Wave

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.

 

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Empowered to Take Up All My Space

December 14, 2017

It took a LOT of courage to do this, but the person after me doing the poem with the drums asked me to partner with him and… I did it.

Here’s the text:

With sweat pouring off me, I’m stomping my feet and swishing my long skirt around me. I’m not quite on rhythm and I don’t want to look at myself in the mirror because I know my steps look nothing like my flamenco instructor, but I feel free. I’ve taken dance classes before – ballet and tap when I was young, swing and salsa in college and as a young adult – but flamenco is the one I want to continue with. Even more, it’s what I want to be a metaphor for my life.

When I took ballet, it was always about trying to be graceful, staying quiet and in my place, and – even as a young child – not being too large. It took me until I was about seven or eight to lose my baby fat and slim down, and my ballet teacher poked at my belly and told me that I ate too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and that I needed to suck in my stomach. I was five.

Ballet dancers look beautiful and I admire their hard work and dedication. But I also know the sacrifices they make for their art – the long, unbroken lines come from brutally carrying their weight on the tips of their toes, something the human body is not made for.  The slim physique of ballet dancers comes from strenuous physical activity, but also, too often, from disordered eating or substance abuse.

Flamenco, on the other hand, embraces whatever size, shape, or age a woman is. My flamenco teacher is constantly telling us to “take up all your space.” It’s about being stable on your feet and your hips, using all the body that you have, and learning the technique in a way that you can impart the dance with all the soul and feeling needed. You are encouraged to land heavily on the floor, to lean into steps with all your weight, and to use your hands and arms in large, sweeping movements. You are also encouraged to make noise.

Another thing that draws me to flamenco is how empowered the women look. There is a specific look cultivated with this dance, and empowered really is the best word I can think of for it. Women keep their head up, look proud, and don’t lower their eyes for anyone.

There’s also the stomping – which is clearly not the official term and my flamenco teacher would be angry with me for using it – that is so cathartic. I found the perfect description from the unlikeliest of sources, Wikipedia.) “El baile flamenco is known for its emotional intensity, proud carriage, expressive use of the arms, and rhythmic stamping of the feet.” Female flamenco dancers often use large, colorful scarves and skirts, taking up all their space like proud tropical birds, but fiercer.

I keep going back to these dance lessons because they remind me that I want to live like that. Not proud in a narcissistic way, but proud in a non-apologetic way. I had to spend so much of my life apologizing for who I was, in both words and actions, that I didn’t get to have that proud carriage. I still feel so often like my spirit is broken and flawed in an irreparable way that it’s hard for me to accept that I have the right to have a “proud carriage.” I come off as empowered to many people because I’m opinionated and not afraid of public speaking, but that’s not how I feel. I want to have the empowerment inside too.

I also want to feel like I have the right to take up all my space. I don’t want to try to be smaller or shrink into spaces that don’t quite fit me. I want to take up the space that I take up and stomp if I need to. Not to be angry and reactionary, but to be myself, proud, expressive, and fighting for my rights. I want to express myself in stomping if I need to. I want to stomp because I am beautiful and persevering and have learned to hold my head up high.

 

 


My Team Showed Up

November 28, 2017

Today was a rough day.

We’re four days post-Thanksgiving and rapidly approaching Christmas. My family was totally fine this year – only very very minor blips. I had a great time with the kids (two nieces and a nephew who are the light of my life) and no arguments. But *I* felt not good enough. I noticed I was single, I noticed I don’t have my own “little family” as my siblings say. I was my own worst enemy in my head and my heart and I haven’t been able to shake that off. I feel like I am not good enough.

Christmas is coming up. I loved having Christmas with my ex. Actually, the last two men I’ve dated; we’ve had our own little rituals and not a lot of presents, but thoughtful ones, and our own ways of celebrating Christmas. Last year, my ex and I met up with my family on Christmas Eve (his is not local) and brought lunches to homeless people and cleaned trash on the beach on Christmas, ending with watching a gorgeous sunset over a clean beach. I miss that so much — someone you can build traditions with.

