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Archive for the ‘TITAN OTHERS’ Category

You’re just out of college, maybe. You’ve got a degree in Art, Philosophy, or, like me, Literary Studies, and you want to do something that’s in your field, the field of humanness.

In many ways, you’re a perfect candidate for nonprofit work. You’ve been educated in the disciplines of Thinking and Creating, you’ve got a reckless drive to understand other humans, you’re idealistic, you’re willing to work hard for little money, etc. I’m generalizing, but let me go a little further and say, most likely, you’re a painter, a writer, a musician, and you want a day-job that won’t scoop out your brain and hand it to you by its ragged stem ’round 3 pm—you want a job that will allow you to go home and keep doing your creative work. Again, a nonprofit job might seem like a reasonable answer. As reasonable as any. You have to earn money somehow, you might as well do something useful. You like people and also the idea of people. Why not.

My time among nonprofits has been brief. I’ve spent a total of three years working for two organizations that each provided emergency assistance to low-income people—similar programs, very different experiences. I’ve done a little bit of everything. Client services, prevention, outreach, fundraising, grant-writing, data-entry. Hours and hours of data-entry. In some ways I feel like an old hand. And I’ve met a lot of people, a lot of humanities majors. I was surprised to learn, during that first, golden job—the job I didn’t realize was so rare—that many of my peers were having tough times.

Maybe you’ve heard the rumors about nonprofits. How sometimes they’re not the best?

My first job was great. I won’t be talking about that one much.

It’s the second job you need to know about, as that’s the kind you’ll run into more often. I don’t have any statistics, just an educated guess.

This much is true. Just as nonprofits can attract the hardworking and human-loving, they can also offer havens for those who have no business in the people-helping business. And some of those qualities that make you an ideal employee at a functional nonprofit will make the conditions at a dysfunctional one completely unbearable to you; these conditions will affect you, they will weigh on you, they will burn you out.

I’m telling you this, dear humanities grads, because you, perhaps more than most, have a chance to change things. I’m talking to the real-deal, die-hard humanities majors here. You know who you are. You got integrity. You got grit. You can’t help yourselves.

You, my friends, have a natural commitment to the ideas that make nonprofits work. You’ve got a commitment to thinking. And you have a rare kind of optimism, and a belief in human potential, or you wouldn’t have had any interest in studying the enduring products of thought and creative impulse. You just wouldn’t have believed such studies were worthwhile.

Like I said, my first job was great. But I was in an office all day, working at a computer, and didn’t have the brainpower to sit at another computer and do my own writing when I got home. So, this time around, I opted for a more active position—as an outreach worker for a program that served homeless and runaway youth.

Unfortunately, it was everything I’d been warned about. I’ll sum it up: fragile people, meaning well, doing harm—or doing nothing at all.

I’m not saying that other workplaces are immune to the problems of laziness, poor leadership, tragic incompetence, and blind faith in fallible human beings. But nonprofits serve clients, not customers. Nonprofits like the ones I worked for are responsible for the effective delivery of services to desperate people who depend on them when everything else has fallen through, when everything in their lives is lying in a heap at their feet. And nonprofits are also accountable to the individuals and agencies who fund them—to the public at large. The stakes are high. Standards should be, too.

You get that. It would be hard for you to accept anything less. You’re just not the type.

I hope I’m not being presumptuous. Of course, I’m speaking in general terms. It’s just that I know it’s hard for you to do things you don’t believe in.

Please know: nonprofits need you, humanities graduates! They need your weird brains and your whole hearts. Don’t deprive them, and don’t deprive yourselves, either. This is the kind of work that changes you. It can make your art better. It can make you better.

Even if you fail.

When I went into my second job,  I knew it could be three years before things would start improving for most of the youth I worked with, and that many would be homeless for the rest of their lives. I went into it, knowing that. I was prepared to put in those years, to bear witness, to help when I could. I wanted to contribute to one of those rare, precious spaces—a space that nurtured humanness and human potential, and held those who entered in unconditional positive regard. I did that, I did some of that.

I kept getting up early, kept writing my stories. At my job, I kept thinking. I kept trying—even after I handed in my resignation letter.

***

“You throw yourself away to be an artist.” That’s what action-painter Ushio Shinohara says in the documentary, Cutie and the Boxer.

I don’t think so, though. You never throw yourself away when you do the work that matters to you, and try to do it well. Or maybe, more likely, you throw yourself away no matter what. You sacrifice something no matter what you do. You take some unknowable spiritual risk.

I have advice. Just one more piece of advice.

You’re a thinker, a writer, an artist, a creator. At the end of the day, you’ll always have your lovely, lovely brain to come home to. Let it do its work.

What it does, your brain, it does well. But it can’t save anyone but you.

Let it.

XO

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billings

You shouldn’t return to a dead place. But sometimes you have to. Sometimes you gotta saddle up, Sally, grab that hazmat suit, and learn to live with/among/around/inside that moldering, poisonous corpse—and you’ll never grieve it, you’ll never miss it. This carries its own lessons, I tell myself.

We’re moving. We’re leaving Billings—our on-again/off-again town of ten years. You know what, a town’s not a lover. It’s not. This isn’t a break-up. But maybe I’m wrong to think it’s on our terms alone.

It always feels like a brand-new experience, cleaning out my file cabinet, my dresser, my makeup bag. Every purge is different. Among the larger items to be shed: 1) My job. 2) The cage where our ferrets lived.

Ted and Squizzy thrived here. Running up and down the stairs. Offering their heads to be scratched like dewy-eyed little dogs. Billings was their home, God bless them. It wasn’t ours.

Driving to work and on errands, listening to Peter Jefferies’ “On an Unknown Beach” on repeat, I’ve looked at the houses, the railroad, the stores, all covered with snow and silent and easy to imagine, in their transformed state, as if I’m seeing them for the first time, as if they’re wholly foreign to me.

I’m a pale intruder
on an unknown beach.
My back to the water,
my feet in the sand.

Finding no recognition
as each sign of life
invades the precision of this
aging land.

The essentials have been boxed, we’ve scrubbed the bathroom and scraped the caulk. I’ve sorted and examined everything I own. Every letter, every bank statement, every bobby pin and earring back—and I’ve hauled half a dozen trash bags through the snow to our dumpster (the contents of my middle school sketchbook buoying everything along). I kept the journals.

All these things I’ve gathered and thrown away. Bulging in garbage bags, diminishing in my rearview. As for the boxes in our garage, awaiting the U-Haul—not more precious, necessarily. More alive.

My instinct is doubled
as the waves roll by.

The two great oceans of my life—one tide going out, the other coming in. This skinny beach between them.

But my vision is halved
and the foam and the green
as the insects talk to a
blazing sky.

These are not peaceful oceans. They are sometimes turbulent. They are crashing down, or they are sucking the sand away with them. They are ruled by separate moons. I am not the moon.

I am the girl on the beach. I am the girl putting things in boxes.

I am the girl who knows you don’t get to say goodbye the way you want to.

I am the girl with the love.

I am the girl who will write about the same things, deal with the same problems, all her life. They are mine. They crash down on me in the night. They splash at my ankles, leave beautiful shells in the coarse sand.

I am the girl, the grateful girl.

s

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Ever since I moved back to Billings, I’ve taken part-time jobs that I’ve felt would give me the space necessary to write. First, I was a barista, where I was told I could excel just by being myself and smiling. The creators of those trainings knew nothing about people like me.

I spent a year at that place. I wrote like crazy. I had to, or it would have been for nothing—all that pretending my true self was a person who sincerely believed in the transformative properties of the eggnog latte. I walked my neighborhood and beyond it at night, circling the gated communities on the west side of town. I dreamed of a place, possibly in Sweden, where I could exit my ludicrously ugly condo every morning, same as always—but instead of getting in my car, driving out of our complex, down King Avenue and its big-box stores, all the way downtown, I’d walk straight to work through a silent, snowy forest that went on as long as I needed it to, that could freeze time and me in it. I thought I’d be alright if I could have that one small thing.

I’d wondered if it was worth it—forcing myself to do something that didn’t make me happy or anyone else happy for longer than the time it takes to drink an overpriced coffee, just to be a writer. But if there’s anything I know absolutely about myself, it’s that a writer, unfortunately, is what I am. I can’t change that. I tried once and it didn’t take. I’m not saying the world would suffer any great loss if I didn’t write. I would. I’d be lost. I’d have to become a different kind of person, and probably not a better kind.

