Show Don’t Tell

Everyone needs a low stakes hobby. Lately, mine is painting. I’ve always only ever dabbled in the arts. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite ways to pass the time was playing “artist” with my sister. We’d pool our supplies and churn out piece after piece until we had a gallery-worthy collection. We usually trashed them before the day was out because the game was more about the process than the finished product. Mostly, I used markers and oil pastels to make abstract works like I imagined on the walls in art museums. I didn’t paint because I didn’t own paints. I didn’t set foot in an art museum until I took myself in college. My family wasn’t anti-art. My parents gave me supplies and enrolled me in classes. They are both creative, expressive people. My dad was a teacher by day but a musician at heart. He played the guitar like a man obsessed, in seemingly every spare moment. My mom loved to dance. However, other than an intricate sketch of the La’ie Hawai’i Temple by one of their old friends that hung in a place of honor in every home we lived, they weren’t much for the visual arts. Most of the pieces we had came from Deseret Book or the portrait studio at Sears. So, I muddled along, doodling in my notebooks, bringing home lumpy mugs, and taking pictures of clouds with a cheap point and shoot. I taught myself to paint with acrylics after my parents to busted me with weed and grounded me for the summer. I started decoupaging furniture around the same time. When I moved out, I obsessively colored and collaged while stoned. I didn’t keep a thing.

I quit making art when I quit getting high. Painting, poetry, writing songs, almost all of it fell by the wayside. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I just wasn’t inclined toward it. Or maybe I forgot how to access the more abstract parts of myself. Cleaning up kicked off years of sprinting toward the life I thought I wanted. Graduating from college with a double degree. Law school at a top ranked university. Prestigious job. Married by twenty-five. An updated apartment in the city that turned into a house in the suburbs. A baby by twenty-seven and plans for more. I didn’t have time for art. I was too busy making my life. I never stopped writing of course, but I hardly thought of myself as a writer. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that becoming a lawyer, a wife, and a mom meant sacrificing any other identities I might once have had.

Time slowed back down when my daughter and I crawled out of the baby stage. Do you know how long a weekend is with a toddler? Together, we discovered that art projects were the most effective way to while away a Saturday afternoon. I started taking her to the Art Institute in the morning and when we got home I’d pull out a box of acrylics and let her go to town on canvases if we had them, plain printer paper if we didn’t. It would have been cheaper to use washable paints for kids but I didn’t know those existed. We ruined a lot of clothes. The navy sweatshirt I’m wearing as I write this is flecked in yellow all over the front and there’s a splotch of red on the sleeves that looks like ketchup, or blood. Our dining table is permanently discolored with streaks of shimmer copper and purple glitter. I should care but it’s gorgeous. Besides paints, we used crayons and markers and gel pens and colored pencils and stencils and stamps and construction paper and cardboard and magazines and scissors and tape and pipe cleaners and modeling clay and Shrinky-Dinks and watercolors. It was play in its purest form, for both of us. When my daughter was done with a project, I’d dutifully put away the supplies and not think about art again until the next time we went to the museum or happened upon a long stretch of time. I proudly displayed my daughter’s work on shelves and walls. I put mine in drawers. Most everything we made disappeared eventually. Chalk on the sidewalk, play-dough creations, dried flower bouquets, scribbled pictures on the back of restaurant menus–most of it wasn’t made to last and the things that might have (paintings, drawings, constructing paper crafts) there was too much of. I couldn’t possibly keep it all.

My relationship to art changed again in the pandemic. First, Robert gave me a set of watercolors. I’d seen them at a bespoke art supply store in Andersonville and practically drooled over the little lumps of pigment wrapped up in muslin cloth. They were too beautiful for words. Also, too expensive, and wholly impractical. I eagerly accepted the shop owner’s offer of a demonstration. I had to see how these paints–practically works of art themselves–worked. “Are you artists?” the shopkeeper asked as my daughter tested out pens and I took a pause from grazing my fingers over everything in the store to watch her work. The knocked me outside the flow of typical shopping banter. I didn’t know what to say. We, my daughter and I, weren’t artists like the shopkeeper was an artist, but I wanted us to be. Yes and no felt like equally dishonest answers, but the yes inside of me thrummed more loudly. “Well, we make art every day. So, I guess we’re artists.” When, six months later I unwrapped a set of paints from my husband for my birthday, complete with water brushes and a ceramic dish and thick, pulpy paper, I felt like I’d been waiting for them my whole life.

