Hilo, on the windward side of Hawaiāi, is āthe third wettest designated city in the United Statesā according to Wikipedia. Hilo overlooks Hilo Bay, situated between the flanks of Mauna Loa, an active volcano, and Mauna Kea, a dormant one. Two years ago, the day we visited Hilo certainly comprised the wettest day of our vacation in Hawaiāi. Having only a day, we boarded a tour bus and headed for Hawaiāi Volcanoes National Park, an uphill trip from Hilo through not less than five distinct microclimates.
Okay, thatās the book-report part over with. In the past few weeks Iāve thought about our tour guide to Kilauea in the national park atop the Big Island. Kilauea has been in the news again, erupting, an active lava flow threatening some populated areas.
I canāt remember our tour guideās name. A friendly, easy-going guy, he had moved to Hawaiāi over twenty years before, from either Minnesota or Wisconsin. One of the sorts of places where I imagine no one asks why heād think of relocating to Hawaiāi.
I wondered, though. I wondered why he chose Hilo. He described his house to us. Set in the lush vegetation of the rainforest microclimate, its walls needed to be regularly washed down with bleach to keep the flora and fauna from taking hold of the house. It was set on concrete footings, but not anchored to them, so that when the lava came, the house could easily be placed on a tractor-trailer and moved out of the way.
When the lava came. Not if.
No, after he shared he was from Wisconsin or possibly Minnesota, no one questioned his decision to come to Hawaiāi – but several of us questioned his decision to come to THIS part of Hawaiāi, to place himself in a situation of inevitable, unavoidable, impermanence. One of us actually asked – why? Why here? Why a mobile home with a bleach-bucket and the daily threat of lava flow?
I wish I could remember exactly what he said. In essence, though, his answer was, āThat is what I needed to do to be here.ā Why live in a bleach-box? Why fight every force of nature? Because when he saw that place the first time, he knew. He knew it was something he wanted well enough to ask the question, āWhat do I have to do to be here?ā
If that man asked āWhat do I have to do to be here?ā and heard the answers – be ready to move your house at a momentās notice, be ready to constantly battle plant life and animal life for the right to live in your space, be ready to lose it all if the truck breaks down and the house canāt be gotten out of the way – if he heard those answers and still wanted to be there more than anyplace else? Then I think I understand.
People talk about change a lot. Iāve made a few significant changes in my life and I get asked about them a lot and I never feel like I have the right answers. I know what MY answers are but I am never sure if that is actually what people are asking. I feel like they are asking me, sometimes, to tell them THEIR answers. Maybe I should ask a question back. āWhat do you have to do to be there?ā
There. The place youād rather be. Maybe not a literal place. Iād like to be on time for appointments regularly. Iād like to be more confident about some things. Iād like to go to graduate school which is sort of a place but is also a lot more than that.
Yesterday was Election Day and I know it didnāt go the way I would ideally have liked, or honestly even the way I rather realistically expected. And every Election Day some people wake up feeling like that. There is embittered talk, and snarky talk, and people vent and make legitimate points but mainly vent and also pout. I know, because Iāve done it. But after the fussing and the stretching and the realization-setting-in, I have tried to boil it down to: āThis world that I want. What do I have to do to be there?ā
This morning I read an online column by Parker J. Palmer, that contained this quote: āNo one who has stood for high values ā love, truth, justice ā has died being able to declare victory, once and for all.ā There is no perfect way to be in the world I want because my perfect world is not everyoneās. My perfect world is your idea of bleaching your house down for fun, maybe. And I cannot have the exact world I want because I have to share it with others who have different dreams, different ideas, and different goals. So right now my exercise is this: What do I have to do to be in the world I want? Not the ENTIRE world. My world. My immediate space. What can I do? The people I see day in and day out. The people I stand in line behind at the grocery store. The people I have seen today who were very pleased with how the election went. I donāt want to be in a world where I am full of bitterness and snark all the time. That was more or less 1995 – 2003 inclusive, for me, and Iām kinda done with it. It doesnāt work for me anymore. I want to do the work I have to do to be in a world I like waking up in each day.
Iām still thinking about that guy whose name I donāt remember, wondering if heās had to load his house up on his trailer and move out of the way of this lava flow yet. If not this one, then the next one, maybe. Thatās what he has to do to be there. Thatās how he knows itās his paradise.
Last night, Friday night, I was tired. It had been a long week. Workās busy, I had my mid-term exam in Spanish, I have some friends going through rough times I canāt actually help with, the move draws ever closer. So I was tired, and I wanted to go home, and chill out, and do nothing.
But I had baked a cake for our story-sharing night at church, and I had to go. And I had to go because itās my thing, itās partially my thing at least, a thing I try to do for the community each month to build up the conversation. And Iāve been tired before but Iāve always been glad to go.
