Friday, July 8, 2016

Facebook reminded me today—as if I could forget, as if I were the kind of person who doesn't carry these things in my bones, a sort of person who doesn't viscerally remember each moment and hour of every terror, every poignancy, every moment where life changed, could have changed, every pacing manic moment—Facebook reminded me this morning, that a year ago, three and a half hours north of here, in a room I never saw, in a hospital by the water, a surgeon held my father's heart in his hands. A year ago I paced and babbled and waited. An old woman in a green vest—a vest that reminded me of Girl Scouts, thin and cotton, clearly intended to signify something—played Disney theme songs on the piano. It was a fancy hospital and the waiting room I sat in was just for cardiac surgery. There was a large fish tank and a tv screen with a color coded system and a scrolling list of patients represented by private identification numbers to keep us informed of their position in surgery: Who is being prepped, who is in active surgery, who is in recovery, etcetera. We were given laminated cards and a little buzzer that buzzed and flashed when we were to go to the phone at the information desk where the attending nurse called you to update you on the progress. She said things like, he's on bypass now... And they're just about to close. Her voice was cheerful and matter of fact. Or that's how I imagine it. The details are foggy.

The day is a blur, a blur punctuated by crystal clear flashes.

I remember waking up early in the dark in my father's house. I remember the palpable fear in the car on the drive to the hospital. I remember the quiet as we checked in. I remember the circuitous winding hallways. I remember the waiting. I remember the hand holding mine. I remember the puzzle in the waiting room. I remember drinking coffee. I remember not eating. I remember the dizzy spin and the buzzing in my head. I remember the delirious rush of joy of seeing my father awake after surgery. I remember the banks of machines, the countless tubes, the greyness of his skin, the washes of pain unlike any pain I'd ever witnessed, how he would blanch and shudder, how his eyes would widen and his pupils contract. I remember the clench of his jaw, the smallness of his voice, when he repeated over and over again, it really hurts. I remember my surprise at my intense gratitude for drugs, my gratitude when the nurses told me he likely wouldn't remember these hours. I remember the weight of my exhaustion, my feeling of helplessness in the face of his pain. I remember the way I literally shook with exhaustion and relief, trembling as the shock wore off, the cascading rushes of gratitude as it slowly sunk in that he'd survived, that it had gone well, the realization that I still had my papa.

I talked to him on the phone this afternoon, heard his voice bright and cheery. He has climbed mountains this last year; he has floated down rivers. He has has swam in lakes, and gone out for coffee, and made dinners, and done dishes, and napped in the sunshine, and all of the glorious and lovely mundanity of a life. He is here and he is strong, and I get to hear his voice. It does not escape me how lucky we are. It does not escape me how much I have to be grateful for.

Yes. I remember.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

In My Grown-up Life

I wrote a poem once entitled my grown-up life. It was intended to be tongue in cheek—at 24, I was pretty sure I was already a grown-up. It spoke of returning to the halls of my alma mater ten years later, my hair speckled with grey. In my grown-up life I will have a fig tree, it began. I heard children's feet on hardwood, smelled coffee and last night's dinner in the kitchen. I'm guessing there was an artist's studio out back and dried paint in the creases of my knuckles, but I can't recall the details now.

It was the fall after the summer I wore polo shirts and gold hoop earrings ironically, the summer I laughed and wandered and wondered with an eclectic crew of fiercely tight-knit friends who worked at coffee shops and bars, the summer we sat on stoops and porches and drank brown-bag shrouded cans of cheap beer through straws, the summer I discovered the swifts.

It was the fall after the summer after the end of my first great love.

A classmate, an older man, came up to me after I read the poem for the class and said I hope you get to have that life. I was taken aback and then immediately dismissed him in my head. This was before I considered that I might not, before it seemed possible that that future life might not be mine. It was a matter of when, not if. I had suspended it, put it on hold, but it was still coming. It still belonged to me.

A few years later, driving to school, I burst into tears at the realization that this was, in fact, the life I had imagined for myself, it was just a different imagining from a different time. (There had been a brief phase in my early teens where I was sure I'd live in a modern house in the countryside. There would be snow in the winter, parching sun in the summer, and giant picture windows. I was to be a swimming coach. I'm pretty sure this version of my future life was set somewhere in Eastern Washington.) The one I was living as I drove over the Sellwood Bridge in tears, this was the life that unfurled from the seed of my lifelove of art. There was paint in the creases of my knuckles, and a palpable aching loneliness strung from the sky. I was fiercely independent, wildly in love with myth and metaphor, the poetry of turn of phrase or changing light. I wore high heels often and lived by the covenant of apocalyptic hilarity.

The ten fabled years of the poem have come and gone, and how many lives have come and gone with them? There is no fig tree, no backyard studio. Instead there is the podium from which I lecture, charcoal ground into my skin, curious and excited students, the drive through the hills to the campus out west of the city, my basement studio, this crazy wild chosen family of friends, my heart breaking and opening more and more deeply with each passing year.

There are bits and pieces of the different lives I imagined, there are slicing shards I never would have dreamed, and there are the threads that diligently and inelegantly weave them all together.

This is a patchwork life; this is my patchwork life.

It is here, and it is still coming, and it belongs to me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


This morning I slipped my great grandmother's ring on my finger.

I can't say why, exactly. It is a symbol of something. She is a symbol of something. I can never place exactly what. Or maybe it is that it is so much that I cannot parse it out. She is a symbol of everything. A weight so heavy, I know she could not (or would not) bear it should I ever have met her, had she still been alive when I was born. I never did; she was not.  Instead, I pour over old photos, the notations on the back of them. I am thirsty for her stories. I make up my own narrative of her life. I understand her, in some ways, as both the glorious embodiment of all the things I have wanted for myself and the failure of those things, the ways they failed her, failed her children. The story of her as told by my mother's generation is always tinged with a selfishness. My mother's mother was loved less than her sisters. Mabel said so flatly, I am told. Mabel was not really a good mother, I am told. It is whispered as if it is a secret, but it is so central to everyone's story of her that I cannot imagine it ever being anything but plain as day. She was an artist. And when I look at photos of her young, I see that. That is what I see in her eyes: a fierceness, a wildness, a desire bigger than the life that was laid out before her. I wonder often how her story would have differed had she not been born at the turn of the twentieth century.

The ring is from the twenties, three sapphires surrounded by a cluster of tiny diamonds. The once faceted sapphires are worn down to smooth round stones like river rock, or the stones I used to collect on beachwalks as a child.

I wear it on my right hand as a signifier, but it is just as much a signal that I am taken. I am taken by art, by history, by the weight of expectation, by story, by all the things she was, all the things she could not be, all the things I can be and somehow must be because she could not. I am obligated to make something of the creative fire that burns in us both, the one that is more my inheritance than blood or jewelry, or cut of cheekbone. I am obligated to make her story more than that of a woman of some means, a wife and mother who painted in her spare time, who did not give her children enough attention, who had a room dedicated to hat-making, whose lore is imbued with dismissal and reverence in equal measure. I am taken by the responsibility of that. I am taken by narrative. I am whisked off my feet by story, by my story, by the body politic, by the politicized body, by the feeling of being a woman in this time, by its tethering to our collective history. I am taken by feminism and expectation, and the crushing weight of wanting everything, the weight of the expectation that I must be unfalteringly capable of that everything. The seamlessness of it still expected of women. She was not seamless; she was biting. She knew what she wanted. It wasn't always what she was supposed to want. It wasn't always kind. She wasn't always likable; she was a woman willing to be unlikable. I like that about her story, about my story of her.


I slipped on her ring on my way out the door this morning—on my way out the door to work, where I stand in tall boots and an oversized turtleneck sweater, wearing my professor uniform—on my way out the door while listening to Roxan Gay's essays Bad Feminist. I slip it on my finger, and think about choice, about freedom, about desire, about all the times I've been told that women need to choose between art and love, art and family, all the times I sat in classrooms while men and women(!) told me it was still not really possible, not truly. You can't have both. Men can have both, but not you. Women care too much about being a good mother. Being a good mother precludes the kind of singular devotion that true artistic genius demands.

I think of my great grandmother, the wildness in her eyes, her unparalleled beauty. I wonder how it could have been different had she not chosen the man who adored her most, the man who offered her the most security. She was acutely aware and conscious of that choice, I am told. How could she not be? She was happy and she loved him, I am told fervently, as a follow-up. It is important to note: She loved him. I wonder how it would have been different had she lived in a time when a pursuit of her own passions was an option. She tried to have both. She broke her daughter's heart. She met with no fame or traditional success as an artist—something I can only assume she never pursued. We have glowing oil paintings of autumn trees, and wild stories, and I have my life. I cannot arrange these facts into a tidy meaning. They are simply the facts.

She is a symbol of something, a symbol of everything. I wonder how things might have been different for her. I wonder how they could be different for me.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Last week I glimpsed through the narrow crack between two large metal doors on the third floor of the Museum—the Museum: capitalized, as was our custom—and saw emptiness. The place that once was the resource center is now an empty room, only the streams of light coming in the angled windows, the quiet.

This was the place that my love for art and my love for education met. I remember my first day there, the way it made my heart swell. It was fall. I was just 25, or maybe not even yet, and I was madly in love with life, with the season, with swirling leaves and color and the way everything seemed to be imbued with magic, even the sound of the high heel click on concrete on my walk from the bus, on the marble stairs inside. It seemed my whole wide magical life was laid out in front of me in glittering jeweltones, like the night pavement after rain.


It was strange to see the bareness, the white walls, the tacked up paper, presumably an exhibition on its way in some distant future. It reminded me (as as everything seems to) of the passage of time, of the way things slip in and out of a life, of the way sometimes the color just fades despite our best attempts to keep it alive, vibrant, stay in love with it, the way something we have worked for and poured ourselves into can slip away into memory, into emptiness. Time can sap as well as swell, and my persistent metaphor is unrelenting; it is the waxing and waning of the moon, the rise and fall of the tide.

This has been a year of the swell, a year of growing and rising, at times fast and sharp, a tidal wave, bursting at the seams. It has been a time of intense gratitude and learning, and the deep searing growing pains that accompany such times. So much good has come into my life since last year at this time. Still, it's hard sometimes, to catch up with all of life's dizzying spinning, to catch my breath after all of the fear and the work and the work and the work.


That year—the year I started at the museum as an intern— that was the year I found the mark that made me feel like what I was making was art, that my love and my sight could somehow translate to paper, to 2 dimensions, to something others could see and touch, a way I could put a true and real and unedited piece of myself out in the world. I fell in love with ink and skylines and feeling—for the first time—wholly and unabashedly myself.

As the splits and seams heal into stretch marks, rivulets of scars, and the exhaustion begins to abate, I know that this has to be what comes next; I have to find my mark again. I have to find the place in me that is in love with curiosity and truth and the bones beneath the skin, the part of me that is unafraid of all I have to lose, unafraid of all I have to give.

Monday, January 26, 2015

I am sitting in the school library, by the window on the second floor. Building 3 is across the small green, and the tiny campus is tucked into a pocket of fog in the farmlands west of the city. My eyelids are heavy because they sprung open at 7.30 this morning, and because this is the first long day of the first long week of the term. It is week 4 of the term already (somehow), but this week my classload doubles. It is a lot of talk of scramble and busyness, but really it is unadulterated glory. I love my leather briefcase, my commute along skyline through flickering afternoon sunlight, my office, all the trappings of this real life, this real career that seems to finally be something thick enough to knock on, breathe around. It is all tenuous, and I know that every term has potential for drastic change, but sitting here in this plush chair with the grey out the window, I am happy. I am deep down, full-bellied happy.

And despite the ever-nagging fear of falling, fear of failure, I am wise enough to revel in this moment while it's with me. Here I am. This is the life I get to live today, and I am grateful.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

I packed for rain: sweaters and books, a bag of dry lentils for making soup, cinnamon-infused brandy for hot toddies, slippers, movies... and every day the sun has burned through, the sky bright and blue. October, and I found myself lying on a sheet on the beach, skin bared to the sun, napping, reading, eating potato chips, drinking beer.

I took a long walk each day, along the shoreline that I have known my whole life, the one that is always shifting imperceptibly beneath me, the one that has always been there, the one that is my foundation. A foundation of sand somehow makes the most perfectly solid and tenuous all at once metaphor for all that is my life.

My nose and the apples of my cheeks are kissed with pink, my shoulders brown. My legs feel stretched long from their loose swing and sway. I am happy to be here, and I am ready to go home.

I've been feeling lately like mining my heart for content, scanning the horizon for something to say, the right thing to say, the right way to say it. It is the artist's struggle, the painfully mundane and predictable artist's struggle. But I have been remembering things, feelings, remembering the shape of hope, the formlessness of how words tangle, and the certain kinds of images that rearrange the deepest places in that ever-shifting foundation of sand in that thing that I call my heart. I've been scrambling to capture ideas again, not with the same fierceness of those early days of my first thesis, but in the way I felt when I spent 2 weeks here.

It was this time of year, 8 years ago. I was on medical leave from work, and I was scrambling to rearrange my life into a something I could fit inside, something that could fit inside of me. Those days here felt long and good, languid and bright. I gathered tiny pieces of driftwood that reminded me of wintered trees and  even smaller red and golden leaves, leaves smaller than my pinky nail, and arranged and rearranged them into tiny tableaus on the beach. I made postcards, and took photographs, and rerooted myself to this place of my familial and familiar history. I watched sunsets and stayed up too late in the empty house alone, I walked the shore at midnight, and spread myself out in the sand to stare at the stars. I drank wine and remembered that fluttering beating heart inside my chest, the leaping and settling of my gut as I felt my way slowly, steadily, unsurely back into myself.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yesterday the rain settled in and all night I listened to its song outside my bedroom window as I drifted in and out of dreaming. Though it's still warm, fall is definitely here.  It's been a slow shift and still somehow hit with a bang. It feels like everything embodies that narrative lately. I watch a slow turn and then suddenly I'm looking at the other side of the thing.

The sky is white and I've had strange little hints of reminders the past few days of places I've been, places that feel so far and distant it's hard to imagine they once felt close to the marrow of me, places I feel fondness for and places I feel grateful to have left behind, bullets I managed to narrowly dodge, trainwrecks I watched unfold in the rearview mirror... in the same breath there have been breezes blowing through with the intoxicating scent of future possibility, directions that—like this impending season—feel fresh and grounding, full of earthy wonder.

This year, like every other, I went to visit the swifts for my birthday. I watched them gather in the sky, flutter and swirl, dart and soar, and was reminded once again of the way they work together, the way they so perfectly embody the singularity and togetherness that I feel in the world. They coalesce and converge, then break form—a mass of seeming chaos—then just as quickly, drop a wing and are one again. There was a time I would have called this the closest thing to religion I know how to understand, the way we are all—imperfectly—a part of something bigger.

Once, I wanted to trace the flight patterns of birds on paper, macro and micro—30 seconds, a lifetime. I made them up in short bursts of thread, of ink, tracing their way across paper. Do their movements across the sky, the continents follow those same patterns of tributaries, bark, the veins of a leaf, the veins beneath my own skin?

Somehow now though, the abstraction feels a little deeper, a little more distant. This year, my body is my body. That little bird body is his own. 2 beating hearts, a million. Meaning is less born of the sameness, the layering of pattern. Tangible proof isn't what I'm after, not exactly. The weight is no longer in making visual the gaps and convergences. The call I feel is something like wanting to learn to be them. This year my fantasy is to trace their goings more specifically, fly alongside them—if only in short jaunts in the metal body of a jet. This year my fantasy is to spend a year with them, see what they show me in the moments without the grandstanding of their yearly show, break free of the metaphors that have grown up around them in my own yearly rituals. I want to see their quiet moments. It is in those moments, I think, that I might find the simple beauty of the easing between community and singularity, the way a life is built in the accumulation of those moments.

I have always wanted to be that last bird in the sky, the one diving and darting alone as night falls, with the safety of the rest just below, waiting. This year I want to learn the ease of transition, slipping easily back and forth between that solitary delight and the pleasure of the whole, making something beautiful together.