Sunday, October 30, 2011

Death Becomes Her

I have always, always loved costume parties, the opportunity to become someone, something else for a day or night; the way costumed affairs cast a fanciful light onto even the most mundane times and places, from middle school cafeterias, to office parties with plastic cups balancing on the copier machine and bars lit dimly only to hide their prosaic features.

No matter how uninspired the event or the place or even its bearer, a true costume always lends some strange magic to them. A true costume, of course discounts "sexy nurses", "sexy firemen", "sexy air stewardesses" and "sexy garbage truck drivers", as well as giant alien heads, cheap, plastic presidents and werewolves, and most anything that smacks of store-bought packaged costumes. Only children have the transformative powers to make a plastic Darth Vader mask the terrifying presence of the Dark Lord himself. A true costume, you see, is a transformation. You put it on, piece by piece, and suddenly, inside that cardboard and facepaint, or even the cheap plastic mask, you are someone else.
Perhaps it is only because I was raised in a theater, but I truly believe in the power of metamorphosis as an ancient tool of self-knowledge. We no longer perform rites that require our transformation into deities and demons, our own ancestors and animal spirits. There are no sacred costumes, secret identities we get to assume yearly. We are not transported from ourselves, joined into the larger order of the universe or the chain of our predecessors, by a bit of painted clay or wood, a swishing reed skirt, or a heavy crown resting on our brow. Instead, we are our mundane, everyday selves 365 carefully meted out days a year.

(I do have to add that I actually happen to live in a community where masked rituals do take place as a part of our celebrations.)

Bella Muerte
The power of our chosen costumed affair, All Hallow's Eve, Halloween then, is actually quite significant. Far from just putting on your cardboard contraption and taking a child off to gather sweets from friends and neighbors for the empty threat of tricks, there is an air of genuine mischief about the celebration.
A nation as prim and "family-valued" as this, for a short season adorns it's front stoops and store windows with ghastly images, reminders of ancient terrors and the very modern fear of death itself. It dresses its' children up and lets them loose on their own tiny Bacchanalia, an orgy of refined sugar and corn syrup (surely every parent's nightmare). Its' grown-ups don ridiculous get-ups and mask their identities.
Covering your face affords you certain liberties, whether they are real or imagined. Masked affairs can easily lead to masked affairs, debauchery, property destruction, over-indulgence. They enable behaviors considered deviant, to become socially acceptable, if even for a night. Cross-dressing, explicit sexuality and morbidity abound.

Often our choice of costume reflects some facet of our personality, perhaps the way we wish to be seen, or a deeper subconscious part that we are free exhibit only through a frivolous activity, such as a character we inhabit for a masquerade.
There are the afore-mentioned sex-kitten costumes, telling perhaps of only our need to be pretty and accepted, rather than wild and dangerous, at all times. Then there are the humorous and ironic costumes, a lighter side of these darkening days, a need to not take ourselves seriously, or perhaps an inability to do so. And finally, the grotesque characters, the mutilated bodies, the zombies, the skeletons of our subconscious closets.
The American Halloween is but a variation of the Day of the Dead celebrations the world over. Where I'm from All Saint's Day is for remembrance of the dead, when cemeteries all over the country are lit up with hundreds of thousands of candles, illuminating this dark time of year. In Great Britain, remnants old of pagan traditions hold, the veil between the worlds thins on Shamhain, which may have also been a remnant of a Celtic new year's celebration, a time of harvest, cleansing and new beginnings. Dia de los Muertos, is in Mexican tradition, a twist on the catholic remembrance of dead loved ones and saints, as well a raucous celebration of life by acknowledging that which follows it.

