• William Mark

For Thou Art With Me

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

After nearly a year of “taking a break” from making art because all of my energy went into our house renovation….the coronavirus pandemic hit and suddenly the world stopped and my hands started moving once again. The kids were home with us and anxiety was riding high with so many unknowns. Like the rest of the parents around the world, we were trying to manage it all and also learn the incredible skill of home-schooling and needless to say, it was a tense time especially in the very beginning. Luckily, Billy and I had an empty airbnb apartment in our building that we deemed our “extra space” and we gifted each other a full day away from the family responsibilities each week. That was our saving grace and so in my alone time, I began to contemplate making art again.

Before the pandemic hit, I had checked out a stack of books from the Central Detroit library and began to dig into those books for inspiration. One book was about Noh theatre, which is a traditional form of Japanese theatre, where stories are told through costume, sound, and slow methodical movement. I also was inspired by Saint Margery Kempe, who was a Christian Mystic in late medieval England. With these inspirations in mind, I sketched out some ideas and thought I’d do some sort of collaboration piece with Billy during this quarantine time, just for fun.

After weeks of creating a robe and a mask with hand-sewn details and long blue strings streaming from the eyes, the costume I created was ready. Billy and I brainstormed what we could do and somehow as the piece progressed it seemed like it was becoming less of a collaboration and more of something I was just supposed to do. With no performance background and certainly no desire in my shy nature to “perform” or to be seen by anybody doing anything “wierd”, this was certainly out of my comfort zone. However, as Easter was approaching I heard a voice deep inside me saying, “Do it this weekend”. Two days before Easter Sunday I found myself late at night walking down the dark alley behind our house with Billy doing a walk-through to feel out what I should do for the actual performance piece.

It was Good Friday and I was wholly aware of the darkness of that day as well as the darkness of that alley that has always been a fear-ridden place for me.

For the last seven years living in Detroit we have seen quite a transformation in our neighborhood and the city since we first moved here. Thankfully, we have seen quite a change in the neighborhood with abandoned houses getting bought and fixed up and so there seems to be less gun violence, however it does still happen time to time. (There’s also the complex mixed bag of gentrification here - another blog for another day)

When we bought the quad (4 unit early 1900’s brick building) it was basically a brick shell with busted out windows and everything of value inside was stripped, leaving huge holes in the walls and debris everywhere. Most of the homes on our street and surrounding blocks looked the same. There were people squatting in abandoned buildings and various illegal activities happening everywhere. Shootings were commonplace, even in the middle of the day. I remember when we first considered purchasing this building and Billy had informed me of the “realities” of the neighborhood, I went straight to my BSF lesson and the scripture for the day was Genesis 15:1 “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” I knew that was God speaking to me and I have clung onto this promise ever since.

I’m sharing all of this so you can understand the significance of this alley for me. Alleys here are not nice, paved, well kept places the city keeps up. Alleys here are full of potholes, trash, and overgrown trees/weeds. After a year and a half of renovating the quad, we were able to move into the upstairs apartment 2 weeks before Nekoda was born. Silas was almost 3 yrs old and slept in the back room facing this alley. From his bedroom window we could see the house across the alley where the closest shootings happened regularly. I prayed over my boys every night putting them to bed for their safety and protection.

So here I was on Good Friday, walking through this dark and cold alley towards Billy waiting at the other end. As I walked I felt fear and dread not knowing what the heck I was doing and then the words of Psalm 23 came to me: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” After the walk I went inside to read and journal before bed and as I finished the last chapter of the book Overcoming Fear (by Dawna De Silva) it was clear to me that this walk was an embodiment of me “finishing” my walk with fear and anxiety and that the Lord wanted to speak over me “for thou art with me”.

