Key notes for S.W.A.N. Day
By Mary Pierce Brosmer (marypiercebrosmer.com)
You gotta sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
Dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.
(Written by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh, performed by Kathy Mattea on “Willow in the Wind.”)
I was an early and avid singer, belting Merman and swinging Ella anywhere I thought no one could hear me, bike-riding mostly and wandering in the woods. But oddly enough the first place I moved my voice outside myself and made contact with the world was in the in the little Roman Catholic church in which I was raised. Next door in the school, I was already a designated a non-artist, having earned, at that tender age, “D’s” on my report card in art, which meant drawing. Mine was admittedly awful.
However, because I was known to have had piano lessons, I was chosen to play the organ when the music nun returned to the motherhouse for the summer. Because we had no choir in the summer either, I was the choir and the organist. High in the handsomely carved loft, invisible to the few Mass-goers scattered below, I was fearless. I opened my mouth and my voice flew out of me like a freed bird, carrying my soul into the whole, shadowy resonant body of the church.
My girl’s voice, suppressed in all other places, drifted up to the wedding-cake ceiling and fell to the marble floors, bounced off the confessionals and trespassed into the sanctuary itself, where the only women’s voices I had ever heard were those of brides murmuring vows or members of the Altar and Rosary Society whispering as they dusted and polished.
Whether I had a “good voice” or not was somehow, incredibly, not an issue. The old people who attended these masses told my mother, “It’s like listening to an angel. But they were kind – and hard of hearing.
Remembering what modulations came later, I marvel at the memory of the full, right feel of my voice welcomed into space. The bright, animal aliveness of breath, tongue, teeth, words: round here, thinning-to-a-tremble there.
It was joy, unself-conscious pleasure, perhaps my only – certainly my purest – memory of it.
I asked myself on the occasion of this S.W.A.N. Day: What are the key notes my voice might hit were I to open my throat and allow out what I’ve learned in half a lifetime of artandcommunity making? I have the two words together to emphasize that both are inextricably linked in the DNA of Women Writing for (a) Change: We are about the art of writing and the practices of community, the practices of writing and the art of community together, no priority given to either. Writing in Community, Writing as Community, Writing to Create authentic community ( cum-munnus = with gifts).
I’d like to ask you to humor me by agreeing to a shared definition of art for the length of this conversation: “pressing out what is inside yourself and contacting the world.” (paraphrase of Don Hanlon Johnson in Healers on Healing.)
Key note #1:
Women and girls make art ever and always —for better and for worse—within the very structures that were created to suppress and diminish us.
The consequences have not only been devastating for women and girls, but for the full expression of the gifts of men and boys, and for all of our cousin species destroyed in ever increasing numbers because of how “making” is defined and done in our culture.
I was struck by the language of our Afghani foster grandson, Atiqullah, when he said his friend was “making a party” to say goodbye to her friends before she returned to Kabul.
Not having a party or throwing a party, but making a party. I’m more accustomed to hearing: “making trouble,” “making a mess,” “making mischief,” “making money,” “making out like bandits” – or their contemporary cousins, Wall Street manipulators.
If you say with a straight face in patriarchy that you’re “making art,” you’re at risk for what I call the Cringe Questions: “Make any money at it? Are you published? Are you a ‘fine artist’ or just an ‘artist’? How many CDs do you have? What galleries sell your work?”
International Swan Day is founded on this Non-Cringe question:
What might the world be like if women’s art and perspectives were fully integrated into all our lives?
I need to take a side road of sorts here and note that until the 16th century the meanings of the word “art” didn’t begin to refer to ” creative arts” such as painting or sculpture music or literature.
The word was about skill, craft, manner of fitting together, joining (see etymologyonline.com).
This etymology is instructive. I see clues for how women, might – if we have the courage, vision, and stamina – help restore sanity to a world suffering the end-game consequences of an ancient genocide: the murder of the feminine.
This genocide followed the usual pattern: first the murders (in this case of the makers-of-life: women.)
The violence is so grievous, unspeakable and “scaled up” that it is internalized by its survivors as shame (as in “There must be something horribly wrong with me –us – that “they” treat us this way.”). In other words, cell-level conditioning to our inferiority, “less-than-ness.”
