Good lord. Two Saturdays ago I took a workshop through Portland Center Stage, “Humorous Memoir with Courtenay Hameister,” which was fan-freaking-tastic in all ways. (If you don’t know who she is, you should defnitely look her up, and you should totally take a class from her.) I have been working on a larger piece about it for over a week now – who knew that the words “humor theory” would set me off in so many directions? Well, you probably did…
Anyway, for today I am going to cut to the chase because I want to share the piece I wrote there with you, so I will boil it down to this: Humor Theory is the same as Trauma Theory, only jauntier.
What follows is a very raw second draft, as yet untitled, written in 30 minutes and read aloud in class for feedback (which was great, but maybe they were just an easy audience?), edited just slightly here for continuity. – Ed.
This happened the same week I’d looked out my window and noticed a man walking with a baby in one of those front carriers, and I thought to myself, “I bet that is an ugly baby.”
Now you have a sense of the mood I was in.
It was during my Year of Ursula, when I was busy figuring out how to quit putting up with bullshit, which is harder than it sounds (especially since I was not yet the Born Again (and Again) Taoist (<– get it?) I am today. I was still very “peopled-out,” with the exception of a close few, and had become extremely protective about who I would spend my time with. I had grown increasingly distrustful of The Public. I found myself devoting considerable energy to thinking about how I could become agoraphobic professionally.
I was meeting my writer friend, Chad, who I adore, at those food carts downtown that used to be across from Target. It was a sunny summer day, close to noon, so of course it was very busy. Crowds make me nervous, and food cart pods always make me feel like I am going to pick the wrong thing, but I trust Chad implicitly, and knew as soon as he got there I could make him take the lead and I would be totally fine. He was moving to New Orleans in a few weeks, so this was going to be one of our last visits before he left Portland. I was happy for him, and not at all concerned about losing our close friendship, but I was very aware that soon I would not have him to tell me if I wanted the shawarma or the bibimbap, or to have him to people watch in Director Park with.
I was uncharacteristically early, and was just standing there on our designated street corner, being middle-aged and grey-headed, which apparently I am good at. I am aware that no one is afraid of me, and while this is generally a good quality, it leaves me feeling like easy prey sometimes. Yes, I am a person strangers will ask for the time, and also a person who gets cut in front of in line.
Anyway, a group of maybe five or six teenagers crossed over to right where I was standing, and literally edged me out of the space I was occupying, as if I wasn’t even there. I took a couple of steps to the side, but I still wanted to be where Chad could see me, so I stayed as close to our designated spot as possible. The teenagers did not give me a second glance, and stood in a circle chatting animatedly about teenager things. The boy closest to me, holding onto his backpack straps, turned his head and spat right in my direction, and it landed just a few inches from my foot. Gross.
I looked at it and thought, you little entitled asshole. You spoiled brat. You disrespectful little creep. (I became a crabby old woman in an instant.) I didn’t say anything, but I looked down at his spit on the ground, then looked up at him until he made eye contact with me, narrowed my eyes, and, yes you guessed it. I decided right then and there to do it back.
Only I am apparently a terrible spitter, because it took me a moment to work up enough saliva, and then when I tried to spit, it just kind of hung there from my bottom lip. Not really like drooling, but kind of. I did not trust my aim, so I wasn’t going to risk a “ptooey” that might accidentally get it on him, or me. I wanted it to land on the ground next to where his spit glob had landed, or better yet on top of his if possible, so I ended up leaning over slightly in order to aim, then slowly shaking my head back and forth to get it to swing loose. I was trembling inside, and it seemed to take forever, but by then I could not back out. Finally, it dropped to the ground. Then I looked back up at him, and didn’t say a word.
I kept thinking oh my god, what did I just do? I couldn’t believe myself, and felt a little embarrassed, a bit like a criminal, and like I had really crossed a line of some kind, but basically, I was elated. (What does that mean about me?)
He didn’t say a word, either, and by then all of his friends had fallen silent. The crosswalk light changed, and the whole group walked back across the street, not talking until they were safely on the opposite street corner. I wish I could have heard what they said.
I didn’t even mention it to Chad when he arrived shortly afterward. What was I going to say, “I just spit at teenagers?” “I’ve gone to the dark side?”
Let’s hope I don’t make this a habit, but just to be safe I should probably work on my spitting.
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There is really no good way to prepare yourself, even when deep down you already knew, to be a young adult sitting across from your childhood best friend in a wooden booth at The Veritable Quandary when she tells you over lunch that your dad molested her. I will warn you right now that when this happens to you, the entire room is going to swirl and then vanish except for your childhood best friend’s voice saying the words “your dad” and the bite of food on your fork as she says them, which you suddenly have no idea what to do with. Of that day, you will remember repeating how sorry you are and knowing as you keep saying it how inadequate it is, but you will not be able to figure out how to say anything else, and never will you mean a word more than this entirely insufficient one. You will protest when she insists on paying the check. Later, you will not remember how you got yourself home.
Note: I wrote the first draft of this piece in June 2013 at a Write around Portland drop-in workshop at HotLips Pizza. It was a ten-minute write with the prompt, “Through the glass…” I am posting it here with few changes to the original. I wrote this six months after my mother died, when I had my workforce development job where I partnered with five different social service agencies to train case managers and facilitate career mapping workshops with marginalized populations. I later used it as the intro to a workshop I led each year for my AmeriCorps teams on compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, and professional quality of life.
So I was in Old Town. For work. I’d parked on W. Burnside at Second for a Friday 9am meeting I was dreading. I was there to talk about how we could “move forward”* after the layoff of a program manager, a woman I liked very much with wild grey hair and kind eyes that crinkled at the corners. (*“Moving forward” is always how we phrase it, despite the fact that someone had lost her job because of “funding streams.” I will write another day about my views of “looking back” under circumstances like these.)
