What God Looks Like

My mother once told me the story of a cartoon she saw in a newspaper some years ago, which explained God.

In the cartoon, God is a faceless, featureless oval on a table. People come to see and give thanks for all that God has done. They see that God has nothing, no way to see or feel or hear or think. So out of gratitude, the first person gives God a mouth, the next a nose, the next ears, and finally, when God has all the qualities that people have, God dies.

Every once in a while, my mind drifts back to that cartoon whose message I learned secondhand, and the ways one can interpret it.

It implies the same things as the sayings, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” or “No good deed goes unpunished.” It bears the ideas of how we, as people, can often try to fulfill needs that don’t exist, offer unsolicited advice, promote solutions that worked for us but may not work for others, or in general do things that evidence how we need so badly to be needed. All of which I think reveals our generosity more so than our selfishness, is more exemplary of our desire to be valuable and useful than of our ignorance. We want to relate and we want to be relatable. We want to find ourselves in others. And so it is that we may also want to design God–or whatever our beliefs may be–in our own image, not purely out of egotism, but out of some sort of self-validation or even vindication.

Of course, other times, my thinking is a little less…philosophical. Like on this warm, summery day, while I was out for a run, I thought about romance, gender wars, and whether God is more manly or womanly. And I concluded that God must be a woman, because Moses found his faith and calling by tending to the wishes of a flaming bush.

It figures that one of the most powerful women in history who got shit done was a fiery, hot bitch. Chill girls and accommodating women seldom get what they want, or make history, for that matter.

To believe and not believe

I grew up in a non-religious family, though many of my extended family members and hometown community (Kansas, for the record, heart of the Midwest) were very religious. And for that reason, I grew up with both the chance and the motivation to choose, a la carte, the things that made sense for me. I grew up with more questions than set-in-stone facts, because anything and everything that a friend, neighbor, or relative might believe in could be challenged by what another friend, neighbor, or relative valued. I grew up without celebrating holidays, which pushed me to ask myself what I would want out of the kind of gatherings that others felt so obligated to be a part of.

We did not celebrate birthdays in my family, or pray, or “break bread” together, and so I think I came to hunger for the rituals and acts of gathering that happen around those things, but not for the fluff or the stuff. As a result, there are few things I cherish more in my adult life than a meal with friends. And few things sadden me so much as any kind of meet-up, where despite everyone being bright and interesting in their own right, the social energy is somehow amiss or misdirected, and the loneliness/guardedness in our advanced and blessed society is so obvious.

Anyhow, as someone who grew up surrounded by a lot of religion despite not having one, I was asked and therefore made to reflect on whether I believe in God. It’s safe to say that I am in many ways a ritualistic person, and that I’ve pursued a lot of unlikely dreams, which requires faith against the skepticism of the “known” world. My answer to believing in God has changed over the years, and for the majority of the time I’ve probably been agnostic. But I have since concluded that yes, I do believe in God. I believe in the way that I believe in money.

What I understand is this: money exists because people agree that it exists, and what we collectively believe in becomes the truth. Money–like so many of our creations–could be the great equalizer. It gives us an objective measure so we don’t have to question what part of our lives is worth four cattle or ten kilos of tomatoes. It’s part of the agreement of living in a collective, a society with rules and infrastructure. Enough of it buys us freedom and teaches us responsibility. Too much or too little both destroys freedom and incites blame. But when we add distance between ourselves and the true value of the things we exchange and consume–while developing an overly-emotional attachment to this thing called money that by itself means nothing–money becomes evil and we become lost.

Like money and all the things we try to organize ourselves around, I think God has the chance to be a great equalizer. I don’t believe God is capable of existing without people or the living. Even if God were an old, white man in the heavens in the most traditional, Western sense, there wouldn’t be much to lord over without us. Regardless of what or who God is, it’s important for us as people to have something to believe in, some purpose to serve and strive for. “I am who I am,” said God to Moses, because God is not a name but a representation of what we care about, a term around which we can organize our understanding of this connection whose feeling we know but cannot easily explain. “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

“And did you have a better plan for freeing the Hebrews?” said God.
And so it is that we design God in our image. He is a man for all the men who have for generations carried the social pressures of wealth, war, and status, for the men who have not had the public’s permission to be weak. She is a woman for all the women who have been vessels for somebody else’s dreams, who still bears fruit, though we abuse Mother Nature and make a whore out of her for giving us the resources to fuel our vices. They is/are whomever we need to encourage us, to convince us that our aspirations are worthy of admiration that supersedes godly, and therefore humanly, judgment. God is our image of ideal leadership, a leader that does not exist without people to lead, a leader who looks like us, who is us. God is evidence that humankind does not want to be evil; just as people smile when their children take after them and hope they’ll become better versions of themselves, so, too, do people look to their origins, and hope to have inherited the best of their ancestors.

And so it is that we are responsible for creating God in the image of whom we would like to become. We are responsible for being just if we expect justice. We are responsible for choosing the qualities that we value in our leadership. We are responsible for our individual thinking, that fractals out into the design of our collective imagination. We are responsible for a creative and smart God who takes after us, because we take after Them. And we are responsible, too, for a God who embodies that which we lack, for the people we are not, but coexist with. For the people we are not, but wish to be. For the people we are not, but that our children may become.

An unexpected gift from my last visit to Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison! This bonsai is my loveliest new studiomate. :)

Like the Grown-Ups (v2)

Estoy estancada.

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I’m stuck. I’ve used up most of my paper, but am dissatisfied with my drawings here in Castro, Chiloé. The setting is tranquil. I am restless.

