Saturday, March 16, 2019

a day in the life (and death)

I had a conversation once with a friend in Costa Rica about seasons.  He asked me what it was like to live in the northeast in the U.S. and have such distinct changes.  I told him that, having grown up in Connecticut, we reveled in Winter: snowball fights, snow angels, and patient older brothers trying to teach us to skate.  The blooming of Spring was so life-affirming:  the lilac tree outside my bedroom window still perfumes the memories of my youth.  Summertime was all about the neighborhood beach and backyard suntanning.  And in Autumn we actually had hay rides among the orange-colored leaves, and freshly baked apple pies.  At the end of that tropical conversation, we decided that the jungle had a more realistic climate:  everything living and dying all at the same time.  Just like life.

Yesterday we buried a good friend from church, Ms. Harriet.  She passed away a day after our friend Lois and just a couple weeks after Inez.  It's been an incredibly trying time.  So, yesterday we had an early viewing (not exactly how I plan to remember her), and a lovely service at noon -- with lots of family stories of her warmth and feistiness and an absolutely stirring rendition of the song "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."  We laid her to rest in Manhattan (my first!) at the stunning Trinity Mausoleum and Cemetery.  There was just enough time to sit with a few of her family members before grabbing a quiet bit to eat and then setting up the Friday community movie: Whatever Happened To Baby Jane.  I might have mentioned before that at St. Mary's in Harlem we set up an impromptu theater and show a film, complete with movie snacks and dinner, and we invite everyone, but particularly make our homeless neighbors feel welcome.  About 40 people come each week -- just to be together, to feel safe, and to engage.  It is quite a lovely thing to be involved in, the bringing of people together.  Last night I had to leave the movie early because I had forgotten I had two tickets to see Alice Smith, one of my favorite RnB/rock singers at the Apollo theater for the Women of the World festival.  At the last minute I dragged my friend Lysander, who had never seen her (or been to the Apollo), and together we had our minds blown.  The incredible artistry, musicality, overall diva-ness, brought us to tears.  She sang a version of "I Put a Spell on You" that was literally unlike anything you've ever heard in your lifetime.  It gave us a flood of ideas for our own art projects (both visual and musical).

In all, it was a whirlwind of a day.  But it was almost midnight and we were very hungry, so we hilariously typed "fried food" into Google maps and found each one closed.  "Restaurants open near me" brought us to the bustling Afrika Kine in Harlem where we ended up with a crazy delicious spicy whole fish and some outstanding toppings.  Over the meal, we talked about how many disparate things we fit into the day:

-- Death and sorrow
-- service and community
-- art and beauty
-- and a mouthwatering "treat yo' self" meal.  

Maybe we were feeling (understandably) overly philosophical, but it seemed like these are the elements we should expect from each and every day going forward -- à la the jungle theory.  There is only extra pain in store if we expect life without death -- If we think "winter is coming" instead of always with us.

Don't get me wrong, it's my nature to curl up in a ball at each loss.  But since I can't actually live in that ball (trust me, I've tried), and, realistically, death is always with us, I've got to learn how to breathe through it, art through it, create through it, love through it, sing through it.  

"I sing because I'm happy.  I sing because I'm free.  His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me."

Monday, December 17, 2018

another lucky day

My dad could be a bit of a curmudgeon.  He saw things through a lens that was, at times, quite dark:  ulterior motives, suspicion, criticisms.  Despite his ability to invoke terror in small children and powerful adults alike, he had what some might consider a surprising quality:  profound gratitude.  Its expression strengthened as time went on, although I don't doubt the feeling was always a guiding principle.  Toward the end of his life (he passed away this spring) he routinely reminisced about his somewhat humble beginnings and marveled at the relative comfort he'd achieved.  And, starting at about 4pm most days, would proclaim:  "another lucky day!"

If he had a visitor, or a delicious meal, or a pleasant outing -- even just around town or to the grocery store -- on the drive home he would begin: "another lucky day!"  I'm sure part of it was simply gratitude for life.  Every day is surely a gift.  But it was also the little things, and particularly the joy of family, that most inspired his appreciation.  A visit with his childhood rival turned brother-in-law, a chance to play puppeteer for his great grandchildren, a reading from The Hobbit by his daughter, edge-of-your-seat stories of his sons' travels, a mouthwatering home cooked meal with his beloved wife.  All lucky.

