Monday, November 15, 2010

Sitting with Amazing People...

This weekend, I went to a national women's studies conference. It was my first time going to such a conference, as both artist and scholar whose life is currently mostly (not entirely) unfolding inside the academic superstructure. The first thing that struck me was that most of the familiar faces and folks I knew were friends from so many of my lifetimes, but mostly from my world as a community-based artist and activist. And then, there were new folks to meet.

Throughout this weekend, there was one key moment that has touched me deeply. On Friday afternoon, Chandra Mohanty and M Jacqui Alexander performed a conversation. I was sitting in a row of amazing people, conscious of other friends sprinkled throughout the room, and conscious of the fact that I had just met most of the folks with whom I was sitting. In meeting them, I was aware of the energy they brought to the space. These were mostly women of color, many queer, who had known each other for years. They vibrated with that particular level of familiarity that renders connection palpable. We took up an entire row, and in that entire row, we were powerful.

The conversation began, first, always first, with a calling in of the ancestors, and a recognition of the labor that had generated the possibility of our collective presence. CM and MJA then proceeded to delineate the anatomy of their emotional, intellectual and political work together. I was particularly struck by MJA's assertion that what they were talking about was how intellectual work is political work, and life sustaining work - that it is a [remaking] of the self down to the level of DNA (that's not how they put it, but when you speak of transformation and life and DNA in the same breath - what you are talking about is creation in its deepest incarnations). As they progressed, the space of the hotel conference room transformed for me. I was elevated to a profoundly erotic level, in which I saw all of the potentialities of connection manifesting in time: I couldn't help but imagine what it will be like to witness the people I know now - ten years from now. To watch the connections foment collective shifts, to feel the pressing weight of all that water inside and between people foment new life.

Life...water is essential to life. The water cycle is something I always imagine as a cartoon from my elementary school science textbook. In that cartoon, there is always a river, an ocean, clouds and rain. Usually, there is also a mountain. I've learned about that cycle for so much of my life that it's almost become an assumed, total truth. In fact, I take it as fact.

Because water is so big and simultaneously tangible and intangible. Because water moves through the world whether or not I am aware of it. Because I have been lucky to have so much water in my life. I take water to be part of life. Living in Texas during a drought made me question whether or not we are entering a period of new cycles. Whether water will choose new paths to becoming. Whether it will continue to issue forth from the earth with the generosity it has always shown us, or whether the earth will transform its mechanisms in order to sustain itself - with or without us. We, a part of the earth, our bodies made of water, are no less affected than the earth by drought or floods, hurricanes or blizzards.

So, we entered deeper waters. I sat, listening to CM and MJA articulate a call to action, specifying the need to identify the `cartographies of location' and the `geographies of power' across multiple sites of knowledge production. I listened to CM state, "we have never worked out of despair...[but] out of a sense of real possibility and real vision." As I listened to them, I thought about all the queer of color artists I have been lucky enough to work with all these years, the ways in which our waters speak to each other, the ways in which our work has re-shaped intellectual, emotional and spiritual geographies and locations. The ways, in fact, in which we have tapped into real (im)possibilities and real vision to imagine worlds not yet imagined, and to make them material. These imaginings are ways to ask questions not yet asked; they are ways of theorizing about our lives as we construct worlds as well as the rules inside those worlds.

As we create, we enact our own disappearance so that art can take shape. We make new life appear on the page, on the stage, on the canvas, out of stone, through light, across water...And through our absence, the presence of new life is felt. And in turn, we are made visible again.

"What do we have to do at this moment aside from looking and engaging with each other?" MJA asked.

I looked at the folks sitting next to me. At IRS, CRR, DM, HB, DMS, DR and I wanted to just look and engage, to feel the current of life that had seeped into the air around us. As MJA and CM rushed through their presentation muttering, "we can't get to this now" - telling us that there was more, always more to think about and say - I turned to search for people, and for connection. The plenary ended and without a question and answer period, folks stood up to move into the next mode of interaction. I sat, dumbfounded in my seat, sensing the profound vacuum that was created by the departure of all the folks who had been sitting with me. It was literally a vacuum, and my heart hurt to feel it.

I stood up, somewhat aimless, and gathered my belongings. I was trying to act as though somehow, after being submerged for almost two hours, I could walk on land again. But it wasn't true. That question of looking and engaging had stayed with me, and I felt my heart and mind longing for the currents in which I had just been swimming. Not just emanating from the brilliant women at the podium, but also from the people with whom I had just been sitting. So, I wandered into the hallway, and ran into JM - an incredible friend, amazing playwright and mom to my very cute four month old niece. She could see from my face that I was sad, and when I cried, rubbing my heart as Sonia Sanchez told me to do, I told her, "I was just sitting with these amazing women and then they were gone, and and..."

And I thought about what it means when people are gone and what it means to be connected with others, and what it means to be human beings crossing through waters and trying to affect the course of rivers. What must we remember to see, and what do we intentionally forget to make that crossing possible?

We walked down the hallway together, getting ready to find a spot to hang out and talk through what we had just witnessed, when TJC introduced me to Chela Sandoval, who had just missed the plenary. My friends walked away as I stood sharing my notes with CS. I went over my notes, and summaries of different interludes, we combed through the conversation, asking each other what was missing. Seeing that in fact, CS herself had been missing. I asked her why she thought her work is not set into conversation with theirs...her answer was "Geography."

There was a lot to think about. But as I walked away, I felt how moved I was by this little bit of magic, and stunned that a visionary elder had stumbled into my path at that moment: a moment when in fact, I really needed to speak to an elder - somebody who could ask the questions that come with time. And I was cognizant of the fact that this had happened as I was walking across the room with friends who I deeply love and who deeply love me, and because of them, too. I laughed a little at the graceful shift that had occurred, and remembered that the body (the human body, the collective body, the earth's body) always restores itself to balance.

Now, a few days later and at home, I think about the entirety of what transpired. The fact of speaking with CS did not diminish what I had experienced as loss (a vacuum). I went up to the room where my friends were staying, and we all laughed together at the magic. I decided then and there that I would tell the folks I had been sitting with about what happened. This I would do out of a desire to let them know that they - their collective power - had affected me - a relative stranger in their midst. To let them know that I look forward to witnessing them in ten years, changing the course of rivers, to watching the collective power of their connections manifest in the creation of hence forth unimagined worlds. I would tell them so as to remind myself of the great gifts I have been given in sitting with amazing people.