September 11, 2018

This was originally written for an event for my writing group. The monthly theme was “Wave.”

IMG_3898There is a painting hanging over my parents’ fireplace that is my single favorite piece of art in the world. It is a painting of a bottle green wave, caught in the act of rising up and crashing down on calmer water – the Pacific Ocean in all its glory. You can see every shade of green and blue imaginable present in the wave, capturing the infinite power of the ocean in a still picture.  The obvious violence and power of the wave is clear but its unpredictability also simmers right below the calmer surface. It is incredible, and my grandfather painted it.

My grandfather was an unpredictable man. He could be wonderful. He was an artist who taught me how to paint. The lessons had a somewhat unorthodox beginning: I was about seven years old and visiting my grandparents who lived on Stinson Beach. He asked me what kind of art I was doing in school. I said well, we have art for half an hour every other Wednesday. He said, “Goddamn it!” (that was his favorite phrase) “That’s not enough!”

We spent the next few hours in his studio which smelled gloriously like a mix of linseed oil, turpentine, salt water, bourbon, creosote, and other smells that I can’t identify but bring me right back to 1982. He showed me how to mix paints, clean brushes, sketch out the basics of the painting before starting, and use a paintbrush correctly. Somewhere in my parents’ house, there’s still a small rectangle of canvas with the beginning of a terrible painting of polo players, which I had inexplicably chosen for the subject of my first painting.

My grandfather could also explode, violently. My grandmother was often skittish, and as an adult, I think I know why. During my next painting lesson, I stuck a paintbrush through a tube of lavender oil paint, for a reason I cannot remember, and I saw all the adults in my family flinch. My mom started yelling at me, probably to stop my grandfather from punishing me, but he told her, crudely, to leave me alone, and began berating her, saying, “Kids make mistakes! Leave her alone!”

I wasn’t his favorite for long though. As he progressed further into alcohol and mental illness, I saw the other side of him. He died when I was about nine years old but before that he found plenty of opportunities to tell me that he didn’t want me and that I wasn’t his favorite.

One memory is especially strong: I went to visit him in the skilled nursing facility at the end of his life, wearing a purple gingham sundress, with my hair in two pigtails. The seniors in the home were starved for attention and became visibly excited about seeing a cute child, dressed up to see her grandfather. But when I walked into his room, he yelled, “I don’t want you! I want your sister!”

My grandfather died shortly after that and I’ve always thought it was a shame that his ashes weren’t scattered in the Pacific, because he loved the ocean. It seemed like he loved the ocean more than he was able to love his family members. He taught me to be afraid of men, to cringe when people raise their voices, to hold my breath when adults blew cigarette smoke in my face, and to shut up and pray when drunk people drove me around as fast as they could with no seatbelts. But he also taught me how to paint. And he also gave me my deep, deep love for the ocean.

I spend as much time as possible on the Pacific Coast. I love the warm waters of the Caribbean or swimming in Hawaii, but the Northern California coast is my kind of ocean. I bundle up in a down jacket, settle myself onto the rocks, and watch the pounding waves, in awe of their power.


Alan Alda

May 19, 2017

[written for my writing group for the subject: Permit]

My second-grade teacher and my parents were at odds over how to deal with me. They didn’t know they were giving me such mixed messages because I didn’t tell my teacher about what was going on at home (although, having taught 7-year-olds, I am sure she knew something was wrong). And my parents never received any complaints from my school, just the occasional note that I seemed sad.

One afternoon that year, my teacher had us watch Free to Be You and Me, the 70’s TV special narrated by Alan Alda and some other people I don’t remember, all about being comfortable in your own skin, not putting labels on people, and various other hippie ideals that were not quite as popular in 1982, but that my teacher firmly believed in.

I remember very little about the TV show except for two things: the radical notion that boys and girls could like the same things and the song “It’s All Right to Cry.” You see, in my family, it wasn’t all right to cry. Crying was not permitted, at least for me. It was all right for my little sister to cry, and my mom was rarely not crying. I was pretty sure that my little brother or sister on the way was going to be crying most of the time. But for me, it had never been OK.

My mom had me when she was 25 – not that young by the standards of the day, but she was completely emotionally unprepared. To this day, when someone talks about how they might be less lonely if they had a baby, or how it would be nice to have a child so there would be someone who was always there, I have to walk away. I recently ended a friendship because my former friend spent tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments, confiding to me that, without a partner, she was really lonely, so even though she was financially and emotionally unprepared to have a baby, she just “really needed someone who loved her unconditionally.”

That’s exactly what my mother intended I would be for her.

It should really be no surprise then that she couldn’t handle me. From the time I learned to walk and talk (both around nine months old, which shocked everyone), I had opinions. Actually, I probably had opinions before then. I was not the malleable precious little doll-baby she had imagined, but was strong-willed and emotional, and she had no idea what to do with me. So she made the rule that I couldn’t cry. After all, only one of us could be upset at a time, and it was usually my mother.

