January 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
J laughs like he’s been taken over. He grabs his stomach and opens his mouth and out comes the joy. I hold it in for a minute, and then I laugh too. I can’t stop. Grabbing my sides, HA! HA! HA! the big sounds come out. My face hurts. My stomach tightens. There’s the rush – all that stuff I was holding in my gut. I catch my breath. He does too.
He slaps my leg.
“Oh, god, that was funny.”
I start to warm up again.
J and I laughed until 2 am, when I curled up on the couch and fell asleep without thinking. I woke up to quiet in his Sacramento first floor apartment the next morning, and watched the light come in through the slanted shades. His boyfriend came out and smiled at me, shirtless and sculpted and beautiful – his boyfriends always are like that.
The boyfriend made coffee, and handed me a mug. We smiled the way people do who have love for a person in common.
Love is easy sometimes – waking up in the quiet by a person who knows what you’re thinking when you don’t say anything at all.
They bought me brunch, this man who has supported me ceaselessly and a partner who wants to talk about Uganda and mobile applications and keeps saying “send me that piece you wrote, yeah?” and “hey, send me that article, don’t forget.” When he was out of earshot J whispered about our congruities – this man and I. There’s Uganda, and there’s this itch to move and this involvement in the start up industry. I smile like a little kid, then, because I know the similarities between myself and his partner mean this man loves me the way I love him.
J brought me home to my parents home after we ate. We drove past the three bedroom off Stevens street where I learned to ride a bike, and turned right on Hwy 49, where you can turn left and find the house where I had my first dog and my first crush and I met a goofy girl in overalls who is still my best friend.
He hugged me tight. “Okay?” he said.
He drove away, and I got ready to go inside.
Love is a game of tetris sometimes – all this bouncing up against boundaries you put there on purpose so it wouldn’t die out.
Seeing the people you’ve loved the longest kicks up dust in the empty spaces inside you that you haven’t decided about yet. There’s resolve, the new self. There’s the old self you’re trying to hug and kick out the door all at once, and then there’s no-man’s land, all this brain and heart mass that hasn’t been decided on. And, there’s where the melancholy – the lonely – pours in.
Family’s a dust devil – kicking all kinds of things into my undecided spaces.
I can hear my mom talking about me up the stairs. “She flies out Friday. Came in last week. Yep…Yep.” She I do best when we’re playing tetris right, with all these boundaries going up in the right places to keep us from banging into spots that hurt.
Sometimes the want to kick the lonely takes over. Lonely is not having a sure place, and lonely is stilling the noise and lonely is not being sure exactly what to do in a place except for wait. Lonely is a lost paradigm.
Lonely is a sit and a cigarette. Breathe in. Breathe out. Lonely is still learning how to stay with yourself.
I smell cigarettes and oak trees when I close my eyes. There’s a different kind of smoke. It must be a burn day in Northern California.
My grandfather called me an infidel last week. “How can you have Muslim friends if you’re an infidel?” We were drinking wine at the kitchen table I’ve ate at since I was a little girl. I had decided not to fight.
“My friends don’t talk like that, Gramps.”
I felt heat rising in me. I felt it again on New Years Eve, sitting in front of a fire with a man who educated me on the way men think – that in life, for men like his son, for men that are real men, a woman who says no is the only kind of woman worth having. That any, “broad who spread her legs” isn’t worth much. By spread her legs he said meant consensual sex. He was specific: a woman who says no ten times is always better than a woman who says yes once.
“No,” he shook his head. “Women like that aren’t anything at all.”
He’d told me his ancestors came from Côte d’Ivoire, so I asked him if he’d been to the Ivory Coast. We were laughing after that – him, and a woman he was calling “smart,” after unknowingly calling her nothing.
Not anything at all.
Mom and I played tetris later that night in the kitchen. I played a song on the ihome, and she told me it made her sad. I nodded, “me too.” She asked me about my night. I said, “good.” And, there was silence, right then. I let it be, like I let Gramps be, like I let the man be in front of the fire on New Years. And, I knew that was enough. Just that. The quiet. The knowledge of friction. And, inside it, all the love that keeps a person coming back to a place where they kick up dust with the people they love. Without anybody trying to do it, you know – just like a real desert storm.
I thought of the time she and I danced to Stevie Nicks before I moved to New York City. I remembered that love is like that sometimes – crying and dancing in the kitchen with a person who gets you, even when you don’t say why you’ve got all those tears.
That’s real love for you – desert storms and understanding, all wrapped up together in a sucker punch to the gut.
Love looks a lot like quiet instead of fighting, like an understanding of total misunderstanding, and the choice not to poke the elephant in the corner again. Love looks like not talking politics, and love is knowing nobody taught somebody better when they should have. Love is offering an alternative, without fighting. Sometimes, love is quiet. Sometimes, love is laughing so hard you can’t talk with people you don’t understand at all that year.
Love is the aunts who pinch your ass on their way past you and say “you’re ok?” after you’ve blown up over politics again, just like you knew you shouldn’t.
Love is tetris. Love is a bouncing ball, boundaries and love is smiling when you know nobody’s going to “get it.” Love is melancholy and lonely and a cigarette on the porch when its kicking up dust in the empty spaces.
Love is getting on a place to go back to a life that works better than the one that did here.
