My attempt for this post is to recapitulate scenes and remind myself what my 7 weeks of performance art revolving around Lent signified.
I remember arriving at Baylor University my freshman year determined to retrieve a Business/Entrepreneurial degree with a minor in Studio Art for the sole purpose of following my high school art teachers’ wisdom. Never listen to high school art teachers for post 12th grade work. They’re typically, not always, stuck and a wee bit resentful. And thus, I hilariously and spontaneously began my education in Waco, TX.
Again, never listen to high school art teachers.
When mid February came around and business classes were meshing with art classes, I remember stopping suddenly one morning at the sight I was beholding. The mark of the beast on many many foreheads. It was eery. It caused post-traumatic stress to rise up within me as I involuntarily began singing, “I wish we’d all been ready…”
Snap out of it. I finally asked, “What in Jesus’ name is going on? Is Pope John truly the anti-christ? Is this his doing?” (My father attempted to persuade his children early on that Pope Johnny boy was the ole European Anti-Christo)
No, silly girl. Lent. Ash Wednesday.
Vuhaaaat? Vat is that?
Well, 9 years later and a complete change of undergrad majors and school locales, I was invited to consider Lent on a very personal level for the very first time in my life. I know people who give up chocolate and coffee and other vices, but I never liked that idea. The giving up of these things, typically perishable items, seemed ridden with guilt and partially void of real meaning in regards to the beauty and sweatiness of Lent.
If I’m going to give up something, I’d rather indulge in it all the more because I rarely indulge with reckless abandon.
Consequently, this season began my reckless abandonment of normalcy–anything misfittedly honest crept into existence.
And so, my flesh and blood filled Lent with many restless weeks of invoking the divine for revelation, only to be continuously asked to move inside my being, my viscera rather than leaving and forgetting it.
This task is one of the hardest for me to obey. I would much rather seek in an external, outer body answer than roll around with myself in the mud with no exact answers.
Ergo, I had to be attuned to my body, my spirit in order to create performative pieces, which felt true–true to my life as it sat in the desert of Lent. Each week I listened. Sometimes there was a deafening city within me and other times only a mere droplet of water plummeting down into my stomach, reminiscent of Alice when she falls into Wonderland.
I began with a temporary installation in which I suspended a bucket wrapped in yarn, akin to a mother embracing her child. The mothered bucket held water every week. There was a hole that sporadically permitted water to escape onto many different tea bags, also suspended, but from the bucket. The used tea bags had writing on them, whereby each word on the bag pertained to humanness.
Sweat, odor, skin, vagina, hair, nails, tongue, saliva, penis, eyelashes…
Water would splatter onto the tiny bags of mortality and at times, soak them and other times a gentle, pregnant bead would gingerly and possibly agonizngly fall once or twice.
The bucket with water alluded to the primary passage that Sacred Space choose for the school during this season, which was Woman at the Well.
Thirst. Sexuality. Defiance. Mercy. Acceptance. Confusion. Femaleness. Alien.
Realities of you and me…
Also, the other themes I entertained and mulled over pertained to the greater scope of Lent: solitude, testing, self-emptying, encounter, transfiguration of sorts.
(All photography by the lovely and strong Katy Leet)
The first Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, of Lent I embarked on my weekly performance pieces.
This piece truly dealt with my body, holding complexity, and the kindness of God and myself. Thus, I kneeled over ash and water and spoke hard truths about me. After each one, I anointed my forehead with ash and then washed my face off with water from a bucket. For 15 minutes I performed this ritual in front of people. Ash went into my ears, nose, eyes, pores and stained my skin. It was incredibly agitating as well as glorious to walk around school and town with my beaming, somewhat self-conscious face.
At one point during the piece I glanced at my sister. I saw tears rise up in her beautiful eyes like waves as she sat there symbiotically connected to me in which no one else was able to. Sisters know stories and have seen all of those truths expressed, embodied, and encumbered upon.
She was there every Wednesday. Supporting me and loving me and knowing me and wrestling with me. I am so grateful for her presence and belief in who I am.
The following Wednesday became the passage into suffering. The weight we carry as answers are nowhere to be found and God seems to be quite silent and removed.
I gathered rocks from a coast off of Puget Sound during sunset and watched as they morphed inside my bag as mere stones–ones for killing, carrying, and burying.
I then bought dozens of wine glasses.
