Last night I was closing up shop with my coworker Darren at Bishops, the hair salon where I’ve been working for six months. We were chatting a bit, and he was telling me what a great job I’m doing and how I should feel free to ask him for help whenever I need it. Darren’s been a great resource for me in my new career, and I’ve learned a lot just by watching him cut hair. Then, seemingly out of nowhere he said, “Hey, I’ve actually never directly asked you what your pronouns are.”
Asking for someone’s pronouns is becoming more and more commonplace, and it’s a practice I’m on board with. I’ve come to realize over the last few years, as more and more of my friends come out as trans or nonbinary, that you really can’t know someone’s gender until they tell you how they identify. I love that idea, that you can’t assume to know a person’s gender by their outward appearance, and until you know, it’s best to refer to that person by the gender neutral pronoun “they.” Our family is friends with another family with two kids and the parents noticed that their younger child didn’t seem to be exhibiting any specific male or female characteristics so they decided to refer to that child as “they” until they were able to choose for themselves, the label they felt comfortable with.
How I answered Darren was this: “I like the term nonbinary because I like the fluidity of it, but I’m not sure if that’s the term I want to use for myself. I feel like I’ve fought so hard to be comfortable with being female.” After a moment I said, “I guess that’s not a very good answer.” A couple years ago at a Christmas party someone casually asked me, “What are your pronouns?” I froze for a second then said, “she/her, as far as I know.”
I’ve wondered, what is so hard for me about that question? Why can’t I clearly assert that I’m a woman? What is all this fumbling about? And I think what it is is that I feel like I already went through my gender reevaluation back in my teen years. When I was 15, 16, 17, I didn’t feel like a girl. I had a feminine body for sure- curvy, with hips and breasts much larger than I was comfortable with. I got a lot of unwanted attention for my breasts. I also had cropped hair and thick body hair and wore boyish clothes most of the time. I was envious of boys- their lean, muscled bodies, the way they could wear their facial hair without shame, the way they weren’t expected to do themselves up with makeup. I suffered from acne and hated the time I spent in the bathroom, cleansing and exfoliating and covering up my skin with products, not to mention all the time spent shaving, plucking, and primping. I was attracted to boys but I also wanted to be the boys I was attracted to. All my heroes were men. Honestly I was a little embarrassed for women and didn’t like being associated with them. I decided for a while that I was a gay boy. I didn’t know anyone who was transgender at the time, in my world or even on TV. Actually I knew of one transgender person, Kate Bornstein, who I learned about from reading her memoir, “Gender Outlaw” (borrowed from my wild, artist mother). This was in the mid 90’s. I think if I had known of the term nonbinary at the time I would’ve been thrilled and latched onto it like a life raft.
But what ended up happening was when I was 18 I was able to get a breast reduction. I went from a DDD to a C cup and felt truly liberated. Suddenly my gender crisis just didn’t seem relevant anymore. Instead of feeling like a gay boy I felt more like a boyish girl. Funny that the decrease in cup size helped me feel more like a girl but it was really that I wasn’t resisting femininity so hard anymore. It felt easier to be a girl, not such a burden. And that was the beginning of not only feeling ok about being female, but really sinking into it, embracing it with a fierce pride. In college I ended up spending a lot of my time with women because even though I have remained consistently attracted to men, most of my best friends are lesbians- it must be something about their blend of masculine and feminine that I relate to and feel comfortable around.
Even now, when filling out a new patient form for a doctor’s office or routine survey, I feel good about marking the female box, even if there’s a nonbinary option. And with that always comes a relief, that I identify with the gender that I was born with. I’m aware of what a privilege that is.
Ok but this nonbinary thing is still appealing to me. Because the truth is, no matter how proudly I can state “I am woman!!!” There’s a part of me that’s like, “Yes, and also I’m still such a flaming gay dude.” And I’m also neither of those things. But since I’ve already had my gender exploration I don’t particularly care much what my label is. I’m aware that I tend to be dudelier than most women, but I also understand that the term “woman” is a big enough category to include dudely women like me.
I think when someone inquires about my pronouns I’m hesitant to say “she/her” and leave it at that because that makes it sound like I haven’t done my homework and I’m just going the lazy route, taking what I’ve been given. I want them to know I’ve given it some serious thought, that I’ve considered other options and decided that women rock and I’m honored to share their title. But I also wonder if there’s a part of me that’s afraid to make the leap from “she” to “they”, not wanting to be dramatic or make people around me uncomfortable.
Really I would love it if we could all just be nonbinary- just people, without needing to specify further. If we could make choices about our hairstyle, wardrobe, career, body language, hobbies, based on our desires and not so influenced by how our gender is supposed to act and look. Maybe that’s why I like being female. I like to show that I can be a woman who’s not necessarily conforming to all the female stereotypes. I can choose what being a woman means to me.
So I’ve been in the process of going through my journals from the last few years and pulling out all the good stuff. Sometimes it’s just a line or two that stands out in a several page entry; sometimes it’s a few paragraphs. I’m thinking about making a zine of these, formatting them like poems or very short stories. I like how they look with the dates omitted. Thought I’d share a few now on the blog.
What was the best moment today? Maybe now, but… before this, what? It was a tiring day, satisfying, warm- I liked waking up, I’d slept well. I enjoyed my slushee margarita after work, but the best? Maybe it was just walking to the curb to get the trash canisters- about 8 pm but the air was still warm, body temperature. I had on a knee length flowy pink skirt so the sensation of warm air and skirt blowing around my legs was a loose, sensual, rare feeling. The sky was almost an iridescent blue, and the moon silvery and seemingly brighter than it should have been with the sky still so light around it. A lopsided moon, maybe two thirds full, flattened on one side. And then grabbing the canisters, one in each hand and rolling them easily and gracefully across the parking lot, a familiar and practiced movement from my long ago recycling job, the resonant rumble echoing out like the steady travel of thunder.
Did the dishes. Scrubbed the coffee pot. Re-seasoned the cast irons. The dishwasher gurgles, the dryer churns. I was about to head upstairs, then thought:
“I could write in my journal now, if I wanted. On the couch. With Mina asleep, mom and Benny upstairs. I could do this thing, alone, that I used to do almost daily for years.”
I’m noticing changes in myself. I see pictures of myself two, three years ago and I look livelier and more rested then I do now but I couldn’t have been. The way I am with Mina is changing. When she was a baby and toddler I was so open, emotional, melted, pure. Now I am more stern with her, a bit hardened. Sometimes I talk to her a bit sarcastically, or with some of the attitude she’s giving me. I’m more calculating, less coddling.
I see a fierceness in her sometimes, a glaring focus, her ember eyes burning, eyebrows a straight dark line. Sometimes I can’t tell what she’s thinking- she has an inner life that’s growing stronger, she’s becoming more independent. Mostly I’m glad for this. I’m glad for all the ways she’s separate from me, becoming her own person. As separate as she becomes I can’t imagine never knowing her the way I do- an intuitive understanding that comes from knowing myself. But I know also that there will be times that I think I understand her but I won’t. She will do things that I would never do.
Did I ever write about that dream I had?
I was in an antique shop and was attracted to a box,
a small shallow wooden box with a window in the lid, you could see inside of it
and it made a picture, overlapping layers of muted colors.
It was $25 and I wanted it but couldn’t justify the purchase to myself,
it wasn’t practical.
But finally I decided, “Beauty is a necessity.”
And I bought it, picturing it sitting on a special shelf I would make to display it. And maybe it would be the start of a new kind of life for me, allowing beauty
to take the forefront of my existence-
a way of valuing aesthetics as much as practicality if not more;
a way of living for the sake of art.
The car I’m borrowing for a few days has a tape player. This morning I grabbed a few mix tapes from the box as I rushed out on my way to school. Even though they are from the 90’s, so long ago that that decade has made a comeback, I didn’t expect to have any problems with the tapes. But when I slid one in (that satisfying moment when your gentle push is replaced by a gentle tug) the sound coming out was slogged, demonic, warped, clattery, unrecognizable- until finally a voice emerged, the gravelly growl of Tom Waits singing Kerouac lyrics, followed by Kerouac himself singing Bing Crosby, a brief interlude by the Presidents of the United States of America, continuing into Talking Heads’, “This Must Be The Place”- a song that has now become popular but back then I felt like the only one who knew what a good song it was. It played slowly with a heavy warble. I sang along, thinking my voice sounded ripe and raspy, blending in nicely with David Byrne’s, remembering a time when I was a young, fierce girl, holding dear my three heroes: Tom, Jack, David.
Last night we went out to collect some candy. Some of the streets we walked were very dark and no place for children. The 205 rushed by on the other side of the concrete wall. How did we end up here? But the moon was perfect, classic-a white gold crescent against a deep violet sky, glowing, knowing. Venus, a beauty mark. Look at the moon! We kept saying to the kids. Did they look?
I want to tell you this new fear I have-a fear of the dark, of night. I noticed it during those short days when the darkness creeps in quietly and suddenly drops you into a black velvet bag. When I’m walking to work from my car for an evening shift or when I wake up early and it’s inky black outside- It’s not a fear of what could be lurking in the dark, of things unseen. It’s a fear of Nothing. When it’s night I can so easily picture our tender planet half dark, and me- impossible and minuscule, on that shadowed side, staring out into the nothingness of space. Night reminds me that I live on a planet, that the planet is in trouble and that it’s suspended within the frigid unknowable universe.
Walking in the foggy midday at the Lone Fir Cemetery. I have other things to do but I miss walking. I want to feel my body create its own warmth. I want to see my breath. I stop at the oldest tombstones, trying to read them- the worn, mossy rock carved with facts. Mother, Father, Beloved Son. Aged 46 years. Aged 28 years. The big monument to Storie. The crumbling mausoleum. The tombstone cast to resemble a craggy stump. A stuffed lion by a teenage boy’s grave. A candy bar resting by another. Leaping squirrels, plunging and darting through the branches. I try to observe my thoughts. I realize that any thoughts you have while walking through a graveyard will not be original. All will be cliche observations of mortality, time, cycles. I thought of all those bodies under the ground. I thought of my own death. I thought of the eventual death of those I love. I wondered about all these stories around me, all those lives with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I felt my own vibrant life force. My hands became warm enough to pull out of my pockets and swing alongside my body. The rhythmic movement of feet, legs, hips, arms. I left and walked back out into the chaos of the living.
I dreamt of visiting Sharon Olds at her lovely house, a creamy gold mansion with an incredible bathtub. I read one of her poems and it’s stunning, soothing, nourishing. I think about how she has been rewarded for her work as a poet, the world sees her, honors her. It is possible to be a wealthy poet. This dream shows what is valuable to me right now- the richness of words, the value of poetry, of living poetically. The value of being the kind of person and living the kind of life to be able to write like that.
My body can tell you about itself:
I am a stiff bridge in a wooden playground, low thump thump, shaking chains. I am wind- cold, tearing tiny flowers off of thorny branches. I am an empty boat.
I am dirt- wet, wormy, rich, waiting.
My stomach is a soft stone, like day old bread, something hard surrounded by something soft. A brick inside a pillow.
My wrists and ankles are spindly branches, cracking and twisting in the storm.
My shoulders are a desert mesa, stripes of flat sedimentary layers- rock where you can see the eons, seashells embedded, reminding you that whales once hovered over this dusty land.
My neck is there, muscled, straining to maintain equilibrium. I want to unhook it, roll it out like fresh dough, release all its knots and vices, braid it loosely, reinstall.
Someone once told me I have raccoon hands- and like all comments that ring true and slightly shameful, that once has stuck with me. Small, scrappy, furred, pointed, nimble, almost human. Frantically washing, digging, plucking, sorting, rooting through trash to find the treasures.
When I dance I let my hands be waves, fists, flat paper, aimless birds, sun-seeking leaves.
When I breathe deeply sometimes I feel a cracking in my ribs, I imagine them stretching to full capacity and then continuing to expand, breaking apart not like a cage because that’s too obvious but like what, like a brittle shell, a too small container for a leggy hermit crab, or maybe like the chocolate shell on a soft serve swirl cone.
My body tells you things. But sometimes it doesn’t- sometimes I feel things my body won’t show you. I am often measured; I rarely get out of control unless I decide to. I don’t fall asleep unintentionally. I am pouring exactly 1 and ¾ cup of water into the bowl and you know it’s exact because I bent down to sea level to check its preciseness. That’s why my body likes alcohol, exercise, massage, swimming in the ocean. That’s why my body needs sex, sleep, sun, space.
Every so often I find
a new freckle on Mina.
Noticing freckles appear
on her pale skin is like
watching the stars
Venus was in the sky last night, piercing the dark darkish blue of after sunset- a bright white point in the center of the window. Benny said, there it is again, it was there last night in the same spot. We peered at it, perplexed. Could it be a planet? Wait, was it moving? No. Yes! No.
I googled, bright star in the western sky. Yes, Venus, at its especially brightest in May. I kept thinking, Venus, beauty and love at its brightest and that can’t be a bad thing.
I am so tender these days, on the verge of collapse, looking for ways to strengthen but maybe I should just submit, allow myself to break, I need a break, I need to break, to crumble so that I can rebuild, rebloom.
Last night Mina was energized, “activated” by bunny grahams, and even ran around outside in the parking lot after dinner.
“I think our bodies are magic,” she told me. “The way that our brains tell our bodies to do things. How does it work? How do our bodies move?”
I said, “I don’t know. I think it’s amazing how living things just grow, they just do it themselves. I think all living things are magic.” We kept talking about the brain and all its wonders, and she was alive with ideas. She said her idea tube was getting clogged up, but luckily she has 133 other ones. I’ve never seen her quite like that. I’m not sure what triggered it, what was different about yesterday.
At bedtime it took Mina a while to get tired so she had me do something mom made up, where she makes Mina out of clay. It was fun and I got lost in it, molding her features, smoothing her arms, scooping clay from around her neck to make shoulders, pinching fingers and ears. Afterwards she made me out of clay, and I felt myself becoming, gaining mass and form. I make her who in turn makes me.
I was getting ready to make dinner- I had chicken breast thawing on the counter, sprinkled with salt and lemon juice and I realized I hadn’t been outside all day and also I wanted a glass of wine and we were out of butter. Benny and Mina were upstairs playing video games and I thought, I could just drive over to the store for wine and butter. But I almost didn’t, the outside world was so black and wet, I had a sudden fear of the dark- like, why would I leave my safe warm house and open myself up to danger? Who knows what could happen on the five minute drive over? I felt fearful and vulnerable as I stepped out the door and locked it behind me, got in my car and turned it on, NPR coming on the radio. I heard two women talking, one interviewing the other. She asked her to read aloud her poem about the death of a loved one. Her voice was soft and cracked and wise. I wondered who the poet was. Then she read another poem about picking blackberries with her old hands that used to be her grandmother’s hands. The poem seemed to be directed to the poet’s daughter. At one point her voice caught and she had to tamp down a little sob. The interviewer asked her after, what was it that had “snagged” her, I think that was the word she used. “Well, it’s all there in the poem,” she said a bit snippety but I knew what she meant. Oh that great line: “the best berries grow in shadow.” By then I had found out it was Margaret Atwood. “What would a life lived entirely in daylight be like?” she said, and then answered her own question: “It would be a nightmare.”