So I went, and Iām so glad. Smaller groups, larger groups, cakes or no. Love is a thing I over-think. Actually I over-think most things but love is really up there on the list.
Showing up: thatās love.
Listening: thatās love.
Talking: thatās love.
Sharing: thatās love.
Impatience: thatās love too.
Itās probably easier to list what love isnāt. I came home last night renewed and grateful, grateful for the myriad ways there are to love in the world, and be in the world, and grateful I still let myself learn about new ones.
Then this morning I awoke to another side of love: loss. I am not here to eulogize my friend Dan who passed away this morning. Iām not qualified, itās too soon, and I just canāt right now.
We live and love and go through this over and over. And it is different every time. And it breaks our hearts every time. How do we go out and get our hearts broken so often?
The alternative is not to love at all. Not to live at all. May we all live richly, fully, amazingly while we can. Next weekend is DĆa de los Muertos. My request is that everyone remember and celebrate those dear to them who are no longer here. And yes, take a moment in gratitude of everyone who has ever touched you, ever loved you, ever been a friend to you.
Safest of journeys in strong light, my friend.
September 20, 2014
Dear Dad –
Can you believe itās been five years? Yeah, me either! I canāt believe itās been five years since we lost you. I canāt believe itās been five years of blog posts and I havenāt once resorted to an epistolary modelā¦until now.
A lot has gone on in the last five years. I know that you didnāt want me to cry or be too sad, but come on. You knew me pretty well. I was pretty sad when you left, and I have certainly shed my share of tears.
Recently I was talking with a friend about how you and Mom never really did understand what to do with me when I would cry. Like, you were concerned, and loving, and looked at me like I was a dear, sweet, beloved alien child who had somehow started leaking.
Speaking of calling crying āleaking,ā did you know we lost Robin Williams too? It sucked. I wish I believed in an anthropomorphic type of afterlife where you and Robin Williams could be up there laughing your asses off together, but Iām pretty sure thatās not the way it works. But I could certainly be wrong! God knows Iām wrong a lot!
Anyway, so Iāve cried a lot in the last five years. Sometimes because I was sad, sometimes because I was happy, sometimes because I was angry or confused, and sometimes simply out of sheer beauty or sheer joy. Often it was severalĀ of those things mixed up together.
I visit your grave usually once a year, usually on your birthday. Remember how I never knew what to do at graves? And Iād talk to you and Mom about it, when we would go to put flowers on Grandmaās grave? Where I wasnāt sure whether to pray or laugh or chat or what? Yeah, I still have no idea. I love the cemetery where youāre buried though. It makes sense to think of you there.
I keep thinking of stories from the past five years, Dad. Funny things and sad things. The bird that got stuck in the church during your funeral. Continued Christmas gag gifts and how I tried to figure out a way I could possibly leave one of those singing fish plaques on your grave. There are things Iāve wanted to tell you and ask you. I visited your grave once not on your birthday, but after the first Flower Communion I attended at my new UU church. I brought the flower that I got that day to your grave, because I needed to tell you about where my faith was taking me, and what I feel I need to do.
But why now? Why take up this letter-writing business when after all, Iāve just admitted a few paragraphs ago that I donāt believe in the type of afterlife where you could at all appreciate this sort of letter?
Well, Dad, a few reasons. For one thing, Iāve had the blog since before you passed away. I still have it, and it seemed important to me to mark this five-year anniversary. For another, to be honest, thereās something I struggle with. Iāve written about grief and mourning and about missing you. The grief is part of me now, every day. It is a part of the sum total of who I am.
But Dad, I have to tell you. I donāt miss you every day.
You hear that a lot, you know? āI miss [name of deceased loved one] every day.ā
I couldnāt tell you when the first day I didnāt miss you was. I was pretty aware, a few months after youād passed, that I had at that point gone longer without seeing you than I ever had in my life. That kind of sucked. And there have been plenty of times Iāve been reminded of you, or wished you were there to read a book or see a movie I thought you would enjoy. (Let me tell you RIGHT NOW though, Iām pretty glad you didnāt have to see them make these stupid Hobbit movies. Yeah: movies, plural. Donāt get me startedā¦) The familyās been through so much we would have been so happy to have you share with us, good and bad.
But I donāt miss you every day. And I need to talk about that because I think sometimes people get ideas of how their grief should be. They listen to the people who talk about missing so-and-so every day, or the ones who note how long they placed a certain type of flower on a grave, or maybe they drive past the monuments on highways to people killed in crashes long ago. Maybe sometimes people hear what other people do or feel in grief and they feel guilt because their own grief doesnāt work the same way.
