Thursday, May 18, 2017

Molting

This piece is almost four years old, but it feels appropriate to share today. All these years later, I still feel waves of grief from the losses I experienced in my 30s. Lately, I often feel like I'm on the precipice of something I can't put my finger on. Sort of like that feeling you have when you see something move out of the corner of your eye. You glance over, startled but intrigued, trying to figure out if your brain is playing tricks on you, or if you are finally able to communicate with the spirit realm and a ghost has come to visit. Just me? Okay. 

The feeling of being on the verge of Figuring Everything Out™ but never quiiiite getting there could be a kind of mid-life crisis. It might just be frustration at where I am in life and where I thought I would be at this point. When I am most discombobulated, I try to remember a scene from Boys on the Side that impacted me so many years ago. One of the main characters is having a health crisis and, in a moment of anguish, cries out, "I don't know where to go. I don't have any place to go. I don't know anyplace." In response, her friend says, "Sometimes, if you don't have any place to go, it's probably a good idea to stay where you are." 

So I'm holding still. 

-----

"Maybe Tomorrow" by Stereophonics plays on repeat

I want to write about loss. About pain and death and fear and how much I miss my grandfather. We lost him in 2004 and I just... I keep finding myself tangled up in grief. I can almost not fathom that it's been nine years, that next year will mark a milestone, an "anniversary," that I am perhaps more torn up now than I was when he passed. I was working as a secretary at my alma mater and still remember my mother calling to let me know he was gone. He had passed in his sleep after going to bed early, not feeling well after dinner or something equally innocuous.

Poof. Just gone. The proverbial candle snuffed out. No goodbye, no drawn-out illness to give us, in a terrible and inevitable sense, time to prepare. A light unceremoniously snapped off on the way to bed. A shower curtain's last drop of water quietly drying in the late morning.

I remember my father sobbing at the funeral, as one would imagine he would. I remember my brother rubbing Dad's back. I was 31, closing in on 32. My brother would turn 30 later that year. As I inch closer to 40, some 10 weeks to go before I finally shut the door on my 30s, I feel my age crashing in on me. I was reminded on the daily of my age at my last job, where many of my coworkers were in their early 20s. They'd laugh through drinking stories and how they were surviving at work on only a couple hours of sleep after being out half the night raging, dancing, wearing sunglasses in dark clubs and throwing back shots with strangers. They'd toss about dates that meant something to me -- 1987, 1991 -- but in different ways. While they were newborns, I was already in high school or graduating from high school and getting ready to enter college. That I was working at the same level with people I could've babysat, people my teenage self could've given birth to, never made any sense. More than seven months after I left the company, flowers continue to open and reveal their secrets. Bloom. How uncomfortable I was working there. How unhappy. Bloom. How much I lied to myself that I was in the right place because I was being paid to write. But there were so many days when I would have to force myself to smile -- or at least not glower -- as I walked into the building, knowing all the management types who were inexplicably in their offices by 7:00 a.m. could see me, knowing the freakishly perky HR rep would bounce by my desk and want to know why I wasn't an explosion of joy and rainbows.

In the big worldview -- the view of that job from the Space Shuttle, if you will -- the job meant very little. It's one of those things that won't matter in five years. My tenure there fit like a suit I'd outgrown before leaving the store. My mom thought the company would be out of business in a matter of months, given their business model. Friends told me during and after my employment that they thought the company was shady. Though I've lost the stability of a biweekly paycheck, I have gained the relief that I don't have to lie anymore. I don't have to exhibit false enthusiasm in person or on social media about how lucky I am, how great the company is, and how much !FUN! we have. Beneath all those falsehoods was the knowledge that I wasn't doing the best job of surviving on what they paid, that their preference of quantity over quality was killing me, that I knew, if only subliminally, it was all coming to an end and there was little I could do before the meteor tore a hole in the Earth's crust. Bloom and fade.

It feels like my 30s have only been about loss. Maybe it's what had to happen, but it just seems like the layers keep coming off and I wonder when I'll reach my barest self and be able to rebuild. My last two grandparents passed. Two of my favorite former bosses passed. Two of the very few women I have dated passed. I lost two jobs and with each, my income, sense of self, ability to be truly independent. I ate to cope and as I gained weight, I began losing my mobility in small ways. I began to hear excuses spill off my tongue about why I was out of breath or why I didn't want to go somewhere, knowing what the other person didn't: I wasn't going to fit in the seats, for instance, or I knew there would be too many stairs to climb. I lost a great therapist when she moved out of state. I lost an apartment with a beautiful accent wall and a relaxing view of a man-made lake when I gave it all up to move downtown, where I have now lost flecks of my sanity.