Shortly after my birthday, I ordered a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I can’t remember what I was thinking when I decided to buy this book. I certainly was not trying to become a painter. I was doing a lot of writing at the time. I’d been blogging sporadically for over ten years, and hacking away at a memoir for what felt like the same length of time though in reality it was only months. My best guess is that I hoped that the book would unlock in me the discipline and consistency to become a real writer–that is, a writer whose words people want to read. The Artist’s Way is structured as a twelve-week course. You read a chapter a week, work through exercises, and respond to prompts in a journal. You start writing morning pages every day on waking. You take yourself on weekly artists’ dates. Sometimes the work was incredible exciting. I could feel my mind expanding and my creativity pulsing in the center of my chest. Other times it felt like homework. By the time I reached the end of the book, the words were pouring out of me. I was also painting and drawing and dancing and singing and playing guitar, often with my daughter, but equally as often on my own, after she went to bed or while she lingered over dinner or played with her dad. The biggest change was that I no longer had any qualms about calling myself an artist. I figured out that it didn’t matter if anyone read my words. It didn’t matter if I never finished my book. What makes me a writer is the fact that I write. What makes me an artist is the act of sitting down and making art. Art is process of trying again and again to transform my experiences and the world around me into something lasting that can be experienced my someone other than me. All I had to do to be an artist was to show up and lay claim.

A few months after finishing up the Artist’s Way the afterglow wore off and the well of words dried up. I was going through something. Often, struggle and pain are what I write about write about, but this struggle wasn’t generative. Often, writing helps me process difficult emotions, but this time I wasn’t finding any answers on the page. Trying to write was like chasing the monkeys around in my mind. It was painful to see my neuroses and unresolved issues all splayed out on the page day after day. There was no clearing out, only adding to the noise. And then there as this: I didn’t trust myself to say what was true. So I stopped writing and got to work on healing instead. I’ll write about what I mean by “healing”–what I was healing from and how I did it–at some point but I’m not a wellness influencer yet and this post is about art, so for now we’re going to leave it at that. My blogs, Instagram captions, my many Google docs stood silent. My works in progress, my beautiful drafts, refused to budge. This time, I didn’t stop calling myself a writer, or an artist. Like a lot of people battling through pandemic-induced burnout, this is was a year about accepting and respecting my limitations. Taking vacation doesn’t make me any less of a lawyer, just like being done having babies doesn’t make me any less of a mom. Even people with dream jobs take vacations, sabbaticals, breaks. Artists aren’t machines. Our gifts don’t exist for us to churn out content on demand. We have to make art, like everything else, in a sustainable way if we want to do it for the long haul.

The result of the healing work I’ve done this year, which is still very much in process, is that my mind is quieter. Meditation and therapy and exercise work wonders; so does an SSRI. In this quieter phase, the words are not spinning out of my brain at the pace they once did. Where writing was a compulsion, it’s now a choice. If writing was emergency medicine, now it’s play. In the space that remains is a primal urge to record the world in a new way. In my work, I want to see more of the world and less of me in it. I want to never forget the things I am lucky enough to have seen. The curve of the angels wing. The angle of the downtown buildings in a 4 PM winter sheen. The depth of the evergreen against the powder blue brick of the abandoned church on Oak Street. The stark raving beauty of a dog running free on an abandoned beach. Every type of fruit cut cleanly in half. The gas station sign I saw some fifteen years ago and never got out of my head.

