“In the home without bread,
Everyone yells and no one is right.”
I suppose there are better ways of celebrating the life of an eccentric Maria than getting a four-legged M tattoo. But that’s what I did, on a snowy January afternoon, after returning from Miami. Palm trees and suave breezes pointed to the parts of me that long for another time, one in which she exists, and we are happy. The Venezuelan and the Pakistani were visiting, so they saw that olive green M through cling film wrapped around my arm.
The last time Maria and I went the Mosteiro de Alcobaça, her rheumatic grip didn’t leave my elbow. It was easy to accompany her thoughts as she reminisced about stories of the Portuguese monarchy on the radio. She grew up hearing history like that, interpolated audio. First kings, first empires, first this, fist that. Do people ever stop fighting and building monuments to commemorate it? Some commemorations called ‘victory’ get preserved as Art, and in this manner our sense of beauty and space are constantly linked to monumental erections chiseled for politics we may find repulsive. But we visit them arm in arm, and welcome some memory or other, one Manueline vault after another.
Grip still solid, she guided me away from all this when she’d had enough of the past. We spent a couple of hours at the monastery, went to lunch, poked in and out of local artisanal shops. I drove us home in the Fiat rental, stopping at the pharmacy before heading home. She was afraid of walking out of the pharmacy alone—junkies eyeing her for pills.
Returning to New York from Lisbon meant reentering the constellation of habits defining my existence at the time. I was recovering from shock, and taking small steps towards big changes, revolving around support and healing communities: seeing a career coach/certified psychic healer, attending Al-Anon meetings, regular meditation, and co-founding an art group. Don’t we all want that, the opportunity to invest in ourselves? Recently I thought of my grandmother Maria, her blue eyes fiercer than usual, placing the small chainsaw on the work table. She loved that thing, so fast to trim the trees! Firewood neatly sliced! And from her comes my great love for sassy women with axes and extremely refined senses of purpose.
But I thought of her months ago, in a conference room. A group of twenty to thirty people or so, in crisis counseling training. We were all there in good hope, knowing our work will be important. That validating the experiences of we who have experienced trauma and violence and empowering the social bodies who live with the aftermath of violence is crucial to changing cycles of systematic oppression. Of course, gender is a hot topic, and rightfully so. As I heard definitions of gender norms ping-pong across the room, I had one of those moments where a new form is found, among so many thoughts. I’ve spent years verbalizing and internally evaluating how the femininities I grew up around were so different than the hyper feminized and hyper sexualized femininities I encountered after moving to the US in 1987. So, in this training session, as I listened to expressions of disdain for the gender binary, I suddenly noticed that femininity and masculinity were being referred to in singular form. As if the gender binary could only be represented by Ken and Barbie, rather than an institutionalized equation. But Ken and Barbie’s gender binary differs greatly from Homer and Marge’s, in ways beyond the social class they each represent.
At that moment, a new articulation became available to me: that I shared their anger at gender oppressions, but I was also raised by, and around, women who thought nothing of picking up a chainsaw and learning how to use it. I was raised by women whose femininities were enhanced by their ability to do what was necessary, without the privilege of measuring what such an action might communicate about gender expectations. They expected themselves to survive, live well, care for their community. Power tools, kitten heels, a brood of children, a motorcycle, lipstick, horses. Good shampoo. And always a fine flannel of modest hue.
I thought of Maria, kneading bread. Ironing her clothes with care. Soiling her hands planting collards. Watering the orchards with an endless water hose. Olive-tinted nail beds. Did I grow up around a variety of femininities becoming obsolete? I can’t say I would feel particularly feminine chopping firewood, I’m sure I would just feel completely clumsy and breaking into some sort of enthusiasm before getting hungry. For Maria, survival validated her, not definitions. And from this thought I felt the continuation of an emotional permaculture without lament, shared seeds traveling light.
Maria was also angry. It has been easy to forget that there was much commotion and disagreements. Arguments among adults that left me quiet and vigilant. From watching the women who raised me, I learned to respect my anger. It wasn’t something I would throw around like a brick, it was a collection of energy I could trust, and direct. And in this manner, my sense of beauty and space were constantly linked, because they had to be defended. Anger is just another monument we build from thrown bricks in order to defend. That hapless understanding of anger as a thing to observe rather than be, formed some awareness in me that valued beauty greatly, approximating what might best be described by “art as a vigilant state of mind.”* As I bind and bond with newer communities of support and activism, I think of Maria always so effortlessly defiant. That wide smile at preparing breakfast for my brother and I: fresh bread, fresh cheese, Yoplait yogurts and homemade lattés. That smile emerged from a little girl who shared a sardine for breakfast with two siblings. Maria never saw snow. She loved a cool breeze in summer sun, and needle pointing by the fireplace when cold came to stay.
That was the last art outing we ever did together, going to Alcobaça. It was then winter and gardens were dewy from morning fog, but far from leafing anew.
* a quote from Andrea Juno.
Patricia Silva is a Lisbon born, New York City based artist, arts writer, collaborator. Say hello @senseandsight