Sinking Awkwardly into the Local

Small towns are not places I gravitate towards; my history with them does not look like a Disney film or a Hallmark card. It all started at age 4, when I was chased by a gang of kids, yelling “Dirty Little Kike” and throwing things at me. I didn’t know why this was happening, nor was I familiar with the k-word. I just knew I wasn’t safe, and that early trauma, compounded with other nasty experiences of exclusion & violence that accumulated over the years, have haunted me as I’ve moved around the country.

Many of us struggle to feel at home in the community in which we’ve landed. Our current system can create a persistent sense of displacement. As suggested above, I suffer from this challenge, not only from my personal experience, but because I carry the ancestral legacy of being cast out, erased, and rejected. Add to that the experience of my father being blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and we’ve got a recipe for not sitting comfortably anywhere in the US of A. Parenthetically, I was unaware of my father’s history until he shared it with me in my early thirties, but the aura of that economic and political assault on our family was palpable throughout my childhood.

Despite the resonance of those traumas, I’ve felt lucky when I’ve found or made safe and welcoming spaces. Given the sea changes caused by the crazy and oppressive systems we live within as well as the chaos of the climate emergency, those places can be hard to find and hold onto.

Some of us have moved a lot, not necessarily because we wanted to, but because work opportunities, economic hardship, housing, environmental issues, and health needs required it. In those cases, it is not so much restlessness that contributed to our hyper-mobility, but rather the displacement phenomena that is so common in our modern world. Sometimes we feel claustrophobic living where we live, stuck in routines and obligations, and sometimes we feel simply alienated, not knowing our neighbors or much of the complex histories of the land and people, so we adapt poorly and incompletely to where we’ve landed. We can develop the often unproductive habit of imagining a place where we can better thrive and feel a sense of belonging or we can get strangely nostalgic about past living situations, romanticizing them, and seeing them as somehow better than where we are now.

Many of us look to find a little pod of safety such as a political affiliation, a religious group, a sports club, or an online niche; and then we barely venture out for fear of the “others.” Those pods can easily become parochial, cliquey, and xenophobic because their membership has not become mindful of their own wounds and insecurities. Instead they claim an allegiance to something that is exclusionary; not the best solution to a feeling of being displaced.

Given all of these complex issues, it may seem like an impossible task to deeply arrive where we are. We find excuses, seeing what’s wrong or what’s lacking, and may be unable to stick our feet in the local mud and dance with what’s there. Or we may take the risk to do the latter and then discover that we are perceived as an enemy for naming the contradictions we see. That kind of backlash can be intense.

Being indigenous to a place is something I’ve never experienced, but it’s clear that it comes with its own extreme trauma if your ancestral lands have been colonized and exploited. If one is a descendant of multiple generations who have carved a sense of home that might be a comfort until you realize that your ancestors were settlers who stole the land from others. And I know that there are some people who are good at claiming space in a new location, despite being a new arrival, but that process can come with an assimilation price, forgetting who your ancestors were or perhaps being ashamed of them, and at the same time erasing those before your arrival. New arrivals can also be seen as cultural imperialists, arrogant invaders, gentrifiers, or as the unwanted hordes (very visible in countries where climate and war refugees are arriving en masse). At best, new arrivals can be seen as bringing a fresh spice to the local stew, but that framing takes folks who are unthreatened and embracing, and that is rare in times of perceived or actual scarcity. So the dance of displacement is a complicated one, with many things to be mindful about and address if one wants to really arrive. It’s really a process of decolonization and there can be many missteps along the way.

In my quest to decolonize from my academic life (from 1984-2020 at many different institutions), I’ve been reflecting on the unhealthy practices of those institutions and their impact on communities. When I was hired as a tenure-track faculty member by the University of Washington, Tacoma in 2003, I understood that they brought me in as their imported, outside talent, their NYC artist. During my first day of classes at UWT which was significantly my 50th birthday (I smugly felt like I had outfoxed the ageism so rampant in academia), I learned that there had been, at least, one local contender, a beloved teacher and artist, who had been passed by in favor of my selection for the job. The committee had chosen to bring someone from elsewhere, which is often the case. The students were initially not happy about my presence or my approach to teaching art, and it took a little while to win them over.

This phenomena of bringing someone from afar, often someone who will garner the institution prestige is not unfamiliar to most of us in academia. This had happened to me once before, at CSU Long Beach. There, I had been told by a member of the search committee soon after my arrival that they had wanted a NYC artist with recognition, and the fact that my work had been written about in the NY Times and various art magazines had impressed them. Search committees often want to find find colleagues who will bring more esteem (and perhaps more funding and networks) to the institution, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee any benefit to the students.

