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.

 


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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Growing Up With Art

November 15, 2010

OK, I’m writing something for the church newspaper, and my assignment was to write about how growing up in a family of artists affected me and my faith.  This is what I have so far, and if anyone feels like giving me feedback (in the next 24 hours) I’d love honest feedback!  Obviously, it’s not finished, if you look at what’s in brackets!  I seem to have hit a wall in writing so I’ll try again tomorrow.

“Artist” is an incredibly emotionally loaded word for me.  Art does not come naturally to me like some might think it would.  [I need something else here, I think]

My mother’s family is made up completely of artists.  We have poets, painters, sculptors, printmakers, musicians, photographers, and dancers.  There are abstract artists, portrait artists, and landscape artists.  Some had formal training and others just had it come naturally to them.  Emails are sent around to family members about gigs people are playing, art shows coming up, photography blogs, and poetry prizes.

I don’t fit into this mold as well as most of my family members, since I’m one of the few non-professional artists.  I like words and facts. I like words to mean what they’re supposed to mean and things to be described as they are.

I spent a lot of my childhood around artists, with all the wonderful and not-so-wonderful things that come along with that.  I was always around oil paint, turpentine, and wood shavings, and can vividly remember each of those odors.  Art and artists had strong positive and negative effects on me.  I learned to paint when I was about eight years old and my grandfather decided that one hour of art every other Wednesday at school wasn’t enough, so he took me into his oil painting studio and let me use his supplies.  I learned to see beauty – in art, in nature, in faces, in colors, and even just in shapes – a gift that I think adds a great deal to my life.

The stereotype of the tormented artist has a lot of truth in it, however, and there were also many negative effects on my life.  Many of these artists in my family had substance abuse issues or mental illness.  Depression abounded.  Art was a way to disappear – people could, for a short period of time, erase themselves and offer a beautiful creation in the place of their frenetic thoughts, sorry, and low self-worth. Even as a child, I was confused about this.

[connecting these two paragraphs]

Somehow, I have not only always believed in God, but I’ve always known that I was being taken care of.  I’ve been able to use art to remind me of God’s faithfulness, and of the fact that I am redeemed.  At times I have wished that I could not believe – when I’m angry or disappointed in God.  For some reason, I can’t not believe

[something about experiencing God through art]

 


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?