Do you believe
Creation desires your devotion
Through murder and death
We squabble over
The pieces of the earth
The true beasts are
Those who believe in creation
Without mother, womb or birth
Be simple like the flowers
– Lyrics from Me’shell Ndegeocello’s album Comfort Woman
Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Kate Quarfordt’s wish is to honour the true beast in her and in the people around her. She wonders how we can give more energy, light and space to our true beasts who believe in creation. How can we be simple like a flower in the clattering world, with so much vying for our attention, care and time?
Working artists who are also raising children like Kate often find themselves navigating a holy trinity of art making, educating and parenting – a space that is full and fraught and interesting. At a recent Unrehearsed Futures conversation, she shared her thoughts on how one can navigate these intersections with lushness and generosity.
Kate’s identity, in her words, is hybrid and multiplicitous. She wears many hats – visual artist, singer, performer, theatre director, co-founder of City School of the Arts, member of the Resistance Revival Chorus and a mother. As a person in her late 40s, she holds tenderness for the 36-year-old version of herself, the 24-year-old and the 12-year-old, all of whom feel very much alive in her today. As a person who does an overwhelming number of things at the same time, she says it sometimes feels unwieldy to be doing all of it. “And yet,” she says, “as I move into this point in my life, I’m starting to braid together things — the questions that are tugging at me in all of these different spaces and I am beginning to get a glimmer of coherence.”
The clattering and the summoning world
One of the greatest challenges of our times is to look beyond the binary, says Kate. It comes up in conversations around gender and polarized politics, for example. In the midst of this, she wonders how we can coax ourselves into a synergetic, dynamic dance between ideas that can feel opposing.
Kate borrows the term “clattering world” from American writer and psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés to describe the world that most of us are forced to live in most of the time: the world of to-do lists. You’ve got to take your kids to the doctor, you must write your lesson plan, you have to text people to make sure that ‘this’ thing happens so that ‘the other thing’ can happen, you have to remember if you bought avocados or responded to that message on social media. “For me,” explains Kate, “it’s this very frenetic attempt to keep the wheels on. And like a lot of people who navigate lots of different spaces, I feel I’m always on the verge of messing up and setting a catastrophe in motion if I don’t have it all handled, which is an internal feeling.”
Broadly speaking, it is capitalism, she believes, an external voice that’s telling us that we need to be ‘X’ amount productive in order to earn our right to be human beings and breathe in the world. “It’s that voice that tells us that we’re not doing enough. We’re not making enough. We’re not logging enough. We’re not measuring our worth enough.”
In the opposing pole lies the summoning world, a phrase that Kate came across in a book by Mary Oliver called Blue Pastures. “It’s less an idea and more an embodied experience of following the tug of a longing,” she describes, “of being in communion with a creative spirit and allowing yourself to be led by instinct. When I’m in the summoning world, and I know that I’m having that experience, my sense of linear time falls away.”
She pulls into conversation the Greek concepts of ‘Kairos’ and Chronos’ time. They are both ancient Greek words, which mean ‘time’. Kairos represents a kind of ‘qualitative’ time while ‘Chronos’ is more about ‘quantitative’ time, as in ‘what time is it?’ or ‘will we have enough time?’
For Kate, Chronos time is the world of clatter: the to-do lists and checking off the check-list time, whereas in Kairos time, one is absorbed. “You’re so given over to the lived experience that Chronos time melts,” she says.
And so, she believes that art making is situated in the summoning world, or Kairos time. “And when I think about longing, I feel it lives in that world very powerfully. And yet, most of us are walking and moving around in a space where those sensations often don’t fit. It’s just hard to, at least for me, to hold the thread of those feelings and those lived experiences in a world that’s really telling me to not go there, that it might be dangerous to go there,” Kate shares.
The tug of longing and desire
For a while now, Kate has been playing with the distinction between longing and desire. She thinks about longing less as a desire for a specific person, place or thing and more as a yearning for what she feels is an electrified field of presence, something just beyond our peripheral vision. She clarifies she has nothing against desire – the desire to connect with an ex-lover or move to another city or go to a concert and stand in a field with 100,000 other people and listen to music while you’re blazed — sometimes you just have to act on your desire, period, she says.
Yet, she also wants to name it for herself. “I’ve had these lived experiences where I can get a desire met and I’m still left with this ache that’s unseen,” she shares, “There’s this pain that I’m left with, even after I get the thing that I thought I wanted. And that has taught me over the years to ask myself questions.”
Whenever she feels the desire, that grasping to get ‘that thing’, she questions if there is perhaps a longing that’s underneath it that is maybe more expansive, maybe truer. She shares a story from the early years of her marriage, when she suddenly found herself swept up in a strong, consuming desire to be with someone else. She recalls she couldn’t control it; the desire was so powerful that she got close to lighting her entire world on fire. However, she recognized her desire to merge with this other human being, was a longing. The person happened to be an artist, living out their creative journey in a way that she longed to do and didn’t know how to even begin to name or reach for.