Love is the people who beg you to come around, even when they know its going to be difficult.
Love is knowing you’ll be back again – another tetris game, another holiday, another year. And that you’ll come back again after that.
Love is knowing that the dust kicking won’t kill you, after all.
December 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
I filled up sandwich bags of glass at Glass Beach when I was a little girl.
A local shop owner told us the story of the spot the first time my family stayed in Mendocino.
“People used to throw their garbage off the surrounding cliffs,” she said. I watched her make a curve motion with her hand – as if garbage had been thrown off her right thumb, all those years ago.
“The surf pounded and it pounded and it softened all that glass and now there’s a beach full of it – just like if it were sand.”
My little brother wanted to know if that would still happen if he threw bottles off the sides of the inlet.
My mother looked at him hard.
We returned to Mendocino at least once a year, after that. Vacation, to me, meant cold gusts of wind coming in off the rising tide, and sea anemones curled up tight against my fingers.
“They want to eat me!” I’d yell. I remember my Dad grabbing me on my sides and opening his eyes wide – “EAT YOU!”
“No! No! No eating me!” I’d pull my fingers out and run away from the tide coming in on the pools.
I’d run back to touch them again when it washed back out. The ocean was a dance.
I grew up believing in my Dad – in soccer on Saturday mornings and in mandarins at Christmas and the smell of the Redwoods in the spring. He and California were both invincible – and they were mine.
I was a little girl with roots. They ran over those winding rivers and those white capped mountains – up, up, up to the places where I learned to love the hush of the Redwoods and the thrill of the ocean dance outside Fort Bragg. Home was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, with wild rivers and high jumps off the rocks that couch the winding American and the green Yuba I used to imagine as a great big slug. I used to pretend I was a tourist seeing those mountains for the first time – those big, white capped Sierra Nevadas on the edge of my world running up, up, up past the highest places I’d ever been.
I used to be mad at my Dad for making us leave California. I don’t know if my mom was too, except that she didn’t show it if she was. I can still picture her, listening to Alison Krauss and crying in a big blue SUV and winding through those redwoods where the air is better and the ferns get in your skin like a good, healing salve. We took one last visit up those winding roads before we moved to the East Coast when I was 14. We got out of that car and made a circle around the biggest tree we could find, and my mom cried because she was moving out of California for the first time in her life.
When we left, I had roots like a small sapling. But my mother was like one of those great big redwood trees, with family running back for generations and the Yuba and the Sierra Nevadas and the sea anemones running in her red, California blood. Her getting on board with leaving was the way she chose to say yes to his dreams. And, I learn a lot from her willingness in hindsight.
The move was a way for my Dad to change careers and change roles and to spend more time with our family. He was launching out as an entrepreneur and so I guess it was his gift to all of us: more time, more family, more contentment, more happiness for us as a unit. His dream was both professional and personal, and there wasn’t much separation in it that way. He had high hopes, and I bought into them with my whole heart.
We moved in the summer of 2004, and spent five years in what New Yorkers call the, “Backwoods.”
“Upstate is a whole different god damn ball game,” they’ll tell you.
Sometimes we lose our grip on people and sometimes we lose our grip on ideas, or places, or feelings. And no one but our own selves usually know exactly how the four of them have blended together to taste like grief. My feelings for the next five years were my own private mixture of all four.
Those were the hardest years of my life. Upstate New York shattered my beliefs, and it broke my heart.
Dad’s entrepreneurial journey had its ups and downs, but in the end it sent us back home and, at 19, I packed my bags again to move back to the Sierra Nevadas.
“That was such a fucking waste,” I told a friend in college. “Five years of bullshit- – of ridiculous, bullshit hard.”
One great big move and five years in Binghamton, and all I came out with was shattered belief, and pulled up roots.
I thought Dad’s choice to move my family back to California for good would make me feel whole again – like someone re-anchored me back to somewhere that felt like home. But when we went back to Mendocino that year, I couldn’t feel the dance in the ocean anymore. And, I spent a long, long time mad at Dad for that.
Anias Nin writes that, “the secret to joy is the mastery of pain,” and I believe that loss carves out caverns in our hearts where new understanding of other people washes in like the Yuba River – if we let it.
I didn’t get that new understanding of my father from traveling like he had, or from being an entrepreneur myself. I got it when I finally decided to risk everything, the way I watched him do, and let the cards fall like they would. It was though my own move out east – my own search for a new life and a new happy. It was personal and professional, without much of a separation between the two. And, once again, I bought into it with my whole heart.
Dad was my biggest cheerleader.
“I wish you’d stay and live with me forever,” he said. And, then he told me to go.
Healing isn’t always something we know how to do. It seems like it should just happen, without trying. But its both an adjective and a verb.
“Her foot is healing.”
“I have a healing salve.”
I found healing in “Thank you” – mostly to my father.
“Thank you,” for me is one verb. It’s an action verb. And, to me its different than “thankfulness.” That’s an over arching concept – a characteristic I’m not sure how to begin cultivating. But I can say “thank you” for the way my legs ache in a way that’s very much alive when I climb the subway steps and I can say “thank you” for my bagel in the morning and I can say “thank you” for the way my friend made me laugh over breakfast.
I can say “thank you” to my Dad for teaching me to risk for a dream.
