The Year We Grew Up

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote recently:

Eating a big, round, shining

pink apple I realize

what a lucky coincidence-

That this apple is perfectly ripe

and ready to eat

at the same exact time

I am ready to eat it.

 

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A Gorgeous Education

 

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?”jvn2

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.

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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.

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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.

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Try To Remember

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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.

 

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Note to Self

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Dear Serra,

Remember when you used to do that thing where you would say “Hi Serra” out loud sometimes when you found yourself alone in a room? It always spooked you, to acknowledge verbally your own undeniable existence. To confront yourself as you would another.

You have always loved yourself. You have always been your own best friend. You have always needed long stretches of time alone to reconnect, to establish a self independent of others, to remember and review and recollect. To renew. As a child you would spend time alone in your room listening to music, drawing, looking through your microscope, carefully going through the treasures in your special cupboard- keys, stones, coins, toys, shells. You had friends at school but would sometimes tuck yourself away- in a tree, in the gazebo, behind a book- to be alone.

You have always felt strong, solid, stable. Even in your wildest years, your hardest hurts, your deepest longings, at the core of yourself you are unbreakable. This is what you’ve always known. As a teenager you would experiment, break rules, get drunk, make out with strangers at music shows, get lost, explore. But always come home to your journal, your guitar, your family. You knew there was always a safe place to return to.

All your life you’ve loved naps, time away from the world, time where you can be silent and invisible. Time where you’re not seeing yourself through anyone else’s eyes. Time to be internal. So many solo walks, solo bike rides, solo hours collaging, painting, writing. So many solo trips to the movies, to the beach, down the trail. Hours spent with only the feel of your body moving through the world, the sound of your own breath. You were often lonely. Solitude at times felt like a crushing weight, like a cage.

At 23 you fell in love; at 26 you married. And at 32 you had a baby, a child who looks like you and your husband, who loves drawing and music and jokes and climbing trees, dinosaurs and dragons and unicorns. Having a child changed you, transformed you, almost broke you. She almost broke you because, for the first time, you were taken away from yourself. You no longer were able to sit down daily with your journal, with your art. You were held back from following your instincts and desires. You had to learn how to want something and not get it. After a while you all but forgot how to want. You lost almost all your independence, something so necessary for you that to lose it was a total loss of self. Although your daughter is five years old now, you still struggle with this every day, how to carve away some time for yourself, how to keep the core of yourself strong and real, alive.

Today you turn 37. In three months your daughter will start kindergarten, essentially giving you your life back. I admire the work you’ve done so far as a mother, raising your child and doing as much as you can to care for yourself and husband as well. You have given more of yourself than I would have thought possible. I know it’s been hard, and has taken you to the extent of your capabilities. Your self is still there, although you haven’t spent much one on one time with her in a while. I know you’re tired, I know sometimes you feel sad and hopeless, and miss parts of yourself and wish for certain times of your past. I know life pulls on too many parts of you. I know that much of the time your jaw is clenched and your shoulders tight, your mind spinning. I know sometimes you feel guilty when you want things, because so many people have so little. I know all this and I wish for you to breathe, loosen, sing. Please know that you’ll have your time, you’ll get yourself back. For most of your life, what you wanted came to you easily. Now you know what it’s like to fight for it. Keep fighting. Keep wanting. Keep being thrilled by color, shape, sounds, smells. Be tender. Be alive every day, whatever that means to you. Embrace it all, even the hard stuff. And remember to say stop by and say hello- don’t be a stranger.

Digging In

 

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I’m working on a piece of writing and it feels big.

It started the other day when I was reading a memoir by Jill Soloway, creator of Transparent and I Love Dick- both radical, feminist, paradigm shattering TV shows. Their book is called “She Wants It” and it’s about their journey as a TV writer and director and how it’s tied in to their journey to find out their identity, sexuality, and voice.

I was reading this and thought, “Hey, I have a story like that too. I wonder what my story is. I wonder how it ends.” It occurred to me that my body has a story. I thought about what the story of my life would be from the perspective of my body. Luckily, I had the luxury to slip away not long after being struck by inspiration, and tap out a beginning to my story. I decided to write it on the computer, not in my journal, so that it already felt special and more like actual “writing.” That night after my family went to bed, I continued.

I’m using writing to explore my life in terms of identity, gender, and consent. The words are coming easily to me, that feeling that the thoughts are rushing at me faster than I can type. I think I’ve been preparing to write this for a long time, I guess my whole life. It’s the first time I’ve written memoir with a purpose in mind, a question.

