Art Farm Musings

Day One

How’s Nebraska my mother’s text read.

In some ways, Nebraska was everything I’d expected. Flat land, lots of corn.

But what she meant was how was I faring in Nebraska and the truth was that I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. I was an artist in residence at a place called Art Farm. The house was a ramshackle conglomeration of a place. It was actually three houses that had been rudimentarily put together into one structure. There was no insulation. There was no heat. The bathroom was in the kitchen. In the kitchen. Wasn’t there a rule about not shitting where you ate?

The kitchen sponge that we were supposed to “wash” the dishes with looked like it had been there since ’65. There were coffee rings on the table, onion peels on the floor and fly traps that hung from the ceiling with constellations of decaying bodies on each one. There were insects. Lots of insects: mosquitoes and spiders and swarms of grasshoppers in the fields. My room came equipped with a mosquito net. A mosquito net in Nebraska? But did I sleep under it? Oh hell yes.

Also, according to another resident, there were chiggers. She’d rolled up her sleeve to show me one of the bites.

“They like to take a ride on your pants and then burrow into your skin,” she said cheerily. “I think they sell something called ‘Chigger Rid’ to help with them.”

She also informed me that they were particularly fond of taking up residence beneath one’s undergarments. Immediately, I wanted to google chigger, but I forced myself to refrain because the internet makes everything scarier than it is and because I didn’t want to see the things close up. If I was going to get them, then I wanted to know as little as possible about them.

Primitive, I texted back to my mother, but I’m adjusting. Primitive wasn’t actually the right word. It wasn’t like we had to go to the well to get water. It wasn’t as if we didn’t have electricity. The house I was staying in had wifi for Christ’s sake, but primitive sounded better than filthy, which was the more accurate term.

And as if all of that were not overwhelming enough, there were hours upon hours to devote to your art. In my case this meant taking a grand tour of my interior. In truth, this is what I’d come for, but once I started the work of doing it, I found it was pretty damn scary. My interior was a gnarled landscape.

Just remember you can always come home if you do not like it, she wrote back.

Never, I texted back.

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My room on the farm

Day Two

I’ve made friends with the spiders.

Yesterday I told one of the housemates that I was going to vacuum up all the spiders in the bathroom, which I fully intended to do, but when I actually said this out loud, it felt kind of foolish and futile, not to mention mean-spirited. What did they ever do to me?

So while I can’t say I like being in such close proximity to them, especially the one in the corner that falls into the category of spiders I do not like (that being sinister looking (i.e. pointy or hairy) and fast-moving). When you sit on the toilet you have to turn your back on this one particular spider and I haven’t quite been able to convince myself that he or she is not going to leap from its cottony web and try to wrap me up like a moth. Besides him, most of the other spiders here are either the wispy kind that look sort of beautiful when they move or Daddy Long legs. Neither of them frighten me as long as they keep their distance, which they have thus far.

At any rate, I decided to forgo the massacre and just let them be. I’m hoping that they repay the favor by abstaining from biting me or winding up in my underwear like the chiggers supposedly will.

It’s cold here. All day today the wind blew, making this old house come alive with sound, lifting things up and then letting them fall. Earlier, there was a steady thumping that sounded like the uneven clunks of a pair of shoes in the dryer. I had to keep reminding myself that it was the wind. There are no dryers here. The wind is the dryer.

It’s coldest for the hour after the sun rises. When I told my wife this, she said, “That makes sense,” but it doesn’t make sense to me. I knew that if I asked she would tell me why, but sometimes I like the mystery of a thing, so I didn’t ask.

As the day progressed, it got warmer, the sun working its way into the boards and the bones of this old place. The flies come to life when it warms, buzzing around behind the blinds in my room. They drove me crazy the first day, bzzzing by my ear, so I’d made a makeshift fly swatter and resolved to smash them all earlier this morning before they got up to full speed.

