Big, bare breast with a cherry on top


(Photo by Henry Chan)

I don’t have a picture of the Milk Truck, which is a shame, because it’s really very sweet, like an ice cream truck, with pink, blue, and white stripes, and a large, bare breast on the roof, with a pink nipple like a cherry on top. It is the project of Jill Miller, from Pittsburgh, and was hands down the main attraction of the event, parked as it was on Bloor Street, right outside the gallery.

Jill is the woman (above centre) in the yellow coat, and she gave a great and funny lecture on her experiences leading up to the creation of the Milk Truck. She began by admitting that, growing up, her first two crushes were for comedians, Steve Martin, and Jack Ritter from Three’s Company. She said her father was this silly, crazy, funny guy, who was really charismatic, but failed to provide financial support. So Miller drew a connection between humour and sadness early on in life. “Humour,” she said, “acts as a shield to protect us from what we are afraid to confront.”

She described a previous performance piece of hers that explored the connection between police surveillance and the paparazzi. Miller trained with a detective, then did police surveillance on art collectors in the San Francisco Bay area. The evidence was presented as material gathered in an investigation, and exhibited in a woman’s apartment.

One thing she discovered: being a mother was the best undercover disguise. Because they are everywhere and unthreatening and often invisible – have nothing anyone wants.

Miller exploited her cover of ‘being a mom’. She was safe with a baby. Someone sitting in a car and observing a house is always a threat, except if you have a baby, ie. sleeping in the back seat. It makes your presence there legitimate.

However, that invisibility as a mother is jeopardized only, it seems, when you choose to breastfeed in public.

Miller talked about how curiosity is central to her practice, and how Western society is fearful of curiosity, especially female curiosity, as in the Biblical Eve story. Her curiosity is what severs man’s relationship to God. “But,” Miller asked, “what is so wrong about wanting to have a little bit of knowledge?”

The Milk Truck represents Miller’s first time making art consciously as a mother.

She had her first child in San Francisco and her second in Pittsburgh, and those two experiences could not have been more different. With regards to breastfeeding in public, she started hearing stories from women in Pittsburgh about being asked to leave shopping malls, go to the toilet etc. She decided to do a survey and the results suggested there was a definite need to challenge attitudes.

Allan Kaprow (another crush of Miller’s later in life) once said: “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.”

After her own experience of being asked to cover up – in a clinic, no less – while breastfeeding her baby who was suffering from dehydration, she decided to answer this political call to arms by creating the Milk Truck – a public service action, and a mobile response unit for women experiencing discomfort exercising their right to breastfeed in pubic. The truck arrives and immediately the woman is offered support in the form of company and comfortable surroundings. (The truck has a roll-out carpet and comfy chairs.)

Miller said lactivists and the art community have both come together to support this art project – money for which she raised on Kickstarter. Miller raised more money than she needed, and now has room on the truck for advertisers.

She is ready to move on to another art project now, but the demand for the Milk Truck continues, so she is slowly handing it over to a board who will continue to use it and provide the service as a non-profit.

“The mother is political, like the personal is political,” she said. The Milk Truck provides a non-vital social service. “We fill the gap in society where our government wouldn’t provide for us, or businesses.”

Miller is pointing at the gap and bringing people together from the community to provide a solution, not just complaining about it. “I want to do this as a parent,” she said. Parenting forces you to think about small moments and the small actions you can take. “We don’t have to tackle the larger problems,” Miller said. “There is value in dealing with little tiny pockets of issues, that can even, moment from moment, make our lives better.”

If you’re Jill Miller, your small action might be to mount an enormous breast on the top of a delivery truck and drive it across the border. Did she have anything to declare? I’m just glad they let her through customs.


(Photo by Henry Chan)

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May 7, 2012 · 3:17 am

Motherhood is teaching a child to play the violin

Masha Godovannaya’s “Hunger” is a 39-minute video loop, and it is about maternal enmeshment. It has a montage-effect, but also a narrative feel. As a mother and a writer, I am drawn into the story aspect.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

The video is accompanied by the following quote from Adrienne Rich: “[Motherhood is] the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.”