During the performance I asked people, if they felt comfortable, to place a rock on my belly as a signifier of their current suffering. Meanwhile, I laid on my back and prayed for areas of suffering–from my life, to requests students had made to me, personally. Each prayer I added a rock.
The slow heaviness felt good as it pressed my abdomen slightly into the ground, covering the part of me that feels cyclically vulnerable as this is the area where blood is released as well as the potential for miraculous life. This belly holds anxious stress and surging vitality–a shroud of stones, to hold it down, felt comforting.
At one point the splendid and truly beautiful KJ Swanson came over to my metaphorical bedside and tended to my sickness–she brushed the rocks off my stomach and re-placed 2 or 3 rocks. Bearable. Solidarity. Defiance. I valued her bold gesture.
After a certain moment I sat up and repeated these words as I placed each rock into the wine glass, “Father, mother, sister, brother if you are willing, take this cup.” Again and again until the glasses were filled. And then we, the audience, toasted, strangely, to suffering.
Afterwards, I harshly battled the whole day. Impending death followed me. Literally, I felt like I was about to die. The whole damn day. It was close to self-contempt, though something wasn’t as smoothly situated in my soul as self-contempt typically finds itself within me. I underwent something with much intensity and confusion.
The following day it dawned on me. I was repeatedly praying the prayer of Jesus the evening before his gruesome death and I didn’t finish the prayer…”Not my will, but yours be done.” It wasn’t time to finish, it would have been glossy and cheap rhetoric.
How does one faithfully, boldly undergo suffering to which no answer or relief is near?
The next piece was an interesting one to work through. I felt done. The idea of doing another performance that bore much of me, seemed too much.
So I went in another direction.
I sat on the ground at school with 2 pounds of Hershey Kisses and just gorged for 15 minutes. Occasionally I offered some to others, but mainly I ate the kisses, like an only child demanding the moon.
It felt good to be indulgent to the point of nausea. Additionally, it was a personal commentary on what I think Lent is not and I paraded the ‘not’ in my mouth, belly, and…
What have we done with Lent anyways? More rules to follow for 40 days? More puritanical restraint to forcefully face God?
After my chocolate permissiveness, I moved onto confession.
I had written things down about myself, which defiled social norms. In my undergrad days, this is what I pushed more than anything else. Normalcy, social propriety, and hidden realities that we all exercise one way or the other.
So, I haphazardly put red lipstick all over my mouth and held my notebook of confessions that was then held in Henri Nouwen’s Inner Voice of Love: A Journey from Anguish to Freedom (a book that has walked with me into love, when I was tempted to hate with voracity) and approached people. I asked if I could first, confess something and second, take a photograph.
“Sometimes I can’t pronounce really simple words and when I fail, everything in me fears that those who heard, think I’m stupid.”
“I’m deathly and anxiously afraid that I’m boring.”
“Sometimes I pick my nose and if anyone I knew saw me, I would be perpetually humiliated anytime I saw her or him.”
“I’m really self-conscious about giving men frontal hugs. All I can think about are my breasts.”
‘I feel so much discomfort over stirring desire and attraction in older, married men.”
“There are times where I have to pluck my own chin hairs.”
“I fluctuate between liking my body and completely disliking it.”
“I have had suicidal thoughts, induced by my self-contempt.”
“I think people like me if I’m funny, smart, and creative–when I’m none of these things, I worry about being forgotten.”
“I compete with girls my age on style, looks, and personality. I fight with this all the time.”
There were more. This is to give the essence of what I was after.
It’s rather humorous to say these surprising things to therapists-in-training and watch as they, we, search to find the right thing to say, right facial expression to make, regulating the feeling of discomfort to allow the client, me, to be well received. When all I needed was honest ears, an honest reaction and response to my admittance.
The polaroids were collected and then strung onto the yarn hanging from the bucket, above the newly placed congregation of stone-filled wine glasses.
Performance piece #5–This one is one of my favorites and I hope to recreate it on a much grander scale.
After confessing, what does one endure? Disbelief, unbelief, wanting to believe that Love is breaking in, sacrificing, and holding our broken selves.
To verbally say, “I want to believe. Help me in my disbelief, unbelief. Now I believe” is far too easily said by the Church. I, too, have expressed my quickness in belief without undergoing the heartache and painfully beautiful experience of waiting, requesting help, and suffering while treading the waters of faith.