And, my healing began there.
If I could dump my five sad, angry years out like I used to dump out my pieces of softened glass I’d rinse out the angry like I used to rinse out sand. I’d put “thank you” back in every time I wanted to fire off a complaint.
I’d start out with thanking my father for showing me that a dream is worth changing everything for – packing up your family, and moving to a place you’re never lived before. Without him, I never would have thought that the answers to my questions might lie in packed bags, instead of staying in one place.
I’d thank him for showing me that it’s okay to fail at a dream, and pack up for home when it doesn’t work like you thought. Without him, I never would have known that it was okay to hate six of the eight places I lived over the course of two years, or all five of the colleges I went to, including the one I graduated from. Without him I never would have let my restlessness send me out on my own, or pushed me to experience Uganda or Africa or six different cities across the US.
I’d thank him after that for showing me that the great big stamp of “failure” has a fading ink. It’s magical, in the way it goads you to begin again, if you let it.
I’d say “Thank you” to him for starting again, when I was turning twenty. Without him, I never would have known that all my failed launches and relationships, my moves to the wrong cities, the loss of my religion and my faith with it, would pound on me like the surf of a cold, gusty ocean tide and begin softening me for a spot in the life I wanted, a place in a city I loved.
I would thank him for showing me what it looks like to be someone strong enough to run back into the tide after it swells – that it’s that very pounding surf, that tenacity in the face of the waves that carries a person forward, and will send me back whole, this year, to those Sierra Nevada foothills for the Holidays – ready to climb in a car like we did all those years ago – ready to put my fingers in the sea anemones, run from the tide and gather up bags of softened glass to carry back to New York City.
After that – I’d thank him for the way that his uprooting of my baby sapling California roots helped me find my way home.
November 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I feel most American, each year, on the day that Beta celebrates her citizenship.
“I’m an numberican!” she trumpets across the house.
She borrows our cell phones to call family, her art teacher – her closest friends. She asks them to come and celebrate her place in the land of the free and the home of the brave. “Come for dinner!” I hear her calling out.
And, they always do.
On Beta’s numberica day, we make “hamdburders,” fries – and I give her tiny sips of American brewed beer while she giggles about all the trouble we’re going to get into with Mom.
In piles the family! We spend the night laughing and talking and eating, and she proudly beams from her spot at the table where her face is only slightly more flushed than it is when she sings out an off-tune “NUMEEERICA! NUMBEEERICA!” from her perch beside Dad each year on July 4th.
I try and tell her about Sanite Belair, Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolution – about the bullet holes across from her orphanage where we lived and the way her people have fought for their title as the first black republic, but her eyes glaze over a little bit, and she wants to repeat her name to me: “Bethany Grace Knox.”
“Gwace for my gwamma – Daaaddy’s Mom, she die before I came.”
That’s right, baby girl.
She’s taken hold of her legacy with both her little hands.
And, that’s the USA at its best and purest – for me. That is the day that I feel proud to be a Californian, an Irish/Scottish/English/Cherokee mix and a citizen of a country that had the good sense to welcome someone who exudes the kind of life sunshine my baby Haitian does for me.
We all have things – people – in our lives that remind us why it is that we love where we come from – and this kid is mine.
The past few holidays in my family have been difficult. I know we’ve all felt like cancer, among other things, stole the season from us – and we’ve been in separate places celebrating in whatever ways we could manage. Sometimes, that has meant that we all come together and we laugh and cry at intervals and go ahead and embrace the bittersweet feeling of “us” without all of “us” being present ever again. Sometimes it means we won’t. Sometimes it means we can’t.
That was me this year – unable to nab a flight home for Thanksgiving despite my best efforts.
I’m used to my great uncles rumbling out political complaints over third turkey helpings, and the yearly fight with Gramps over his insistence on stuffing the already finished stuffing with olives. And, of course, that terrible awkward second cousin who always corners me for a long chat about…missionaries? At any rate, there’s also all my aunts, in the kitchen laughing and talking and gossiping and the smell of my grandmother’s perfume, which takes me right back to the heart of life every time she wraps me in her safe embrace.
None of that is happening this week. So – not one to be defeated - I’ve sought for new ways to discover the holiday spirit in New York City. Walking through Central Park yesterday, I put my iPhone away and listened to conversations instead of music. And, there it was – different than I’ve ever felt it before, but no less unmistakable, and no less sweet.
It was in the Swedish boys who asked me directions to the Swedish cottage and smiled shyly with a, “we have no idea what is, we just saw the word ‘Swedish’ and we’re off!” in the German father pushing his laughing, squealing baby in a stroller race with his toddler on her trike, in the Southern drawl of the family to my left, posing for a picture in front of the lake – “this is the same spot as last year! The EXACT spot!”
The spirit about the city smacked of Beta – it was in immigrants on the subway and folks visiting from overseas, it was in those who already celebrated Ramadan, and those who are about to celebrate Christmas. It was in the packed out walkways and the too-full trains – it was this unmistakable sense that nothing is normal, and no typical celebration trumps another. Instead, it was a city that’s accepted all of us, no matter our normal or typical or “what I usually do,” kind of background – replacing it with the human experience of love, family and – for some of us – a lively group of Jewish friends adopting us for the day because, “you can’t spend your first New York holiday alone!”