This is different than saying writing makes me happy. Finding the time to write, even with a part-time job, means I’m constantly staking out writing hours and protecting them from perceived threats—other people, vacations, chores, anything that might steal those precious hours from me once I let my guard down. It’s exhausting, and I’m not sure it’s good for me or people who are sometimes forced to share space with me. I wonder if I’ll always have to defend so fiercely my chance to do the thing I’m best at, the thing that gets me through this life better than anything else I’ve ever known.

While writing makes my life better, it doesn’t make it easier.

***

The High Plains Bookfest was held in Billings last weekend. My former instructor and always-hero, Alyson Hagy, read at a historic theater alongside writers Pam Houston and Emily Danforth. Sitting there in the dark, I felt moved by their words and by the shock of remembering how much I missed experiences like this one, post-MFA. I read all the time, of course, and I exchange emails with my writer-friends and occasionally share work with them. But there is no substitute for a person standing in front of you. There is no substitute for experiencing the power of language in real-time, in the flesh-and-blood.

***

These days I work directly with homeless and at-risk youth at a drop-in center downtown, a few blocks away from the Starbucks where I’d mechanically pumped five squirts of syrup in every hot Venti drink, six in the cold ones. My new job requires my investment, my energy, and a limitless, unblemished tundra of patience. No amount of “surrounding myself with white light” on the drive home–as I’d been advised by one of the center’s counselors–makes it easier to hear our clients’ stories or keeps me from thinking about them all the time.

When one of our youth went missing for two weeks after saying he was “going away for awhile,” we checked the inmate list on the county jail website daily. Then we started calling the morgue. Last week he walked in as though nothing had happened. He told me a friend had called him, placed a gun to her head, and fired while he was on the phone with her. He didn’t say where he’d been. He’d found some old friends. He seemed alright. As usual, he forgot to put his bowl in the dishwasher.

It’s an impersonal thing, pain, like a plane that falls from the sky, like a horrible accident that everyone scrambles to explain—pilot error, bird strike, whatever. It makes no difference. No one can stop something like that. The plane falls or it doesn’t fall. The only certainty is that no one’s life is easy.

And too, there is no way to protect people—or oneself—from the forces that have nothing to do with us, that come from somewhere else and without interest or mercy undo us. But we’ve got to believe these forces, bored already, will one day slide past, just keep sliding.

Not long ago—last year—I’d written blogs like this one and felt better having written them. By this point in a typical blog I’d have come to some kind of understanding, something about how writers must be courageous, how deep and unrelenting uncertainty can be a powerful spiritual force, etc. Since then, I’ve started dozens of such blogs, trying to resurrect those old feelings, but end up returning to fiction instead—which, lately, has been the only way I can think about these things with anything approaching clarity or honesty. Though I do hope someday for the ability to write sincerely about my life without descending into blank-minded terror.

I’m afraid of living here forever. Of making tiny compromises that I’ll tell myself won’t matter. Of forgetting what it’s like to be part of a world in which words aren’t just a mere formality — complicated noises that take up space.

It’s a relief—an unexpected one—that very little of any this is up to me. I’ll do what I can. I’ll find ways to keep working. In the next few years, we’ll move to a new town. Like many of my friends, I’ll get a teaching job, if I can. I hope it won’t be so confusing to connect the frayed and wandering threads of myself, that next time it won’t take so long to plunge my hand through the snowbank and find myself where I left me, warm and breathing.

There is no perennial forest outside my door. There is no way to freeze time. But every morning a glacier slides over my bed. Ice crystals grind against my skin, tearing me up. I’ll learn to welcome it. I’ll learn to lie peacefully and wait for the sky to come crashing through the roof.

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It’s been a while, blog of mine. I haven’t had much to say. Maybe later—maybe years later. For now I offer the doll scene from Louie:

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This is pretty much how it’s been.

My story collection is off leading a life of its own, I hope, at [publishers], and I’ve been working on a very strange novel half the time and spending the other half at my job at a center for homeless and runaway youth. Lately it’s been hard. I keep sitting in front of my computer trying to make something happen, and finally all those words coming out of me start to mean something. But it’s never just sitting there. Sitting there and trying’s important—but it’s only a part of what makes writing possible.