I know youād agree with me that that isnāt right. Because I know that you wouldnāt WANT me to miss you every day. You would want a life of love and joy for me. I know this because you told me, and for that Iām so grateful. We got to have a lot of conversations when we knew your time was coming – on top of the ones weād had all along. Maybe sometimes people need to mourn in a different way because of conversations they do or do not get to have with their loved ones before the end. If you had died suddenly, perhaps I would miss you every day.
Iāve had a lot of pain and a lot of joy in the last five years, Dad. There have been many days Iāve missed you. And there have been times I have been grateful for the freedom of not having you here. Itās hard to say that. But we each make our break from the life we were raised to in our own way. We make our own life, our own path, our own way. Sometimes we run away from our families, or marry and make new ones in a traditional way, or act out against our parents, or simply move on and make chosen families in less traditional ways. Part of becoming fully me, fully myself, has been facilitated by your not being here. And while I love you, and while I carry the grief of your loss, that is a scar and no longer a wound.
Iāve written, Dad, about what a revelation itās been to look in the mirror and like what I see. I love who I am, scars and all. Itās not that I could never have learned to do that so well while you were here, Dad. Itās that this is the way it has happened, and this is who I am right now, and part of this woman I am is your loss. Part of this woman I am is more with your memory. There are things in my past I regret, things Iām ashamed of, things I am proud of, things I can barely remember. But to be here now they all matter. You matter immeasurably, Dad. You mattered for the 37 years of my life I was blessed to have you with me, you mattered for the 32 years you had before I showed up, and you will continue to matter so much for as long as I live.
But I donāt miss you every day. And I thought youād be happy to hear that.
I love you.
p.s. In the last five years Iāve gotten two more tattoos AND gotten my nose pierced. And I know how much you must love hearing THAT. Heh.
I canāt remember when I learned my father was colorblind. I do remember my tiny mind being blown. āWait, so what DO you see?ā I asked, struggling to understand. āMostly grayish thingsā¦I can see bright colors, like that yellow thereā¦ā and heād point. āBut, like, what does the SKY look like?ā āMostly gray.ā My mind went around and around, trying to figure out what that meant, to live in a world where only the brightest colors stood out. That inevitably led to the same speculation we all make at some point or another, maybe during particularly intense freshman-year up-all-night philosophical discussions: āHow do we know that what YOU see as blue, that wavelength of light, how do we KNOW that we each see that the same way? What if I borrowed your eyes, could see what you see?ā
It was easier to figure out tone deafness. Standing next to my father at church, singing with my own sweet little entirely competent, entirely ordinary voice and listening to my father simply butcher the hymn. One time in the car, as he butchered some other song on the radio (best bet: something by Johnny Cash), I asked about that too. āWell why is it so hard to sing with the radio, then?ā I said, understanding that holding a tune you didnāt know well with a tepid Catholic choir could be difficult. āI just donāt hear how my voice and his voice match up,ā my father said, struggling to explain. I didnāt get that either. Why couldnāt he hear how off he was from what was on the radio, and make corrections, the way I could do?
The one time in my life I was ever sexually assaulted, I barely recognized it as that at first. I was at Tracks, a gay bar in Southeast DC that had goth nights on Thursdays. It was very popular with my group of friends. I didnāt go all that often, clubbing wasnāt entirely my thing, and when I did go I often felt like a schlub (old shorts, Docs, t-shirt) compared to my friends who dressed up. One summer Thursday, I said the hell with it and actually played the part a bit, in a clingy black dress with a low neckline. Even without a low neckline, this dress would have done nothing to minimize or hide my breasts, which have frankly been prominent since oh about the fifth grade. However, one supposes that the neckline made them seem easier to grab, because that is what a distant acquaintance (a few overlapping Venn diagrams of friendship separated us but he was not a stranger to me either) elected to do. He shoved his hand into my dress with no particular lead-up or pretense. It happened so quickly and unexpectedly that I was barely beginning to register it (āHey! What theā¦!?ā) before friends were yelling at the guy to back off. He removed his hand and slunk off, and was then not-so-subtly removed from the club and told not to return. There was brief discussion about whether to involve the police, but frankly since the whole thing was over in under a minute and had been handled, I didnāt bother. I felt safe, because even though something unpleasant had happened, it was quickly and ably demonstrated to me that that sort of behavior would not be tolerated.
Iāve been wanting to write about a lot of things. Iād like to write more about some of the service work I did this summer. Iād like to write more about my vocation. Iād like to write about the sad death of Robin Williams and a sad death of a relative I wasnāt close to and how different my reactions were. Iād like to write about a few movies Iāve watched recently.
And I canāt, because thereās a post Iāve been composing in my head since February 2012 and the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. I felt stunned and uncertain and utterly unqualified to say anything about the incident even as everyone in the country seemed to have an opinion. And I didnāt want to seem to leap on a bandwagon or to speak with any sort of authority. I just had things I needed to figure out for myself.