Later on, it was in the phone calls and texts from a certain 9-year-old stealing my Mom’s phone to ask for my address so she can send me handmade decorations for “Chwistmas.”
Unexpectedly, it was also in my very own duplex this morning as holiday music filtered in through my bathroom ceiling.
My landlord is a crotchety war vet from the Dominican Republic who can hardly speak English – but he sure does love my mother’s favorite Nat King Cole Christmas album. And, standing there half dressed with tears in my eyes, I was aware – more than ever – that this season has never once been about a singular experience and yet, at the same time? It most certainly has.
It’s about the collective experience of celebration. It’s about feeling the warmth of the human spirit, and the love we have to give each other – no matter where we come from, or what makes us feel it most acutely.
And right there, alone in Brooklyn for the first time on the holidays, I felt that spirit so acutely that my little heart soared.
Now, if you’ll excuse me – I have a Kosher thanksgiving to attend.
July 26, 2012 § 3 Comments
“Your way begins at the other side. Become the sky. Take an axe to the prison wall. Escape. Walk out like someone suddenly born into colour. DO IT NOW.”
I got dropped on a Brooklyn dance floor, last Friday night. Right on the cement. Right on my head.
House music, smoke machine, dancing half baked bodies and me – laid out on the dark and dirty floor like a cup of beer that splashed hard after a drunk girl smacked it with her elbow.
I laid there for a millisecond, feeling the cool floor and the feeling of this guy’s knee still holding my left thigh off the ground.
When someone stepped over my head, I reached my arm up into the smoke and the dark room and guy grabbed it and lifted me back up right.
I was a puppet on a string, then – weightless. And, him – the puppeteer, this smiling dude with arm muscles so big I couldn’t fit my hands around them.
“Hey,” I snapped. “You dropped me.”
“I’m sorry, I know,” he shook his head. “You’re light – I’m just drunk.”
We stared at each other until I laughed. Then he laughed too. “You ready?”
That was how we had started – me, dancing with my pint of Ommegang, and him squaring off and eying me up to see if I was ready to go.
I was. I’m almost always.
I stashed my drink and off we went, dancing hard and fast and aggressive until he dropped me on my head. It wasn’t club dancing – not the kind of grinding, up against you kind of dirty moves my mom calls “sex with clothes on.” She scrunches her nose when she says it, and when some guy comes up behind me at a bar, that nose is all I can think about.
Man, my mom.
But, anyways, guy danced with me like my dad does – flinging me out and pulling me in and biting his lip while he moves to the music and laughing when I fuck up cause I’ve got messy feet.
There I was in Brooklyn with muscle shoulders guy, thinking about my Dad and the way he dances with me.
What’s that word? Wholesome. That was a wholesome moment for me.
Somebody asked what I needed, this weekend. I guess he meant it nicely – but I’m on my third month in NYC, and the city moves around me even when I’m sitting still. Every 3.5 minutes there’s another someone wanting something – girl where you from, where you going, can I buy you a drink, how old are you, what do you do, can I get you a refill, is he bothering you, I like your dress, where’d you get that lipstick, damn your shoes are fine, you work in finance? you wanna get out of here? got a light, got an extra cigarette, do you smoke, do you eat meat, can I take you to dinner. Two weeks ago, it rained like hell when I got off the subway, and some drunk tried to wipe my arms off with Starbucks napkins.
We all need room, in New York. That’s why we’ve got airplane mode turned on, and our music turned up and we’re standing halfway into the intersection at rush hour.
I told meant-it-nicely guy that I need myself.
That felt weird coming out of my mouth – like I was talking for someone else. This girl I just met.
“I need to make some room for myself,” I said. “I need some things from me.”
There it was – that wholesome feeling again. I was on fire.
I left muscle shoulders guy after he dropped me cause I wanted to dance with my girlfriend, and I asked meant it nicely guy to be my friend because I think the word I was looking for, when it comes to him, was “kind.” And, I like kind.
I went home and I turned my phone on airplane mode and I sat on my floor and I drew, for the first time in years – trees and calligraphy and windows and tapas and words about what I want inside.
Tuning into myself is the most powerful drug I’ve ever tried.
You know, after all the times I ignored what I was saying, God must want to wrap my body up in a big, silk bed, and tell my body to love what it loves and hate what it hates, without bounds. God must want to cradle my brain in a big, open space and tell it to think however it wants to.
All that room, and my self would start making music – my body the bass, my mind the soprano. They’d make harmony. They’d let go. And I’d be in tune once again.
Once I figured out what I thought God would probably do with me, I got to it.
Room, right? Room to listen to what my body and my brain have been trying to say all this time I’ve been shutting them down and shutting them out and living around instead of through them.
My body likes to get up early, likes quiet, likes sun, likes avocado, can’t handle wheat too well, and needs its own full french press each morning. My body doesn’t like it when you tell her that she should cut down on caffeine. My body likes clean rooms, and it hates overhead lights. My body likes it when you smell good. My body doesn’t want to be pushed. My body likes being pulled – in, down, over – my body likes getting caught up.
And me? I’ve been pushing it too long – into boxes, under labels – under shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if it were good or bad, normal, not normal. I’ve been telling it to love things it hates. I’ve been telling it to hate things it loves.
