Returning to my love, well one of them. Art making and art has been my love for all my life. I joke that it’s *just* enough to dedicate my life to it, but it’s true. I love the creative element, I love the state of mindfulness that occurs, I love the work. I love curating - understanding this as an art form - how light cast and turned can change a piece, how work speaks to each other, how paint on a wall makes it different. I also found, amazingly, that I love the business end of it too. Marketing and the power of language, grant writing and development and how it can affect a community.


Photograph is a wee Mallory, first starting with this idea. And it would grow...

It was eight years ago that I conceived of this idea. Forming a small nonprofit in Madison, we focused on one really big exhibition a year - a themed show with 20-45 artists, community interviews, events, and work. Professor friends of mine called it masters thesis level work. It just felt like home to me. I had this nonprofit for many years. Working with community, connecting to people, I started to see what this business - this organization in my dreams could be. I was invited to be a curator of a gallery there and spent many years learning. Learning to observe. Learning to curate better - the ins and the outs of gallery work. It was a glorious experience. I folded my nonprofit and brought all of my energy to this one. It grew, we grew, and the organizations in the whole city worked together, collaborating for this greater landscape. I was able to work with another, continuing to foster this love of community, this love of art, this honest love of people.


All the while, I dreamt. Observing myself, the people and the work around me. Planning and hoping and wishing in my head. Building relationships, caring for people, knowing what could happen.


It is incredibly vulnerable work to open a business, especially one that you’ve held as a dream for as long as I have. It’s like a baby, holding a baby that you’ve nurtured for so long. These careful dreams that we all have, for we all have them. What will happen to you if I let you out? What will happen if I let people see you? What will happen if you get hurt?


But I have an actual child. And this - this - is the hardest thing of having any baby, human or otherwise. All you can do as a parent, as one who loves, is to foster it to let it grow. Help it grow wings so it can fly on its own. Give it all that you have, the best that you have, and hope that it is okay in the world.


So with that, Cultivate is launched. An action verb. Cultivate means so many things. Cultivating creativity, the mind, the spirit, the heart. Cultivating community. Cultivating art. Cultivating artists. Cultivating growth.


This organization is a lot of things, but the thread that binds it all together is education and community. People are amazing, they are. We do amazing things, curious things, beautiful things. Actions that change a mind or a heart. And we hold each other. We are born, we are wired for connection.


Education is a sense of empowerment and language. Education is like a tool we can give people. And what I mean by education is not just a classroom experience, I mean that we, people, are teaching all the time. We are teaching children how the world functions through our modeling, even as indirect teaching we show people so much. We are all teachers. It is a gift, it is a light.


We can choose to be a light. We can choose to support. We can choose to love. We can choose to uplift, empower, connect. A level of intentionality. A level of care.


So all the while I dreamt and built in my head. Talking with so many artists upon moving to Grand Rapids, about 50 in total, I heard echoed again and again. Separate people choosing to speak to me, a stranger, over zoom, after a cold email. And individually, nearly all spoke of the same hope - A hope for a collaborative art community. A sense of connection. And I saw this light.


I have seen so much in my 12 years of teaching. Moments where people of any age think they can’t do it, and reach that a-ha moment. The brightness they have in that moment is so beautiful. And teaching art is not just handing these tools to know foundation work, but also how to see. It is an unlocking to see shape and form, light and shadow. To observe the transformation from a person who didn’t consider themselves an artist suddenly them stopping to notice the pockets of light, the movement in an artist's work, or to find the way to translate the idea in their head into work on a paper. It is light. It is so beautiful.


I have seen so much in my eight years of arts administration. I have learned so much as a curator, as an artist doing the work myself. It’s hard. It’s beautiful. It can be riddled with systemic problems - as any field can. But I saw this light, and I see solutions. It doesn’t have to be this way - the problems we observe, the hills we climb, and we can work to be different. We can cultivate.


This first week is beautiful, and scary, and so exciting, and vulnerable. Releasing this long-held idea is hard, for, like a baby, you have to let other people love it to let it grow. It is time. It is here. It is well-loved by some, not loved by others, and that’s okay. My mother, another beautiful, amazing community organizer of this city, taught me so much about how to love, how to be, and how to stand up. She loved with everything she had, everything that she was, and she stood with others, for others, and it was amazing to grow up with this beauty.


It is amazing to stand here. It is a gift to be able to do this work. To hold this belief in community. I believe that this idea of a community holding, this support, and this kindness can only help us all.


So this, in my actions, in speaking and living from my heart, is what I will do for you in this position. I will be my authentic self, calling you to be yours. Believing in you with every fiber of my being, and believing in the person that you are, the dreams that you have, the light that we can carry. Believing in community. Believing in the incredible spirit of people.


So, like the mother that I watched until she passed, like the mother I carry in my spirit, I hold this light, and I share this light with you. You, with your own light and your own dreams. And together, we can share, connect, we grow, we learn, and we can cultivate each other.



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I've been wondering in these last couple days why I've been so slow. Sure, the pandemic, but this was different. Languishing. The dishes forming their own still lifes on the counter, a life lived. Watching the wind blow, the curtains move through our old house. My curiosity was satisfied as a friend reminded me this morning: the body remembers.


I was purposefully transparent leading up to my first mastectomy surgery. Sharing my experience on facebook, via blog posts, stories that detailed how I told my son about the surgery and gene, my last MRI to see what/if I already had cancer, my fear, my sadness, my loss, my fear. What it is like to have these tests. What it means to have to be strong. What to say, what not to say. What it means to carry all of it. The weight. The pain. I was transparent because I wasn't the first, nor will I be the last to do this. I was transparent because gene or no gene, family history or not, cancer can come, and no one should feel alone in this.


Today, December 13, marks three years since my first mastectomy surgery. Three years from the day I had the option, and the strength, to choose to save my own life. Before that day, I had had the suspicion for years. I had lived with cancer and death in my mother for years. The weight. The pain.


Tim O’Brien writes about the things we carry, how the men in Vietnam had to carry their guns, their canteens, their grief, their fear. How they carried it all with them through the jungles, step by step. We all carry something, for we are human, but I no longer have to carry this fear of breast cancer.


What I didn’t know, couldn’t know, was what it would be like. I forget people's birthdays, but I have a mind for details and I remember all of this time: How I’ve never been more scared of anything in my whole life. I remember the lines of lights in the pre-op room. The blue chair where I set my clothes. The purple gown I wore. Snaps on the front. IV in my arm, the taste of saline in my mouth. Waiting. The sliding glass door of the room. Knocking as the people came in. A tv sounding off nearby. The bed is soft and warm, though I never get comfortable. Sheet on plastic. Meeting the doctors and nurses who would be with me. Marker lines on my chest. Lines of measurement, lines of symmetry, lines of where they’d cut. Knowing this. Knowing just years before, my Mom was doing this. My Mom knew this landscape. The last nurse I saw was named Betty, my Mom’s nickname. She offered to sing me a song. Her hands were as soft as her laugh. She held me as I cried. She held me as I got the nerve block and fell asleep. She held me. The body remembers.


It was a six hour surgery. All of my breast tissue was cut out. The precancerous cells were cut out. Expanders placed in, for which my surgeon had to cut into my chest wall because I was so skinny. (I did not, could not know the pain that this would cause.) Grenade-like shaped drains in, little tubes snaking out of my chest. Clipped to a white bandage, edges dyed yellow from iodine. I do not remember waking up. But I did. I woke up. I survived.


Lights on, nurses waking me up to check vitals in the middle of the night, shots in my stomach to prevent blood clots, and the pain. The pain was something new. I thought I had seen pain, but I didn't know anything. Bone pain. Nerve pain. The pain of the incisions. Muscle pain. It felt like electric surges. Razor blades inside my body, scaping my bones. The pain of knowing my Mom had gone through this and I didn’t help enough. I didn’t know how. What I didn’t know, couldn’t know, was how long the pain would last. How I’d get used to the pain. It never relented. It lived in me, with me. It held me. The body remembers.


Six long months would go by. Triumphs of being able to raise my arm over my head. Falls of the exhaustion after. Beauty in observing my boy read books next to me so I wouldn’t be alone. Terror as the pain spiked, sending me to the ER time and time again, as the drugs prescribed didn’t put a pause on the pain and life I was now coming to understand. I took vicodin every four hours for six months. It didn’t touch the fire, the scraping, the electricity. Joy in seeing friends and family make meals in droves. Sadness in missing life. Honor in being able to call life mine, for I could now own a future that I didn’t previously claim. Six months of not being able to leave a room. Six months of laying in the same spot in bed. The same view out the window. Watching the seasons change.


There was beauty in this pain, as there can be. Finding the light in the dark was a great gift. I had so many friends show up emotionally and physically, sitting with me as I could barely hold my eyes open. I had friends disappear entirely, and that, too, was a gift, for I learned who my people were. What does it mean to show up for someone? And what does it mean to show up for myself?

I read voraciously. I journaled. I mapped the start of a project on breast cancer, the details, the work, the cities and organizations. My mind was awake and running as my body sat and healed. I learned vulnerability in myself. I learned how to be vulnerable with other people. Because what is vulnerability if not being seen in that state? I learned boundaries and communication, for the first time in my life, I had to share that what was happening hurt me. I had never claimed that ownership of self before. “What you’re doing hurts me, please stop” as someone would nudge the bed and would send the electricity surging again. I learned forgiveness, and self-compassion, as I was too young to know the pain of my Mother, too young to know what to do, and that was okay. I learned what it means to read a pathology report and see that I was cancer free. I learned that I don’t have to carry that fear anymore. I learned how to breathe. The body remembers.


Nearly six months to the day, I had my third mastectomy surgery. As sad and strange as it seems, it became so normal. Walking into the hospital on my own, rolling out in a wheelchair with my teeth gritting later. The smell of saline. The purple gown. The markings on my chest. Incision with tape marking the five inches on each side. This time would prove to be different, for three days after they removed the expanders, the electricity shifted. The razor blades were gone. And it just got better every day.


I remember walking more after that last surgery in May. Questioning why my feet hurt, and understanding that I had barely worn shoes in six months. My feet had to get used to shoes. Bringing myself to the kitchen, down the stairs to the street. In time, slowly to the end of the street, end of the block, end of the neighborhood. And I kept going. In six months time, with the stubbornness of survival, I would get off all the medication, I would return to work, I would play with my son, I would run a 5k.


I have my scars. Inches across me, lines like a map of this time. I have the great privilege of carrying the memory. (For it means it’s done and it can be a memory) I carry the understanding that I did the hardest and scariest thing I could have done. I carry the knowledge that I went from 85% chance of getting breast cancer to 1% chance. I carry the memory of my Mom, and I carry this knowing Liam will never have to carry what I did. I carry the fire that I had to hold to get through, the fire of my spirit, the fire of survival. I have the beauty of always knowing this survival. I carry the empty space where the fear was. I carry the space. I hold space. And I can hold space for others who know. Because there are so many people that know this.


What does it mean to hold space for each other and our needs? What does it mean to hold space for the hardest things?


To quote Sonya Renee Taylor: “Gwendolyn Brooks says we are each other's magnitude and bond. Assata Shakur says we must love and care for one another. I trust Black women.” In this time of Covid, things are not normal, though some may pretend it is. A collective trauma, a collective grieving whether that is the loss of a person or the loss of the life that you are used to. It is a time to hold each other, hold space, honor the scars and the memory we hold, see each other, and be vulnerable. I was holding space for my own shock and grief, changes and life, and am again ready to pursue what I mapped out so long ago.


I am resuming the breast cancer art project. Collecting stories and artifacts from women who have genes, family history, have cancer, have survived cancer. Because this doesn’t just support them, it supports and holds space for all of us. Building a project where there is a visual articulation of the full breast cancer experience. The waiting. The gown. The questions. The tests. The results. The treatment. What is it like to hold your life and have others hold it with you?


No one should be alone.


1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. It affects not only them, but the circles and lives that they inhabit. We don’t know what to say, we are culturally ingrained to look away when things are hard. To come out on the other end. But sometimes life, like now with Covid, is a moment of liminal space, a moment of suspended self.


I will reach out to the groups, the women, the people who know. 65 stories have already been collected from all over the United States and Canada. Women have sent their MRI scans, their hospital tags, their photos of their scars and of their recovery. People have shared stories of their survival. People have shared stories of their loss. People have shared how they act as a witness to life, to struggle, to death.


It is an honor to do this. It is an honor to know these things. It is an honor to be able to be transparent. It is an honor to carry these memories. It is an honor to carry my life and time. My body will always remember, and that, my dear friends, is a gift.


I look forward to sharing the process of this continuing study and journey with you all.


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The breast cancer experience is a new world. Stepping from your familiar terrain and landscapes into a new one, you see things differently. And while, at first, you're foreign to it all, the strangest thing is that you get used to it. Parts of it, anyway.


It's a new world, with different fears and experiences. Different clothing. Different routines. The people are even different, as new people emerge - doctors, surgeons, nurses, even new friends - those people who come out of the woodwork to be there. Unfortunately, people also disappear.


I've heard this world described in a lot of ways. Experiential and emotional descriptions to share just what it is like:


"Instead of being a stay at home Mom, I have chemo for eight hours, and come home to try to help with homework. I'm sick, and I don't have the same patience with my daughter."


"I look at my body in the mirror and I am different. My scar ravaged body is different. My surgeries have caused me to gain weight and I don't recognize myself anymore."


"I have been cancer free for fifteen years, but I have this new pain in my legs. Is it cancer? Is it back?"


"I am 19 and just found out that I have BRCA. I'm going to have the surgeries, but how do I date with no boobs and no ovaries. Who will accept me?"


I am scared. I am different. I am living in the past fear. I am living in the present fear. I am living in future fear. I have no eyelashes and I miss them. I am changed.


I see life in a new way. I have a new lease on life. It is mine and I will love it. I am grateful.


There are so many ways to see, acknowledge, and understand breast cancer. But the best thing that I heard was from one metastatic breast cancer patient to another: "We are all here breathing with you." It says everything: holds space, holds mindfulness, holds the feelings, holds the person who needs it.


And that's just it. There isn't anything that we can do to fix it. SO many people wants solutions, want answers to the madness, want a map of this new world, want to find a way back to our old selves, a way back home if you will. We can't, though. We're here, transported. Sure, we have the action plan - the list of chemos, the radiation countdowns, counting down the days til the surgery. For those of us who are previvors*, we have the days until the next scan, the wait, the scanxiety. The action plan gives a schedule, but does not address the walk along the way.


In the month and a half since this project has started, there has been a wonderful and awe-inspiring response. People have stories to share, experiences from this new world. People want to connect. People want to feel heard. People want to have others simply breathing with them. I am honored that this project creates and holds a space for that.


In this month and a half, there have been 65 responses on the website. 65 stories shared online, an art workshop in Madison, Wisconsin, an art workshop at Gilda's Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan, four in-person interviews/story sessions. This shows great growth, but the best moments for me are to observe one person sharing their neuropathy experience, and another person across the table nods knowingly. Or one person sharing what they bring to chemo, and another person chiming in about what lollipop they like to bring as well.


Connection. Understanding. Holding space. Breathing with you. This is the mark, this is the sign that I am heading in the right direction with this. It is an honor to be here with you all. I am thankful everyday.







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