This is not that post. But I cannot let myself write anything else until I address the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent chain of reactions that has shown me (I hope, shown many of us) again and again how profoundly ingrained our institutionalized racism is in this country, how damaging it is, and how we do our fellow citizens (and ourselves) a deep disservice and deep disrespect by pretending it does not exist.
My father was colorblind and tone deaf. I donāt mean to pick on him, as there was racism entrenched on both sides of my family, but these two conditions mean he serves as a rather brilliant metaphor. The way I was raised was called ācolorblind.ā I was taught to treat all people the same. It is a lovely ideal. But it was tone-deaf as well as ācolorblind.ā
When I was pretty young, maybe 8Ā or 9, I heard my paternal grandmother using really hateful, racist language – the sort of thing that would have gotten ME in a lot of trouble. I was really bothered, but I hated confrontation, so I kept my mouth shut. After my grandmother went home from her visit, I asked my parents about what sheād said, the words she used, and why she was allowed to use them. āYour grandmother was raised in a very different time, and while she is very wrong to say those things, youāre not going to change her mind now.ā They told me that I was certainly allowed to say something to her if what she said bothered me, but that I must be respectful. I was still a little scared but when my grandmother used that language again I asked her very nicely not to talk that way, and she did listen. (At the time. I had to ask her more than once.)
I felt pretty pleased that Iād stood up for what I thought was right. But what I had no honest idea about was how very ātone-deafā the idea of ācolorblindnessā actually was. Thereās a popular quote, very often illustrated in a pretty graphic and shared on social media: āBe kind. Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.ā
That is what I did not learn for an embarrassingly long time. I did not learn that my ācolorblindā childhood actually left me blind in some damaging ways. It was good to learn to treat the black boys and girls in my classes with the same respect as the white boys and girls. It was not good to pretend that we were all exactly alike, because it diminished the struggles – past and present – that my classmates went through.
In the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, who was supposed to start college classes the exact same day that my younger nephew DID start college classes because he is still alive, the people of Ferguson Missouri have reminded the rest of us, again and again, of those struggles. I have read countless articles and editorials. I tend not to read the ones by white people, because I am becoming aware how easy it is to live in a little echo chamber of oneās own, reflecting only similar experiences. Frankly the country has had enough of white people talking about this, as if we know. As if we know what itās like to raise sons that we must train how to behave when they are arrested. Not if. When. As if we know what itās like to have had predatory lending practices levied against us due to our skin color. As if we know what itās like to fear for our lives and wellbeing at every traffic stop.
But I have to write about this before I can let myself address anything else. I wrote about my sexual assault because it is such a good example of the way things should ideally work when someone takes a wrong action. Men and women stood up for me immediately, recognizing a wrong. I know how fortunate I am. I know how many others have been sexually assaulted and have not found help or support, at the time or after. I know how many people have called the police only to be disbelieved, or have failed to call the police at all out of fear or intimidation. That is wrong. That is tone-deaf. It is not the way to start correcting our society in the direction of fewer and fewer sexual assaults.
So what can we do to make the corrections we need to? To sing along with the radio right, to cast aside the tone-deafness? How do we start correcting our society so that we listen to black voices and respect black people by recognizing the way we have stacked the deck against them? I have no idea. I have no easy answers. But we must, must, must set aside the idea of ācolorblindness.ā Everyoneās story must count for something, even – ESPECIALLY – the ones it makes us as privileged white people uncomfortable to hear. Having said that much, my intention is to return to listening.
Last night my friend LauraĀ and I hosted our second “Sharing Our Stories” event at UUCC, on the theme of “Love in Action.” We host these evenings to discuss and raise awareness of issues surrounding reproductive justice.
But just lately I’ve had so much more than that on my mind. After I got back from General Assembly (see my last post), I had a bit of down-time and then I headed to War, West Virginia for a week chaperoning our high school youth group on a service trip. War, in extreme southwest West Virginia, is a part of McDowell County, one of the most impoverished counties in the country. It was like a whole other world.
And I haven’t written about it, because I’ve had no idea how. What I mean is, I haven’t written anything for “public consumption” – I’ve written a lot, but I’ve gone in circles. There is too much to say. About poverty. About hope, and its lack. About work. About perspective. About community. About loneliness. Some of this stuff I’ve been thinking about is outward-facing (“How on earth do we even begin fixing this?!”) and some is inward-facing (“How on earth do I come home and take up my old life of privilege and hope and desire when I have faced this other extreme?”). And mostly I’ve felt split in two.
For the theme of “Love in action,” I wanted to write something about the trip. Okay, strictly speaking, I felt almost entirely unprepared to write about anything NOT involving the trip.
I looked at my notes. I looked at pages and pages of contemplation and questioning and agonizing and frustration. What on earth to focus on? And how could I keep it SHORT?