Thus, I thought writing my words with my mouth gave me the opportunity to fully sense the meaning of needing help, of waning in energy to believe, and sorely revealing my disbelief, unbelief…
I was in one sense self-imposing disability and in another sense desperately wanting to feel the weight of these words. Do I really mean them?
Speech is often highly esteemed in our culture. It reveals status, personhood, education, geography, respectability, dogma, etc. It allows for one to assess and qualify and deem this or that. Consequently, I veered from speaking, whereas writing left some ambiguity, halted the hastiness of easy critique and is where I currently feel comfortable and in tune to my being.
But, then what does it mean to see compulsive, childish, naïve writing of wavering faith? Does judgment occur as well? Or is curiosity aroused? Will one wonder the journey of expressing these words? It appears simple and dismissible, however if one saw how it got to the paper, grueling and tiresomely–one might re-think or re-evaluate her or his judgments.
So I wrote for about 20 minutes with my mouth. Over and over. Saliva slipped out. My breathing was more audible. My knees pained me.
I wondered if this was faith–grotesque, bold, passionate, honest, and bodily?
My last performance piece was one of prayer and offering. During the 7 weeks, I became incredibly connected to the space, Mars Hill and her people. I was filled with such gratitude and sorrow. Grateful for this place as it has offered me acute and severe freedom, compassion, boldness, and a continual request for my voice and my presence. The people here are unlike any group I have ever encountered before. This place is Church as it needs to be–healing, complex, painstakingly honest, sensual, invitational, and honoring to and belief in all voices.
Sorrow for my near departure. Graduating is two-fold–both thrilling and tragic. To leave a place, whereby your being is mirrored, beckoned, and acknowledged, is a divine beseeching to believe on my own accord that I have much to offer and trust in.
That belief is hard to do.
To see my brokenness and dignity with mercy and great expectation is not easily done.
Moreover, this time of Lent helped me connect, remember, and meditate on my time here at MHGS with these people and the cost it was to embark on this journey of yes, becoming a therapist, but just as importantly becoming a full, embodied, strong woman with a desire for God that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before.
Well, this is what I sent out to my graduating class as an explanation of my last piece:
To my fellow graduating class of 2010,
Some of you may or may not know of my 6 week endeavor in creating performance art pieces revolving around Lenten themes. Regardless, this last one, which is today, will symbolize and culminate my time with Lent and ultimately my time at Mars Hill–in part signifying you. As I consider the encroaching end, your faces come to mind. Even if I barely know you, I can look at the list of names and confidently believe that somehow, some way you have directly affected my life and I will deeply miss you and the place we were held, taught, and given away.
Thus, I will look at each name, remember your face and pray for your departure and ability to leave here well and place a rock around the installation that is currently on the main floor stage. The rocks have been gathered from a Puget Sound beach and have been already used in an earlier performance piece. This piece is two-fold: the first part I asked people and myself to place rocks on belly…………My hope is to symbolically bring all of our long-sufferings (in the form of rocks) to the place representing death in anticipation of life continually emerging after our end at MHGS. So, I want to ask you to pick up 1 rock after this week (post Easter Sunday) as a small reminder of our time here, however good, ugly, or difficult, and belief that really good things are coming toward us, have been coming toward us, especially in light of our departure from this place…much care and respect, Heather Stringer
I did this. I said all 77 names and repeated, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” I walked around in a square, gazing at each rock and praying for their futures as well as mine. I cried when I got to my name and deeply invited the will of God to pervade my life in new ways, new and creative ways. I haven’t done this type of praying in awhile, though there was a different understanding of God’s will. It is full of desire, merciful brokenness, and costly, risky freedom. It is not externally found, but internally grown, overflowing onto the earth…
There is so much more to write about, so much surfaced and tugs on my mind and heart, but I leave that for another moment…
Thank you for reading this.
Thank you Mars Hill Graduate School for providing me with a unique education, profoundly personal transformation, a beautiful husband : ), and love for myself and others that I could not find prior to Seattle.
Thank you Morgan for dropping seeds into my lap about this school, you single-handedly propelled me here. Thank you for my enduringly beautiful family who also connected me to this education through their personal work and belief in my gifting. For my friendships in Chicago that have endured ebbs and flows, staggering conversations, and hope that redemptive repairs are at hand.
Lastly, thank you God for filling this earth with yourself, with good, noble, grotesque, and beautiful things. I can finally see you unreservedly everywhere, not confined to my categories, lines in the sand, and language.
Sigh. That was a long post.