Distillation Installation: With All Four Senses and Remembered Sight

Godin with head at Stravinsky's level on braille table top

Seventeen years of living in a three-bedroom Astoria apartment distilled into one art installation: so much lost and gained; so many things dismantled and recreated; so many memories… I lived and worked in every room of that home. Beginning in the front room with my first guide dog and the boyfriend whose munificence allowed me to remain long after us, to the back room where I came into being as a blind person and an artist. Once I looked out the window to fire escape and cherry tree, the identical buildings across the yards, but, upon my departure, I saw only a pixilated rectangle of light.

I last moved towards that window to open the curtains for Stravinsky, a creeping pothos (Epipremnum aureum) I bought to commemorate the untimely death of my second guide dog Igor. Igor’s poem, To Stravinsky, ensured that his plant spirit would occupy the living center of Distillation Installation. Also his small relics made into a piece whose description sounded, “Glue on memories.” (I audio labelled title and description cards with my PenFriend, dots that speak with my voice when touched with tip, analogue/digital magic!)

Finally, in later years, I came to rest in the dark corner room, dubbed the bat cave. Its purple walls with a genie providing pulsating light and smellscape in the last days, days when future was uncertain about everything except the important things: art and love, love and art, warm stability with our two hearts knocking out a stronger beat, keeping up the simple hard tune, “desire is suffering, desire is suffering, desire is suffering…”

So much potential had to be tossed. Braille books and maps, fabrics that wanted sewing, yarn that wanted knitting, paints that wanted painting–so many things collected and hoarded in the late stages of dissertation-that-wanted-writing. Throwing so many things out seemed so sad–so much potential lost that I conceived making an installation out of some precious drops of it. for months, I put things that might be of value in one corner and made bags for the street scavengers to pick through and utilize, minimizing landfill.

Godin with her hand sewn dresses hanging high.

I’d decided years ago that I had enough clothes and began repurposing. Too many things in the world. Too much crap. I kept ahold of my crap so that I would not be so tempted to buy new crap. With that in mind I first put fringe on deconstructed sweater and kept on with my refashioning old things into new by hand sewing. But of course, there are always things to buy that are not clothes–technology and musical instruments–and I can’t make shoes…

Distillation Installation manifested in the once-living room, the home’s center, with tin ceiling painted over long before I arrived. As I worked, around me as I sorted, discarded and built, its cracked paint fell about me in apocalyptic chips.

The braille blinds were the first part of the installation. “See ya later world,” I thought as I sewed double-pages of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde braille book together, and lay them in cascading strips from the wrought iron double bar curtain rods bought in the early years of domesticity.

Then began the odoriferous papier-mâché experimentations. If I’d had a budget I would have invested much more heavily on smells, because flour takes a scent, is cheap, and good for sticking odd things together (pink taffeta on shovel) and mummifying others (drum music on accordion), but aromatic distillats, the cells of plant matter burst asunder to capture their aromas in oil or water, are rightly expensive. In the end, I could not give each piece a signature scent. But the room was scented: eucalyptus (Eucalyptus plenissima) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) bubbled in the ultrasonic diffuser in the Never Be Sorry exhibit, and in the corner under Prague Castle, a fan diffuser blew sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) and black spruce (Picea mariana), while the hanging braille cranes were lovingly spritzed with orange blossom water from the bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantium).

Godin tilting sunglasses at hanging braille origami cranes.

My origami braille cranes–not a thousand as planned, but a lot–hung from wire hangers suspended on the five blades of the dusty ceiling fan with three colored lights–blue red green–in the center sockets for a soft organic look.

Beneath sat Stravinsky on his personal braille-mâché tabletop–the last-minute decision that worked well to create small gasps when the curtain opened on the night of the goodbye tours.

