Isn’t that a warm and inclusive word?
You are welcome here!
I was recently struggling with two apparently conflicting beliefs: I shouldn’t be ugly, and I shouldn’t be beautiful.
There’s intense pressure on women to be beautiful. It supposedly adds value, worth. Magazines, television, films, videos — all capitalize on this. We’re inundated with images of the “right” way to look.
As a result, jealousy is rampant. I’ve been on both the sending and receiving end of jealousy and I’ve come to realize that:
Comparison is the tool of the devil.
I am ME! You are YOU! Ain’t that grand? How fabulous and healthy that we come in all colors, all shapes, all sizes.
There is no, one, right HUMAN.
Jealousy is exhausting and ruins relationships. When I was 17, my body and face morphed into beauty personified. I went from cute to goddess, which was confusing and scary. Men and women suddenly reacted to me completely differently. Friends behaved oddly. I was not prepared for the attention and venom. The hate in my mother’s eyes shook and cracked my foundation of love. Instead of helping me through this bizarre transition, she threw me to the wolves.
“I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with a beautiful daughter,” said my maternal grandmother, TO MY MOTHER.
It made me crazy. It made me suicidal. It made me angry. It made me completely isolated from any kind of support network, and prey to smooth-talking predators. Self-loathing blossomed within me. If my own mother doesn’t want me…
Honor roll Susie became arm candy. My looks superseded my native intelligence, my sense of humor, my innate creativity.
So being beautiful is dangerous. But what about ugliness?
When I was at my most diseased, being slowly poisoned by mold (unbeknownst to me), I weighed close to 200 pounds. At 5’7″ this was not healthy for me. When I finally evacuated the house, I realized that if I wanted to live — and apparently I did, because I found myself driving toward the sea — I did not have the time or energy to hate myself anymore. Choose it or lose it.
I chose love. I chose to live. I chose to cut myself a break, to love myself as I would my own daughter, my own best friend. Compassionately, gently, tenderly. Forgivingly. Tolerant of mistakes and missteps.
It takes a lot of practice. Yeah, baby.
Last week I discovered, within myself, that:
Hate = Hurt
I have been deeply unwelcoming to “ugliness” — ignoring anger, hating fat, belittling sorrow, demeaning desire. Judgement crushed me into depressions over and over again. So hard to breathe. To love. To heal. To BE.
Enough of that! I can be both beautiful AND ugly.
I hereby welcome ALL my hidden thoughts and beliefs, the beautiful and ugly, joyful and sorrowful, disgusting, painful, sick, healthy, pornographic, violent, poor, prosperous, dark, light, depressed, happy. I welcome Eeyore AND Winnie-the-Pooh. And Tigger, too!
ALL of ME. Why not love ALL of ME?
Why not love ALL of YOU?
We’re here for such a short time.
Nothing is more important than loving. Nothing.
Yesterday, Shadow greeted me at the fence of his corral when I pulled up the car. I’d been out marketing. Instead of unloading the car immediately, I walked over to say hi. It’s so nice when someone is happy to see you!
We hung out for a while, and I reached up to scratch around his ears and forehead, removed the sleepers from his eyes, smoothed the fur under his chin. He put his long soft nose very gently next to my cheek and breathed me in. It’s been a long time since I allowed anyone that close to me. It felt like peace. It felt like love.
Last night, after unpacking and bathing and cooking and eating and cleaning and meditating, I started crying. I don’t want to love because I don’t want to lose. I shouldn’t love Shadow because he isn’t “mine.” I’m bound to lose him.
But when I turned that sentence around, I started laughing: Shadow shouldn’t love me because I’m not “his.” Ridiculous! We love who we love, whether they are “ours” or not, whether they live for three years, six years, or 90. Whether we have one day or one minute together.
I remember sitting next to Emmett under the pine tree in our front yard in Olympia one balmy evening. My neighbor was visiting and I was petting Emmett’s thick Malamute fur, scratching behind his floppy ears, massaging his ruff. I started crying. I thought my heart would burst, unable to contain the pure quantity of love I felt. “I love him so much,” I told her, and she nodded.