First off, assuming that one’s “success” in the NYC art world brings something special to the institution reproduces false hierarchies of merit. Secondly, faculty who arrive with notable recognition may not have the same commitment to teaching and can feel somehow protected from collegial commitments by their status as scholars or artists. In other words, the benefits may be fewer than the search committees imagine.

This kind of hiring happens in academia frequently. While this may be appropriate for the values of neoliberalism, it is rarely a healthy strategy for the students or for a place-based, public institution that has a mission of building of breaking down the town/gown polarization.

As much as my interdisciplinary studio arts curriculum at UW Tacoma was about nurturing the values of social justice by helping students share their stories about their experiences of the environmental crisis, violence, body hate, consumer culture, the labor market, systemic oppression, and their dreams for the future, it was not sufficiently imbedded within the histories and controversies of local culture. Why? As an outsider, I arrived poorly educated about local struggles other than what I slowly learned from my students and a few colleagues. As someone on the tenure track, there was never time between my class prep, my parenting obligations, my career deadlines, and my other domestic responsibilities to get that particular education. Living on an island for the first eight years of my tenure, I had chosen a literal mote between my home and the school, so that I would not be consumed by institutional life. This choice was not good for developing a deeper understanding about the communities in which my students lived.

Each quarter, on the first day of class, students would tell us where they lived and I would hear the names of communities that were new to me. Very few of my students actually lived in Tacoma. I would sometimes ask them questions about the places where they lived, but I never had time to visit those places. What would it have been like if the university had invited new faculty to meet local leaders in the culture industry, in politics, in activist groups, etc? What if hiring practices alternated between choosing a new faculty member from the local context and the next hire from afar, and to have those new faculty members collaborate, one local and the other imported, to create healthier bridges? Neither provincial or exotic. Everyone would benefit from this.

These reflections may seem irrelevant and idealistic in this time of crisis, as academic life is more in chaos than I’ve ever seen it. The mess is complex, and stems from not only the poor decision to focus on profit rather than a rich educational environment for students, but the culture wars, with threats to free speech, censorship of faculty and students, the financial toll on students and their families, and the violence of this time. All of these assaults on institutions of “higher learning” are reaping a harvest of low morale and desperation. I’m grateful to have left it all behind. I am now experiencing the world without its filter and taking the time to learn more about the surrounding area.

The Pandemic has taught me to sit with my unease about the local. I’ve had to really study this tendency to want leave the present and whatever discomfort it offers. Thinking that the cultural life and community energy is better somewhere else (whether it’s NYC, LA, Berlin, or Mexico City) makes it hard to arrive where you are. That mindset is all too common in our dislocated world and offers a definite recipe for suffering. You can never really sink into the beauty of the present. There’s always something wrong with its offerings, and, therefore, you can never really settle. Some of this anxiety has its roots in childhood trauma, and an inability to sit with difficult feelings can foster the desire to escape, but there’s a broader cultural meaning as well that I want to explore.

One could say that we arrived in Tacoma by default. First there was the job that grabbed me from the east coast and the tantalizing bait of being able to teach whatever I wanted in an interdisciplinary program. From my initial view of the Port of Tacoma with its refineries and pulp mill, I was certain that this industrial town, with my history of environmental illness caused by pollution and the aerial spraying of pesticides, would not be suitable for our family. Instead, we found a place on Vashon Island, with an easy ferry commute to Tacoma.

At first, the island seemed idyllic, but by the time our son reached high school age, he had needs that required more resources, so we moved into Seattle. We rented there for five years, finding community in several warm pockets hidden within chilly “Seattle freeze” culture. Without the connections we made with local activists, the BIPOC artists salon, our POCAS (People of Color and their Allies) meditation group, and the ecstatic dance gatherings, we would have been very isolated. Also renting in communities filled with home owners makes one appear transient to your neighbors. We tried to buy a place in Seattle, but couldn’t afford the prices, so ultimately we landed in Tacoma (when it was still affordable), six years ago. Thankfully my health has not relapsed and despite my discomfort of having landed in a place that was not where I imagined I would end up, I have found ways to make it home.

Lucy R. Lippard once asked me about this in a gentle way, “when are you going to stay put where you are?” Of course, I had to explain that I wasn’t moving on a whim; that it was always financial, housing, or health reasons that motivated each move; that I never chose to make more chaos for myself, but her words have stuck with me, as I more fully enter this next chapter of my life.

Lucy has been one of my steady advocates over the years, by curating my work into exhibitions, sharing it in slides shows and writing about it. She’s also one of my role models for diving deep into the local. After leaving NYC, she made it her business to learn as much as possible about her new home in Galisteo, NM. and soon started a newsletter for the community.