As I sat in the meeting, using words like “stakeholder” (jeeesus – ugh), on the other side of the glass was a woman probably younger than me, who was gesturing wildly about something. Then she took off her shirt. And her bra. Which was hot pink, and, therefore, all the more noticeable, particularly as it dangled from her still-gesturing hand, her rib cage visible all the way around.
Someone near her tried to shield her from traffic, but we were not on the traffic side.
Us. In this meeting. Talking about how we would continue to help “the homeless” – as if “the homeless” were a concept and not this woman.
I left the meeting and walked back to my car, regretting wearing sandals because who knew what human liquid, or solid, or needle, or razor blade I could step in. I passed the woman and she had emptied her entire bag out onto the sidewalk. The contents consisted of maybe 40 metal spoons. (?) (Is that the strange part of this event?)
I got into my car, worried about my expired parking meter.
As I drove away, back to my office, back to those politics and all-staff e-mails about “please don’t leave your salads in the refrigerator,” I felt so bad because I was supposed to be “The Help.” And I did not – do not – have what she needed.
Who could I have called? The Police? Hell no. Crisis intervention? (Seriously?)
What she needs is for the world, or at least Old Town, to be safe for a half-naked woman with a bag full of spoons.
I don’t know about you, but that last post left me feeling kind of hungover and weepy (another law firm: “Hung & Weepy” – this is a fun game). I still have much more to tell you, and I will, but I need to limber up and regroup a bit first, and also probably give you some space to absorb all that I am springing on you. (You: “Welcome back, Nicole, but oh my god…”)
Walking the talk is logistically harder than it sounds. There are so many moving parts.
So let’s lighten things up a bit. (And believe it or not, this does tie in to the overall theme of reinventing myself, or becoming who I was all along, or whatever the hell this transformation is.)
For years I have kept a running list called “Imaginary Jobs.” It is pretty self-explanatory. I am fairly certain they don’t all make sense outside my own head, and I don’t expect you to think all of them are as funny as I do, but I am going to share them with you anyway.
Here they are, to date:
In-Law Buffer: Hire myself out to attend various functions and keep the obnoxious person nobody likes occupied so that everyone else can have a good time. Test audiences have loved this one.
Hospice Circus* (Home of the Crying-on-the-Outside Clown): Founded with my friend The Fairly Godmother over drinks at The Blue Monk, where we laughed so hard at our own brilliance we drew a crowd of people who wanted to know what we were talking about (including one gross rando who kept trying to convince Fairly to go to a strip club with him), and then they either didn’t get it or were appalled when we told them our emerging business plan: “Three rings of Death Affirming Acts! Never a net! We will wear top hats!” Them: “WTF?” Us: “You look confused AND mortified! Perfect!” (Also, no, Fairly did not go to a strip club that night. If only rando had invited her to go to a mortuary in a clown car… – Ed.)
(*Variation, with a nod to Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) geeks: I am also developing Circus Vagus, based on polyvagal theory, which, you guessed it, will feature Fight!, Flight!, Freeze! demonstrations (that was too easy…). Also, souvenir Window of Tolerance squeegees.)
Biddy ’round the City: Based on actual events. Provide joy rides in a convertible sports car for residents of assisted living facilities, so that next time they sit in a circle of folding chairs to play “The Reminiscing Game,” they can talk about what a great time they had yesterday instead of something that happened forty years ago. I’d keep a selection of billowy silk scarves and aviator goggles in the glove compartment. Each ride would end with a stop for an ice cream cone, and I would follow up with a picture of us from that day with the caption, “In cahoots.” (CAHOOTS would also be my personalized license plate.) I already know there would be a waiting list a mile long.
Marzipets: Hatched in 2004, when my cube-neighbor and now-best-friend and I were still getting to know each other. She invited me over to watch an AbFab marathon one night, and we ended up sitting on her apartment floor playing with modeling clay for several hours and multiple episodes. An unspoken friendly competition ensued as we both discovered that we took our frivolous sculptures very seriously. Her not-yet-husband brought us drinks and snacks (“You guys are so CUTE!”). We decided people should send us photos of their pets and we would make them out of marzipan. We laughed until our faces hurt. That was the day I knew this was someone very special in my life.
Purse Dog Liberation, Inc.: Nonprofit occupational therapy program for small dogs with legs that are atrophied from being carried around in handbags all the time. (Note the acronym is pronounced “piddly.”)
Portable Soapbox: A heavy wooden box on casters that I would wheel to unlikely locations pop-up style (i.e. “How did you get that thing to the top of this mountain?”), and, for $1 per minute, invite people to stand on it and make proclamations about What Matters. For an additional fee I’d film them for YouTube. I would keep a shepherd’s crook handy to enhance the nomad aesthetic and also to yank people off in case someone was inappropriate. There would be a leather bound guest book, with gilded pages and an ostrich quill pen and an inkwell, which I would carry in an elaborate case. Imagine the Instagram for this one, not to mention the Portable Soapbox podcast.
Baby Shower DJ: There I am with headphones around my neck, holding one side up to my ear with my shoulder, spinning a Johnny Cash/Elizabeth Mitchell mashup of You Are My Sunshine. I notice a single mom across the room mouthing the second verse. We make eye contact. I wink, flash her a sly smile…
Atheist Martyr: Throwing myself on the pyre for no reason whatsoever.