I see it all in my mind’s eye and am proud to have done this thing–compensatory vanity! And why not cover over the mirrors (if I can’t look at myself why should anyone else?)–the gilt one sacrificed its mirrorness first, covered over by gold dust and finger paint scrawl, “Never Be Sorry,” another poem-inspired exhibit.

and “by following the scent” near the end–mirror removed from useless vanity, covered and dusted in mist and pink lipstick. Goodbye to the stage and the music and the light. Hello dazzlement and words and another trip in new places. No guilt just a bomb left behind, time tick tocking until another home will be made and destroyed, until the end when I leave all homes for the last time, leaving behind a fine distillation of my experience of the world, overwhelmingly flavored by brilliant hallucinations and this long eye disease my life.

Godin pointing at her self portrait, an abstract finger painted head on a reflector tape wall.

[All images by Geo Geller. Check out our conversation in Distillation Installation HERE!]

To Stravinsky, a poem in memory of my guide dog Igor

November 13 is the birthday of Igor, my last guide dog. It is a day to celebrate his short life as well as the diligent and loving lives of guide dogs everywhere. Please consider a donation to the fund I set up at the Animal Medical Center in honor of him and my first guide dog, Millennium.

This week Stravinsky, Igor's plant spirit, found himself front and center in the Godin's World Fair, amongst colored lights and origami braille cranes.

To Stravinsky

I write to you, Stravinsky,

Because he, for whom you are named,

Is nowhere to be found.

You sit on my desk next to keepsakes

From his short life

And are easy to take care of,

Therefore easy to love.

 

Let me tell you how you came to occupy

This tiny exalted place…

 

Three days after I lost him

I cleaned mindlessly,

Brought out the vacuum and went to work.

Being blind helps forgetfulness:

Out of sight out of

 

BAM CLATTER

 

I hit the aluminum dog bowls

And probably shrieked.

I picked up the two bowls

As if they might bite or squirm

And dropped them into recycling.

Then I went and cried in human arms.

 

In those arms,

Deep within my sobs,

I conceived a ritual from nowhere,

A rite of spring.

 

I want to go buy a plant tonight,

I will name it Stravinsky,

Spirit of Igor.

 

I picked out and washed the water bowl,

Set it on my desk,

Another empty vessel.

 

At the florist I asked for a plant

That was easy to take care of.

The woman named one

And I asked if it was viney.

She said No,

That one stood straight up like a tree,

A popular plant,

Recommended by some celebrity doctor

For its air purification properties.

 

I was not interested in pure air.

I wanted prehistoric leafy tendrils

Of encroaching flourishing

With minimal fuss.

 

Like all dark relationships,

Ours, Stravinsky, is complicated.

 

I might have hated plant life

Since green grass tempted him

And led him to swallow the neon vine

 

That stuck in his stomach

That led to the surgery

That sliced the tiny incision

That led to the microscopic sepsis

That led to the systemic failure

That led to the pneumonia

That gave final cause for his

Being nowhere to be found.

 

But I do not believe in fate

Or in the culpability of nature

Any more than I believe you to be

A fit substitute receptacle

For my I love yous.

 

Even so,

I love you Stravinsky.

In his bowl I keep you

Healthy and happy.

It is easy to water

You every ten days,

Gratifying to have your reachy growth

On this simple expanse of desk.

Still, if you do not outlive me,

I doubt I will cry at all.

*This poem was first published at Quail Bell Magazine*

My Second Airplane Ride by Igor GuideDog

“I am very conscious of the advantages that my fickle health gives me over our robust squares.”
– Nietzsche from The Gay Science

Mommy booked us a red eye night flight which seemed, while still at the airport, like a good idea since i felt sleepy and well fed – – perhaps too well fed as it it turned out. Sitting in the waiting area, with , mommy scratching me in my favorite place, i was relaxed and confident that this time i would not be scared. This time i new what to expect. The first time came as quite a surprise when the airplane got so loud and lifted off the ground. Actually, i was startled. Not scared. In any case, this time i was prepared .