I remember when the movie Titanic came out I was fifteen
My mom dropped me off at the big theater in the next town
and went to go run errands.
There was something so tragic and defiant, watching it alone
on Valentine’s Day. I felt the solid, self sufficient presence of myself,
tender but invincible, eyes wide and heart pumping
as that gigantic ship
I’m in the river but I’m a strong swimmer now. The thing is, I’ve always been a strong swimmer but I’m tired of being strong. I want to stop swimming. I want to float. I want to be swept downstream. I even want to sink, I want to feel the water close over my head, feel the weightless weight of me drift down, make gentle contact with the river bottom. I want to get knocked around by passing rocks, their sharp corners lighting up my skin, scraping my taut muscles. I want to let go. I want to be carried, rescued. Or even ignored, allowed to drift. I want to be forgotten, I want to forget. I want to wash up on shore with amnesia and believe I am a wayward fish, a frog, a snail.
So often I get tired of being human, of navigating human nuances, our complex needs and emotions, our tiresome journeys, searching and finding, or not finding. The ways we betray each other, and ourselves. I’m done. I’m done being human. Can I just decide that? Can I just be a lizard, a whale, a buffalo? I bought a buffalo tooth the other day. There’s a hole in the top of it. I can pull a string through it and wear it around my neck. I can carry a piece of a buffalo with me, I can pretend I am a buffalo. Will that help? I don’t know.
Dream purchase: a skirt from a vintage store, knee length and made from a silky, translucent blue and black material. And attached to the fabric, giant dead black scarab beetles. It was $20. I bought it, thinking I might never wear it, but I also might.
I fell in love with a mortal and I knew it was doomed. His life would come and go as if in a day. I’ve learned to love quickly and deeply, without attachment, without expectation. I’ve learned to breathe in their skin, memorize the dynamic changing colors of their eyes, taste the sweat on their neck, harmonize with their voice, make a map of their freckles. I’ve learned to be with, completely, almost becoming my love, being them for a day.
It’s frightening to become mortal, if only briefly. How can they live each day, waking up in the morning and not knowing if they will be alive by night? How can they wake up thinking, this might be the last time I brush my teeth, choose my clothes, heat water for coffee? They must hold two truths always in their hearts- the knowledge of their own imminent deaths, and the belief that they must act is if it’s not true. They must continue making plans as if there will be a tomorrow. How they must savor each moment! Maybe I envy them a little. Sometimes I forget to notice the moon, to watch the new spring buds. It all happens so fast for me.
I prefer spending time among rocks and trees, things that change slower. Then I can take the time to notice the widening and lengthening of a redwood, the erosion of a mountain ledge. I like to ride the glaciers, watch islands form, then disappear. It’s like watching the planet breathing- the shifting of oceans, the breaking apart of continents, the melting, the freezing, the heat, the cold.
I had a perfect karaoke night in early March when things were still open. I totally succumbed to that song, I pitched a tent in that song and lived there for a few weeks, I made that song the center of my body, I left my body and became spirit, and there was a crowd of loving, dancing, howling witnesses there with me. Why is it that the most perfect moments take you away from yourself, allow you to drop your ego and expand up and out, connecting you to everything and also simultaneously allow you to burrow deeper down into your exact molten center, momentarily touching the you that is truly you and could never be otherwise?
Another stolen moment. It’s after dinner, not quite bedtime yet. I didn’t announce that I was getting some Serra Time, I’m just taking it, waiting to be discovered. I was uninspired by the dredges of our fridge and made a weird veggie Mac n cheese thing which Mina refused to eat. Oh well.
Today I did laundry, planned three dinners for the coming week and put in a Freddy’s order, replaced a lightbulb, took a shower. Read Mina all three volumes of Bigby Bear comics- they were surprising and perplexing, like picture riddles. When they went upstairs to play games at 5:00 I wasted time shopping for Mina shoes online then decided to go for a walk in the windy, rainy evening.
As I walked north I could see the darkness of an impending downpour but wasn’t deterred, thinking it might be nice to feel some weather, safe in my rain jacket and Blundstone boots.
It felt good to walk, the air smelled of wood smoke. I turned left at Stephens towards Harrison park, the sidewalks mostly deserted. At Harrison there were many downed branches from the storm and one almost whole tree was in pieces. I felt a little vulnerable in the empty park, evening turning to night.
On the way home the drizzle turned to rain and then the sudden powerful downpour I’d been waiting for. The evening turned dark and hazy, foamy with rain that streamed down my glasses, pounded into my shoulders, soaked through my socks. I thought, it’s cool I still have this persistent desire, to be alive. I’ve always had this, this drive for growth, this invitation to challenge, this yearning to be up against the elements- awake, aware. I have felt it fade some over the last few years, and that really won’t do. I have to stay alive. It’s necessary.
Sometimes you’ll take this whole trip, like a family vacation, and maybe it’s mostly stressful and expensive and the food is bad and your kids are whiny and the airline lost your luggage but there’s going to be at least ONE moment where elements combine harmoniously and your senses are heightened from being in a new place and maybe you’re looking across the vista and taking your first real breath of the trip and you take a snapshot in your heart and mind- a 3D, sensory aware fully present photo- and that moment was what the entire trip was for and that’s fine, that’s what you came for, that’s what will remain.
On the radio this morning I heard about the death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and someone read aloud something he wrote, What Is A Poem. Yes, yes, I thought as I listened. Poetry fits in the pocket of your heart, poetry is a lighthouse dragging its megaphone across the black ocean, poetry is your mother in her Woolworth bra gazing out the window at her garden, and so on. I thought, that’s what my writing needs- to be more poetic. Of course, that’s a tired thought for me, not a new one. And how does one be more poetic? By being aware of your senses, by being open to the world, absorbent, delighted, awake. And remembering to take notes. Be a wanderer, an observer, not just of the world but your inner self too, and the way one plays off the other. Your heart is the anchor you tie your rope to, then swing the rope like a lasso, seeing what you can snag.
I want to create, but there’s a new apathetic, cynical side of me that whispers, “Why? Why bother? So you can write a poem that lives in a closed journal? So you can make a painting that gets stuffed in a drawer? Who will see it? Who will care? It’s just one weak shout among millions.” I know not to listen to that voice. But it’s there nevertheless.
I realized something this morning; a thought came to me
I’d like to share with you an excerpt of a “novelette” I wrote recently about the summer when I was 20 years old and had a job as a camp counselor. I slimmed it down quite a bit to make it more compatible with the blog format but I think this may be an even better version than the original, in its edited form. I hope you enjoy it! It’s my most ambitious foray into memoir writing.
“If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.“ Henry Miller
There was something fascinating about the Puget Sound. Being from San Diego, I thought I knew water- I had grown up with my feet in the hot sand, a boogie board in my hands. I was intimate with the patterns of waves, familiar with the sting of saltwater in my eyes, that uncomfortable yet nostalgic feeling when water goes up your nose. I knew the chlorinated blueness of swimming pools, I knew the deep emerald of rivers rushing through the Sequoia National Park, minutes from my Grandparents’ house. But I’d never seen water like this- smooth, silver, misty, iridescent. Pooling around mounds of islands, green with trees or distant, the same powder blue as the water. I was used to water that extended forever, an impossible distance. This water was cozy, contained, a peaceful pocket of beauty.
I stood on the farthest point of Samish Island (technically a peninsula), on a narrow finger of sand known as The Point. Standing there I always felt like I was on the prow of a ship. There was nothing out there but large chunks of driftwood that kids sometimes balanced on, and some rocks green with slime. The air felt fresh and warm with a hint of coolness, a breeze coming off the water. I was wearing a pair of dusty green pants, vintage running shoes that said The Winner on the tongues in gold cursive, and a Talking Heads T-shirt. My black curly hair tumbled in the wind, bangs blowing back to expose my forehead. I was letting it grow after six years of having short hair, and the feel of its wild movement around my head was a novelty for me.
Although I was tired with an exhaustion I’d never known, I felt strong and alive. I was halfway into the summer, something I knew not to think too hard about. I was taking this experience a day at a time and five more weeks of this seemed incomprehensible. It was 5:00 in the evening- I was already an hour into my break. At 6:00 I would need to head over to the dining hall and find my kids, do dinner, clean up, evening campfire, then get everyone into their beds.
That morning had tested my patience: sometime in the night some of the boys had pranked the girls by smearing toothpaste on all the rungs of the ladders that went up to the treehouses, which really I had to deal with because I’m the one who uses those ladders first every day, climbing up to each of the cabins to wake up the girls for breakfast.
After breakfast we’d had archery. I’d discovered I had a knack for archery, something about the way it required you to stop, focus, and aim- a combination of stillness and strength. After lunch we did the ropes course activity by Water Rat which was always a big hit except Mackenzie had trouble with the trust fall part at the end. She really wanted to do it but just couldn’t get over her fear. We tried to help her feel safe and relaxed but she ended up not doing it and feeling frustrated with herself.
In the afternoon there was some kind of drama between Tessa and Kendall, there was a lot of huddles and note passing and at one point I saw Tessa crying while Megan consoled her. I definitely preferred the twelve year olds to the six year olds I had at the beginning of the summer, but that meant I have to deal with crushes and social drama.
Sometimes it wasn’t so much about what happened that day, just the fact that I was on duty the whole time, except for that euphoric two hour break.On my daily break (or “STO” as we called it- Staff Time Off) I was often writing- letters to Mom, to Scott, to Nate, to Diana- or writing in my journal. I would head to Tayito, the counselor’s cabin, check my mailbox cubby and sink down into one of the soft couches to read my letters and write. But sometimes I needed to be here at The Point- as far from everyone as possible, soaking in the scene, feeling myself here, now.
As I stood at the edge of the water and watched the sun make its slow descent behind the islands, I thought how strange it was that I had ended up here. I had never intended to be a camp counselor. I didn’t really like being around kids, especially lots of kids in once place, especially kids I’m supposed to be in charge of. I didn’t have a bubbly, energetic personality. I was someone who needed a lot of time to myself and didn’t like a lot of responsibility or constrictions. I had never spent much time around kids and my one attempt at babysitting went badly. Personally I never planned to have kids of my own. When I had submitted my application for this job I had applied for the dishwasher position. But during my phone interview, Jen, one of the owners of the camp, told me they were short on counselors and she convinced me to take that job instead.
Before camp began, I had spent the three previous weeks in the town of Everett, Washington with my new love interest, Scott. We had met several months before in Chico, California where I was living to go to college and we fell reluctantly in love. Reluctantly for me because I was already in a relationship with my first love, Nate, and although it had so far been an open relationship, we were giving monogamy a go. And reluctantly for him because he was much older than me (I was 19 when we met, he was 33) and he knew that we were at different places in our lives. He was also emotionally guarded in general and struggled with social anxiety. It had been a very odd three weeks living with him in a small apartment with his brother and sister in law and two nieces. The excitement of our romance dulled as reality set in and I realized that maybe he was right, maybe there wasn’t really a future for us. I had found this camp counselor job to be near Scott for the summer, but I was beginning to think that maybe the relationship was something of a vehicle to get me to this upcoming experience. I had a feeling it was going to be transformative.
I didn’t have a ride to Camp Kirby so I’d bought a bus ticket to Mt. Vernon, the closest town to camp, and on the phone they’d told me that someone would be meeting me there to give me a ride. When I got off the bus in the morning I saw a tall woman with short blond hair and a Camp Kirby 2002 shirt waiting for me at the station.
“Hi, are you Serra? I’m Jen!” We got in her minivan and made the half hour drive while she told me a little about the camp. She and her girlfriend had been running the camp for about five years, but the camp itself had been around since 1930.
“What brought you to Washington?” She asked. “All the other counselors are from the area. We don’t usually get anyone in from California!”
“Well,” I started, not sure how to explain my situation. I thought about telling her that I was impulsively chasing a doomed relationship but thought better of it. What I settled on was more of a deeper truth. “I wanted to explore a place far from home.”
We pulled into camp, passing the wooden sign with “Camp Kirby” carved into it with jaunty cursive. We trundled around a bend and down a dirt road curving through thick forests. I caught glimpses of cabins and huts through the trees. At the bottom of the hill the forest made way for a large flat open space dotted with larger buildings connected by foot paths. A wide lodge stood at the bottom of the hill with a sign that said Dining Hall. More cabins could be seen in the distance, and near the shore, and a collection of canvas and wood tee-pees. A wooden totem pole and a flagpole flying the American flag and a Camp Kirby flag stood in the center of the field. And surrounding everything, the calm, shining water of Samish Bay.
Most the staff had already arrived at Tayito, the counselor’s cabin, for our first day of training. In an email I’d received about working at the camp, I was told I’d need to choose a camp name by the first day. I decided on Milo, the name of the protagonist in one of my favorite books from childhood, The Phantom Tollbooth. Jen and I walked into the large cabin where a group of people about my age were on floors and couches, chatting with each other.
The first thing she had us do was go around the room and introduce ourselves using our camp name. There was Hollywood, a peppy and earthy blond girl. Kalahari, pale and glamorous with long dark hair. Turbo, a big muscular guy who looked like he had been popular in High School. Maxx, a petite and tan girl with sleek blond hair and a nose stud. Night Owl, a quiet stoner-ish guy with short dark hair and aviator sunglasses. Teriyaki, an androgynous looking girl with short hair and a mischievous smirk. Hobbes, a big round smiley guy with a Bumbershoot T-shirt. Light Speed, a kind of unintentionally ironic name for a sleepy, sedentary girl with dark hair and a solemn expression. Luna, a small, sweet looking girl wearing a muscle tee and hair bandanna. Feika, who had a big smile and short dark hair.
Jen, whose camp name was Gravity, started us off by writing on a big whiteboard at the front of the room the daily camp schedule:
9:30 Scramble (Camper’s choice activities)
12:45 Rest hour
-Outdoor living skills
– Ropes course
-Arts and crafts
– Rock wall climbing
-Music and drama
7:15 All Camp activity
8:30 Chapel (on Tuesdays)
9:30 Lights out
She told us a little about each item on the board and let us know that Chapel wasn’t a religious activity, it was just a moment of quiet reflection in a beautiful spot in the woods. She also reminded us that we would each be getting one 2 hour break daily when one of the activity leaders would take over our kids for that time period. At the end of every week we got 24 hours off- from 2:00 pm on Saturday to 2:00 Sunday. It was information that I understood but didn’t really absorb.
After a quick break we all went outside and learned some field games and team buildings exercises, then we walked around the camp for a tour. We checked out Shuta- the arts and crafts cabin, saw the waterfront shed where all the boats are kept, Herman’s Hut- a building by the water with a kitchen and a bedroom, TeePee Town where the teenage campers stay, the cabins where the younger kids stay, Health House where Gravity’s girlfriend Journey tended to sick kids and injuries, the Dining Hall, and then we all tromped up the hill to visit the Hi-Tor treehouse cabins for the 12 year old kids, which was where I would be staying. She also pointed out where, across the road from the treehouses, all of the forested hiking trails started. All the counselors with kids ranging from ages 8-12 would be doing weekly campouts in the forest in campsites at the end of these trails. The teenagers would be canoeing out to their campsites on Saddlebag Island, the small island directly across from us.
