Of the Phoenix: Ashes to Ashes
(The stage is dark. The performer is illuminated only by a handheld flashlight that is shining upward from below her face.)
This is a ghost story. I’m not really here. I’m already gone.
(The light goes out.)
Ring around the rosie. Pocket full of posies. Ashes. Ashes. We all fall down.
(pause, then speaking)
He said, “This is a ritual performance. It’s a transformative experience in which your whole identity is up for grabs. You should be nervous about it.”
(Stage lights up on the performer. She addresses the audience directly and casually.)
He was still talking, but I was no longer listening. Instead, I was thinking about privilege, about how privileged he was in this moment. It’s a luxury of privilege to be able to believe that one’s identity is static enough that only certain experiences are transformative. For me, this isn’t the case. My identity is fluid. It’s always changing and evolving. And every event, even something as simple as getting out of bed in the morning, has the potential to be transformative.
(The performer’s attention shifts. She is now talking to herself.)
Organ failure. It’s a weird thing. I mean, I guess that’s how death always happens, with the organs failing, but I hadn’t really thought about it before now. It’s almost like it matters which one fails despite the fact that the end result is always the same.
(Performer begins a movement sequence.)
I pull the flames from my bright heart
and light a brittle twig of rib.
The passion burns magnesium white:
a flash, a spark that blinds the eye,
glows hotter in my chest.
I pluck that boney tinder,
snap it sharply up and out.
Offering my flaming bones to you,
as you promptly snuff them out.
(The movement sequence ends.)
Failure is always an option. Here’s the thing about people who claim that failure is not an option: they reduce the value of success by negating the option of failure. In order to celebrate a success as fully as possible, the risk of failure must be apparent. It must be felt like the brush of a wasp’s wing across the back of one’s neck. It’s always a close call because so often our failures and our successes are nearly the same thing.
(The performer takes a deep breath followed by another. Then she breathes in and out rapidly. She takes a breath. Holds it. Follows it with another deep breath before addressing the audience again.)
I was born with shitty lungs. I’m asthmatic. At 31 years of age, I’m also pre-emphysemic, which is rare for a non-smoker. My right lung contains the X-ray shadow of a calcified granuloma, a mark that tells the story of living in a river valley. My doctor told me that people who live in the Ohio River Valley and the lower Mississippi River Valley usually form these calcified granulomas in their lungs. It has something to do with the quality of the air we breathe. My doctor says these granulomas are harmless. My asthma, on the other hand, is far from harmless. It has caused significant scarring to my lungs. And the pre-emphysema, well, that will eventually become full-blown emphysema, the kind that requires the older, blue-lipped version of me to carry around an oxygen tank on the back of my wheelchair. My lungs will fail, and according to my doctor’s best estimates, I will find myself on a transplant list within the next 20-30 years. But if I’m being realistic, I know that it’s unlikely that I’ll get new lungs so late in life. It’s much more likely that I’ll simply die, and I’m okay with that.
(The performer takes another deep breath and then clears her throat.)
For years I have been struggling with my identity, trying to figure out who I am, what I want to do with my life, where I belong, and why. I pick up one memory only to discover that it’s a frayed end; it is haphazardly attached to the yarn of my life. I pick up another memory and it’s more of the same. I rely on a series of knots, some intentional, others accidental, to hold me together. My identity is fragmented in ways that are perhaps dangerous, but for me, these fragments only serve to motivate me to look deeper. I create my art, knowing that everything is always falling apart. My aesthetic is a gorgeous nothing*. I connect disparate narratives, stories of love and loss, stories that are almost unbearably heartbreaking, stories of progress, stories of transformation, and stories of struggle to one another with tiny hand-tied knots, with storytelling techniques that have yet to fail me, but which seem only to succeed through some sort of miracle. With each piece of art I make, with every performance I give, I am creating a structure that could collapse in on itself at any moment. I do all of this because it’s the only way that I know how to live.
(A movement sequence begins.)
And all of the darkness swam in me.
I was filled with that dark matter.
The tons of being broke,
crushed my ribs to dust and splinters.
It weighed me down.
I used to be…
a much more interesting person before
the dark coffin swallowed me up,
dredged the air from my breath-box in search
of pollutants and sorrows and swallows – –
a lie to those who’ve never found homes,
a lie to those who’ve never been to sea – –
I found my fingernails misplaced from my fingers,
displaced from their beds into that oak box
somewhere six feet below the earth.
Slow suffocation: a forgetting
as the flames rough my throat,
turn me to ashes,
and no one cries.
No one knows my name.
(The movement sequence ends. The performer addresses the audience directly.)
I want to say to him, “My identity is always up for grabs.” I want to tell him to look at my art and to see it as a direct reflection of my way of being in the world. I want to tell him to look at my right arm and to notice the large tattoo that covers my forearm. It’s a phoenix, a symbol of transformation and transcendence, because for every ending in my life, there has been another beginning; for every fire that has burned me, I’ve risen from the ashes stronger than before. Transformation is my specialty.
*Emily Dickinson’s The Gorgeous Nothings is a collection of envelopes that Dickinson had written a few words to a few lines of poetry upon. These were found and published posthumously. No envelope contains a completed work of poetry.
Savannah Ganster holds a PhD from Louisiana State University. When she’s not making art and performances, or engaged in scholarship, she can be found snuggling her cats, Sir Avalanche Phineas Cat and Her Ladyship, Sweets ShadowFox McFuzz, in Pennsylvania. Her writings can be found in Crack The Spine and The Volta: In Review.