My question is, who am I? Who am I in context of my family, my friends, my society? What does it mean to be a woman? Am I a woman? I like the term “non binary” but do I want to adopt that term for myself? What is consent exactly and what has been my experience with knowing what I want and don’t want and communicating that? How do I teach my daughter what wasn’t taught to me? What does it mean to have a body in this world? What does your body and how you use it say about you? What about me is the same throughout my life, and what has changed? How do I protect myself but also stay open and vulnerable? What does it mean to live authentically?

I’m not cracking open old journals yet, just drawing on memory and my recollection of my writing, but I think as soon as the words run out I’ll start looking back for entries that focus on identity, body, and consent, to fill out the writing and give it even more truth and detail. It started out as a blog post but it’s turning into my life story.

 

New Year’s Realizations

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This New Year’s I had a lot of resolutions floating around in my head. Things like, check your phone less. Make more art. Call up friends more. Drink less. Read more books. Keep going to the gym. Make some goals and come up with plans to follow those goals.

But lists and charts seemed lacking. Instead I wanted to make a “vision board”: a collage filled with images of your aspirations, the people you want to be, the concepts you want to invite into your life. I wanted to see what my goals might look like, what color and shape they would be.

My vision board became a vision box. Which is kind of great because I was looking for an image that represents opening to reveal myself inside. I envisioned an open mouth or a cave maybe. I didn’t find it but realized later that a box is the perfect symbol for that.

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Making a collage is about noticing what you’re attracted to. Feeling for that twinge, no matter how slight. Waiting for that moment when the pieces fit together in a pleasing way. Trusting your impulses- Cut this face in half? Seems weird but ok. Completely cover up this image that minutes ago, seemed essential? Sure. Glue the fish on sideways? Whatever you say.

I noticed that I was vibing with yellow. And women. And water and mountains. Some images just looked good to me, and some I chose for their pure symbolism: dancing woman, drawing woman, reading woman. Old woman. Mountain goat. Singing bird. Arrow in the target.

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In yoga class yesterday the teacher said, “Lead with your heart.” The pose felt amazing, and vulnerable- chest out, arms back- but I also thought, what would life be like if you always led with your heart? Not “follow your heart” as people often say, but slightly different. Lead with your heart is more active, intentional, decisive. Heart as a flashlight, a steering wheel- not a leashed dog pulling you around.

I don’t have very specific goals and I never have. I’ve always just been drawn to a certain kind of artistic lifestyle without any real idea of how to get there. When I was a kid someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said, “happy.” But I realized recently (well, really my insightful mom suggested this theory) that it’s maybe not a result of a lack of imagination or a lack of drive, but from a kind of guarded protection against desire. Sometimes I have a desire or a goal and I immediately shut it down for one reason or another, the excuse often being, “I’m not the kind of person who does that.” Which is total bullshit. I don’t let the want get big and substantial enough to gain momentum. Because if you have no real desires, you’re not vulnerable. Desire can have a kind of power over you. But isn’t desire the strongest kind of power? It can be if you have the resources, the persistence, the smarts to get that thing you want. Otherwise you just have the want and no path to it; you are at its mercy. Easier to just not want it.

I think that’s what my brain has come to believe, for some reason.

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Well, I’m going to practice wanting. Big things. Seemingly impossible things. I want things of epic proportions. I want to live in Switzerland in a little chalet, and eat exquisite fresh cheese for breakfast and learn to play the violin. I want to be a professional illustrator and be best friends with Carson Ellis. I want to bike along the West coast, from Canada to Mexico. I want to be a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance. I want to make all my own clothes. I want to be an expert gardener. I want to weave. I want to go surfing. I want to write a memoir. I want to go on a road trip and visit all my friends and camp in Yosemite.

I want half of my income to come from art and writing, and the other half to come from barbering. I want to have enough money. I want Benny to have a job he loves. I want to live in a clean, uncluttered house with a porch and a studio and a yard, and a big enough living room that it feels easy to invite people over. I want to be wild and colorful and giving and gracious and loving. I want to be loose, warm, open, alive, uncalculating, free.

I want to cook beautiful flavorful food. I want a spiritual awakening. I want to learn to tap dance. I want to feel connected to people without being afraid that they will take something from me- my time, my energy, my attention, my freedom. I want to be willing to work hard for something I want. I want to grow my hair long and wind my hair around my fist like power. I want to be remembered. I want to be admired. I want to be humble. I want full days to myself, days where I never have to speak or make facial expressions and I can be completely internal, or just forget myself entirely and become what’s around me.