Mime Your Own Business Neighborhood Mediation Services: Silently annoy disputing neighbors into breaking down (invisible) walls through pantomime, thus, facilitating their cooperation with each other through their mutual disdain of me. “SEE? You have something in common,” I’d gesture, following them around and pretending to capture them with an invisible lasso until they retreated to their respective homes. The Nextdoor comments alone would be totally worth it. A caveat is I am not entirely sold on the boatneck full-body leotard.
(Mis)guided Imagery Facilitator: With a soothing voice and a bamboo flute, instruct participants to close their eyes and “focus on the breath” as I take them into a deeply peaceful meditative state of openness and relaxation. Then, WHAM! “Oh my god that beach you are walking on!! You just fell in a sinkhole!! The tide is coming in!!! Get out!!! Hurry!!!” This is a form of forced empathy for those who think mindfulness is risk-free that perhaps only those with us with PTSD might appreciate fully.
Bobo the Geriatric Care Chicken: All the assessments and services of a Geriatric Care Manager, except I would do it wearing a yellow feathered chicken suit. If you’re telling someone they can no longer live safely in their own home, you should look as far from The Grim Reaper as possible. And we all know that The Grim Reaper would not be named “Bobo.” It’s about building trust – the importance of the therapeutic alliance and so on.
Grave Dancing Unfunerals: Officiant for events commemorating the Nearly Beloved and the Finally Departed. We’ve already talked about this one. I think there is a real market here.
“If only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
“Suck it, Rilke.” – Me
At the end of 2016, I was laid off from my last regular job (“regular” as in – there was an office to go to with a boss and HR policies and passwords and entry badges, and leftover bagels in the break room, and folders passed around with birthday cards to sign, etc) because the program I worked for, which was housed in a local chapter of a national nonprofit, was defunded in a top-down decision.
In my job, I was responsible for a 30+ member team of National Service (AmeriCorps) members, who served in schools, government agencies, and nonprofits throughout greater-Portland each year. I led workshops. I wrote a weekly update. I conducted site visits. I created curriculum. I planned events. I understood. I advocated. I cajoled when needed. I listened. I did a LOT of paperwork. I was a warm and trustworthy mother duck with high expectations, for them and for me, and I took members’ imprinting seriously. I was good at it.
When we learned that our longstanding program was to be eliminated, at first it hurt my feelings, even though I knew it wasn’t personal. And then I realized that it hurt my feelings for the very reason that it wasn’t personal. Our program was successful. I invested. I cared. The work capital-M Mattered. The members mattered. The people they were serving mattered. It mattered to our communities, and to our country (yes, it surprised me as much as you to realize I am, deep down, patriotic). I was pissed and disappointed, but I finished out the program year as I had done in previous years, on a positive note, with an end-of-service celebration highlighting the difference members had made. There were certificates, gifts, special guests, a written reflection activity (of course), catering to accommodate every dietary restriction today’s millennial requires. I gave a speech about the importance of getting involved – about taking the hard road and having it be worth it – that made people wipe away tears, myself included.
As we wrapped up our program, people kept asking me what was next. (Why the hell do people always expect you to know “what’s next” when you’ve had the rug yanked out from under you??) My answer was always an upbeat, “Well, I am sure I will find something!” Chirp fucking chirp, but the fact was I didn’t know where I was going to land. I seemed to be in a perpetually bad mood – preoccupied and scared.
The more I thought about it (it wasn’t like I HADN’T considered the “what’s next” question on my own, basically all day every day), the more it struck me that I was done, not just done with that job, but with social services in general. I had always relied on my empathetic, high-achieving, creative, quick, funny, sensitive, focus-on-the-positive, detail-oriented, deadline-loving, bureaucracy-is-my-wheelhouse, leave-no-person-behind self to get me through. But when I went to dig deep to replenish my resolve, it was gone.
I realized I was not “just” burned out, but empty – that my entire resume – the WHOLE THING – represented a way of life I did not want anymore.
I wish I could say I felt immediately free and liberated. “I have paid my dues, and then some. Peace out! Let someone else save the world. I am going to enjoy my life.” If I were a Hero’s Journey subscriber, or if this story was fiction or myth and not what actually happened, this would be the place where I could tell you that I made the decision to “follow my bliss.” But here I will step back and remind both of us that “bliss” was a foreign concept to me by then, and that I didn’t have enough trust in things working out to “follow” anything…
I felt like I was in quicksand.
Trajectory of nope
From the time I graduated from college, when an internship at a domestic violence shelter turned into a paid staff position, and including two terms of service as an AmeriCorps member myself, I held a succession of ten positions (yes, exactly ten, I have counted them on my resume) with increasing levels of responsibility at nine different social service agencies over the course of 16 years. All of my positions up until 2016 involved helping vulnerable and marginalized individuals, populations, and communities. The span of my career was an immersion into suffering, poverty, need, victimization, neglect, struggle, and trying to pull together resources that too often either weren’t enough or didn’t exist at all.
To note, I was laid off not just this last time in 2016, but two previous times, too, in part due to the economic downturn that hit Oregon so hard, and in part because I was drawn towards working with the people and organizations that have the fewest resources to begin with, which for whatever reasons seems to make them invisible (the clients and the programs) to the uninformed eye, thus making them even more vulnerable when belts tighten. Each time I scrambled back into the trenches, my heart firmly affixed to my sleeve, because if people needed help, I believed it was my responsibility to help them. How could I possibly look away?
“Nicole, are you sure you’re not Catholic?” you ask.
Yes, I am sure. As my friend Carol, who is Jewish and has worked in nonprofits herself, said to me one day when I was talking with her about how having a belief in God may have made aspects of working with various populations easier sometimes because there would be someone to hand things over to at the end of the day, “You’re an atheist. Well, shit. This means you have to put all of your faith in people.” We had a good laugh over that.
(Joke break: Being an atheist martyr is about as rewarding as it sounds.)