I’ve been working way too much. Every day, at least a little, and frequently 10-12 hour days. I love my work but I’m exhausted and emotionally depleted. I had some housing drama today that I won’t get into but I feel unheard and treated unfairly and it triggered everything in me about security (housing, financial, emotional) and unfair treatment (I was the scapegoat in my alcoholic family. I always felt like if I could just find the magic words to explain how things weren’t fair, that someday my parents would actually GET IT. But they never did)

I also had a reading today in a new venue, reading something that I’ve read once before but it’s not my usual subject. I usually read my writing about my students, about education, about social justice, and those sorts of things. Occasionally I veer out into reading about depression, which is tough.

This piece was about being a beautiful empowered woman with my head held high. If there was an opposite of a beautiful empowered woman with her head held high, that’s what I was feeling today. I was feeling like a broken, defective, ugly, guilty woman cowering in bed.

But I had promised and it was a partner reading and I went. I got dressed up, I put on lipstick and sparkly earrings, and I drove to BART and took BART to San Francisco and took Lyft to the venue. The housing drama was escalating on my phone as I went and I was fighting back tears. I don’t even know what exactly the tears were about except that they were about everything.

When I was young, I had undiagnosed asthma and most of the people in my extended family were smokers. I had (and still have) trouble breathing at all near smoke, and when I was near them, I would say I couldn’t breathe. They’d laugh at me and the drunker ones would blow smoke in my face. I said my throat hurt. They didn’t care. I switched to saying my teeth hurt, no idea why, but it made sense at the time. Nobody cared. I started saying that my EVERYTHING hurt. They still didn’t listen, but I felt like it was true. My everything hurt when I was around them.

This is how I was as I walked into the venue. My everything hurt. My everything was making me cry. I looked around for the one friend who had said she could come and found only a text saying she had to work late and wouldn’t make it. I felt completely alone there.

Then, people started showing up for me. These are people from my writers’ group who were there to support the group (there were four of us reading), not specifically me, but they were also there for me because I’m part of the group.

The person who had asked me to partner with him in the reading asked how I was, and I didn’t say fine. I said I was having a hard time. His partner came and asked me how I was and I said the same thing. I didn’t lie. I told people it was a hard day, that Thanksgiving had been hard, that I feel less than everyone else, that I was having drama/misunderstanding with someone which felt awful, and that I just do not feel good enough. And that I feel alone. And single. And alone. (I wouldn’t mind single if I didn’t feel alone).

They didn’t run away. They didn’t get scared. They listened to me, I cried a little, and they told me how excited they were to hear my piece again and how maybe it was just what I needed to do tonight.

I listed to the other readers and tried to fight my thoughts and feelings. My throat hurt from trying not to cry. My eyes burned. My heart hurt. Because my heart always hurts when I feel worthless. My everything hurt.

And then it was my turn. I haven’t watched the video yet but I felt good about it. I felt like my words were what I needed. I explained why I loved flamenco dance even though I’m not good at it (that photo is not me) and how my experiences with ballet had made me feel worthless. I told the audience how flamenco is empowering with beautiful women dancing who are stomping, who have a proud carriage, and who don’t lower their heads. I told them that I felt irreparably damaged and like I wasn’t allowed to take up all my space or be empowered. And I told them that I want to live my life with my head held high because I am beautiful and empowered and strong.

And these people, who I dont know well… these people were there for me. It wasn’t the support I wanted. I wanted a partner to drive me there, to buy me flowers, and to take me home and congratulate me. But it was a whole team and they got what I was saying. They were present with me. I hadn’t known how much I needed their presence.

I had a whole team with me. My team showed up and I hadn’t even known they would be there.

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Family

June 28, 2010

My baby brother got married today.  He’s 8 years younger than me and, due to the dynamics of our family, I played a large part in raising him.  The family that was so incredibly dysfunctional when I was younger has grown and mellowed and aged.  My super controlling world-renowned artist uncle has Parkinson’s, and while it’s made him hardly able to walk and totally unable to sculpt, he’s now very encouraging and even told me as I left, “Great job being yourself.”  His wife, who used to routinely insult me and then insist that she was just kidding is older and wrinkled and very sweet.  My cousin survived an abusive marriage and is now married to another man and happy and pregnant and gardening.  Her adolescent son, who was molested by his father, has been adopted by his stepfather and is now an artist.