Sometimes it seems as though I’ve lost everyone I’ve ever loved. I don’t want to subject myself to that pain again.
Ha! Good luck with that, my darling! We are all terminal, every single one of us. So why not love along the way? Why turn away from the soft nose against the cheek? The kind word? The gentle rain of love falling on you right this minute?
Besides, I don’t really have a choice. I love who I love when I love. The so-called rational mind has nothing to do with it. It’s all heart.
“Ah’m looking for Rrrro-mance,” said Rob Anybody of the Nac Mac Feegle clan (via Terry Pratchett in the book, Wintersmith).
So am I. Rolling ‘r’s are optional.
Today marks the ninth anniversary of Emmett’s death. Time is indeed a bizarre, weird, fluid concept.
We met the day after a winter solstice party. I was in no mood to socialize let alone make new friends.
Knock knock knock.
Knock knock knock.
I drag myself away from The Prairie Home Companion and go to the door, trying to plaster a semblance of a smile on my snoot.
It’s Llyn, my then-girlfriend. Did she lose her key? “I’ve brought company,” she says, with a real smile.
I look down. And there he is: big, black, and beautiful. He wags his plumy tail. “It’s you!” cries my heart. “Hello!” says my mouth. And that was it: love at first sight.
The next six years completely changed the direction of my life. I made time for play, for fun. For adventure. We went almost everywhere together, even the movies. Therapy, even!
One time, at the beach, he found a particularly noxious-smelling salmon carcass. He rolled in it, of course, which didn’t worry me too much at the time. He was always rolling in interesting smells. I knew it’d wear off. But when we were in the car heading home, my eyes began to stream with tears. The stench! I stopped to roll every window down; it didn’t help. And when I looked at him in the rear-view mirror, there he was, proud as could be, tongue hanging out. “I am a badass,” said his expression. “I rule.”
He was also kind. Once we were walking back from the library when a young man and a very young dog approached us. “Do you mind if they play?” asked the guy. “I’m trying to help him socialize.”
“Sure,” I said. By this time Emmett was a full grown Malamute mix. He was easily ten times the size of the little dog. Nonetheless, he began to play with him, very carefully. He threw himself to the ground, pretending the puppy had knocked him over, and let the puppy climb all over him.
This is the same wolfy dog that killed a chicken, and took down a young deer.
After Emmett died, I felt him near me, especially when I walked one of our familiar routes. We often walked at night, so I was used to not seeing him for long periods; his black coat blended into the shadows. He’d run ahead, or lollygag behind. But we were always connected. And one whistle — his special whistle — usually brought him to my side.
In the hardest times after the evacuation, when I didn’t know where I was going or how or if I was going to live, I’d feel him again: walking with me in the dark. My quiet, strong, kind companion. Emmett Ocean Shé. I am loving you.
Tomorrow marks the anniversary of my brother’s death. Since I moved to Los Osos, the cemetery is too far to drive to. It would take five or six hours. And is he really there? Or just his bones?
Last time I visited I tried to give the cemetery office my current contact info, only to find out that my father is the “account holder” and therefore in charge of any changes. A few weeks later, we had an emotional conversation, my dad and I. I learned a surprising thing: we both feel guilty; we both believe we could have changed the outcome — let’s not mince words: saved John’s life — if only we’d done things differently.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today: the minutiae of dying, the emotions that accompany death.
I s’pose I want to say:
THANK YOU, JOHN!
You made me laugh. You loved me. I loved (and love) you.
I really enjoyed playing cars with you, and racing snails, and running around like Batman and Robin with our bath towels flying behind us as we leapt off the back of the couch. I loved splashing in the little blue pool with you in Glacier, Montana. I loved being your big sister. (One entire year older!)