I should take a moment, too, to say that because there are so many non-profit-y types in Portland (educated, liberal, progressive, idealists keep wanting to move here, hooray/alas), there is a certain level of poverty-elitism almost about who can subsist on the least amount of income while doing the most difficult work: “I’ll see your ‘I have seven housemates and an overnight shift at a shelter for homeless youth, and I will raise you an ‘I drink my leftover pasta water and distribute clean needles by bicycle.'” The short of it is that people like me are a dime a dozen (almost literally) in this town, and competition is fierce even for jobs that don’t pay more than $15/hr. (If only intrinsic rewards could be used to pay ever-increasing rent…) What I am getting at is that you don’t earn enough working in a lot of these jobs to, say, buy a house, or plan a trip to England to see your friend’s new baby, and there is always someone to replace you.
But back to the faith part. The truth is, though, I really do put my faith in people, and I have been rewarded (humbled, gratified…) in so many ways in all of my jobs, even the ones I hated (I won’t name names here). Of course there were triumphs, which I was/am always on the lookout for, and undoubtedly why I lasted in social services as long as I did, but at a point it began to register with me that I did not want every day at work to be about bearing witness to inequities and disparities, and fighting for someone’s basic human needs to be met. I saw more and more how, without having adequate systemic supports in place, attaching a label like “resilient” to a human being can be a convenient way to blame the victim if they aren’t successfulmake it more possible for overworked staff to avoid drinking themselves to sleep every night minimize the impact of trauma.
I was beyond tired. I realized I had gotten to a point where I couldn’t rally. I couldn’t go back, which meant I needed to figure out something else, but I was suffering from so much compassion fatigue I was in no shape to use my imagination constructively.
The parallel demise of my mother
Keep in mind, too, that as I took on all of these jobs in social services, I was also experiencing the gradual-at-first-but-then-rapidly-snowballing mental and physical decline, then disintegration, then death of my mother. When I review my resume, I remember things like, “This is where I worked when she could no longer drive.” “That is the office I left to go get her at her apartment the day she attempted suicide for the first time and I couldn’t remember how to get us to the hospital.” “This is where I used FMLA to take her to appointments at the County Mental Health Department, where she had five different practitioners over the course of two years, who, after 15-minute consultations with her about her symptoms, prescribed her medications that made her too shaky to sew anymore, made her drool, made her lose her balance and start falling down, and falling down…” “This is where I worked when she called me and said, ‘Nicki, my legs aren’t working right.'” “Here is where I went out to the covered bus shelter for privacy on my break and raised hell with the State Ombudsman when a caregiver forcibly bathed her.” “Here is where I worked when my sister and I toured a combined total of 19 assisted living facilities, none of which would accept people with our moms’ diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder” (also, if only she had been ‘lucky’ enough to have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s instead of from being punched in the head too many times – Ed.), “I was driving to this job when that man named Kevin called to tell me my mom might have to go before a judge for a sanity hearing only because they could not find housing for her, with the possibility of being committed to the Oregon State Hospital.” “This is when I worked in North Portland and had to get to the care home in Outer Southeast during rush hour the day the police were called, and the care home owners kept speaking to each other in Russian, and the husband smelled like alcohol.” “This is where I worked when I brought my mom a pie for her birthday in the psychiatric ward.” “It was on the sidewalk outside that agency, next door to a marijuana dispensary and with a view of a strip club, where my sister told me over the phone that our mom was enrolled in hospice care.” “This is the agency that never gave me a straight answer on their bereavement leave policies.” “This is where I took off my coat and sat in my low cubicle and burst into tears the day I returned to work.”
My resume represents a chronology of circumstances and events I am finally ready to say I don’t want to think about anymore, not as the backdrop for job interviews, anyway. I need to put them in my book where they belong. Had my mother’s health improved, and if she were alive and safe today, perhaps I would feel differently. But when she died, it seems a significant portion of my hope for humanity died with her. I did not stop to truly grieve until my job died, too, I guess. And when I finally did, I knew I could never go back. My old life was really over.
So what happened?
I ended up having the most amazing year. I will tell you about it in the next post.
entrepreneur: one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise
The summer before fifth grade, I started a small business picking blackberries and selling them to the neighbors on our cul-de-sac for $0.25/pint. The berries grew wild (I did not know the word “invasive” yet) on the undeveloped property adjacent to the brand-new subdivision my dad was building, where we lived in an enormous house with a swimming pool. I had no clue what a bargain the neighbors were getting. Word spread quickly, and business boomed.
My mom would let me go pick alone as long as I would take our dog, Heidi, a Belgian Tervuren (bred for protecting sheep) with me. Heidi came to us as a former stray, already named, found by some customers of my mom’s dollhouse store, after my mom told them how our house had been broken into. Heidi was huge – she looked like a cross between a wolf and a bear, but was, as many large dogs are, completely tolerant and docile with her people. Along with chaperoning my blackberry picking expeditions, Heidi also let my sister and I dress her up in hats, tube socks, and moon boots (remember those?), and pulled us on our roller skates on the Promenade at Seaside. Once Heidi caught on that blackberries were our commodity – and delicious – she learned to pull her lips back carefully in order to not get poked, and would eat the low ones directly off the vine. My mom believed, probably correctly so, that nobody would bother me as long as Heidi was close. I remember her telling me, though, “If anyone comes after you, run into the blackberry bushes. You are smaller and they won’t follow you in there. Don’t worry about Heidi. She can take care of herself.” Nobody ever bothered us, thankfully.