The next night, Holy Saturday, around 10pm I got all suited up in my kimono robe I made with brocade trim down the front edges and around the train that drug a few feet behind me. I enjoy how different textiles create meaning in a piece. The brocade on the edges of this plain cotton garment symbolized Saint Margery Kempe’s life she left behind of wealth and privilege. I created a long white veil, symbolizing her sainthood and the mask helped to hold the veil in place. It is believed in the Noh theatre that when the mask is put on, the actor truly transforms into the character being played. As I put on the mask, I felt more brave, calm and focused on the task ahead. It still felt crazy to be walking outside in my backyard/alley wearing what I was wearing, especially in such a strange atmosphere as this global pandemic. I was nervous a neighbor would see me from their window and be freaked out there was some ghost-like character in the dark alley. Luckily no one was around and I simply walked to one end of the alley and Billy walked to the other end to film me.

As I had mentally prepared for this piece, I wanted to be open to whatever it was God wanted to show me through it and to be open to whatever emotions arose during the piece. The fact that Saint Margery Kempe was known for her loud, tearful outbursts, I was a little worried something like that would come over me….but again, I wanted to be open and also not manufacture something that wasn’t there. I did wonder if she had an experience with child loss and I was very aware of the significance of Holy Saturday and the deep pain that Mother Mary must have felt that day losing her beloved son. I wondered if I pushed a stroller down the alley as I walked, if that would connect me to any emotions inside of myself regarding child loss that were supposed to be looked at in this piece. The night before, Billy wisely said I could always give it a try, and if it doesn’t feel right, just let go and leave it behind.

Billy put the stroller in place for me at one end of the alley and then he walked to the other end to film me. As I walked out of our building and to the end of the alley I noticed that I felt no fear or awkwardness that I felt the night before. I didn’t even feel cold. I felt focused and clear that this was something I was strangely just “supposed” to do. As I pushed the rickety stroller down the pothole laden alley, I just breathed and repeated the mantra over and over very slowly, “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me”. As I was mid-way through the alley and behind our quadplex, the stroller felt cumbersome and difficult to push so I left it behind. I continued the journey and the experience was strangely reminiscent of my wedding day. My wedding dress had a similar length train with a gold chinese silk edging around it. I wore a cathedral length veil that felt the same as it dragged along the ground behind me. My walk down the “aisle” was long and also through dirt as we were married on the top of Mt. Shasta and my “aisle” was from the chair lift, down a small hill to where Billy waited for me at the altar. I kept breathing and repeating the mantra “for thou art with me” and for a good portion my eyes were closed. As I neared the end, there was a large puddle in the middle of the alley and the night before I thought, “Hmm, am I supposed to kneel in that puddle and put water over my head reminiscent of the words “for thou anointed my head with oil”? As I approached the puddle, I first took a moment to unwrap the long blue strings of tears from the mask that were wrapped around my wrists. (I had to do this because the strings were so long I would have tripped over them) At the very moment I might have knelt in that muddy water, a car came and turned into the alley where we were. The bright lights from the car were a bit shocking and my nervousness about neighbors seeing me was resigned at that point. I walked to the side of the alley and knelt my head to the ground.

Two days later, I still had not seen the video Billy took. I knew something powerful happened to me in that walk that night, and I felt a marked difference like something had lifted off of me that I had carried for years. After going through the book, Overcoming Fear, for the last 6 months my mind and heart had poured over scripture and prayed declarations that culminated in this significant art-prayer walk. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7) When what I was doing seemed “crazy”, my mind was actually extremely sound. The clarity and focus I felt was “power”- power from God- as described in this verse!! I did not orchestrate any of this. When I was in Redding at the Bethel bookstore, my sister came up to me at the register and said, “ I think I’m supposed to get this book for you”. I did not cause the pandemic, that made me stop doing what I was doing and start creating art. How the heck did I end up reading about Saint Margery Kempe and Noh theatre? I am not a performance artist- why in the world would I do a project like this? I did not plan the timing of me happening to finish this book on Good Friday, and then end up doing this piece on Holy Saturday!

When I did finally watch the video, I was nervous that whatever I saw wouldn’t match the internal experience I had. I was wrong.

If you haven’t watched the video- please watch it- and you’ll see what I mean.

I hope you know that whatever you’re going through, GOD IS WITH YOU. HE HAS NOT GIVEN US A SPIRIT OF FEAR, BUT OF POWER, AND OF LOVE, AND OF A SOUND MIND.

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