Phenomenology — I Agree But I Don’t by Erin King


This semester, I’m enrolled in Intermedia — a class cross-listed with the music school, intended for interdisciplinary, multi-sensory collaborative art experiences. One of our reading assignments for discussion this week was “The Reorganization of the Sensory World”, by Thomas Porcello, Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa and David W. Samuels. The article talks about a new approach in the field of anthropology in which the senses are not spoken about in isolation from each other, but as a collective “sensorium” of simultaneous responses to stimuli.

One colleague’s response to the assigned readings categorized this article as rooted in phenomenology, to which another colleague expressed confusion in grasping the concept of “phenomenology”. As a result, the class watched “The Muppets Explain Phenomenology”, which you must read the subtitles if you want to actually “get” the title.

I’ve written down a slightly paraphrased version of the subtitles here:

Our sense take in phenomena all around us — constantly, continuously — it’s part of being alive (human existentialism). As phenomena arises, we try to make sense of it using language and abstract thought. We think we understand it, but we don’t.
Every single thought that you’ve ever had is just your brain trying to make sense out of the chaos of the universe. We try to make sense of the phenomena around us even though it’s unknowable chaos.
So if you feel you don’t understand what life’s about or what life has planned, remember that’s the only honest way to live: Confused.
Phenomena — it’s everywhere; unknowable, always arising…don’t try to understand it because you can’t.
So if you feel lost and can’t make sense of phenomena, of life — of your life — That’s life! It’s just random phenomena — always rising, always changing, unknowable, chaotic… Don’t try to understand life; just accept life as it is.

Now, I love this video, and I’m glad someone took the time to juxtapose this explanation with Mana-mana, because it makes that sketch so meta. And I can sort of get on board with phenomenology’s explanation of our search for making sense of things. I think it explains the general confusion I receive about my artwork, and explains the process of refining my art project. I hear philosophical undertones that align with John Cage’s own philosophy on life, chance, reality, nature, theatre and poetics.

Where I take issue with phenomenology (or at least the above summarization of phenomenology) is it’s pessimistic view of the act of seeking meaning. Rather than concluding “life’s just random, so don’t try to understand it” — which sounds like an absolute, definitive conclusion — I feel like the real argument should be “don’t look for an absolute or definitive answer”. I would argue that we should open our idea of “seeking answers” or “searching for meaning” to alter the definition of “meaning” to include “some revelation or lesson the individual gleans from the phenomenon”. Sometimes, the purpose is the act of seeking itself — that we care enough to want to know, process and understand phenomena, and make connections between seemingly disparate data. That is how we learn, adjust, and evolve.

I would like to conclude by including a quotation from the Indigo Girls’ song, Closer to Fine, as I believe these lyrics reflect my own experience in seeking meaning:

We go to the doctor, we go to the mountains/ we look to the children, we drink from the fountain/ Yeah we go to the Bible, we go through the workout/we read up on revival, we stand up for the lookout.
There’s more than one answer to these questions/ pointing me in a crooked line/ and the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.

I Need to Carry a Voice Recorder by Erin King

Forgive the confusing, vague title. I’m still trying to figure out where I’m going with this entry.

It’s not that I don’t know what I want to write; it’s just that while I was weeding and harvesting in my garden earlier today, my internal monologue started drafting 5 different entries. Now, to me, they’re all interconnected and woven together — because that is how I perceive EVERYTHING. Unfortunately, not everyone can see the connections between things if there isn’t a clear “thesis”, call to action, or linear narrative present. Which makes my feeling motivated to sharing my writing non-existent.

There are many, many, MANY times that I have come to the conclusion that I need to start recording my conversations when I’m trying to explain my research or my artwork to my mom over the phone, or when I’m getting on a soapbox rant while I’m running with my running partner. Or when I’m venting my frustration with my friends in the grad cohort and they assure me that there is a researchable and valid argument to which I’m just scratching the surface. I can explain to any number of people what my thoughts are on almost anything these days, except for when I’m asked specifics in relation to my artwork, specifically by art department faculty or in critique.