I’m going to digress for a bit here, but I want to pay homage to Lucy’s broader influence on my thinking. I have respected her writing since I first discovered her books on conceptual art (De-Materialization of the Art Object) and Ad Reinhardt’s work when I was in college. In grad school, her brand new book on feminist art, From the Center, shifted many of us in profound ways. Although in those early days, there was a fair amount of essentialism being promoted (if your work is feminist, it will look like this…), I was glad to have her writing as a pivot point or a portal into a new era for understanding how feminism and other social movements were impacting the making of art.

In 1980, after seeing my audio installation about the perils of unemployment, Apply Within, at the Franklin Furnace, she wanted to meet me and learn more about my work. As Lucy opened the door to her book-filled Prince Street loft in Soho, I tried to keep the trembling excitement of a 26-year old with imposter syndrome tamped down. I carried a few loose-leaf notebooks filled with photos and texts documenting three earlier installations. I didn’t feel at all confident that my work would merit her attention. She was a bit gruff and business-like, saying I will take a look at what you have here, but there’s no guarantee that I will write anything. I awkwardly thanked her and went on my way, feeling the strangeness of interacting with someone whose work I greatly admired, but who was just a person that I was projecting all sorts of images upon.

Not long after, a wonderful review of Apply Within appeared in ArtForum Magazine.

As I got to know Lucy better over the years, I grew to deeply appreciate her direct manner, her healthy boundaries, and her sharp intelligence. Although I have not seen her in person for several years, I continue to be grateful for certain lessons she’s offered me, particularly ones about walking your talk as an activist, not spreading oneself too thinly, and looking closely at one’s sense of place.

Her 1997 book, The Lure of the Local: Sense of Place in a Multi-centered Society, examines cultures far from the NYC art world and how art can speak to a regional identity. It tears down the snobbery and provincialism that can plague the elite art world, and reminds us that many forms of beauty emerge in so many contexts; we just need to be open to receive these gifts. As Lucy has embraced both the cultural workers of Maine (her roots go deep there) and those of New Mexico, she looks carefully at the historical legacies of oppression and environmental degradation; I’m reminded that this focus has been part of my work, most recently in relation to the many local struggles in the Salish Sea region.

My project, “Extreme Makeover: Reimagining the Port of Tacoma Free of Fossil Fuels,” was provoked by the illegal development of an LNG refinery by the multi-national corporation, PSE (Puget Sound Energy). Through my work with 350 Tacoma, I realized that public and city officials were not responding sufficiently to the environmental activists’ campaign to stop the building of this refinery.
For over seven years, there have been many protests, arrests, well-researched reports, passionate speeches condemning the project, damning testimonials at City Council meetings, sit-ins at the State Capitol, a powerful film, Ancestral Waters ( about the Puyallup Tribe’s stake and activism in the Port of Tacoma, and long walks facilitated by the Protectors of the Salish Sea: to educate the public, and still PSE persists with its greenwashing and the public seems ignorant about this time bomb in their midst.

I recognized that much of the campaign focused on the dangers of LNG (liquified natural gas), its volatility as a gas, its potential to ignite and explode with the devastating impact of several nuclear bombs, and the history of international accidents. There was also scientific research offered that this kind of fuel was unnecessary and definitely not green, but still the public and city officials seem unmoved. So I thought it might be a good idea to do public workshops to reimagine the port without fossil fuels, with remediated superfund sites, and with a restored estuary. Those workshops, mostly held at the local 350 storefront, attracted a good crowd, and over a 100 collaged and drawn images were submitted and digitized. We had a plan to project those images on walls in public places, and then the Pandemic arrived, and the project stalled. The building of the LNG refinery is completed now, but there’s litigation in process to prevent it from going online. We still hope that this will be enough to shut it down forever, so that our community does not have to pay for this heinous misadventure and does not have to live in fear of an awful explosion.

As the pandemic “lock down” started, I realized that my impressions of Tacoma as a corrupt, toxic, heavily industrialized, and militarized place had cut me off from seeing its wonders. The prejudices that surrounded the “aroma of Tacoma” had influenced me more than I wanted to admit, and there was some unease with being associated with a stinky place, given my own history. I became curious about how certain kinds of shame can created a barrier to being at home in a new place, and make us yearn for somewhere that appears to be more comfortable, exciting, or life-sustaining.

I’ve lived in many places that carry a bad reputation, mostly due to environmental toxins, economic class, racism, and other factors. As a young child, I spent two years in Sanford, Maine, a factory town where my dad worked in a plastics business. I can still remember the sickening odor that covered the town daily. We moved from there to New Jersey, to a town that had no overwhelming chemical smells, but to a state that has a reputation as stinky and being “less than” compared to New York. My two tenured teaching jobs took me to two places with intense smells: Long Beach, CA, with its abundance of refineries and other industries and now Tacoma with its aroma.