I understand -- very clearly understand, however -- that this is where I am supposed to be, that I am in a situation of my own choosing. If you want to get religious or spiritual about it, I know that God/dess has not given me more than I can handle. But I also know that I have lived through dark nights I cannot tell anyone -- anyone -- about. That I have had to walk away from friendships that were no longer right for me. That this apartment, despite filling it with burning sage and meditative chants, bears all the negative energy that has poured out of me since I first got laid off in 2009. It is here where I have filled out unemployment claims, put faith and hope into job applications only to be rejected time and again for opportunities that I thought I was tailor-made to fill.

I know and have known for months and even years that it's time to exfoliate this dusty skin and will away the circles that plague my tired eyes. I look at the weight I carry, the refuse that needs to be tossed away, the stacks of all that I surround myself with. I know I have collected these things because I cannot bear to lose one more thing, regardless of whether or not that loss is actually beneficial. The great artistic forest fairy who will help make it possible for me to live as a writer and painter is off having a smoke break while I finish scraping through these last weeks of being a 30-something. She's waiting patiently while I figure it all out, understand what I need to do to get energy moving in the right direction. She helps me see more clearly, helps me understand that dark nights often beget bright mornings, that I have rediscovered my art and my self in the absence of the daily grind that was slowly killing me. I am in the fire, feeling the sear instead of moving through the burn, closing in on the next great chapter and finishing up the paperwork on a lot of inevitable hurts. 

Whether claimed by old age, sickness, or accident, the deaths of my family and friends was inevitable. The economy tanked and with it went my stronghold on security. If there is a great golden outline of all the things I was destined to learn during this decade, we must surely be near the end of the list. I have learned how to survive on less and with fewer people in my support ranks. I have slashed and burned where perhaps I should have been more patient. I learned that I have, in some ways, painted myself into a corner, but I can't be afraid to dirty my bare feet in pigment while I run for the spigot. I can find my way back to freedom and laugh at the footprints I leave behind, the signs that I was here, once trapped and feeling helpless but now free to move on, explore, start anew with fresh breath in my lungs and a fuller arsenal for battle.

Maybe tomorrow... I'll find my way home.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

My favorite place

Many, many moons ago -- around the year 2000, I'd guess -- I was heavily involved in volunteer work for an organization that promoted women in the arts. I was attending/working their annual event, the National Women's Music Festival, which featured an open mic for poetry and the chance to be around art all week.

Participating in the open mic had potential for greatness. In addition to getting a chance to perform work in front of a new audience in the afternoon, the winner would move on to a round robin performance that evening and perform again with other open mic finalists. The winner of the round robin got to perform on day stage on the last day of the festival.

Potentially long story short, I won.

I had never been much of a performer in my life. I auditioned to be in a play in high school, but didn't know squat about acting and flubbed my way through the reading. I thought the drama geeks were weird and the theatre kids in college were irritating. The closest I got to performing, aside from putting on skits for my parents with my brother, was watching Fame on TV when I was a kid.

I say all of that so you understand I didn't know much about cues. I managed to walk onto the day stage while the emcee was still introducing me, but somehow it worked out. I was onstage at most 15 seconds before I should've been, but it meant I got to stand at the microphone, awash in applause.

It was thunderous. And it was for me.

The lights were blinding and I'm sure I was at least a little nervous, but I really only remember reading my poem -- something I'd written the day before about a woman I was crushing on -- and stepping back to receive more applause.

I made it to the wings before I burst into hysterical tears.

The emcee eyed me oddly and asked, in a none-too-kind way, if I was okay. Her tone seemed to imply I'm going to have to cancel the show and find you a damn doctor. I nodded, unable to convey that I was actually crying happy tears.

A few years later while attending Michfest, I had a similar experience. Another open mic, another poem, more applause, and, like clockwork, tears.

Even though I am out of practice with performing and I devote more energy to worry than art, I know there is truth in those tears.

I know where I belong.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Childhood memories

The family station wagon, a white Aspen with dark green vinyl seats. Sticking to the backseat in the summer. Finding a small gift on my seat before a road trip with the family, something to keep me occupied for at least a short while.

Playing dress-up at the girls' club after school. High heels and fancy clothes, probably donated items from closets where forgotten bridesmaid and prom dresses had once hung. Volunteering to sweep up after the afternoon's activities because it meant I got to have a snack and pull a glass bottle of Coke from the machine in the kitchen, even though the bottle cap always bit into my fingers.

Selling candy around the neighborhood for the same girls' club. Immediately hating sales. Stalling. Walking down the club's long hill of a driveway as slowly as possible. Eating some of the candy myself even though I would later get in trouble. Arriving, more than once, on the doorstep of an old man who was always happy to see me. Smiling, greeting, stepping inside at his invitation, remembering only a flickering light on the left side of the hallway. Darkness.

Posing for pictures Dad took for his various books. Pretending, alongside my brother, to drive a train, peer into a cave, or investigate the mouth of a well. Being at the home of a well-known family, descended from settlers or conquistadors or some such. Watching a girl close to my age brush her long, dark hair before joining her siblings in the backyard for the photo.