I was your personal interpreter, translating your baby language into English for Mom and Dad. Those were the days of peanut butter on toast, matching cabooses (muu-muus), and scary fire ants.
You… are irreplaceable.
I am loving you. Wherever and however you are.
I can see the sea from my new studio.
Cue delighted laughter.
To get to the sea, I hike down through state park dunes, clocking lizards, buzzards, and bunnies on the way. Sometimes humans on horses pass me, or the ranger on his ATV. Most of the time I’m the solitary human, looking at fuchsia sand verbena, dunedelions (like dandelions, but in sand), sage, and chamise. Chaparral country. Many times it’s foggy here, so I don’t see the sea until I’m almost upon it.
My studio window faces west, so, barring fog, I can catch the sunset every night.
Cue delighted laughter again.
“We’ve got whales!” says my landlady, “Elizabeth, we’ve got whales!”
Sure enough, I spot several spouts mid-way to the horizon.
In case you’re becoming too jealous, there are also rattlesnakes, poison oak, and unexploded ordnance leftover from the 1940’s when the army used the land for training.
But my downstairs neighbor plays the trumpet well, another neighbor surfs, and of course there are the horses: Sunny, Shadow, Cisco, Kady, Magic, Jetson.
Last night my riding teacher was “under the weather,” so our lesson was canceled.
Cue disappointed, catastrophic thinking. I’ll never ride again!
I chopped up carrots anyway, and took them down to the stable. Sunny gets most of them, but I treat the others on the way to and fro his paddock. I’m especially enamored of Shadow, a gorgeous cream and chocolate Paint.
“Barbara’s sick,” I tell Sunny, “no play today.” He’s a good listener, even after the carrots are history. I brush his coat and mane, then say good-night.
Three years ago, I left Olympia and drove straight to the ocean. I was dying of toxic mold exposure, and could barely breathe. My liver was inflamed, my kidneys were stressed. I left everything behind, even the stuffed dog that belonged to my (dead) brother. The only thought that made any sense in my be-fogged brain was ocean ocean ocean. Ocean ocean ocean. I don’t want to die inland. I need the ocean ocean ocean. Please god, help me get to the Ocean.
I sang and chanted in the car, as best I could, making a mantra of ocean ocean ocean. I made it to the Pacific, 75 miles away.
“The cure for anything is saltwater: sweat, tears, or the sea,” wrote Isak Dinesen.
She is correct.
After three years of living as close to the ocean as I can get, even if that means the car, I can breathe. My lungs, liver, kidneys, skin, brain, heart — all systems are go.
And so I do. Into the H2O. The Ocean. The Healer. Home.
“Your butt is your best weapon,” says Barbara.
I am at Sunny’s butt, shampooing his dirty blonde tail. A new friend, Sunny is a palomino Tennessee Walker. My butt is sideways against his flank. When he moves, I move. I love leaning against him.
“You can’t hurt him,” says Barbara, “he’s a thousand pounds.”
After several applications of shampoo and Comet, his tail is flaxen. Barbara leads him back to the arena, while I get the bareback pad from the tack room.
Barbara walks him first. At 5’4″ it’s hard for her to keep up with Sunny’s long legs. She leads him back to the mounting block and hands me the halter while she puts on a helmet.
“Good Sunny,” I say, “good horse.” I pat his long strong golden neck.
Known as Carrot Girl among the equine folk, today I forgot them. Too excited for vegetables, I guess.
On Sunny, 80-year-old Barbara is grace in action. They are in sync, in accord, in time, in rhythm — all of it. I could watch them for hours, but Barbara tires before Sunny does, so I stand at his head while she dismounts. “Good Sunny,” I say, “good handsome horse.”
My turn to lead him around the arena, first in circles one way, then the other. “Whoa,” I say at random places and times, and Sunny always stops immediately. Little kiss-kiss sounds move him forward again.
Back at the mounting block, I am now confident enough to sling a leg over him without much ado. We are getting used to each other, the three of us.
Once I’m settled, Barbara walks him forward. I grab a handful of mane.
