Kinship Collage (in-process)
This is a personal and collaborative research-creation project that explores the intricacies, pleasures and responsibilities of being relative. Through portraiture, story-telling, conversation and reflection, I am exploring 'being' as an amalgamation of various forms of 'others', with a focus on particular land, women, and substances. Themes underlying this work include: perceptions and experiences of relatedness and relationality, death and dying, roses, fire, and dreaming.
This is an ongoing, forever incomplete project that began many years ago out of a fear of and fascination with death and dying. Growing up in a family that does not follow predominant perceptions of medicalized or physical death as something final, I approach this project as a means of working through the sense of loss that accompanies physical death, while also exploring connection beyond the body. Through this practice, I intend to (re)turn my sense and attention to the dispersal of Spirit and interconnection of our related forms.
Being a part of a family is both a privilege and can be difficult to navigate. The complexity of roles and relationships is always changing, according to moving contexts (historical, environmental, familial and individual, to name a few). This makes living together and being responsible to (not for) one another increasingly difficult. As we all grow into different people, with different lives and trajectories, it becomes challenging to “make everyone happy” and do life and family in a way that everyone agrees on. Especially when there is no agreement made or communicated.
Times change, surrounding cultural values change, priorities change, we try new things, or don’t want to try new things. Whatever the case may be, as individuals we grow in new and differing ways from and with each other. I think this is because each of us is our own little world and from that world everything looks and feels unique to the individual. And this can make it easy to fall back into prescribed and/or normalized roles and act/perform/be the way everyone knows (or knew) you to be; to fulfill the roles associated with you, whether that be gendered roles; relational roles such as grandparent, parent, sibling, cousin; or more character-type and behavioral roles such as being the larger group caretaker, bread-winner, comical relief, calming presence, agitator and/or provocateur, reckless mess, or the one who has it all together (seemingly). The patterned dynamic that has become established is oft times easier to fall back into than catching everyone up and changing the rhythm of relation. In talking to friends about this phenomenon, we have come to recognize a sort of reversion into past roles that occurs, as if by a spell, which can feel beyond control, constraining, and frustrating.
How and why do we find ourselves in particular roles, when we have personally out-grown them or intentionally worked to change? Why do we expect and place our people in static roles in the first place, and/or react with anger, offense, or hurt when they resist being “put back in place”? If we do not like being reduced and constrained in this way, why do impose expectations on others? Why is it so difficult to see and welcome change from others? I wonder, is it because individual change often happens elsewhere and so if we don’t see the process it's not recognizable to us? I think the underlying problem here is our expectations. We go into encounters and gatherings with expectations and then wait for them to be confirmed.
I'm very fortunate to be a part of a family that has come to handle change and differing individual worlds well (from my view at least). We are inclusive and accepting, and we choose to love each other and work on things as best we can, and in our own ways. I think many of us are genuinely friends. However, this does not make us immune to tensions and disagreements as we work to stay connected. However, if we allow it, friction can even be creative—as anthropologist Anna Tsing and writer/poet Richard Wagamese propose. In her book on global connections and capital flows, Tsing explains that “cultures are continually co-produced in the interactions" which she calls friction: the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (4). Wagamese also discusses worldly connections in the context of Indigenous spiritual and cultural practice. As Wagamese explains, “People cause flames to rise in our hearts and minds and spirits, and life would not be possible without them” (174). So, if we consider the possibilities for creativity out of friction, perhaps this will help us work through some of our “differences.” And if not, I think it is okay to not always be friends or even like one another all the time, while still having love for each other.