There were three in the window so I pulled up the blind and waited for one to crawl toward the center so I could hit it square on. When one moved that way, I took aim. A great plume of dust rose up when I swung. The wounded fly went spiraling to the sill and five others rose up from the sash, where they’d been sunning themselves unnoticed.

I gave a couple of more half-hearted swats but it only served to scatter the flies and make a mess. They seemed to be multiplying. It was pointless, I could see, so I decided to let them be. I guess I’ll have to make friends with them too.

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Hello friends

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Day Three

Okay so let’s clear something up, today is actually day four. I got here on a Thursday and today is a Sunday. I wasn’t really counting the first day since I didn’t really make it to the farm until 4:00 but I guess I should count it since I was technically here for half a day and that was the day that I underwent the most trauma as far as culture shock goes.

Here’s an incomplete list of things I did today:

Revised an essay, started a story about a rabbit and a fox while in the writer’s hut, chopped wood, made three paintbrushes (more on this later), chopped firewood, laid on top of a trailer and read an essay, made a coat rack to hang stuff up in my room.

One of the requirements for being here is that you have to leave a piece of artwork behind. Everywhere you walk, there is some kind of art–sculptures in the field, paintings on the side of a building, a giant nest of sticks in the floating barn, poems on the walls and one of my personal favorites: a sign made out of wooden letters that reads Everybody Poops, which hangs above the bathroom door (have I mentioned that the bathroom is in the kitchen? In the kitchen!).

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Walking around with nothing to do and nowhere to be, does wonders for your soul. You start to see things again, like the colors on a grasshopper or the way that the wind acts upon the long grass.

Yesterday one of my housemates showed me a milkweed pod. The outside shell is sharp and pointy and sort of resembles a vagina. Inside there are soft wisps attached to tiny brown seeds. I decided that perhaps I’d try to make a paintbrush using the wisps, so for part of the day today, I experimented with different techniques and came out with three paintbrushes made from all natural material. I hope to use them to paint this thing that has come into my head: The land will give you what you need. If you don’t see it, look again. This will be what I leave here, unless I change my mind which is entirely possible.

Working with the milkweed reminded me of the way that you need to spend a lot of time with a thing to get to know it. Me and the milkweed got pretty tight today. Anyway, this one of the brushes. Here’s to hoping that it is functional.

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Day Four/Five

Just so you don’t think that I’m being overly dramatic, I snapped a picture of this guy, who has taken up residence in our bathroom (have I mentioned that it’s in the fucking kitchen?). Anyway this is the kind of spider that falls into the category of sinister looking.

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If this spider were a person, he’d be Jack Nicholson because Jack Nicholson looks like the kind of guy who’d smile with that big cheshire grin while he crushed your skull and then ate your brains.

Anyway, I told you that I made friends with the spiders, but I have to tell you I feel that my relationship with this one is on shaky ground, with how sinister looking he is, but I haven’t gotten out the shop vac (yet) and he hasn’t bitten me (yet), so I guess our deal is still intact.

Trust but verify as Reagan said.

Or maybe even better, Distrust and Verify as Hillary said.

Today was the first day of work. As a resident at Art Farm, we are required to do 12 hours of work each week. I’m working in the cabinet shop. It felt good to have some structured time, even though it was basically unstructured because Ed, who runs the Art Farm, gave me vague directions and then left me to my own devices. Tomorrow I’ll be working on a vanity for the farmhouse.

The people here are interesting. Today Holly, who is the intern from London gave a performance in the field. It was a durational performance, which means that she would perform for a set amount of time (in this case three hours) and the audience could come and go as they please. She put a maroon sheet over her head and danced/gestured/posed while the wind blew the sheet around. I know it sounds really fucking weird, and it was, but it was also beautiful to see the maroon sheet against the yellow grass against the blue Nebraska sky and to see a person make themselves so vulnerable. I don’t think I could ever do a thing like that because I am too concerned with appearances.