After lunch we started learning some camp songs which, if you’ve been to summer camp, you know is a major part of camp experience. Although I’d been to camp a few times as a kid, none of these songs were familiar to me. But after some repetition we were picking them up pretty fast. I can still remember my favorite camp song, a kind of sing-songy chant complete with snapping and hand gestures:
Way out West where the badlands are
And the only thing to guide you is the evening star
Is the roughest, toughest, man by far
And his name is Cowboy Joe.
He always sings (ch ch ch) ragtime music to his cattle as he swings
Back and forth on his saddle on his horse (pretty good horse!)
It’s a syncopated gator and it’s such a funny meter to the
sound of his repeater
How do they run (how do they run!) when they hear that he’s a-comin’
‘Cause the Western folks all know (what do they know?)
He’s a high falutin’ rootin’ tootin’
Son of a gun from Arizona
Ragtime cowboy, talk about ‘cher cowboy
Ragtime Cowboy Jooooe (BANG!)
At the end of the day everyone grabbed their luggage from Tayito where it had been tossed into a pile and headed off to their respective cabins. I shared a treehouse cabin with Maxx, one of the other Hi-Tor counselors. She was sweet and fun and we got along fine. After I’d unpacked my stuff I looked around and enjoyed the look of my trusty blue and yellow down sleeping bag on the creaky twin bed, my own personal window looking out on pine trees and the shining bay, and a shelf under the window on which I had placed a little book my mom had made, a beaded hemp necklace Nate had made, a sweet note from Scott, and a little bottle of eucalyptus essential oil.
I woke up alone in the treehouse cabin, light rain tapping on the metal roof, foggy light oozing in the tiny window. I walked down the hill in the warmish moist air, gray water spread out in the distance. “I am here now,” I realized. I took a shower in Tayito, luscious hot water and clean smells, felt good and rested as I had coffee and cereal.
Before training started for the day I walked along the shore with Feika, wading in the warm water, thick with seaweed, and watched mesmerized by tiny barnacles opening their tiny mouths and sweeping the water with frothy tongues. We picked up rocks and inspected their colors, mused about their age and the way they were formed.
I enjoyed Feika immensely- she was so graceful and melodious, long neck, short dark hair and long earrings, thick eyebrows and open face, mostly quiet but sometimes exploding in beautiful wonder, like when she discovered a kind of barnacle that opened in a different way, and her awe at all the amazing rocks that she kept in her slender hand and the pink trees that grew out from the sharp gray rock that jutted out from the cliff and crumbled into the water.
After programming schedule she whispered, “Milo!” As I was going out the door and asked me secretly with a devilish grin, “You wanna get some ice cream?” And we snuck off to the lodge for strawberry ice cream that she’d made from strawberries from the garden and we ate it with strawberry syrup and whipped cream and bananas as we sat on the porch of the lodge and watched a mama sparrow fly off in search of bugs to feed her baby sparrows in the nest up in the corner.
One day during training week we all drove out to Deception Pass State Park for some rock climbing. Water Rat, the ropes course instructor, led the rock climbing activity. He was a ski instructor during the winter and often led river rafting trips or worked at camps in the summers. At 29, he was older than all the counselors but maintained a childlike enthusiasm for play and adventure. He was short and muscular, with a kind face and shaggy brown hair that brushed his shoulders. I enjoyed the rock climbing and thought it might be something I want to get into more back in Chico. I especially liked the part when you make your way to the top and then have to repel down by keeping your feet on the rock and leaning back so that the person hanging on to your rope can slowly ease you back to the ground. I liked that feeling of surrender and trust.
After my turn up the rock I sat by the water for a while and just gazed out at the view. Flat light blue, reflecting the dark green of islands that like the sloping backs of whales. Gray mist against the trees. The water looked to be calm but I knew it was terribly fast, terribly deep- rotating softly in its circular current. A sudden shift in wind made the water ripple with a quick sharp sound. No one on the beach, just the patient driftwood resting on rocks. If not for the bridge transporting cars and semis and the ominous planes flying high overhead, I could have tricked myself into believing I was there hundreds of years ago. Just this, this that had been here so long before we all arrived. Someday maybe, instead of trees there would be condos and shops, but for now there was this and I was there, and the present was all we had.
The next day we pulled out the canoes and something called a “funyak”- basically a kayak that you sit on top of instead of inside of. I strapped on a life vest, grabbed a couple of oars and dragged a funyak out to the water. I got on and rowed myself around, delighted to be out on the rippling water, enjoying the feeling of the oars in the my hands, the fresh breeze against my face, the water sparkling with light. I had had some experience with boats, I learned about rowing from toodling around in my Grandparent’s rowboat on their big pond in the backyard. I had also gone on a few river rafting trips with friends in Chico who were training to be Outward Bound instructors. I felt that I had a kinship with water, like I knew what it was feeling, what it wanted. I rowed out pretty far and stopped, wanting to just breathe and be and feel grateful for this moment. I leaned back and relaxed against the hard plastic of the funyak, my paddles criss crossed over my stomach. I almost closed my eyes, the gentle rock of the boat lulling me into a sleepy state. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had made it to this gorgeous place and I had already made amazing friends. Whatever happened next, I could totally handle it. This was where I was meant to be.
After several minutes I heard a yell. “Milo! Head on back please!” Gravity was calling to me from the shore. She sounded very far away. I sat up and looked- the breeze and the current had carried me further than I expected. With a mix of slight alarm and resentment I muscled my way back to land, somewhat miffed that my blissful moment was cut short.
Sometimes I think about that moment with wonder and amazement. I had almost fallen asleep on a funyak in the Puget Sound with no real thought to consequence. I was completely relaxed and at ease in a somewhat dangerous situation, not particularly caring whether or not I got swept downstream and stranded on a random island. It reminds me of how, as a restless teenager who hadn’t gotten her driver’s license yet, I would sometimes board a bus from the remote country suburb of Ramona to Hillcrest, the coolest and edgiest section of San Diego. Normally a one hour drive in a car, it took three hours on a city bus, but it felt worth it to me just to get out of my boring town. As a teenager I was compelled by a passionate and selfish drive to get as far away from my house and hometown as possible, as often as possible. Not that anything was wrong with my home; in fact, I was raised in a very loving and stable family and my childhood was what you might call idyllic. But, like my friends that I had to distance myself from, escape was necessary if I was going to become my full self and devour everything the world had to offer. Even if it meant setting out with no intention of planning a return trip.
That night as I lay in bed in my treehouse cabin I thought of Ramona and its deep eternal silence, and going to bed in my muffled room, closed off from the resonant house- the silence extending from our house past the neighborhood and through the entire town. Warm familiarity, unquestionable safety, steady breathing and the constance of an immortal childhood, in a place that would always be the foundation of the person I was. Sometimes I felt like I was still there, in my familiar room, sitting on my familiar bed, everything around me as familiar as my own body, memorized in each small detail. And what was this life? This daydream? It made me constantly look around in awe- a stunning disbelief that I wasn’t sitting in my room in Ramona. Ever since I left, my life had been one long out of body experience. Delicious disorientation, beautiful bewilderment. Who was I this moment?
The first week of camp took me to the extent of my capabilities. There was a shortage of Hi-Tor campers the first week so I got Indian Villagers instead- the six year olds. I’d never done anything so hard in my life. I hadn’t anticipated how needy they would be, how dependent on me for everything. In the night they would wake me several times so I could escort them to the bathroom or because they’d had a bad dream. Sometimes they wet their sleeping bags and in the morning would be drenched and shivering. They were constantly homesick or bored or wanting to know what we were going to do next. They had questions for me all the time. And not just that but I was uncomfortable with being a figure of authority. It felt weird to have to say sternly, “Lights out! Everyone go to sleep!” at bedtime, or “everyone get your shoes on, it’s time to head to the dining hall!” I still felt mostly like a kid myself and I felt extremely unqualified to be the leader and caretaker of this group of young girls. I didn’t know how to be fun and playful with them because I was too stressed out about maintaining order and getting them to where they needed to be on time.
It was only Tuesday when I passed Turbo on the path and he asked, “How you doing, Milo? Tired?” as he threw his arm around me and I bleated out, “I’m so tired!” and threw myself against him laughing and suddenly to my horror burst into tears. Ashamed, I ran to the bathroom to quietly sob and gasp with these new feelings and fears.
That night I got to find out what Chapel was. It was held at a half circle of wooden benches up in the forest, near the cliffs. It was one of the most beautiful places in camp- since Chapel was held at around sundown, you could watch the glimmering sunset through the trees as the sun sank below the water. Journey started it off playing “This Land is Your Land” on her guitar as most of us sang along. Then she led us in what was called the “Washington Rainstorm.” The way it worked was she would start doing something- the campers to the right of her were to copy her movements, then the campers to their right copied their movements and so on. You weren’t supposed to do the movement until you saw the person to your left doing it. She started off by rubbing her hands together, then snapping her fingers, clapping her hands, slapping her thighs, stomping her feet, slapping her thighs again, clapping her hands, snapping her fingers, and back to where she had started with rubbing her hands. The movements created small sounds, but combined with the whole camp making the sounds in the way that you might sing a “round” it magically created the audio illusion of a rainstorm passing through the forest.
Another thing that happened at every Chapel was Journey would find a rock to pass around. When the rock was passed to you, you were to hold it for a moment and make a wish on it. When the rock made its way back to Journey, she would chuck it out into the water. The whole scene was very peaceful and magical, and I always looked forward to Chapel.
It wasn’t until later when I realized that our training week had essentially been the gift of a week of summer camp. Journey and Gravity did everything with us that we were, in turn, to do with our campers. When I thought of it that way I felt blessed that I was able to, at the age of 20, experience summer camp again. But it left me a little sad as well, the fact that now we all had to be in charge for the rest of the summer. It was like an abrupt loss of childhood.
On my day off after the second week I stayed at camp with Luna, Turbo, Feika, and Water Rat. Feika and Water Rat and I decided to go by our real names on our days off and I was trying to get used to calling them Cassandra and Brian. We sat and talked for hours in Cassandra’s teepee. She was so genuine and loving of everything and so wise, and Brian was tender and soft and childlike, so in need of love and nurturing and understanding. His face always looked as if it was melting. He told us about this girl he was engaged to for a while but who left him suddenly, and soft tears brimmed in his eyes, his nose red and shiny. I sat beside him and held him close, feeling his hurt and loneliness. He was a delicate soul, full of life and joy but also enormous pain, and I hoped so much that he finds his soulmate. I marveled at the fact that everywhere I went I met amazing people with brilliance spilling from them. I often felt that I was one of those people.
Walking to the lodge to do laundry it again occurred to me where I was, and again was surprised by the realization. I knew this was where I was supposed to be even if it was uncomfortable and awkward and frustrating. I could feel myself expanding and that’s how I knew it was right.
That afternoon after all the kids had left, I was filled with a certain bursting hugeness- something explosive I needed to express. A bunch of us made lunches and ate them on the grass. I devoured my hummus and egg salad sandwich and thought, “this is the most amazing sandwich I’ve ever had in my life.” I lay on the porch of the lodge and soaked in the sun, listened to the conversations between Gravity, Journey, Turbo, and Luna and just felt so full of goodness and thought, “I just want to stay right here for the rest of my life.”
Cassandra and I washed dishes and I told her, “Oh man, I’m just filled with something and I gotta let it out!”
“I know!” She said, laughing wonderfully. I could tell she felt it too. A beautiful Ben Harper song came on the stereo and I danced fully, slowly, in the empty dining hall, singing though I didn’t know the words, letting my body do what it wanted. The song was something about being ready to put on his long white robe.
There were times during the week when I thought I was just going to start screaming, have some kind of tantrum. My anger would flare up at the kids and I would struggle to contain it. My dreams had become laced with anger. My laughter was loud and abrupt. Silence was rare. Homesickness under the surface of it all. When all the parents came that morning to pick up their kids, I felt a desperate wish that my mom was coming to pick me up and the thought carried a large, unknowable sadness.
In a way, maybe it was good I started off with the youngest age group because everything after that felt almost easy by comparison. I found that the 12 year olds were much more independent so I had more time to myself instead of entertaining them or cleaning up wet sleeping bags or escorting them to the nurse for a splinter or a “sprained” ankle. I could actually have real conversations with these girls and connect with them on a more equal level. Often we would just be hanging out outside the treehouses making friendship bracelets and talking.
On our campout, Maxx and I led our two groups of kids into the woods with our sleeping bags and gear. During the week of training we were taught how to build a fire, something I’d never really gotten the hang of before. For the first time I understood how a fire worked, how you had to feed it carefully and lovingly without smothering it. The goal was to make a “one match fire”- constructing it so well that it lit the first time. For the campout we made tacos for dinner over the fire and I succeeded in making a one match fire. I was starting to feel more competent, like maybe I would actually get through the summer in one piece.
Journey stopped by later with her guitar and led a sing along as we sat around the fire, watching it dance and spark in the darkness. She offered the guitar to me at one point and I played one of my favorite Tracy Chapman songs:
She’s got her ticket
I think she’s gonna use it
Think she’s gonna fly away
No one should try and stop her
Persuade her with their power
She says that her mind is made up
It was a song I often played when I was feeling trapped back in Ramona, or stifled by Nate’s influence. It felt so different to play it here, under the trees, surrounded by young spirited girls, the muscle of my independence strengthening inside of me.
After the fire died down we all snuggled into our sleeping bags. How the girls screamed, how they gossiped, how they snored and burped and complained and laughed hysterically, their screams and squeals echoing out into the dark woods. I lay on my back and gazed at the bright stars through the opening in the tall evergreens, breathed in deeply and wished for silence. And yet the chaos continued.
On my next day off I sat by silent water and watched as a large boat passed slowly, its wake extending from it in two dark trails like snail slime. Murmuring and squawking seagulls clamored on the shore. A white feather floated by, lit brilliantly by the sun. A layer of gray mist hung on the water, clothing distant islands. The ripples from the boat finally arrived- a progression of small waves that shattered on the gooey rocks, and then again silence.
Cassandra came by and sat beside me. “So was this week any better for you than last week?’
“Much better. I’m still exhausted but I think I can handle it. How were your kids?” Cassandra had teenagers, which sounded like a nightmare to me since we were still basically teenagers ourselves. I couldn’t imagine having to be someone in charge of a group of kids only a couple years younger than me. But it seemed to suit her fine.
“They were great! We had so much fun. They loved canoeing out to the island for our campout. I was a little nervous about it but it went well.”
“It’s so nice to finally be able to talk to you! I don’t think I really saw you all week.”
“I know! It’s weird that we made all these amazing friends the first week but we don’t get to see each other much the rest of the summer.”