Frictions aside, family is fundamental to our shaping; it makes us who we are, in one way or another. I have come to see myself as an amalgamation of my encounters, and "family" extends far beyond biological categorizations and lines of descent. I like the way Donna Haraway (a techno-scientific anthropologist) uses the concept of “become with,” to elaborate what many Indigenous peoples know and practice: that we are all interconnected (people, animals and plants, histories, stories, ideas, technology, objects, etc.), and that we collectively shape one another and become who we are, together. And, who we are (our identifications) is a moving subject, much more fluid than static, as we gather more influences and “others” into our web of being. We are shaped directly through social training from our family, friends, and our culture; we are influenced by our affinities with art, music, movies, books, figures; and we also "become" through disassociation and dis-identification, by rejecting various external examples that we don’t like or want to emulate. We all co-compose ourselves and each other, in relation.
Again, Haraway offers another way of thinking about family that resonates with how I have been taught to know family and how I'm exploring my familial interconnections in this project. That is, Haraway urges us to “make kin, not kind.” In other words, to turn our attention and efforts to creating family (kin), rather than reproducing biology (kind). Just as genetic inheritance does not make a person a parent (think of abusive/negligent parenting, or adoption and surrogacy for example), shared genes do not make a family. But, relationality does. And this is what my Kinship Collage is manifesting: our web of relationality. Though, unlike a spider’s web, I don’t want to catch anybody in it and it is not neat.
I often hear people say, life is messy and confusing, and we should honour (or normalize) this. Attempts to smooth things out, and present our different lives as clean, polished, and pristine, misses opportunities for empathy and collaboration. Further, I find in obscuring or disguising the processes we go through can inadvertently set ourselves up for disappointment. Expectations to keep up with perfection leads to resentment when things don’t work out the way we anticipate, or when you or someone else slips up and cracks the surface of that shinny mirror you were cleaning all day. What if instead we acknowledge and face the toils of life openly and share in each other’s journeys?
This is how I choose to relate. Continuing on, I promise to love and honour my family, to not take anything personally and to communicate my personal boundaries, to be honest, caring, and kind, and to see and honour your journeys, mess and all. Sticking with the metaphor of a web, this project begins in the middle. There is no logical order to the portraits, stories, conversations and reflections that I will be developing. It all emerges with inspiration and whatever resources are at hand. I like the idea of a web for this collage because webs are intricate and boundless; the various threads cross and connect and depart from one another, they can extend far and wide, and even link up with other webs, subjects and objects. They are delicate yet strong, and they can be rebuilt from disaster and damage. In this way, they are flexible and forgiving. They are also sticky; they attract, gather, accumulate all sorts of other things that can add to their beauty, complicate it and/or cause breaks, snares, and shifts in the balance. And finally, they are spun from within a wider ecology, and in this way are interconnected with the larger web of life.
This Kinship Collage is composed of a web of people, animals, landscapes, plants, elements, oral histories, dreams and stories, cultures, traditions, ideas, beliefs, socio-political movements, books, movies, music, and objects, and will continue to grow and change. It is largely expressed from my personal perspective, but also in consultation and conversation with those entangled. Within this web we are great grandmothers-grandmothers-grandfathers-moms-dads-aunts-uncles-children-siblings-cousins-friends, living and dead (and infinite combinations of these). We intersect at many and multiple points, and we perceive from many and multiple positions as well.
"God was a frightful figure to me, as a small girl. Although my mother eagerly sought to Catholicize us kids, as had been done to her in residential school, I never wanted to meet or know God. At least, not the God that was described to me. I used to dream about God taking me away in the night. It was terrifying. In the dream I would be asleep, peacefully, on the bluffs in a tent--I loved it there, above the water on the three bays. But in this dream, while asleep in a tent on the ridge, a looming dark figure would fly over the sky, swoop down, scoop me up and carry me away tent and all. It was so scary. No, I don't really want to meet that God. Even now I much prefer the Mother Creator that I am accustomed to know and revere."
Our dreams are so much more than "dreams". Our dreams are what bind us, in spirit and intention, to each other and to worlds we do not perceive. Dreaming is a sacred practice, it is a way to stay in touch with each other, with ourselves, and with the Creator.
Mickey, Nana, Bunny
Chatting over breaky one morning:
Me: "Did I ever know auntie Roxy?"