A few weeks ago, I pulled my paints out and haven’t been able to stop. I’m watching tutorials on YouTube and Instagram. I’m keeping a list of things I want to paint. I’m daydreaming about what I could do with better brushes, what could happen if I kept this up for a year. I fall asleep thinking about lines on the page. When I finish a picture, I’m giddy like a kid and want to show it off. I need someone to frame my work or hang it on the fridge for me, though, because I can’t do it myself. I went on a painting bender after Thanksgiving and wanted to share my work on Instagram, but when I went to post something stopped me. Shame, I think. Only a moment before, my paintings were beloved masterpieces. I couldn’t believe how much better I’d gotten in a year. But when I thought of sharing them with anyone else, they seemed painfully amateur. Clicking on a hashtag filled my screen with stunning images and suddenly I felt disappointed and embarrassed that I put so much time and excitement into a hobby that yields only mediocre results. I had to tell myself that the finished paintings were not the point. The point was how much I enjoyed making them. But also, I really liked the finished paintings. I had to remind myself of that.

I closed Instagram that day, actually deleted the app off my phone altogether, but I keep revisiting the idea of sharing my art. I know there’s something of value here. It’s not the finished work. It’s the idea that a mom can have a hobby that’s not exercise or drinking wine. It’s the idea that a lawyer can have a hobby that doesn’t come with a networking benefit. It’s the idea that person can try something new and be bad at it. It’s the idea that showing up makes you better. It’s the idea a serious adult has time to play. It’s the idea that the things that moved you as a child never stop moving you. It’s the idea that you can bring things you love back into your life. It’s the idea that there are things out there that can light you up and get you out of bed in the morning that aren’t drugs and don’t depend on other people and you might not even know about them yet. It’s the idea that you can give yourself beautiful things. It’s the idea that you can make a beautiful life.

Maybe being an artist is not about the art you make or about the process. Maybe it’s a way of seeing and being in the world. Maybe art is about how we live. Maybe it’s about love. Maybe our hobbies are not so low stakes after all.

The Stories We Tell

I thought my story was about meeting my star-crossed lover, falling in love young, and getting married against the odds.

I thought my story was about becoming a Mormon feminist, working inside the system, and being the change I wanted to see.

I thought my story was about being a working mom, defying expectations, and making an unjust world work for me.

I thought my story was leaving the Mormon church, breaking my own heart, and voting with my feet.

I thought my story was about getting sober, doing the unexpected and impossible-seeming thing, and getting free.

I thought my story was about getting mentally well, untangling myself from the narratives that I wove into the fabric of my life after other people handed them to me.

I thought my story was about losing God and finding God and losing God and finding God in the places I never expected God to be.

I’ve lived other stories that I knew, even as I was going through them, were not for me: self-harm; bad men; infertility; pain upon pain upon pain.

My story is all of these things but none of these stories are all of me.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 18 – Drive Bys

I used to drive by the houses of the boys I had crushes on, and the houses of all their friends, and–one desperate night–the pizza place where my crush’s girlfriend’s friend worked as a server. Once I got stuck parked in the dark pool between two street lights watching in horror as my crush pressed his girlfriend up against her car in an extended make-out session in the middle of the street. Once on a drive-by past my crush’s friend’s house I hit the curb the curb and got a flat. I had to walk to his house and ask for help changing the tire. “What were you even doing here?” he asked. “This is a gated neighborhood.” Thank god my parents moved a few years back. Now I can visit them without the crush of memories that comes from driving by the high school where I spent two years trying to fit in and my final year nodding off on opiates, from driving by the portrait studio where I worked for two summers cold-calling strangers to book sessions and once called the police to report a sexual assault, from driving by the houses of all the people who never loved me the way I wanted them to. So eager was I to escape the memories that take hold when I set foot in my hometown that I took myself out of state entirely. It wasn’t far enough to stop the drive-bys. I still cruise around those places, those days, dredging up the person I am in the rubble of the person I was.