There were some difficult things going on.  My uncle was just dumped by his girlfriend of twenty years and looked horribly sad.  My other aunt has really bad hip problems and is walking like someone in her eighties, not someone who is 44.  My sister is still not very nice to me – although I did get to hold my beautiful 2 1/2 month old niece.  But most of it was OK, and that was what surprised me.

Artists have it rough, I think, and not just because it’s hard to make a living.  In fact, many of my relatives make a very good living with their art.  The tough thing about being an artist is that somehow – and I’m not sure how it works exactly – I think you have to feel things more strongly than most people.  Maybe in order to see the beauty in life to the level that you can express it creatively, you have to feel the sadness and the pain more than most people.  I’m not sure, but it’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for decades now.  Most of my family members are artists and they (we?  I sometimes include myself but not always) are, at the same time, incredibly blessed by their talent and tortured by it.

We took family photos and I was alone in them.  My brother and his now-wife were in the middle, of course.  My parents are still married (that in itself is a miracle) and were together.  My sister and brother-in-law held their baby.  And then there was me.  The extended family photos weren’t much better.  My aunt and uncle.  My other aunt and uncle.  My cousin, husband, and two kids.  My other cousin, husband and two kids.  My step-cousin and her boyfriend and their kid.  On the other side of the family were my recently-dumped uncle and my widowed grandmother so I wasn’t totally alone.

It’s still a struggle to not let that define me.  I can be the seventh wheel in my family and still be valuable.  My parents’ shelves are filled with photos: My brother and my new sister-in-law, my sister and her husband, my parents together.  Then there’s me and my dog.  Sometimes it’s horribly difficult to see that there – I feel like I’m not as good as the others because no one has yet wanted to spend the rest of his life with me.  I know that’s not true – that God doesn’t take these kinds of things into account – but God’s not there in a photo with me.  Sometimes I think to myself that eventually everyone will be widowed or divorced and we’ll all be alone but that just makes me feel mean and petty. Usually this happens when I’m angry with God for not bringing me what I’m praying for – a husband or release from loneliness.

The real truth is that if I had married any of the people I thought I wanted to marry, I would be miserable and probably a lot more broken than I am.  It’s likely that I wouldn’t be writing this blog because I’d still be depressed.  I definitely wouldn’t have learned that I can actually sit at home alone and be contented and sometimes even joyful.  I think the story that I am in right now is a miracle – a divine gift from God and a miracle of healing.  This may not last, knowing me, but right now I can say that I’d rather have that than what I used to think I wanted, even if it means standing alone in photos.  It’s hard, though, to look deeper into my life for the blessings and gifts and values, and not just take the easy way of pointing to a photo and counting that as my self-worth.


Creativity

May 24, 2009

A few weeks ago, my Bible study had a discussion on creativity – God’s creativity, since he is, after all, the Creator.  We also discussed our creativity as children of God and creative people, created in God’s image.  There was the predictable comments about how people don’t think they’re creative because they’re not artistic, etc.

I had a lot to say but I didn’t say anything.  Creativity feels like a dangerous topic to me.  My mom’s family made a living by being creative.  They were all, every one of them, artists.  Amazing artists.  Very talented, accomplished, professional artists, for the most part.

In some ways, they’re everything I want to be.  There are parts of me I think I can only express through art, but I don’t have the talent, experience, or training to do so.  I have feelings that could only be expressed visually and I have some basic ideas, but I am not able to create a representation of what I feel – at least, not as well as I’d like to.  It’s possible that my standards are too high, but I was raised around some truly amazing artists.

But there’s a dark side to creativity also.  At least, in my family, there was.  It seemed like the more talent someone had to express the beauty and pain of life, the more pain was present to describe.  I don’t know if that goes together in other settings, but in my family, it did.

So, the word creativity sort of makes my heart hurt.  Partly because I have a need to express my emotions in a creative way that I don’t seem to be able to do.  And partly because the idea of creativity makes me really sad.

Does anyone else look at beautiful art and wonder “How much pain was the artist in when he created this?