Nana: "No baby... She never met you. But she still loves you, you know."
Me: "It's so weird because even though I never knew her, I feel like I do. Or that I did. I guess I've heard so much about her that it's like I knew her."
Just then Bunny walks in and joins us
Bunny: "I've been thinking about Roxy a lot day today."
Nana: "Me too. I'm really missing her lately."
Then Mickey arrives home from work
Mickey: "I had a dream about Roxy last night. It's been a while since she last visited, it was so nice to see her!"
Me: "Ha. I guess auntie Roxy is nearby. She's on everyone's mind today."
Bunny: "Yeah, I'll say."
Nana: "No fair! She hasn't visited me in weeks! But I guess I'll be seeing her soon..."
Mickey grins (gloatingly that Roxy visited her and not others)
Bunny: "Mom stop! Mickey, get outta here!"
"My elders say that the dream world is a reality, just as vivid, just as vibrant, just as alive as the physical world. Dreams are not illusory things. They are meant to teach us, guide us. They ask us to use our intuition to interpret them. That's their biggest gift--returning us to our intuition, our highest level of thought." (Richard Wagamese 2016)
Auntie Bunny is a gentle, kind soul. Maybe that's why I started calling her auntie Bunny instead of Robin when I was a child. Even though we don't spend much time talking, I have always felt deeply connected with this strong woman and grateful for knowing her. She is sensitive and artistic, and has a calming presence. I think I have inherited these qualities from her. She has three powerful and successful children who are more siblings than cousins to me.
I remember her flowing white dress with green apples on it, and the Pölsa she would make when we were all together. And I remember playing Bingo together, often, along with my mom, Nana, and Peter. Auntie Bunny always seemed to win. She has "horse-shoes up her ass," my mom would say. She is also known to find four leaf clovers, just by spotting them while walking by or while sitting outside. One time, while at the beach, she got swept away in a wave. It was unfortunate and hilarious. She was fine, but the paper documents that she had with her were not.
My favorite memory is a continuous one, just hanging out and laughing together, playing cards, and talking about our dreams, cosmic messages and our witchy senses, at the family home in Sechelt.
"There is neither source nor end, for all things are in the Center of Time. As all the stars may be reflected in a round raindrop falling in the night: so too do all the stars reflect the raindrop. There is neither darkness nor death, for all things are, in the light of the Moment, and their end and beginning are one." (Ursula K. Le Guin 2000)
On mourning dramas -
"The loss these dramas lament exceeds any of the stories told; it overflows from one story to another, it transforms and is never resolved. It is as if that history were dreaming itself through me by the effect of a transference. Born in the 'sphere of the moon,' my dream is also someone else's." (Stefania Pandolfo 1997)
Death and Dying:
To talk about Life we need to recognize our relationship to the concept of Death. Death defines Life and vice versa. We measure our Life according to our movement towards an eventual, immanent "Death." I have come to think of Death as Life and Life as Death. A sacred circle. For me, Life is marked by the journey of discovery and important lessons to be learned before we move on to something else. Dreaming is a significant process through which we learn, it is how we cut across our cultural systems of organization such as time and space and connect with ourselves, family, and beyond. I have also begun to think of Death as an opening and a multiplying, and I wonder why we are taught (or enculturated) to fear this. I believe fear distracts from the important lessons we need to learn, fear masks the movement and activity of Death. I perceive the Life we are doing, living, as part of the journey through to another world, phase, or experience. Death is just a door.