It is from the latter tradition that I will borrow my costume from tomorrow night, going as a Calavera Catrina, or perhaps Mictecacihuatl, an elegant skull, a Lady of The Dead. Not content to with pretty finery (though being able to dress like a Mexican christmas tree is certainly part of the attraction), I look forward to adding some disquiet to the mix. I imagine the skeleton woman silent, smiling, having for a night transcended that which this holiday represents: The endless circle of life. Each death a new beginning.
And who or what are you going to swap your skin for this dark and stormy night? Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I got my first and only tattoo for my 20th birthday. In London. In a fairly sketchy basement in Camden. In 1999, the year when hundreds of thousands of girls everywhere where getting inked with what were essentially characters from Chinese take-out menus and claiming that the signs they could not themselves decipher meant "serenity" and "inner strength" and "hot sexy mama". The year that the word "tribal" took on a whole new meaning. The year "tramp stamps" were still the epitome of cool. So I could have done a lot worse for myself than I did. A lot, a lot.

Not that this is some sort of paean to my own impeccable taste. Far, far from it. You should see some of the s*** I was wearing in those days (if I can find some photo evidence, maybe I'll share it some day). But I did get lucky on the tattoo department, if only because I'd been planning it for at least three years.
My one and only tattoo is an equal mix of snowflake, nordic compass, medicine wheel and pictogram and I had designed it myself with a shaky hand on the margins of my notebooks over hours and hours of high school boredom. It held then, and now, multiple layers of symbolism for me, ideas that I'm happy to carry around for the rest of my days. Like I said, this was mostly luck, a little bit of good taste and good sense buried in layers of black hair and nose ring and next-to-non-existant eyebrows.
As my twenties drew to a close, I had grand ideas for a tattoo to mark my third decade: two birds of a particular kind (not swallows!) on my shoulders where anatomically speaking one's wings might be, over my scapulas, the wing-bones so to speak.

I wanted my husband to draw these spirit birds for me, but we could never quite materialize the design and I took that as a sign that I should keep looking.

Around then, I also thought of getting a single owl feather, in white and brown and other natural tones on my forearm, but a balked as feather tattoos suddenly became the trendy thing to have and I felt as though I couldn't be absolutely sure of my own motives. Did I really want this thing for its symbolic value, or was I being influenced by those demon-headed hipsters of popular culture? I suppose if you have to ask such questions, it's best to leave the ever-lasting jewellery to others.
Drawing on human skin holds a lot of power in my mind.

Judging from how wide-spread tattoos are in all cultures, it is fair to speculate that skin art has been a part of humanity's adornment since the dawn of man. Their meanings certainly have varied from culture to culture, ranging from signifying rank, to being part coming-of-age ritual, to simple vanity.

As we entered the 21st century the tattoo had risen from relative obscurity and secrecy to a very common place adornment. They are now perhaps more prevalent in mainstream, Western society, than they have ever been and like so many things co-opted by us, the masses, their original connotations have been greatly diluted.

Inking your skin has left behind its former outlaw status, as a preoccupation of criminals, sailors and fancy ladies and tattoos now adorn the arms and chests of investment bankers, teeny-bobbers and well, your mom.

Any cultural significance the tattoo has, is now simply held in the eye of its beholder, the person who chooses what they wear on their skin.
For the reasons stated above I don't consider getting inked lightly. As you may know by now, I'm kind of hellbent on making sure that my decisions are thoroughly meditated. However, I also don't subscribe to the popular notion that you will inevitably live to regret your ink when you're a grandmother of 12, embarrassed by the wrinkled Sea Shepherd-logo on your bicep. Hecks no you won't if you're a person of any integrity to begin with! You'll be proud to tell them all about the time you stink-bombed a Japanese whaling ship and saved a pod of minke whales in the process. A tattoo can be a reminder of how one sees oneself, who you are, or who you aspire to be, or who you once were.

It is true that we constantly change and grow and sometimes wish we could shed our entire skin in the process, but I feel that the person that you were is what you build the person you become on.
So when I gave up on my previous ideas for a tattoo, as too vague and perhaps too superficial, I simply kept on looking for others. For a long time I've been intrigued by the idea of tattooing a special word, perhaps a whole sentence, a quote from a favorite poem, or a few meaningful syllables on myself.