If we look closely at this time on the planet, we will find stenches everywhere, whether it’s the corruption of the local city government and their henchmen, the disgusting actions and foul residues created by extraction corporations, the despair that comes from war torn areas, the smoke from the increasing forest fires, the rotting, moldy mess after the floods, and proliferating hate groups and the stench of their influence. The places that appear to have glamour and allure are like celebrities with clay feet. Every place is culpable in this time of societal collapse and climate emergency. So our desire to escape from the “stink” of where we are by seeking somewhere that seems to have more romance, more connections, and a more welcoming community can be a parachute with holes.

Of course, I do realize that some parts of the world and communities are truly dangerous for those of who have been marginalized and oppressed by dominant culture, and often there are no options for those people to escape other than through their imaginations or by grass roots organizing of some kind. And let’s hope for lots more of the latter, despite the risks to those involved.

Despite the many ecocidal and social justice challenges evident globally and locally, I have written this to remind those who are feeling stuck and discouraged that there are ways to be present with gratitude for being alive and in a body where ever you have landed. There’s so many ways to arrive.

The pandemic has given many of us some hard lessons about being present to what is. For those of us with the privileges of sufficient resources, meditation, and creative practices, our being less mobile has been a gift, even if it feels covered in thorns at times. Sitting calmly and quietly, being mindful of our breath, and noticing our connections to the air, the soil, the water, plant life, critters, minerals, mycelium, each other, and the cosmos, can give us an opportunity to be in relationship to this amazing planet and the local ecosystem, anchoring us to place, even places that may feel hostile at first.

Our Story Hive project , created in 2021-22, successfully hooked me into the local in ways I never would have expected. It started with some friendly conversations with our neighbor across the fence. I had told her about some of my projects to bring communities together via stories, including the project on Vashon Island, called Eden Reframed, that featured a story hive for gardeners and farmers. She volunteered to offer a corner of her property, adjacent to the well-trafficked intersection, as a site for a local story hive. She and her wife also offered their front yard as a place to meet. I designed flyers to invite folks and left them on the front porches of about 50 homes in the surrounding area.

As the weather improved in late Spring 2021, we gathered and met every week to develop the project. Our meetings were informal: we did check-in’s before discussing practical issues. Our skill inventory of the 20 or so people who came was essential; we learned that we had a wide variety of skills in the group from gardening to wood working to website design. As we discussed our intentions for the project, I suggested that our project would give us more insight into how our neighborhood was navigating this difficult time of so many uncertainties and polarizing points of view. We focused on asking questions like, “what skills have you learned? what challenges are you facing? how can we offer mutual aid? what are your dreams for the world we can co-create now?”

My co-facilitator for this project, Bob Spivey, who has also been my partner for the past 34 years, was taking a year-long online training with the Upaya Zen Center in 2021. It focused on socially engaged Buddhist practice, and the training required a community practicum. As a long time practitioner of meditation, a healer, and a grass roots activist, his skills were essential for making our project successful. We both made sure that everyone felt respected and included in the brainstorming process, but Bob was always available for the real grunt work: like hauling the dirt and getting materials necessary to build the hive. We received many donations from neighbors who didn’t have the time to participate in our meetings, so without any external funding, we were able to scavenge the materials and talents to make the project successful. Many of our recently arrived neighbors had young children and were eager to get involved. We had a few meetings that involved some hilarious dancing in the mud & straw to make the cob for the hive structure and our conversations created deeper connections than a morning greeting on the way to work. Our celebratory form of collaboration was important medicine during a time of lockdown.

A joyful sense of place can be created with other kinds of community projects, many structured around mutual aid. Getting involved in any local activist group like Washington and Tacoma’s Food is Free ,, or housing organizations like can help folks arrive where they are. Of course, wherever we live, there are ecosystem remediation projects that need to happen or are already happening that can use our input. Starting a home meditation group is also very nourishing. Our Bad Buddhist sangha has been helping us and our fellow meditators navigate through the difficulties we are all facing with a sense of deep connection.

When we feel too overwhelmed to join in with other movements, it may be time to either get outside to enjoy the nature that is accessible to us. If available, forest bathing is highly recommended, as is time with the critters and plant life that are always present, even in microscopic forms. Finding a place with a vista looking out towards mountains or ocean, or a local tree that is lonely for a hug, can help us process stress and increase our mindfulness that we live in a web of interbeing, sharing air, water, & nourishment with the more than human. For those of us who feel displaced in any capacity, this practice can offer us one of the best places to sink into while humanity travels through this difficult chapter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s