Donna-Michelle St. Bernard was September’s featured Thought Residency artist of the ‘Class of 2020 – Fall Term’.
#1 FIRST THOUGHT EVER
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my first thought.
This is the very first thought that I have ever had.
I mean, obviously I’ve had thoughts before
but I was asked to introduce myself in that way –
this is my first thought –
and I’m not a liar
so I threw away everything that I ever knew before
and I thought to myself,
“well if it was true before and I knew it before,
then it is true still and I will surely come to know it again”
They say that the joy is in the learning so I will have that twice,
I will get two times to know
the thing that I thought that I knew
before I thought that they told me to throw it away,
though now I think that maybe nobody said that
but it’s too late.
It’s all gone.
And this is my first thought,
and I haven’t really thought anything yet
so I’d better get started thinking.
What am I good for.
That’s my first thought.
What am I good for.
I didn’t say it would be a complete thought.
What good what that be? // (music credit: Days by Everest Media)
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my second thought.
Last night I dreamt of my brothers, both runners.
We all were. That was a thing to do, in my family.
A thing to be excellent at. Running.
One thing I picked up off of them was the trick of training in water.
Getting into a pool knee or waist or shoulders deep,
running across its width as hard as possible, back and forth.
For runners, accustomed to and striving for speed, it’s frustrating.
the water pushing back against your efforts,
the dissonance between your labour and the outcome.
But by the time you get back to dry land,
you are an earthman landing on the moon.
Gravity is a non-factor.
After engineering all of this resistance, the race is a release,
a flight, you can achieve a seemingly superhuman speed.
Now, in this moment, there is no need to engineer resistance, it is there.
We are in it, and unless we stand still,
we are strengthening beneath the surface.
When I get back on dry land, I will be released, and I will fly.
Now, I just need to understand, in this moment,
what is the water?
And what is the race?
Good teaching, bro.
#3 HOW LONG IS A WALK?
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my third thought.
Today a friend invited me to go for a walk.
Having a friend, them wanting to see you, wanting to see them, saying yes.
I can dig it.
She says two o’clock at the entrance to the park and i say yes.
I’ve never been to the park. I don’t know where the park is.
instead of looking up where the park is, i look up who it’s named after to see how i feel about being there, and then i go.
now, had i looked at a map i would have seen that the time it took to get to the place where our walk would begin is approximately the amount of time after which i think that a walk should end. but i am here, she is here, we are beginning.
we walk, and we walk, and we walk.
til i’m like, “oh, that’s a nice bench. let’s go look at it.”
we sit. then we walk some more.
and it’s nice, because i like her and we are spending time together.
but that walk was like jumping into a collaborative project without asking any questions upfront because i like the people involved. because they asked, and that was nice, so i got excited and committed to a thing that i thought ended where they thought it began, and i don’t know my own way home from here, so here we go, i’m walking.
Today, i agreed to the walk, but if we had walked one more minute than we did, i might like my friend just a little bit less, and that would have nothing to do with anything that she did.
next time i’ll ask. but now that i know her definition of “a walk”, she could probably get me to go anywhere.
#4 COLLATERAL ANIMALS
When I was a young Catholic schoolgirl, I thought Jeanne d’arc was the most badass. wearing pants, hearing god, sitting up on a horse, riding into battle, on fire, for some reason. She seemed to be on fire. At some point it occurred to me that never in history, not once, not ever, has a horse asked to be ridden headfirst into a rain of arrows or a wall of spears. Anyhow, today what I think is that if PETA really wants my attention, they should get to work liberating every police dog who never asked to be weaponized, and every police horse who wasn’t born to tread pavement and terrorize protestors. Get them all out of the way so we can abolish those slave catchers without collateral damage. I’m saying.
#5 YOU ARE ENOUGH
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my fifth thought.
It’s for you.
You are enough.
No bells, no whistles, just you. It’s enough.
Not because you’re better than you used to be
not because you’re as good as someone else.
Just be with yourself, out of context.
Don’t measure up.
Don’t measure anything.
cuz if your value is not tied to your accomplishments, your intelligence, your earnings, your status, your face, your birthplace or your family name, then how can you use any of those things to judge other people’s value? something has gotta be worth something, right? else how will i know who sucks and who’s the best? i’m not trying to let go of that, i’m trying to be the best, i basically am that, but somebody else is always getting better so i need to keep ahead…
this is my fifth thought and it is for me.
Me, you are enough.
(photo by Keith Barker)
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my sixth thought.
I want to be worthy
in whatever service I’m able.
But worthy’s a short swerve away from “of use”
Opposite of refuse,
perilously close to productive,
which is nothing like worthy, as a word,
and useless to it as a companion concept.
Worth is more like work – no, that’s a trap.
It’s more like value, or values, in my calculus.
I am neither parts nor a sum
but a thrumming existence
resistant to quantification,
I’m relevant, I’m broken, I’m dented, I’m perfect, I’m junk.
And junk is beautiful and you are, too.
I value you.
(Photo Credit Keith Barker. It is a picture of a 6 car pileup. The cars are 1970 vintage toy cars)
#7 FIND JOY, TOO
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my seventh thought.
whenever Desmond Cole shares photos of flowers, I smile.
I can’t read more than a chapter of
“The Skin I’m In”,
not in one sitting, without hitting a nerve
and needing a breath
before reading the next.
thinking this substantial text
holds just a fraction of the actions undertaken
to receive the story, and to convey it.
I am stilled by a portion of what he relates,
a small shard of what he has heard,
stilled, though only ever glimpsing the edge
Of the people and pages
and pixels and grief that the writer receives
and distills for us,
the guts that they spill for us
and what it takes to pack them back in again,
never mind the ones that won’t fit anymore,
so full of new truths, crowding out room for you
some people do that every day,
on public pages, in private homes,
alone in the long dark night of the soul.
If someone is willing to do all that, then I want them to have joy, too.
I’m so happy when they find joy.
Have you seen this guy’s smile?
(photo credit: Desmond Cole. music: Smile by Nat King Cole)
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my eighth thought.
I rarely use the word “pretty” without irony.
It’s like “nice.” Essentially positive but so banal as to be back-handed.
Lately I think it’s curve-related:
The air is so thick with hyperbole that if you’re pretty, you’re several levels below drop-dead gorgeous – so attractive that you could literally end someone’s life, aesthetically. And we don’t even know what the top of that scale is yet, but pretty ain’t it. We’ve gone so high that pretty is about one up from plain.
I understand that language evolves. I just don’t like when words get taken away in bad faith. Not over time, with usage, but in front of our eyes, with malice. Which is happening.
It’s probably the thing I appreciate most about African American vernacular – a survivance tongue that can’t be taken: it’s resistance to codification, it’s improv-adeptness, both in creating and interpreting new configurations of old symbols, old syllables, the reuse of existing expression invested instantly with new meaning by context. It’s verdant, sprawling and variegated. It’s complex and alive, and I love it. It’s pretty.
(photo by Desmond Cole. Sounds from zapsplat)
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my ninth thought.
You are not stronger thanks to your trauma. Don’t fall for that. Maybe your strength got you through it, but that was yours. Maybe you grew through it, but that was you. You don’t need to thank your trauma, you deserved to live without it, to be strong without it, to grow without it.
I’m not trying to diminish your struggle.
I just want to give credit where it’s due.
Check it out.
You did that.
You made you.
(Photo by Desmond Cole, music by Adot The God)
#10 RED BOOTS
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my tenth thought.
I have these red boots. I love them. As soon as I saw them I knew my life would change if I could only have them. Then I got those boots. I love them. And I almost never wear them. They are those things that are so special, too special, no occasion is ever special enough for me to unsheathe their majesty. They’re not gonna get muddy or wet or worn shiny on that one toe I like to rub against the back of my calf. You can barely tell they have anything to do with me. They just sit there, pristine and neglected. Like the phone numbers of all my most cherished friends.
And since this isn’t new behaviour, I can predict that by the time I finally decide to put those boots on, they will no longer fit, and I will have wasted a very good boot. My boots deserve better than that.
#11 HAN SHOT FIRST
My name is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and this is my eleventh thought.
I recently got into a thing with a collaborator about whether Han shot first. Not really about if he did or not, but about whether it matters if he did or not, and whether that is a thing worth saying. It matters, I assure you. If you’re a nerd, ten times more. But if you’re outside the culture, you might not see why. And if I try to explain it to you I inevitably bring more niche terms into the conversation that move you further from understanding and closer to confirming your theory that no one will know what I’m talking about. If you are not receptive to understanding, ten times more. More importantly, things matter even if they don’t to you, even if they don’t to most, even if you don’t understand why they do. Han shot first. Because the past is what happened, not what you wish did. He shot first, that’s a fact. I’m passionate about it. And no amount of CGI muzzle flashes will convince me Greedo did anything more than walk into the Mos Eisley cantina. Holler at me, nerds.
(image from Rigzsoft.co.uk)
#12 – I CAN HELP
This is DM, and we’re at number twelve.
I used to work at a nursing home, at the reception desk. As a result, I was often the first point of contact for families visiting residents. This one guy would visit his mother about three times a week. He was nice enough, but never chatty. One night he comes in, heads my way, leans over my desk with urgency in his eyes, and says, “I can help.” I ask him, “Help with what?” He says, “Your problem. With your hair.” I say nothing, he goes on. “What you need is margarine. That’ll weigh it down. Fix your problem.” I said thank you.
Maybe this had nothing to do with the new afro pick I bought the next day. Maybe. Nowadays, I often have a good intention checked by hearing Yvette Nolan’s voice in my head, echoing from our days together at Native Earth, “Donna, don’t help.”
(photo by Isidra Cruz)
#13 JUST VISITING
This is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. This is thought number thirteen.
I never want to be a tourist
A person who observes the external from a distance that they are at pains to retain because the view down the bridge of the nose is quite pleasing. Everything is quaint. Your time in another person’s life is like a dream if you don’t look past the seams that are sewn to contain what is shown to you. If you only get and take and enrich yourself with experience.
I prefer to be a guest, one who is invited, who sees that it is more than an offer to be accepted or declined, but a door being opened to come closer, actively0. My time in another person’s life as a sacrifice of their privacy, their patience, their hospitality, a sacrifice that I should not meet empty-handed.
I’d rather be a guest than a tourist. Though I know that, often I think that I am one, when I am in fact the other.
At the beginning of our collaboration based on his very personal story, photographer Nir Bareket Wright said to me, “I gladly invite you into my soul. I only ask that you first take off your shoes.”
I felt that. You should see where my shoes have been.
You should consider where yours have.
Tread gently with each other.
(music by Blunted Beatz. photo by Brenda St. Bernard)
Fourteenth Thought (Final Thought)
#14 NEVER NOT TRYING
This is Donna-Michelle St. Bernard with my fourteenth and final thought.
I am trying my best. I have grown so much and changed not at all. There is a small part of me that is untouched by injustice and cynicism. A part of me still open to criticism. There is still a portion not smudged with distortion. A part undiscouraged by not-yet-but-nearly. That prays just in case God hears me. There is still some unreasonable faith that people of purpose can drive out the snakes. That people can be their best selves if they choose it. That there is healing in music.
That the world is sick
That loneliness afflicts.
That we’re in the same ship.
And it’s a all-of-us fix
That it’s not on me.
That what I do matters but it’s not all on me. It never was.
We are many. We are ready. We are strong.
I am a part of something I could not do alone.
And my whole entire job is the same as it always was: to try my best.
So I am trying my best. Bear with me.