Quarantine Diaries Day 439: Summer In The Suburbs

A few years ago, I started cataloging idyllic summer weekends with a little mental hashtag: #summerinthesuburbs. This last weekend was one of those. I walked to the farmers’ market with my daughter and a few of our neighbors. At first the kids sprinted up ahead of us until they got to big intersections or, in my daughter’s case, until her shoes fell off. We just bought her a pair of kiddie crocs to combat a permanent case of Mama, my feeeeeet are hooooootttt. Her feet are still hot and her shoes fall off, but they are bright blue, so she is obsessed with them. Then the kids got tired and slowed down to hold our hands. We weren’t halfway there when they stopped to inspect a Hercules beetle and held the whole group up for a solid ten minutes. They flipped the bug right-side up and were relieved to see it was still alive, but my daughter noticed it had a bum leg and worried about it for the rest of the day. Mama, do you think the beetle will be okay?

At the farmers’ market we bought cheese, asparagus, and scones the size of a child’s head, and took them to a patch of grass on the other side of the street where we could strip off our masks and feast. The grownups talked about books. I confessed my tendency to read books that are a huge bummer and then complain about being depressed. The kids ran around flapping their arms and pretended to be birds. A toddler watched from down the way and the toddler’s grandma told us this was the most exciting day of the child’s young life. She was a quarantine baby and had never seen kids at play.

I went to the garden center with my husband and daughter. The sign out front said “I’m so happy spring is here, I went my plants.” My husband pointed out that they missed the obvious joke about soiling yourself. My daughter asked Does soil mean poop, mama? but she was already dying laughing, so I didn’t answer. We got cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, cilantro, sage, basil, mint, six little coleus plants, and, for the first time ever, a flower: impatiens. I’m a fairly utilitarian patio gardener; I like highly productive plants and growing things that I can eat. With the exception of a money tree I picked up at Ikea in college and kept alive through the end of law school, I’ve never bought a plant just because it looked pretty. We keep most of the plants on our back patio, but we planted the coleus out front and put the impatiens in a pot right next to the front door. I’m hoping it will distract the neighbors from the peeling paint and piles of rocks and sticks my daughter brings back from every walk.

I stayed up way late on Saturday night. Date night, you know.

My daughter and I rode our new long boards in the high school parking lot, which was littered with crushed red and yellow carnations from graduation a few days before. My daughter kept stopping to watch ants and chase squirrels. I rode in huge circles, around and around. I could go on like this forever, I thought, but we left pretty soon after that when my daughter’s feet got hot.

I went out to the lake for the first SUP of the year. It was hot when I left the house but the wind blew in and the temperature dropped twenty degrees in the ten minutes it took to inflate my board. People were streaming away from the beach while I made my way in. The waves were high and I didn’t want to fall off because I’d left my life jacket at home and am still healing the excision site on my leg, so I spent a lot of the ride on my knees. At one point, I went cross-legged on the board and was just paddling around with a stupid grin on my face. I saw a fuchsia petal floating next to my board and a little while later I saw another, and then another. I was far from shore and there were three other people on the water. A man on a SUP and two men on a catamaran. Where did the flowers come from? What do they mean?

I slathered my arms and legs and face with SPF 50 and went for my first run in a month. It was eighty degrees and steamy and my lungs gave out fast. I trotted by a man teetering on a bicycle, moving almost as slowly as I. Is this just what life is? Do I just get to decide how I want to fill my days? Was it always like this? My recollection of my days before the pandemic is getting hazy, but I don’t remember experiencing this kind of autonomy. I was always living according to someone else’s agenda. The law firm. The program. The group. The influencer. The church. Will it always be like this? Maybe it can be. I still work. I still parent. I still exist in community. But the minutes and the hours and the days are mine.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 17 – A Sibling

This one hurts. My siblings are ridiculous. Talented. Intelligent. Hilarious. Successful. Good looking. Kind. Fundamentally GOOD people. They were my world when we were growing up. Who needs friends when you have siblings? Who needs neighbors? Who needs allies or even enemies? We were each other’s everythings. I’m not saying I didn’t literally, physically sit on top of my brother when he challenged my authority when mom left me in charge. I’m not saying I wasn’t a big bitch to my little sister. I’m not saying I didn’t overlook my littlest brothers when I when I was a teenager. I’m not saying I call them all the time now. We are spread too far and all of us too thin. What I’m saying, and what I never expected, is that over the years every complicated memory and twisty thread of emotion coalesced into thick rope of love and pride. I think of my siblings and it is all GOOD.

