Saturday, February 22, 2014

Map Paintings

"Next Stop. . ."
"Perpetual State of Oaxaca" (still not a great photo)

We opened a can of worms by vacationing in South Africa over Christmas and the New Year.  Pat, who has recently been feeling unfulfilled is now ripe for mobilization and ready to charge ahead into an adventure in search of passion and satisfying, meaningful work.  (I can't write those phrases without David Hume arguments flashing in my brain).  I'm immensely proud of his courage to not only desire a non-conformist lifestyle but to intend to live more simply and conscientiously.  He is ready to begin his journey to find the best way of expressing his talents. 

Pat has been an uncompromisingly good provider for our family. Because of him, we have security, a home, healthcare, etc.  Furthermore, I've had the freedom to stay home with the kids and realize my passion for making art.  I want him to feel for his work the way I feel for mine.

Years ago I worked for a screen printer folding and boxing gym uniforms.  One particular afternoon while listening to WXRT whine, I smoothed my hand over the warm t-shirt.  It was freshly printed with a lion, or Lincoln's pruned profile, or maybe a thick white band of ink where a student was meant to write her last name.  The shirt smelled like melted plastic, and my dry skin snagged slightly on the cotton-poly blend.  I did my best to fold the shoulders at right angles origami style  in order to transform the "T" shaped garment into a perfect rectangle.  I had hundreds--no thousands of opportunities to get it right.  Then, I slipped a perfectly stacked dozen into a plastic bag; I filled a cardboard box with about six perfect dozens.  Next, I squeezed the box between my legs fusing the two sides together and hoped that the tape dispenser wouldn't fail me.  It did.  I stopped to find the lost end--picking with my nubby fingernail to find the loose end of tape and thread it back through the dispenser.  Once back in business, I straddled the box again and sealed it shut with two or three passes, affixed a label, and left the package at the door for the UPS pick-up or "OOPS" as my boss jokingly referred to them. 

Aside from the hazard of blowing t-shirt lint out of my nose, I regarded my job as a good one to have.  I worked alone in an huge warehouse that overlooked prairie grass.  My work was mindless enough that I could daydream about life, and more specifically, Pat who I had begun dating and the dreams we dreamed together like going to Oaxaca, Mexico someday.  However, the monotony was enough to encourage me to make a pledge on that afternoon.  I swore to never work purely for the sake of dollars.  NO, I would find work that was meaningful and fulfilling.  Of course, I worked many more so-called unfulfilling jobs for rent money and tuition, and several of those were far more miserable (see People's Park blog entry). 

Years later, Pat and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary at an establishment of the greasy spoon variety called Ho Ho Yummy's. It was located on the commercial strip near the El Paso/Juarez border and nestled between stores selling ill-fitting clothing the shade of pepto bismol, plastic shoes, and housewares like flimsy kitchen tools, bundles of washcloths with cheesecloth-like weaves, and thick suffocating blankets that seemed impossibly warm and smothering even on the coldest of desert nights.

We were six months into our one year commitment of volunteering and living in a house of hospitality in El Paso.   The house provided basic needs and some advocacy for the migrants from Mexico and Central America on their way farther north.  We provided beds, food, clothes, showers, and enrolled children in school if they were staying long enough.  Occasionally we accompanied guests to the hospital if they were ill, injured, or pregnant.  In appropriate cases we'd help guests find legal aid if they were candidates for papers.

That night of our anniversary we wandered aimlessly unable to settle on a restaurant.   Perhaps neither wanted to own the decision and therby be culpable if the choice was poor, or maybe neither of us wanted to impose our preference over the other's.  It seemed like a significant meal that needed a similarly memorable location.  Ultimately our stomachs won over and we found ourselves at the counter of Ho Ho Yummy's trying to pick our preference from the odd fusion of Mexican, American, and Chinese food.  As we gulped down various tasteless incarnations of hamburger meat at a slimy dinette table amongst strange glances, we celebrated having made it one year together.  It felt huge and small at the same time.

On our walk back to the house we laughed about the unusual dinner arriving in time for the house meeting at which everyone present clapped when the volunteer in charge announce our primer aniversario.

It is true that the volunteers at Annunciation House gained much more than its guests who were no less than highly motivated survivors.  They left everyone and everything to seek opportunities in a most dangerous, illegal, and costly way.  They risked everything to find employment no matter how tedious or without purpose, passion, and meaning.  Had Annunciation House never existed, they would have continued on perhaps a little worse for the wear, but they would have made it.  As the Annunciation House founder often spoke of the house as being a space for lives to merge and intersect.  It was like tearing a hole in the space time continuum allowing two worlds which were utterly dependent and connected but separate to intersect and be visible.  It was impossible to leave this experience unchanged and that was in fact the ultimate goal.  If you  could change enough hearts, then maybe the world can be changed, and people won't have to leave their homes in search of opportunities. 

No matter where our home has been made since leaving El Paso, both Pat and I will testify that it always seems a bit artificial.  It's like you are in a dream looking at the home you own, the two cars, all the stuff and you're in disbelief that it is yours, you're unsure how it got here, and definitely sure that it is mostly meaningless.

So, with El Paso in our hearts and conviction to find passionate, fulfilling work that is also sustaining (because we have two kids who we have to educate and nurture--what is a good educaiton?  --another blog post, that's what), we are at a crossroads.  Pat sees Oaxaca as the next logical destination.   Ideally, he'd like to live there a year in order to explore, volunteer, learn Spanish, and find a direction so to speak.  We'd enroll the kids in schools there, and I'd make art and write.

As much as I want to be supportive, I feel in my gut a deep resistance.  It is hard for me to sort out whether this "no" is stemmed from fear or from real concerns--leaving family, disrupting the kids' education, etc.

So, for now, we're aiming to spend six weeks in Oaxaca and perhaps a week in Guatemala City with friends who operate an after school program for inner city youth.  I'm hoping this time away and shift of physical space can help clear the fog and keep us moving closer to meaningful work.  Needless to say things are changing, and I may have to don the provider hat for a bit and Pat that of the caretaker, or one or both of us may return to school.

At any rate, this is all a very long way to give the background leading up to these two paintings.  I had been wanting to make some map paintings for Pat for months now.  This seemed like the perfect time for obvious reasons, and they were an excellent means to process my inner tumult which has me feeling upside down and inside out.  One is of the Chicago CTA lines and the other of the indigenous groups in Oaxaca.  Both are largely symbolic and not at all accurate.  They leave me asking,  just where are we going?  How does Ho Ho Yummy's sound?


  1. Life has a lot to offer, and in my opinion, you have managed to experience most of it. From the job you’d been which you enjoyed, being a volunteer, to your anniversary date; and even the simple experience where a tape dispenser failed you when you needed it the most, it’s a wonderful moment to remember. And I hope it will continue to be that way for years to come. Cheers!

    Thelma Bowman @ Quality Strapping

    1. Thank Thelma!!! Lots more adventures to come this year, too! Anna