I’ve had two lessons to date, both of which entailed me walking Sunny around the arena on a halter, then sitting on him for a bit. Get-acquainted-time. Fine by me. I moved to SLO County for a reason: to slo-o-o-o-ow dow-ow-wn. This is the first time Sunny has actually moved anywhere while I sat on him.
Barbara suddenly remembers this and stops. “I’m so sorry!” she says, “You looked so natural up there; I automatically went into Pony Camp mode.” A horseback rider since age seven, she ran Pony Camps for years, for children of all different abilities.
“Don’t be sorry,” I say, “I love it!” And I do. Scared? Yes: Sunny is tall, so I am high off the ground. Excited? Yes: I am actually riding! Finally! But I don’t want to tire Barbara. “How are you doing?”
“I’m great!” she says. We exchange grins, and move forward.
When I notice that my thighs are trembling with fatigue, I suggest we go back to the block. After I dismount I stay close to Sunny, petting and patting and loving on him. “Good Sunny. Good beautiful horse. Good handsome patient horse. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I start weeping. I have wanted this for a very long time. “Thank you,” I say to Barbara, “thank you, thank you.”
Two guys clock me as I walk south of Hermosa pier. The spiel begins immediately.
Guy 1: Hey there, don’tcha know who this is? (gestures to portly Guy 2, who’s holding a surfboard)
Me: (shakes head, keeps walking)
Guy 1: Don’t you want his autograph? (looks incredulous)
Me: (looking back at them, eyeing the portly surf dude) No. Do you want mine?
Guys 1 & 2: Yes!
I laugh and keep walking, a spring in my step.
This morning I biked over to my favorite plumeria bushes. “Look at you!” I cried. They’re in full bloom, blossoms tumbling to the ground with abundance. Inhaling the heady fragrance fills me with something like God. Peace. Goodwill. I begin collecting the fallen blossoms, and handing them out.
“Thank you,” says the first guy, “have a wonderful day. God bless you!”
“Is that your garden?” says the second guy. Australian accent. Gah-den. Accusatory tone.
I shake my head.
“Why you pickin’ the flowers if it ain’t ya gah-den?”
“I’m not picking them,” I say, and turn away, face suffusing with heat.
I pedal away with a basket full of plumeria blossoms.
I feel terrible.
I am a bad girl.
After awhile it occurs to me: was that his garden? No. He did not say that it was. Why the shame and blame?
I compare the first response with the second — Thank you versus Fuck you — and notice which generated the bigger reaction in me. Thank you made me happy. Fuck you made me miserable. Made me want to stop engaging with any other human ever. Made me want to stop giving out flowers, which is something I enjoy. Made me want to hide.
Same action: giving a stranger a flower.
Two different responses, and two different reactions to those responses.
I don’t want to leave my emotions in the hands of strangers. Gives them way too much power. Neither man’s response had anything to do with me. Not a thing. I’d never met them before.
I remember the disparate reactions to Emmett, my big black Malamute mix: some folks adored him, others were terrified. But he was the same dog.
I continue pedaling north along the waterfront. When I see a sanitation crew, I hop off and give them flowers.
“Thank you!” smiles a young guy with a shaved head.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” says an older guy missing a front tooth, and immediately pins the flower to his uniform.
I leave plumeria blossoms in a Dockweiler Beach bathroom: one blossom in the soap dish of each of three sinks. They look stunning against the silver.
Shame eventually fades as I pedal along and watch the ocean. After locking the bike, I walk down the Marina del Rey jetty, and see a snowy egret and two harbor seals. Everyone’s fishing.
Maybe collecting fallen blossoms IS the same as picking them, in the eyes of whoever owns that plot of earth. (If anyone can actually own the Earth, but that’s another essay.)
It was the man’s tone that cut me: you’re a bad girl. Something I have believed for most of my life. But maybe John was always going to die. Maybe Mom and Dad were always going to leave, either physically or emotionally. Maybe their behavior has nothing to do with my inherent goodness or badness. Maybe it’s just the way things are. Maybe I don’t have to apologize for my existence.