I picked up a smooth stick of driftwood and held it between my hands. “Did you go to summer camp when you were a kid?”
“Yeah, almost every summer. You?”
“A few times. I was thinking about how you make friends at summer camp- intense friendships- and then after the summer you probably never see those friends again. Maybe you write letters for a year or two but that’s it.”
“Yeah, totally. At the time you think you’re going to be friends for life.”
“It makes me a little sad, to connect with people and then never see them again,” I said. “But it also feels natural, like maybe it’s ok. I can appreciate you in this moment, let myself be changed by you. And then we can thank each other and move on.”
Cassandra smiled at me with warmth and love, and then looked back to the bay, nodding. “It’s a flow, like the movement of water.”
There was one camper named Rebecca who I remember most out of anyone because she was there all summer. I didn’t know why or what was going on with her parents but at the start of every week she was back. Sometimes she was in my group and sometimes she was in Maxx’s group. She kind of acted as an assistant counselor because she was mature for her age and knew more about the camp than even the counselors, since she’d been going there since she was small. She was also a little bossy and loved knowing everything so she was the perfect guide, especially for the kids who were shy and nervous.
That week went pretty smoothly except for the morning after the camp out. We woke to spatterings of raindrops on our faces as we slept in our sleeping bags outside at the Maukualla campsite. The rain stopped pretty soon after we all woke up but all the wood was wet so we struggled to make our morning fire. It was a lot of pressure to make a one match fire with wet wood while twenty two hungry 12 year olds circled me whining that they were wet and cold and hungry. I was so determined that I was going to start the damn fire, even with the wet wood. I felt like a master fire builder by that point so I was sure that I could do it. After about an hour of trying, we finally ended up heading over to Herman’s Hut, which had a kitchen, and making our pancakes there.
I was starting to learn how to really enjoy the kids, how to relax and have fun. The only thing I was still struggling with, besides not enough time to myself, was the kids’ homesickness. Even the 12 year olds were overcome frequently by homesickness and I never knew what to do for them. I had no idea how to help. Rebecca gave me a clue one night when I went into her cabin to say goodnight and she was in bed looking sad. “Can you sing that ‘she’s got a ticket’ song for me?”she asked. I settled in next to her bunk bed and sang the song, tapping on the wooden bed for a beat. As I sang, she snuggled into her bed and closed her eyes, looking peaceful and content. When she had fallen asleep, I carefully climbed back down the ladder and made my way back to my own treehouse. I took a moment to admire the night sky through the darkened pines, the shimmer of black water through the trees. The moon was almost full. I’d been living on Samish Island for five weeks.
On Saturday after the kids all left, Brian showed up at my cabin with a couple beers. We walked off grounds to a little forest area and sat and drank them, talking about many things as we kept an eye on the road for Scott in Tim’s truck. When he arrived me hugged happily and his bright face was a joy to see. I liked showing him around the camp, introducing him to people, talking in the Health House with Gravity, Luna, and Teriyaki. We had planned to canoe out to Saddlebag Island but the weather wasn’t looking so good so we considered heading to some nearby hot springs instead. We loaded up the truck an hour later with a big tent, some food, sleeping bags, and ourselves- Scott and Brian in the front, me and Cassandra in the back. I loved the drive, laughing and talking, watching the world slide past- farms and trees and little towns. We stopped at a berry farm and got raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and cherries, and sucked them carefully and sacredly with delighted moans of pleasure as we cruised along, she and I bursting with secret joy- expectancy, appreciation, gratitude, wonder.
After an hour’s drive we found the gravel road that led to the hot springs. We bounced along that for a while and finally arrived at a little parking area with a stunning view of looming mountains carpeted with pines and topped with snow, enormous rough faces of red mountain rock. We grabbed towels and swimsuits and walked along a trail, ferns and dozens of wet banana slugs and eerie dead looking trees with tufts of dripping green moss hanging from bare branches. The hot springs came into view, a medium sized deep pool, steamy green gray water surrounded by rocks.
Floating on my back with my eyes closed and Scott’s hands supporting me, my ears under the surface hearing only underwater muffled sounds of voices and the sharp gritty crunch of stones being stepped on. Then we switched and I supported him as he floated. We had come to a comfortable point in our relationship after a lot of late night discussions. Scott realized it was futile to try to “figure out” what we were and where we were headed, if anywhere. I had mostly released my grip on Scott after those weeks in Everett; I had seen a side of him that I didn’t find so attractive and I was coming to terms with our incompatibility. But we still had a deep affection and tenderness for each other that felt nice and light, unburdened by expectations. We had started to learn how to enjoy each other in the moment, knowing that we were nearing the end of our time together.
Brian sat brooding in the steaming pool, bare shoulders and tips of his hair wet and curly, looking slightly sad the way he sometimes did. Cassandra gleaming and brimming with joy, face of beauty and light. And afterwards we felt so warm and relaxed through and through. We found a campsite as it was getting dark, got a fire going and the tent up. We ate delicious food that Scott brought- salad and barley, raw corn, tortillas and hummus- and drank beers that Brian brought. Cassandra and I played a few songs on her guitar. In the morning we left quickly, ate some waffles and fruit in the car on the way back, loose and happy and looking forward to the upcoming week.
That week there was a break in regular camp- instead there was Cricket Camp, which was preschool aged kids for day camp. It was also a time to catch up on maintenance work. The first night we camped out by the water- Turbo, Maxx, Water Rat and I, under the full moon. In the morning after breakfast Teriyaki and Turbo and I started painting Herman’s Hut. We didn’t get very far but it was fun. We also painted the funyak rack and cleaned off the basketball court to paint a four square court. It was a very hot day and we sprayed each other with hoses. We had our own little carnival- Luna and I were doing face painting. I made two girls into cats, a boy into a tiger, and another boy into a lizard. I also painted abstract designs on Hobbes’ and Maxx’s faces. After dinner there was Fairy Ring and I volunteered to be a fairy. Several of us hid in the bushes and when the kids came near we giggled and talked like fairies and answered all their questions about fairy life.
I went to bed early for a change. It felt good at the end of the day to be sore and sunburnt and paint speckled. I’d been really living. The next day Teriyaki and I cleaned out the recycling shed and drove Magdalena the truck three times to the center. I loved cruising down the empty roads, past farms and fields, laughing and talking with her, the wind blowing my hair all around. Sorting through all the material, I felt proud that I knew what goes where and missed my recycling job back in Chico. Three more weeks of camp, then back home.
Scott and I had made plans to spend my day off together at the end of the week. He arrived as I sat on the beach a couple hours after all the kids had left. He walked towards me carefully and I walked towards him. Our words slid off each other and hovered in the air, useless. We touched each other delicately, without purpose. Whatever it was we had to say was not said. We took a nap in the treehouse. When we awoke, we left. We drove to Bellingham. We ate some dinner on a bench. We stumbled into a coffee shop and listened with delight to an eccentric political folk duo from Pennsylvania. We went to a small theater and saw The Believer. We made music with the bike rack. We gazed at the moon from the side of the road. We remembered things. That night we had another intense discussion about our relationship that felt more like a solid break up than any other talk we’d had. I could feel my heart moving father away from him and closer to Nate.
The next day was off- skewed. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I just wanted to leave. We left. We drove. We passed La Conner and Anacortes, and after much driving we found ourselves in Deception Pass State Park, on a beach eating mangos. We lay in the sand and discussed our views on direct action. The sun was blinding. I felt like a silly human with no purpose.
We thought we should find a place to sleep. We didn’t want to pay for a campsite so we drove down the roads looking for a place to park so we could camp in the wilderness somewhere. We found nothing. We didn’t know what to do. Scott was sick of driving. He was getting cranky and didn’t want to be the one making decisions. We decided to go back to Camp Kirby. We made a fire in Teepee Town, ate salad and sandwiches and oysters from the beach. Things felt better. We slept in a teepee in separate cots. In the morning he woke me up as he was leaving. He told me he lay in the darkness of early morning suddenly recognizing feelings of rejection. He felt wounded. He’d felt the same way in the car yesterday but was disregarding his feelings and trying to think them through and analyze the situation- something he always does instead of trusting and feeling his emotions. He told me this, then kissed me gently and left. I thought of the days when Scott was a harmless friend and longed for that.
Another week of twelve year olds. One night I built a fire in the Hi-Tor lodge because everyone was just running around crazy and there was so much boy/girl drama that I wanted something that would get them all in one place and calm them down. The odd thing though- Turbo and Maxx were going through some kind of drama themselves. I accidentally walked in on them having an emotional discussion and Maxx was crying. And this discussion continued off and on throughout the evening. I was sitting there on the bench outside the lodge, calmly making a friendship bracelet and humming Leon Russell, watching the odd, absurd drama unfold. Girls scowling and pissed off, girls crying, boys slamming doors, boys apologizing, boys and girls discussing, girls and boys laughing and pushing each other- and in the midst of it all Maxx stormed off down the road teary-eyed, and Turbo sat beside me wearily, also red-eyed, staring ahead blankly. We were no different from them.
Later that night Maxx, Turbo, Water Rat, Teriyaki and I huddled in the dark lodge in front of the glowing fire. Water Rat told stories about river rafting, about places with 20 foot waves and they’d just smash you down, and the Arkansas river when it was flooding, with a level higher than anyone had ever seen it. We scared ourselves with stories of the white wolf that runs on its hind legs and once terrorized a cabin of Hi-Tor girls. Just like the kids we were still fascinated with fear and the dark, with beasts and spirits that lurked out there.
For some reason or another, that week the teenage group wasn’t going out to Saddlebag Island for their camp out. I think there was maybe one person who had a fear of boats so they all decided to do a forest camp out instead. So, because I had the next age group down and my kids that week were especially mature, Gravity offered the possibility that Maxx and I could take our kids to the island instead. We were excited at the idea, especially since we’d never been out there and this was our last chance to check it out. The kids were up for it too.
The trip there went smoothly. It was a warm, blue day and the bay was sparkling. With all of us paddling it was about a 40 minute trip. It was exciting to finally be on Saddlebag Island after almost a whole summer of seeing it across the bay. Once we arrived and set up camp, Maxx and I gave each other a small break. On my break I took a walk around the entire island which took about half an hour. It was interesting to be seeing Campy Kirby from a different perspective. We did our usual dinner of tacos cooked over the campfire and bedded down for the night.
The tricky part was the way back. The island had a little beach on the West side where we had arrived the previous day with no problems. But as we tried to get our canoes back out into the water, we were met repeatedly with large waves that pushed our boats back to shore. It was frightening to wait for a lull between waves and push the boat out, only to collide with an oncoming wave that splashed over the side and drenched everyone on board. We tried over and over again to get past the waves and into calmer waters but kept failing. Finally a couple in a speed boat saw us and roped our boat to theirs, pulling us out to where we could paddle on our own. We were so relieved to be past the waves, but we had some water in the boat. I figured it wouldn’t make much of a difference but the girls were completely freaked out and thought we were going to sink. Marissa was almost hysterical because she was on her period and wearing a pad, and sitting in a couple inches of water. I tried to let everyone know we were going to be fine, but no one quite believed me. We paddled as fast as we could with a fearful determination, frantic to be back on land as soon as possible. Rebecca, the camper who was there all summer, was doing a much better job than me of trying to keep spirits up. “C’mon, everyone! We got this! We’re almost there! We’re gonna make it!” She kept chanting, “1, 2, 3, 4! 1, 2 ,3, 4!” To keep us all paddling in sync.
When we got to shore, we all cheered wildly and jumped out, pulling the canoe up onto land. I was surprised to see Rebecca collapse with fatigue, sobbing. I suddenly understood what she had gone through to hold us all together and now that we were safe, it was ok for her to fall apart. I had so much admiration for her in that moment, and from her I learned a great deal about what it meant to be a leader.
It was the last day off before my last week of camp. Scott showed up at Tayito as I was watching a movie. We went outside and sat on a log on the beach and talked, watching the evening sky darken. Then we went over to Shuta to see if Hollywood was painting, which she was, and she invited us to join her. I was grateful we were offered this form of interaction- creating together, not obligated to make conversation, expressing ourselves quietly and contentedly, eating popcorn and cantaloupe. Our painting turned out very beautiful, I thought. Soon after I started painting I ditched the brush and went to fingers, enjoying the smears and watery blending but really craving an intense depth of just black or just green, or I wanted to plunge my hands through the canvas, seize the floorboards with my dripping hands and rip the whole place apart, growling and laughing. Lately this had been a familiar craving, this drive to destroy, to fight against something, to wrestle and scream and come out bruised and muddy and gleeful.
When it got late we packed up the paints and headed to the treehouse, crawled into bed shivering. We talked in the dark for a long time, my hand placed lightly on his stomach. We both decided to avoid talking about our relationship and trying to make some sense of it and we stuck to topics that were deep and personal and humorous. I was glad that we could have a satisfying ending instead of leaving it awkward and uncomfortable. In the morning when he left we shared a good hug, loving but without longing, and he was gone. My last week was about to begin.
I knew it would be the week for realizing that it would never be like this again. I knew it as I re-entered the rowdy dining hall after going to the bathroom; I knew it as I talked with one of my kids as we descended the hill; I knew it as I stood on The Point at the very peak of high tide, facing the camp and water on each side of me- a sizzling metallic blue gently reflecting the dying pink of the sky, water choppy and crashing to my left, smooth ripples on the right, several kids around me inspecting rocks or tossing driftwood back into the bay or just gazing across the expanse.
I knew this as I sat on the blue bench outside the Hi-Tor lodge for night watch duty. Balou the CIT (Counselor In Training) sneezed inside as he lay on the bunk bed in the dark, radio on. Besides the muffled music the only sound was the constant collapsing of waves rustling softly below. All the cabins were quiet, though it was still fairly early. Everyone was pretty wiped out. I knew I was. That day we’d had swim checks, cleaned the bathroom, cleaned cabins, played four square and Mofia, went swimming, did archery, had outdoor living skills, did scramble and played cards in the lodge before bed. The next night we’d be on our camp out, and I was pretty sure the good old traditional camp out at Makualla should be cake compared to the Saddlebag fiasco. I was hoping that Erin and Natasha didn’t get homesick like the night before.
At the last Chapel when the rock was passed to me I held it tight and took a breath. Every week I had wished for things like, “I wish this week goes smoothly,” or, “I wish I could get ahold of Nate.” This time I felt the warm weight of the rock in my hands, and admired the evening light bathing everything in a golden glow. I looked around at all the kids and the other counselors that had over time come to feel essential to me. I thought about how I was on the verge of leaving and how I might never be back. “I wish to keep finding places like this,” I declared in my mind, and passed the rock on.