I told my body I was sorry.
I told it that it knew better than all those other voices I listened to.
I stretched out on my floor, and I told body it could get big, again.
It didn’t believe me, at first.
My bluegrass loving, avocado eating, coffee drinking size four body that likes to laugh so hard I have to stop walking and double over needed some solidarity before it could do that.
And my brain? My brain, when it got some room – told me it felt invaded…all this apologizing and excuse making and half truth giving. My brain needs some honesty, some congruity. My brain needs for me to stop apologizing about how it works – and to start feeding it instead.
So, I quit a part time writing job I don’t like, and I took on another I knew I would. I turned my phone off for a day. I stopped making excuses for avoiding old friends. I’m telling them how I’ve changed instead.
I stopped saying I was damaged, last weekend. I started saying I was healing.
I rediscovered bluegrass and I decided I’m not cutting down on caffeine, but I won’t eat wheat anymore.
On Saturday, I gave myself a good, long dose of quiet – all by myself, in this crazy city. Not in a subway, not with the music turned up – but, here, in my own room, all wrapped up in my bed with open space around me.
On Sunday, I took another dive headfirst – but, this time, I dove into the ocean. I had left my bikini at home, but my body needed some water. So, I took off running across the sand – orange shorts, tank top, sunglasses, bracelets – I dove into the water with them all on.
I swam and I swam until I could breathe again.
After that, I worked up some horrifically placed tan lines halfway up my thighs.
What can I say…
my body was asking for some sun.
photo via jsambrose.com
July 4, 2012 § 3 Comments
On twitter last week, a Jezebel writer wrote that she’d seen a girl crying on her cell phone outside a bar.
“Never going to be that girl again,” she tweeted.
I starred it.
I’m not sure what the technical proximity is to whether or not you’re “outside the bar” but I was two blocks from 10th and Willow on Sunday when the tears hit hard. God. Some guy looked at me all judgmental like maybe I’d been dumped and needed to pull it together, and I wanted to pull my phone away from my face and cuss the shit out of him that I really just missed my mom.
He was gone by the time I got relieved I hadn’t done that. I mean, crazy crying girl you think is pathetic because she’s dumped actually turns around and yells at you for raising your eye brows because she misses her mother?
But I digress. It wasn’t even my mom in particular that I missed, although it was her voice that brought the tears. It happened like it did when I was 14 and calling home from a summer camp I never wanted to go to. God. Mom! This is hard. I don’t know where I fit. I don’t like the planned activities! Can I come home yet?
Nothing’s going like I planned, Mom.
I came to New York looking for gold. I was told it would be difficult, building a life here for myself. But I’m more than a dreamer – I’m a do-er. I’m a make it happen -er, I’m a hustler, I’m a bust balls till it comes to life -er. And, that’s why I came.
A friend told me tonight that I was a ball buster. “You’re organized and you push hard,” he said. “You push really hard.”
He meant it positively. But I know I push so damn hard I break. That’s what the two-blocks-from-the-bar cry was. I broke. Done. Over. Finished. Don’t ask me for one more thing, New York. I’m out of steam, chutzpah, bravery. Cut me some slack. Hand me a friend. Give me a break.
I felt utterly alone this weekend. Not just alone, but alone in a place with a lot of people where no one really knows me. There’s not a sofa for miles that I could curl up on and feel understood without explaining myself.
This kind of echoing aloneness has happened twice in my life. It happened for the first time in Haiti, when I had signed on for a summer of volunteerism in Port-au-Prince. I was 18. I showed up excited. Two weeks in, without running water or internet and tired of my developing heat rash, all I wanted was to lie flat and silent on American soil for hours. It happened again at 20, in Washington DC when I got the phone call that my 7-year-old cousin’s cancer had relapsed. No one even knew the name, “Max,” or what it meant to me. Hell, my roommates were still learning my name. I came downstairs to a flirtatious guy from across the hall and a long guilt trip about my refusal to come on a late night dessert run.
I told the flirtacious guy to get the fuck out of my apartment, and I cried in the shower until my ribs hurt.
I kissed him two years later at a pool party in downtown Los Angeles, and I told him I was sorry. He smiled, like people who know you do, and he said, “we were both in bad places.”
Thing is, I look back on Haiti and DC as two experiences that changed my life completely. I’m so glad I stayed, pushed through – made myself keep going past the point of lost chutzpah. I wouldn’t trade them for the world – difficult editors, heat rash, flirtacious guy et all. They were places that made me who I am. Not to mention summer camp. It took one week, and only one, for me to learn that I’m just not a group activity kind of girl. Don’t ask me to make a human web with six other people cause I’m just not down. I’m also not a fan of capture the flag, boys named Josh or sloppy joes. And, these are important things to know about oneself.
Anyways, I just kept right on crying and telling my mom how much I love New York City and how much I made the right choice and how my business is growing and all the amazing contacts I’ve made and how I want a flat in Tribeca someday, and all the things about my life I love. “I made the right choice, Mom,” I sobbed into my big mascara pools. “It’s just that I’m lonely. This is the part of the process I knew was coming, but I didn’t want to deal with.”
My mom told me I sounded good. Me. With my big mascara pools and my Monday morning hangover, with my 1.5 friends who both had plans for the 4th of July, and my tiny, loft bed and room in a corner of New Jersey I never planned on living in.