Just yesterday when I was on top of the trailer reading an essay, I wanted to stand up and scream. I was thinking of that scene in Rainman where Tom Cruise is in the desert and he gets out of the car and just screams as loud as he possibly can. But I didn’t do it, because I worried that someone would see me and think I was nutty, which is kind of sad if you think about it because it means I’m constrained by hypothetical opinions of people who are probably not watching and probably wouldn’t care if they were.

It was very warm today. Warm enough to traipse around in flip flops and shorts, which means that the grasshoppers, flies and for the first time, ladybugs were in full swing. There are three ladybugs on my “ceiling” (i.e. the styrofoam panels laid on top of the ceiling joists) right now as I type this, but I am safe beneath my mosquito net. I actually chased the grasshoppers today, which is fairly uncharacteristic of me. Typically, I’d be frantically swatting at them, but I’m coming to enjoy the way that they fly up out of nowhere when you walk on the paths here. Hundreds and hundreds as you walk. I had the idea to shoot a slow motion video of them, but it turned out to be more difficult than I thought.

There was also a trip to the Platt River today, which made me think of my lovely wife who is a fixer of streams. If she were here she would’ve told me all sorts of fun things about the way that the water moves and the silt content and the flood plain.

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Eireen wades in the Platt

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Day Five/Six

I think I’m starting to feel settled. I resolved to do my laundry this morning since the next few days are supposed to be rainy and cold. This was a big mental undertaking because for the last couple I days I’ve been debating with myself over whether the washer was actually going to make my clothes any cleaner. I had a similar debate over showering when I first got here, but have since showered twice.

Before I get to the doing of the laundry, I should tell you about the “clothes management system” I’ve developed during my time here at Art Farm. My “clean” clothes–the things that I have yet to wear–have lived in my chest, which has a lid that I like to think of as a magical force field that keeps them protected against the dustiness that is Victoria house. My semi-clean clothes are the things that I’ve only worn once or twice and don’t require laundering just yet. Underwear does not go in this class of clothes—they are one and done in case you are wondering—but warm socks do. Gross? Maybe, but that’s life on the farm. Dirty stuff goes into the laundry bag, by which I mean a plastic grocery bag.

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This is Victoria House, so you can see why it might be a home for dust.

As wonderful as this system has been thus far, it has also presented me with a dilemma: what do I do with the semi-clean stuff? Obviously I can’t put them in my sacristy (i.e. the chest). And I can’t put them on the floor, because the floor is a whole higher level of dirty. That left me with my bed, my desk and my chair, none of which seemed like viable options. But alas I’ve come up with this solution:

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It’s a window rack that I mounted to the wall. It’ll be the place where semi-clean stuff will live until it walks itself over to the laundry bag. So, you see, I’ve got things under control here.

Now back to the actual laundry. The first thing I did this morning was clean the washer, which makes me laugh every time I think about it, but it seemed to help and my clothes came out smelling mighty fine, so I hung them out to dry and soak up some of that Nebraska dust.

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Ye old laundry. Not pictured: my skivvies.

I told my wife about my clothes washing adventures when I talked to her a little earlier and she said, “Did you even hang your underwear on the clothesline?” and I laughed because I felt the same kind of shock and horror that were present in her voice the first time I saw other people’s underwear hanging on the clothesline and quickly realized that I was going to have to put my skivvies out for public viewing, but after a couple of days here, I got over it. Like I said, I think I’m settling in.

I have little to report on my insect friends except that the sinister spider has moved from being out in the open to a hiding spot behind that 2×4 where I photographed him yesterday. Also, there are eight ladybugs on my “ceiling” tonight, but the flies are resting.

Other than that, I have only pictures to share so here you go:

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Art Farm art

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Milkweed against a Nebraska sky

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October 21, 2015

Facebook keeps sending me messages. It’s creepy. I haven’t been on Facebook since the airport, so I keep getting e-mails trying to entice me to go onto the site. “You have 32 new messages,” Facebook will say to me.

I wasn’t quite certain I’d be able to quit social media completely during my time on Art Farm, because I’ve become thoroughly addicted to it, but the e-mails are making it easier. When I get them, I want to dig my heels in. I want to quit Facebook altogether, just because their desperate attempts feel insidious.