As business increased, I developed a system for picking efficiently. I would drag a sheet of plywood into the brambles to make an even surface for the 6-foot stepladder I would carry in, as well as a level place to keep the flats of berries from spilling. I wore old tennis shoes, jeans, and long-sleeved woven shirts to avoid being scratched, and tied buckets to my belt loops with rope so that I could pick with both hands. I wore my swimsuit under my clothes so that when I went home (which was usually only after it got too dark to pick), I could strip down and hop into the pool. The chlorine bleached away the stains on my fingers, and swimming around usually got rid of all of the little stickers in my skin, the kind you can feel but not see.
Despite the trauma, my childhood was, in so many ways, perfect.
I loved picking blackberries. Yes, I did it obsessively, because, well, that is how I go about things. There were always more than I could pick, and the best ones seemed to always be dangling in whole clusters just out of reach. I loved how they smelled, earthy, warm, and sweet. I loved how my fingers recognized the “give” of the most perfectly ripe ones as they would release into my hand. I got used to the spiders and bees that also love blackberries. I loved filling the pint containers from my belt loop buckets. At home, my mom always gave me free reign of the kitchen whenever I wanted, and I loved making tiny pies in those little aluminum pie pans. My mom used to hang loads of berries in cheesecloth, which she would suspend between two lawn chairs with a large bowl underneath, outside on our pool deck, in order to collect the juice to make blackberry jelly especially for me, because I did not like jam with seeds.
When I’d close my eyes at night, I would see berries.
When I smell them now, I remember all of this.
Well, that summer when I was ten, I picked so many blackberries that I developed tendonitis in my wrists. My mom took me to the Urgent Care clinic that was close to our house, where I was given a prescription for an anti-inflammatory of some kind and told not to pick for two weeks. By the time I left the office, I had orders from the nurse and the receptionist for a full-flat each, which I picked and delivered as soon as the two weeks were over.
I’ve missed you. I’ve been missing me, too.
I am aware I haven’t published a new post since the end of May, and no, this does not mean I ran away with the homeless guy who made me laugh on my walk to the courthouse, although wouldn’t THAT be a great story? “You didn’t kill me, so I should probably elope with you” is **old** Nicole thinking. (See?? The affirmations are starting to kick in.)
The bad news is I have been in a funk. Or maybe more of a dither. And by “funk” and “dither” (btw “Funk & Dither” would be an excellent name for a law firm), I mean I have been in a cycle of extraordinary worry and despair that has made it difficult to concentrate on many things, especially writing.
I am rebounding, though, or at least finally coming up for air.
I have so much to tell you.
Over the next several posts, let me give you a bit of context about the buildup to this emotional crash that happened to me recently (and fine we can call it “crippling depression and anxiety” instead of “funk and dither” if you want to get technical – I say “tomato,” you say “mental illness”), and then I will be able to share some of the the weird and funny parts of what has been happening lately, too.
In order to save money on parking, and because riding my bike downtown scares me, and because public transit is so … public, I decided to walk. This meant that in order to get to the courthouse by 7:45am, I had to leave by 7:00am, which in OCD language meant out the door by 6:54am, which meant setting my alarm for 5:23am. (Someday I will show you the algorithm.)
Factor in that I was worried I would oversleep my alarm, which meant I didn’t let myself go all the way to sleep the night before, and basically spent most of the night considering the phrase “jury of their peers,” and got very hung up on the word “peer.” I was also extremely anxious (the “you know, if I were to get hit by a car, I won’t have to do this” kind of anxious) about being stuck in a room full of strangers and their contaminants for eight hours, the prospect of small talk (after spending so much time alone I sometimes worry about my ability to modulate my own voice), answering questions about myself (what if I AM a felon, and somehow did not know it?), and an overarching philosophical angst about what would happen if I made a mistake that ruined someone else’s life.
What I am getting at is that I was not exactly in the best mood when I left that morning.
Walking the 2.6 miles (yes, I google mapped it) from my house to downtown meant that I would be passing several homeless camps. I am not sure if “homeless camp” is a respectful term, and if I am using the wrong language, I apologize. We have a homeless crisis here in Portland, a “progressive” city where affordable housing is nearly non-existent (people are being displaced with virtually no options, and one of my 3:00am (the time of day when no problem is solvable) worries is that I may succumb imminently, as my own rent has increased 46% in the span of two years – a topic for another day); we don’t have enough resources for people with mental illness (I have plenty to say about that, too); Portland seems to be too busy telling the world how wonderful it is to notice the enormous cracks people are falling through; et-fucking-cetera.
(Joke break: “My what a delightful handbasket, Portland. Did you make it yourself? Also, can you tell me where we are headed?” -Ed.)
I have been admonished in the past that I should not call someone “homeless,” but “houseless” (to use people first language, wouldn’t that be “person experiencing houselessness” then?), and that I should refer to a person living on the street as someone “living outside.” While I appreciate the sentiment, I am not sure I support the terminology, and I also know that I, someone who has a home/is housed (knock on wood), am not the one who should be deciding on the labels. I am eager to learn, I just don’t always know who to listen to.
Whatever the vernacular, as I approached a particularly elaborate “camp” that took up an entire streetcorner (a tent, multiple tarps, bicycle parts, a small Weber grill, an Igloo cooler – I don’t recall all of the items, but I do remember that there were a lot of them, also no comment on brand recognition…), a man emerged and started rummaging and gesturing and talking loudly. He seemed agitated. It struck me that we were both starting our mornings with resistance, only he was being much more vocal about it.
When I realized he was talking to me, at first I was frightened (reasonably so? I am not sure, as I am not always a good judge of that, in either direction) of this disheveled, wild-haired man and his gesticulations. I was very aware that I was invading his turf, ironically (or not), on my way to perform my mandated civic duty. I also knew that I was allegedly the person of “privilege” in the scenario, which adds a top-down element to compassion (the one who disperses it, the one it is bestowed upon) that I do not like.