On the very last night there was a big staff banquet- fish tacos, ginger ale, blackberry pie. It was good to be with everyone, without the kids. After dinner there was a slide show in Tayito and Hollywood presented me with the You Rock because she admired how I conquered my fear of kids. Later there was a party at Hobbes’ house- I drank beer and talked with Hobbes and Brian, Night Owl and Light Speed, but we were all pretty wrecked and passed out early. Brian had given me a ride there and in the morning his right shoulder was in terrible pain from the night before when he was running from someone during a game of tag, slid on the gravel and rolled, landing on an old skiing injury. Brian was also supposed to be my ride to Portland so I could catch a Greyhound to Eugene but suddenly our plans were shaky, seeing as he could barely shift gears. But we stopped by a friend’s house on the way back to camp and he picked up some pain reliever (ganja) and some coffee and we made our slow way back. He was managing most of the gears except for fifth, which was impossible. So whenever he needed to shift into fifth he would let me know and I would do it for him. He tried to hide the intense sharp pain he was suffering. I tried to remain calm and patient but I was racing inside with a restlessness to get going- I still hadn’t packed my stuff or cleaned out the treehouse cabins. When we got back, some people hadn’t left yet, to my relief. I was able to have really great goodbyes with Turbo, Hollywood, Maxx, Luna, and Feika. I packed up my junk, cleaned out the cabins in record time, said goodbye to Gravity, got my paycheck, helped Brian load up his stuff, and we took off around 3:00. We drove for a few hours, down Whidbey Island and witnessed some amazing fog, took the ferry to Port Townsend, picked up some food at a grocery store. We feasted on olive bread and hummus, plums and broccoli- so luscious, neither of us had eaten anything all day. After the sun set, we made it to La Push, and fell asleep immediately in Brian’s camper.
In the morning we hiked down to the beach, a place Brian had often gone as a kid. We watched the crazy waves fold over themselves and spread around the huge rock islands of strange shapes, with odd mini-forests of pine trees jutting from the tops. After driving a few more hours down the coast, we spent some time by a river in the Hoh rainforest. While Brian fished, I napped in the sun.
His arm felt a lot better the second day- I didn’t have to shift into fifth gear anymore, and he wasn’t wincing in pain so often. In Hoquiem we picked up some ice cream and I tried getting ahold of Nate with no luck. I’d talked with Nate about a week before and made plans to see him in Eugene on my way back to Chico. I was jittery with excitement about seeing him and happy that I’d gotten Scott out of my system so I could go back to focusing on Nate. In Portland Brian dropped me off in the parking lot of the bus station. Our last minutes together we spent in his camper, swigging wine and cracking up, hugging and well wishing. I got a picture of him sitting up in the bed, wine bottle in one hand and home rolled cigarette in the other, no shirt and grinning like he’d found his own personal heaven.
On the bus I thought of Nate waiting for me, only a couple hours away. I thought of Brian, with his parents in Yakima. I thought of my family, my mom in Ramona and my dad and sister in San Diego. I thought of everyone in Chico and its darkened streets, of Scott asleep in Everett. I arrived in Eugene around 3:30 am. The station was closed and I didn’t see Nate. I sleepily waited to use the pay phone, wondering what I would do if I couldn’t get ahold of him. And then he was there- head down, hands in pockets, sauntering towards me. I couldn’t comprehend him in my arms. We held each other and talked in his car in the parking lot and then drove to the Campbell Club. Nate stayed there whenever he spent a day or two in town, which was a huge house with four floors, like a hostel where travelers could stay and pay a small fee.
The next day we hung out around town, had coffee at Out of the Fog, and I saw the Cascade Forest Defenders office where I had left messages all summer. I developed some film, then we ate dinner at a restaurant. The day after that we ran some errands, checked out some hot springs, then drove to Fall Creek to meet up with some of Nate’s friends who were camping out there doing red tree vole searches. We got really lost on the crazy unmarked twisty logging roads and we drove around in the dark for hours. Finally we gave up and parked in an exposed rock quarry where the light of the full moon just spilled out over everything and hazy mountain ranges sprawled out as far as we could see. It was so utterly still and perfectly silent- just a blanket of nothing. Once we heard an owl faintly hooting. Other than that, just our soft voices as we filled our famished bellies with navy bean soup. And then to a much needed sleep in the back of the truck, wrapped warm in sleeping bags. The next morning in the light of day we found the camp easily, and I met Indie, Sap, Sparrow, Voice, and their slew of hyper dogs. I noticed Nate’s crew liked to pick camp names too. Sparrow had just found an inactive vole nest and Indie found an active nest. They were all very excited.
I was dismayed that by the second day, Nate and I had fallen into our usual patterns of behaving around each other and I was already getting annoyed by the way he was always teaching me how to do things. “Please trust me that I know what I’m doing!” I would plead. “And if I don’t, I will figure it out!” He would apologize and try not to do it, but he often did it without noticing. Being in Eugene I felt like I was just a visitor in Nate’s life, not really a part of it. Already I was missing Camp Kirby and the community I had left behind.
Back in Chico I was in a new house, a new semester at Chico State. Back to my recycling job. It took me a while to transition, to feel present. Every night I was having dreams of camp- my friends there, or surrounded by screaming kids or waiting in front of the lodge or watching the water and thinking in amazement, “I’m still here??” Most of me was still there.
In the evenings I would sit on the porch and try to make sense of my life. What had I just done? Who was I now? Where was my heart? What had I learned from my relationship with Scott? Should Nate and I keep trying? I had a lot of unanswered questions, but I knew one thing: I had created a new entity.
I had created Milo.
An unexpected couple of things happened as a result of that summer: One of the things was that Scott and I weren’t over. We’d parted ways in Chico, then had a very lovely goodbye in my treehouse at the end of the summer, but it turned out that saying goodbye became kind of our thing. After his plans for Central America fell through, he ended up back in Chico a month after I’d returned from Camp Kirby. Our relationship had something of a restart and the tension and disconnect we’d experienced in Washington seemed like a bad dream. The Nate/Scott/Serra triangle continued for a few months, although I could feel Nate and I losing our grip on each other. It was the beginning of the end for us. Not long after that summer he left Chico for good, moving up to Ashland, Oregon. Our romantic relationship had ended but we remain friends to this day.
Scott and I said goodbye again when he left on a long bike trip and then reunited months later when he joined Diana and I on a bike trip we were taking down Baja. In Baja we again said goodbye when Diana and I headed back to Chico and Scott continued biking through Mexico for the following year. We reunited again when Scott returned and stayed for a week with me and my mom in Ramona, where I was visiting for winter break. Again, a goodbye, when he left to visit Tim and his nieces in Everett. The last time I saw him was in Chico a while later- by that time I was 22 and a year away from meeting Benny, the boy I would eventually marry.
Another thing that happened was that summer became the first in a summer job trilogy that really helped turn me into the kind of person I wanted to be. The year after Camp Kirby I went to work at a truck stop in a remote area of Alaska for the summer. The following year I worked at the Campy Curry coffee shop in the Yosemite valley. The experiences I had from those three summers solidified me into a competent, adventurous, independent person. I once heard the phrase, “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” When I think of that lonely 16 year old girl brooding in her bedroom, I’m proud of the person I’ve become and the risks I’ve taken. And I treasure every person I’ve met on my adventures. After the summer at Camp Kirby, Cassandra and Brian and I wrote a few letters back and forth but I never saw them again. But it’s ok- I let myself be changed by them, said thank you, and moved on.
One week ago I landed my dream job. After years of thinking about going to hair school, and then actually going to hair school, and then passing the licensing test, I got an interview at my top choice of salons in the city and was hired after performing a “technical”- basically a hair audition where I had to demonstrate my knowledge of some different services on actual people. Great! This is all happening! Just like I planned! Incredible! And then I thought, Oh shit, here we go…
I had one brief day of training where I just met the manager and we chatted about hair products and whatever else. The next day I had my first real shift. I had mentioned to my manager that color and bleaching services were my weak area and he promised he’d just have me do haircuts for the first few weeks until I learned more about color. So imagine my surprise when my one client for the day was booked as a “bleach/tone/haircut/style.” Way to kick things off. My client walked in, a tall and spindly man in his 40’s with shoulder length bleach blond wavy hair with about five inches of grow out. With the discreet help of one of my coworkers, I mixed up some bleach and painted his roots. After that processed I washed it out, toned it to a pale silver, gave him a trim and some layers, dried it, and flat ironed it as per request. He was out of there in three hours, glamourous and satisfied. Afterwards I felt wrecked but proud, amazed at myself. I had not for a moment let myself dwell on the possibility of failure and it was only later that I realized that I had actually never done that particular service before at school. I felt extremely lucky that it had gone well.
The next day I got to work and looked at the schedule. I had six clients for the day- one long cut and five short cuts. Phew! No color. The long cut was tricky because her hair was very long, thick, and tangled and I spent about 20 minutes detangling it. I had to be fast because I had one hour to cut her hair and then my next client was coming in. I finally managed to brush it, trim it, throw some layers in it with my feather razor, and blow dry it before my next client.
Next up was a nice older man whose wife had been pressuring him to get a haircut before their vacation. After his haircut I had five minutes before my next client, a man who was pleasant but nit picky about his hair because it was thinning on top and he was about to leave for a friend’s wedding. Next I had an 11 year old boy who told me he wanted his hair short all over but leave some bangs, which I thought was weird because he had a very short forehead. I kept looking to his dad on the bench for input, who was completely uninvolved. When I was done his dad looked at him and all he said was, “You sure you want your sideburns like that?”
My next client was a tall man in his 30’s with thick sandy hair. I had to have him slouch so that I could cut the hair on top of his head. My arms were tired from having to reach so high. My last client of the day was a guy who had a buzz cut on the back and sides and about nine inches of hair on top. He just wanted me to shave the short parts and take about half the length off the top- easy. But when he asked me to put in a clean part with my trimmers (in a U shape!) I hesitated then said, “Honestly I’m pretty new at this and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it perfectly, and I really don’t want to screw up your hair.” He said, “Oh…ok. Thanks.”
Every haircut I’d done that day, I felt like I was making it up as I went along and I was truly surprised each time when it turned out looking okay. It seemed like I’d been blessed with some amazing luck that might run out at any moment. Driving home that night through the wild streets of NW Portland and speeding along rushing freeways, I felt lonely and disoriented, homesick, thinking how incredible it was that at the end of my journey there was a sweet warm family waiting for me.
Yes, I felt proud of myself for getting through a challenging day but the bigger feeling was one of doubt, of inadequacy. I knew I had done a decent job, of course it was hard- it was only my second day. But I couldn’t shake the nauseating feeling of being not good enough. I felt like I was cowering in the giant wave of all the years of practice that it’s going to take to feel like I have a handle on this.
I don’t have good tools yet, just the basic stuff they give you in school. I’m not tall enough to cut hair comfortably, I have to strain and tiptoe through every cut. I’m older than my coworkers and yet have so much more to learn. And most of all, this isn’t school anymore. It’s not a delightful surprise that I have some talent- it’s expected. I have an intuitive sense about hair but my technique is still so lacking, especially because a lot of what I learned in school is not how it’s done in salons.
I felt seized by a sickening dread, the thought that I was going to have to go back there the next day and do it all over again. But this is my dream job, this is what I’ve been striving for all these years. It’s finally here! So why am I filled with dread? Suddenly I realized, it’s because I want this so much that I’m dreading it. Because I know I have to continue, I have to go through with it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. In the past, starting a new job has always been difficult but I have a mantra I can usually fall back on to lessen the anxiety: “This doesn’t really matter to me.” There’s always a nice little buffer of detachment, keeping my real self slightly separate so that I don’t have to care too much. I noticed myself start to do that with this job and I had to stop and say, “Uh oh. This does matter to me. I do care about it. I have to, hokey pokey style, put my whole self in.” This is a hard thing, and I can’t not do it. I have to follow through.
And then I realized that people all over the world since the dawn of humanity have had to face this, often to a much more drastic degree. The Native American going through a coming of age ritual. The actor starring in his first stage play. The doctor performing her first surgery. The new kid starting Freshman year in a different country. The professor teaching her first college course. Your education and training can often take you only so far, after that you just have to take the leap and embrace the crushing discomfort at being a beginner, at the bottom with so much mountain to climb.
After two days at my dream job I felt so envious of my past self, the one who just worked at Guero and spent time with her family and barely left her neighborhood. “Why would I ever leave that comfort to pursue this difficult thing??” I couldn’t imagine. Oh yeah, because I love it. Because I want to grow. Because part of being an alive human is pursuing challenges, strengthening the weak parts of yourself. Is that what they call “grit”? That ability to get through something tough, to come out stronger and smarter. To know that it will get easier. To realize that it’s the most cowardly part of you that resists growth and change- the fear of the unknown stiffening your reach, slowing your feet, closing your eyes.
Then I heard another voice gradually become louder. “How cool, you don’t know that much! That means you get to learn all this new stuff! That means you get to experience that amazing feeling of growing and changing every day of your life! That means your senses are alert and you get to stay young and you won’t get all dry and stale from not taking any risks! Savor the tender, raw delicacy of it! Savor your ignorance, your fresh wonder! The world is cracking open for you, let it crack you with it! Be broken! Be lost! Don’t be in such a hurry to find yourself! Be curious! Be unpredictable! Be open to possibility! We’re all babies in some way or another! Be a baby! Be proud to be a baby!” This is what the wise old Buddhist in me shouts.
March 22, 2020. It was a week since I’d lost my job at Guero. Five days since my school had closed. Two days since Mina’s school closed. I felt stunned, disoriented, reeling. After seven months of being incredibly busy in a tiring but fulfilling kind of way, steadily plowing my way through Cosmetology school to get my haircutting license and working two to three days a week, I was suddenly back to being a stay at home mom. But this time it was much more challenging because, 1. Even during my stay at home mom years I’ve always had a part time job that I can escape to, 2. No libraries, 3. No playgrounds, 4. No OMSI or Children’s Museum, 5. No trips, apparently? and 6. NO PLAYDATES!!! I was trapped at home with my kid, indefinitely, with nowhere to go. How long was this going to last?? Why hadn’t I made her some siblings?? Why did we not have a backyard??
I knew that now my days would be now be filled with Mina: playing with her, reading to her, coming up with craft projects, taking her to the park (but dear god, not the playground), building with Legos, getting something educational in there somewhere- and then just regular stuff like making meals, housework, and other chores. I knew I was going to need something to keep my independent, creative self alive.
I had already been thinking about doing a collage a day since I spent February committing to a write-every-day challenge. I wondered if I could still find time to write if I was doing a collage a day, and it seemed unlikely that I could do both, with my busy schedule. But now that I was quarantined it seemed a good a time as any to start a creative endeavor.
I decided to make it real easy on myself. I chose a small spiral bound sketchbook to make collages in. I kept a cardboard box filled with scraps and magazines, tape and glue, by the kitchen table. “I will make a collage every day until quarantine is over,” I said to myself. And I began.
I found that I tended to do my collage in the late morning, in the hour before lunch. After Mina and I had played or read books for a few hours, we would get dressed and then have art time. I tried to include Mina on the first few collage sessions but she lost interest pretty quickly. I decided that my collage time could be her educational video time. I made this collage while she was watching a video on tornados. I included the line, “even whole houses can get blown away.”