The screen is divided into three frames. The middle frame is of uninterrupted breastfeeding, to show the duration of the act. The frames on either side show documentary moments in the life of the artist and her son. The scenes are natural and describe in their variety a full life, and the push and pull of anger and tedium, discord and conflict, attention, affection, devotion and love.

Mother and son. Their dialogue is translated. She is in the bathroom shaving her head. Her son tells her it’s not so beautiful, that he doesn’t like it when she cuts her hair so short.

There is footage of her teaching him to play his violin. How to hold it, not break it.

She is half inside a small fridge, talking about needing to have lots to eat before they leave. Her son says how he doesn’t want to eat.  She says, “But you will want to eat when it isn’t possible to eat.”

He doesn’t want to put his violin away. She tells him to, and when she leaves his room, he does so in tears, saying with great world-weary sorrow, “This violin.”

Another time, she hauls him back to his room to practice. He is crying again. It’s awful to watch – this cute little Russian boy, crying about his violin, and his mother who is being so strict with him. But who, as a mother, hasn’t yelled at their kids? And isn’t it for his own good? He is, after all, learning a beautiful skill.

This scene is juxtaposed with footage of an orange moon.

Alone in his room with the violin, he’s not that upset. “What a disaster,” he says. He puts his hand in front of the camera, aware he’ s being filmed, begins to practice again.

What a big story just exploded out of these little squares of footage.

In the centre frame, the on-going shot of breastfeeding, at once tender, serene, and a tedious chore.

There is a shot of a snowy field, trees dusted with fresh snow, the sound of traffic. The mother is filming. “Don’t pull on my sleeve.” She says she’s filming. Her son apes for the camera. Behind him the park and the trees are black and white, covered in snow. She says, “Get out of the frame.” He’s ruined a beautiful shot, it’s true, but it’s also so real and funny and human that he’s there. She has to point the camera at the sky to get rid of him. The emptiness feels pretentious.

Again, she’s filming. There’s a man’s voice. She shouts at her son to get out of the frame and the man says, “Don’t worry, it’s interesting what happens unexpectedly.” But for the mother her whole creative space has been invaded. She just wants a little privacy, some control over her art.

The mother and the work. How it clashes and how it makes each other. The struggle is so obvious, but captured and documented this way, the struggle becomes the art.

This piece, perhaps more than any of the other ones, encapsulated for me that tension between the work and your duties as a mother, but redeemed that struggle by making it the very material of this art performance. The interrupted attempt at art becomes the performance, and that is exactly what motherhood is. It is an interrupted performance: incorporate the interruptions and the performance can continue. This feels revelatory, very hopeful. A good model. I am grateful to have seen it.

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May 7, 2012 · 3:01 am

Safe and sound

Beth Hall and Mark Cooley’s Safe

(Photo by Henry Chan)

A 60-minute loop of text fragments and images. The text – often describing chemicals, environmental damage, issues surrounding health and safety – slides past, over close-up images of the daily domestic childcare rituals: flossing teeth, brushing hair, washing hands. The text is histrionic, the images soft; the text scientific, the images organic; the text hard and broken, the images soft and sweet – small hands, little clean mouth, cute feet in the tub. This is all set to the soundtrack of a heartbeat as caught on a baby heartbeat monitor.

In Safe, there is a juxtaposition, as in parenthood, between the mundane and the hysterical.

We live in an age of information overload. And yet, we seem to know less about everything. We seem to want to call on our experts to wade in on the most natural tasks. Here is their advice:

“Mongrel dog who walks, maltitol syrup, enzymes our bodies use to keep, analyze paint chips or dust.”

“Bypass cribs, bureaus symptoms ease. The classic grilled cheese. Unsubstantiated and unacceptable cadmium though none failed the stomach. 2% milk harmful production process and its effects. Polyoxylethel…”

“Roundup effects, defensive energy.”

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The bag you came in

Gina Miller’s Family Tissues

Family Tissues is a tender documentary narrative in which Gina Miller introduces her sons to their own placentas, which she has thawed for the purpose of burying in the backyard.

We also see an elephant give birth, the whitish sac, the heavy plop as the baby slips out and falls onto the cement – then the great cascade of blood and fluid.