Next comes the predictable denial and erasure of the genocide – a monstrous Lie, which becomes truth because it is inscribed and taught for thousands of years in “our history” and what is considered “real” or “great” art, “pure science” “natural law” inspired by religious texts . We have, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” – no mother, no daughter.
We make lives and art in a world limping along on one leg, seriously impaired because civilizations as we know them are built on denial, and on an unnatural unlinking of nature and culture, feminine and masculine, individual and communal. These devastating de-linkings gave unnatural birth to others against which we are making art:
* “Fine art” and what? crude art? folk art? naive art?
* Product /process
* The “artist”/”the audience”
* The necessary unconsciousness into which artists must fall to
* Create/unconsciousness in our everyday lives and relationships
* “Necessary chaos”/”destructive chaos”
* Making a living/making art
* The business of art/the art of business
* Teaching art/making or doing art
Key note #2
In a poem I made in the summer of 1983 or 1984, I can see glimmers that I was knowing ahead of myself some of the “answers” to the questions I continue to have about art, life, women and the connection among them during what I observe to be the end-game of “the big delusion that anything survivable can be made out of X chromosomes only.”
As a preface to the poem: At this moment in our personal histories, two friends and I had become “un-paired” against our wills. All three in our mid-late thirties, left by husbands in the throes of midlife crises. We were still shell-shocked, but to use a definition of art-making from Virginia Woolf that is one of my favorites, we were ” arranging the pieces ” that had come our way.
(for Sharon and Kathy)
(Integrity: an unimpaired condition, solidness, firm
adherence to a code of moral or artistic values)
we come to the evening:
three women in the paling day
framed by pots of geraniums
and children circling
the house in ardent play.
we come to the talking:
there are no coy jokes
no artful presences
our presence is our art
the solid stuff of shared lives
words without shadows.
we come to the listening:
men have called this gossip
but we shred nothing
instead, we mend,
as women do,
with fine stitches.
we come to the touching:
fondle the rough nap
the silken mysteries of
the lives we unravel,
weaving on the large humming
loom of talk
Key note #3
I no longer believe, as I did when I wrote that poem all those years ago, that my work is repairing the tears. In fact, I am pretty solid in my belief that it’s wasted effort. My energy is invested in creating a whole new cloth out of the scraps.
I can feel my own dis-ease around this even as I think and say it, as in, why should women and others who didn’t make the mess clean it up, live on scraps? And there is something to that, and here I’m inspired by a line in an e-mail from writer Karen Novak: “Nothing feels better than waking up more deeply to your place in the collective consciousness.”
Bucky Fuller wrote as along ago as 1970 about “the accumulation of relevant knowledge combined with quantities of major recyclable resources that have already been extracted from the earth.”
I’m just saying here that it’s what there is to do, be artists of arranging the pieces, of co-operation with what is – rather than holding out for some pure and probably delusional dignity that requires us to make art like the “great men” did, the ultimate example being perhaps Michelangelo carving marble into the Pieta, concretizing the suffering feminine for the ages.
It’s the difference, and a critical one, between revolutionary and evolutionary.
Audre Lorde was right for my money when she wrote, “The master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.” I’ll grant the need to master the master’s tools, some of which are very useful as we women and girls – artists by the old definition of linkers, connectors – dare I say, “healers”? – go about building the new structures as the old ones are collapsing.
But there is the danger, as the old saying goes, that when you learn to use a hammer, everything is a nail. That’s revolutionary art-making and activism. If we live long enough, we look back to see we’ve built more buildings in which only the “special voices” get heard. We’ve created more of what suppressed the feminine in the first place!
We have to be able to use the master’s tools but too many use only the hammer, or revert to the hammer with a vengeance when they want to get money or attention.