I have a love/hate relationship with social media, which tends to be heavier on the latter emotion. I don’t think it’s all negative, but I think that it’s mostly negative. I just don’t trust anything that can occupy so much of my brain without my explicit permission. When I go on Facebook, I don’t consciously intend to scroll for 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes, but it happens. I see all the goings ons of other people’s lives and then I find myself thinking about them at odd times comparing myself with the happy versions of themselves they present.

Anyway, Ed showed me how to set type today for the letterpress. It’s something I’ve always wanted to learn and now I am in process, so that feels good. I also drove to Grand Island for groceries at the Hy-vee, which took a lot of time so I didn’t write as much as I hoped to, but I’m trying to be easy with myself.

Here are my favorite pics from the day, which is Back to the Future day, by the way.

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The road to Grand Island

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Flies on the sill

October 22

One of the girls here has been inducing and documenting panic attacks while she’s here. Another is a fabric artist, who is making this giant pod-like structure. Today a graffiti artist came in from New York and word on the Art Farm is that another artist will arrive tonight from Australia. Being around all of these other artists has made me think about my relationship with that word. It still feels funny to refer to myself as an artist.

Today was a strange day for me emotion wise. I miss home, miss my wife and the dogs, but I am also content here even when I am lonely. Being here has reminded me that I still have the ability to adapt to pretty big changes, but adapting is always easier when you know the change is temporary, I guess.

I had a hard time writing today. I felt really tired so I took a 45 minute nap, which was not without an enormous amount of guilt. Eventually I got myself out of bed and to the writer’s hut, where it was too cold to be tired. I think I’m close to finishing one piece that I’ve written since being here, or at least I think I’m done working on it while I’m here because I’ve lost perspective on it. I feel stuck on the other story–the one about the fox and rabbit. Well, actually it’s more about two rabbits, one old, one young. I can’t figure out what the action of the story is, which is kind of the reason that I don’t write fiction.

It’s raining here right now and I heard some drops dripping onto the styrofoam “ceiling” tiles so I hope that I don’t get wet tonight. Oh and today I saw the biggest spider since I’ve been here, bigger than the sinister one I posted a picture of, bleh. Pics tomorrow.

Oct. 23

No pics. I’m in a state right now. The day started off okay, but has devolved into the worst day. There was what could be best described as an open mic, but the only person who read was Daniel, clad in his bow tie; passive aggressive as ever.

I walked out on his reading because it made me so uncomfortable. I went out on the roof with the smokers: Anna, Faith, Colin, Elise and Eireene. Eireene started to cry and scream about the way that people die. Over and over. Eventually Anna and I brought her inside where she began to puke. We hoisted her onto Colin’s bed and put her on her side. We took off her puked on pants and her puked on sweater and then she puked some more. I left, walking back to Victoria, then went back to check on her, then left again. Partially because I couldn’t handle it/didn’t want to be responsible. It evoked feelings that I have when I am with my sister. I wept in a wooden chair next to the bed where Eireene lay.

Tomorrow is Harvest, where people come to the farm to see the art here. We were planning a reading at the Writer’s Hut but I’ve completely lost interest and am planning to hole up in my room.

Not a good day on the Art Farm.

Oct. 24

After you’ve been here a while, you don’t notice the flies so much. They have a rhythm, buzzing against the window when the sun beats, erratic and full of energy, then surrendering to stillness when the sun sets. I never thought I’d say it, but it’s kind of nice. A way to mark time or gauge the temperature.

Somebody replaced the old fly traps in the kitchen. The new ones are filling quickly and when I am down there, this sort of sad, stilted buzzing plays as background noise to the sounds of the kitchen–the water running, the clanking of pots, the bursts of laughter from whichever group has gathered there. It sounds like they are crying, the flies, and it’s an awful noise to hear.