To note, having compassion for someone and being in ardent opposition of the social structures that arguably put them in a perilous situation do not guarantee they are not going to hurt you, or ask you for money, or call you a bitch if you don’t give it to them.
I often wonder what I would be if I wasn’t afraid.
(Joke break: It was so much easier to be a liberal when I lived in Lake Oswego.)
I take responsibility that the fears I directed at him were my own defensiveness and biased projections, based on my own complicated, internalized perceptions and responses to potentially “dangerous” situations. (A long way of saying I have PTSD that spills into just about everything, for sure, and also a long way of saying I am a woman and he was a man and this is the world we are living in.)
This was me, a person who hates conflict, on guard, preparing to run if I had to. This was me, a single woman with a trauma history, out in the world, exposed, who might not have anyone notice other than my cat if I didn’t return home on time. This was me being forced to leave my apartment to perform a role that made me nervous, to be outside when my agoraphobic tendencies have been so escalated, invading someone’s claimed space because it was along my shortest route from here (a place I am not sure I can stay) to there (a place I didn’t want to go). I told myself I was not trespassing, even though it felt like it.
All of these feelings in the span of less than a block, first thing in the morning. I thought about crossing the street, but made the decision that I was going to face whatever was going to happen. I put my shoulders back, tried to look friendly, purposeful, and taller, and hoped he would not harass me.
“Good morning,” I said as I approached. I smiled what I hoped was a convincing (to him or to me) smile.
“Sorry things are such a mess,” he said, and began collecting items that were in my direct path, piling them against the wall of the building. He was apologetic. Considerate. Fretful, yes, but non-threatening. I found myself feeling embarrassed for my initial reaction to him. I said I was sorry for walking through his stuff.
He did not pause for my apology, but kept talking. “Every time I have an idea, I get started on it, and then I get another idea, and I start that one. I just can’t seem to follow through with any of them,” he told me. He looked pained, bewildered.
“I know just what you mean,” I said.
I stopped and stood there on the sidewalk, softening as I registered how earnest he was.
I listened as he described what he had in mind for the various objects he had collected, how he was going to assemble them “into one big piece of art.” I nodded as he was talking, making ambiguously supportive replies along the lines of, “Cool,” and, “Hey neat!” and, “That would be rad.” (Yes, I think I actually said “rad.”) I am sure I sounded like a complete ass. He didn’t seem to mind, and that softened me further.
As he talked, I realized that I liked this guy. I realized I was no longer afraid of him, and what a difference that made inside me as I was standing there. It occurred to me that I was not there to be attacked by him, or to rescue him, but to share a moment of connection with a fellow human being, which we were doing.
Remarkable, that shift.
I became utterly present.
Unsure of the penalty for being late to jury duty, I told him I’d better get going, and started to walk away.
He called after me, “For twenty bucks you can give me the address of someone you want to get back at, and I will set all this up in front of their house.”
I turned around and he made a sweeping motion with his arms, indicating “all this in front of that person’s house.” He was grinning.
My mind instantly went to several people who would seriously lose their shit if this dude showed up on their sidewalk. I burst out laughing.
“Oh man, that is tempting!” I called back to him.”You just made my day.” I meant it.
I laughed to myself for the whole rest of my walk, writing this story in my head so that I could share it with you.
Judgement. Peers. Revenge fantasies. I felt better.
I made it to the courthouse exactly on time.
p.s. I found an exceptionally shiny penny in the jury room as I waited in line to turn in my paperwork:
In January I started an ongoing art project, a series of installations where I have been leaving books in those little library kiosks that people have in front of their houses, along with photos taken with an instant camera, primarily of not-very-good art I have made from a collection I have been calling, “Postcards for Therapists,” which are propped on tiny wire chairs made out of the cages that fit over the corks from champagne (or in my case I should say sparkling wine and sometimes beer) bottles.
Why on earth….? I’ll get to that.
I’ll show you the installations in a minute, too, but first, here are some of the little chairs. They are so simple and imperfect, I just love them. The secret to bending them into shape is you have to do it with confidence – really get in there with those pliers. When I made one as a Happy New Year gift for a friend who appreciates precise language, I looked it up and learned that the wire cages are called “muselets,” from the French word for “muzzle.” I had been making these since before I knew the name for them, but once I had this information, I began to see this “unmuzzling” as more subversive than I realized, and it made me giddy. To me, each one now represents a celebration (the effervescent beverage) of speaking (removing the muzzle) and listening (pulling up a chair). Aren’t they cute?
Next, below are some of the Postcards for Therapists. Like I told you, I am aware that the art is not good, but there is something I like about how they are so rudimentary in execution and yet rather sophisticated in concept. The purpose in doing them is to make myself laugh, and they succeed. Calling attention to absurdity is wonderfully sanity-affirming, and humor is a fantastic mechanism through which to recalibrate perspective. I’m finding that they make other people laugh, too. That they seem to be relatable is an added bonus.
Uhm, cool… but why the installations?
To be sure, I am doing this project because it is fun and a little bit weird. I’ve been trying to figure out how to “put myself out there,” and this is a way to experiment with that. This project is low-stakes and self-imposed, yet still challenges me creatively while requiring me to plot a route and physically leave my house.
Setting up the installations is a little bit scary. So far nobody has questioned me (Banksy works in a ski mask under the cover of night, I work in a magenta windbreaker under the cover of being a middle aged woman), but as I do them I summon courage by reminding myself that I am participating in my community, not harming anyone, and in fact maybe contributing something of value (imagine that). It is thrilling to leave a mark on the world, even a very small, temporary one.
