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Samhain and the Birthday Project: Art for Ancestors

In reflecting on this strange, sad year and what the holiday of Samhain invites us to do, mediate on, connect with, I had the feeling a few weeks ago that I should spend this week (or so) catching up with The Birthday Project in a way that might allow me to play in and with its spiritual side.

The Birthday Project is the life long art project I've assigned myself (or been given, or both) to honor my art ancestors and reflect on age. Each year on the eve of my birthday I spend time with the art of an ancestor who crossed over at the age I'm about to leave. So, the night before I turned 33 I listened to Karen Carpenter who passed at 32 years of age. The ancestors are always women or non-binary or trans folks as the matrix of gender and its baggage is an imperative through-line to me. And each year I think will be the year I get to complete the project within 12 months, but so far each project has needed more time and funds - and I do suspect that more funds/support would alleviate the need for more time to varying degrees. They are always started and developed and I'm doing my best to hear them each and know them well enough to complete them as best and meaningfully as possible.

Each day this week I'm giving time to each of the ancestors that are in my birthday project so far. The work I'm doing is connected to but not the finished pieces themselves, more like seances through improv. I'm reacquainting myself with each of these artists and doing my best to say thank you, to wrestle with their legacies as needed, and to use their work as a kind set of guides for my own - both shadow and light.

First up is Sylvia Plath. I first encountered Sylvia Plath's work in high school when a lot of things were not okay for me and art was really the only way I had to communicate anything about my interior and secret/traumatic lives, including suicidal ideation. When I first read Plath I was gobsmacked by her sharpness, the breath taking clarity of her imagery, the challenging musicality of her work. I couldn't fathom how someone with such fire could leave as young as she did. In a way, that's how work like hers can be a lifeline. In other ways, it's just so bold and strong that it can be a buoy in the drifting oceans of depression and PTSD. My high school year book quote is from "Poppies in October" - "A gift, a love gift / Utterly unasked for / By a sky"

The copy I have of Ariel is the copy I stole from the library in high school. It had two sets of pencil and penned notes throughout it, so I figured I gave the library the chance to buy a new, clean copy. At the time, keeping the one with notes allowed me to be in a some kind community in those pages. Reading it felt like witnessing other folks reading the work for the first time, navigating it as I was; the voyeuristic act reading of used books and secretly connecting to their past readers.

In some of my saddest moments crumbled on bathroom tiled floors I've thought of her, prayed to her in a sense, asked for her to hold me. It's more or less worked. Now, I think of the imperative to live and in doing so work to ensure others can as well - whether that's private support or political organizing.

Here's a little bit of Sylvia featuring a cameo by Samhain the kitten.


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