Running through the ramshackle clubhouse my dad built for me and my brother, its walls a hot pink we specifically picked out during a trip to the paint store. Swinging on a tree branch between the back step of the structure and the neighbors' wall. Playing in a camper parked in the backyard even though we weren't supposed to be inside. Pretending to drive a broken-down pickup truck, making car noises and shifting only when I remembered.

Leaving a deep fingernail scratch across the album cover of Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, a birthday present I had deeply coveted. Paying for a copy of Thriller with a few singles and a pile of change, proudly poured, to the clerk's chagrin, from a manila envelope onto the record store counter. Buying a tape of Van Halen's "1984" for $4 from the kids next door. Listening to Quiet Riot, being scared of the guys in Twisted Sister, experiencing the first years of MTV at friends' houses.

Growing tiny, anthill-sized boobs and having to tell my parents in deep, deep shame that the girls on the playground had told me I needed to buy a bra. Participating in a staging of the Nutcracker with my ballet class, promoted to a soldier because I was "too tall to be a mouse." Telling my mom about helping hoist friends to the monkey bars, letting them step into my hands or climb on my back even though it hurt, and having to ask her what she meant when she called me a beast of burden.

Sparklers on the patio on the Fourth of July. A school box full of supplies (and gum!) from Grandma at the end of every summer. Small chili peppers made from Wonder Bread + Elmer's Glue dough, painted red and glued to wooden spoons for our mothers for Christmas. Flips off the uneven bars on the playground; the freedom of soaring backwards. My calloused palms, my spirit, my courage.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Bleeding

I wrote this piece about 3.5 years ago after I left a terrible, now-closed (HUZZAH!) company. Things are much better now, emotionally speaking, but I still get blindsided with grief from time to time. It irritates me; I feel like I should just, you know, buck up. Ovary up. Chin up. Get over it. But that's not how grief works. The damage lingers. The scar still aches when it rains.

-----

In this story, mentions of internal bleeding are not literal. Welcome to the world of metaphor! And hazy details.

The job was bad for me. I didn't know that right away. If I'd known, maybe I wouldn't have gone for it. Maybe I would have. I really needed a job.

It started out as a temp gig. I had been working part time for another company and had begun researching how to apply for food stamps because $9/hour wasn't cutting it. Even though it was temporary, the new job was full time and paid a little more, so I leaped.

The first sign of trouble was when my new bosses didn't really know what to do with me and the other employees they'd hired. It was like they had bought a cruise ship and wanted us to row it.

Work came our way and our ragtag group of misfits started getting to know each other. At first the work was a lot of research and data entry, but I didn't complain much. Full time. Occasional free lunches. Regular paychecks. Relief.

Near the end of the temp assignment, management decided who they wanted to keep and who they wanted to cut. Sadly, the folks whose contracts weren't being extended were pulled out of work one afternoon and unceremoniously dumped. Follow me into this room. Line up against the wall. Blood stains? No, those are -- bang.

I hardly thought the HR department was going to wheel a big cake into the room and make champagne toasts at the end of the first phase of the assignment, but one minute my coworkers had been working and the next, they were quietly packing up their things and leaving the room while the HR rep monitored them.

Hmm. This little red flag. Where did that come from?

Fast forward a bit and I was sitting in a final interview with the HR rep who let me know I was being hired permanently, but that new hires were on 30-day reviews. If I failed to deliver, my "relationship with the company would be reevaluated."

It is no understatement when I say I never relaxed at that job.

Over the next 18 months or so, select employees would be marched into conference rooms or manager offices and put on probation, "invited" to resign, or outright fired. Rumor had it these people always knew the end was coming, but it happened so often I had a hard time believing so many useless people worked for one company. The whole drama played out like an abusive relationship. From the front, big smiles and bigger sunglasses. From the side, visible bruises behind the shades.

Work piled up, which wasn't surprising considering the workforce kept getting reduced. The office became the land of unrealistic expectations. Employees were made to feel guilty for taking time for themselves on the weekends. We worked four, 10-hour days, so we always had Fridays off. The HR rep explained, during a too-long, too-bright, and too clip-arty PowerPoint presentation, that the company had therefore given us an extra day off each week. We should be happy to put in extra time! To wit, a manager literally screamed at the writing/editing team one day because we balked at coming in and working for free on Fridays. We were told we were "unwilling to go to any lengths to further our careers."

I became progressively unhappier and took my emotions out on food. I vented to coworkers who were fighting the same battle. I thought we were all in the same boat. I should not have been surprised the day I found out I was on a sinking vessel and all the life jackets had silently been distributed.