In a deeper personal sense, I think I am a friendly, sensitive, and observant person by nature, but I am concerned that those qualities are being eclipsed by anger, fear, and disillusionment, and I don’t want to be like this. I care and invest with my whole heart; I live life up close – and I like this about myself – but a consequence is that this also leaves me susceptible to bewilderment, disappointment, anxiety, depression, and so on, which can make life very un-fun and dark. This project is about deliberately and intentionally “making fun,” and “making light.”
There is a lot of push-pull in the statements I need to make, as happens when a gentle person has been pushed (pulled?) to her limit (i.e. “the pleaser is not pleased” – or – “the cooperator cannot compromise anymore”) which is actually part of why I think people identify with my work. I have things to say, and instead of waiting to be asked (which I have spent a lot of time doing), I am going to start saying them.
What is going to happen, at least temporarily, is occasionally I am going to allow myself to get really loud about the things that bother me. And by “loud,” I mean I am typing very aggressively right now as I prepare to make some bold assertions, right here on my personal blog…out there for all nine of you to read…
Go big or go home? Nope. Go big FROM home. Boo-yah.
Speaking of unmuzzled (and why I started this project)
Postcards for Therapists
This project, which brings me such joy (for real), was inspired by my hatred of a book with the hilariously appropriate title, Clearing Emotional Clutter. To be fair, I can’t say I hated the entire book, because I only got as far as page three of the introduction before it made me so furious that I quit reading.
I’m not going to do a very good job of explaining, but basically what flipped me out was how the author, a therapist, used an example of a female client and her childhood abuse to elevate himself as a hero and to hook readers. He writes:
She kept repeating a refrain that had almost become like a spiritual mantra. “My father, he abused me,” she said, almost robotically…
FIRST OF ALL, what kind of dick would refer to a therapy client’s disclosure of abuse during their initial appointment as a “spiritual mantra”? Oh right, a “former Buddhist monk” a.k.a. (according to himself) “America’s Mindfulness Coach” (put a bookmark there, because I am coming back to these).
NEXT, regarding his “almost robotically” comment. What is the best tone to use when making the statement, “My father, he abused me”? Pig latin? Ubby-dubby? Sung like a show tune? Fake Australian accent, mate? And let me get this straight – so first she has a spiritual mantra and then in the very next sentence she is a robot? Which is it?
Here’s the part that made me lose my shit:
…After empathizing with [her] I tried to redirect her, but she was so fixed on the old story she couldn’t get free of it…
Do you REALLY think, Mr. Altman, that “empathizing” is a skill that you turn on and off as a fucking technique? What is WRONG with you?
BUT the BIGGER POINT is that you, Donald, a man, are as capable of having true empathy for a woman abused in childhood by her father as I, a woman, am capable of having empathy for you when someone has kicked you in the nuts.
He goes on to describe how he saved the day by pointing out the obvious to this client (that she thinks about her abuse a lot and gets stuck there), which woke her from her “trance” and basically she lived happily ever after, all because of him, and you can, too!
Basically I paid $16 to watch him congratulate himself.
And really, the one-in-five-ish girls and one-in-seven-ish boys who have experienced abuse should just learn how to see it differently. Problem solved. Where do I get my yard sign that says, “It doesn’t matter”? Asking for a friend…
I wonder if Altman wears a pink pussy hat in an ironic way.
As you may have surmised, this guy really bugged me, and after trying to walk away from it and not succeeding, I decided to try to pinpoint why exactly he bothered me so much. I listened to five different YouTube interviews, which only made me dislike him more, including one where he mentions “trophy wives” (not cool), and another where, when pressed about his “former monk” status, he states that he was at a monastery for “a few months” – a few MONTHS is all? – which he justified by referring to himself as “ripe fruit,” which somehow was supposed to mean he was already almost a monk, or perhaps he was a monk savant? Whatever. I am sure it sells books.
Also, as far as I can tell the only places he is referred to as “America’s Mindfulness Coach” are on his own website and in bios he has supplied to other entities himself. Maybe he got his blurb file mixed up with his affirmation journal?
I tell you what, based on his standards, I am taking my 2007 online ordination from the Universal Life Church much more seriously. I will put my self-study and religiosity up against his anytime.
The clincher, though, was when I heard him in an interview repeat the story of the woman abused by her father from his book introduction, which he told almost verbatim (which in itself is totally fine), except this time when he told it, the client had been abused by her MOTHER and not her father. If you’re going to make stuff up, you should be more “mindful” about the details, liar.
“Put some clothes on, and btw you aren’t even an emperor.”
It’s really too bad for him that he has never been an abused six-year-old girl. Until he becomes one, he should stay in his own lane.
To Donald Altman, I say, “Nah-maste.”
Thus, my project was born
It came to me that I despised this book on so many levels that I should surrender it with some fanfare, and I did, and it felt GREAT.
By now you know me well enough to have anticipated that of course I went back the next day to see what became of my artistic statement on clutter liberation.
What a rush. Altman became frivolous and irrelevant, and someone else’s problem (or solution) as my attention shifted into a single thought: “I want to do it again.”
And I did do it again, another eight times so far. None of the subsequent installations have been as dramatic (insert “chasing the dragon” reference here: ____), but this project has really gotten me thinking about the messages I am willing to receive, and the messages I wish to express.
Here are the installations to date, with notes
Postcards for Therapists
I take full responsibility for not giving Knausgaard enough of a chance. Book 1 of a six volume series, and I bailed within the first chapter. Perhaps I will attempt again someday, in summer, should I ever go back on antidepressants.