Gratitude is a gift that comes too late for some.  I believe it's best enjoyed early in life, so it can ripen into a constant companion.  The kind of companion that sits with you in your grief or loneliness.  That calls you on your excessive pride.  That stands with you as you reach out to those in need.  

Every year -- for what I'm told is over 100 years now -- we gather our extended Slocum family (which includes, of course, Hilliards, Cottinghams, Nelsons, Newtons, Johnsons, Streaters, Ortizes, Ingletons, Meehans, Harrisons, LaFerrieres, and more) to celebrate Christmas, just before the actual day.  It is an outrageous celebration of food, fun, games, and desserts.  And gifts.  Every family, and many individuals, arrive laden with gifts for each family member and their guests.  For the past few Christmases, my contribution has been a doodle of a family phrase printed onto t-shirts.  I call them "Dadisms" because these sayings, no matter their true origin, were made known to me through my dad (or his dad).  As I ride home from last night's festivities, I can't help but feel grateful for my loving, supportive, and boisterously joyous family.  And I know exactly what my father would have said:

Sunday, November 25, 2018

the coming light

Ever since my brother Michael's girlfriend Nancy gave me my first one, filled with tiny chocolates, when I was about 12, I've been a little bit obsessed with advent calendars.  I only started making them myself about six or eight years ago.  I doodled tiny holiday images (a steaming pie, a candle, a dove, a half-knitted sweater) and hid them behind the windows of a simple drawing of my church's Victorian rectory house.  I cut each window with an exacto knife and glued the cardstock pages together. The windows were numbered, so between December first and December 25th, you could open a window and see a doodled treat.

I'm not sure why I made it.

I had been shaken to my core in 2008 when Jdimytai Damour, the Wal-Mart worker, was trampled to death by crowds of holiday bargain shoppers.  Then and there I opted out of buying Christmas gifts.  The idea of holiday shopping made me feel ill -- and somehow complicit.  It still does.  Since then, my family and friends have suffered through all manner of handmade nonsense, each item made with love, of course, and reflecting the immeasurable love I feel for each of them.  

For me, a handmade advent calendar is the antithesis of holiday commercialism.  It requires you to slow down just a tiny bit and reflect.  Even if all you're reflecting on is a bit of silliness.  One year I painted a watercolor Christmas tree and copied it onto glossy paper, with brightly colored ornaments doodled with markers.  The ornaments said words like "love" or "joy," or were just abstract patterns.  Small removable dot stickers with numbers covered them.  Very simple.  Even after some elaborate years -- with garlands of envelopes packed with snacks, songs, leather goods, and funny legal documents (!) -- a few people have said that little tree is their favorite.  There is something refreshing about simplicity around the holidays.

As an Episcopal, I know that the liturgical season of Advent neither regularly begins on Dec. 1 nor ends on Dec. 25th (it is instead marked by the four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas eve), but I think those dates make for a more universal holiday experience (and more uniform calendar production, for sure).  In the church, the season of Advent is the beginning of the church year and is a time of waiting and self-preparation for the coming of Christ, who is sometimes referred to as "a light in the darkness."

In the liturgy, there are four colored advent candles, representing (depending on who you ask) hope, peace, joy, and love, lit weekly.  And while some years I've included bible passages, hymns, or doodles of baby Jesus, for the most part my calendars are rather secular.  I'm partial to those (hopefully) universal candle themes, and that of the fifth candle, called the Christ candle: light for the world. 

My best friend Jean is an atheist and many years ago recounted to me the sweet conversation she had with her son when he asked what Christmas was.  She told him (in similar words) that all around the world, in most every culture, during the season that's darkest, people come together to celebrate light.