“You sound like you again,” she told me. “I was worried we’d lost you for a minute there – like your light went out, but here you are, back sounding like my daughter.”
I’m big, you know. I have big emotions and a big laugh, and I have a lot of things to say. And, sometimes, I cry till my rib cages hurt, half drunk on the phone with my mom.
Not because anybody broke my heart. But, just…you know, process. Real life. Messy. Not figured out.
Learning to be okay with it.
Tonight, I watched fireworks from my New Jersey balcony with a Portuguese woman I barely know. She asked me why I wasn’t out, and I got emotional again.
“I just couldn’t do the fourth without my family,” I said. “Just my cousin died last year. He loved the fourth. I don’t have people here. Well, not people I want to cry in front of all night. I just, you know. I needed to do it differently.”
“Ah,” she nodded at me. “Saudade.”
It’s a Portuguese word. She told me we don’t have an English word for it. Instead, we have about 12: “a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone.”
My friend used eight, “you miss that which is not with you.”
She told me that sometime, when I was ready, I would have to matar as saudades.
To matar or kill your saudades is to return to what was, so that you can come away and live again without it. She told me that she could tell I didn’t need it now, but when the saudades took over, and I could no longer go on with the weight of it, I would need to return to matar my saudades.
“You’re not there in your process,” she told me. “You’re beginning a life here. But, sometime, you’ll need to return to your old life and grab a piece of it so you can keep going with this one.”
She told me that she misses Portugal – the old village life, where your neighbors recited your family’s names six generations back, and the history of each family mattered so much that ordinary folks were treated with importance. She can’t go back to that anymore – it doesn’t exist in the modern world, she said. But she’s found her grounding – and a kind of matar as saudades – in the traditions of a Jewish Synagogue near where she lives. And, that’s working for her. That’s her piece – the part that keeps her process moving forward.
When the fireworks started, they were positioned behind two tall trees across the way from my third story apartment. I got frustrated, but my friend smiled at me.
“Look,” she said. “Life gave you a way to process. You can take them from here, can’t you? You can handle the celebration through the trees, from your balcony, here, with me.”
I nodded, and felt the tears running down my face again. Matar as saudades will have to wait because I’m still okay, here. I’m learning that – if we let it – life gives us just, exactly, what we can handle. Not more. Not less. It’s in accepting exactly the next thing, and then the next thing after that, that we continue moving forward. This is how we create relationships and start lives for ourselves in places where we wonder where we fit. That’s the only way we ever do fit.
Next year, I’m sure I’ll wander down to the water front and have a few cold ones with people I’ve come to know and love. Who knows, maybe I’ll even plant a big wet one on judgmental cell phone conversation guy, should we ever become friends.
Regardless, I’m set on having allowed for my process. I’ll be ready to be celebrating with the joyous throngs of bright red tourists and my fellow NYCers. Or, maybe, if I’ve found I just can’t take it anymore around that time, I will have taken a few days vacation to go back to Northern California and smell the hot, dry earth and hug my mother. Matar as saudades at its finest, in the hot California air.
For now, I’m cozied up in my bed after spending the fourth exactly how I was ready to, here in my new home.
Come this Saturday, I know my friend will be headed out to the synagogue. And, me? I’ll be headed out into the city again to take another shot at my new life in a place full of people who don’t really know me.
I’m not sure where I’ll be, or who I’ll end up with.
But, regardless of where I am, I know that I’ll be able to take it, and to take whatever comes the week after that. And, one of these weeks, I’m going to find that sofa where I can curl up on and feel understood without explaining myself.
Until then…you know, process. Real life. Messy. Not figured out.
Learning to be okay with it.
April 3, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Job wrote that God gives and takes away. He reached this epiphany after losing a number of children, his home, his servants and cattle – and being given back to three fold after he had been properly tested on a stage for all the spiritual realm to gather round and watch. He was taken to task in the heavenlies – a reality I wonder if he missed until the afterlife, when I imagine God saying something like – “here’s the playback on this one.” Or perhaps it’s a little more like Oural, who read and reread her case before the gods until she ran out of words – and, then, had nothing to say. Her answer was in the questioning. Her need was met in her ability to shake her fist in the court of the immortals. And, afterward, she had peace.
I was 12 when they told us my aunt was pregnant with Max. 12, and swimming with four cousins and three brothers. We hooted and hollered and moaned that we wouldn’t meet him for seven months or so. And, then, we doted. We adored. We made room. Two years later, we battled cancer – all of us, together, for seven years. I’m familiar with the look on a woman’s face when her son’s life is in danger, the look on a woman’s face when her son is dying and the look on a woman’s face after her son has died. What I wasn’t familiar with was the look on a woman’s face when life has returned – and God turns the tables to give life instead of death.
I was too young to recognize what birth brought with it. I grew up with cancer.
I haven’t been in a hospital since Max died. I haven’t wanted to be. I have memories of watching the monitor – his breathing marked by a thin blue line, and the room being quiet except for my grandfather counting – “seven seconds.”
Was that a breath?
My uncle climbed into the bed with his boy, and asked for one more snuggle.
