Socks and Sandals, or Things I Would Never Have Done When I Lived in the Midwest

My acrylic socks make my feet snug and happy inside my Keen sandals. When it rains later today, I’ll change into waterproof shoes, but right now I’m enjoying the delicious embrace of webbed shoes.

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There’s a bunch of stuff I have done in Oregon that I would never even have considered while living in the Midwest. Setting aside the coastal-state things I’ve done, all of which were not an option living in the land-locked state of Illinois (do you REALLY consider Great Lakes states to be coastal?), and living near actual mountains (as opposed to landfill hills onto which industrious skiers have pumped manufactured snow) I’ve enjoyed an array of Oregon-centric behaviors.

Let’s go.

–Ugly shoes. I gave up heels the moment I set foot in Oregon, because there were so many examples of ugly shoes on every corner, I felt released from expectations of stylishness. Keen sandals are popular, as are Bierkenstocks and Naots. I honestly thought Bierkenstocks were only worn by hippies, but maybe that’s right after all. I can’t think of a city with a more vibrant, self-sustaining hippy lifestyle. To be fair, I had trended toward ugly shoes before, but on many occasions, I really *tried* to wear stylish shoes. Shoes with heels. Now, I only wear shoes that are seriously comfortable.

–Socks with sandals. It just feels so damned good.

–Wearing a jacket–not a coat–in December. I’m not sure I even have a coat anymore. It’s only layers here, thin layers of acrylic and wool. A cute knit cap and a scarf are all I need to stay warm. It’s amazing what the world is like without significant wind chill. I no longer live in a place where the air hurts my face. I mean, we actually had a weather alert about stagnant air; no wind. Some people were greatly affected.

I’m not joking.

–Putting on tire chains. It may seem backwards that I never used tire chains while living in the snowy Midwest, but I’ve covered this before; it’s about hills and salt here. Oh, and curves. Curves while you’re driving downhill changing lanes to find your badly marked exit.

–Dancing. Many, many times. With Tim, by myself, in groups and in classes. I am sure this was available in Chicago, but not in the suburbs where I lived. I would never have felt free enough to go dancing in the suburbs; “going dancing” was about pickup bars, mating rituals, activities that constrain a person’s movements for a specific purpose. Dancing in Portland has made me free.

–Drinking with friends. For the same reasons that dancing was off limits in suburban Chicago for an plus-sized middle-aged married mother of three, so too was going out drinking. The presumption in bars always seemed to be that people went there to find someone to hook up with. Granted, my sample size is small, given that I didn’t frequent bars because even incidental visits felt so creepy and uncomfortable that I was wont to repeat the experience. But the mood in Portland bars is decidedly different. Most of the ones I’ve been to are simply a place for friends to hang out and talk and drink. That’s it. Kinda what I’d imagine pubs are like in Ireland. This kind of going out drinking I really enjoy. In fact, I’m going out for drinks this weekend with one of my closest friends, who drove to our last meeting barefoot. But that’s a different story.

–Yoga. Yes, there was yoga in Chicagoland, but I still never tried it until I came here. It’s difficult to explain to people who have not experienced life in the suburbs, but the culture is so controlled, so unnaturally conformist that it’s difficult to explore proscribed interests. Deviation from the norm was punished. Know the restraining bolt that kept R2D2 from wandering off? Like that, only with heavily imposed social cues; cold shoulders, gossip, laughter concealed behind judgmental glances, isolation. In Portland, yoga has been a necessary component of self-calming, of loosening my own emotional strictures through muscular release. Getting into your body and out of your brain is a theme of my Portland experiences.

–Getting lost. I’ve got a strong sense of direction, but . . . wow. Portland has some fucked up streets. They curve and become suddenly one way and change names, then the name changes back two miles later. One-way streets are plentiful and unpredictable. There is one road that’s reliably straight, and the rest present myriad challenges. I have actually gotten lost here due to the weirdo, accidental street layout, and lack of sun by which to navigate. Hard to know which way is north at any given time.

–Compassionate driving. Used to be I’d get annoyed with other drivers’ bad behavior, as I saw them as aggressive and selfish. But in Portland, partly because of the whack-ass streets, I’ve been much more forgiving. The other component, however, is that I’ve received such compassion from other Portland drivers. Chicagoans, it’s the weirdest thing: you know those stop lights at ramps onto highways, the ones designed to pace out the merging traffic? People in Oregon actually STOP at those! They take turns! And stop signs, too. Plus! Drivers in Oregon stop for pedestrians! Can you believe it? It’s like the life of a person walking into the street actually matters. I’m stunned every time I see it. And so, so grateful. This kind of experience is not 100% perfect, because dicks exist in every state, but take my word for it; it’s way better here than Chicago.

–Talk to strangers. Yeah, it’s part of my job, so I can switch into and out of community-center mode, but I like talking to strangers here. I’ve learned so much from people I just happen to strike up conversations with. More accurately, people who have struck up conversations with me. Some have become close friends. I’m still as introverty as ever, but I am open to the option of talking to people on the street. At the coffee shop. In the produce market. At the bookstore.

–Hiking in the rain. I used to exercise in bad weather before, but it was a badge of honor to go out in 7F temps for a workout. Rain in the Midwest is different from the rain we get here; these raindrops aren’t potentially deadly. In Chicago, rain comes down in sheets or buckets or pellets, or sometimes all three. It hurt. Here, rain is mostly gentle drips from an over-soaked sponge. I do miss thunderstorms, and the wild tempests that would rip through hot summer days, but I have learned that not all rain is equal.

–Leaving my house without makeup or a bra. I would not have contemplated such action in Chicago, but here, I do it regularly. I mean, I still “dress up” for work out of some residual habit, but there is absolutely no panic or shame involved when I don’t. I’m just a person doing my thing, encountering all the other people doing their things, and if the way I look causes someone distress, they’re going to have to deal with it. On their own. Maybe try yoga or something.

Portland isn’t perfect and Chicagoland wasn’t evil, but these differences have led to a change in how I interact with my fellow people.

Not long after I moved here, someone I encountered in passing said she was leaving Portland because it was too “cliquish.” I’ve watched carefully for that behavior, afraid I was too smitten to see the city clearly. In my experience, Portland isn’t so much cliquish as it is a city made of individuals pursuing the things that make them happy, and pursuing those things with extreme focus. Those individuals get together with other individuals focusing on the same happy-making things, and the rest of the world disappears. It’s the same for the makers of music that I’ve met, and the woodworkers, farmers and writers; for them, all that exists is this thing they are doing and the like-thinkers they know.

Maybe that was her definition of a clique, I don’t know. I see cliques are existing simply as a societal structure in which you get to tell other people they’re inferior. That was the whole currency of the Chicago suburbs; groups of people who felt superior and got together to exclude others. Golf clubs and sports fans, PTAs and Rotary Clubs. The specificity of the exclusion was sewn into the fabric of the culture.

I have found Portland’s mishmashed fabric to have been sewn from threads found dangling from trees or woven lovingly from alpaca wool or recycled plastic, different colors and textures and lengths. It’s a whack-a-doodle piece of fabric, to be sure, but it’s made out of pure earnestness and passion. And it’s a lot easier here to feel like myself, to explore what pieces I want to take into myself and what I want to leave out. It’s easier to see me without being surrounded by mannequins.

Better put my nerdy duck shoes on; looks pretty damp out there.

She was a Free Spirit

My mom’s on my mind today. Probably like a lot of people who’ve lost their parents. Thanksgiving is especially reminiscent of her because it was often her birthday, which is November 25. The smell of onions and celery and pepper sauteing at 8 a.m. brings to mind my mom, in her floor-length purple “dashiki” robe, standing at the stove singing along to whatever torch song was playing on the radio and prepping the enormous feast. God, how she loved saying “dashiki.” Really, it was just a robe.

My mother was an emotional person. I realize now that she wasn’t fully mature, that there were parts of her development that hadn’t finished yet. The definition of depressive narcissist seems to fit, but I’m loathe to lock her into a category, to dehumanize her. She loved drama, and veered toward self-pity in her arguments with my father. Holidays started with my mom preparing some feast, Dad coming home from his run and panicking that the house wasn’t clean enough for guests yet, and dragging buckets out of closets and kids out of bed to clean the floors and baseboards.

For Grandma, who was partially blind.

Dad was rough, a former Marine, son of a woman who made a living managing a staff of hotel maids, and he KNEW how to clean. It was his mission. The caustic hot, green water filled with SpicNSpan burned our skin, but that didn’t matter. Those fingerprints and scuff marks were ours, and we were going to scrub them off.

The flurry around Dad’s cleaning panic disturbed Mom’s bubble of harmonious creative cooking, and she would invariably throw up her hands and wail “Thank you for a WONDERFUL (fill in the blank holiday name)” and tromp back to bed.

I’d look around the kitchen, now evacuated by the cleaning bucket, which made its way to the entry hall, and work on what she’d started. I learned a lot about cooking this way, and have locked my mother’s recipes in memory as a result.

My parents were ill-suited. Their marriage was a failed divorce. Even as a kid, I wished they’d just split up, it would be easier. Not easy for Catholics, but easier for me, fearful of raised voices and my father’s slammed fists.

I work with artists now, and I see my mother in all of them. The colored pencil teacher has my mother’s eyes, her nose. A kids art instructor has my mother’s brightness, her joy at making messes and helping kids do the same. The art center where I work smells like her, acrylic paints and canvas and gouache and oil paints. My mother had a studio (south-facing, to her permanent disappointment) in which she painted long hours into the morning. She was a night owl, creative when the people who needed her had gone to sleep.

She was in some ways an absent mother, in failing health and lacking energy and will to attend to our needs. But she was also a marvelous mother, holding circuses for us and our neighbor friends in the back yard, piling art supplies on the picnic table and showing us how to create a picture in lentil beans and macaroni. We ironed autumn leaves between wax paper and hung them on the windows. We cut intricate snowflakes in paper and hung them on the tree. Her hands could make anything, and I longed to be able to create like her.

She sang. She also played piano, and she was very good, but had lost some skill by the time I came along, and her playing staggered along, left hand out of sync with the right, jagged melodies that still fed her heart with romance and longing. But her singing was absolute glory, rising to the rafters in church, emanating from her sad face as she worshiped in the way that suited her best, with guilt and penance.

I shrank from the attention she gathered to her with her voice, afraid of any eyes that saw me in public. But she fed on it, rising higher in her shoes, beating her chest with her rosary-clasped hand, outshining the choir and the organist and every other voice in the church.

She was a creative, my mother. She called herself a “free spirit,” but she had the soul of an artist. She flew in the moments of drawing and painting and singing, her heart light and lithe. My father tethered her, his fury and demands pulling her earthward. She should have been in her studio, or at the piano, or singing, my God, singing, and leave my father to his demons. She may have protected us in that way, or told herself she was protecting us.

I did not have enough of my mother before she died. My first thoughts on hearing she was gone were “I’m not done yet!” because I didn’t know her. I only knew what my child-self knew of her, and that’s an imperfect view. I still don’t know her, but I understand some parts better now.

This morning, I’m making her YumYum Coffeecake, a name I’m sure my mother, in her gorgeous playfulness, assigned. While the cinnamon wafts through the house, I’ll start sauteing onions and peppers and celery for her stuffing recipe. My home will be filled with the most tangible reminder of her, and I’ll sit in my own floppy robe, blow steam off my coffee, and sing some torch songs for her.

palette

Necklace

I don’t generally wear necklaces that rest near my collarbone, but I recently bought one that was so pretty I couldn’t resist. It follows the curve of the hollow of my throat, just low enough to keep me from feeling constricted. I’ve added extenders to it, but I’m still not completely comfortable in it; I’m always checking to make sure it’s not touching my throat. I’ll probably add more.img_20181008_125055426

Long necklaces aren’t a style preference for me. I think short necklaces look lovely, and go with many necklines. Long necklaces draw attention to the bust, a focus that annoys me. But I can’t tolerate anything on my neck, because I was once choked by a romantic partner.

We were arguing, and he grew irate at something I said, and shoved me against a wall and choked me.

Earlier in that relationship, the first time we had sex was non-consensual. I told him no, I told him to get off me, I tried to push him off me, but he held me down and did his thing. I don’t even know how to talk about it accurately . . . I have had a deep pit of sick feeling about that night for years, a nausea and revulsion. I didn’t acknowledge it as a rape until discussions around the Kavanaugh hearing brought up similar circumstances. Other women described situations just like mine, and put a name to it: sexual assault. “Oh,” I thought. “Oh, I see. That’s what happened. I was assaulted.”

According to the Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”

I explicitly said “no.” I explicitly refused.

I was on a date, so I thought it didn’t count. I thought I was just an idiot. I thought I’d just made a bad choice letting this guy into my home, into my bedroom.

Later, I let him into my life.

Years later, he got angry and tried to choke me.

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My sister and I are very close. No one knows more about me and my life than she does. She has known about every relationship I’ve had, in detail I don’t share with anyone else.

Until a couple of weeks ago, she didn’t know about this sexual assault. It happened more than two decades ago.

I doubted my own perception of the night. I must have been wrong. It couldn’t have been as bad as I thought. Did I really fight him off? Did I really not want to have sex? Hadn’t I agreed to go out with him? Hadn’t I kissed him? Hadn’t I worn an outfit to attract his attention? Didn’t I drink with him? Didn’t I go ahead and have a relationship with him? Didn’t I have sex with him again later? How could I have done that?

I had to be wrong. It wasn’t some gross stranger in a dark alley. It was someone I knew. Someone I was attracted to. Someone I went out with.

Before the Kavanaugh hearings, if I remembered that night at all, it would flit through my head like a storm cloud, and I’d shake it out. Go right past it. The last few weeks have me visiting that night in my memory more often. I remember being held down. I remember saying “no”. I remember jumping up when he rolled off me, locking myself in the bathroom and curling into a ball on the floor.

I wasn’t a virgin. I wasn’t ashamed about having sex.

I had said “no” and he ignored me and took what he wanted.

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Millions of women are talking about their assaults now. They’re telling in detail about how their bodies were used without permission for someone else’s pleasure. My story isn’t unusual or notable in any way. It’s just another example of a man ignoring what a woman says and doing what he wants.

This is the heart of #MeToo, of mansplaining, of rape culture, of patriarchy. Men take what they want by force–by assault, by intimidation, blacklisting people, or just by raising their voices and talking over them. I’m sure I’ve lost some of you because I used those words. Hell, if those words bother you, I bet you didn’t even read this far.

I didn’t talk about my assault. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t bruised or cut or broken, but I was damaged. My self-determination was ruined. I wasn’t in charge of my body, how could I be in charge of my life? If I don’t have the authority to stop someone from having access to my most private of body parts, the most intimate act, how could I claim the authority to choose anything?

After my daughter was born, I started building up the strength to make decisions for my self. She needed more of me than I had had to give for my son. I found more of me than I knew existed.

I’m strong enough now to handle these memories and the feelings they’ve stirred up with control and calm. I’m not the person I was 20+ years ago; I have tools and resources for dealing with the panic that arises when I remember that assault, and the feeling of his hands on my neck.

That romantic partner is long gone. I ended it after he choked me, another decision that helped build my stamina, my will. I can move on. I am not stuck with whatever he decides I am allowed.

I fold the memory of who I was into the knowledge of who I have become; a loudmouth, observant, compassionate, fearless, with a pulsing sense of humor. I wear long necklaces.

Imposters and Discomfort

I’ve spent a lot of time lately with creative people; hundreds of writers at a conference, and in my writers group, and in the seminar I’m attending for teaching artists.

And, of course, everyone I work with at Multnomah Arts Center is an artist in their own right; clay and steel and paint and dance and movement and theatre and music and poetry. And that’s just the people in the main office.

The shades of difference between discomfort and safety, between conflict and challenge have jumped to the front of my mind, as I’m struck with that old feeling of being an impostor. Like I don’t belong here among these REAL artists, like I’m hiding my inadequacy under the scrim of jargon and copying behavior. Like they’ll find out any moment, or they already know and they wish I would just beat it and let the real artists get back to work.

I’ve heard it’s called impostor syndrome. It rose up this week in my thoughts about my writers group, in which I am the sole member among eight people who does not have an MFA in writing. What the HELL am I doing here?

It came again in my teaching artists seminar. There are professional teachers in this cohort, and accomplished artists, people who have made their living with the expression that rises from deep within them. I get a little thrill calling it a cohort, but this again reinforces my fear that I really don’t belong among this group of experienced, knowledgeable professionals.

To my shock, many of the same artists I’ve been around lately express the same fear; that they’re in over their heads, they don’t know what they’re doing here, they see everyone else as far more competent, and they do not belong. There are artists here that I have seen on stage, captivating an audience over 5000 strong; people who organize
city-wide listening projects around calling out white fragility; people who paint murals on walls as tall as a city building. And yet some still feel like they are hiding out, fear they’ll be discovered, think they might just be faking it well enough to go undetected but they’re terrified that everyone already knows what a joker they are.

I have a friend who has worked for the DA in a large city for years and says he still feels like an impostor sometimes. Decades into his work.

I’ve decided to grab that feeling of being a fake and throttle it until it can’t make any more noise in my head. I’m a writer; I write. I write for you here, I write articles about music and theatre and sports and they are published all over the place, and I write fiction. I write. My characters and settings live in black and white, in letters and words and sentences, outside my head. I write.

This is my art. I’m still learning the art of what I do. I’m still learning how to organize that art to share it with other people in a classroom or other setting. I want to share that art, which is why I’m in the teaching artist studio.

My doubt comes from the discomfort I feel when I’m doing something that is challenging, something different and new. It’s discomfort, not based in fact.

I’m here. I’m doing what I love and I’m learning. And if you feel like you’re hiding out, like someone’s going to discover your secret, just know you are not alone. In my assessment, everyone feels like this to some degree either some of the time or all of the time.

If you’re doing your art, if you’re learning and growing, if you’re open to the challenge of making yourself better, you’re no impostor. Tell that lying voice to fuck off and keep moving. You belong here. I belong here.

I’m here.

Postscript–I was awakened last night by a hollow-pointed fear, a syringe straight into my confidence, sucking it clean. My beliefs is misplaced, it screamed. Look at this evidence! And proceeded to call up a memory of an interaction I was unsure about, something I wrestled with. This fear decided to this tiny bit of data was important to use to admonish me awake, to shake me out of dreams and push me to the edge of the self-destructive abyss. But I’m clear-thinking enough to know, even at 3 a.m., that just because it comes from my subconscious doesn’t mean it’s right. I went back to sleep.