I want to be Prince. I want to float in water at night, looking up at the stars. I want to destroy my phone. I want to sleep in a tree house. I want to swim with a whale. I want to walk through New York City. I want to understand the workings of things. I want to make things out of clay. I want to meet again everyone I’ve ever loved- including my mom, dad, sister. I want to remember my own birth. I want to know my ancestors. I want to live to an old age. I want Mina to outlive me. I want to accept people as they are. I want to take risks. I want to feel possibility as a tangible thing in my hand. I want to soften.

The Living Wind

You know how I was talking about how sometimes your past self has something to teach you? Well, once in a while I find some old writing that reminds me who I am in my best moments and it’s so reassuring to find it and meet her again.

Since looking for that last entry about The Vagina Monologues I’ve had a stack of journals on my desk and I thought, since they were out, I’d flip through them a bit and see if there was anything else interesting. I found a journal from the spring of 2001 and found myself engulfed in my tragic and tangled love life, when I was involved in not so much of a love triangle as more of a love hexagon. It’s so clear to me now what I needed to do then, but of course at the time I was completely confused. I was foolish and so selfish, I thought as I read through it. My past self teaches me so much, I wish I could return the favor and whisper a little advice backwards 17 years.

“Tell the truth,” I would say to her. There was so much unintentional deception happening, as a result of trying to protect everyone involved. It just made it worse, of course, but I didn’t see that then.

When I came across this entry it was a relief, a moment when I felt complete pride and love for my younger self. She reminds me how to be open and present and alive.

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(No date, because I didn’t date any entry in this whole journal because, well, I didn’t think the date would ever matter?)

Today was haunting as I stepped outside though it took me a while to notice it for what it was and not just an inconvenience. I think it was when I went into Cafe Max and took off all my jackets and scarves and bought a cup of coffee from the morose, goatee’d guy behind the counter, I realized there was no way I could stay inside- I just couldn’t do it for some reason even though it was raining and gray and windy as hell out there. So I went back out- there were no tables or chairs on the sidewalk anywhere so I sat on the church steps and sipped coffee and watched people walk down the street.

I noticed that some people marched with their heads down, hands in pockets, everything wrapped around them and shut off, protected- and some people walked with their bodies pressed against the wind, their heads up, necks exposed, welcoming it and moving with it. I realize that on my way to the coffee shop I’d been walking the first way, as if the wind was an obstacle or an enemy.

So I got up from the steps and continued on down the street, learning how to feel the wind move through me- I took off my scarf and let the wind be my scarf. I took my hands out of my pockets to embrace it. I was drawn to the trees-

stood underneath a pine tree, pressed my back against the trunk, looked up into the monstrous thrashing branches as they dipped and danced, deafening roars of wind through the trees, all over. I could feel the movement and energy and even heat through the trunk- I hummed, throat vibrant, as the tall beings bent and sang. The grass rippled in shining waves as if bristling with a life of its own, and leaves chased each other across it.

Suddenly, a crash- and scanning, I saw a fallen tree, gray branches reaching sideways and thick trunk heavy on the soft ground. I gasped and ran to it, heard a siren in the distance, imagined it was an ambulance coming to save it-

thick knot of mud-choked roots, dripping, what used to be in dark wet warmth now cold and exposed, oh its long body, sad and sprawled, oh its bright white wounds of underflesh that I took off my glove to touch, moist and young. Caked and crumbling mud that I pulled a chunk from, held it in my left hand as I walked away, softly forming it into a ball.

I was late meeting up with Nate at the library, but he was late too. When he showed up, he shouted, “Let’s do homework later and go for a bike ride! It’s beautiful outside!”

I felt alive

Like a challenge, like a fight, like a test.

We ran into Crystal and Justin. Justin was still wearing his pink hat. We walked, the four of us. I left my jacket open to help the wind in. I took off my glasses to fall more into the world- couldn’t discern between this and that, couldn’t discriminate, waved to everyone thinking I knew them, didn’t care about my reflection in the glass. Who knows where we are.

Fences are fallen. Misplaced possessions. Parts of roofs on sidewalks. Bleeding oranges on the street. At Crystal’s house, there are large branches in her yard. Her grass is smooth and long, undulating. The playground across the street was built over a cemetery. Inside her house, my skin feels swept and clean and swollen, like I’d just gone swimming in the ocean. She fed us soup and tea. Justin and I ventured to the haunted playground and Nate climbed high into the redwood tree, so high all I could see was the yellow of his jacket.