After witnessing the Death of two grandparents (ten years apart) I noticed similarities with the process of birth. It seems like Life is akin to the way many people understand fetal development in the womb (the birth being the so-called beginning). So, I wonder, is physical Life a developmental stage of existence? Many believe that Life is dependent on our ability to breathe. Scholars go as far as suggesting that our breath, breathing, is a point of connection between various beings—such as recent moves in anthropology that have shifted focus from the epidermis to the lung as a point of connection for all beings, theoretically. While I appreciate this, I also wonder: why the need to locate an ultimate point of connection or difference? I believe that things are much more complicated. We do not need a battle for the perfect metaphor, we need to open our language and perceptions. The questions that lead to such metaphors are unanswerable, particularly with our current level of understanding and compulsion to identify and classify things. We need to learn to allow the fleeting, indescribable, and barely perceptible to have meaning without the need of an explanation or the search for a definitive origin. I am suggesting that we permit the vast difference of experiences and the incomprehensible to be, or, as Richard Wagamese puts it, "Let the mystery remain a mystery" (2019).
I've been studying smoke lately to think about the movement of Spirit and our spirits. Watching smoke billow makes me wonder about how we might become more when we "die" or "transition." I wonder if we experience a sort of multiplous reality. On the other hand, we could ask, what if nothing exists at all, what if it’s all a figment of our collective imagination? What if the world is dreaming us? I sometimes think about how we see strangers in our dreams and I wonder, do they see us in theirs? Are our dreams “real,” or is this reality a “dream”? Those in my family would probably say yes to the former question, to certain degrees and in certain ways. When our relatives visit in dreams there are ways of sensing whether it’s a dream about them, or if they are really there. So, are dreams tangible things? Intangible? Material? Immaterial? Or something in-between? I'm not really searching for any answers. Like I already said, I'm interested in pushing perceptions and opening up.
Smoke is interesting this way because it gives shape to air and breath, and animates its movement. As a collection (or collective?) of particles, it catches streams, traces currents, and colours breath. Smoke rises and swirls and snakes and disperses. There are countless practices involving smoke. Those that involve creating it intentionally and those that produce it second-hand from heat, fire, sparks, embers. Some ingest and consume smoke for spiritual, cultural, and social reasons. Like deep breathing, smok-ing alters our minds and bodies, conjuring different sensations, perceptions, and states of being. Smoke is sticky and clings to things, space, bodies, lungs. Although similarly born from a spark, it has the power to also extinguish life.
As Nana struggled to breathe that last night, we struggled with her. We found ourselves circling her. An amber light from the other room and the rising moon together cast a warm glow over the room. It was soothing. With our hands on her limbs, we tried to comfort her through each wave of struggle. I ran my fingers over her face, tracing the outlines, and then wondered aloud if we were all driving her crazy, which managed to cut through the tension by causing everyone to laugh and take a breath. Auntie Bunny leaned over and told Nana, “Nadine’s being a character.” Then we moved around again, rearranging our circle as the process continued. The entire week leading up to her last moments felt never-ending, yet at the same time everything wafted over us quickly and in a haze. We oscillated with her as she fought to take in air and release it, and we echoed words of encouragement and love in tandem. As she gasped for air, we held our breathe; as she struggled to inhale, our breath too caught in our throats, and with her final efforts we were left in suspense as she made a change of worlds. When the memory of this scene pops up, uninvited, obliging me to re-live this experience over and over at random, I sometimes imagine things differently to kind of re-remember something else. I envision a silky swirl of smoke rising from her mouth, giving shape to her spirit as it expands from her body; I picture it floating up above us in the room, as if she left before she could feel the labour of dying; I imagine the smoke reaching and dispersing in the space like coaxing fingers, becoming multiple and weaving into the different bodies nearby (human, plant, animal, and stone); and I see her smokey breath unfurling out the hospital window and traveling to the face of the full moon, from where she can watch over us.
Smoke is intangible, but sensible. We can see and feel it but cannot hold it, at least not for long because it's in constant transformation. When we breathe it, it carries a part of us, and it extends us in part. It intertwines with other flows, breaths, and bodies (humans and non-human, physical and non-physical). It's hypnotic.
Anna Tsing. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton Universtiy Press. 2005.
Donna Haraway. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kind in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press. 2016.
Lee Maracle. Memory Serves. NeWest Press. Alberta Canada. 2005.
Richard Wagamese. Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations. Douglas & McIntyre. 2016.