In this 6 minute video loop, Miller unwraps her three thawed placentas, like moose meat out of the freezer. Her younger sons, 6 and 7, hold their noses. One says it’s gross. The other seems more curious. Her eldest son, who is 13, sits in front of his computer and asks why she couldn’t have done this when he was 6 and could forget about it. Being 13, he says, he’s going to remember it for the rest of his life. Some of us think that’s not such a bad thing – to know what you’re from; to preserve and return to the earth the bag you came in. Your very own root structure.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Miller spreads out one of the placentas, and smooths the area where the umbilical cord is attached. It does look like the trunk of a tree, with its roots spread out. Or a synapse. Or an aneurysm.  On a plate, they look like raw steaks. Miller has her sons each carry his own outside. Her eldest uses a shovel to loosen the dirt.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She buries the three placentas in an old metal tub, and plants three new conifers. I did not save mine and I wish I had. It probably got incinerated with a whole lot of other hospital waste. It was a living thing that was part-me, part-my son, and I wish I’d kept it. It hurts me to think of its loss.

It is common in other cultures to keep and bury the placenta. Some people even eat it. At the end of the film, one of her younger sons is ravenously eating a bowl of Cheerios. He looks at the camera and says, Now shoo! And laughs. His work, for now, is done. The past buried.


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In (and out) of place

Dillon Paul and Lindsey Wolkowicz’s In Place

From overhead the parents’ bed, we watch the rhythm of a family’s life. 168 hours of activity condensed to a 168-minute loop, all the segments of time, sleep, duty, work and pleasure, spent over the course of a week. Seven days looking down at what happens on the bed in the home of two artists with a small child.

Once I looked at the screen and it was black. The lights were out. They were sleeping.

Another time I looked at the screen and the bed was empty. They were out.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Another time I looked and one of the women was working on her laptop computer, her legs twitching in fast motion. But otherwise, seated and motionless.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Every time I looked at this durational piece in the gallery, it just so happened there was very little going on on-screen. I was frustrated by this waiting – as if, as mothers, we are not already at the mercy of another person’s conception of time, prisoners to the slow pace of childhood. I felt my patience tested by this piece, and maybe that’s the point. It certainly mimics motherhood, in that case.

On a website Natalie Loveless has set up, Dillon Paul has posted a selection of moments from this piece, running for ten minutes and on three screens simultaneously, and this was much more interesting to me, as there was more to look at. I got a good impression of their busy-ness, these two mothers raising their daughter, laundry appearing and popping off in fast motion to reappear folded neatly, then disappear altogether. All the reading, of children’s books, of the newspaper, the bowls of snacks, the working on computer, their bodies asleep, the tenderness, and all the domestic chores, the repetitious activities. And of course, from above, like God, I can look down and admire the beauty of their child – all children. Their private life in bed felt suddenly very familiar, universal, but it wasn’t an impression I could get from the longer version in which the piece seemed more informed by emptiness and the absence, rather than the presence, of the mothers.

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March 26, 2012 · 4:02 am

To avoid or to incorporate? Ay, there’s the rub

Lenka Clayton’s Maternity Leave

On April 23rd 2011, Lenka Clayton gave birth to her son, Otto, in Pittsburgh.

Throughout the show, a Fisher-Price baby monitor transmits, via live-streamed audio, all the noises Clayton’s son is making in their home in Pittsburgh. The monitor sits on a plinth, thereby earning its place in the gallery.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Originally commissioned by the Carnegie Museum of Art for the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial, Clayton’s durational Skype-mediated piece was, in part, a response to the woefully pitiful state of mat leave in America. For the first year of her son’s life, and unable to get remunerated for staying at home, she has been transferring her home life, via live stream audio, into her traditional work space, ie the gallery, and turning it into art.

The conflation between life and art is not uncommon for a conceptual artist, but I find this scenario particularly fresh, not to mention, socially and politically subversive. When does taking care of your son turn into paid work? In Clayton’s case, as soon as you bring it into a gallery. The baby-monitor is the New Maternalisms equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s toilet. In return for her live transmission via baby-monitor, the host gallery pays Clayton the same amount of government subsidy she would be entitled to were she living in her native England.

