This past June I was hired by Simon Tran at Southern Exposure to be one of three teaching artists for their Mission Voices program. I submitted a project called "The San Francisco That I Love," which was about creating mini zines about the things you love about San Francisco. It was based on some zines I made when I was hella depressed and was trying to claw my way back into some sort of normalcy. Finding love in the details was my way of tuning out everything else, if even for a moment. And it worked.
Finding love around you is a muscle that only strengthens with use. I had to set out to intentionally to find it for it to be found. I would wake up in the morning and tell myself, "Jason. Just find one thing you love about San Francisco today. Just one. Doesn't matter what it is."
This primed me for seeing through a different lens for the entire day. If I was looking for that one thing, then I was also noticing all the other things that might be adjacent to love like beauty, kindness, whimsy, joy, healing or even sadness, nostalgia, or melancholy. Naming these moments became a way for me to note the frequency and duration of their visits. And I noted love was everywhere.
The project idea I had in mind didn't happen. Mission Voices was more of an artist residency than it was an art class. This meant I wasn't there to teach, per se. I was there to create alongside. I am incredibly grateful for this change because it meant the practice that I used to make my zines became central to my time at Southern Exposure. I wasn't worried about outcomes. Instead, I focused on being present in the moment to notice and name what was there.
Let's just say this shift was a literal mental health saver all of July. There was a lot of hospital visits and death that took place that month, the same month as my artist residency. Navigating the landmines of deep grief and sadness with the explosions of creative breakthroughs (the young folx and mine) was almost too much for my physical body. I collapsed each night from sheer exhaustion, woke each morning crying, and found presence throughout the day.
One of my mantras is, "All we have is each other." It is a truth known by experience. Time and again it is my Queer Family that has shown up for me. Queer Family are the ones who helped me navigate a failing public health system and gave me the tenacity to finally get a proper diagnosis, which included having to undergo arterial bypass surgery in my right knee. Queer Family are who showed up in my home when I had to watch my father die from non-Hodgkins mantle cell lymphoma over Zoom due to distance caused by COVID. Queer Family are the ones who rallied around our brother Tomas when he lost his husband to pancreatic cancer this past July and who are carrying us through this grief. Queer Family, which includes both family of choice and family of blood, is life amidst all of the shit & chaos & death.
When our queer brother Dan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the first week of July, I kept repeating my mantra because I knew we needed to rally the Queer Family to figure out a care plan that would support both him and his husband, Tomas. We met in our home and discussed what was known, tried to parse out what time might be remaining, started pulling together roles and shifts. Dan died nine days after his cancer diagnosis; we didn't have time to implement the care plan.
Dan, the lynchpin, of our Queer Family, was no longer with us, and my mantra, while not hollow, became something foreign, misplaced, dissonant. It's tone needed changing somehow. A new mantra needed to not rely on a single concept but rather offer an opening. I needed a way out of grief and into the multiplicity and plurality of life.
It was my husband who suggested the edit. He saw me struggling and he offered, "What if your statement was simply, 'All we have.' It doesn't offer a single answer. Instead, it asks for a response, an observation."
"All we have" became the core of my artist residency through Mission Voices at Southern Exposure. It gave me a window through which to view and feel all that I was experiencing. And there was quite a bit.
Not just death and grief either. John and I celebrated our 15 year Wedding Anniversary alongside our dear friends Midori and Kelly, who we learned had the exact same wedding anniversary as us. I also had a short fable, "The Seedling," published in July over at The Fabulist. The editor asked me to rewrite the ending the day after Dan died. Surprisingly, I was able to make the edits in a way where the ending is infinitely stronger than the original. And I even secured new creative contracts for this August.
I made it through, and along the way I was also able to make art alongside and with young artists at Mission Voices. Walking through the gallery and sharing stories during our Opening Night, I saw how each of the young artists were grappling with the present moment, of how they are trying to make meaning and create understanding out of the complex experience of being human. It includes the realities of colonization, gentrification, and death. It includes the possibilities contained in speculative fictions and abstract expressions. And it also includes Catopia by Nathan Xu!
The show is up until August 20, 2022, at Southern Exposure, located on the corner of 20th Street and Alabama Street in San Francisco. Go check it out.