For most of my life, I didn’t know what to do with our stories.
Or with my story.
I didn’t choose it (we don’t get to choose these things) and as soon as I began to recognize what it meant, I didn’t want it.
It wasn’t a new or unfamiliar story, but as soon as possible, I ran from it.
I thought if I kept running from my story, I’d get myself someplace better, or at least different—but it doesn’t work that way.
My Dad once said something to me about what it felt like to leave behind the people he loves—something that’s in his nature, or is at least a habit, “It was like walking out a door, backward and slowly… So for a moment, it almost seemed you had arrived.”
When I was thirteen, my parents split up, and our house was taken away by the bank.
My mom was suddenly single and homeless, with full custody of four children.
I felt too much of what she was feeling.
I was angry and scared and confused, but didn’t know what to do with that.
And it didn’t seem fair that I should have to know what to do, but who can tell what’s fair when everyone around you is experiencing the same ordinary hardship and heartbreak?
I shoved it down, deep into my core, then tried to forget about it.
My older brother took spray paint to the walls of our house.
In the rooms where we’d been living, he wrote all the curse words he could think of, and drew nasty pictures. He put holes in the sheetrock and the carpet. He unhinged all the doors.
My brother did everything short of torching the place, before the bank came to board it up. We all have different ways of saying goodbye to one life, and preparing for another.
What happened just before and after that tumultuous year is a process I’m still struggling to digest.
But I’ve never been good at keeping boundaries between work and life, because for me they’re all part of the same process of knowing myself and becoming whole—a process that always involves digging through the darker parts and pieces, and asking what they mean.
About five years ago, when I was still married and a new mother, I was invited to give a talk about my public art and community practice at a University symposium.
The program was filled with academics, all of them with multiple degrees and professional titles. Most of them had written well-researched books and journal articles. They were all professional thinkers and speakers, with a confidence in themselves that I’d never been able to manifest.
My husband and I were not academics.
We were broke, and had no one to watch our baby.
Ten minutes before we were scheduled to speak in front of an auditorium filled with faculty and students, we decided together that I should do this talk on my own. I would speak, and he would hold the baby, who was just starting to walk. They would both give encouragement from the front row.
But when I stood up and tried to introduce myself and our work, our son began whining. When he saw me at the podium, he wanted to nurse. Every time he cried, my breasts ached, and my mind was wiped clean.
I stumbled over my words, and apologized to the audience. It was clear we did not belong there—I did not belong there.
Then, I tried to tell a story about where I’d come from, and what I knew about creating public art that engages people and place, leaving out the most difficult parts:
The parts about the little girl who felt too many things, and was surrounded by adults who were either neglectful, abusive, not around consistently because they were working to survive, drunk, or abused by others. Sometimes, they were all of these things.
And the parts about the teenager who swallowed so much heartache and rage that for years she rarely spoke her feelings—any of them—for fear they’d all come spilling out in a wave that would drown her, and drown everyone close to her.
Or the young woman who tried to run away from herself and the only people who knew who she was. Who learned to quiet the voices of shame and loneliness with alcohol, or by plunging herself into fraught relationships.
The wife and artist, struggling to define a new path, but bumping up against fear and shame again and again.
Somehow, I had come through these experiences, and so many others—to make a life for myself as a public artist and cultural organizer, working with my partner and my community to slowly build relationships.
Now, I’m able to stand within these stories and truths, and I know they’re part of what had to happen for me to become the who I am.
But just 5 years ago, I would barely scratch the surface before deciding it was better to fall back on simpler stories.
At this symposium, that’s what I did.
I told a story about myself that was just a fraction of the truth, and I apologized as though I was wasting everyone’s time.
Afterward, a woman approached me in the hallway, “Don’t ever apologize for being here.”
I must have looked ashamed of myself, because she put her hand on my shoulder, offering a moment of comfort amid the din of a room filled with people who were all talking at once.
“You’re holding too much back,” She said. “Tell them who you really are.”
Ever since that point, and before that too, I’ve been looking for the right place to begin.
I begin, and begin again—but the threads I pull always seem to go nowhere, or they slip from my grasp. I give in to distractions and second-guesses.
Maybe I won’t ever be able to do this?
Maybe it’s not that important that I try?
This year, I’m committing to a practice of putting things down, with no tangible goal in mind. No grand theme or artistic project, nothing to organize around.
Just that woman’s words, “Tell them who you really are.”
I imagine this telling as a way of bringing things to the surface, bits and pieces, from the underside of this life. Fragments that might be useful, for something now or later… Or not.
As Anne Carson, one of my favorite poets has said, “The point is not to find a reader, the point is the telling itself.”
I don’t know what forms this practice of telling will take, or if it will cause other ideas to emerge.
I’ll be posting bits and pieces as I feel like it, alongside notes from my research and travels, and other updates about life and work in progress.
It’s all tangled up for me, anyway.
I’m not doing this with the hope that lots of people will read it or follow along, but if you find any of these posts meaningful, I hope you’ll share them, and let me know your thoughts in the comments.
The point is not to find a reader, but the joy of finding other readers has always been encouraging for me.
To that end, you can click the “updates” button on my home page to sign-up for a monthly newsletter, featuring new writing and other information about things I’m making and doing at Water Bar, and elsewhere.