As you might guess, the death march eventually came for me. I held on at first, clinging to the side of the ship even though pirates were on board and there was nothing left to save. Fearing shark-infested waters, I did not want to let go. A few days into the fight, I had to surrender. I was not going to be allowed to win. Even if I swam faster, the water level was going to continue to rise.

At first, I was absolutely destroyed. I had been blindsided and betrayed. I was mired in the societal definition of success. When employed, I meant something. Having resigned -- essentially signing my life away while being pushed out the door -- I felt meaningless, unwanted, unimportant. The truth was in the word, was it not? Resignation. I had given up. Slipped under the water and faded away without a sound.

Now, however, some nine months later, I understand so many things I could not see then. I know, much like some character on Grey's Anatomy, that I had presented with no external injuries but I was quietly bleeding internally.

I would remark to coworkers and friends outside the company that I was dying inside, but I always laughed it off as the darkest form of sarcasm-rich hyperbole. Really, though, I understood my life force was ebbing. Actual death may not have been imminent, but an emotional and mental end was nigh.

For three months after I left, I couldn't do much more than rage and take my emotional damage with me on interviews. Not surprisingly, none of the jobs I applied for resulted in employment.

One night, though -- and I can no longer remember the impetus -- I got my art back. The urge to create, the same the terrible job had all but squashed out of me, came back. I stayed up all night drawing. It was early spring. The weather was balmy, the windows were open, and at 3:00 a.m., there was little else besides me, my art, and Spotify in my headphones. I felt almost unnaturally good. Night after night, I drew for hours, losing time in details and color matching.

My inner critic was good at reminding me I had no business being happy. If I stayed up all night creating, it was still my responsibility to get up after a few hours' sleep and start applying for "real jobs." I did, but the louder message I kept hearing was that everything was going to work out.

The past nine months have been a time of incredible upheaval. Creating art has brought me the most incredible joy. I have also spent considerable time lingering in my own darkness, letting fear and worry consume me. The good, though, has been shinier and brighter and useful for beating back anxiety and all my "shoulds."

Art healed me. Beginning to pursue the path I want to walk -- the path I am meant to walk -- stemmed the flow of blood I didn't want to believe was spilling away. I knew I was down, that I was unhappy, that I needed to make a change, but seeing around fear was difficult. Leaping meant imminent death instead of the realization that I could actually fly, that I had known how to fly all along. I listened to my critic instead of my heart. I put stock in mantras I didn't actually believe in, like buzzwords, jargon, and the unspoken rule that success would come if I just had enough Twitter followers.

I am still figuring out how to make everything work out. I have my days when I dwell on the past year and let a rush of anger flood my face, but I have so much more to take away from this time than one bad experience. I have my freedom, knowledge, and my art, none of which can be destroyed by any number of marauders. Above all, I have the unshakable feeling that things are going to work out. The excitement is in swimming away from a sinking ship and seeing only clear blue water.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A story in five sentences

Found a gem on an old blog. I'm better at writing fiction than I remember. ;)

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Spot the circle round

spot the circle round
stop the circle round
red swollen sore

spot the circle blue
bound bird caged

spot the lemon
the yellow
the light 
the whip
meringue
whip the air
whip me

spot the girl in the corner waiting
spot the girl in the corner wanting

stop the girl in the corner from leaving
stop the girl in the corner from lying

take her
take her 
  down
ignore her protests
her weak excuses
her voice high and thin as she lies
as she lies on the floor

take her to new parallels
strike the fear from her bones
source her screams
of course she screams

crave the obscene
crave the cause
cave to the cause
bend to the will
bend to the wall
back to the wall
down in the hall

dark in the hall

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday mornings

Start the day by sleeping in, however late that is. Amble towards a restaurant that serves a good, hearty breakfast. Dine with friends and laugh. Drink coffee doused in cream and perhaps sprinkled in sugar. Mosey towards a bookstore and browse. Sit in the stacks and flip through a picture book, or grab a chair near the window and talk memoirs as friends wander by with the books they're taking home. Hit up a coffeehouse and chat some more, or maybe do some writing. Share your words. Accompany your friends as they run errands at the hardware store, the market, that heady and exotic boutique that sells candles and lotions that smell of spice. Head home for a nap, curling into the softness of down, and sink deeply into dreams that will foster conversation at the dinner table. In the evening, please the palate with something made with patience and love. Enjoy a rich pasta with cream, a green salad dappled in vinaigrette, a wine touched with black cherry and oak. Nestle into an armchair in the living room as the conversation continues and the Cabernet gets polished off. Acknowledge the good weekend while preparing for the week ahead with planned outfits and easy-to-approach to-do lists. Know this day will come around again, perhaps looking very different. Church and croissants. Pancakes before painting. A quiet cup of tea in a delicate white mug before the greasy cloth and detective work of car repairs. Appreciate the slow day. Savor its significance as the second day of rest before the world starts up again.