I won’t collect any more plumeria blossoms from the bushes in Manhattan Beach.
I will buy my own and plant them in the sun near my home. And when they bloom, I will give the blossoms away to whomever wants them.
“No shame, no blame, everything’s beautiful,” said a dancer friend once during rehearsal. Exactly.
Retrieve the pot with leftover Bhutan red rice, cooked in beef broth.
- chopped dried apricots
- a Ceylon cinnamon stick
- water, soymilk
Simmer so flavors meld, 15 minutes or so.
Stir occasionally, between chores.
Turn off heat, let cool.
Wash your hands.
Eat, and be amazed.
“I’ll race you down,” said the cyclist turning into my lane at the top of the 10th Street hill.
“No, thanks,” I said, “I’ve got eggs and flowers to think of.” I was on my way home from the farmers market, pink lisianthus wrapped in newspaper hanging out of the bike basket. I adjusted my seagrass hat more firmly on my head for the downhill glide.
“For Mother?” he asked, keeping up with me.
“Not even slightly,” I said.
“What are the eggs for then?” he asked. Now he was behind me, on my left.
“Breakfast,” I replied. I’d never seen this guy before; what did he care what I did with my eggs?
He passed me at a stop sign. “Have a good rest of your day!”
“You do the same,” I said, relieved as he pedaled away, cutting off a truck making a U-turn.
Mother’s Day, Mothers’ Day. I’d forgotten, though I’d seen a chalk board sign in front of a restaurant advertising Sunday Brunch. This Sunday. Mother’s Day.
My biological mother and I are estranged. Again. I don’t know why, this time, though it may have to do — if it has to do with anything — with a fight we had 15 years ago. She reminded me of it in the middle of another, more recent, fight.
“You called me a slut!” she cried.
“That’s because you are!” I replied. Just flew out of my mouth, bypassing my brain completely.
In 2001, my essay, “Free Love Ain’t,” was published in an anthology, Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture. In it, I related the goings-on in our house during 1970’s Santa Monica. Sex, drugs, etc.
The fallout from publication was estrangement with my father, who was barely mentioned. My mother neglected to read the galleys until after the book had been on Oprah. We discussed it once: she refuted how an event had occurred. I replied that yes, I was young, and that was how I remembered it – Mick Jagger, nuns, bye bye blackbird.
“Okay,” she said, and that was it. We never talked about it again. Estrangements came and went. My niece’s mother reconciled us once and convinced me to visit. Twice. 1200 miles by car.
My mother asked me to help her move to New Orleans. I agreed, put all my clients on hold, sublet my tiny house, and prepared for a long cross-country journey.
Imagine my rage when I found out that my ex-battering-boyfriend, the one she had made a point of telling me she’d slept with first, was trucking her things to her new home in the Tremé.
That was when I called her a slut. That was the fight she was referring to, years later.
Do I regret it? the second time? I don’t know. It was a revelation. I guess her behavior — and I know she was a grieving divorcée, mourning her dead son — affected me more deeply than I thought. Affects me.
When I am not angry at her (it comes and goes), I regret hurting her.
I don’t regret learning the truth about my feelings.
Fact: my mother belongs to a krewe called The Pizza Sluts.
Saturday Afternoon Soup
2 cups black beans, soaked overnight and rinsed
7 chopped carrots
3 cubed gold potatoes
1 turmeric root, skinned, broken into 3
Put ingredients in small stock pot, cover with water.
- healthy dash of garlic powder
- ground pepper
- dried, ground sage
- heaping tablespoon of fennel seeds
- leftover beef broth
Bring to boil, then simmer an hour or three.
Stir occasionally, while washing socks.
- a good squirt of lemon juice
- a big white onion, chopped
Have a good cry.
Simmer another 15 minutes or so.
Serve while onions are still crisp.