Later, we went with Crystal back to the library to look up a photographer named Brassi- marred recollections, shining black and white images of large ended pale women posing in Paris, in the wet brick streets, in the misty night, with fleeting expressions now caged in a heavy book in a heavy library

on a windy night, somewhere else.

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Woman Love

Last night I was having dinner with my family, including my mom who had just gotten back from a three week trip visiting friends and family in San Diego. We were eating Tom Kha soup that Benny and I had made with ingredients from Fubon, the huge Asian food store nearby. I mentioned that I tried not to ladle any hot Thai peppers into anyone’s soup but to be careful just in case. It jogged a memory of a time when I was eating the same soup at a Thai restaurant and did, in fact, eat one of those peppers.

“That was the same night that we went to see The Vagina Monologues,” I reminded my mom. “And I was so high off that pepper that the whole night just blew my mind. In fact, that was maybe the first time that I really felt proud of being a woman.”

“I hadn’t made that connection, that that was the same night,” my mom said.

“What an amazing experience,” I said. “And I wrote it all down.”

My mom’s eyes widened. “Really!” She said. “You should look for it.”

After dinner I put on a head lamp and rummaged through the storage closet, going through my journals until I finally found it. As I read the entry aloud to my mom later that night I was struck by a few things- by how full and rich and complex my life was at that time, as a 19 year old who had returned home for the summer after a year at Chico State, and also how committed I was to getting the story down. This description is only a portion of the entire entry because so much had happened in the previous day and night and I knew at the time how important it was to just surrender to my journal for a couple hours and get everything on paper. As I was looking for this entry I found a journal labeled July 2000-August 2000. An entire notebook filled in four weeks.

Also what struck me is how, up until that night, I had been pretty ambivalent about my gender, often denying my female-ness and looking for ways to express myself as more masculine. I wasn’t necessarily anti-woman, I was just more pro-man. I felt that I hadn’t really heard a convincing case in favor of being a woman. I didn’t personally relate to many characteristics commonly viewed as female. My own identity lingered in an in-between space of not female and not male. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about labels and gender identity, I mostly just tried to pretend the whole argument was nonexistent. This was the first time I felt a power in my femininity.

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June 2, 2001

I wore a pair of soft, loose, cotton pants and a light blue long sleeved shirt with gold trim. When Mom arrived I went out to the car- Karen and Deborah were with her. They looked flushed and dazzling, excited about the night and asking me dozens of questions about my new life. We drove downtown and found a parking spot, and then went to dinner at a fancy Thai restaurant, with high white walls and small bright lights hanging from wire thread. We ordered coconut soup, spinach with mushrooms, tofu and rice and other scrumptious things. Mary arrived, looking like Judy Garland, and another of my mom’s friends who I’d never met arrived grinning and strutting with her arms in the air. She had just got back from a long mountain hike and camping trip.

I felt wonderful and strange with these five incredible women, almost like I was hanging out with my big sister and her grown up friends. I was amazed by them, awed and adoring. Watching my mom from across the table, she seemed to be someone else, distant and wild and new, and I missed the feeling of being a daughter. I was left out of most of the conversations as they soared higher and louder with each other. I was mostly content to watch and listen.

When the soup came, my first bite was of a red hot pepper. Apparently you aren’t supposed to eat them- but not only had I eaten it, I’d chewed on it for a while before I swallowed it. It was surprisingly and extremely painful, my whole mouth burned and moaned and turned inside out, my eyes watered and my sinuses cleared. Anything else I put in my mouth made it burn even worse, and it burned for a long time. Afterwards though, everything tasted absolutely exquisite.

We walked to Spreckles theater, and on the way there Mary asked me questions about what I had been going through and I told her stories about the people I know, and Scott’s farm, and my amazing life in Chico. As I told her, I felt like I was back there and I was exuberant and so thankful for my life.

When we arrived at the theater, women were everywhere. They crowded the sidewalk, they spilled in and out of the doors, they loomed and gleamed in their high heels and skirts, their collective voices made rushing waves of sound through the night of filled streets and blaring music. The night grinned and breathed, it swayed and spun, crowds of life and joy and yearning, the streets of San Diego.

The excitement was addictive- I felt the anticipation and glamour, all around me were silk dresses, high priced drinks, make-upped faces, white pillars, intricate ceilings. I hadn’t expected anything like this, especially for something called “The Vagina Monologues!”

We were ushered into the theater with the rest of the crowd and took our seats. The room was medium sized but gave the illusion of wealthy expanse. Tall ceilings, several balconies, bronze statues of naked women posing near the roof, carvings and curlicues in white and gold.

The show was incredible, inspiring, authentic, beautiful. Three amazing actors, seated and telling stories, taking on the characters of an old woman, a young lesbian, a girl who had been genitally mutilated, a woman who gave other women pleasure for a living, a woman whose husband detested hair, a woman who learned to love her vagina, and other personas. I was completely entranced the entire time. I learned so much about my body and how other women view their bodies. I felt a kinship with females that I’d never known before. I burst out laughing at surprising times and found myself teary-eyed at stories I wouldn’t have thought would affect me. I was pulled to these women, to the stage. I felt at one with the audience, the rowdy, cheering, sobbing, laughing audience. I looked around at all the women and I saw us as sisters. I imagined all the vaginas in the theater and I loved every one of them. I felt like a mother, a nurturer- and became empowered with that feeling of nurturing.

But most of all, I felt a deep pride- a pride that soared in all of us. I saw us raise our heads higher, sit up straighter, smile wider and with an ancient knowledge. I saw the love we had in ourselves, of ourselves; a love and pride that gets squelched by so many things, and fed by so little. We were awakened, we were reminded, of how glorious we are, how beautiful and how strong.

When we left, we left beaming, reborn. Tears in our eyes, we walked differently. I wanted to throw my arms around everyone. I was electrified- grinning and tingling as I strutted down the street with Mom and Deb, running my eyes over rivers of people as we fought our way down busy sidewalks. I’d never seen downtown so exciting, so packed with life, so loud and wild and bright. I could almost see the money flowing from pockets into cash registers- dark eyes and painted lips, shiny shoes wherever I looked and new smells at every block- steam and smoke billowing from vents, hot night, sharp moon, the buildings loomed with flashing windows, endless. I felt hot and desirable, awake and open, swelled with confidence. I loved the city then, no desire for quiet rivers and heavy trees, crickets and bonfire smoke. I wanted alcohol, I wanted all night dance clubs, I wanted to flaunt my body, I wanted to spend all my money and collapse drunk on a velvet couch wearing a slinky dress. This is it, I knew, I felt, I sighed, and I went home, and I slept.

 

Illustration by Wanda Felsenhardt

 

Who’s In Your Mirror

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I was 20 years old and on a Greyhound bus from Seattle to Denver, for no real reason other than I had taken a semester off from Chico State and wanted to head East for once. The drive took several days, and at one point during the trip we were stopped at some random town somewhere, it was night, and the interior lights went on. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window across the aisle, and after so much time of being alone among strangers I was struck by the familiarity of my own face and overcome with an aching love for myself. I suddenly came to the realization that one day I would be gone from this earth and I missed myself fiercely, wishing that I could stay until I decided, on my own terms, when to go.

When I think of that moment now, it’s about confronting one’s own mortality but also about how we’re always saying goodbye to some old version of ourselves, often not realizing it in the moment. That was a self that was single, childless, still searching, still constructing my own version of the world and what about it was important to me. Part of me feels like that was the truest version of myself and always will be. Sometimes I think about that moment as a goodbye to the girl version of me, who still had so much to learn.

Here’s the thing: I have this dichotomy happening in me right now. Since Mina’s birth I’ve been grappling with this question of who I am now. When I gave birth to a child, my old self died. So suddenly and completely that I can’t compare it to any other event in my life. For the first time in my life, I felt that I didn’t matter. It wasn’t about me anymore. I stopped looking in the mirror- Mina was my mirror. When someone asked me how I was, I would respond with Mina’s state of being. For a while none of my needs were important to me, except to keep myself functional so I could care for my baby. In some ways it was liberating- so much of my life up to that point was spent focusing on myself, my wants and needs and feelings, my appearance, my identity; how freeing to feel selfless for once, without ego, without ambition aside from being this child’s mom.

But every day it got a little easier to remember my self and put energy towards doing those things I used to do. As she gets older I am remembering how to be an individual person; but now I have to get reacquainted with myself, like seeing an old friend again after years of living overseas. I slowly got back into art, music, writing, reading, biking, friends, time with Benny, time alone. But of course it was different. Motherhood has changed every single thing about me. I feel like there is still an umbilical cord connecting me and my daughter. She is still my mirror.