That other part is what I’ve spent much of this blog, many walks, and hours and hours of conversation trying to define. It takes obsession and faith, and, for me, the knowledge that writing, like every job that’s really mattered to me, is a service position. It’s not therapy. It’s not about self-expression. It’s something that’s undertaken in service to oneself and others, because it’s really about describing what it means to be human and to live, exploring all the ways it is possible, how we harm and sustain one another, how what is indescribable might be, one day, described, and even how we artists fall short of these grand and noble goals. “What we respond to in any work is the artist’s struggle with her own limitations.” This is true. Because the limitations and the struggle are about all of us. At the same time, we artists mustn’t take ourselves too seriously. We must, however, take the work seriously.

“If I can get your email, I’ll shoot this estimate over to—oh, okay—” The man sitting a table away at the coffee shop is talking into his cell phone. “I’m just trying to squeeze it in—squeeze it into—” I have no idea what it’s like to be this man. He wears a white cap and a white collared shirt and khakis. He smiles a lot for no reason, while typing. Sometimes I cry while typing, but never in public.

Once, while sitting in the full sun by my window on North Hodgeman, I began crying while writing part of my story, “Chiefs.” I’d diverged from the story to get a little closer to the heart of the collection, which was about loss and how people fail one another. For whatever reason, the part I was writing moved me to tears, though that part wasn’t good enough, in the end, to keep in the story—it was raw, irrelevant. Emotional writing often isn’t very good. It tells the reader how to feel, and it doesn’t give him a chance to have his own feelings. Ultimately, something written in a surge of emotion fails to move a reader as much as a piece that sneaks up on you, that builds and builds and finally leaves you devastated–or crackling with feelings too complicated to name.

That day, I’d looked out my window and noticed a crowd of strangers standing a few yards away, facing me in my window. I lived in what might have been the ugliest house in one of the worst parts of town, and the group appeared to be students from the university who were led by a professor, and they were standing in the dirt lot that was my yard, looking at the power lines sagging overhead, at the railroad tracks, the overpass, and me weeping in my house. I’m not sure why they had come. Maybe they were part of an art class, maybe they were studying History. When they left I wrote the ending of “Chiefs”:

He remembered the day Anna left. He sat at his table and started writing her a letter. Halfway through, he was sobbing so badly he had to push the paper away. Then he looked out the window. There were two white girls standing in his yard. They were looking at him, at his house. They had notebooks it their hands. As he watched them, they turned and walked to a group of young people who stood around a man in his yard, all with notebooks in their hands. There was a van parked along the highway with the name of the community college on the door. The students looked around at the power lines and at things the man pointed at—Conky’s truck, his boots on the steps, a dead squirrel someone had hung from his tree, its body flat and dry like a banana husk, turning in the breeze. They wrote furiously in their notepads. Conky moved out of their view and stood against the wall until they left.

The part of the story I’d written while crying is gone, and the parts that remain–including the ending–are those shaped in the relative clarity that takes place beyond my own limited feelings, when I’m trying to describe how it feels to be someone else—how it feels to be a character I’ve invented out of pieces of everyone I know. I am not Conky. But because I can imagine how Conky feels—and because I trust that you can, too—I don’t need to tell you. Hopefully, if I’ve done the minimal requirements of my job, you will, after reading the piece, understand how Conky feels when he moves out of view and stands against the wall.

Emotions can help you get where you need to go. But the real gift of writing is getting outside of yourself. It’s not escapism—it’s connecting to a greater whole, to the lives of other human beings whose existences are normally sealed off from us.

The man in the white cap is gone. It’s dark outside and I’m one of the last people here. “Night Moves” is playing from invisible speakers high above me. Impersonal paintings on the walls and an emotional, overwritten piece about Billings’ homeless in one of the free copies of the city’s “women’s magazine” with pictures of female leaders on the front, airbrushed. I’m here, too, trying to write this thing. Taking it very seriously, indeed.

In a few minutes I’ll pack up and go home. Tomorrow I’ll be working with a group of incredibly vulnerable people who are just trying to survive, most of whom don’t have time to make art, much less think about why they’re making it. My book will seem like a tiny green island. I’m far from shore. I drift in the current. The youth I see at my job will be in the water, too, but their islands will look different from mine. “So what are you doing with your life?” a boy asked me last week. We were playing pool and he was in a bad mood. I said something like, I’m working here, with you, and the other part of the time I’m a writer. He stopped listening halfway through, lining up his next shot. Really, I’m doing what everyone’s doing. Trying to make it, trying to do something that matters.

Tomorrow morning, before work, I’ll be sitting here again.

I hope you’re still reading, or you’ve skipped down to this part, where I direct you to my friend Katie’s post about writing and the gift of “accidental devotion” :

It is a practice that explains one to oneself, but it can be the sustaining ritual that makes a space for your humanness. I have only been alive for a little while, but I already know that there are not many places in the world that allow you to be human, that nurture humanity. To attend to humanity is to be attuned to suffering of any kind (you can suffer joy, I think, and you can suffer grief). It is in this way, I think, I hope, that if you let it, writing, or art, can be the thing that makes you more human than anything else allows you to be.

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Being a writer in this place often requires one to be split in half, in quarters, in every direction. And then you have to go home and piece yourself back together and do something that needs all of you—that comes from some mysterious place within your whole, unified self. I don’t mean only that our lives have different facets. I mean something like: as artists, we often comprise a part of ourselves—an important part—to survive. We have to watch it split off, see it go. Hope it comes back.

I reread a blog I wrote a year ago about cultivating lands of endless time and space within oneself. I was working as a part-time barista and had just finished my thesis, and it was rainy and cool and I’d be getting married in a month.

Later that summer, the weather turned suffocatingly hot and for weeks there were forest fires circling Billings like were all about to be offered up as charred, wheezing sacrifices. Spiderwebs blanketed the field where I walk and strands of silk drifted past my face or clung to my skin, sometimes with spiders attached.

A year went by. I finished my book. And I found myself in this job I didn’t care about, working for people who didn’t care, that took more energy than it deserved and left me feeling intensely frustrated and helpless. Those pockets of endless time I’d been guarding dwindled, then imploded—sucking all that sacred space after them.

I quit. I started a new book, sent the finished one to an agent. In June I interviewed for a job at a nonprofit and left for my parents’ ranch in Wyoming with my husband, Ryan.

Our first day in Crowheart, we helped my dad put irrigation pipe together. It was a side-roll system, and we had to stagger ourselves out and push huge metal wheels through the tall alfalfa, watching for snakes and deep pits in the dirt. The joints had to be perfectly aligned and held that way while Dad pounded the clamp with a wrench. He said he normally did all this by himself. It just took a while.

In the evenings, Ryan and I watched garbage circle the spillway and walked through the boneyard in the cedars, looking at the white, jagged shapes with no hide to hold them; they’d been scattered and gnawed by coyotes, and the ribcage of a cow rested by the skull of a horse. We’d looked at dinosaur bones in Thermopolis on the way to Crowheart, and knew about the pelvises of herbivores and all the failed mammals. We’d stood before a massive fossil—the imprint of a reptile—entire and whole—with a tiny, perfect leaf resting in its talons. “He died holding a leaf,” said Ryan. In the hot, windy days at my parents’, Ryan shot prairie dogs in Mom’s field and I wrote. Ryan said the bodies of prairie dogs were gone the next day.

060913142002

***

I finished the first shift at my new job yesterday. I’m working with teenagers who are homeless or living in crisis situations. We cook together and play basketball, and they show us—me and the other outreach workers—their sketchbooks and spider bites, their infant sons. They don’t eat the blackberries in the fridge. They want french toast.

***

James Baldwin called the act of giving—the kind of giving artists do—a total risk of everything, forever. It is the sacrifice of oneself and one’s plans.

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“People live in a darkness,” he says, “which — if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define — you are responsible to those people, to lighten their darkness … And if you survive it, it is not only your glory, your achievement — it is almost our only hope.”

***

The fires burn for weeks. The ocean rises, a sea of unbroken gray and foggy time. The moon wanes, the spiders float by on strands of silk.

We die holding leaves.

The men lay ladders against the condo building and sweep the paint-sprayer back and forth. They mow in circles. They walk the sidewalks and point leaf-blowers at the grass clippings. The next day they are back.

I’m not expecting things to get easier. I’m making circles and arcs.

Full moon tonight.