These calendars might be my way of providing a reminder (for others and myself) that, no matter how difficult these times may be for us, the light is coming.  It comes from above and also within.  And it can be found in strangers, acts of kindness, and steaming pies.  Darkness always exists, but, together, our light can overcome it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

model family

i am hesitant to share with you how awesome and supportive my family is.  i know some of you have longed for familial support.  or even just fondness.  so, trigger warning for the lovey-dovey family stuff that follows, with my apologies.  (also, rest assured, we have more challenging qualities, too, but those are for another day.)

my favorite niece (haha, actually my only, so far) came up from virginia with her family a few weekends ago and we all just sat around, enjoying each other's company and laughing our heads off.  like, until soymilk spilled from our noses.  we ate delicious food — pretty much all day long, told travel stories, snuggled, and celebrated a birthday or two, while keeping my recuperating dad company and intermittently watching old-timey tv shows (gunsmoke, the rifleman) with him.

i brought a handful of my products with me just in case I found some modeling volunteers.  and, boy, did i!!  here are just a few of the family members who stepped in to help me:

family hat models, quilt model, and blossom clip models one recent weekend.

lest you think we're just a family of hams, let me tell you, yes, okay, there are obviously a couple of those.  but we have just as many super shy ones and also a couple couldn't-be-bothereds, too.  a regular mix of personalities.  yet everyone helped.

the help isn't just in modeling, either.  there's product development advice (what about tiny blossom clips for little girls?  uh, yes!) and packaging suggestions (don't let the back of the display card get too busy; wait, that needs to be wrapped in plastic).  and when dad exclaims "$39.99 just for THAT?!?" they immediately chime in with "each one is made by hand, dad!" and "leather accessories aren't cheap!" to defend you — and to counter the "back in MY day, leather flowers were a penny" reminiscences.  all unprompted.

my family also tested new products for me.  (i had serious trouble getting the below hat, with an african-printed hatband i made, back from one "tester."  she claimed her head was suddenly "cold.") and the "autumn leaf" modeled below seems to have disappeared right after this sweet photo was taken...

autumn leaf clip model mom
hat testing/stealing sister

in the classes i took at columbia business school, we were warned on day one that our friends and family aren't "real" customers — they will lie to you to make you feel better — and aren't at all representative of the people on the street. 

thank god for that.

Friday, September 15, 2017


while dancing with my comrades a couple weekends ago at a music festival celebrating black culture and punk/alternative music (the aptly named afropunk fest), we took a moment to stop by the booth the met museum had set up.  i confess i wasn't sure their participation was a good fit.  turns out it was pretty spectacular: prints of works in their collection for making collages and turning into buttons; metal supplies for making jewelry (the majority of which ended up as crowns and tiaras); and printed papers and sewing supplies for paper jewelry.  they also had prints of interesting jewelry from their collection on display for inspiration.  the best thing they contributed to the spirit of the event, though, was an unassuming chalkboard on which were written two simple questions; "how can art make a difference?" and "why does art matter?"  that, plus a bucket of chalk, was all the people needed.

kim at afropunk brooklyn
these are some of the responses that festival participants wrote, in no particular order:

Art puts words to the unspoken
Art is honest
Art makes us feel more ALIVE
It allows me to be free!
Art creates love
Art allows us to ask questions that can change the world!!
It is how I am heard
It opens the mind to different consciousness
Art is the key to expressing the soul. --PD
"It is an artist's job to reflect the times" -- Nina Simone
Art provides purpose
Because it lets me be the best & worst part of myself while healing
It makes us whole!
Because when we make art there's no war!
Speaking truth!
Art is a universal language
THROUGH ACTIVISM (think music -> sam cooke OR gordon parks)
Connects us to 1 another*
We all we got. But we're all we need
Art brings light to darkness
It can make the world more GAY!
Art is all we are

if you read my post after charlottesville, you know these questions have been on my mind.  the most comforting thing about the collective answer, for me right now, is that it doesn't speak only to "protest" art.  all art heals.  and maybe art where black folks express our joy, even more so.  ❤


*my own modest entry.

Thursday, September 14, 2017


[i hesitated to post this after the charlottesville protest violence. not sure why.  maybe I thought answers might come to me...]