It's surprising how hard it seems to find the word(s) that I would want to carry with me always.

Words have come and poems have gone and thought I still wonder if I'll ever find the right
one(s), I now see that it hardly matters whether the word I chose were just a passing fancy.

The right words will come, or perhaps, in hindsight, the wrong ones.

In the meantime, I've finally settled on the images I want.

I now know that I want a particular plant of significance, personal meaning, to grow on my forearm, as well as a representation of the celestial world, some small moon I can always carry with me. Perhaps even just a circle representing a moon. A tangible rendition of some small piece of the whole universe, loaded with multiple meanings.

Sometimes I feel like almost any beautiful image could serve as a reminder of all the glory that one can experience at any moment.
We carry tattoos like we carry all our choices, good and bad, with us forever, and then suddenly, we cease to exists, and so do they. There are no mistakes, only choices.
Whatever they may have been : A moon, a yew tree, a perfect circle...

Got it? Want it? Abhor it? Why?

All images from the Tattoologist, except the last one, which belongs to Lost Boys And Lovers.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What's green and blue and purple all over?

No. It's not the small winter bed I finally weeded today.
Though there are purple radishes and red Russian kale, which is basically purple, green fava beans and spinach and chard.
In the spirit of "and now for something completely different", I'd like to divert your thoughts from protests and patriotism to...well, my hair.
It's green! It's purple! It's blue! Need I mention that this is going to be a very frivolous posting?
About ten years ago, I decided, somewhat on a whim to dye my hair firetruck red a la Sibyl Buck (I was living in London after all...). Three bleach bottles later, I was a true red-head with eye-brows to match. I sported the hair for about a year (and solicited a compliment for it from one Gael Garcia Bernal in the mean time), until I traded it for a more natural-looking red and kept that for another couple of years. It was quite the hassle to keep touching it up and after I returned my hair to its natural color, I never thought I'd dye it again.
And then I did. And I dyed it green. And I love it.
The best part is that it doesn't even look that radical or strange, partly because of the awesome dye job Willow did and partly because it's actually very little hair. If you discount the fact that I look a tiny bit like a teenage goth, it's actually quite demure. Green hair for the former Riot Grrrls in their thirties...
The best part is that it makes me feel completely unserious about myself. I mean, how am I gonna win an argument? My hair is green.
In other news, we've spent our days getting ready for the fair and our nights partying away. Today I finally caught up on some house chores and spent some time wild-crafting around a newly developed section of the park. It is somehow eerie there, lots of light and open space where the used to be a dark swampy area. While I'm not excited about the development itself, there are some lovely little plants there to harvest and it's fun to walk around the wide roads with nothing by them, like an invisible city in the woods.
The sun has been coming out regularly and we have high hopes that she will do the same East of the mountains.
Now I better get my canning on. There's green tomato salsa to be made.
How's your protest, canning, or most importantly, hair doing?

Monday, October 10, 2011

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple; by the relief office, I've seen my people