I’m going to try putting the blackberries out in bowls. No. I’ll make pancakes. No. We’re buying yogurt.

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A month ago, I quit my job at a corporate coffee shop and made this video.

Now I’m writing full-time and connecting with family and observing turtles at the park and mostly enjoying the silence. And looking for a new job–soon. All in good time.

Hope you’re well, friends! If you have a job, I hope you like it. If you don’t–hope you like it.

I’ve also dug up a series of journals I kept when I was 8 and 9.

10/28/93: “I like to read a hole lout. Somtimes I wish I had the biggest librery in the world. Then I could read evry single book in there! One day I counted my books and I have one hundred or somthing of them! On day I want to write my own book. It would be fun! Because–I like reading! Any book is good for me!”

It’s true. I like reading. I like writing. It’s fun!

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Good news.

TITAN OTHERS is gaining momentum. It’s becoming a Thing. 

In a blog comment, writer-comrade Katie Booms wrote a stunningly lovely response to my post on TITAN OTHERS  from earlier this month, and I think you’ll agree it deserves a blog of its own. 

***

Katie’s comment:

I am going backwards, filling in. The MFA was two years when I was surrounded by the fascinating and the fascinated (writers), where there was almost too much energy and sequestered-group-proximity not to be encouraged by each other. Or deadlines.

I: was sitting in my room.

I: was between the public and the university library, mapping the decimal systems.

I: was listening.

I, was slow.

Now I am going backwards. I am part of a group, a small group, and we are asking questions, we are giving and receiving challenges, we are getting recommendations. We are experimenting. We are supporting. We are pushing.

I… was so full of writing, so desperate to get writing out of me.

We are a breed, who have to make our way. We take our greatness and our wild longingness and our small, old godliness and our excessive taste, and we must make out of it.

Whatever other. Titan other. In making we are other. At our heights we are titan.

***

You said it, Katie. Say more, anytime. 

For reference, my TITAN OTHERS blog (which you can read in its entirety here):

I think being TITAN OTHER is about answering a “calling” that’s never actually called. The calling to be an artist, and to participate in the world as an artist—which is to be OTHER, in all-caps.

It’s about claiming identity.

It’s about honoring instinct.

It’s about huge, titanic commitment.

It’s also about responsibility—that we owe it to ourselves and each other to do our art, and to do it the way only we can, and as well as we can.

Being a writer means working alone most of the time, on stories that often take 1-3 years to finish, spending a lot of time thinking about those stories (even when I’m nowhere near a computer), and rarely being in the same room with anyone who knows what that’s like. For me, it also means being 28 with two degrees and making five times less than my husband—and sometimes feeling a tad insecure about that (though the insecurity’s self-generated).

This is a place where people do a Thing and make money from that Thing. These are the laws most of us live by. I do a Thing that guarantees nothing and that almost no one makes a living from these days, even those hovering at its upper tiers. But I don’t think our biggest problem, as artists, is gaining recognition for our work (or compensation, though, hey, why not?). Our biggest obstacle is the perception that a commitment to the arts is a liability or a selfish whim or something reserved for only the wealthiest or most educated among us.

I’ve been working on a story about a character who is vastly OTHER, named Marvin. A few awful things happen to him early on in the collection, and in this story, he’s trying to figure out how to protect himself from the complications of his identity by pretending he doesn’t have one. Originally, Marvin’s story was woven in with another story, about dogs. The dogs’ story didn’t make it. However, a tiny shred survives—about how two dogs arrive under a woman’s porch after living wild on the prairie for several months.

“They could remember the minute stirrings of other dirt beneath their feet, the taste of dead things, the lights of cars shooting past, the heaviness in their guts and the lightness of their bodies. But when they dozed under the porch, when they skittered up the steps to greet the woman, when they romped in the yard on cold days, they became, more and more, the dogs who lived there.”

Whether this shred will make the final cut is uncertain. But I think it speaks to something I’m trying to get at in this blog, which is: I want to be one of the dogs that lives here. I want to inhabit my own patch of this landscape. I don’t want to compromise.

Artists have always existed, and art is part of our lives. But we artists have to make a space for ourselves. We can’t doubt our right to exist. We, the TITAN OTHERS, have to keep doing our work — and doing it the way only we can, and as well as we can.

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