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riffles and pools of touch and feel

December 23, 2012

Today Spouse is working on photographs from a recent session with a particular model. Spouse loves working with this woman: she moves with her whole body; she has a range of facial expressions; she’s wryly funny; and she’s very intelligent. Written out like that, she almost sounds like me, but she works with Spouse very differently than I did, back when I still modeled for him.

When I see her photographs, though, I feel this . . . yearning toward something. I think I want to model for him again, but not like before. I understand myself a lot better than I did 15 years ago. I understand better what I want to get out of it.

15 years ago, I didn’t realize that Spouse and I were attempting completely distinct things. He doesn’t know until he sees the photograph on the computer whether it worked or not. In the moment that he’s taking the photograph, his mind roils with technical details. He may be conscious of how much he and the model seem to be in sync, but by that he would mean, “to what degree does the model (instinctively, or with minimal direction) understand what I want her to do (which is not ‘posing’); how well is she accomplishing that”. Spouse is absolutely interested in collaborating, but only to a point.

As far as I can tell, he’s primarily a visual artist; secondarily, verbal/writing.

15 years ago, I would have characterized myself the same way.


Spouse is the only person I’ve ever tried to talk about these things with, but he’s not very philosophical. On the other hand, about art, I’m not trying to be philosophical. I’m actually trying to work out how to do something, or figure out why what I have been doing hasn’t been working. So I can figure out what kind of thing to try next. It’s not abstract at all; it’s pragmatic.

This morning, talking about the this stuff with Spouse, he laughed and said I was “such a thinker!” I said, “I’m trying to be an inventor, or a designer. (Or something.) But I’ve barely invented or designed anything. So calling myself either sounds like someone who says, ‘I’ve never written anything, but I’m a Writer! When I do write something, it’s going to be fabulous!’ In other words, a total poser. And yet, I have been working on stuff my whole life. It’s just that most of it isn’t tangible. So what do I call myself? ‘Thinker’ gives people entirely the wrong impression. Hmmm.” (Spouse, back at his computer, did not respond.)


I had a flash of insight about why I’ve always been fascinated by translation. Why I’ve always wanted to be a translator.

I don’t think in words. I don’t think in pictures. I think in multi-sensory gestalt vignettes that are infused with feelings. I like the ambiguity of the word ‘feelings’ in English: it can mean (1) ‘emotions’; (2) how something feels to touch receptors, like fingers or skin; and/or (3) something more like ‘ambience’ / ‘vibes’. I’ve recently realized that I’ve experienced (4) a voluptuous sense of, well, ‘volume’ comes the closest, but that’s not quite right either. It’s sort of like what smell or taste tells you, but instead of you tasting the food, the ‘food’ envelops you.

There aren’t words for what I want to say. Even picturing it in my mind is already one level removed from raw experience; words are (at least) two levels removed. Or translated.

To even begin to share my experiences with someone else I have to first translate them at two different levels. I’m guessing that process requires a lot of bandwidth. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I haven’t accomplished very much that’s tangible. Or that, when I do accomplish something tangible, I’m dissatisfied with it, in ways I struggle to explain to anyone.

That’s what happened with the photographs of me Spouse took. There were plenty that he liked. There were a lot fewer that I liked. He says now that that happened because his technical skills back then weren’t very good. That’s not the real problem. Which I know because my mother managed to take a few photographs of me that ‘worked’ to my satisfaction, with far fewer technical skills. On the other hand, I don’t think my mother had preconceptions about what those photographs should look like—she just enjoyed taking photographs.

The thing is, what the photograph ‘looks like’ isn’t what matters most to me. What I care about is what I felt in that moment. If the photograph captures what I felt, then to me, it succeeds. If it’s also beautiful (or at least compelling), that’s wonderful. If it’s also technically accomplished, I guess that’s a good thing, but I don’t really care about that.

So Spouse’s primary medium is photography / visual. A secondary medium is words.

My primary medium is, I think, feelings / touch. My secondary medium is visual; my tertiary medium is words.

It seems highly unlikely, then, that I became a writer. Except that no one in my family of origin is proficient with emotional expression. I recently realized my mother must be tactile first, and that was something she and I shared (that was not true, I think, for my father, my mother’s sister, or any of my siblings). That is, in fact, what I miss about my mother. Words between us were always a minefield. They were almost never a comfort. They lied and deceived, even though she may not have meant to do so; she was probably lying to herself as much as to me. I couldn’t trust words. But touch, for me, does not, cannot lie.

And that, inevitably, returns me in memory to Oklahoma City in 1985. I was drowning and I didn’t know why. Or how to fix it. My life was a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from. Words obscured the truth. My emotions pulled me in many conflicting directions. I couldn’t make sense of anything.

And then there was this one day that everything became clear.

We were arguing, as usual. This argument escalated, became physical. I was afraid. Enough that I struck back (despite being a committed pacifist). He was astonished, and then furious. He hit me so hard that I . . . well, I’m not actually sure what happened. ‘I lost consciousness’ seems to be closest, but what I do know is, I had an out of body experience.

That precipitating strike cleaved through months of fog. I felt what was true. No matter what he said, he wasn’t my friend anymore. He wanted me dead. I’d been in grave danger all along. But maybe now all my suffering had ended?

When I woke up, he was shaken. But I knew it wasn’t concern for me so much as panic over what to do with a dead body. So he didn’t get in trouble. You know, for homicide. Little thing like that.

Something inside me had changed irrevocably when I felt his intentions. That was when—finally—my survival instinct kicked in. Whatever connection there had been between us was gone. I was living in a brave new world, with all my hopes, ashes. But I was also liberated by not feeling like I was obligated to salvage anything. There was nothing to preserve, or conserve. The past was dead.


I love words. And I love writing. But you can’t touch them. I love painting and drawing. But being touched can damage them. And except for the texture of brush or knife strokes, and the volume of paint, touching a painting doesn’t convey any additional information.

But still, when I see an amazing painting, my fingers yearn towards it. It’s worse with anything sculptural. I have to put my hands behind my back, because otherwise they’ll try to sneak in a touch. Despite the signs everywhere. Spouse gets exasperated, but then, he’s not tactile. I’ve tried explaining in words but I think it’s like trying to explain colors to someone who’s blind. He has no frame of reference.

If I’d realized I was primarily tactile a long time ago, I would’ve tried different things. I would have lived a different life. But I don’t think it would’ve been a better one. In fact, I think it would’ve been less complex, and probably less interesting.

Because I have to translate everything, twice, other elements are unavoidably introduced into my message. Some might call those other elements ‘noise’, because they distract from what I intended. That’s not how I see it. Those other elements introduce different perspectives, that my bodymind would (or could) never have produced, so everything I do becomes conversation, between me and my environment, between me and my neighbors, between me and serendipity.

If I could somehow produce art that reflected entirely and only my own vision, for me, that would be unbearably sterile, lifeless.

So often I see the work of fiber artists who proudly talk about only using fabrics they’ve dyed themselves. Not for them commercially printed fabrics, nor even fabrics hand dyed by others. Their own vision is so singular, so pure, it mustn’t be interfered with.

I’m guessing they’ve not had the experience of walking through a display of fabrics or garments and finding your eye caught by something you didn’t think you liked. For me, a few years back, it was fabric in a yellow and white plaid. I was still telling myself I wasn’t allowed to like plaid. And I hated yellow. And yet, this fabric called to me. I bought a yard, having no idea what I could do with it. Eventually the two of us came up with some ideas. So far none of them have been much to look at. But a lasting change occurred anyway. I now have room for yellow in my life. And over time, with other encounters, I managed to admit that I really liked plaid. And that was okay.

If I refused to interact with anything that didn’t support my own ideas, how would my comfort zone ever expand? For that matter, if I did feel myself changing, could I roll with it? Or would I deny it, because it didn’t fit with my plans?

I started my small business four months ago, meaning to focus on editing first, writing second. I do like doing developmental editing, and I think I would enjoy collaborating, but I haven’t had an opportunity to find out, as my three experiences so far were one-offs: One person loved what I said about her one project; one person hated what I said about her two projects. I have far more experience (and, I think, skill) with copyediting and proofreading, but both are rules based, and that’s not an approach I find inherently congenial—I’m not sure it works against my strengths but it definitely doesn’t work with them.

So mentally and emotionally, I’ve been concentrating on writing first.

When I went to the conference on water quality a few weeks ago, I got an idea about a niche that isn’t being served by what’s available. I think I could create something for that niche. But it would require me learning how to do something complicated that I’ve essentially never done before. To make it useful to other people would be orders of magnitude more complicated than the straightforward part. Although that complexity, now that I’ve started to do some research, consists partly of things I already have known aptitudes and skills and experience in. So it’ll involve a huge amount of effort, in a lot of different arenas (well beyond my original thought). But I remain strangely captivated by the idea, all the same.

Even if, someone else who already has the skills I’ll need to acquire, fills my niche before I can get to it. I still think it’s worth doing.

I wasn’t thinking of this effort as having anything to do with my business. But it seems like it could. It even seems possible that this effort could take off in a way that editing for money . . . hasn’t. Or maybe it might instead lead me to still other ideas about things I could do to earn money. Things I can be excited about doing. Things I want to do, for their own sake.

(Well, I still want to do writing for its own sake. I still am doing it. But beyond that.)

My initial idea, though, didn’t spring full-blown from my own head. If I hadn’t gone to that conference, I might never have thought of it.

My materials for my art—my media—are interactions with others. Sometimes those others are fibers or fabrics, or paints and canvas. Sometimes they are organisms I photograph. Sometimes they are people I connect with. But what kind of artist am I? Do I qualify as an inventor or designer? If so, what am I inventing or designing? Because I think most of it is ‘meta’ even more than it is tangible.

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