Still at the gate, there was a bit of a delay, so we settled in and mommy relaxed back in her seat. but when the get ready to board announcement came over the PA, she sat up in her seat and i sat up too. Immediately the woman next to us asked if she could ask about me but quickly realized that perhaps this was something that happened a lot when mommy pulled out my Guide Dog FAQ and she apologized and said this must happen all the time, which disarmed Mommy because usually people do not realize that this must happen all the time and so she made nice and talked with the stranger woman. it was sort of like when, in California, we took the BART from Mommy’s Mommy’s house to visit ARtemis and her nice Romanian boyfriend in San FRancisco and this weird guy who claimed to be a pick up artist coach broke down mommy’s usual guard by saying as he was reading my FAQ “wow. i like women who play hard to get and he’s doing all the work for you.” Mommy let him ride with us on our trip but then she ditched him when Artemis arrived – phew.

the airplane man told us that we could board the plane first so we said goodbye to the stranger lady and ran down the flight bridge because that is fun. I understand that my predecessor Millennium also liked to do this and that this is one of the very few things we have in common. He is retired and now lives in California with chickens and two little girls who love him very much and dress him up in pink tutus which he enjoys. let’s just say he is a different kind of dog than I. Mommy tells me that he always loved wearing his pearls and heavy petting from macho men. Personally, I don’t like to accessorize and definitely prefer the ladies. That’s all i’ll say about that. i’m not the kind of dog to judge anyone for their sexual orientation – with or without balls.

AS we were settling into our row (we had three seats all to ourselves since mommy is very wise and bought an extra ticket for me and the plane was very empty so the flight man secured the third for us), the stranger lady from the waiting area sat down in front of us and Mommy and Lisa – that’s her name) continue chatting happily. sigh.
Lisa asked Mommy what she did and Mommy told her about how she had taught at NYU for ten years but that now she was taking a year off to pursue her dreams (she said that with a funny voice). I knew i was done for when she handed Lisa a postcard for her wonderful show The Star of Happiness: Helen Keller on VAudeville?! Lisa asked a lot of good and interesting questions, which made mommy curious to know what she did for a living. Lisa said that she was “just a mommy now” but that she used to be a lawyer but that her husband has a really interesting job and she helps him. He is a forensics psychiatrist who works on scary serial murder cases and who’s boss was one of the main consultants on a show called Law and Order, which is one of the very few television shows mommy knows anything about and was impressed. I don’t get the television thing and am happy that we do not have one in our house because she already has quite enough things to distract her from playing Kong with me…

anyway, they talked so much that i began to worry that it would keep up for the entire ride which would be a very long time to have no attention and so i whined a little but only a little.

I was relieved when the airplane started and they stopped – at least as much relieved as a dog can feel when being lifted up in the air so fast… so strange.

even though we had the whole row, i still wanted to see what was going on beyond and tried to peek out into the aisle but she wouldn’t let me…

the trip was ok and i slept a little bit but on the way down i started to feel not so good. i really really needed to get off the plane.

when we were on the ground again and the lights went on,Mommy ask Lisa if she was going to the baggage claim so that we could run down with her but she had a connecting flight. Mommy asked around to the people in the seats nearby if we could join someone’s train. The couple behind us gladly volunteered, though they would soon, i think, regret their kindness…

we were all walking very fast as we usually do and mommy just thought that i had to pee which is what she told the wife when she asked why i was walking so fast. but it wasn’t that and i couldn’t tell her and i couldn’t wait and …

Shit!

mommy took it very well – what could we do after all? she kept super calm and pulled out a bag to pick up the mess but the wife took the bag out of her hands and started cleaning up. what could mommy do? snatch the bag back?
mommy and i were very embarrassed and she tried to explain to the husband that this was a nervous poop since i had gone twice that day, which was true but i also think that perhaps mommy gave me too many treats of roasted Turkey which i love but which was maybe a bit heavy for a plane trip?