I liked this piece a lot. It’s cheeky. The monitor was on all weekend, keeping us company in the gallery. I heard it many times, and wondered what it was they were doing over there, in their home. In a sense, this piece represented the truest presence of motherhood in the show. The general ubiquity of a child and their voice in whatever space you will inhabit, once you have given birth, is an inescapable reality. Children are the constant interruption. And to avoid or incorporate? That will always be the question.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

At one point, Otto’s voice punctuated a performance at an interesting time. That is how children work. They are ubiquitous and sometimes their interruptions are charming, sometimes profoundly disturbing, or awakening, sometimes delightful, sometimes annoying, but always inescapable. Similar to the symbiotic relationship between form and content, inescapability is a challenging mold to have to adapt to. But with challenge (as we saw in Alejandra Herrera Silva’s piece) unprecedented new shapes are born.

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The face of the unknown

Alice De Visscher’s Dream or Nightmare of Motherhood

De Visscher’s performance-based video is a 4 minute loop enacting two literal dreams, possibly nightmarish, about having a baby. The video consists of two actions performed by the artist, filmed naked from the waist up, standing against the cream-coloured tiles of her kitchen wall.

Action Number 1: “My stomach inflates like a balloon until it breaks.”

Her face is hidden behind a white balloon. She is blowing. We see her stomach expand and contract as she blows, waiting for it to burst. The balloon disappears with a pop. There is an immediate repression of any sign of shock, or surprise. Her face and body remain composed.

Action Number 2: “Two washcloths on my breasts; milk is flowing from them.”

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She stands in the same position as before, only this time with two washcloth mitts, full of milk and held in place with string, hanging over her breasts. The milk very slowly leaks from the mitts and trickles down her stomach. This dream/action is inspired by a French expression: “to have breasts like washcloths/avoir des seins comme des gants de toilette.”

The artist statement reads: “I’m not yet a mother. I don’t know what to be a mother means. I dream to be one and I fear to be one.”

The video speaks to the alienation so easy to imagine, the strangeness of having a child, and yet, a strangeness based on a total lack of evidence. You know nothing about what it’s like to have a child, or how you will react, until it happens.

There is a lot of fear in the absence of the experience. Fear of losing your beauty, of being ugly and soggy and flat and droopy. The loss of control over your own body. The humiliation of pain and weakness, of infirmity. The fear of blowing up like a balloon until you burst.

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Mirror, mirror, on the wall

Marlene Renaud-B’s Dis/sociation

(Photo by Henry Chan)

The floor space is crisscrossed with wires. There is a table, camera on a tripod, two flourescent tubes, a baby monitor, microphone, and a large mirror propped against the wall. Marlene lifts off the plywood table-top, and leans it against the wall. She spins and climbs her long limbs over and through the empty table, round and round like a rectangular hoola-hoop, until she’s breathing hard, and fighting with it.

She places it back on the floor, turns the lights out, gets under the table. The camera is set up to catch her image, film it and project it on the wall. It is an infrared camera. Her image is black and blue and shadowy. It looks like she’s hiding in a closet. She takes the baby monitor and drags it across her skin. It sounds like magnified sandpaper.

She moves to lift a tube of florescence. Waving the tube over the baby monitor, it causes interference, distortion. The baby monitor creaks and groans into the microphone. A discovery made late at night? Who knew florescence could make a baby monitor sing?

Marlene moves to the mirror. There is another microphone taped to the back, she flicks it, and it starts to boom and groan. She wobbles the mirror, pulls it until it’s leaning on top of her, crouches down on the floor, the mirror on top. The sound is of a giant, treading over a rocky landscape. She lies down, rolls over, props it up and rests there, her body and its reflection like hands held together at the fingertips.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Marlene spreads out a canvas sheet, takes four jars of water down from the shelf. She draws a line down the centre of the cloth with lipstick, places two jars on either side. She lays the plywood table-top on the jars. Over this precarious set-up, she  lays the long mirror, it bends ever so slightly in the middle, drooping at the edges. Marlene stands on top of it all and starts jumping like a child. I want to stop her, scold her like a child. Don’t do that! It’s going to…

And then it does. Smashes gloriously in elaborate shards all over the canvas. She picks up a projector. It is running the footage she recorded earlier, under the table, hiding in the dark. The footage is reflected back at an angle onto the walls and ceiling. Like one of those spinning children’s nightlights that project stars and moon, trees and birds and butterflies onto the dark walls at night.