Today I kept to myself mostly. Daniel found me in a rare moment when I was out and about–sitting by the Writer’s Hut enjoying the warmth of the sun and some of the new installations that artists had hung for Harvest. Eireene was out there too. She seemed to have recovered pretty well, and said that her head actually felt clear. Daniel asked if we wanted to talk about last night, so I told him why his reading upset me so much and he apologized.

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How’s this for weird? An artist here named Faith Eliott had been working on this banner, which was in no way connected to Eireene’s freak out.

Eireene said the sometimes it feels like he’s masturbating in public with some of the things he says and the poems he reads, and I thought that seemed to capture the feeling I had about the whole thing pretty well.

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Holly Riddle’s stinging sense of humor alive in Nebraska

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Faith’s Rocket on Colin’s car

All in all it was a pretty low key day. The new artist from Australia arrived and everyone is going to Kareoke tonight at the Don’t Care, except for me. I walked downstairs at 8:30 with my toothbrush and Holly said, “You’re so lame,” and I couldn’t really argue with her, but I’m okay with that. I think I’ve always been an old lady and my body is finally catching up to my brain.

The swing in the floating barn. Totally safe.

The swing in the floating barn. Totally safe.

Selfie on the

Selfie on the “totally safe” swing in the floating barn. (so maybe I’m not a total old lady).

October 25

Today I worked on the project that i’m going to leave here. Right now, I hate it, but I have some ideas for how to turn it into a thing that I won’t hate. Hopefully it’ll work out and I’ll find a cool place to hang it.

Just before I came up here, I got sucked into conversation downstairs. I’ll miss that when I leave–the intelligent minds, the different perspectives.

We got onto the topic of 9/11 and Holly, who is from London, said that she could still remember where she was when she heard about it, and I found that to be so surprising because I didn’t expect that it would’ve had that effect on someone from another country. I mean, I know it was international news, but Holly is 22 so she was a kid when it happened and I just didn’t expect that kind of impact on someone so young, from so far away.

Besides working on the project that I hate, I also wrote a poem today and started a semi-literary essay on the ethics of writing thinly veiled fiction vs memoir. Anyway, the poem has a long way to go, but I like the last part so here it is:

In her hand,

the list,

grown heavy;

distended with each failure,

like a balloon under the tap,

words stretched across the surface,

an ever-thinning membrane.

Nothing changed; nothing the same.

Also some pics: 

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Fly in the Writer’s Hut

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Pulpit in the field

October 26
One day closer to heading home. I miss home but I will miss here too. When I talked to my friend Kara the other day she said that she missed me in this strange way because she knows that I am so far away from her and we laughed about the fact that if I was home, we wouldn’t talk and it’d be fine.

It’s strange the way that works.The way that we take things close to us for granted, the way that we don’t notice a presence but we feel wrenched by an absence.

So today I finally started trying to put together a book together-to conceive of how all the essays that I’ve written about my family over the years can be blended together into one unit. It feels like a very tenuous beginning; the kind of beginning that could come undone if I don’t keep at it, so hopefully I will.

Yesterday, I finished David Foster Wallace’s essay, Shipping Out. It’s a brilliant piece. The way that he describes things is amazing. One of my favorites is his description of the giant oil rig machines. He says, “We pass a huge field of those hammer-shaped automatic oil derricks all bobbing fellatially…” He describes the passage into the cruise ship as “umbilical.” To be able to write like that…

Anyway, just a couple of pics today.

Milkweed, Nebraska sky

Milkweed, Nebraska sky

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Meghan Rowswell’s sculpture now hangs in the floating barn. Looks like a sea creature to me.

October 27

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Yesterday these two showed up here covered in mud and stinking of skunk. They went everywhere together and they were obviously well trained. The light colored one wore a collar clad with a cowbell. The older, darker colored one walked with a limp. His bell had been ripped off. The collars had no tags.

Well, I told myself, there’s nothing I can do for these two. They’ll either find their way back home or they won’t. I tried not to pet them or talk to them or feed them or care about them. I told myself that this was the Nebraska countryside and I couldn’t get involved, but they kept following me around.

When I went out to the writer’s hut this afternoon they sat outside on the deck. The younger one would pop his head up every once in a while and look in at me, then he’d lay back down. I went outside and sat down on the deck. The dark one army crawled toward me and pawed at my hand. The younger one laid next to me and let out a big sigh as he rolled onto his side, his back pressed up against my leg.

When I went back into the hut they followed me and curled up at my feet.

I couldn’t stand it.

Holly, Elise and I went driving around looking for “neighbors.” In the Nebraska farmlands, there might be two people on 10 square miles so we drove around and knocked on doors. Nobody was home. Eventually we pulled over onto the side of the road near a guy in a huge John Deere tractor. He got out and said maybe down the road, which turned out to be the right advice. We found the owner and went back to Art Farm, got the dogs (named Rebel and Max) and delivered them to his home near 22 and M roads. The man was so grateful that he gave Elise 20 bucks to get her car cleaned.

I felt such a weight off of my chest. I thought it was hopeless and that they’d end up dead, but a happy ending today.

Max on his way home

Max on his way home

Rebel accosts Holly

Rebel accosts Holly

October 28

It’s supposed to go down to 29 degrees tonight. Twenty nine in a house with no heat! So far I’ve been pretty toasty at night but I sleep in thermals in my sleeping bag with a space heater blowing on me. Tonight will be a test. The cold makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. Living like this has made me aware of what a comfortable life I have.

When I first got here, the newness of everything completely overwhelmed me, but each day there were tiny discoveries that made living in the strangeness a little easier. Little things like when I figured out that I had to heat my the coffee on the stove after brewing because the coffee pot doesn’t get hot enough. I’ve been thinking a lot that about the way that once I find a routine I kind of just stick to it, but until the routine is in place there exists this sort of desperate searching for some kind of stasis.

But once I get to the stasis, I become sort of dead, by which I mean, you stop questioning, stop appreciating, stop seeing. It’s kind of sad. I wish I knew a way to be comfortable and feel truly alive at the same time.

So today I put my project up in the Writer’s Hut. I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. Here are a bunch of pics. It says, The land will give you what you need. Need is not want.

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October 30

I’ve officially been cold for 24 hours. Or at least my actions have been steered by trying not to be cold. Most of my day yesterday was spent in my cocoon of a sleeping bag. I managed to go to the Writer’s Hut and stretch out on the deck, which had actually been warmed by the sun. I put my head on a brick and read an essay by E.B. White.

We did a potluck last night and everyone (except Daniel) shared their work or shared about their work. Holly performed this monologue that was about two people who were missing each other in the sense of missing that means passing by one another, reaching for but not being able to grasp. Faith sang a song. Colin reluctantly talked about the giant hole he has dug in the earth that he will line with bricks. He wanted there to be a whole experience that led up to a person getting into the hole, but he will be lucky to finish the tomb structure. Katie said she wants to build new systems for the ways that we tell stories.

I sat there in awe of these people and I was touched by the vulnerability that was present when each person spoke of their art. I could see how much they cared about it, even if they couldn’t quite explain it.

Today has a  sad, anticipatory feel to it for me. People are talking of their travel plans, packing their cars, readying themselves for the journey home and I can see that some feel more at home here than they ever could in the lives they left. I can see a reluctance in their bodies when they put their art into their car.

For me, I am looking forward to home, but I think that I’ve realized through my time here, that I never feel like I completely fit in no matter where I am. Here at Art Farm, I’ve felt too square amidst these wandering, colorful humans and at home I feel most times like I am a bit too odd amidst a community of people living regular, everyday lives. Beautiful lives, but lives in which they are not compelled to create art. Lives that they are content to simply live.

Tomorrow I will be home. Around all of the things/people in my life: My wife. My dogs. My pillow. My shower. I use that word, “my,” but it feels wrong. They are not mine. They are part of my life for as long as they can or will be and as long as I can or will be.

 

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