Here’s my working list of The Master’s Tools that we over-use, or use unconsciously at our peril:
* Generating “buzz”
* Trading on celebrity
* Using “sexy” sound-bite language and misogynist imagery “for a good cause”: “feel your boobies,” “skinny bitch”
* Ruthless competition with other artists and women’s groups for money for “good causes”
* Putting production and performance above the quality of relationships (process)
* Carrying the necessary chaos of artistic invention into the drama-queen messiness and lack of mutuality in personal and organizational relationships
believing in the short term solutions: “If my career takes off, I can open the door for other women, so I’ll do what I have to do to get there. …. If our band can get the money to travel to (fill in the blank with latest traumatized country) we’ll uplift the women and girls by our concerts.”
I’ll quote no less an odd personage than Karl Marx to say, “Contradictions within a movement bring down the movement.”
Let’s be frank: while it’s yet another sin against the feminine to require that women be perfect, how many of us have been betrayed, thrown under the bus, stolen from, or otherwise mistreated by the women with whom we thought and believed we were making art? change? common cause?
Key note #4
None of this is happening because we are evil people. It’s because we’ve been developing “awareness” without developing consciousness.
For example, aware that we need to support women artists and a thousand other life-changing causes now, we have been so busy standing up for them that we haven’t sat down to ask wisdom questions.
Systems-flow experts tell us that healthy systems require diversity and interconnectedness. We’ve been in a thrilling 40-year epoch of creating diverse women’s arts initiatives and events without creating containers to see what we’re making. What if it’s more of the same old, same old?
I have wisdom-seeking questions:
What containers can we make to birth the new while in the death throes of the old?
What tools will help us build these containers?
How will we compensate these “artists of the necessary womb” in a world that still equates the deep feminine with “free” as in unimportant, dismissible, invisible, even as the rent comes due?
When will every community of so-called change or activist artists align their means with their ends?
When will women artists and arts groups have a conductor of quality of relationships equal in status to with the conductor of the material?
How, when, who will re-design the ways we measure the value and worth of art?
When will we sit together with the seriousness of the opportunity we have now to make a whole new world as opposed to running around trying to manage the collapse or keep up with the next “big thing”?
How can we access and practice the wisdom to discern when we are making eco-art vs. ego art? By which I mean, “expressing myself” without the partnership of being part of making spaces for others – not me – to express themselves?
If not women artists of life and matter, who will transform us from a culture of consumers (getting mine) to a culture of investors (creating ours)?
Key note #5
Some rules I’d make for the rocky and exciting road ahead, if I were the Mother:
1. Don’t take on more than you can do well, by which I mean more than you can do consciously and with attention to the quality of relationships among the doers.
2. Because making art is about accessing the unconscious – that deep, powerful, ecstatic and wonderful interior and giving birth to it – always have a conscious container in which to birth it: an orderly and ethical life and surroundings, a midwife (conscious group, or therapist, holder-healer) to whom you commit, whom you compensate – and not just run to when you’re in a crisis.
3. Don’t think it’s OK to make more messes because you’re an “artist” or great visionary/thinker/change agent. You play right into the hands of those who like things just the unequal way they are when you act like a flake, diva, a tantrumming two-year-old, a blow-it-off adolescent.
4. Always have a conscious exchange of energy. There’s way too much invisible mother work going on. Money is – energy, current, currency – and those who are doing the work behind the scenes, the invisible and unglamorous mother work must be supported and honored and paid and equal to those with the “gifts” the culture honors.
5. Don’t bring up any idea or project with the attitude that “someone” should do.
In his essay, “Beyond Greed and Scarcity,” economist Bernard Lietear has documented that only in matrifocal cultures, cultures that value feminine
and show that by the proliferation of (art) forms dedicated to the Great Mother
(cathedrals, for example) have we had glimpses of cultures based on abundance and generosity (as opposed to scarcity and hoarding).
I say, with absolute respect for individual men, the masculine and its gifts: It is not your time to lead; nor is it the time of women and girls molded into honorary men or boys by the awareness without consciousness programs the culture created for them. Ever wonder about why “mean girls” and eating disorders and other girl scourges increased as a result of Girls Inc. of Title IX?
We are giving birth to our images (not monolithic or politically correct) but diverse and interconnected.
Key note #6
I will end with Grace Notes, gifted to us by the artist, Mary Oliver, in her poem, “The Swan”:
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
Mary Pierce Brosmer is founder of Women Writing for (a) Change. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.