It all happens so suddenly. The effect is startling, raw, jagged, my heart is racing. It’s gutsy, inarticulate, emotive, and yet somehow very cerebral, in its controlled, dispassionate delivery.

Marlene pulls on a rubber face mask. She tucks her fingers inside the eye holes and pulls them out and pours the water from the jars into her eyes, like reversed tears.  She empties three jars this way, then yanks off her mask and spits water out of her mouth, aimed at the ceiling, like a fountain.

(Photos by Henry Chan)

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Blooming Suspense

Lovisa Johansson’s Jumping Lullaby

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Two dozen alarm clocks are set out on the floor. Lovisa is asleep next to them, in her oatmeal night-clothes. One alarm clock goes off, starts to cry like a baby. Wah-wah-wah. Lovisa stands up and winds herself into her long red baby wrap. She is shushing the alarm back to sleep, soothing it with her voice, until she’s tied her wrap. She tucks the clock into her sling, as another one goes off and starts to cry. Two clocks inside her sling now, she bounces on her feet and sings to them in Swedish. The clocks stop crying. She puts them down again, unwinds her sling, then sleeps again. All the clocks tick away in unison, telling the same time.

The clocks begin to go off again. She ties on her baby wrap, starts holding each one to her ear, over the racket, to find out which ones are crying, then tucks those ones inside her sling, constantly shushing and singing to them, her Swedish lullabies. This goes on, in some manner or another, for a long time.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Durational performance has such an interesting effect. It gradually drains you of all resistance, all cynicism and rationalizing, until you actually just surrender to the on-going experience in an authentic way as if it was your own, because in some sense it has become your own by virtue of its length.

The action is obvious. There is no trickery here. No semantics or sophistry to decipher and protect yourself against. There is nothing to figure out. Just observe and endure. There is only the attempt to recreate, with a little edge of irony, the experience of coaxing your baby to sleep. This is what it’s like. Can you remember? Yes, I can. I remember the hours and hours of putting my son to bed. The bouncing until I had the calves of a marathoner, all the deep knee bends. There are women all over the world right now doing this very thing. Frozen in a posture that is painful to them, wishing their babies would slip off the last sticky shelf before sleep, faking their own sleep in an attempt to convince their babies into joining them. That’s the only trickery here. The trickery of the mother, who wishes her baby to sleep, and release her from its clutches, to sleep herself, or join the dinner party down the hall, now going on their third bottle of wine. Hush, little baby, don’t you cry. Momma’s gonna bake you an apple pie.

Even as Lovisa begins to cry through her singing, there is no manipulation here. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it takes to carry a baby through infancy into early childhood. And someone once did it for you. Did it for all of us.

And if, at any point, you found the performance had to bear, the constant crying like a flock of seagulls, cawing annoyingly in your ear, don’t for a moment think it’s any better for the mother who does it every night. The red of Lovisa’s baby wrap is no mistake. It is the colour of sacrifice. And like a wound, it extracts a price.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She will only stop when she has all her clock babies in her sling and the last one has stopped crying. She lays them out on the floor and stretches out on top of them, at once soothing and smothering, her own exhaustion taking over, transforming her into a bear, a whale now. Sleep with me, my youngsters. She is beyond wanting anything else for herself, now, but sleep.

The agony of suspense at the end is whether they will cry again.

When, after several false finales, there is silence, it blooms as beautiful and fragile as peonies.


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creme brulee, if you dare

Helene Matte’s L’essence de la Vie

In bright blue workman’s coveralls, Helene begins by sweeping the floor. A cosmetics suitcase, metal ladder, a circle of black plastic taped to the floor. She has comic delivery. She pulls seven members from the audience, slides between their legs, declares it a boy, or a girl, then hands out licorice cigars.