It hurts because my daughter is an only child.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 16 – Learning New Things

Last summer I bought a stand up paddleboard. It didn’t arrive until almost the end of the season. I waited too long and everything was backordered. I got the hang of standing up on the board pretty quickly when I tried it a few years ago; it was the learning curve for introducing a new element into my life that made me hit the brakes. There was so much to research. Inflatable versus fiberglass, for example. Hand pumps versus car. I would need a life jacket and maybe a wetsuit. I needed to figure out how to transport and store the beast, where I could launch legally, and how to get a permit and a parking pass. By the time the SUP shipped to my house and I’d practiced inflating it in the living room and made a trip to the beach office in the middle of the workday, I was this close to be over the whole endeavor. My husband suggested I watch a few videos of people paddling so I could learn the technique before I got on the water, but I was already on information overload. I couldn’t take in a single other new thing. I went out on a Sunday afternoon, nabbed the last available parking spot, and realized I’d left behind the SUP’s detachable fin. I tried again on a Wednesday morning. I was on the water before the sun peeked up over the horizon. I splashed down into the water three times in a row before managing to stand up successfully. I paddled around for over an hour. I watched the sun come up, a ball of fire in the sky. I felt the water splash around my ankles. I heard dragonflies buzz around my head and swatted them away. I swear I saw a fish jump. Later, I’d figure out I’d been holding the paddle backward, that my posture was all wrong, and not care. The learning was in the doing and I had all the time in the world.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 15 – Camping

Some topics are too big. I can’t tell you about a time I slept outside without telling you about every time I slept outside. In Utah, we set up the big tent in our backyard and a windstorm whipped it around so hard that we ran inside, scared. In the morning, the tent was gone. The Grand Canyon was colder than we thought and our gear was flimsy but there was nowhere to go. We zipped our sleeping bags together for warmth. Somehow, Lake Powell was hotter than we ever imagined. We peed in a pit toilet set inside a canvas shelter. I saw an ancient, scaled lizard. Our dad burned his eyeballs. We went back in bikinis in high school and I burned everything else. We went to Pinetop with a tent but no flashlights and no food. No campfires allowed. The forest was already burning and ash rained down. We went to Michigan with everything a family could need. We even had a plastic carton for eggs. We watched the sun set on the water. We ate beautiful food. We read in hammocks and played on the beach. We made our daughter’s whole life. We went back again and again and again.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 14 – School Lunch

I carried my lunch to school in a square plastic box a few years after the other kids had switched to brown paper bags or hot lunch. My mom would make my lunch until I was a senior in high school and skipped lunch altogether so I could get out of school early. It was important to her. Her mom died when she was eleven and making lunches for his three girls was one of the many mom-tasks my grandpa took on after his wife died. My mom got a stepmom when she was sixteen and the stepmom accused my grandpa of spoiling his daughters. With the homemade lunches into their teens, you see. So you see why I couldn’t ask for the $2 to buy a hamburger or a sloppy joe or a crunchy taco from Taco Bell (because there was a Taco Bell inside my high school cafeteria). You see why I couldn’t complain about the warm mayonnaise or the stinky tuna or the slimy carrots or the brown apples the smushed bread or the thermos that smelled like old milk. You see why I couldn’t say anything about the days she wrapped everything in tinfoil because we were out of plastic baggies. You see why I couldn’t ask her to stop tucking little notes into the side of my lunchbox or drawing smiley faces on paper napkins. I wouldn’t have wanted her to stop anyway. The notes made me go all warm inside. Warm like the rest of the lunch, baking in a box in the Arizona sun.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 13 – Your Most Important Hair Moment

When I was three and rocking a mop of Shirley Temple curls, I grabbed a round brush and tried to pull it through my hair. It stuck fast. Lesson learned! My hair was not and never would be straight, shiny, glossy, or easily managed. That was far from the whole lesson though, because what I left out is that when this happened I was at the mall with my mom and we didn’t own the round brush and when my mom tried to pull it out of my hair it was really stuck and I went red all over and kicked and screamed and cried and my mom had to haul me out of there with the brush still stuck to my head. I remember sitting on a bench, watching shoppers walk by with their bags and paper cups of Orange Julius and heaving those heavy post-tantrum sobs, and the stinging in my scalp while my mom tried to work it out. Lesson learned! My feelings were not and never would be quiet, polite, sensible, or easily managed. I stayed afraid of round brushes for years, and to this day don’t trust a complicated hair tool.

Quarantine Diaries Day 257: Hashtag Give Thanks

I’ve been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to extricate myself from social media all year. My time on the apps is down to spot checks a couple times a day. Lately, every time I pop on, my feeds look different than they used to. They are flooded with messages of gratitude from the great many of my friends who, I guess, apparently, are still Mormon. It’s weird. I thought everybody left, but I guess they were just being quiet, or I wasn’t paying attention. I’m guessing the church told its members to #givethanks publicly this year. I want to roll my eyes, but in truth it’s been moving, illuminating, and uplifting to see so many people I don’t much hear from pouring their hearts out about their parents and children and partners and friends, about hospitals and health care workers and miracle cures, about pets and careers and cities and hobbies and art. I don’t pay much attention to what the church does since I left but it’s nice to see something that comes off as inspired. The last thing like that happened when I was still a member was the big move to embrace refugees five years ago or so. That was something, wasn’t it, for an inherently conservative religion on the cusp of Trump’s ascendance? It’s sort of funny, now, to see inspiration strike on social media, but then again, here we are.

What would I share if I were the type to participate in a hashtag challenge?

Today, my list looks like this: I am grateful for my husband. To have a companion, a partner, a friend, a champion, a co-pilot, and a co-parent right now is everything. It’s how I make it through. To have a lover is next level. That’s how I keep going.

I am grateful for my daughter. How she found her way into our family and fit right in feels like nothing short of a miracle. How she keeps on growing, changing, and becoming who she is in the midst of this long pause on the scariest scene in the movie is a gift I am privileged to witness.

I am grateful for my parents. They had a thousand opportunities to get it wrong but somehow they did everything right and raised a pack of kids who are all wildly different and weirdly the same. We like ourselves and each other and the world.

I am grateful for my five siblings, who are, they would be embarrassed to know, my best friends. I am grateful for each of their partners for making my favorite people as happy as my partner makes me.

I am grateful for a big ol’ family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all of them seemingly on Facebook loving everything I do from afar. I feel it.

I am grateful for the family I married into, another gift, one I never even knew to expect and don’t deserve. They are shiny, solid in-law gold, loving and fun, warm and generous and wide-open. I didn’t know that could happen.

I am grateful for the experiences I’ve had, for the opportunity to have been so many versions of myself to have collected so many weird and wonderful people along the way. To the Mormons and Methodists and atheists and exes; to the scholars and students and teachers and profs; to the fighters and feminists; to the progressives and socialists and centrists and liberals and dems; to the mathematicians and doctors and scientists and engineers; to the lawyers and law students and project assistants and paralegals and all the big law refugees; to the artists; to the druggies and drunks, sober and not; to the readers and writers; to the runners and yogis; to the Highland Hawks and the Arizona Wildcats and the Michigan Wolverines; to neighbors and friends in every place I’ve ever lived; to anyone who no longer or never did fit into one of these categories but for whom I’ve somehow ended up in your orbit anyway: I am grateful for you. You have mattered to me and you matter in a much larger sense. Thank you for being you. I know it’s not easy.