By Caroll Sun Yang
Do you, you feel like I do?
Do you, you feel like I do? — Peter Frampton
Being an artist is like being a wrung out rag, making and mopping up messes, bunched up in the corner, oft hung to dry, wearing history on our sleeves, smelling of our own mammal ripeness and occasionally being thrown in with the real wash. We who soak in alphabets, images, and sounds know that all arts demand that we uphold a fundamental oath to act as shaman, seers, provocateurs, infants terrible, politicians, romancers, therapists, charmers, jokesters, witches, pioneers, maniacs, hookers… and all of this sexily to boot. If we fail at these tasks, oh arduous hours flecked with blessed golden play, then our lives will seem utterly wasted. Our creative callings failed. Leaks in the hot tin roofs. Ancient toilets stopped up. Lives less lived. Muzzled. We are about to blow!
If I seem melodramatic and insecure, it is because I am. In this lowly state, I let my mind wander off to pasture. Chewing the cud, metaphorical green juice dribbling down my shirtfront, prostrate in bed, covered in ancient fawn quilting à la Salvation Army, cats fighting at my feet like warm lumps of tangling frisk. My gut consists of Mr. Pibb carbonation dancing with a cheap chile relleno burrito all laced with psychotropics. I burn. I feel strong. Full of jitterbugging ideas jostling into place. Visions. Sounds. Alphabets. Maybe my aura is finally lava.
I am typing on a cellular QWERTY pad, words tumble after one another on an eerily lit screen sized smaller than a maxi-pad (great metaphors abound), my skull and brain propped up on two pillows, growing heavier with each word, double chin at attention, heartbeat slowing to a meditative rate, legs like dumb sticks. My life has been reduced to thumb typing essays on the same devices that boisterous MTV and Tyra Banks reality show participants showily make use of. Their devices announce: “Meet at the holy hell wrecking ball platform wearing sneakers and bathing suits at 8 a.m.! Get ready for a raunchy, mad blast! Today is elimination day.” Or “Be fierce! Today you will walk the runway for anonymous couture designer, winner will be treated to anonymous jeweler’s jewels and full body massages!” My humble cell announces no such sport. At 8 a.m. I am usually shuttling children to school, teeth unclean, sunglasses hiding yesterday’s raccoon eyes, donning paint splattered tee and torn pajama bottoms, breasts swinging free, naked feet, throttling through any drive-through Starbucks. My text messages read like this, “Where r u?” to which I might respond with “Ded.” Or on a decent day, “Writing. XO.”
I run with a pack that the uninitiated might describe as “eccentric” or “off” or “bat shit crazy”. We artists do not pace in straight sober lines, solving problems like accountants, optometrists or soldiers do. We professional imaginers pace the ground raw in drunken lines, darting in and out of reality, occasionally leaping from the sheer thrill of “breaking through”. We inventors, theorists, artists, writers, musicians… struggle, but in the name of what exactly? Exactly.
We are generally benign, somewhat opinionated, obsessive nerds. While the universe propels forward, infinite events occurring simultaneously, we feel caught in its sway. It is our job to mark time/space in unique ways while attempting to engage others. Sometimes we will fail at this; many hours will be lost to intense examinations of life, but some hours we will make magic- magnificently warping perceptions. On days when I feel especially wrung out, halted and alone- I seek out my fatherly path pavers.
Dear Mr. Italo Calvino, I sit in this first world abode, reclined in a puffy chair, jacked up on fair trade coffee. I gulp your enchanting words. I succumb to waves of nausea, the general turbulence of a gut trying to survive while immersed in the daily task of “making meaning”. I look for my mirror image in your stories and am overtaken by jealousy at your skill, an envy intersected by admiration and understanding:
Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars.
‘There is the blueprint,’ they say.
But somewhere, someone less fortunate than I (sitting on a cold, hard curb drinking homeless “mission” tap water) is sharing a not glamorous sandwich with someone less fortunate than they (an under-compensated, discarded and limbless war veteran) and they commune with teary eyes of gratitude.
My dizzy companion Roland Barthes, in a “A Lover’s Discourse” you treat me with your text. Curled up fetal on an inflatable mattress, fighting the spins, I read the same opening sentence over and over again during my first and last heroin high:
I am engulfed, I succumb…Outburst of annihilation which affects the amorous subject in despair or fulfillment.
Simultaneously, a prehistoric species of never before seen deep-sea creature, a blind gelatinous angel embedded with blinking lights, is being drug up in a fishing net. It is briefly studied, announced on the world news and promptly dies in captivity.
Darling F. Scott Fitzgerald, your stories I recite aloud to myself, channeling fictional characters in front of the mirror the way only high school girls and gay men do best, sporting brick red lipstick and hot-ironed ringlets, Kiss-Me-Kismine for the day:
I never noticed the stars before. I always thought of them as great big diamonds that belonged to someone. Now they frighten me. They make me feel that it was all a dream, all my youth.
Meanwhile, my less neurotic peers are prancing in the California sunshine, cheering for teams, sharing malts, and making good old-fashioned time. In such glorious health. Magnificent “Books of Art I, II, III”: When the salesman comes to the door and persuades mother to purchase you as a set, it’s the best $200 she will ever spend. I am saved. From the first moment I crack you open, I set off a chain of longing. Hours pining for naked people reposed in overgrown gardens, drowning in apocalyptic storms with orgiastic bodies tossed by waves, I sleep on checkered floors in moody parlors, conquer brightly pigmented villages, lose my mind in geometric demonstrations, befriend forlorn saloon maids. You all stoke my fires. Obsessed from the start. This very second, countless slippery wailing newborns are being severed at the cord.
I once made a friend in a 72-hour holding facility. He and I were 5150’s, an impersonal numerical designation for those needing an “Involuntary Psychiatric Hold”. He showed me his feet, blistered from too much walking without a destination. His body cracked-out, delirious with hunger pains that I have never known. His true love left him, driving him raving mad, so that every single woman he meets is merely a “shadow of her shadow”. I know shadows of shadows, I have been a shadow, and I have been a shadow’s shadow. Shadow is a beautiful word. I asked him if he thought so too. He said yes, lit fires in his eyes, then fell promptly in love with me. He shared that none had ever been so kind to him without expecting a return favor. It pleased me to hear this. So I ceremoniously slipped off my black patent leather ballet flats (with precoital flare) and I showed him my feet. Princess this. Even he cringed.
My feet are calloused and picked, bloody scabs in spots where the skin was torn too far and deep. My own hands wreak this mess. A nervous habit, perhaps of someone whose life is spent in too much reverie with fingers idle. Nervous hands need an occupation when not propping up chins, scratching temples, serving diners, tending children, writing words, painting worlds, holding hands… We silently put our shoes back on, unwilling to unpack the stories held there. Instead, this sand-blown, ultraviolet-eyed, hard-living nomad discussed with me the cultural/ personal significance of various Led Zeppelin songs. We smoked cigarettes doled by white-robed attendants, while standing in a barren courtyard surrounded by high brick walls. A lone potted fern marking center. A leaking basketball without a hoop. All beat by the sun. We beautifully elaborated the emotional and sonic qualities of the song “Over the Hills and Far Away”, its suitability to being heard over tear-tainted beers, between star-crossed loves, these lines an artists anthem:
Many times I’ve lied – Many times I’ve listened
Many times I’ve wondered how much there is to know.
Why aren’t there music, art and text libraries in psychiatric wards?
Upon my release, he gave me the number to his mother’s home. He planned to return to her. Exiled from everywhere. We swore to stay in touch. I never called him but I did save the piece of paper with his digits scrawled on it, buried it in my hope-for-nothing chest; I want to unearth it when it comes time to search for my youth, when no more new stories can be lived.
I think about our feet sometimes. How they told different stories. Ailed in secret ways. Deeply transcending their primary function as stabilizing agents. What about Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker”? Surely his feet resembled ours, a maze of dry rivulets collecting dirt and battle wounds from places been, skin packed down with years, worn from pacing, ragged with pondering, wise with wandering. If only we were all such heroic figures.
On rare brave occasions, I am my own hero. Like the time I presented an object in art school, a black velvet display case (normally reserved for entomological specimens) which housed pieces of skin peeled from my feet, pinned down with identification tags noting where the dermal bits were abandoned: under the dining table, behind the headboard, in my pea coat pocket, at ex’s house, in the dogs mouth, floating at the top of the fish tank… each one accompanied by a brief explanation (a girl can be a creep in such secret and affective ways). The only comment made in the critique was by a mealy-mouthed, anemic boy daintily eating a dry toasted bagel, “Well, I am having a hard time negotiating this bagel and your skin.” So I bared a little tooth and giggled, leaned forward with suggestiveness, my fingers laced, drawling in an old tyme barmaid’s accent, “Son, maybe you just need a tall drink.” The entire room exhaled. There was laughter. Some odd joy in me. That was all that needed to be said. It’s all just hunger. We are hungry. Too natural for words. Listen, I got things to launder. Fathers to make. Scenes to brew. Navels to gaze. Questions to formulate. Mistakes to make. Beauty to seek. Galaxies to sort. All kinds of mammal sexy to be. Over the hills and far away waits. I think I will get out of bed.
Caroll Sun Yang holds her BFA in Fine Art from Art Center College of Design, an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and is a certified Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist. Her work appears in The Nervous Breakdown, New World Writing, MUTHA Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Necessary Fiction, Identity Theory, Word Riot and other publications. She spends hours hunched over her unborn debut collection while writeressin’ and matriarchin’ in Eagle Rock, Ca. She can never have enough personality-disordered friends/ lo-fi anything/ human touch/ sarcasm/ cell photo filters/ art films featuring teens/ Latrinalia/ frosting flowers/ bio changes. She spews forth on twitter @carollsunyand and also at https://www.facebook.com/franzialux
This piece is part of an upcoming anthology on creative writing. CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing. Eds. Rita Banerjee and Diana Norma Szokolyai. Brooklyn, NY: Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, Forthcoming.