Here I present a 624 page guide to overcoming depression. This seems like a lot to expect of a depressed person. Not only reading a book with so many pages, I mean, but lifting it. Maybe they’ll make it into a movie, which everyone will say isn’t nearly as good as the book because it leaves out important scenes and relies too heavily on dream sequences, but I bet it will have an excellent soundtrack. I did not pair a jaunty postcard with this one because as much as I screw around, I also understand that depression is serious and terrible, and I did not want an unsuspecting depressed person to feel like I was making fun of them. The picture I chose was taken of the tree right outside my front door on one of our recent snow days as I fought against my own despair and forced myself into the monumental tasks of crossing a threshold and looking up.
Postcards for Therapists
This book nagged at me for something like three years before I realized that maybe my brain was fine the way it was and it was my life that needed to change. Please note that I debated donating it with all of my post-its and bookmarks intact, opted not to, and am regretting it.
Postcards for Therapists
Have you ever looked at some stranger’s Instagram and thought to yourself that you would never be friends with that person? This book was like that for me, only minus the pictures. Those of you who know Portland will appreciate that this was in Ladd’s Addition, where after inadvertently giving completely wrong directions to a woman pushing a stroller who was looking for SE Madison St, I overshot my route home by eight blocks.
Postcards for Therapists
I decided I needed to get rid of this book in order to avoid putting mixed messages into the universe about my financial goals. Also, this dude gets by on freeloading (he blogs from the public library while paying no taxes: discuss), so it isn’t like he’s giving up money, really, just using other people’s. If he can make it work, good for him, I suppose, but I don’t need him squatting on my bookshelf.
Postcards for Therapists
I stood there on the sidewalk laughing so hard to myself with this one that I had a difficult time getting a steady shot. “My totem animal is a fainting goat” + Extremely Loud and IncrediblyClose= Nothing funnier than tonic immobility with a Jungian twist. No? Well, I guess you had to be there…
I am pleased to announce that the donation of this book was no big deal. Healing is a funny thing – subtle, dispassionate, and steadier than I’ve given it credit for. Oh how I hated the signs of spring that first year after my mom died. All of that insistent life bursting into color all over the place. Pure hell. And now this year, not only did I notice the rogue periwinkle blooming out of a dark and rocky spot, and that it just happened to be the exact color as the book cover, but I decided to document it. What has become of me? I better read a tragic memoir soon or I may end up writing sonnets or some shit like that. Next thing you know I will walk around humming, or, worse, whistling…
Postcard ideas? Check.
Muselets? Please keep me in mind when you have mimosas at upcoming brunches.
Little libraries? Here are all of them that have been registered within a five mile radius of my house:
So what’s the problem? I am running low on books I don’t want.
The kindergartener in my life has announced that when she grows up she is going to marry either her friend Oliver or her friend Margot. This same kindergartner has also announced that her career ambition is to be shot from a cannon, and that she wants a prairie dog.
While her parents have made it clear that no one is allowed to mention cannons around the kindergartener because they don’t want her launching herself from her upper bunk (again), and I tease them out of earshot that I am going to have a prairie dog town installed in their front yard when they are away on vacation, nobody misses a beat when it comes to whether she is going to grow up to marry a boy or a girl.
The kindergartener gets to take for granted that she can love whoever she loves. She is part of a generation whose parents won’t have to explain that it is illegal (at least for the time being) for girls to marry girls and for boys to marry boys. She has a mom and a dad who don’t see homosexuality as immoral, or controversial, so don’t feel obligated to intervene to “correct” her in exploring her imaginary future.
Do you know what this means? To the kindergartener it doesn’t mean nearly as much as it would to be shot from a cannon with your prairie dog while wearing matching jumpsuits. To me, though, it means this kindergartner is being raised in a family where I am included, too, with no beats missed when it comes to my +1s, and that I can be in the kindergartener’s life as myself. It also means I am not special to them in this regard, because her parents aren’t making accommodations for me specifically, but are fundamentally supportive of gay rights, which, to them, include their daughter’s right to imagine marrying a girl if she wants.
I knew I liked girls by the time I was ten, and believed it was wrong to have these feelings. What happened is that I kept having the feelings and kept believing I was wrong for having them, so my feelings became shame, and I kept them hidden, and, of course, hid with them when it came not just to sexuality and dating, but when it came to feeling like a “normal” person in general. I lived that way until I was in my 20s and fell in love with my first girlfriend, a Christian Education major who had been raised to believe in damnation for gay people.
We had both always been “good kids,” so our attraction to each other came with an enormous price tag of not just guilt, but nonconformity that didn’t suit either of us. My girlfriend and I lived in secret – in plain sight, but as “roommates” and “friends” and “no, we aren’t sisters, we just have the similar haircuts” – for four of our eight years together, because we were ashamed of being gay, afraid for our safety, and so worried about what “people would think” (and some people apparently think a LOT about the bedroom habits of gay people, which is kind of weird if you ask me). How different my life, and my first girlfriend’s life, might have been if being gay was no big deal to us in the same way it is for the kindergartener, starting as early as that.
As Ursula wrote,
The children of the revolution are always ungrateful, and the revolution must be grateful that it is so.
The “revolution” that is me is grateful that my favorite kindergartener never will have to wonder about whether being gay is acceptable, whether she is or isn’t. I am happy thinking about her at school right now exchanging Valentines and loving whoever she decides to love unabashedly, which is how this kindergartner approaches life in general.
I hope she gets fancy Valentines from both Oliver and Margot, and doesn’t get married until she is 30, no matter who she loves.
And now, in honor of Valentine’s Day, and because I have watched this video ten times already this morning, I think you should watch it, too. The kitten alone is worth it. DeAnne Smith is so brilliant I am not even jealous. You should google her. Here is her Nerdy Love Song: