Culture / Newsy

Remembering 9/11 Amid a World Turned Upside Down — Is That a Phoenix Rising?

A Texas Artist Reflects On a Very Different America

BY Sarah Gish // 09.09.21

Me Too. Climate change. Mass shootings. Xenophobia. Coronavirus. Racial Justice. In the last several years, our country has been turned upside down and the curtain has been pulled all the way back. Old systems are falling apart, and I keep thinking of the story of the Phoenix bird – not only because our world is spiritually and physically on fire but also because I see good coming out of all this tragedy.

When the Phoenix burns up, it rises again out of the ashes, new and glorious and full of color. Destruction always leads to transformation.

The 9/11 attack has been on my mind with the 20th anniversary coming Saturday and the images of ash everywhere. I had wanted to volunteer at Ground Zero, but could not because I had just given birth to my younger son Matthew. Our family circle was complete when my son and I visited the 9/11 Memorial & Museum together on one of my IGNITE YOUR LIFE! art project road trips. The sacred space, built on Ground Zero, is a perfect metaphor for the rise of the Phoenix. Out of tragedy, beauty is born and it helps to heal us.

News outlets dubbed 2019 “The Year the World Burned” because of wildfires in California, Australia and the Amazon, and smaller ones in Lebanon, Russia and Indonesia. It seemed as though we were still reeling from those flames when COVID-19 arrived with a devastating bang. COVID-19 coming, George Floyd’s murder at knee of a police officer, the Black Lives Matter movement being reignited, creating waves of anger that had rolled for generations. . . everything seemed to be happening at once.

For a brief week, Houston stood as one of the epicenters of Black rage. People marched, the virus be damned (after all, police brutality was just as deadly). Angela Davis – an activist who has been involved with racial justice for decades – called this “The most exciting moment that I have ever experienced in my entire life.” This time, lasting change seemed possible.

In my own life, I have experienced many Phoenix rising stories. I was a blackout drinker, starting as early as age 12, and got sober when I was 21. My brother died of alcoholism at 43 years old, and it was because of him that I started IGNITE YOUR LIFE!. I wrote “12 Ways to Ignite Your Life Daily” and am currently writing a book about my experiences. It will be filled with photos and tales from the road, as well as a “Road Warriors Guide,” plus tips for creating a life you love.

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Sarah Gish's “12 Ways to Ignite Your Life Daily,” 2019
Sarah Gish’s 12 Ways to Ignite Your Life Daily, 2019

Amazingly enough, my third art car – Hubba Hubba — caught on fire in Phoenix (of all places) and I had to buy a new one. I drive it daily and it is a constant reminder of my brother and  my own story of rising from the ashes. Yes, my art car literally rose from the ashes.

I never imagined that my personal Phoenix rising story and art project would connect to the explosion of everything that is happening now. On my fifth road trip, I set out to explore the birth of our nation. I began with the intention of visiting every original colonial state, learning about the United States’ real history, and of course. seeing Hamilton, the musical. It was quite the adventure.

I not only learned the whitewashed story of our Founding Fathers, but as I dug deep, I learned firsthand how our country was founded on genocide and built by slavery.

The United States is now grappling with two pandemics: the virus one and the centuries old racism one. Last summer, I organized a “Racial Justice Peace Gathering” that was co-hosted with Grammy award-winning producer and activist Billy Dorsey Jr.. Dorsey and I, along with 11 other Houstonians, offered talks, meditations, music and prayers to help take action to change the energy around the tragedies in Black communities.

It is what I do when the going gets tough. I gather people. I pray. I take action.

Sarah Gish’s “Tikkun Olam,” 2020
Sarah Gish’s Tikkun Olam, 2020

The months-long stay at home orders of last year and the semi-shutdown world we are still living in has forced us to come face-to-face with ourselves. We’ve reconnected with nature. Some of us slept more or overate, some of us plumbed the depths of our psyches. And we’ve all become more real as we’ve Zoom-ed from our couches and let our hair go au naturale. For me, this strange era has been a time of creativity and contemplation.

I started writing words with chalk all over my driveway such as “Tikkun Olam” (“heal the world”) and I’ve been sketching about releasing in my journal.

Sarah Gish's "Release," 2020
Sarah Gish’s Release, 2020

I participated in an artist card exchange. I sent a brightly geometric card to a friend and in return received a beautiful Phoenix Rising artwork, made by another artist friend and her mom. I did a one-woman hat fashion show from a safe distance and I continue to light a candle each night while praying for the victims of COVID.

Sarah Gish's " Greeting Card," 2020
Sarah Gish’s Greeting Card, 2020

Additionally, I spend my time making art, writing and taking action as I try to make sense of this time we are in. A beautifully wrought bird nest that plopped into my yard became home to “Justice” and “Peace” eggs, symbolizing the re-birth of Black justice.

I contemplated the connection of the year 2020 to 20/20 vision and created a piece with a $20 bill. Broken glasses sit atop Andrew Jackson’s face, a president who was horrific to both Native-Americans and enslaved people. Grass is underneath because nature offers hope for growth and change as we see anew. And a rusty lock unearthed by my dog became a metaphor for the virus – keys surrounding it in a heart shape symbolize the hope that love will help us emerge triumphant as we gingerly unlock our new world.

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Sarah Gish’s Love is the Key, 2020

This year started with the capitol insurrection and a hard-core freeze in Texas that devastated homes and cost lives. And more recently, my heart broke when the much-loved 82-year-old River Oaks Theatre was shuttered due to lack of revenue. It’s a place where I worked in the 1990s and a spot that was always a touchstone for my life lessons, from the running of the business to the stories on its screens. (Find out the latest on Houston’s last remaining historic theater and step up to play a role here.)

It seemed as if there were no pandemic Phoenixes.

And yet. . .  we are getting vaccinated in record numbers and our fears are falling away. A group I co-founded, Friends of River Oaks Theatre, is not only a force that will save the theatre, but has also become a tight-knit group of friends who love swapping tales about their time in that sacred community space.

How will we emerge from this historic time full of grief and losses? I know that focusing on the light – kindness, love, peace and faith – will help us become whole again. I’ve been walking my finger labyrinth and public labyrinths more during this unsettling time. That meditation practice reminds me that even if we don’t know where we are going, the journey always leads us back to the beginning. And when we return whence we began, we are always different.

In a spiritual sense, it seems as if things are crumbling to be rebuilt. My alcoholism had to cripple me before I could get sober. Our world had to get sick before we stopped to take notice of what we were doing to it. Yet another Black person had to be tragically murdered before we started to really unpack white privilege and what it means to be anti-racist. And the River Oaks Theatre had to be threatened in order for us to rally for its preservation.

Many have said this time is the apocalypse, which actually means that it is a time of revelation, a time of understanding. Breaking down the word COVID to its Latin roots reveals a deep truth: “CO” means “together” and “VID” means “to see.” We are all truly seeing together. And it is this vision that will transform us. The world’s Phoenix will rise again. And so will we.

Sarah Gish is a Houston-based artist. Find out more about her Ignite Your Life project here.

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