I wasn’t trying to make collage about the experience of being quarantined during a pandemic, but sometimes my reality was very evident in the finished piece.
Sometimes I would create a collage that I consider a “breakthrough” piece. These would happen when I was in a specific state of mind. I had to be relaxed, open, aware. I had to be willing to be patient with it, letting it come together in the right way when it was ready. This one I made when I was alone in the room, Mina and Benny playing video games upstairs. That was when I knew I couldn’t do these collages with my family around me; I needed to remove myself for the hour I was making art.
But apparently it took me almost another week to take action. This was the first collage I made at my art desk, with the specific intention of staying there, focused and uninterrupted, until I was done. Sometimes I would get help watching Mina from my mom or from Benny who by this time was working from home. So I was able to extract myself and say, “I’m going to go make my collage. Bye!”
Collage became my meditation. For one hour a day I would commit to be being present with shapes and color and images, and present with myself. I would listen to the subtlest of impulses, connect deep in the hopes of making something true. I would turn off my thinking by listening to a podcast, keeping my left brain occupied. I would dip down into my subconscious.
This is another one that I consider a breakthrough piece. I had been looking for how to make a collage simpler, with less elements, and still feel complete. This one felt like it was on another level. By using the discarded element from a previous collage, I had created an external frame and also an internal frame using negative space. This one also has an echo of another technique I discovered later on- collaging on top of photos.
Breakthroughs were rare, though. Most days my collages came out fine- not great, not bad. Not that I was necessarily in it to make “good” art, because I don’t even know what that means, but I was looking for something specific in the process and outcome- I was searching for harmony between elements, evidence that I had been present with the art and in touch with my intuition. Once in a while I made a collage that I almost hated, the result of feeling rushed or uninspired. This is my least favorite collage. I almost can’t even look at it.
This is another one that clearly conveys how I was feeling at the time without specifically intending to. I felt lonely, missing friends, sensing that other people were getting together for “distance hangs” but I was home with my family like always.
I kept looking for ways to make the collages simpler. I had started following other collage artists on Instagram and I noticed I was drawn to collages with a lot of space. Minimalism. I wanted to let it breathe, be calm and gentle. This one is one of my favorites. It was one of the few where I started out with an image in my head, of a hand reaching out and zapping something. I’d had sort of an electrifying day and it came out in the collage. What a thrilling moment when I was flipping through my magazines looking for the right kind of hand and there it was. I almost never look for a specific image. I’m not sure what led me to this impulse but one day I grabbed one of the old black and white photos I have in my scrap box and decided to collage over it. I’ve had these photos around forever and they always seemed too special to use. On this day I thought, “to hell with it. You’re going in.” I also kept getting a mental picture of a wrapped up package, something bundled and contained. I kept thinking about a pen pal my mom used to have when I was a teenager, who would send incredible collaged mail art, covered in green tape and string and had packages contained inside other packages to the point where unwrapping it was a long and strange process.
This one was fun. It was so gratifying to make a teeny tiny collage- it’s only about 2 by 3 inches. And then I had some nice little scraps left over. One of my favorites in the photo series. The colors have kind of a tropical feel to them. Silent and bold is an interesting combination. Back to the impulse to wrap something up, mail art style. There’s still a photo in there behind everything. After thinking more about this desire to package something, I realized there is some symbolism there- in quarantine, you’re contained, enclosed, your edges defined. And of course packages are even more a thing these days- getting your groceries delivered, buying things you need online, and hopefully, exchanging letters with friends. This is the house where Walt Whitman grew up. I like the earthy colors in this one. I had a little trouble covering up the woman’s face in this photo, so I compromised by letting her body show. I like how when her face is covered her body becomes almost an abstract shape. For a while I was just using the photo technique for the purpose of having a frame, a focal point. But at this point I started using more of the photo image. Then came George Floyd and the wave of protests against police violence and systemic racism. These issues were on my mind when I made these collages.
On June first my hair school reopened, with many new guidelines and restrictions. I started going back to school three days a week. By that point I had been making a daily collage for ten weeks. Quarantine still wasn’t over so it didn’t feel right to end the project but I decided to cut down to four collages a week, one for every day I wasn’t in school. My new vow was, “I will keep making collages until it no longer feels necessary.” Lately I’ve been doing one of my favorite things- making a big collage and cutting it up into smaller collages. I wanted to make some postcards to mail to friends so I did this one day and then couldn’t stop. It felt like a relief, after all that careful arranging of images in a harmonious composition, to just glue everything down haphazardly and then cut it up into satisfying and simple mini collages. This is the most recent one I’ve made. All my life art has been a fun hobby; this was the first time I felt like art really saved me. My daily collage practice has been a life raft and an anchor- keeping me above water and also tethering me to a spot so I don’t float away. In such a time of shifting realities and ever changing facts, explosive change and toppling systems, I needed this one consistent thing. A small chunk of time that I could look forward to every day, a space that was just mine, where I didn’t need to do anything but flip through magazines, cut out pictures, glue, tape, paint, breathe. And then sharing the image online made me feel somewhat connected to others, in a time when I felt so distant.
My collage practice has been feeling less necessary. I have places to be now, reasons to be outside the house and interacting with people other than my family. Times are still chaotic and uncertain, but I’m feeling the pull towards something else to keep me well- after all this sitting still my body wants to move. I need to make more time for yoga and exercise, so that will be my new phase of daily practice.
You can see all the collages on my website Serra’s Art Site Click on the tab titled Collages.
I love a good daily creative practice. I recently started a daily collage challenge, to continue until the end of quarantine. It’s only the fourth day, but I already feel like my love of collage has been rekindled. And as I was making these I realized that I’ve been a collage artist since childhood and in these past 30 years I’ve accumulated a good mix of techniques and tips for getting the most out of a collage experience. And I’d love to share those with ya’ll!
Paint the background first. This is one way to just get started and defeat the intimidating blank page. You might end up covering the whole background with your collage or it might show through.
Draw a shape, then collage inside of it. This is a relaxing way to collage, it’s like coloring in a coloring book. Just fill the shape, la la la. It can produce some surprising results. It’s also satisfying to see the chaos contained in this way.
Cut something out, then flip it. Displays a predictable form in a surprising and surreal way.
Layering. I would argue that layering is essential to collage. Ways to do this are using translucent paper or transparencies, tissue paper, netting, watered down paint, etc. My favorite technique is using (usually white) watercolor or watery acrylic paint on top of the collage when I’m done, allowing some images to come through more vivid, and some more subdued. It also gives the whole shebang a nice cohesiveness. It really ties the room together.
Try different ways of cutting. Fringe, weaving, confetti, open a window.
Find your focus, then work around it. Find one image that speaks to you, that you know is a necessary component. Let everything else support it.
Find a starting point, then discard it. Sometimes an image pulls you in and then later becomes unnecessary. Nothing is sacred. Let it fall away if it’s holding you back.
Consider your composition. Pretend you are a chef in a fancy restaurant. The plating is as important as the flavor of the meal. Make it exquisite.
Images of people and text: use with caution. A person or a sentence included in your collage can be distracting. It can become the focus and overwhelm the overall feel and meaning of the collage. Since I gravitate towards abstract collage, I don’t want to be telling the viewer what it’s about. I want it to be open to interpretation. Which leads me to:
Try not to “say something” with your collage. Let it speak to you. Your collage will show you what it’s about, if anything. When you’re stuck, ask the collage what it needs. Usually it will tell you.
Stay connected to yourintuition. Wait for that internal click that lets you know things are how to want them. Listen for the “no, no, no, no, YES.”
Don’t just look for images. Also collect colors, textures, words, shapes.
When you do choose an image, don’t always cut along its outline. You can also just use a piece of the image.
Let it breathe. Allow for space.
Use a variety of materials. Go beyond magazine pages and use different kinds of paper, pages from old books, discarded art, photos, scraps, trash.
Places to get good materials: thrift stores, used bookstores, re-use stores like SCRAP, yard sales. My favorite resource is old National Geographics, especially ones from 1930-1970. These can be hard to find and expensive, but they’re collage gold.
You may have impulses you don’t understand or even agree with. Go with it. Let it be weird. Let it be ugly, uncomfortable, let it be beautiful. Try not to get in the way.
Okay! Now I want to show you my process for the collage I did today:
Here’s the page I started with. I painted this on a different day so it was already dry.
I was really drawn to this page of the blurry pink stuff, so I cut a few shapes from it to see how it looked against the background.
Since I had some woven pieces I’d made for this demo, I tossed that on to see how I liked it.
Pretty cool! But it was getting pretty geometric and sharp. I need something round in there to balance it out.
Not bad, not bad. But not quite there yet. Suddenly, I came across this nest.
Oh yeahhhhh. That felt really right. Plus the woven sticks in the nest paralleled the woven collage bits. I’m cookin now.
Once you have things more or less how you want them, start gluing. Don’t wait until things are perfect to glue because you’re going to have to disrupt everything anyway to get the glue underneath.
After I glued it down I went over it with some subtle blotches of watercolor, and of course some splatter paint because why not.
A couple of final touches and it’s done. I often like to add fragmented words that you can barely read, I think it adds a nice texture.
And there it is. I think I spent maybe 30 minutes on this one. Quick and easy. I don’t usually name my collages but I named this one “Exploding Nest.”
Well, I hope this inspired you to get into collage!
One month ago I vowed two things: I would not look at social media for a month and I would write everyday. I did this because of Austin Kleon’s “29 Day Challenge” for February. Austin Kleon is an artist and author of some great books, including “Steal Like An Artist” and “Keep Going.” My mom printed out four copies of the chart and we all chose a thing we would do for every day of February.
I knew immediately that I wanted to give up Facebook and Instagram for a month. I don’t like the way that I compulsively check my phone and sometimes spend more time than I want to mindlessly scrolling. I wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t have a reason to spend a lot of time on my phone. But I also knew I didn’t want to just take something away; I needed to add something too. I was struggling with writing a memoir and I was only sitting down once a week or two to tackle it. I decided to choose writing to replace my phone addiction.
I don’t have a lot of time in my day so I realized I would have to make some time to write. I often fall asleep when I’m putting Mina to bed at 9:00 so I decided to wake up at 5:00 every morning (except for twice a week when I work late the night before). That gave me almost two extra hours a day.
I predicted that I would write more, read more, be more present, feel more grounded and alive. That all came true but to an even deeper extent than I expected. I also thought I would stop wanting to check social media about two weeks in. I was wrong- I never lost my urge to check Instagram and often I would pick up my phone to check my email and then I would just Google dumb stuff or look up images of cute celebrities. Apparently there’s a part of me that just needs a mindless escape. I wish that weren’t the case. I was surprised that I still spent some much time on my phone even when there was nothing to do on it.
Another thing that surprised me was how much I wrote. I gave myself permission to only write one sentence if I didn’t have time that day or if I was feeling uninspired. But writing every day became its own addiction and I always had a lot to write. After a week I started to effortlessly fill pages when at first I would lose steam after a paragraph or two. The act of writing, of spending regular time with my journal in the quiet of the morning, was satisfying in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.
Here are some excerpts from my journal during that month.
A girl walks by in a long hot pink coat, sleeping bag-like, with yellow hoodie underneath, tote bag and blond hair piled in a bun on top of her head. I think, maybe someday I can wear my hair like that. I’m starting to make the movement of tucking my hair behind my ears.
Woke up early this morning and read “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp where she talks about routine and daily practice. I miss social media but also not. Without it there’s a lot more time in my day.
The other day at work Ben picked me up, just lifted me into the air when I went in for a hand shake, he moved towards me and swooped under my arm and I was up above everything, surprising me and him in a way that felt like a tear in the space time continuum, like a portal to another reality had opened. I didn’t realize it was a possibility to be picked up like that. I don’t think it’s ever happened to me before.
Opening the curtains this morning with Mina she looks outside at the dark and gray rain (how it’s been for the last few months) and exclaims, “A beautiful summer day!” “Indeed!” I reply. “Not a cloud in the sky!” And we both collapse with laughter.
I was talking to Emma last night at work about writing my memoir and I said how it’s been hard to write anything of apparent value. I said I feel like I have to have some new experiences to help me connect with the old memories. When I sit down at the computer and try to write with my brain it just feels flat and dry- I need to get moving, be outside, be in touch with my senses. I don’t want my brain to write the memoir,
“I want my body to write it, through my brain.”
She looked a little confused when I said that but it struck me that, that’s it. That’s what I want to do, whatever that means.
I picture myself alone in the woods for a week, maybe in a cabin by the coast. Hiking every day, drinking fresh stream water, eating wild mint, scribbling nonsense.
Or walking the bouldered hills around Ramona, inhaling sage and dust, getting scraped up by scrub oak, remembering the land I grew up on.
Or spending a day by the creek in Chico, watching the emerald water glide over stones and feeling the life I lived there.
Jumping into a mosh pit, playing the songs I wrote as a teenager, walking the streets of SF, Seattle, San Diego, Eugene.
The body remembers what the mind forgets.
I feel juicy with energy from the past. Last night I found myself playing old songs I wrote on the guitar: Mr. Friday Night, Vintage Life, Plum Folly, etc. At The Station, which always makes Benny tear up.
Today I just want to bust out old journals, type up excerpts. I’m always unsure how to use journals, whether to take directly from them or just as a trigger, a prompt, a fact checker.
I like this, this writing every day. Scarfing down broccoli pasta after yoga and Zumba, felt so good on my body. When I exercise I often think of it as time away from my real priorities, art and writing and music- but I thought today of how I want to move my body as a way of reconnecting to the past, a way of tuning in to the writing. Taking care of my body serves the art.
I feel relaxed, centered, clean, fresh, open to deep breaths. The sun is out. Spring seems close by.
I observed the feet of the man in front of me in yoga. He was about 60. His feet were clean, smooth, dry. His skin had that shiny quality that I recognize from my mom’s feet, maybe’ dad’s too. Worn smooth from age and use, like a river stone.
Sitting by the fire, cold feet, dressed in black, full of Thai food. Mina humming “Eleanor Rigby.” Benny making a buck-toothed LEGO creature. Reading Twyla Tharp I’m jealous of her commitment to creativity and the assuredness in her life’s work. Her willingness to work tirelessly.
My early morning time was a bit thwarted today- I had a bad dream, the first one in a while, the kind that make you jolt awake and your whole body is tingling. My mind dwelled on it for a while until my silent 5:00 am alarm went off (just vibration) and as I reached to turn it off I saw Mina’s little head up and looking for me, she had had a bad dream too.
I cuddled her and told her a story of a beautiful baby dragon who could sing and the five year old girl who befriended her. She fell back asleep but just as I was about to get up Mochi strutted into the room yowling, stepped all over Mina and stood on my stomach. Eventually I got up and it’s worth it for this, just these few previous minutes.
I keep wondering how to make the memoir smaller and more manageable, or how to give it a “spine,” as Twyla says. An original driving idea that you can come back to when you feel lost. Not the story, not the theme, but the secret scaffolding that gave it its original structure.
