a friend's comment about what she learned from doing shadow work:  to leave the dead in peace.  As I was mulling this over, and thinking how much easier that would be, I realized it was impossible - especially at this time of year!  I've been honoring the ancestors, and many critters among them. 

I'm also always inspired by the story of Persephone and Hades, and recently by the amazing book Life's Daughter, Death's Bride.  Despite Mr. Wonderful's butchering of this tale (and even her name!) on the Shark Tank the other night (there are a million versions, but his made no sense), Persephone grew into her role in the Underworld, and was able to bring comfort there too, not just endure it.

And then fortunately I heard this, from one of my sheroes...

It’s stupid to be safe. Because ultimately, ya know, usually whatever that is, wherever you don’t want to go, whatever that risk is, whatever the unsafe place is, that really is the gift that you have to give.
— Amanda Palmer
Posted on November 3, 2015 .

Breaking the Cycle

Many of my artsy friends are surprised to learn that for years, I studied the social practice of dogfighting. When I was in grad school at Emory, I spent years doing ethnographic research with "dogmen," as gamedog enthusiasts are known, and their dogs and families in the rural South. I learned that a significant number of dogmen were war veterans or had sustained childhood abuse, but my research focused instead on the workings of gender, race and class in that world, and the strange dynamics of the interspecies relationships.

I didn't recognize that my interest in dogfighting had to do with trauma until talking it over with a trusted friend. She pointed out that I had studied various subcultures for very specific reasons. At first, I replied "Well, that's just what anthropologists and cultural studies folks do." Thank Dog for community and dialogue, because my fragmentation had prevented me from recognizing my own motivations. My disciplinary training had obscured the heart of the matter.

I had to get into the trenches with violence in order to try to make sense of it. Throughout this "mesearch," I was continually ripping open my own sutures, and in the tenderest places since I spent years working in animal rescue, and dog love has always been a huge part of my life. Things got even more bizarre when I tried to make a difference by going to work at a high kill shelter. That's the thing about trauma: it breeds in dark places.

Being immersed in worlds so widely divergent as academia, dogfighting, and shelter work left me in culture shock. I could not find a holistic or humane framework to make sense of my complex experiences. Instead I attempted to leave the whole mess of it behind me, but it came out anyway, through art. And so it is. 

Posted on October 15, 2015 .