A poet on the subway handed me a slip of paper once.  It read "if you breathe, I am your comrade."  It stuck with me (even literally, since I taped it next to my front door).  What could it be like to claim solidarity with every breathing human (and non human, for that matter)?  It felt instinctively and beautifully true.  I want to live in that world. To help bring it about, even.

Of course, this is not an easy comradeship.  Sometimes your comrades wave nazi flags and beat up people who look like you.  And sometimes they rally behind symbols of oppression and mow down a lovely woman who believes in equality enough to fight for it on a regular basis.  What then?

I was sitting at a farmers market in harlem selling handmade crafts while these very things were taking place in charlottesville, just yesterday.  Chatting with shoppers, getting to know the other vendors, tweaking my display, eating excellent food (, taking photos. 
I felt sick when I came home and saw the news. Not entirely because of what had happened -- some of these things happen rather regularly, it's sad to say -- but because I felt guilty for having wasted my day with arts and crafts instead of finding a way to fight.  Fighting intolerance and evil is absolutely necessary.  But what exactly do we fight with?

If I really am their comrade, do I fight them with love?  protests?  fists?  What about beautiful handmade items?  Can you fight nazis with beauty?  Can a printed t-shirt of a lady with an afro help to fight white supremacy?

Of course, fighting must go beyond symbolism.  We must all learn about each other.  How did we get here?  And we must be open to the truths we learn about our comrades.  And, maybe more importantly, the truths we each learn about ourselves. ❤

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

new beginnings

[originally posted on 08 Aug 2017 10:16 AM PDT but then disappeared!]

i needed a fast way to say farewell to some new friends who were moving away and my thoughts went immediately to poetry.  last year around this time, i had illustrated a lovely poem by lucille clifton with abstract watercolor designs for a group of departing interns in a program i'm involved in.  this year i realized that i could (and should) use something even cIoser to home ⎼ and maybe even with the author's permission this time!  and that's the day i ran into my poet friend bonnie on the street; she said she'd love to offer up a poem for the project.  bonnie is a respected elder in our harlem community who has been attending st. mary's episcopal church in manhattanville since at least the 1970's.  in her book of poetry published by the church, "greetings, tutankhamun!" we found the perfect poem.  it's called new beginnings.  all told, it took about a month to put it all together (which is not apparent by the little book's imperfect appearance).  little doodles replaced a key word from each page.  simple, right?

it seems to me that every art project you make is a short summary of your life.  and the elements for this project are pretty wide-ranging.  it starts a few years ago when i took an art class at cooper union called "how to make books."  we learned several methods, but one of my favorites was the "instant book," just a simply but cleverly folded piece of copy paper.  ever since then, i make lots of little books ⎼ of all kinds ⎼ but instant books are ideal for a short message.  then there's the component of just how many friends i have made in my lifetime who are poets.  quandra prettyman, my favorite college professor and all-around excellent (and patient) friend, is the most famous among them.  but i have three or four among my group of church friends alone.  i wonder why that is?

the recipients are the next ingredient in the recipe.  i am on the board of a wonderful organization that provides young adults with an opportunity for community living, service work in a social justice-related field, and time for personal spiritual discernment, now called the new york service & justice collaborative.  we develop year-long relationships with these fellows, and then have to say goodbye in august.  every year.  this is not as easy as it might sound.  some stay friends with us and take jobs nearby.  many go to seminary to pursue clergy positions.  but some don't come back at all.  and saying goodbye is not my strong suit.  

excerpt from "New Beginnings" by Bonnie Mitchell-Phelps,
illustrated by your black snapper

The final ingredient for this mini-book-as-life-summary recipe is the doodles themselves.  even as a child, i was always creative.  but never drawing.  i had an older brother who was an artist and i left the drawing to him (he was an accomplished painter and a cartoonist who told painful stories ⎼ about life, HIV, and AIDS ⎼ with silly pictures).  a few years after he died i started doodling.  maybe as a way to stay connected to him.  or maybe i felt free of judgment from an expert.  either way, it was new and i just went with it. 

how to make books, then?  start with someone you need to tell something tricky.  if you need one, find an ally to help with a beautiful message (and get their permission).  have someone teach you the mechanics of folding paper.  and then try something new.  suspend your fear of judgment and just begin.