I wrote the following, and shared it. It’s not poetry, exactly, because heavens above, I am so many things, but I am not a poet. But it’s not exactly prose because it’s the only way I could begin to approach the topic: by cutting it down to one, specific, emotional truth.
Before I read this, so help me, I also shared this songĀ by my friend Caleb. He and I have talked about what it means to write songs from points of view that are very different from your own. I love this song and am so thrilled he wrote it…yet every time I sing it, I think, this song needs to be sung by a woman. I am not forwarding myself as the best woman for the job; still I was the best woman to do it last night since I was the one sharing it, who knew the words. It is worth a listen to his lovely recording above.
Then I shared this. I will have more to say later I’m sure. But it was important for me to start this process, to stop sitting in silence and gazing at my own navel which – I think we can mostly agree – has a true but quite limited applicability.
It doesnāt seem possible that this womanās heart can actually be contained within the human-sized cage of her chest. When she speaks, the love pours out like the cavern within her is bottomless, spanless, neverending.
Here is where I am from, she points.
These mountains. These rivers. These trees.
Welcome in, though it is broken.
Welcome in, though it is tired.
Welcome in, though it is weathered.
Welcome in. It looks asleep. It looks exhausted. It is alive. Alive and boundless and spanless and neverending.
This woman takes it up. Another woman started it, the lifting. They come together, the women who have lost more than we understand. Their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons. Their homes, lands, dignity, opportunity. They have lifted back up their spirits in song again and again, to heal what is broken, to breathe hope in where it has collapsed away, to fill the earth rent so deeply.
And as that love pours out, she says, āThe men have lost so much.ā
The men here have lost everything.
Everything that they are. Everything they were ever told they were to become. Every chance they had to do the only thing they were ever expected to do.
It is gone. They are hollow. They need to be lifted, filled, healed. The earth will care for itself in time. Who will care for them?
The women here sing the answers. They lift their voices their spirits their hands their boundless spanless neverending hearts.
I got my first tattoo when I was 25. In the summer of 1997 I was in a weird place, done with college but not graduated, looking for work, restless. At the time Iām pretty sure I wasnāt all that certain exactly why getting a tattoo appealed to me, but I pawned my high school ring and went to a place in College Park and picked out a Chinese character off a sheet of flash. Walking out with āwisdomā inked on my back, I felt a rush of excitement that Iād done something different, something permanent. Iād changed myself in a small way.
Over the years, as I slowly got more tattoos, I started to clarify for myself what they meant to me. I remember watching some kind TV show – celebrity interviews maybe, Iām not sure – and a guy went into a tattoo parlor with Sean Penn while Mr. Penn got some new ink. It got me to thinking about the way our culture treats celebrities vs. how it treats regular people, and how a certain level of celebrity allows you to get away with things that would be frowned upon for āregular folks.ā Of course over the past seventeen years, tattoos have become a far more accepted part of our culture and far more prevalent even on us regular folks.
In reaction to seeing celebrities with tattoos, I felt my own desires coalesce. I wanted to be seen. I wanted people to see me as more than I appeared at first. I wanted people to look at me and perhaps be thrown or startled that I had a tattoo, and wonder what it meant to me, what it said, what it signified.Ā
And in more recent years I have added to that. I want to be seen, period. I want to be heard. And I want to remind myself of those things. My tattoos have become more significant to me over time. The early ones, I plan one day to cover with more significant designs, but the later ones serve not only as outward-facing symbols but also as reminders.
The latest is also a promise. A promise I am making to myself, but externalized physically so the world can see it and hold me to it.
This weekend I was in Providence, RI for the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Itās the largest annual gathering of UUs each year, and itās when the business of the association is conducted, as well as when many workshops, activities, and panel discussions are held. One day last winter I had lunch with my minister to continue our conversation on the vocation Iāve been contemplating, and she recommended attending GA as a part of the discernment process.
I wasnāt sure what to expect, and it was all very overwhelming. Though I took my Catholic faith pretty seriously when I was young, that started wearing off in adolescence, and I never participated in large church-oriented gatherings – and then when I became an atheist, there was not yet much organizational structure that I was aware of. Nor, frankly, was I at that time in my life particularly interested in organizing with like minded people for social change.
My mind started bending in that direction as I got older. My return to the Catholic church did nothing to satisfy this desire. When I did volunteer work that led me to the UU church, I saw a convergence begin – I was starting to become who I thought I might be.
On Thursday night, my friends Laura and Michelle and I went wandering the streets of Providence in search of dinner. We eventually found a neat little restaurant, and on our way we passed a piercing/tattoo parlor. āHey guys!ā I said, āLetās all get chalice tattoos!ā I was kidding. We laughed.
