'Cousin Martha' 1891, Chicago
6 x 9 inches, archival digital print from montage on cardboard with ink and glue
Edition of 5
My brother is getting divorced. He is 45. This is not his first divorce, and it is not really even a divorce. He and his now ex-ex wife never remarried after the last split, but managed to re-entwine their lives. They have split numerous times, but I would classify this as major episode
I spoke with him on the phone the other day to check in and see how things were going. In doing so, I found myself experiencing a profound shift in my own perspectives. As I asked questions and performed my good sisterly duty of being the one person in the family who checks on my brother even though he has yet to return the favor, I heard something different on the other end of the phone. As he described how well he was coping and how this really was for the best, I heard a crack in his voice. A shift in the big brother confidence I had grown so used to. He tried to cover it with a cough, and I was quick to accept this. Then it came again. The same crack, only bigger. I could almost see down into it like the ground splitting from an earthquake. This opening into my brother’s heart was unprecedented, never having been revealed before. I immediately knew several things were going to happen. One, this was the end for his relationship, the real end after 25 years of tumult. Two, my relationship with my brother would never be the same. We were raised to hide this kind of outburst of emotion. This type of behavior was for the weak and weary. Such things were not for public display. My initial reaction to this nascent, echoing crack was deep discomfort. I shifted in my seat, I had to get up and walk around, try to shake it off. This fear in his voice confused me and seemed to overwhelm him. Something felt wrong in this. It felt unfair that sense of repression angered me. I quickly search my mind for something to say that might make this awkward moment disappear. It did not. At 42 I have had enough experiences to recognize a moment in time that has the potential to alter life. This was one of them.
I have decided to write a list of my fears. As the written word has always been difficult territory for me, this notion seems ridiculous. I am in no way a writer. I am a visual artist―I write with images and find accessing the words needed for written expression quite terrifying. My typing skills are sub-teenager. I have a 5 year old that uses my computer keyboard more adeptly than myself. My training is none.
I am responsible for the lives of two young children now. Everyday is a mine field of potential threats and problems, challenges to our well being. The person I see in the mirror today is a worrier. Daily fears swarm my brain like flies on dung, buzzing and humming in the background. These fears have been quietly stacking themselves one upon the next for years.
In my world, every day starts with a list. This is what I know how to do. I find it is really the only way to master modern life. Compartmentalize, organize, and prioritize. Check them off one by one. This list consists of the most egregious fears I struggle with daily. They are many in number, but here I will list only the most prominent.
1 Fear of being revealed for who I really am and the risk of subsequent rejection.
We do our best to appear as others believe us to be. I hide many elements of myself in order to accomplish this. For example, I love to pick at my toes, sometimes to the extent that they bleed. I would pluck my eyebrows all day long if time would allow this luxury. I still have a stuffed animal from my childhood, a bear. It is a polar bear, brown with age. I hate crowds and avoid them at all costs. I get sick when under stress. I yell at my children. I bite my nails and hack at my cuticles when anxious. I rarely answer my phone. I prefer to work alone. I have bad posture. I wish I was thinner, taller, smarter. I doubt myself. I have or have had TMJ, FM, Fibromyalgia, chronic back pain, acid reflux, visceral hypersensitivity, anemia, depression, melancholia, and prolonged chronic nausea. I am a medical mess. I talk to myself. I own 20 pairs of boots. And, I desperately love my family. A true artist is supposed to be a lone wolf, so intertwined in their creations they can not spare the time to love others. This is not me. I am a wife and mother who digs and scrapes for time to make what must be made. The thought that these dirty little secrets might be found out scares me. This would reveal my vulnerable underbelly.
2 Death by Axe Murderer
Anyone who came of age in the 1980’s has probably seen FRIDAY THE 13TH, the original movie. Embedded in my brain forever are the scenes of Jamie Lee Curtis trying to escape the clutches of Jason, the escaped mental patient turned killer who wears a hockey mask. This was my first and only introduction to the idea of death by axe murderer. Statistically speaking, the chances of this being the way that I will die are close to none. Nevertheless, it remains quite high on my fear list and has caused me to forgo all other horror films since. This fear is of great interest because it is wildly irrational, yet exceptionally powerful. That tiny sliver of statistical chance for this to become true is a driving force. And so, this fear exists, in that tiny space, that gap in between the ridiculous and the possible.
3 Illness, specifically vomiting (emetaphobia)
Nobody likes to throw up. But, there are people out there like myself who actually base their entire day, or even existence on the avoidance of vomiting. This fear has a distinct origin. As a child of about 7, I watched my grandmother throw up part of her stomach at a Sunday family gathering. I alone saw this, as the other kids were outside playing. All I can really remember is white bed-sheets covered in blood. She was quickly transported to the hospital and died not long after. I have never recovered from the connection between vomiting and death that I made that day.
I have two kids. Before having them, people were full of advice and beautiful stories about how much children enrich this life. They are correct, but the fact is that the early childhood years are brimming with sickness of all kinds. No one really warned me of the months of carrying a barf bucket around the house while moving from bed to couch and back again as they grew inside. No one mentioned that the first five years of each of their lives would be comprised of no less than three to four stomach viruses a year. I have caught them all. If you look at the rock, you will run into it.
What do I believe is the deadliest of all fears? Mediocrity. Fear of mediocrity often goes unrecognized and parades around as lots of things: ego, homophobia, keeping up with the joneses, tattoos, new clothes, and working long hours searching out that eternal carrot, perfection. If I just put in one more hour... What will happen if I do not attain my goals? Will I shrivel up and die? Will I be buried in the back lot at the cemetery? Is the work of an uncollected artist inferior to the more celebrated? Many artists in this position therefore continue to push on. It is counterintuitive to do less in an effort to be more.
5 Bad parenting and being domesticated
As an artist, can I make interesting work amidst piles of unwashed clothes, plastic toys littering the floors, screaming children, and unmade lunches? Can complicated, respectable work emerge from domestication? Domestic family life has the reputation of being slow and easy. In my opinion, having a family and becoming responsible for the lives of others is not for the weak. How do I know if I am doing this properly? Is that plastic cup causing cancer? Is that gluten killing them? Should I be sure my kids are vegetarian, vegan, decaffeinated, sun-blocked, Ivy League attending, altruists? Am I raising serial killers, or assholes? I don’t think so, but I am certainly making mistakes. Will that next doctor’s appointment reveal a tumor in my child, a behavioral glitch, a major potential “ISSUE” down the road? Each time they get dropped off anywhere, the pang of fear, that surge of doubt about leaving them alone or trusting others jolts me. Can creativity have hours? A schedule? When I use my family in my artwork, which I always do, what ripple effect am I causing? Can they appreciate the honesty, or will they be in therapy for years unraveling their brutal mother? One day I will be made aware of what my mistakes have been and will likely feel foolish and guilty.
As kids, we spent summer weekends at a fly-fishing cabin my family had in the northern woods of Michigan. This cabin was mainly intended to be sleeping quarters for men who spend all free moments of their lives fishing. As such, I was often quite bored there. One sunny weekend when I was about eight or nine, I decided to lie in the sun. I tied our inflatable canoe to the railing on the bridge in front of the cabin that spanned the trout stream. I promptly fell asleep. Time passed and after a while I began to awake as the canoe seemed to be moving, by itself, upstream. I slowly realized that my brothers were pulling the rope I had attached the canoe. They continued to pull until my canoe lodged itself under a large bush at the river’s edge. As I was lodged underneath, my brothers took the opportunity to shake the bush. Falling free from the branches were hundreds of sunning water snakes. They plunged into my boat and set off a screaming fit of fear so profound I was likely never to be the same person again. I leapt into the river and fought for my life as I scrambled for the shore. I heard laughing and the slap of a high five. It is possible that it was only a few snakes that fell, and as an adult I do recognize that these snakes are quite harmless to the human body. In my mind however, their numbers were great, and they were deadly. This event allowed my brain to latch onto a significant point of fear to which I have spent my life returning. When life gets complicated or worrisome, my dreams fill with snakes, some large, some small, all of them trying to bite me. One reoccurring dream I have often, contains gigantic snakes wrapped around palm trees near the flowering tops, watching me as I drive below in a very small red car. They slide and squirm around the trunks―every so often revealing their heads to take a swipe at me in the car. The car is tiny and I am driving it on a freeway in LA. I am unsure why this fact is important.
7 The pain of loss
In this category, my first mistake was to marry a fireman. We all fear losing loved ones. This fear is quite profound and often fuels a form of preemptive self rejection. If you don’t feel much for someone, there is less to lose. Keeping my emotions in check and making sure they do not stray too far from the centerline is paramount for survival. But this strategy does not work with children. They need so much, and can easily sense that you have more inside to give. There is little to do about this fear. It is plain and easy and inevitable.
You now know more about me than many of my close friends.
It remains to be seen what this list will bring about.
Liz Steketee received her BFA from University Of Michigan, Ann Arbor in photography in 1992. She has many artistic affiliations including membership in the Advertising Photographers of America (APA), Photo Alliance, and founding membership in the Bay Area Photographer’s Collective (BAPC). Additionally, she has participated in San Francisco Open Studios, APA charity auctions, and artwork donations to San Francisco’s Art 4 Aids. Participation in group shows has taken her work to Barcelona, Japan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Colorado, The United Arab Emirates, and New York. In 2011 Nazraeli Press Published Liz’s work in a One Picture Book, Dystopia. In 2005, Liz completed her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute. Liz specializes in montage and digital fine art practices, is represented by Stephen Cohen Gallery, and lives in Marin County, California with her husband and two children.