There are becoming more and more instances where I need to be recording my internal monologue, which means I would have to be that person walking around talking to their self out loud. (I’m already known for doing that at work or when I’m in a store shopping, almost always when I need to remember something.) Stubbornly, I push back that I would never listen to the recordings (because I hate the sound of my speaking voice). Also, I can’t get the visual of Dr. Zimsky from “The Core” constantly recording himself out of my head.

But you and I both know that I would probably make this whole “writing my thesis” thing and “navigating conversations about my work with faculty and peers” thing less painful if I would record myself.

Which brings me to…

Self-Destructive Tendencies

Throughout the duration of my second year in my graduate school experiment, I’ve found ways to say yes to myself more often, and have gotten the closest I ever have to making sense in my MFA project. But that was the result of a lot of push and pull, and some backsliding. Picture a potter trying to center a lump of clay on a pottery wheel before building a vessel. I’m a very wobbly, stubborn lump of clay.

A Recap

As I had briefly written about in my Medium entry, Let’s Felt Hands in a Mirror Maze in the Mountains…, I had felt more confident in my work than I had in a long time upon my return from Arrowmont School of Art and Craft. I had recently started a job at a church as a Finance Assistant for the summer, and it was keeping me from being able to put in regular hours at the art studio during the summer. But with my new-found love for experimental frame-loom weaving, I made a goal to make a weaving a week, and I lost myself in it.

It was the third frame weaving that really got me excited. There was something about it that communicated something to me that for lack of a better word, I called “musical".

Around the same time, my second reader for my thesis committee, Chris, was trying to coordinate meetings with all of the students whose committees he served on before he left town for the summer. During this meeting, I was so excited and filled with energy — a sight that was rare near the end of my first year of grad school — and he fed off of this.

I talked about my experience at Arrowmont, and how excited I was about the weavings I was creating, and had mentioned that this weaving made me think of music. He confirmed that he also saw that too, and we started trying to unpack what I could do with that. He mentioned that I should try to develop a system for interpreting the elements I was using into a musical arrangement. I grew a little silent.

When I spoke again, I mentioned that I had almost majored in undergrad in music, but was so worried about the music theory and my not-so-great reading skills of rhythm, and so I majored in art instead. I also mentioned that I’d thought about bringing music into my work, but was afraid I couldn’t defend it or do it well enough. I felt afraid that if I changed my direction again that my committee would give up on me because of all of the many ideas I had flitted from in my first year. (My counselor would later tell me that this wasn’t so much inability to focus, but hyper-vigilance and my need to please everyone.)

That was when my second committee member gave me the best set of advice: If something is worth-while and you love it enough, it should make you want to work harder at the thing you’re not good at — not run away from it. Better yet, he gave me permission to follow that instinct that I originally had buried out of fear. As a people-pleaser, the best thing someone can do for me is give me permission to follow my instincts.

Following that studio visit, I traveled to St. Louis and met up with the now-retired music composition professor from my alma mater, Webster University. Bob and I go way back. He used to play organ and accompany the choir at my church. He let me borrow his typewriter for one of my art projects freshman year, and he used to tell me stories about participating in some Happenings in St. Louis. During our visit, we discussed ways one might go about translating each of my weavings into different songs. He also told me about World Make Music Day, and Pianos for People. This led me to emailing someone at Pianos for People and coordinating the possibility for me to acquire two dead pianos. (That’s a story for another day.)

I didn’t get permission from anyone, or tell my committee members — I just went for it. I was on a track that would take my art all over the place again, but this time, I was sort of refreshing myself on the basics of music theory and rhythm. I was reading up on the development of modern-day music notation and mass production, and I was finding similar issues in translation that the early music printers faced. But I had a box to work from, so to speak.


I was being more true to who I was, and was more confident than I’ve been in a long time. I had a goal of where I was going, and just needed to figure out how to get there. I was starting to be okay being me. And that’s when I found new ways to undermine my success.

What I mean is the first year, I was so fixated on “winning” critiques (sounding smart), coming up with something clever, or preaching through my artwork to address social justice issues that I just couldn’t sustain a large, overarching project. Now, I think about that version of me, and I think it was “Advertising Major Erin”. Advertising Major Erin was always focused on making something funny or clever, but they were one-off ideas that didn’t tie into any overarching campaign. Which is frustrating, because Advertising Major Erin also hated brands by how hard they tried to be funny or clever (cough cough Geico), and couldn’t keep one consistent campaign going. Hi Kettle, you’re black.