The rest of the oft omitted lyrics to Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" go something (as with most folk songs, there are a number of versions) like this:
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Guthrie wrote the lyrics of "This Land" as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" which he saw as too sugar-coated and indifferent to the actual American reality of most. By the time the song gained popularity among 60s folk singers and even the general public, the last two verses had been omitted from popular memory, yet they, and not the manifest-destiny echoing first verses, truly capture the spirit of a very American dilemma; how to be patriotic, when your country is a mere shadow of what it claims to stand for?
One of the biggest problems I, and many Europeans have with America, is how complacent its population by-and-large seems. In a country with a written, accepted mainstream history so short and full of upheaval, one might think that Americans would be a nation ready to embrace protest in the manner of say the French (the government does anything but anything and the whole country shuts down ;); as well as being well aware of its riotous past.
After all, some of the greatest moments of this nation, the ones its kids proudly read in their history books, were acts of protest, civil disobedience, or even plainly against the rule of law. The Boston Tea Party? The Underground Railroad? Property damage and theft. Vote for women? A series of peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience. The abolishment of child labor, the creation of the 40 hour work-week and the weekend ("Socialists-the folks who brought you the weekend";), as well as many other worker's rights? Civil disobedience and "unpatriotic" revolutionary activity (A hundred years ago the Seattle shipwrights union sparked the first and only successful general strike in America over an industry attempt to divide the union by offering skilled labour a raise, while stagnating the wages of unskilled labour. This capitalist technic failed miserable when all the union members walked out, then called all of their comrades in the IWW to join them. During this time the unions basically ran the city-feeding its people, policing the streets and organizing infrastructure). The civil rights movement? Women's liberation? Peaceful protest, civil disobedience, outright revolutionary activities.
Perhaps, one could speculate, the American individualist is not as likely to join a mass movement as the more communally connected Europeans. The self-sufficient homesteaders and self-contained suburbanites they begat, often seem more concerned with the well-being of "me-and-mine", than the well-being of the Nation, its collective values.
And, of course, the powers-that-be play into this wide spread disinterest in rebellion. Even as other Western nations have come to view peaceful protest as a fundamental right of the people, as well as a way to keep the public discourse diverse, America has never truly embraced its citizen's right to protests. Especially if those who protest happen to have leftist agenda, or a radically different view of the direction the country should be taking. The American establishment's antagonistic policies towards protesters hark back to a much earlier and less enlightened era.

In the face of the institutional brutality that so often makes an appearance in an American protest rally, it seems no wonder the American people don't take to the streets more often.
Nowhere else in the "first world" have I ever felt such a oppressive police presence than in the land of the free and I can't say that I don't sympathize with its people's fear of standing up to "the man". Being a recent immigrant, I certainly feel vulnerable at the thought of being arrested at a protest. Or heck, even writing about this.
Liberty Square Library
However an ideal nation represents what's best and bravest of its people. Their resilience, their moral and physical courage, their willingness to admit their short comings. These are also traits I believe each individual person should try to embody in their actions.
Protester with sign on back
Which is why I'm writing this post. Because finally, in this year of turmoil in the Middle East and Greece and other old European nations, it seems America is waking from its slumber. Instead of investing our hopes in one man battling the corporate establishment for us, it seems we are realizing our own powers.

What I'm trying to say is, that in a Drop Dead Gorgeous -small-town-beauty-pageant-contestant-kinda-way Occupy Wall Street makes me proud to be a future Finnish-American.
Thousands of ordinary folk from all over the country joining in a peaceful protest, speaking for themselves and those who cannot speak for themselves in a powerful voice, demanding that justice and common sense prevail, while organizing their own, utopian society (with a very nice library, mind!) in a city park, to me represents what is truly great about this nation.
This is the America I believe in and want to belong to. And though I can't be there in person, there are other ways to participate. I'm hoping to check out the scene at Occupy Seattle, or the protest in Bellingham, soon, and in the meantime will be sending care packages to both Occupy Seattle and Occupy Wall Street.

The folks on Wall Street say they're currently running low on food and will take canned and dry goods of any kind. They also need scarves, blankets, hats and mittens and all kinds of items to warm the growing number of bodies. I think some organic soap, toothpaste and hand-sanitizer might be nice too, as well as something for the library. Perhaps a little Kerouac, some Jack London and a that extra copy of Civil Disobedience that's been kicking around.

It's the least I can do in exchange for some social change.

(Perhaps this is why we've been honing those care package sending skills. A few none-protest-related just took off today ;)
This is a year of turmoil and all these different protests, to me, represent a positive force, something to believe in, a gathering of kindred spirits.
CREDIT: Anjali Cadambi
What do you think about the rise of the new American protest movement? Got stories from the trenches or past glories? What would you be willing to fight or sleep out in the cold for?

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And Happy Anti-Columbus Day, too!
Please enjoy it with this awesome post from Nicole.

Yours in dissent,