I woke up on Friday morning at 4:30 a.m. thinking, āHey you know what, I think I do want a tattoo.ā Not a chalice. I was thinking of words. Iām not the most visual person. I had a phrase in mind and I thought I would sit with the idea.Ā
On Friday afternoon I attended a workshop called āWriting as a spiritual practice.ā In my notebook, before I even started in on the first prompt, I wrote down a phrase that was surfacing in my mind again and again: Give love voice. This phrase came in part out of the morning session Iād attended, on using personal storytelling as an organizing tool for social action. We had done an exercise where we told a story of our own to someone we didnāt know. I spoke to a lovely older woman who was a minister from Colorado. When we went over my story afterward, I talked about the ways I was learning this particular event in my past had been a turning point in ways I couldnāt possibly have seen. āI got my voice back,ā I said. āYou see a way to give voice to the voiceless,ā she said.
I slept on it again. On Saturday morning I woke up knowing what I wanted to do. I looked up the tattoo parlor Iād seen on Yelp, saw they were well rated, and at noon I walked over there. I was there for a few minutes and the piercer was very welcoming and gave me a tour and showed me the autoclaves and the tattoo area and the piercing area. I had fifteen minutes until my next activity so I made an appointment for 2 p.m. Before I left, I wrote the phrase on paper so they could transfer it to stencil: āGIVE LOVE VOICE.ā After my afternoon activity ended at 1:45, I walked over again, filled out the paperwork, handed over my ID, and within 20 minutes I was out the door with that message on my right arm.
I do not know the ultimate outcome of my continued path in pursuit of this vocation. I learned so much this weekend, including the existence of legislative ministry, a phrase that made me stand up and take real notice. I met people I admire. I joined passionate people and engaged my own passions, without feeling like I had to hold them back or pass off a more aloof nature. At GA, itās okay to be jazzed about everything.
āGive love voiceā sums up what I want to do. Itās a promise to myself. And itās a promise to everyone else. It doesnāt mean Iāll be perfectly unfaltering and undaunted. It doesnāt mean I know all the answers. It just means I am actively working on being who I think I can be.
Just lately Iāve been thinking of my own sense of vanity. This may be because I never really had much of one before, oh, the last couple of years.Ā Or, when I did feel that creeping up, I felt shame. Like I didnāt deserve to like how I looked, perhaps.
I spent some time searching my LiveJournal (13 years Iāve had that thing!), looking for an entry Iām sure I remember writing sometime before my first-ever Jeopardy! audition. (That would have been 2006 or so, I think.) I wanted to find it because I remember it being pretty funny, but it also dealt with the strange sense of ā¦unease I had, allowing myself to be concerned with my looks. It told the tale of preparing for the audition (it was done in-person, not online, at the time) by going to get my eyebrows waxed. At the time, that was still something I had done regularly. The lady offered, as she always did, to wax other parts of my face where pesky hairs were springing up – lip, chin. I thought of auditioning for TV. I said āyes.ā And then she hot-waxed half my face and I wandered around blinking back tears and looking like a horse stepped on my face. (My sensitive skin and I, by the way, no longer consent to having any hairs ripped out of any part of my body via hot wax. Just, hell no.)Ā
Before I say any more, I should perhaps adjust my terminology. Iāve been contemplating this post for a little while, on and off since my most recent Jeopardy! audition just a few weeks ago in fact. And Iād always thought, āYes Iāll write about vanity.ā So to check myself, I looked up vanity, and the first definition is āexcessive pride in appearanceā (emphasis mine). Wait. Is it excessive? What amount of pride-in-appearance is okay?
Apparently ānone,ā at least for me. While I donāt think I had a lot of active body shame (except when I was at my heaviest, and even then Iām not sure how aware of it I was), itās also been a rare thing to look at myself – in a mirror, in a photo – and think āHey! I look pretty!āĀ
Over time my attitude toward myself and how I look has changed. As I struggled out of adolescence, I took better care with hygiene. As I hit the stride of young adulthood, I started developing a sense of personal style. (A kind of sloppy one, but a sense of style nonetheless!) As I entered the world of dating and then of work, I became more aware of how my appearance was perceived by, and could influence, others.Ā
And then, they put cameras in cell phones. And then, selfies became a thing. And then, this year, I heard about the #365feministselfie project and started participating in it. And Iāve done that for six months now, and I had my audition, and in this drawn-out, agonizingly slow way of mine I have figured out that hey, Iām actually pretty.