Every action is punctuated by a wind-up kitchen timer, which goes off, and is then reset, continuously throughout the performance.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She lifts to her face a potty training seat, the kind that fits snugly over a toilet seat, and peering through it, mugs for the crowd, sticks her tongue out like a child. This is particularly funny because she holds the pose for a long time. It’s simple and effective. She’s doing the inappropriate. Demonstrating unsocialized behaviour, a common complaint of children. But she is showing the face we all want, at some point, to show. I know this face. I feel it beneath my own, I feel it wanting to get out and misbehave, in the most puerile way. Fart and moon and dance around holding my crotch. My inner clown.

She is wearing a tight dress made of a print that makes me think of Polynesia, with a red t-shirt underneath and slits cut out for her breasts. She gets the audience to sing an impromptu medley of Mama Mama Mama. She directs us to sing different notes and rhythms, it sounds tribal.

To a calypso beat, Helene does a spoof of tribal dancing, all hips and pelvis, still with the potty training crown on her head. She passes out a coconut treat.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

The timer goes off again. She applies a white cold cream to her neck and chin, she takes off her dress, smears white cold cream over her ass, then a smear of red paint across her ass and knees. Her red t-shirt has “drama queen” written on it.

Helene has a read thread hanging from her vagina like a tampon string. She attaches it to a small doll which can record what she tells it. “Now you do what I say, not what I do.” She asks an audience member to hold the doll, then backs up into the centre of the room, the thread unspooling out of her vagina, until the end comes out. She ties this around her waist and winds herself up again, spinning towards the audience.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She gets down on her knees, sticks licorice in her ears, and a black licorice cigar up her ass. She gets a man from the audience to throw Smarties into her mouth from a distance. Finally, after twenty excruciating tries, he finally gets one in her mouth.

The timer goes off again.

Helene puts on an old-fashioned wool bathing suit, balaclava and toque, sets up logs for a campfire, hauls out a fire extinguisher, and crumples newspaper like she’s about to start it. She is holding a breast pump and brings out one more log for the fire, pricked with sparklers.

Reciting a poem in French, “L’essence de la Vie”, she pumps her breast. “What makes us advance, destroys us, because when we advance, we advance towards our death. That’s life.”

She climbs a ladder, hangs a sign from a construction site, “installation sous tension, danger de mort”.

She pours thick molasses in a ring onto the black plastic circle taped to the floor. She ties her head up with string, recites the poem again, in English this time, douses herself with milk from a red plastic oil can. Then she passes around some more deserts. Homemade crème brulee. Says, “Please,” very sweetly, begging for help in handing them out. She’s covered in milk. And wet. And she’s just been through hell.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She surrounds the audience with tape, like we’re at a crime scene. On the tape is the word FRAGILE, repeated over and over.

This desperation, drained-out, burnt-out, just humiliated feeling, then having to serve sweets, be sweet, home-made desserts. She’s drinking straight out of a can of maple syrup now.

The plastic circle, bordered by molasses and full of milk, has an orange light shining down on it, now a slide of a baby breastfeeding. The milk makes a perfect projection screen.

A wind-up lullaby from a crib, Helene lights the sparkle log, sits at the top of her ladder. The timer goes off again. She stands under a rigged-up bucket for another three minutes. The timer goes off. She pulls the cord and is showered in safety matches.

This is not, I don’t think, a piece for deep analysis. It is a piece to witness and to feel. It is a wave you have to let crash over you. And I am sitting here looking out over the aftermath and thinking, yes, I know what it’s like to feel, in motherhood, a maddening exhaustion, when you think you might be going insane. When you feel like a beast, a monkey, a pig, or a cow – une vache. You feel like you’re kneeling in front of a crowd of strangers, with licorice sticks in your ears and a candy cigar up your ass, and you’re trying to catch Smarties in your mouth, thrown at you by a banker, or a gynecologist. You feel like your life is brittle, in tinders, a bucketful of matches, waiting to burst into flames. And meanwhile the timer rings every three minutes, you can’t fucking concentrate on a thing, the constant interruptions are driving you crazy, you can’t think, and at the end of it all is this godawful mess of spilled milk, the sickly sweet smell of molasses, and you’ve made treats for all the kids, for everyone, in fact, and with milk on your face, your boobs hanging out, you must try to be dignified, as you pass them around.

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