I keep thinking I need a retreat, time away from my real life to loosen up my brain and get weird. I kind of want “get weird” to be the motto of writing this memoir, since Jenny Slate’s weird writing was what inspired me. She was in my dream the other night- she had the same wallet as me, the vintage green one with the gold clasp. I thought it was an amazing coincidence, she didn’t think it was that unusual. What is a wallet? A way to carry your richness, what’s important to you. I thought mine was unique and original, she knew it wasn’t.
I slept hard last night, as if drugged. Lots of dreams. It was difficult to get up but I did after a couple hits of the snooze.
Yesterday I sent an email to old friends (Amy, Diana, Tyana, Emma, Cadence, Thomas) inviting them to a virtual writing group. I think that will help me with getting to some good stuff. We will write one 15 minute prompt per week and do short responses.
Hard to wake up this morning, my silent alarm was going off for a while before I heard it. I was dreaming of a dark wooden saloon, drunken men, guns, sex, a race for the bounty. A man named Loyal who was tricking them all by offering free drinks so he could find the money.
But even when I have trouble getting up I still do because I love this so much. This quiet alone time.
Fridge humming, green tea, the fire dancing behind glass, robe, slippers. I didn’t write in here yesterday but I did write a page of guidelines for the writing group that will start Monday. So far Amy and Cadence are for sure in, the others are less responsive but still interested I think.
Had a dream the other night that I was taking care of someone’s baby. I took it to a tattoo shop and got it a neck tattoo- a pair of fanged jaws with the word FANGZ (our friend Alex’s artist persona). Immediately after I was horrified at what I’d done. Now this baby was going to have an ugly neck tattoo her whole life! When the mom returned she was appalled. “Is this a real tattoo?!” “Yes, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Later in the dream I was getting a back tattoo, a huge pastel colored skull, delicately shaded with a lot of detail. Mark Ryden comes to mind. The tattoo artist said it should have some kind of phrase or mantra with it but we couldn’t think of one.
“Maybe you could just put ‘Party on Wayne’ and ‘Party on Garth’ somewhere in there,” I told her.
Why these vivid tattoo dreams? A tattoo is a permanent mark, a label, a visual manifesto of one’s identity. I labeled a baby (new life, project, endeavor, adventure) but it wasn’t mine to label. My own tattoo was bigger than expected, beautiful. I was worried about the cost. I didn’t know if I wanted words with it. Funny, since I’m so into words these days.
Wow. Been reading this incredible book called “The Wander Society.” All about a group of people who have made wandering a kind of spiritual practice, a way to be present and aware and open to the magic of all things. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about with my writing- I keep feeling like I need to get up and move, be outside, connect to nature, and that will lead me to insights about my writing. I had the sense that if I get more in touch with the present it will help me write about the past.
I’m honestly not quite sure how to fit more wandering into my life but now that I’m aware of it I can look for spaces in my day to wander. In the book they say you can even wander sitting still because it’s more of a mindset, an openness, an observational quality. They encourage you to allow yourself to be bored. This also coincides with my efforts to use my phone less.
I might have some time to wander today. I’m skipping school to go to a haircut demo hosted by Bishops. So maybe I’ll get to that neighborhood early (Alberta) and wander around.
Windy outside- it will be another sunny windy day. I breathe deep, feeling alive. I can already feel my feet moving, my blood pumping. Wandering gives you a reason to explore a street, a meadow, a bookstore. Sometimes I feel pulled to a place but think, I have no reason to be there. Now I do have a reason- to explore, to be curious, to be open, stray.
(Later, same day)
I’m at Proud Mary, a brunch spot on Alberta, a beautiful open space with cement, wood, plants, skylights, rough-textured ceramic bowls. I just ordered a cappuccino and sardine toast. The cappuccino is thick and bitter and incredible.
On the way here I listened to a This American Life episode on delight and it blew my mind in a similar way as the Wander Society book. There is a man who spent a year searching for delight, chronicled his daily delights, studied delight, went deep into his own delights and what delights him.
I thought, I could combine wandering with a mission to find delight, be open to whatever might delight me, and take note of it. Almost immediately I was delighted by several things:
A restaurant on Killingsworth called Ole Frijole, a concrete building painted an electric, sizzling red orange, intensified by the bright sun and blue sky behind it.
And on Alberta, a person crossing the street dressed entirely in yellow, even pale yellow round glasses, taking pictures of a bus stop.
And an adorable tiny pale green cottage by a bar. I tried to figure out what it was and all I saw was a sign in the window advertising Portland made kilts!
I love the idea of always being ready to notice, appreciate, welcome delight. I think sometimes I allow a flicker of delight but quickly move past it. I’d like to practice savoring delight, lingering in it. Feel deserving of it.
When my food came I closed my journal, I didn’t pull out my phone or a book. I was fully present with my meal, taking in the environment, eavesdropping on conversations. Being present and open and grateful is a state that’s been missing from my life for a while. It feels like my natural state, who I really am, and I’m happy to be finding my way back.
My wandering experiment turned out great. I felt so open and alive, allowing myself to be pulled by this or that, going into shops not to shop but to see what I might discover. I was more talkative with strangers, made more eye contact. Gave $1 to a woman who asked me if I could help her get something to eat. Signed someone’s petition. Let my gaze linger, paid attention to background music, let things be symbols. It was like I was in a new city, interested in everything. Or on mushrooms, open and ready for anything, ready to be affected, enlightened. I was vibrating. When I got to work Charlotte asked me how my day was and I said, “Oh my god. I had such a good day I feel like I’m on another level of consciousness.”
I have to tell you, twice lately I’ve been stunned by my own beauty. The other day when I was taking myself out to brunch and I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and then yesterday in the bathroom at school. My longer hair is just gorgeous- I love the curly wild texture, the darkness of it with hints of silver, the way it frames my face. And my face looked flushed, awake, sparkly, strong, mature, alive. My skin is healthy and pink. This has been a somewhat transformative month for me in general.
Yesterday when I walked Mina to school we tried to spot signs of Spring. “Daffodills! Sign of Spring!” “Cherry blossoms! Sign of Spring!” And then of course she made it funny- “Trash on the ground! Sign of Spring!” “Dog barking! Sign of Spring!”
Hi, it’s me. I’m here. It’s dark and quiet early morning and there’s Mochi purring on my lap and I hear a little rain outside. This is my last day of the write-every-day challenge and I know I will continue. But I can allow space for other things like visual art.
I feel tired, internally windswept. When my alarm went off at 5 I set a new one for 6 and tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t.
Wind makes the house crack. Mochi gets up. I don’t know what else to write. It’s probably time for another wander soon, somehow.
Hi, it’s me. I’m here. My eyes feel dry and bleary. My neck and shoulders are sore from 45 degree haircuts and shaking cocktails.
I’m here and I’ll keep being here, I’ll keep showing up. I’ve begun the long process of re-meeting myself, re-committing to a creative life. I have this, I have my mornings, I have my journal and my writing group and my wander society. Every day I will try to show up for myself however I can. I know that it pays off, I know that I need this. Even if it’s just to sit here in the still-dark and hear the sound of my own breath and say to myself, “Hi, hello. It’s me.”
It was a snowy Friday in February early this year, Mina had preschool that morning and Benny picked her up. He was unemployed after six years of working on stop-motion movies at Laika and was the main stay at home parent, receiving $400 a week in unemployment checks. That combined with my income from working four days a week at Guero was enough to live comfortably, and we’d been living that way for about nine months. By our calculations we still had three more months of unemployment checks, an amount of time that made us nervous but there was still hope of Benny finding something decent.
I was out running errands and found myself at Target picking out bedding for Mina, in hopes that if we made her bed more inviting it would be an incentive for her to actually sleep in it instead of with us in our bed. I selected a rainbow comforter and lightning bolt sheets and as I joked with the cashier I looked out the windows and admired the magical sight of falling snow. The snow is one reason I remember this scene so well; the other reason is because I was about to receive some shocking news- news that would make buying fun bedding seem terribly frivolous.
When I came home Benny approached me slowly in the living room. “My unemployment money has run out.” He was calm and serious when he told me and I responded calmly and slowly, letting it sink in. I waited for thoughts to come to me, options and ideas, and “okay then, we’ll just ____________.” They didn’t come. I didn’t know where to go from there. “Benny has no income.” The thought was on repeat. My stomach churned with panic. I felt like I was trapped against a wall, or falling down a hole.
I went to work. I felt so low and miserable and I couldn’t snap out of it. This was unusual for me- I’m so good at regulating my emotions, detaching or reasoning my way out of a bad feeling. I couldn’t do that with this, I couldn’t see any path out. We couldn’t just keep sitting around, waiting for Benny to be offered a job. We needed a plan, but what? Whenever we’re in a tough financial spot, Benny’s first thought is always, “We need to sell our house and get a cheaper place!” To me, making such a drastic move when you’re already on shaky ground seems crazy, but I didn’t know what else we could do. I started to think maybe he was right.
I got home late so Benny and I didn’t get a chance to talk. Moving through our dark and silent house I was struck with such gratitude and fondness for our home that offers us comfort and warmth and shelter. I was filled with sadness that maybe we would have to move out, unable to make the mortgage payments. Life at that moment seemed small and tight, locked up like my anxious chest. “Let us stay here please,” I found myself pleading in my head.
I opened at work the next morning, still feeling sad and queasy. Mario asked me, as he always does, “Como estas?” (How are you?)
“Mas o menos,” I said with a half smile. (More or less, meaning “good and bad.”)
“Por que?” (Why?)
“No dinero.” (No money)
When I said this he simultaneously threw his hands in the air and rolled his eyes as if to say, “Is that all?!”
“Tienes salud!” he practically shouted at me. (You have your health!)
“Si,” I said. “Y, el nieve es bonita.” (Yes, and the snow is pretty.)
“Si,” he agreed. For some reason, Mario rolling his eyes at me was the first moment I started to feel some hope.
After work Benny and I had a good talk with my dad and he had some good advice, including the assurance that selling our house would be a terrible idea, and to try temp agencies. Benny got on that and I also applied to some jobs, thinking that if I could get another part time job that could help if he didn’t find anything. The following Monday he started hearing back from some temp agencies and was offered a job at Bob’s Red Mill, packing flour, graveyard shift. That was encouraging but we couldn’t see how that schedule was going to work. He would basically be unavailable 6pm-2pm every day, even on his days off if he wanted to maintain his sleep schedule. I heard back from Sugarpine Drive-In, a cute restaurant in Troutdale on the bank of the Sandy River. After an interview I was offered a part time job, two or three days a week. If I could have gotten more hours at Guero it would’ve been great, but they had no more hours to give me. But even if I worked full time Benny would still need a part time job and it would have to be flexible. He started looking into Lyft and also applied to the Postal Service.
Also at this time we were looking into grade schools for Mina who would be starting Kindergarten in the Fall. This meant researching schools and attending as many open houses as possible, registering and filling out paperwork. Also making sure Mina was up to date on her vaccinations and health check ups, vision and dental.
I started work at Sugarpine. Benny worked hard applying to jobs and going to interviews at places like Target and Fred Meyer. He was also doing one day manual labor temp jobs like unloading trucks. Every morning entailed logistics meeting with the three of us- Benny, me and my mom- coordinating childcare and transportation. Benny and I share a car so often he would need the car and my mom and I would coordinate the use of her car. Because of our ever changing schedules, each day was different and required different logistics. Everyone was stretched thin and stressed out, no one getting what they needed. These scheduling talk were torture to me and I felt frustrated that I couldn’t just use a car whenever I needed it. The Suburu used to be my personal car (the first and only car that I’ve ever claimed as just mine) but after Benny’s car was rear ended (and somehow deemed “totaled”) a couple years ago, it became our car. I started to feel resentful of how enmeshed and dependent our family network was becoming, even at the same time I was so grateful to my mom for her gracious assistance. I even invented a new word- scoobadoop– to use instead of the word ‘schedule’ because I just hated how that word sounded coming out of my mouth.
Another factor was that it had been my plan for several years to start Cosmetology school as soon as Mina started Kindergarten. I couldn’t wait to start on this new career path that would mean moving away from food service and towards a craft that I was truly passionate about. But if Benny wasn’t working a full time, dependable, well paying job, could we even afford it? Starting school would mean me working less and having to make tuition payments. I stubbornly kept making steps towards it and hoped I wouldn’t have to further postpone my plans.
I also started to develop a new fear, a fear of being poor. I could clearly see a future where, instead of moving forward and upward- building a savings account, paying off debt, being able to take vacations, buying a second car- we take a downward route. I saw us both working low paying jobs, living in a shack in Gresham, toiling away for years without making much progress. My panic was very real and I expressed it by trapping Benny into little “pep talks” about dreaming big and taking this opportunity to “create” his own future as opposed to choosing from the available options. Benny never responded to these talks well as to him it sounded like I was being critical. I was trying so hard to be supportive but underneath it all I felt like he could be doing more, should have been doing more all along. When I found out his fellow Laika ex-coworkers were having just as much difficulty finding work I became a bit more accepting.
About a month after the unemployment ran out, Benny got a job with the Postal Service. We were all thrilled! We were so stoked that he got a solid, well paying job, and as a mailman! I quit Sugarpine but kept my four days at Guero. He went through a month of training, and then started routes. Unfortunately, the way it works is they put the new mail carriers in wherever they need coverage, which means you have no set schedule and no set route. Benny tried his best but kept getting feedback that he needed to move faster. But it’s hard to become efficient when every day is a new route. After a few weeks of this he came home dejected, telling me that he had been “forced to resign.” His mailman days were suddenly over.
Through the temp agency, Benny found work bottling sauce at a factory for minimum wage, mostly sauces for Panda Express. The job entailed heaving forty pounds bags of sugar and other ingredients and emptying them into enormous vats. When he came home after work his boots always attracted ants which earned Benny the nickname “Daddy Sugar Shoes.” It was tiring work but not the worst because he had a boss who was appreciative and respectful, unlike his superiors at the postal service. He worked alongside some interesting characters, many who had spent some time in jail.
Our friend Pete was between living situations and was sleeping on our couch. We decided to offer him a room- Mina’s room- in order to bring in some more income. Mina wasn’t sleeping in her room anyway and, although it was a little sad to give it up, it was a great decision and has been a big help for us and for Pete.
Then we had a stroke of luck- Benny told our friend Alex that his mail carrier job hadn’t worked out and Alex mentioned that his full time nanny was quitting and would Benny be interested in a job doing childcare? Alex and his wife Amisa have two daughters- Mazzy, age four, and Trini, one year. Our daughter, Mina, and Mazzy get along great so we figured it was a good idea. Plus it meant that Benny could be on dad duty and be getting paid at the same time, meaning that Benny and I could both be working at the same time. Benny was a little wary about watching three kids at once, but since Mina and Mazzy keep each other busy, they kind of “cancel each other out” as Benny said.