Mom and I signed in at Sutter Roseville at 10:05 this morning. “I put this visitor sticker on anywhere?” The visitor’s stickers had been yellow the night Max died. I left mine on my sweater for weeks. I didn’t wear my sweater for weeks.
The stickers this morning were hot pink. And, it was morning. Max died in the morning, but when I saw him last it was night, and raining so hard I ran through the parking lot. Today, Mom and I sauntered underneath spring blossoms.
I waited while she grabbed her book out of the car – me and my americano, staring at my Chuck Taylors I had laced up in honor of Max, and how much he would have loved this day. “He’s coming soon!” my mom announced like a cheer. I paused a moment heading upstairs. “Room is to the left, number 18.” When Max was dying, Gramps came down to get me. Nobody was going to tell me what room to go to to watch my family member die. That’s not how we work. No, I was going to get held the whole way – held by arms that have been there for every crisis in my life – big muscles and big paws, ship tattoo, the smell of cigars and near beer, and a “baby, I know we’re losing him.” I don’t know the room number. I don’t remember the floor.
But, “It’s a beautiful day to be born!” – my mom kept repeating it.
This baby was early - “baby” because the sex was a surprise. We called baby “critter.” Half the family was gone on a necessary cross country trip, and grandma was in tears on the phone – missing new life, missing the healing, the time where God must have decided that He’d had enough of taking from us, when it comes to children, and He gave back. Calvin Blue doesn’t know that yet – doesn’t know that he wasn’t just a baby, coming, he was a divine healing, a new start – a Louie L’amour kind of reckoning – “There will come a time when you believe that everything has come to an end – that will be the beginning.”
I FaceTimed Grandma into the room, her face bright with the reality of being there. Gramps had a glass of wine “hey baby! We’re there with you!” The nurse kept redirecting my iphone entourage – “try here, a better view.”
I thought of how Max loved birthdays. I watched the monitor again as the time on the thin white line got closer and closer together instead of further and further apart. A conversation with my insurance agent came back to me. Northern California is a small world in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. When I called to cancel my policy, she asked when the baby was due. Then she said, “I always wonder if there’s a piece of those who have left us in the new little ones that come after they’ve gone.”
There must be, because I felt Max more strongly than ever day Calvin Blue was born.
When the doctor arrived, Grandma’s face on my phone got serious, and I imagined it must be a bit like they say it is watching a groom’s face on his wedding day. My grandmother’s first grandchild being born after a death was an hour of elation, of new beginnings – of life beginning again – there was angst, there was expectation – there were tears, there were exclamations – and, somewhere between his first cry and the first time he nursed, there was champagne, and a “don’t you just love technology?”
Gramps hollered, “Look at them legs! We’ve got us a boy!”
A friend of mine that called the morning Max died wrote on a photo I posted of Calvin this afternoon. She said, “Life comes back. A wise friend told me that.”
I had forgotten I believed that – until today.
And, until tonight, I’d forgotten that I was wearing the same yellow sweater I had on the night that Max died.
But, this time, I ripped my visitor tag off before I’d realized it. And, I might even wear this sweater again tomorrow.
Dad and I drank a glass of wine the night of Calvin’s birthday. Half way through, I had a moment to myself in the kitchen. I found myself crying, then. My mom found me. “Sorry,” I said. “I just keep thinking of how much Max would have loved today.”
She turned around, eyes blurry, and smiled.
“Oh baby, he did. Couldn’t you tell? He was there. He saw.”
I’m sure he saw me crying, too – and wondered why one would do such a thing on a birthday – especially one that came after deep, deep sorrow.
January 15, 2012 § 8 Comments
“You know Stevie Nicks wrote landslide at 23?” I said. “She said it was the first year she started feeling like she was getting older.”
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
and I’m getting older too.
My mom stopped, “whoa, this really is your song now isn’t it?”
“This year’s going to be much, much better,” she said.
Judging by the way it started, right then and there, she was right. I’m 23 today. Twenty three and thankful, mostly, for how the way this year has changed my life. 12 months ago I was sneaking out the front door of someone’s apartment – hungover, barefoot. I carried my high heels in a sequined shirt and a pair of gym shorts I’d shoved in my bag. I started to climb a fence just as my best friend drove up, and it started opening.
She opened her car door.
“Hi hot mess.”
She did. She brought me flip flops and, out of the kindness of her heart, I’m sure, forced me to walk into Starbucks with her. A venti water and americano later, we sat in the parking lot and discussed my birthday party. “That was horrific. I can’t even talk about it.” She nodded. “I know.”
Something shifted in me that hot January day in a La Mirada parking lot. I suppose it was the beginning of forward thinking. Or maybe, just exhaustion from a long line of one night stands, ruined friendships, and not remembering the last time I woke up on a Sunday without a pounding headache. It was the beginning of the realization that men that didn’t love me weren’t worth spending the night with. It was the beginning of realizing that time spent with family wasn’t time wasted. And, that a few less margaritas and perhaps some candles on a real cake – and my little sister’s voice in the morning – could and would make for a better day.
But beginnings are just that – beginnings. And I carried my hot mess through the spring. Best friends are made for these times and it was a text message, instead of an americano, that woke me up three months later.
“I think you’re a train wreck,” she wrote.
I didn’t even cry.