The funny thing is, I’ve gotten used to the feeling that I don’t matter. When I became a mother, my vision suddenly zoomed out- I saw the whole world in her, every person who has ever lived and ever will live. I saw my place in the cycle of life, I saw her place in my family tree and the family tree of all humanity. I understood my parents better, and I understood my childhood better. The combination of motherhood and growing older has given me a much bigger view of things. So much so that it’s hard to stay within the confines of my small self and my small life- I find myself often looking down from above, trying to make sense of the whole ecosystem. I’m often struck by the strangeness of the human experience, how lucky and how cursed we all are. How complex and intelligent and how foolish and weak.

Part of me wants to figure out who I am now and establish a fresh identity, and part of me thinks, “Who cares?” I don’t matter and I kind of like it that way. Working to establish an identity is the work of someone younger. I’ve heard it said that the first half of your life is for building your ego; the second half of your life is for dissolving it. I want to be pliable, flexible, open, unguarded. I want to keep a loose grip on who I think I am and what I believe in. I want to flow in and out of everyone, hear and feel others, go by different names, find kinship with the changing seasons. I want to feel comfortable saying goodbye to an old part of myself, knowing that being a part of this world means that she was never meant to stay.

 

 

I took this self portrait at Burning Man when I was 20. This was supposedly a mirror that showed your “true self”- not a mirror image but the way others see you. 

Ode to Bikes

 

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On my bike ride home from work today I felt so good. There’s something about biking that makes me feel connected to my environment, to my body, to my breath. Often, as I’m coasting downhill after a long hard uphill, I feel struck with such a profound sense of gratitude that I’ll even say, “thanks,” out loud. Who/what am I thanking? Just existence. I’m just happy that random/intentional elements in the universe have collaborated in such a way to allow me to be myself, here, at this moment.

As I crossed 82nd Ave and entered the tunnel of trees that is Mill Street I remembered when Benny and I first moved to San Francisco in 2008 and what a challenging thrill it was to embrace the city by bike. After a couple weeks of public transit I tried biking and I was amazed at how it made this huge new place seem so manageable. I remembered biking to Golden Gate Park for the first time and coasting through the magical lush forest and emerging on the other side to the ocean! It was so dreamlike the way the trees suddenly fell away to crashing waves. I knew there was an ocean over there somewhere but I hadn’t realized how close I was to it, that I could bike there.

I looked through my journals from that time thinking there was probably a very detailed entry about that experience. I was surprised to find just a line or two about it, but I did find some other stuff I enjoyed reading. It was so jarring to try to adjust to city life after eight years in a small college town, and it’s interesting to see my past self needing to get to Portland. It’s a good thing I made it here.

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8.21.08

Today I decided to ride my bike from our apartment to Golden Gate Park, about five miles. There were more hills than I expected, although I’m not sure why I didn’t expect hills.

Every time I take the bike out I feel a huge sense of accomplishment and joy. It gives me the feeling that I have control not only over my environment and my direction, but also over my life. I suppose this is also how having a car must feel to most people, especially for a teenager. I don’t really remember having that feeling though, when mom and dad came home with the Corolla for me and Leah to share. Maybe because even with the car, there was nowhere I wanted to go.

 

9.8.08

I’m beginning to miss Chico now. At first I just missed my friends. Now what I miss is space, the room to breathe, the oaks and pines and furry redwoods. The cool air in the night, stars that you can see, the accessibility of everything, the way you can fall into adventure like tripping on a rock. I want some of that here. That feeling of belonging. Of knowing the best places. The sense that even though we come from different places we all grew up the same. Trust.

I miss swimming in the cold green deep rushing water in the midst of dry crackling heat so hot you fear it is literally baking you all the way through. I miss bike riding to a friend’s house on the other side of town for dinner and wine and sitting out under the moon with rolled cigarettes.

I saw the moon the other night, full and bright, as Benny and I walked down Polk Street on our way home from dinner at a Thai place. It seemed out of place here in the city, like it had lost its way. I felt disconnected from it and everything it represents: magic, nature, open spaces and connection with natural cycles. Finding your way outside in the dark, and quiet. I keep yearning for these things and marveling and how I got here, to the city.

But sometimes when I’m cruising down a fast hill on my bike, the sweat drying cold on my temples, I feel glad to be in a place of such rich art and culture, a place where people go to have adventures and pursue their dreams. And I’m getting better at moving through crowds without being overwhelmed, and I love the views and the bike ride through the park to the ocean.

But a big part of me is reaching forward to the afterwards and planning for a life in Oregon.

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