amazingly, another stranger man walked up as the wife was cleaning and the husband was talking and dribbled out all the usual questions, like how old was I, how long was my training, etc and Mommy was so embarrassed and rattled that she did not even give this new stranger man my Guide Dog FAQ but tried to answer his questions while not provoking any more. He would not stop until finally the wife – her name is Lynn – returned from the ladies room and we were able to move again. We continued quickly to the baggage claim area where i was able finally to go outside and take what is perhaps the most giant pee that ever a dog did piss – ah.

the husband Steve was very nice and helped us find our bag and then all the way to the cab stand though mommy told him it was ok and that he and his wife had gone beyond the call of duty, got more than they bargained for, etc, all the cliches that she could muster at 7 am under extreme duress and shame. then just as we were about to ket into the cab the taxi stand man handed Steve the ticket and said “hold on to that for her”. Mommy almost lost her temper at last. She said, “I can take my own ticket. i’m an adult,” though she felt very small with me too. she told Steve that sometimes getting help was a double edged sword – another cliche but true in its way. then, perhaps out of insightful kindness or maybe genuine interest, Steve threw Mommy a bone: he asked her about her show. he said he had heard her talking to the woman on the plane, and no matter what were his motives or intentions she took it and gnawed happily.

She gave him a Star of Happiness postcard and asked him to email her so that she could send him and his wife a proper thank you. And, having learned sometime before the diarrhea that he and his wife were from canada, she quickly told him about her hopes to tour the show and that the theater group (Horse Trade) she is involved with is a member of the canadian fringe and he said that they go to the Ottawa fringe fest every year and she said that they should definitely email her and that she doesn’t spam and well, then we were off in the cab home. Finally.

mommy tells me that the wife Lynn sent an email and here is what it says:

“Hi Michelle,
Steve and I helped you walk Igor from our Jetblue plane to the exit of JFK
yesterday. Later, Steve told me about your conversation. I thought you might
like to know that Igor seemed to want to go under a horizontal 3 foot high
railing rather than lead you around it. Maybe he normally does that well but
was just too impatient to get outside. Anyway, it was a pleasure to meet
you.
Lynn”

Mommy and I were at first a little disappointed by this email. Though we believe its intentions were not mean-spirited, our thank you reply to Lynn and her husband Steve was perhaps less heartfelt than it might have been if it weren’t for the critique. of my work. Admittedly i did have a little fuck up with the metal barrier, but i was tired, and honestly i try so hard to be good.. mommy assures me that i am a wonderful guide dog but that she is a really shitty blind person,

The truth is that we are a partnership and that we are always learning together. we take care of each other and try to move through the world as best we can – not as a thing in itself but as a part of a larger whole – to make a dynamic life for ourselves – fulfilling and meaningful and all the rest. And, as with most important things in life, it is always a work in progress.

Sometimes it is exhausting to be representing all the time. Mommy had felt good in that one moment when Steve perhaps out of genuine interest or perhaps as a final act of kindness offered his interest in her show – it was a moment which almost redeemed the rest but the above email from his wife put us back in our place of being a blind couple without any purpose or interest beyond –

– mommy?
– yes darling?
– you seem to be typing a lot more than I’m saying… i can’t wait till i can do this by myself. .
– me too, dear. me too.

Guide Dog FAQ by Igor GuideDog

 Can I pet you?

No, I’m working. Duh.

 

What is your name?

You talkin to me?!

 

Can I pet you now?

1 Strangers’ hands on me make me uncomfortable.

2 stop staring: unless you want to fight

3 and please, this constant chattering in silly voice is totally embarrassing for all.

 

Oh, please can I pet you?!

If, by chance, my mommy thinks you are worthy, she will introduce us and then you may give me a little pat if you must, and then run along or stay, whatever.

 

Do you bite?

Why do you think I have these big, ugly, nasty, teeth?!

 

Do you ever get to play?

Pretty much every waking moment when at home.

 

What do you like to play?

Chase After Kong Like a Mad Dog and Bring it to Mommy Throw it Again Game.

 

Do you like being a guide dog?

Yes! And According to wonderful trainer Sue at the Seeing Eye, I took to it right away and was super talented and enthusiastic from the start!

 

How long was your training?

Four months of formal guide dog training but before that I lived with a nice family who raised me from a 2 month old pup to be sociable and obedient.  When I began my formal guide dog training at The Seeing Eye I already knew the cues for sit, heel, down, etc.

 

How old are you?

I’ll be three in November.

 

How can you tell when it’s safe to cross the street??

This is complicated. You ready?

Ok.  so I don’t determine when to walk; I do not read (whatever that is), and I’m not so good at colors.  Rather, Mommy listens for parallel traffic and then gives the cue for forward.  Generally speaking – like 99percent of the time she is right.  (I love my mommy).  But sometimes she asks me to go and I refuse because there is a car turning in front of us or something, and then I get to do this thing called intelligent disobedience and pull or push her out of the way or simply refuse to budge.  This is exciting because when it happens, mommy gets very teary eyed and gives me lots of praise.

 

How do you know where to go?

Sadly, I can’t read mommy’s mind but, generally speaking if there is a place that we’ve been before, I will give mommy a little pause and a look to ask if we are going in again and she says yea or nay, but if it is a place I’ve never been then I have to wait for mommy to show me.

 

Now can I pet you?

Grrr!

First full day at doggy boot camp

 

Breakfast with blind people. Very loud.

Next, a “Juno” walk, wherein a simulated guide dog experience unfolds with trainer named Sue at harness front end (pretending to be dog named Juno), and me at harness backend (pretending not to be demoralized).  All the while, through the streets of Morristown, the head trainer watches to assess my skills with Juno, and to make sure that Sue’s pick for me is the right one.  This pick is supposed to remain a mystery till tomorrow afternoon, though Sue has hinted, not so subtly, that I am getting my heart’s desire – a large German Shepherd male – by saying things like “here is the elevator.  You and your dog won’t fit in there!” 

But Sue is a wiseass and there are no guarantees.

 

 

Lunch with blind people. Again, very loud, but it dawns on me that it is our little foursome – Sue’s group – who are particularly loud.  Let me just say that we have a lot of personality here.

After lunch we meet some dogs – one of which is mine.  It was all very hush hush – no names exchanged but love at first um, sight!  At least for me.  in fact only two of us out of Sue’s training group met their future pup today.  The official meeting and installation into our little dorm worlds happens tomorrow. 

They are very good at generating excitement and anticipation here at The Seeing Eye: Sue told us the first letter of our dogs’ names – mine starts with an “I” and my first guess was Ivan, but now I think it’s Isaac… I’ll know tomorrow. The only guy in Sue’s cohort is also getting paired with a German Shepherd with initial “I”, and, knowing that they name every puppy in the same litter with the same initial letter, we correctly guessed that our dogs are brothers.  Unfortunately his brother is a spazz while mine is perfect!

 

It was pretty cool being the eye of the hurricane: this dog named I—and I, sat calm and content whilst the soaring heart rates, heavy breathing, wrestling, scrambling, huffing and harrumphing swirled round and round us.

In those first few moments I wasn’t sure if he really was my dog, though I prayed that he was as he sat quietly by my side.  Then we heeled the dogs into the lunch room and as I sat Sue whispered in my ear, “so do you like him?  And I said, “it’s love at first sight – you can see that right?”  she gave me a kiss on the cheek and ran off to deal with the blood (for real!), sweat and (not so happy like mine) tears of the others…

 

In my room now with a glass of wine that I stole away with after fifteen minutes of a “wine & cheese party” – I’ve socialized with blind people enough for the day – I look forward to tomorrow almost in a swoon.