22 carried on, and I re-met my ex, and started my life over. I lost a family member. A few weeks later, I lost a friend. Then, I lost myself somewhere around Shasta mountain moving up to Portland in my white Miata for a man I spent months sleeping beside, only to find out he didn’t love me either.
I grew up in church, but people there didn’t seem to like honest questioning, and they, very clearly, didn’t like it when I wore leather. After that, they took to me like the frogs must have taken to Pharoah’s palace, and I couldn’t find a quiet space to get away from their judgment.
I took off like a bat out of hell – for LA, for Washington DC, for Haiti and Dubai, Uganda, London, Virginia, Long Beach and, finally, Portland. And, there, much closer to home than I’d been in years, the quiet began to settle in, and I licked my wounds living with a trans couple in Northeast who, quite quickly, became some of my very best friends.
Alone in Portland, I started sitting in the back of a church off Burnside in NE Portland. I doodled quotes on bulletins – things like: “Just when others look and think you’re a person to be pitied is when you – as a person God loves – can know that He is beginning to move for you.”
Somewhere in between handling death, and feeling like I was dying, I called my mom on the way to a tattoo parlor in Gresham. “Mom, God’s moving for me.”
The man who inked my spine discussed the way church can damage a person, and what it looks like to start over. I became particularly addicted to one cafe and, each day, the same barista asked me if things were getting better yet. It was my one honest moment of the morning in a sea of people who didn’t know much about me – “Nope. My almost fiance dumped me this week.” And, each day after that he’d raise an eye brow – “better yet?” I’d shake my head and then say “better now!” and hold up my americano.
I became the prophet of all things Jesus, because I was pretty sure most people hadn’t met Him like I did. The Jesus I was told about didn’t like cigarettes, and He didn’t talk about sex. He didn’t like stilettos, and it was for damn sure that He didn’t like me. But, in my corner of Portland, He did. Suddenly, He had saved me from an oppressive situation I couldn’t even see myself. Suddenly, it mattered to Him that a mother in law didn’t take over my life, that the whims of an emotionally abusive partner didn’t throw me off course – and it mattered to Him that I went back to Africa. This time, not running.
I started an anthem – “God sees me. And, He hears me.” Over beers, halfway through a cigarette, on the porch in my sweats trying to sift through my broken pieces – “I know this is crazy. But I think God sees me. And, I think He likes me. I have this feeling that there’s something bigger going on than everything falling apart.”
Somewhere near the California border I remembered my insurance agent telling me, months before, that if I moved to Portland and found that the love I thought I had wasn’t all I’d been looking for, I should come home with my head high.
“I’m not saying you’re out to fail,” she said. “But you know, I’m friends with your grandma. And, I just want you to know – if it happens? We’ve all been there.” And so, I hung on – hung on through quitting my job nannying for a little boy with a sensory disorder just so I could keep a bedroom I never slept in, hung on through the drive home to Northern California with my dad. “Hey, Dad? Do you think I’ll come back to Oregon? Am I a failure coming home? Did I fail?”
I hung on through months of silence from someone who I thought I’d make a life with. I hung on through having no idea what it was I was doing. I brought home the gospel of God’s love for the hot mess because I believed it. I figure Jesus loves a good porter just as much as I do, and that He doesn’t so much mind if I smoke while I’m sitting beside Him on my parent’s porch steps.
I figure if He loved me that day, sneaking out of an apartment, barefoot, on the way to discuss my birthday disaster, surely He loves me now. But, I don’t even think it works that way – I think He felt the same way about me then as He does now because it was then, just when I was about to become the train wreck of the century, that God gave me Nakate.
And, just when I wasn’t sure who I was again, He moved me home to a town I thought was dead, and doubled the success of a project I’d almost abandoned in Portland. After that, He took me back to Africa, feeling like an unloved woman, and he set me in a plastic chair in front of 40 women who call me their life partner, even though most of them had never met me before.
They clapped for me – prostitutes and co-wives and abandoned women, all starting businesses – all sure that, for the first time, someone really loved them. All JUST.LIKE.ME. And, all bawling almost as hard as I was.
Exactly one month from now, I’ll be back in Africa – back with those women who have no idea how many times they’ve saved me from disaster.
And, last night? I went to church in leather leggings.
I’m not sure if anyone noticed.
I was too busy thinking about how Jesus loves me.
Happy 23rd world – it’s really good to be here.
Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older and I’m getting older too
June 14, 2011 § 2 Comments
August 28, 2010 § 2 Comments
August 27, 2010 § Leave a Comment
It’s the people in a place that make your heart ache, and your mind wander back, after you’ve gone.
And I know splendid people, in Uganda.
I find that emails aren’t the same – there’s more of a language barrier, and less vibrance to our conversation – but I can read between the lines, and I know that what we are saying to one another runs deeper than the words that flow between us.
Until then, I love finding notes that begin with “Hi Shanny,” and flow quickly into stories from the medical clinic, small details about their days – and requests to send more necklaces, baskets. I love getting new stories, and finding photos. But they all fall short – I have to imagine what it’s like, from my small desk in East LA. I have to imagine the detials and the faces, the words that flow and the sing song of Luanda and Kiswahili as sorrow is communcated – and help asked for.
I miss the reality of it.
I know that I won’t have to read between the lines anymore, when I return.