This rule was enforced in different ways at different times. I’m not sure what the mandatory reporter laws were like in the late 70s and early 80s, but it was probably more convenient for everyone that I didn’t talk to my teachers about this enforcement. The mildest version was to be sent to my room if I cried, and if she could hear me through the closed door, the next threat was to have to spend the night in the garage. I never had to do that because I would put the pillow over my head and hold my breath, trying to stop myself from calling out for my parents, who were clearly not going to be any help.

If my mom wasn’t feeling patient, she’d slap me across the face which would generally do the trick. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” and all that. It’s hard to blame her – that would have been an act of love compared to what she grew up with. It’s no wonder that I grew up steeped in shame and fear; she had come by those honestly and passed them on to her children in our DNA and from her behavior

One day though, everything changed. I came home from school and something happened, and I cried, and she slapped me across the face. We had just watched the last part of Free to Be You and Me and I just wasn’t taking it any more. “My teacher says it’s OK to cry!” I yelled at her. “It was on TV! You can’t punish me for crying!”

I’m not sure she had any idea what I was talking about but I kept going. “If you hit me, I’m going to tell my teacher because I’M ALLOWED TO CRY!” I screamed at her. And went in my room to do precisely that.

That ended it. There were plenty of other problems in my family, but I wasn’t punished for crying anymore and she never hit me again.

But, of course, it didn’t really end it. The shame never left. I still feel it every time tears come – I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m disappointing people, I’m not good enough.

My nieces and nephew though – they don’t have this. They know it’s OK to cry. They know feelings matter and are valid, and they don’t feel ashamed when they express their feelings. The cycle of shame seems to be ending, and maybe it’s time for the adults to learn from the kids. They didn’t even need Alan Alda.


April 22, 2011

I got in a little fender bender – and I mean that literally.  The other person’s fender was bent quite a little.  I was backing up at probably 2 1/2 miles an hour and did the responsible thing and took care of it.  I’ve been feeling absolutely horrible about myself ever since.  I realized that the level of shame I have around this would be more appropriate for a DUI with injuries, not a tiny dent in a parked car

I was thinking about why this is when I made another mistake today.  This wasn’t big at all – I went to an appointment without confirming it so I ended up driving about 20 minutes one-way for something I couldn’t do, wasting time that I needed to be doing work.  Then when I was driving home, the drawbridge was up so it took about 45 minutes to get home.

The whole time, I could hear one message in my head: YOU ARE SO STUPID.  over and over.  StupidStupidStupidStupid.  I’m not totally sure whose voice it is – some of it is from my parents but that was a long time ago.  And they’ve apologized and done their best to make amends.  But still it’s continuing: So stupid, so stupid, so stupid.  It is easier to give in than fight it and I find myself almost singing along “I am so stupid, I am so stupid.”  It’s terrifying how much control this voice can have over me and how it ended up being like a chorus on the way home.  StupidStupidStupidStupid.

This isn’t what I want taking up space in my brain.

Generational Fear

January 8, 2010

Something unusual happened to me on New Year’s Eve – I got asked out by someone I don’t know. I went to a swing dance and danced with someone who I didn’t know. We had fun dancing and he asked for my email address. I gave it to him and he emailed me and asked me to go dancing with him again. This rarely happens to me and I’m totally panicked even though we haven’t made definite plans. I was thinking about the fact that I am experiencing this level of panic about the possibility of dancing with someone who seemed like a very nice guy. I know dating is scary for many people, but I don’t think it should be paralyzingly terrifying.

Then I remembered: my family. It’s not really talked about, but I think that every woman – or close to it – in my mom’s family except my sister and I (it stopped around then) was sexually abused. That’ll do something to the atmosphere you grow up in. So, if my mom, my aunts, my grandmother, and my cousins were all molested/abused (and I know WAY too many details about some of the situations), is it any surprise at all that I find men frightening? It’s almost worse that it was never talked about because I had to wonder and try to figure it out myself.

If something specific had happened to me, I would feel like I had more of an “excuse” for this fear. Anyone can understand “hey, my uncle molested me when I was 12, so I’m a little nervous about getting into any sort of relationship with men.” But it was more like there was something in the air or in the water. I’m afraid to tell anyone because they might point out that nothing happened to me personally, so why is it affecting me? It’s not straightforward and I feel like I must be making it up.

All of these abusers were artists. They created absolutely incredible, breathtaking, beautiful art. Some of their work has been given to heads of state as gifts. It’s a little jarring to realize that people who created so much beauty could also do something so awful and ugly, with lasting consequences to people they weren’t even thinking of.