And itās OKAY that I think that. It doesnāt mean Iām full of myself. It doesnāt mean Iām a better person than I was when I didnāt think that. (Although in many ways, of course, I feel I have improved as a person as I moved through time. There may well be correlation but I doubt there is causation, other than perhaps in a certain confidence of carriage that has developed as I hit middle age.) I struggle with that last one a bit. The fact that Iāve taken more charge of my health in recent years has been important to me, and part of that has been significant weight loss. I find myself bringing that up at odd times, because it IS something Iām proud of – the good pride, not the sin stuff. (Many more thoughts on pride to come from me this summer, by the way.) Yet I remind myself continually that just as gaining weight didnāt make me a bad person, losing it doesnāt make me a good one. We are all so much more complex than that sort of dualism leaves room for. My rigid plannerās mind likes classifying things, though, so I remind myself. That looking good doesnāt make me better. And that liking the way I look doesnāt make me worse. Itās just part of learning to live with, and love, who I am.
In the last few weeks Iāve watched not one but two documentaries on comic strips: Stripped, on the history of and various possible futures for comic strips and related media, and Dear Mr. Watterson, one manās filmic ode to the creator of Calvin & Hobbes. Both the films are very thorough and enjoyable, and worth seeking out – the first if you enjoy comics of any type, the second if you are a Calvin & Hobbes fan particularly.Ā
But in following my standard train of thought (i.e. completely bananas), I wound up reflecting on the way my upbringing molded my ideas of spousal roles.Ā
I love comic strips. I have since I was a little girl. The Sunday paper would come and Mom would read the Parade Magazine and clip coupons, and Dad and I and my brother would go for the comics. (I think my brother might have actually read some of the news stuff too, maybe. Nobody else seemed to care much.) I read Peanuts and made my so-patient parents sit through theatric presentations wherein I would re-enact Snoopyās activities. The first fan letter I ever wrote was to Snoopy. (He answered, natch!) Then came Garfield. At last! A comic strip about a cat! For a few years there nearly everything I owned was plastered with Garfield. When I got my driverās license I immediately got a suction-cup Garfield for the window of my Dadās Buick. (Awww, yeah.) I have memorized and forgotten more Bloom County strips than I am quite prepared to admit. And comic books too – all Carl Barksā luminous, hilarious works on years of stories featuring Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and Huey, Dewey, and Louie. But Uncle Scrooge was my favorite, by far. His adventures from the Andes to Alaska to Atlantis captivated me, and I read them over and over again.
Watching those documentaries reminded me of that childhood love, and also of the fact that for a while, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I wanted to be a cartoonist more than anything, in that intense way kids want stuff without really realizing what that means. Itās probably the best way to want things, to dream: without awareness of obstacles. I think that maybe if the dream takes deep enough root before you become aware of the obstacles, you kind of build up the steam and strength to deal with them.Ā
That particular dream didnāt last. A lot didnāt. Either I figured out the obstacles too soon or had them pointed out to me (kindly or unkindly, as both happened to me at various times) and felt overwhelmed. Sure, of course, how foolish of me. What was I thinking, dreaming like that.
I drew a lot even though I wasnāt terribly good at it. (A few old art teachers of mine would argue otherwise; I have a gift for copying and mimicry that falls apart when it comes to original art.) I had a few characters I drew over and over. But eventually I also started drawing some other things over and over: a simple desk, in a simple office, where simple work was done. My dreams started downsizing. Aim for the middle, kid!
One part of them that didnāt, though, was the part my too-romantic soul wanted: the dreams of growing up, meeting and falling in love with a wonderful man, getting married and having kids. Even though as I hit puberty the obstacles to this became glaringly obvious – it turns out that it is rather hard to begin a dating process (an important first step to marriage, or so they tell me)Ā if one finds oneself incapable of even speaking to a member of the gender to whom one is attracted.Ā
Still, I stumbled my way out of adolescence, re-learned how to have conversations with men, and soldiered on. And when I did find a wonderful man to fall in love with, the fact that he was an artist seemed WAY TOO PERFECT.
I did this thing, in my head. I cast myself as the helping hand. The one who would run the household with quiet competence while my genius artist husband created wonderful works of art. The one who would stand, smiling, just behind him in publicity photos as he accepted awards. Artist, heck, I was no slouch: I fell in love with a cartoonist. I could see us, dressed all fancy to go pick up all those lucrative cartooning awards!
That particular man, while wonderful, did not turn out to be the person I would marry. But it did start me on a pattern. Boy do I love artists. I mean I looove artists. Show me a guy interested in a creative pursuit and Iāll show you my flashiest smile and sparkliest eyes.Ā
And every. single. freaking. time: I cast myself in that helpmeet role. I will support you! I will put you through schmancy art school! I will make you coffee when you are on deadline! I will Swiffer up your pencil-shavings! I will place a cold compress upon your tired hands! I will help tune your guitars! I willā¦
ā¦I will only see myself as having value in someone elseās accomplishments?Ā
ā¦.I will sacrifice myself to the greater glory of some abstraction?Ā
ā¦I will assume it is not for me to achieve but only to assist?Ā
ā¦I will learn that there really ARENāT lucrative cartooning awards, wonāt I?
Where did I learn this? Was this pattern modeled to me? In many ways, it was. In some ways, it was a failure of my own imagination, my own confidence. In some ways, it was a lack of understanding of the actual give-and-take that occurs within relationships. In large ways it was growing up within a religion that has very narrow āacceptableā roles for women – and all of them are secondary to men. In many ways it was that my family prized what I called ābootstrappinessā as in pull-yourself-up-by-yours: I couldnāt see asking for help but I could certainly see giving help. What eroded my confidence? What made me question my dreams? What made me cast myself as a supporting role in someone elseās life?
Iām not married. I donāt have children. I donāt draw much anymore (carpal tunnel syndrome would have derailed that long ago!). But Iām going to tell you one thing Iām teaching myself to do again. Iām teaching myself to dream. And in these dreams, I actually get a starring role.Ā
Yesterday my oldest nephew graduated from college. It was pretty awesome. The speeches were interesting and they kept things moving pretty wellā¦except, well. Loyola takes pride in the fact they announce each degree candidate by name. Every bachelorās degree, every masterās degree, every doctoral degree. All in all about 1600 names. You guys, I felt old enough going into this ceremony. By the end I felt positively ancient.
I donāt want to make light of his accomplishment – not at all! He did very well, made it into some sort of business honor society thing. We were all so happy to see him walk across that stage and to give him huge hugs afterward. It was a great day!
But it is, after all, my blog. So my thoughts are gonna touch on myself a bit, here. A few years ago, probably around the time Jack was starting to think about which colleges to apply to, it hit me. My nephew was going to get a college degree before I did.Ā
Now Iāve written a bit about why I didnāt finish my degree 20-some years ago, and Iām pretty at peace with it. But back when the reality of my nephew going to college was starting to sink in, I wasnāt at peace with it. It was something I was only starting to feel comfortable acknowledging openly. But I was happy to listen as he went through the college selection process, as he moved up to Loyola, as he went through his dumb college stuff just like most of us who go to college go through dumb college stuff.Ā
Yesterday, I think, would have been very difficult for me emotionally if I hadnāt faced my own anger at and sadness with myself for not finishing college. But since I faced that, and am taking steps to finish for reasons that are really important to me – it was totally, absolutely okay. The emotions I felt yesterday were pride and happiness and love. (Okay and frustration – it was a confusing jumble at the ceremony and driving around the city post-graduation pre-Preakness was a bit of a zoo.)
Mostly, then, this is a post of gratitude. Iām grateful I was able to forgive myself and move on. Iām grateful to my mother for making it easier for me to finish my bachelorās. Iām grateful to my brother and sister-in-law and both my nephews for being supportive and thinking itās cool that Iām finishing up and not judging me at all for not having done it 20-some years ago.
I am also grateful to myself for remembering to pack a protein bar in my bag for the ceremony yesterday, because that sucker was about three hours long, smack in the middle of when most civilized people would have been eating lunch. If I hadnāt had a snack, Iām not sure I could have been held responsible for my actions.Ā
Iāl confess that I was awake before my alarm went off this morning, but relaxing, listening to birdsong and squirrels gettinā up to springtime business, basking in calm morning idleness. Then the radio kicked in.
The static was scratchy but the song sounded familiar. As I rolled the top half of my body toward the clock radio (my legs staying in place so as not to dislodge the cat from her resting-spot) and stretched to turn on the lamp, my spine cracked pleasingly in not less than three places, and I smiled thenā¦BOOM. It kicked in what song was on the radio. It was Michelle Shockedās āCome A Long Way.ā
As the chorus kicked in I sang along in a creaky morning-voice, having said nothing yet today other than perhaps a soft āhelloā to a cat or two. And then I was crying.
Not because the song is sad, exactly. It was just a moment of remembering who I was when the album came out. I went to see Michelle Shocked and Bruce Cockburn open for Bob Weir at Merriweather Post Pavilion sometime in the early ā90s (we only went for the opening acts and left for Bob Weir). And that song, that song summed up a certain longing for me at that time in my life, my early 20s. Inside the longing I felt was the desire for change, the desire to move, to get beyond what my life was at the time. The young woman who played that song over and over never realized that one day, sheād drive across country by herself. She never realized what she was doing to herself in school, not taking advantage of opportunities given to her. She never realized how closed her eyes were at the timeā¦ I guess we never do.
I didnāt really miss that young woman this morning, but I mourned her. Her dreams werenāt even really hers, and she didnāt even know it until they collapsed around her. Around me. I didnāt see that those old dreams had to collapse so I could dream any new ones. So I could take up the joy inside mourning and go on to build new things. To go on to ā¦come a long way.