Anyway, most of those “failures” I had was a combination of my insecurities and self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, I was afraid I couldn’t keep up with the amount of reading, but set myself for continual failure because I didn’t go through with meeting with the Disability Services office. Or, I was afraid I wasn’t intelligent enough to be in the graduate program, so my anxiety and incessant need for people to like me caused me to continually shift my focus. I was making a lot of stuff, but not finishing anything.

So, for the beginning of year two in graduate school, I went against my better judgment and entered a relationship at the worst possible time. Without going to far into any of that, there were millions of red flags, and I always found ways to justify or explain them away. But the guy made jokes about my pursuing an MFA in Art, I let my passion for my studio practice and research slide, and my confidence in myself imploded. Having the energy to always give him allowance for his point of view or his glaringly different (or downright troubling) opinions on things going on in the world wore me down. I was trying to carry him in the midst of his grief, since he couldn’t recognize he needed to see a counselor or therapist, but I was also filling my time so I couldn’t be alone with the questions about my artwork. I was so afraid of failing in this new direction of my artwork that I entered into a relationship where I could retreat from my fear of failure, thus allowing me to underperform in my studio work that semester.

By the time I realized that I needed to end that relationship, I had exactly one and a half weeks until my second-year review, and while I didn’t twiddle my thumbs making nothing the whole semester, I hadn’t made nearly the progress neither my committee nor I had hoped for. But in those one and a half weeks, (with some direction from my committee), I buckled down and cranked out my strongest pieces, (one being my mentor Pazia’s favorite).

Wrap It Up

I can tell I’m meandering, and jumping through lots of changing timelines, so I’ll wrap it up.

I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness” and it echoes so much I already know from my own experience about wanting to belong, and about the political divide in society right now. I can tell her writing is going to somehow work into my thesis.

In my recent reading, she’s been talking a lot about in order to really belong, you must first belong to yourself. Belonging to yourself means staying true to who you are, to your core values, and not compromising yourself or those values to avoid conflict or for people to like you better.

As I look back, I realize I probably owe my career to not belonging. First as a child, then as a teenager, I found my primary coping mechanism for not belonging in studying people. I was a seeker of pattern and connection. I knew if I could recognize patterns in people’s behaviors and connect those patterns to what people were feeling and doing, I could find my way. I used my pattern recognition skills to anticipate what people wanted, what they thought, or what they were doing. I learned how to say the right thing or show up in the right way. I became an expert fitter-in, a chameleon. And a very lonely stranger to myself.

I nodded so much when I read this. I’m pretty sure I took a picture of that page and captioned it on Facebook, “Stop writing about me, Brene Brown…”

I’ve also recently started rewatching “The Office (US)” on Netflix. One of my favorite characters when I first watched it was Andy. I only vaguely remembered he had some anger issues. But after he moved to Scranton following the merger, I got very tired of him, very fast. Andy has gone most of his life as a “yes man”; a chameleon. It’s a good way for people to first like you, but people can see through the inauthenticity really fast.

I used to be like Andy — not completely, but enough. As I’ve gotten older, moved farther away from family, and lived very different experiences than the rest of my family, I’ve developed very defined opinions and points of view. Being more liberal when most of your family tends to be conservative is just one more way of feeling isolated and alone. But, I also feel more loved and like I belong more because I’m becoming more true to myself.

Will I start recording my thoughts and conversations? Well, yes and no. I don’t know that I’ll ever record them via voice recorder, but I am going to try to develop a habit of writing blog entries so that my thoughts are already written, and searchable for when I have to get my thesis written. Stay tuned.

That Was a Wonderful Remark by Erin King

Imagine a time in your life that was particularly joyous, or you were at what you felt to be your lowest point. I would venture a guess that you might have a song that is tied to that particular moment in your life.

At least, that’s how it’s always been in my life. It probably helps that I also grew up in a very musical family. But as long as I can remember, my best friend was my radio, or CD player, or iPod, or Pandora station, or YouTube playlist… (I’m sure you get the point.)

As an only girl and middle child, and a child that had anxiety before she’d ever heard the word, I had trouble falling asleep before midnight. So, when I got to the point in my life where my parents would no longer let me sleep in their bed to fall asleep, I would stay up in my room with the closet light on, playing with my stuffed animals, listening to the radio.

As I entered middle school, our local classic rock/oldies station converted over to 80’s hits. By the time I entered high school, I could identify any band or singer based on the timbre of voice (or just by recognizing the song). I had every instrumental solo memorized. I could name the song within seconds of hearing the opening of the song. (As later experiences on trivia teams would show, I could also do this in any isolated segment of a song I’d heard before).

But while my peers, and even my mother, were listening only to how a song sounded, or the melody, I was paying attention to the lyrics. When there was a song that I took issue with the subject matter in the lyrics, no matter how much I loved the sound of the song, it would make me like the song less.

[Editorial note: I apologize if my story-telling is as meandering and hard-to-follow as John McCain’s train of logic in a Comey hearing. Please bear with me.]

Flash forward a few years. And by few, I mean, me being a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree. I’d had to move back home to live with my parents while I was searching for a job post-graduation. I wasn’t sure I fit the advertising executive box, but I also didn’t want to be a cashier at Lowe’s in my hometown forever. I took a leap of faith and applied for an 8-week paid internship in Westerville, Ohio, and moved in with my aunt in New Albany. (I also kept the job at Lowe’s on weekends just to have a fail-safe.)

I was a Special Projects Intern for a social media small business, and lasted exactly 5 weeks before quitting the job. I was verbally and emotionally abused, although I’m sure the folks working there would disagree. I had hit my low, and it had gotten so bad that I didn’t even give notice.

But all during this tumultuous time in my life, the alternative radio station I would listen to on all of my commutes would play songs that I read some sort of spiritual message in the lyrics — Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time”, AWOL Nation’s “Sail”, Foo Fighters’ “Walk”. I truly believe it was this that kept me going through all of the mess.

On one particular evening, (I can’t remember if it was the night after I quit my internship, or sometime after), I was driving through Columbus by myself, and “Walk” came on the radio. And I lost it. I am not a crier, but this song got me right where I was. It was equal parts sentimental, ballad-like, confessional, but also contained undertones of anger and rebellion. But when I heard this song, I couldn’t not hear it as a prayer to God after a huge stumble. And it touched on everything I was feeling. And then you get to that bridge:

For the very first time
Don’t you pay no mind?
Set me free again
You keep alive a moment at a time
But still inside a whisper to a riot
To sacrifice but knowing to survive
The first decline another state of mind
I’m on my knees, I’m praying for a sign
Forever, whenever
I never wanna die
I never wanna die
I never wanna die
I’m on my knees
I never wanna die
I’m dancing on my grave
I’m running through the fire
Forever, whatever
I never wanna die
I never wanna leave
I’ll never say goodbye
Forever, whatever
Forever, whatever

The beat picks up, and you enter the “head-banging” section, and since I was driving at the time, I’m both crying and screaming and pounding on the steering wheel. Catharsis.

The emotional and spiritual association that I have with this song runs so deep that maybe a year or year and a half later -after I’ve moved to Columbia, MO on my own for my work through AmeriCorps; living here with no family but my new work and church families — the music leader at my new-found church, Wilkes Blvd. United Methodist Church, begins one particular Sunday’s communion with that sacred Foo Fighters hymn, and I cry openly. That wound becomes as fresh as that night driving alone in my car, but I’m simultaneously overcome with relief. I’ve somehow managed to hear God enough to allow myself to walk away from an abusive workplace, and found myself in a new community where I’ve found the perfect job and a church that specializes in welcoming the least, the last, and the lost. The tears change from pain and sorrow to joy and wonder.

This isn’t an isolated occurrence. For years, I’ve been quoting the modern-day prophets Mumford & Sons on my Facebook when I am feeling particularly lost. My favorite verse comes from “Below My Feet”:

Keep the earth below my feet
For all my sweat, my blood runs weak
Let me learn from where I have been
Oh keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn
Oh keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn

I think these words have particular significance for me because I am a kinesthetic learner, and failure is my best teacher.

But even songs where I already had an association of prayer with evolve into something more significant, given the right circumstances.

This song became especially important to me after my uncle, who was the closest thing to a grandfather that I had known in my life, passed away.

After getting the call that he’d passed, I had to drive myself from Columbia, MO to St. Louis, MO to catch a flight to Columbus, OH, so I could be home for his celebration of life and burial.

I absent-mindedly placed the album Babel in the CD player for when I lost the radio stations on the drive. When “Below My Feet” hit the lyrics

And now I sleep
Sleep the hours and that I can’t weep
When all I knew was steeped in blackened holes
I was lost

I bawled. I cried so much I had to stop listening to Babel. I turned on the radio and started searching for the closest radio station on the scanner. And wouldn’t you know the next song that came on was “Overcomer” by Mandisa. I let it play and let the tears fall.

Now, we come the reason I felt compelled to write this entry. I’m in a much different chapter in my life now. With the way things are going in the world and also with my own internal struggles with anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and paranoia, it can be hard to keep hope or joy. I’ve had my fair share of times feeling like I don’t hear God speak anymore.

But I firmly believe God gave us poets, musicians, artists, and comedians as modern-day prophets. And I thank God for the ones I currently go to for words of encouragement and hope: Sia, Pink!, Kelly Clarkson, Eagles and Van Morrison, to name a few.

It is this last one on the list — Van the Man — that I currently listen to. My music-loving friends tease me for my love for Van Morrison, but he’s so on point. For years, I’ve found solace in his “Days Like This”, but in the past year, I’ve found a new appreciation for his lesser-known, more spiritual songs.

At Wilkes one Sunday, we led the congregation into worship with “Whenever God Shines His Light”. As I was listening to this song in preparation for that Sunday in the graduate studio for the MFA students, one of my colleagues encouraged me to crank it up, and also to queue up “Wonderful Remark”.

I find myself frequently listening to this song on any number of my YouTube Playlists. It is the perfect message right now in our country’s political and racial climate.

How can you stand the silence
That pervades when we all cry
How can you watch the violence
That erupts before your eyes
You can’t even grab a hold on
When we’re hanging oh so loose
You don’t even listen to us
When we talk it ain’t no use
Leave your thoughtlessness behind you
Then you may begin to understand
Clear the emptiness around you
With the waving of your hand

But even with the poetic genius of “Wonderful Remark”, there is another song of Van’s where I seek refuge. Although I had to do a Wikipedia search to learn about the meaning of the chorus, “Tore Down a la Rimbaud” says everything I’ve felt recently while trying to bring some sense into my art-making:

Showed me pictures in the gallery
Showed me novels on the shelf
Put my hands across the table
Gave me knowledge of myself.
Showed me visions, showed me nightmares
Gave me dreams that never end
Showed me light out of the tunnel
When there was darkness all around instead.
Tore down a la Rimbaud
And I wish my message would come
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some time
You know it’s hard some time.
Showed me ways and means and motions
Showed me what it’s like to be
Gave me days of deep devotions
Showed me things I cannot see.
Tore down a la Rimbaud
And I wish my purpose would come
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some time.
You know it’s hard some time.
Showed me different shapes and colors
Showed me many different roads
Gave me very clear instructions
When I was in the dark night of the soul.
Tore down a la Rimbaud
And I wish my writing would come
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some time.
You know it’s hard some times.
Tore down a la Rimbaud
And I wish my writing would come
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some time.
You know it’s hard some times.
You know it’s hard some times.
You know it’s hard some times.
Tore down a la Rimbaud, you know it’s hard some times.

And after reading that Van wrote this about writer’s block while reading about French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s concluding his writing altogether at 26 years old, it makes the meaning of this song, and why it speaks to me, so much clearer.

Sometimes we need the silence, the darkness, confusion, the despair. It’s in these moments of wrestling that we find out just who we are, and ironically, create the things that tend to resonate most with everyone else around us. This is when God speaks through the modern-day prophets.