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On the bright side, I’m writing a lot every day, and really loving this seaside city. Each day the beauties and peculiarities of this place seep a little more inside of me.

The design of the city is both logically gridded and haphazardly rough, having to wrap over the rises and drops of the terrain. Much of the architecture uses the wood of this land and has become inseparable from its identity. Cinnamon lumber in the houses/powder on top of beverages.

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Then there are the palafitos, representatives of an amphibious lifestyle dependent on the sea.

The imagery this conjures up is fantastic. We humans are like the frogs, amphibious in nature, if not between land and sea, then between any two perspectives that must be at battle within us. Our loyalty to the water that has long nourished us turns into an attachment that keeps us from evolving and fully experiencing the joys of the land, the freedom of the sky.

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The feeling of Castro, Chiloé hovers between obstinate independence and frail tranquility. It has evolved in both the freedom and imprisonment of its isolation.

But while geographic isolation may have fueled and instilled the identity of a culture developing separately and uniquely from the rest of the world, the patterns of history are undeniably human. This is an immigrant land, both colorful and conflicted with the gifts and scars of its mixing heritages.

This is a city turning on the axis of gentrification. I visited a beautiful cafe yesterday in one the many restored palafitos of Castro, where I read a book about the history of these houses on stilts over a cup of Yogi tea like I mighty have been drinking in my own, hipster, American town.

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Los palafitos. Stilted houses that face the sea. Cages that captured fish from the receding tides. The beginnings of commerce in a new world. The blending of indigenous and Spanish cultures. The trade of goods and patrimonies.

Poor homes on the margins of society. Human refuse in the sea. Neighborhoods in decline. Fire that rapidly consumed closely packed wooden houses, among other man-made catastrophes. The eternal war of tradition vs modernity. The same seeds we sowed for progress have dug deep into the earth with the roots of a cultural identity we cannot escape.

Swap out the fish and lumber industries for General Motors and we might as well be in Detroit. Replace the palafitos with the skyline of an old, European city, a temple in China. Different industries, different architectures. Same questions, same reactions.

The palafitos were considered unsafe and unhygienic and under the constant threat of demolition, by both nature and by government.

Now, the same things that threatened the palafitos’ existence have proven their fortitude. If these houses survived fire, earthquakes, tsunamis, and rich politicians who considered them to be ugly, they must be something worth saving.

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Los palafitos. Boutiques filled with handmade, local goods. Hostels and hotels in shades of pink, green, and blue. Delicious, pricy, restaurants and cafes, that dress up and celebrate what have long been local tastes, so they may be newly discovered by the phenomenon of tourism. Sushi. Jasmine tea. Indie music. Fresh pressed juice. Chia seeds in baked goods.

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And now, the steeply climbing costs of real estate of any place reborn in its success.

Photos from the show at Proyecto’Ace and some thoughts from Chiloé

It’s hard to believe I arrived in South America almost two months ago. I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime compressed into three weeks here in Patagonia.

After being on the road and multiple long bus rides, I have now what feels like a gargantuan amount of time–ten whole days–in a remote, tranquil studio with no Wi-Fi, reachable from the city center most easily via taxi for between the equivalent of 80 cents to $1.30 (depending on your driver and whether you’re obstinate about not getting ripped off as a foreigner/disinclined to fight with someone who is desperate enough to lie for an extra 50 cents), or if one is so inclined, an hour’s walk straight up a hill.

I’ll have more to share soon about this island of Chiloé and my second residency here. For now, I’m ready to share some pictures from my first residency, in Buenos Aires.

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The story follows the life of a homing pigeon, who unlike other pigeons, leaves his home and what he knows, to work in a world delivering packages of no value to people with no heads. He is rewarded for his ambition with a life in a golden cage, delivering messages for heads that are not connected to the bodies they try to lead. He has a choice at this point, to be comfortable with his “reward” in life, or to pursue a different way of being.

I have carried a draft copy with me on this trip, sharing it with a few other travelers who have been curious about my business here.

One of the many beauties of travel is how it gathers transient people to bond through the universal art of storytelling.

I have two choices when I buy a bus or plane ticket. Ida, or Ida y Vuelta? Going, or Going and Returning? For three weeks, I’ve only been going, but in this next short week, going will become returning, as I wrap my journey northward again.

Always, we are going and returning, and there is nothing quite like leaving what we know to find whom we always have been.

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Proyecto’Ace, Week 2: Drawing and Carving the Images

If I’m to say any truth about the way our brains work, or at least my own, it’s that there’s often a delay between our experience of a thing and our understanding of it. (Or I’m just a little slow.)

This is my second post about my time at Proyecto’Ace. Read the first post here.

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The story is something of an allegory. Once I knew that I would be creating a fictitious tale, the storyboarding happened quite quickly. I love the momentum I had right from the start of this project. I finalized 12 images to illustrate this story, printed in two colors, for a total of 21 woodblocks to carve, print, and edition in under two weeks (my hand still aches thinking about it).

It’s funny to me that I had to fly to the other side of the equator to resolve thoughts that I have been brooding on for a long time in the States about our work culture.

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The story I’ve created follows the journey of a little homing pigeon, who, unlike other homing pigeons, decides to fly away from home.

He finds work as a carrier pigeon, delivering packages of no value to human beings who have no heads. He doesn’t understand these headless people, but continues to work hard in hopes of gaining something bigger.

Because of his ambition, he moves up in the world, to become a messenger for heads that have no bodies. This is the ambitious pigeon’s reward, to live a life in a golden cage through which he gets to see the world, and be a part of delivering messages that have no value and continue to drive the disconnect between people and their perspectives.

Stay tuned for posts three and four, where I’ll share the prints and resolution for this story.

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