While it was a heartbreaking time, she narrates, it gave her the tools to ask the deeper questions, to build a sense of discernment between longing and desire: Do you need to move to Paris or do you need more space and light in your daily lived experience? Do you need to slow your pace and give yourself more time to walk slowly? And notice what’s in your surroundings, to pay attention to light and color on buildings? Is that the longing? Or is there some deeper resonance?
If desire can be understood as a craving that can be met or a thirst can be quenched, Kate understands longing as a landscape. “Longing isn’t asking you to do anything. It’s asking you to be with it, and listen to it, and give it space,” Kate describes evocatively, “and to see then what emerges. And then to follow that.” It’s a very subtle distinction sometimes, she cautions, but it has been so generative to her to learn how to ask herself that question: “Under that desire, under that grasping, is there in fact a longing? And what does that longing need to tell me?”
The thing with Kairos and Chronos time is that it isn’t a switch that can be flipped on and off. The bridge, the threshold between the two is what Kate often finds tricky to navigate. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with being in Chronos time. Checking things off a checklist can feel very satisfying,” she says. “Similarly, although in a very different embodied experience, Kairos time or this creative space — once I’m in it, it flows, and has its own intelligence, and I’m just following the flow of it. But the transition, the threshold? How do I get myself over the edge?” she wonders out loud.
There is an internal resistance we encounter, the one that wants to keep us in one state or another. It’s like, ‘No, we’ve got momentum in this one place. Let’s just stay here.’ One of the practices that helps Kate coax herself over the threshold is walking.
Walking is more than simply moving the body – it is moving the mind, the spirit, your entire system of being. “There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking,” wrote Thomas Bernhard, “just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking.” Rebecca Solnit, a passionate walker herself, defined the act as “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned.”
Similarly for Kate, as she goes on walks, she finds herself thinking much more vividly and in a much more embodied way. “To get over that hump, and particularly to move into a creative and a generative mindset when you’re in Chronos time is very, very tricky,” she says. When she is in the cluttery world of checklists, she is, at the same time, coaxing herself to notice things and the light on buildings. The point of it is to give her monkey mind something to look out for beyond her peripheral vision, to give her head, heart and body space to be in the rich, longing, lush space of Kairos time.
“So that even if I’m not actively creating,” shares Kate, “even if I’m not in the studio, when I’m not making art, there’s still a hum of that summoning world that is just right under the surface of my skin. So that when I do get back into the studio, or I do sit down to write or I do sit down to make art, I’ve got it close. I can pull it up.” It makes the transition, the journey over the threshold just a little less static-y, a little less full of friction.
Bringing the summoning world into pedagogy
Kate is deeply invested in finding ways and spaces where young people can be in that space of longing, going beyond achieving mastery over a subject and instead coaxing them to think about what they want their life to be like. And that’s how she, with a couple of other colleagues with similar preoccupations, co-founded the City School of Arts that teaches through arts integration. The idea, she says, is to teach young folks to explicitly come forward into this messy space with the pedagogue and be with them as they figure out the bigger questions of life, to build a bridge between their clattering and summoning worlds.
“How are we teaching them how to define their own practices?” asks Kate, “They might not care about light on buildings but how can I ask them, ‘What is that thing that you’re really fascinated with? That can be your cue to drop in, away from the clatter and into the longing, into the summoning world.’ That, to me, feels like an interesting place of inquiry.”
Kate strongly believes that theatre is also a way to tap into a glimmer of magic with young folks. She gives an example of working on musicals with children. “What I love about it is that it gives us a structure in which we can move towards some of that glimmer. Some of those unscripted, unrehearsed moments that emerge in those spaces when it’s three days to opening night, and we have to solve a problem and the costume is falling off and the light is falling down. And yet, oh my gosh, this little glowing orb of a bit of goodness emerges and a kid who’s been blocked, opens and somebody else gasps. That’s the thing that’s sublime. And often that happens, not because of the institution, but despite it,” she says.
There is something deeply generative about longing. We live in what psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls the over-culture. “We live in a culture that just wants to squeeze that longing down and tamp it out of us,” says Kate. A few years ago, Kate realised, to her alarm, that her own creative practice had atrophied in the midst of being a young parent and running a full-fledged school. Every attempt to “be creative” was marred by the pressure to make it perfect, to make it ‘meaningful’, to have it be a powerful piece of art that had something to say about the world it was situated in. It was overwhelming but Kate paused to ask herself, if that was the desire, what was the longing underneath? And a tiny voice responded: it was the longing to make a little something every day, to give it space and simplicity.
It is that practice of giving our longing space to breathe in this world, be it through painting on a page of a book each day, or walking, or simply observing, that changes the way we relate to the world we live in. It widens the door into our portals, our summoning worlds.
As the conversation comes to a close, Kate shares, “That radical act of giving longing breath and air and space and volume… be able to say out loud, ‘I’ve never said this out loud but’… It alchemizes things in the actual lived world.”
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: