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.

And be glad in it

On the way into the hospital for a routine visit, I saw a perfect depiction of the entirety of life; an older man and woman pushing someone in a wheelchair who appeared to be the woman’s mother chatting as they passed a young woman heavily pregnant, waiting for her partner so they could take the elevator together.

It was so tidy a picture of humanity — caring for loved ones at the end of life, anticipating the beginning of life — I wanted to remember it. Three days now I’ve been in hospitals, one as a volunteer, two as a patient for annual exams. I love hospitals; the staff is always intelligent and dedicated, by and large, and patients are being cared for by nurses and doctors and families. The reason for a hospital visit may be quotidian, like mine, but are often more pressing, an illness or injury requiring attention. Those more grave reasons seem to remind people of what’s important, of the ticking past of the very few minutes we are given. The hospital is a place where the dearness of life, the connection or disconnection in each of our lives is realized.

That dawning realization and the care poured out upon loved individuals makes me at ease in hospitals. The whole building is staffed by carers who also have the intelligence to learn the human body in minute detail and have studied the science of helping those bodies thrive.

I know my comfort in hospitals stems from raising my daughter, so many days and weeks getting treatment or surgery or going to clinic. She was treated like a regular person at our hospital, Chicago Shriners, not like a person with a problem or someone to be pitied or diminished. At Shriners, she got to be just a kid for the first — and sometimes only — time in her life. That experience colored hospitals for me permanently, though I realize non-children’s hospitals may not be quite so charming and balloon filled.

Maybe all-ages hospitals could do with more balloons.

There’s great quiet in hospitals, too, the private rooms, the purposeful striding of residents in their very important snow-white coats, no time to talk or make eye contact. The air vents always give a pleasant — if antiseptic-odored — white noise, and people tend to leave visitors alone. It’s a great place to write, with its halls full of human drama, plenty of caffeine available at all hours, and uninterrupted quiet in empty cafeterias.

I go through my regular day so blithely, expecting the next 24 hours to be served to me on a platter of golden sunlight. So often, too often, I spend that 24 hours sad or anxious. Being at the hospital grounds me in a way no other setting does. By the sounds and smells, the blue scrubs and clacking name badges, tight smiles and tighter ponytails, and obscenely large clusters of balloons, I am reminded of the days I came to the edge, the brink of losing the only precious thing in this world, one of my children, and I am flooded with gratitude for the gift of her continued presence in my life, and for my sons. And I know in my bones–my sturdy, unbroken bones–that my life is equally fragile, if for different reasons, and I am grateful anew for the chance I am given repeatedly, every morning, to live in this day and be glad in it.

I wrote this entire piece in an exam gown with a paper drape on my lap, waiting for my doctor to give me a pelvic exam. Tell me this isn’t a great place to write. Now I’m going to read a six-month old magazine with Melissa McCarthy, who looks like my mom did, and think about twinkling Irish women and their dimpled smiles.

light

What do you think of this light for my living room?

Maybe I’ll write about that too. Fingers crossed, the doctor will continue to be “a little behind” today.