The first week of his new gig went well. Sometimes he took Mina to their house, sometimes they dropped the kids at ours. The kids got along great together and Benny felt like he was getting the hang of it. Then he heard from Refuge, an animation and editing studio that he worked for briefly a couple years back. They needed him immediately for a project, but they couldn’t tell him how long the project would take but it would probably be a week. We sat down and had a scoobadoop talk about how this could work. We decided he should take the opportunity and I would step in to help out with the kids. We didn’t have time to give them notice to find someone else, plus we wanted to keep the gig for when Refuge work dried up. I remember saying I could help for a week, but Benny only remembers me saying I could help. What ended up happening is that Benny and I juggled the nannying job for a couple months.
Usually Benny would go to work and the kids would get dropped off at our place around 9:00 am. I would watch the kids until 4:00, and which time Benny would come home and I would go to work at Guero until 11:00. Alex or Amisa would come pick their kids up around 5:00. Some days Benny had them all day, some days I had them all day. The fact that there were three kids meant that we couldn’t take any trips in the car. Most days we walked to the nearby park with Mina and Mazzy in a wagon and Trini in the carrier. My mom helped out a lot too, hanging with the big kids while I got Trini down for a nap or coming with us to the park.
On one hand it was great because it meant that for a couple months we had three incomes and we tucked quite a bit into savings. On the other hand, I was losing my sanity. One day I went to work and a coworker asked me casually how I was doing. “Pretty good,” I said, “except I’ve lost my will to live.” There was a day when I was on the verge of crying all day and it was also the day of a big storm. Pete said, “it looks like the sky wants to cry,” and I wished I could release everything with winds and rain and lightning and I felt jealous of the storm. When I got home Benny was still up and we had a good talk and I was able to cry. All these feelings of being trapped by circumstances, suddenly becoming a nanny in addition to being a mom and food service worker, feeling like I wasn’t making progress with my goals, like Benny will never have a solid career that enables us to be financially secure and plan for the future in any significant way. So weary of our shifting situations always, logistics always at the forefront and if we let up on it everything falls to chaos.
Benny got home from Refuge one day in July and announced, “I got rolled off today,” which means no more work. I was caught off guard and all my feelings of prosperity that I’d been quietly cultivating threatened to just drop to the ground. We had savings but I wanted to hold onto it, keep it as a long term cushion. “What next?” I asked Benny and got a vague, tired response which frustrated me. “It’s your attitude that bothers me,” I told him. “You’re so passive, just waiting to hear back from people. I want to see some fire, some motivation, some kind of PLAN.”
And I realized soon after, what this is- he’s used to this uncertainty, he grew up with it. To him, this is normal. To me, it’s not normal so I feel panicked, wanting to fix it quickly and permanently. But this is common for Benny’s line of work, this might just be how things are now. We were lucky before. For so long I kept waiting for our troubles to be over, for things to go back to how they were. When I look back on the beginning of the year, I was so whiny and resentful, wanting my freedom, wanting to get away from my family and all the stress that being around them brought. I kept feeling like I was a teenager again, dying to get out of the house and be independent, but before I could do that I had to come up with a plan, run it by the family, work out car logistics, be back by a certain time. Measured freedom. But now I understand that my family is here to help me, they want the same things for me that I want for myself. We’re better at working together than we ever have been. Benny and I learned a lot about functioning as a team, and how to look at things from each other’s perspective and be appreciative of everything the other person is doing. I learned how to stop bitching about making decisions in a group, how to breathe, and do the next thing that needs to be done.
We gave up a lot during this year of survival. We passed up hangouts and parties, we didn’t really see family, we were as frugal as we could be, we kept our focus narrow and moved with purpose. But we still fit in a lot of good times- trips to the river, playdates in the park, berry picking, swimming at the pool, one camping trip, dates once in a while- life didn’t stop because things got challenging. I’m starting to realize that this is what real life is, and up until now I’ve had it pretty easy.
We haven’t solved all our problems. We’ve made some progress on some things, Benny has lucked out with work through hopping around a variety of studios, and I was able to start Cosmetology school. Mina got into the school we were hoping for, and she loves Kindergarten. But Benny has some health stuff we’ve been looking into and medical bills are expensive. Our cat is close to death. But this year has helped me stay positive when everything isn’t perfect, to notice for a moment what’s going right and to treat those around me with kindness because we’re all going through hard stuff. I’ve learned to plan ahead and also to try not to freak out when tomorrow is such an unknown there’s no way to plan ahead. Keep moving through the fog, hoping elements will align in your favor, and influencing those elements whenever possible.
In two weeks I’m going back to school. Not a University, not Nursing school, not Art school. I’m going to Beauty School. Part of me still can’t quite believe it. Because on one level, that fact is not in sync with the person I am, or at least the person I’ve always thought I am. Even though I’ve been cutting hair for over 20 years. Even though I love cutting hair as a hobby and I’ve even starting charging for it. Even though my current idol is Jonathon Van Ness, the hair styling fairy godmother from Queer Eye. There’s a little voice in my head that sometimes whispers, “In a world that is literally crumbling, is that the best you could do? Is that truly your highest ambition? To become a hairdresser?”
The lovely Jonathan Van Ness
In 2008 I was 26 years old, working at a breakfast restaurant in Chico called The Sin of Cortez. It was a fun place to work, hip and edgy with Mexican inspired brunch and good coffee. Although I’d been a barista before, this was the first place where I had started to get good at latte art. I liked my coworkers and my boss (although the kitchen staff was a bit sketchy). A good multi-tasker, I knew I was well suited for this work, even on the weekdays when my job included hosting, cashiering, serving, and busing in addition to my barista position. But I remember one day when I vowed to myself (and to a nearby coworker) that this would be my last food service job.
My boyfriend (soon to be husband) and I were on the verge of moving to San Francisco to start a new life and see if we could make it somewhere else. I was excited about the move and saw it as a chance to pursue a different line of work. I had been working in mostly restaurants and coffee shops since I was 18, and it seemed time to move on. I didn’t know exactly what I’d be moving on to but I had always been an artist, musician, and a writer and I thought I could pursue those hobbies with more intensity and maybe something would come of it. My sweet boss at “The Sin” offered to write me a letter of recommendation to land a server or barista position in SF but I didn’t take her up on it. I was done with food service so I wouldn’t be needing it.
Once we moved to SF (cramming ourselves into a basement studio in a five floor apartment building in the “TenderNob” district) Benny immediately went to work at Cinematico, an animation studio he had connected with by a Computer Graphics Professor at Chico State. He was thrilled to be freshly graduated and already working a job in his field. Me, I graduated with a BA in Philosophy so I had no set path to follow, only some artistic interests and the ability to think critically about abstract ideas.
One month, two months, three months went by and I hadn’t found work. I knew I had to find something soon if we were going to make it. The rent for our cramped studio was more than the entire three bedroom house (with backyard and fireplace!) that we had been sharing with Benny’s friend and brother back in Chico. I don’t remember what kind of work I was even applying for, but it wasn’t long before I was darkening the doors of nearby coffee shops and restaurants. I applied to Peet’s Coffee and was hired at the 3rd and Mission shop.
Tuesday Tie Day at Peet’s. Not sure why I was compelled to appear so demonic for this photo.
It turned out to be a great job. My coworkers were a rowdy, creative bunch who reminded me of my Drama class pals in High School. The pay was higher than I was used to, I got sick pay and vacation pay, and I enjoyed getting better at espresso drinks. But a part of me felt defeated- new city, same job. I remember once a younger coworker being surprised that I was 27. “I thought you were younger!” she said, and I snapped back in a sort of jokey way, “Oh, because I work at a coffee shop?” I was sensitive to the fact that I was in my late 20’s and still doing the same work as my first job. (My first job was a coffee shop called Pannikin down the street from my dad’s apartment in San Diego.) I was smart, creative, and had a good work ethic- why couldn’t I find a “real” job, something more grown up?
Along the way I made half-hearted attempts at my pursuit of more creative work. I applied to work as an arts and culture writer for The Guardian, a free weekly paper in SF. To do this I had to submit several examples of my work so I wrote a personal essay on folk music and attended a few art and music events and wrote reviews of them. I interned at an art gallery doing things like making the little title plaques that go next to the art and other things… I can’t really remember because that place was so unorganized and somewhat abusive (I got yelled at a couple times for doing things wrong when even though they were never clear about what I was supposed to be doing) that I was there for only a few weeks. After moving to Portland I tried two more internships. One was for a wedding magazine called Oregon Bride and my job was, incredibly, to feature a weekly pair of shoes and match them with a wedding venue (???). As someone who has never worn a pair of heels in her life, I was totally at a loss. My other internship was for a culture website called BePortland (“Don’t just live here- BE Portland”) where I had assignments to go to cultural events, music and art shows, plays, etc., take photos with my nice SLR camera, and after the show go home and compose a well written review/description and upload my edited photos. This was a pretty cool way to get to go to free shows and have an incentive to stay until the end (I had a bad habit of leaving shows before the headlining band because I was sleepy), plus it was rewarding to see my article posted on the website the next day. However, there were downsides to the internship (besides the big one of no pay) and I only lasted a summer.
“Well, I guess my only other option is to get a Master’s in Creative Writing and teach at a community college,” I said to myself. I was working the cheese counter at a specialty foods market when I started my first term at Portland State University, as a Postbaccalaureate since I hadn’t officially made it as a Grad student. I didn’t want to teach necessarily, but I liked writing and reading and knew I couldn’t count on making a living as a writer. Kinda funny that, after not finding meaningful work with a Philosophy degree, I decided that my fall back would be an English degree. I took three terms at PSU and enjoyed my time there until I discovered that there were a lot of flaws in the school system and I didn’t think I wanted to be part of that. Also, after reviewing my peers’ papers, I realized that being a writing teacher would mean reading a LOT of bad writing.
I quit PSU and instead took a 9 month course at the Independent Publishing and Resource Center (IPRC) on Comics. Prior to starting at PSU I had been committed to drawing a daily comic which I had managed to do for ten months until school and homework got in the way. I had missed comics and I wanted back in. “Maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” I thought, and it was certainly a thrill to be assigned comics to read for homework and drawing exercises in class. I hadn’t taken many art classes at Chico State so it felt too good to be true. At this time I was working at Lardo, a sandwich shop downtown.
The comics class was going really well and I started to wonder if it might become a career down the line. But one night the IPRC had a showing of Cartoon College, a documentary about comics and cartoonists. Many of them, even the big name cartoonists like Chris Ware and Lynda Barry, spelled it out very clearly: you cannot make a living as a cartoonist. That, and the terrible idea that I’d had to sell calendars featuring my drawings of Portland scenes (nobody bought them so I was $800 in the hole and had an embarrassing amount of them stacked around my house), cemented it for me. I would keep my creative life and my work life separate. As separate as possible.
Aaaand then I had a baby. That solved everything. I’m joking, but I’m also kind of serious because it did, for several years make the whole question pretty pointless. My priorities became 1. Take care of this baby, 2. Make money however possible, and 3. Make art if there’s any time left. I had taken time off from Lardo, but a few months after giving birth I was back there a couple shifts a week. When Mina was three I started at another restaurant called Guero which was a big improvement. The people there feel more like family than coworkers, the food is delicious, the space is beautiful, and even the customers are lovely. However, most of my coworkers are younger than me, some even 15 years younger. And, as is the case for almost every restaurant worker everywhere, they’re just working there for now because they’re on their way to somewhere else to do what they really want to do. Food service jobs are a limbo zone, they’re a placeholder. Maybe that’s not so much the case in really nice restaurants, where serious chefs aspire to be. But in places where I work, people are always moving on to something better. I wonder what it would be like to work in a place where people are there on purpose, because it’s their dream, because they worked hard to get there.
I don’t want to be 40 years old and still in limbo. So I’m moving on too. Maybe it’s not the biggest and best thing I could be doing. But the truth is, I’ve never been a big dreamer. I’ve never been attracted to the idea of “making my mark on the world” or “leaving a legacy.” I’ve never wanted to be famous or important. I’ve never been selfless enough to be a savior of humanity, or a pioneer for a purpose. I’ve never had that one thing I just have to do. But I like to cut hair. And I like the kind of conversations I have when I’m cutting someone’s hair. The kind of conversations where things are said, and then there are long silences where I’m just attending to them, touching them lightly on their heads and neck, brushing hair away from their foreheads, trimming carefully around their ears. I like the casual intimacy of it, and the way people are changed before my eyes. I like when they close their eyes and say, “It feels better already.” I like how a weight is lifted. I like at the end when they go into the bathroom to see themselves in the mirror and they call out, “It looks great!” I like how I can be creative and skillful and be helping people at the same time. Maybe I’m right this time. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing.
After a long hard day, Benny comes home from work and gives me permission to escape while he does bedtime. Mina is tired and clingy, holding tight to my leg and crying as I’m trying to rush upstairs, a beer in one hand. As I write in my journal I hear her sobbing desperately, “MAMAAAA!! MAMAAA!!” and try to resist the urge to go and comfort her.
I write a page and a half, then stop, a few tears spilling down my cheeks- wishing that writing was still fun and fulfilling, that I had exciting things to breathlessly write about, like when I was younger. I put the journal aside and rummage around in a box of old journals, which is what I do when I want to remember what it felt like to be young and free. I find an entry that was part of a timed writing practice I used to do in college that was led by my favorite Philosophy professor, Terri Elliott. Sometimes he would grab a book, flip it open to a random page and point to a sentence, and that would be our writing prompt.
9. 28. 2002
“Keep going, you’ll end up in your mother’s womb.”
Womb. Mother. Keep going. My mother. I was a cesarean birth. My mother, holding my naked baby body by the armpits- her long hair, my short soft fuzz on big baby head.
Keep going down that road, searching for a way home and all you’ll find, all you’ll find is where you began, curled up, eyes closed and slowly grasping fingers. The way back to the beginning.
She hears me, I think. She listens for my heart and when it’s tender and bruised she calls me- she gently prods and quietly asks, and my tears flow, my heart blooms and embraces hers.
I am grateful.
Her art on my walls, her careful splatterings of paint and collage, words, little books that describe her day, her thoughts, her wonder of my life and my doings, of my love… Her ways of expression so similar to my own- as are her ways of sorrow and her ways of confusion. Her joy. Her joy, my joy. For her I am grateful.
And I hope for now, for my womb to remain vacant. I hope for my maternal ways to be reserved for loved ones and myself. I wonder about children and what strange things they are. Childhood, how that was not you and is not you and yet you know it was and is, and you wonder of your parents and their lives before you were born and it’s hard to imagine until you reach the age that your mother was when she got married.
I dream of my parents, of their meeting and falling in love, I see and feel through their eyes, as if memories can be passed down to your children, I think they can. We all have these previous lives hidden within us that we take for granted, but at one time it was your only life.
Think of your mother, pregnant with you, sitting in a chair at home. Alone, silent, gazing out the window, or at her own hands. Imagine her there- her young face, her clear eyes, her thoughts of life, her fear, her quiet love for you, resting inside of her. You are a womb yourself. You carry your own life inside of you, clusters of sweet jewels, a gleaming pomegranate. You forget sometimes, why you are alive. You forget what has lived before you. Take time to sit still and you will remember- the knowing of it pure and solid like a warm stone in your lap.