Art Therapy Season

I keep romanticizing about how great it would be to be an artist, a real artist. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to draw something that actually looked like the thing you wanted it to look like or paint a fantasy landscape of silver, violet, and green? When I wake in the mornings I often wish I could paint my dreams or sculpt a lion with a giant mane out of clay. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to chisel a unicorn out of stone or carve a sparrow out of wood? I know people who can do these things and I confess I feel a tinge of jealousy toward them.

As it is I can barely sketch even the basic shape of a cat or a fish. And even then I can’t seem to master shading or a three-dimensional appearance. When I draw, I still draw like a child. Side-by-side my sketches look not much different than those I drew as a 10 or 11-year-old. Suffice it to say, I’ve no chance at a career in the visual arts. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try only it’s not for money or recognition. No, I create to maintain my sanity.

This week I pulled out the photographs I’d had professionally printed last year and thought of what I could do with them. I’m not so naïve as to think I could actually sell any of them. After all, the scenes were composed on instinct and I was rarely conscious of the “rule of thirds” or any other such compositional standard professionals insist are what make a photograph objectively “good.” I just took pictures because they felt right. And here is where I show my lack of skill as a writer as well. You see, I never seem to have the words for why I feel compelled to photograph a particular thing either. I just do.

For me, photography is therapy. When I take a picture, I’m focusing on what’s around me, not what’s inside me. Most of the time it’s hard to shut off my internal monologue, but the camera helps me forget about me and I need that.

Photography therapy is a kind of art therapy and art therapy was a main staple at most of the psych units I had the luxury of staying in. Usually there weren’t any instructions or strict guidelines imposed on us either. We were just taken to a room full of crayons, markers, paints, glue, paper, glitter, and other safe, creative tools and, under supervision, we could do as we pleased.

Since I was inept at drawing or painting, I tended to dabble in collage. There were almost always old magazines to rip apart and be expressive with. And so that’s what I did. I searched for words and images I could express myself with as well as something I could look at when I returned to my room and to remind me of all the reasons I had yet to live; all my dreams still left unfulfilled. 

I loved collaging so much in the hospital that I started to do it at home. Again, nothing of value to anyone but me. But the mere act of ripping magazines apart and trying to find new ways to lay out images is soothing to me. Today I (mostly) finished the one pictured here: a combination of a photo I took last year on Hollywood Blvd. and a bunch of old ticket stubs from the cinema. When it’s completely finished, I’ll hang it on my wall. I’m happy with my work, but I’m not convinced the world would be.

My dad, who happens to be my mom’s primary caregiver while she recovers from knee replacement surgery, has been out of town since last Wednesday on a week-long trip with his fellow MIT alumni to New Mexico, visiting (from what I gather) missile museums, radio telescopes (like the ones in the final scene of the 1997 film Contact), listening to lectures, and other stuff that none of the rest of us in this house would be even remotely enthusiastic about. He’d planned the trip around the original date Mom was scheduled for surgery and when the surgery had to be postponed, he kept his plans and it’s not been too bad. I mean, my sister’s here. Also, Mom’s been in recovery for about three weeks so she’s already doing quite a lot on her own. But she still can’t be left alone. She still needs help with the dog. She needs someone to drive her to her appointments. She needs help picking things up, carrying things, etc. In other words, whatever I do on my own time, it can’t be anything that would require a lot of uninterrupted time to complete. This includes novel-writing. 

So what have I been focusing on? Art therapy. And, as an extra bonus, Mom spends a great deal of he time in the living room where my craft table is so I can work and still be right there when she needs me.

As far as exercise, eating right – it’s all somehow happening, although my morning walks have turned into evening or nighttime walks. I imagine that will reverse very soon. The season of Hell is quickly coming and that’s when the walks will have to start at sunrise or earlier. I suppose that it’s all just as well that I don’t have a “real” job with all that life’s thrown at me lately.

Hope for the Hopeless Romantic

I’m almost done writing the latest draft of my memoir, a story that spans nearly three years of my youth – from age 22, when I was most innocent, idealistic, adventurous, and passionate, until age 25, when I felt most powerless and hopeless.

My story isn’t really a love story, though, at least not in the traditional sense. But there are traces of romance here and there. I rediscover them as I flip through my personal writings and I’ve polished and edited some of those bits for you, too, so that you can join me on my journey to reconstruct a life

Historically, the longest relationship I ever had was with a guy I met while I was still a senior in high school. We were both working at a bookstore together and I remember how hard it was to believe that someone I liked actually liked me back. I was in such a state of disbelief that I tried to destroy the relationship from the start. We’d gone on an evening walk to a nearby park where I told him all the reasons I didn’t think he should date me. I confessed every sin and every fatal flaw I could think of and, to my amazement, he didn’t run away. He didn’t even flinch. In fact, he continued to write me poetry and create thrifty and imaginative adventures for us to go on for at least another year. But by our second year together, our relationship went downhill. I won’t go into details. Let’s just say we both share some of the blame.

Our breakup happened shortly after I turned 21. We were even engaged for a little bit (although it never really felt like it). A year later we met up for dinner. True, part of my motivation was to see if I had any residual feelings for him after all that time. But I was relieved to know those feelings had completely dissolved. I could hop on my plane to France knowing there was no reason to return. I was free.

The time period covered in my memoir was one of the most fruitful periods in my life in terms of personal writing. I didn’t write daily, but I definitely carried my diary with me more often than ever before. Beginning with my study abroad in France, I also developed a ritual of writing semi-regular generic emails, or, what you might call predecessors to blogs such as this one. Of course my writing was nothing to boast of, but at the time I thought it was quite prolific. It would actually frustrate me sometimes to try and write a story or a poem and suddenly face a writer’s block that seemed nonexistent moments before when I was scribbling in my diary. Now I look at those old diaries and analyze my younger-self. Today, I’m trying to figure out how I became so confused about love.

My first three months in France aren’t covered in the memoir. In earlier versions I wrote about them. I wrote, for instance, of the only five men I ever locked lips with in France and, believe me, it went no further than that because I took the whole “saving myself until marriage” thing pretty seriously and it threw some of the Frenchmen I met for a loop. Most Europeans lose their virginity around 17 or 18. I was 22 and still hadn’t lost mine (and wouldn’t for a very long time). It was like I was from another planet. But at least no one tried to force himself on me. At least they were cool with moving into a conversation or leaving me alone entirely. For me, it was disappointing how uninterested many guys seemed once sex was off the table. I couldn’t understand because deep conversation was almost the epitome of intimacy in my world. In any case, once I settled in Montpellier, my kissing days were over (save “la bise” a.k.a. “French cheek kissing”). I had one French guy-friend and I told him in no uncertain terms that the next man I date will be the man I marry. To my delight, those words didn’t send him running. We stayed friends for the duration of my time there. Sometimes he’d talk to me about girls he dated or wanted to date and I was happy to listen and encourage him in his romantic endeavors. My only regret is not being able to say goodbye. But then again, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to anyone in Montpellier, but you’ll understand why when you read my book.

Here are some thoughts from my personal writings about love followed by reflective commentary from more than a decade later. But, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Then, when my memoir is finished and published, you can read it and have a better understanding of the story as a whole.

Here’s a playlist of songs that would have influenced my thoughts about romance back then. All of them are from musicals because musicals are stories and each song is part of a greater story. I love that!

I didn’t know yet to identify it as such, but that weekend I was suffering from major depression triggered by grief. To be alone at such a time in a city practically made for lovers made the weight in my chest even heavier. In response, I turned to God, personal letters, and my journal. I walked alone at night heedless of the catcalls that follow young women far more often in France than in the States. “Discutez avec moi” was never an invitation simply to talk. There were expectations behind those words I wasn’t about to find out.

The French guy in this case had misinterpreted a smile I’d given him one evening. Americans smile at strangers far more often than French people do and I knew that even then. But like any idealist, I believed this guy could change. I thought we’d meet up and he’d be okay with simple conversation. But then he saw the Celtic cross around my neck and realized there was a reason I wasn’t “putting out.”

Since I arrived in Montpellier six months earlier, there’d been no kissing, no hand-holding, and very little hugging. Physical affection had been reduced to the French cheek-kissing ritual known as “la bise” which isn’t really kissing, if you think about it. There is a very light touch of one cheek to another but the kissing itself is mostly in the air. The sound of lip-smacking solidifies it. No actual kissing; just really loud pretend kissing. The above writing came at the climax of my mental breakdown. It was meant to be my last entry ever before I diminished into the world, weaving in and out of different lands and cultures without a name or passport and demonstrating a Mother Teresa style love in every village and every town. Mother Teresa never married. If she could live an impactful and meaningful life without a husband then so could I, right?

I elaborated a bit more on this in my “epistles” from the psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France.

Still delusional, I fought against the very idea of romantic love. In my head the memories of lonely Frenchmen who thought love and sex were one and the same were fresh on my mind. One of my very last memories of such a misunderstanding was a day or two before I left Montpellier. I agreed to help a very tall young man with his English. He told me he was a Christian so I used a Bible verse from either the gospel of John or 1 John (it was a while ago) for our tutoring session. I had him read it and then asked him what he understood. At the end of the meeting, he invited me to his place for coffee. I was smart enough to know that “coffee” was usually a euphemism for sex and so I politely said no to which he replied, “but Jesus said to love your neighbor! Come to my place and make love to me!”

I shook my head and said back to him, “Jesus didn’t mean that kind of love.”

One of my guy friends had professed his love for me over the summer. Before he went away in the fall, he burst into my dorm room to tell me how he felt and request a farewell kiss. But I turned him down. I enjoyed hanging out with him but I didn’t feel the same for him as he did for me. And yes, there is something empowering about rejecting someone’s advances toward you verses being rejected. Besides, by this juncture in the story, I’d been given a diagnosis and I’d researched it extensively. I knew there was no guarantee my medication would always work and I’d never have another breakdown. I wondered if it was fair for me to date anyone.

Rich Mullins never married. He was engaged once but that’s the closest he ever came and towards the end of his life some were dubbing him the “happy celibate.” He didn’t eschew that title either. He said in an interview once that maybe God did want him to be celibate and the way that he accomplished that was by breaking his heart.

I love Rich Mullins and it saddens me at times that I didn’t come to love him until after he died. But I was also still a teenager when he died and he was in his early forties. The point is that, even after death he had such a strong influence on my life that I began to think more and more of celibacy as a gift. Jesus didn’t even marry so why did it seem like everyone in Christianity made such a big deal about marriage?

I recommend you read Paul’s chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s often read at wedding ceremonies, or so I’m told. I actually haven’t been to many weddings. My “touched with fire” reference is both to Kay Redfield Jamison’s book of the same title and the only textbook manic episode I’ve ever experienced. Someone told me once that mania has a way of bringing your greatest desires to the surface. For some that means becoming overtly promiscuous. For others it means going on a wild spending spree or impulsively taking a plane to London. For me it meant living out and sharing a New Testament kind of love. Of the four Greek loves, I’m referring to agape. Look it up.

The rules of love change when you discover you have feelings for someone you don’t want to have feelings for.

Just when I feel like I can accept not falling in love (or at least not being loved in return), someone I’m interested in shows interest in me. It is unbelievably annoying. So does this mean celibacy isn’t my calling in life? Does this mean that the next guy I date won’t actually be the guy I marry? And how much of my story do I tell him? I owe it to him to give him some sort of warning before he chooses to be in a relationship with me. He needs to have a chance to get out while he can!

This becomes the story of my life, at least the romantic end of it. There will be one more short-lived romance before I turn 30. It wasn’t ideal but anyone who knows me knows I can easily fall into self-pity and self-hatred. I see my flaws much quicker than I see my gifts. But when someone loves me and I don’t fully understand why, I begin to think maybe I’m not such a royal fuck-up. If someone I love can love me, then there must be something about me worth loving.

 

Reflecting on “Silence”

I was thinking this morning about the movie I saw the other day, Martin Scorsese’s Silence and how afterwards, not long after I walked in the door of my house, Mom was quick to say how that movie flopped on opening weekend and all the reviews she’d read of it were negative. She sent me one of those reviews and I read it, but I’d already seen the movie. It did little to change my opinion.

Now, I’m no good at handing out criticism. In fact, that’s the principle reason I quit doing writers groups. I can take it, no problem. In fact, I welcome it. But I’m terrible at giving any back. And it’s not that I don’t want to. Sometimes I’ll read something and I’ll know there’s something wrong I just can’t pinpoint what. With movies, I’m most interested in the story.

Story motivated me to see Silence. But I could tell from the trailer that it wasn’t going to be a popular story. For starters, in a world of neo-colonialism and postmodernism, stories that portray European Christians as essentially “good” and Japanese Buddhists as essentially “bad” are not going to be well-received, no matter how good the acting, directing, and cinematography. I have to admit this even made me uncomfortable. Also casting British and American men as Portuguese Jesuit Priests tends to trouble my generation, no matter how great and renowned they are as actors. This narrative could’ve easily been sold to audiences thirty years ago, but now it makes us uneasy. Perhaps we’re now more aware of the brutality of some (not all) Christian missionaries who sailed from Europe over four-hundred years ago to spread their faith. Their stories have been heard loud and clear and the pain still lingers even now.

It is a little unfair to think of the missionaries entirely as villains, however. They didn’t think of themselves as such. They believed they were helping people in other parts of the world who’d never heard the gospel. Many of them could testify of their own powerful and personal encounters with God and it seemed only natural that they’d want to share that with anyone and everyone. I’ve known that feeling as well, but in a different time and a different place where my faith wasn’t so widely viewed as the “one true faith.”

I think then that it’s probably best we strip down the story a bit and look at what’s important here. As the title implies, this story is first and foremost about God’s silence. How do you cope with a situation where people who look up to you and share your faith are being martyred left and right and you’re utterly powerless to help them? Day in and day out you appeal to God in your prayers but you don’t know if God can hear you or if he even cares because the pain doesn’t end and you can’t hear God’s voice.

Then again, God’s voice doesn’t usually come to us in an audible way. It’s more likely to penetrate our thoughts and our dreams. Sometimes it’s heard in the voices of others, not just those who share our faith but through the words of those we least expect. Sometimes he even speaks to us through our pain and suffering.

The intense torture conveyed in the film, however, is something none of us would want to face but is still worth exploring. Dying for your faith is not as hard as being forced to watch those who look to you for spiritual guidance die. How long would it take you to break if you were told the violence would only end if you set an example and publicly renounce your own faith?

I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who’ve not seen the film but I have to say, after watching this I was challenged to imagine what might have gone through the minds of these priests. I was also challenged with how I judge others. I don’t know the journey of the stranger next to me. I don’t know his or her heart. Maybe he’s secretly praying in the silence of his mind. In the end, only God knows.

Pretending to be a Street Photographer in 2016

I’m sad to say that too many of what might have been great photos came out blurred, like these. If I were to do them over again, I’d ask my subjects to wait a moment while I made some adjustments. But I was nervous and didn’t want to make them wait.

Despite my shortcomings as a photographer, I still want my pictures to have meaning and purpose. I want them to be beautiful. I don’t know why, I just do. But I don’t know if they’re beautiful to anyone but me. I just love how the camera take me out of myself.

For me, the best pictures are of people. When I take pictures of people, it’s like I’m an anthropologist studying my own culture and its subcultures. I want to understand this world around me where I’ve always felt foreign, even in my own home.

I love it most when people aren’t posing or pretending – just being.

Then I return home and study the RAW files. I look at their expressions, their body language, and imagine what it is to be them.

I imagine their stories. They have amazing stories!

ASU Tempe Campus where I was taking a class back in January and happened upon a preacher holding up a hateful sign while a couple of students who seemed to be protesting him held up their own signs promoting peace and unity. It was a sad spectacle but at the same time I wondered what would drive a man to go out there and hold up a sign such as this while still professing to believe in a God of love.
This was the first guy in line for the VNSA Annual Book Sale in February. It says the line starts at midnight, but he had a tent so I’m quite sure he was there earlier than that.
Some young teachers keep entertained while they wait for the doors to the open at the VNSA Annual Book Sale. They must have arrived between 4 AM and 5 AM. I was there just before 3. Doors opened at 8. To me this is the only event worth waiting in line for.

 

Walking the paved trail at Multnomah Falls in Oregon on the last weekend of February.
A book-lover browses books at the Powell’s on Hawthorne bookstore in Portland, OR.
I hope this couple found love and joy in Portland, OR.
Photographers resting at the old bunkers around Fort Stevens State Park, Astoria, OR.
Young people flock to Roosevelt Row for another First Friday Art Walk.
Directions from the man in stilts at the Arizona Renaissance Fair.
Street musicians perform at the First Friday Art Walk in Phoenix.
Springtime at the World Bazaar at 19th St. and Camelback in Phoenix.
Fan art at Phoenix Comicon.
Cosplayers and other Phoenix Comicon attendees taking a break. Most of my pictures from Comicon didn’t turn out super great this year, so I tried to make some of them look like comics themselves.
This was a craft fair for Arizona crafters and merchants organized at the Mesa Convention Center by Arizona Made (I think that was the name of it)
Some of my family members are enjoying a coffee break in the corner there at Joseph-Beth Booksellers back in June of 2016.
A protest against police brutality in Flagstaff, AZ on a Sunday in August of 2016.
A protest marches through Heritage Square in Flagstaff when an audience has gathered to watch a string quartet on a Sunday afternoon in August, 2016.
An abandoned guitar in an alley way in Flagstaff, taken in August 2016
Tourists gaze down at Horeshoe bend in Arizona, August 2016.
Tourists – some of the most fascinating people for people-watching at Horseshoe Bend, AZ in August 2016.
Tourists heading back to their cars at Horseshoe Bend.
Some of the “free hugs” guys on Roosevelt Row at the November First Friday Artwalk in Phoenix.
A First Friday concert on Roosevelt Row, Phoenix, AZ.
On election night in Tucson, this guy saw me with my camera and asked (jokingly) if I wanted to take his picture. So I did, or at least tried to (I think he thought I wouldn’t take him up on it),
Young voters gather at a local bar near the university in Tucson while votes are counted, anxiously awaiting to find out who the next president would be.
Protestors against the Dakota Access Pipeline (among other things) descend upon Phoenix First Friday in December.
More protestors in Phoenix against the Dakota Access Pipeline in December 2016. Their fight would be one a day or two later.
Comedians warm up at the fire before the free comedy show behind Lawn Gnome Publishing in Phoenix.

 

The Solo Retreat

I needed to get away and I knew that if I didn’t go now, it would be a long time before the opportunity would arise again. Two nights were all I could afford which meant my solo retreat would have to stay within the boundaries of my state. Luckily, Arizona isn’t all a sizzling, hot desert full of saguaros, prickly pears, rattle snakes, and buzzards. Just a couple hours drive north of Phoenix and I’m at a blissful nine thousand foot elevation, surrounded by pine trees and a cool, mountain breeze. I’m in Flagstaff.

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I’ve been to Flagstaff many times. I used to be intimately familiar with it because I’d gone to school, lived, and worked there when I was younger.

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Solo retreats are a wonderful way to recharge. I’ve had enough practice that each one I take is better than the last. This particular one couldn’t have come at a better time. A week or so prior, I’d had an emotional wakeup call from a rather unexpected source. Ten years ago, I would have let my emotions consume me. But this time I still wept, but I also interpreted this reality check as a sign. My life needed to change, in a big way. And for that, I needed to separate myself from the usual distractions. I needed to be alone.

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There was no plan really. I brought lots of books, magazines, paper and writing utensils. I left the laptop at home and went analog as much as possible. I posted a picture a time or two to Instagram and Facebook, but only when I was in my hotel room where there was Wi-Fi.

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I arrived in Flagstaff on a Sunday. Since it was still a too early to check into my hotel room, I browsed through the untranslated French at Bookmans, choosing a book by Françoise Sagan that had what appeared to be a squashed bug stuck to the title page. I bought the book anyway as well as a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Then I sat down with a frozen coffee drink in the café. By the time I was done it was time to check in.

As soon as my hotel room was ready, I checked in, unpacked a little, and just rested until the sun was low enough in the sky for optimum photography. Besides, I needed a little time to adjust to the altitude.

IMG_4703Around four-thirty, I grabbed my camera and headed downtown. When I arrived, I followed the sound of drumming and shouting to its source: an anti-police protest.

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The protesters were a small but passionate group of young people. I watched them carry their signs chanting, “Black lives matter; Red lives matter; Blue lives murder.” There were no African American protesters but there were Native Americans and sympathetic white people shouting and marching through streets and alley ways. Ironically, they were followed by a few policemen. I’m not sure who they were supposed to be protecting – us or them. I don’t know the stories of the people the protestors seemed to be honoring either. Were they killed by the police too, like so many we’ve been hearing about on the news?

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I’ve never participated in a protest. I remember talking to someone about it when I was studying in France fourteen years ago, though. In France, it seemed like the young people were always protesting something. Protesting was second only to going on strike, it seemed. My French friend and I wondered if protests ever actually made a difference. He didn’t think so. From what he understood, most protests were more like social gatherings or parties anyway. It’s like, let’s all unite under a common hate, make signs, and yell at people because it’s fun. Afterward we’ll have a beer together.

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I went to the bar in the basement of Charlie’s for dinner. It was nice being the only customer and making small talk with the young bartender. But I should’ve known it was too good to last. Two young ladies came in and sat at the bar a little ways from me. They were blond, tipsy, and very pretty. I attempted to talk to them as well and, when that didn’t work, I pulled a book out of my purse and endeavored to read.

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As more people shuffled in, I abandoned the bar and finished my dinner at a nearby table. I must’ve looked like a sight for sore eyes anyway: fat, no makeup, and a scarf on my head to keep sweat from dripping in my eyes. The other people at the bar were, at the very least, a decade younger than me. I imagine when they reach my age, they’ll be married with children and bars such as this will no longer seem appealing.

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As I wandered around town, I’d sometimes overhear the newest generation of university students talking about their assignments or extra-curricular activities. In the poetry section at the bookstore, I witnessed two twenty-something ladies fan-girl over dead poets. They exuded a such a raw, youthful passion the likes of which I’d not seen since I was their age. One of the girls talked about lining her bookshelves with beautiful, vintage editions of the timeless works of great poets.

IMG_4922The next day I decided to I needed to see dinosaur tracks and headed north on 89A toward Tuba City and Page. I’d read about the tracks in Phoenix Magazine but I didn’t expect the road to feel quite so long. Most of the drive was through the Navajo Reservation and, aside from the occasional Navajo jewelry vendors, there weren’t many places to stop along the way. So I listened to my Voyage Imaginaire playlist with its 283 songs about journeys, destinations, home or being foreign. I also squeezed in a few songs to help me imagine I’m already far from here. Sometimes I tell myself it’s too long for a single playlist, and yet it sustained all the way there and back.

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The dinosaur tracks were pretty amazing. It remind me of my brief obsession with paleontology when I was a kid, before Jurassic Park was even a thing. I asked my guide if there was anything in traditional Navajo beliefs to explain dinosaurs and she said they don’t even have a word for dinosaur in her language (I think she said the elders used to call it “giant bird” or something like that). But she’d lived on that part of the Res her whole life. The fossilized footprints were kind of like her backyard where she played as a little girl.

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I had no clue where to go next but the day was still young so I just followed the signs to Page. Lake Powell, Glen Canyon and the dam were major tourist attractions, especially for international tourists.

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On my way out, I stopped to see Horseshoe Bend, a 1.4 mile round trip hike overflowing with international tourists. I heard, among other languages, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, but the most pleasant sound for me was French. I spent a lot of time simply eaves-dropping on French conversations. But I couldn’t find the courage to interrupt the French. I’d been listening to French music in the car and still knew how to speak it well. I just didn’t feel like I fit in around so many attractive people. I thought of a time when I wasn’t fat and dining with Europeans. I remember how they’d make fun of fat people, especially fat Americans. It didn’t bother me then because I wasn’t the object of ridicule. But now I’m acutely aware of what I’ve become. I am the negative American stereotype, the person I never dreamed I’d become. Couple that with the scarf I wore on my head to keep the sweat out of my eyes, my lack of makeup (also due to sweating issues), and the adult acne that had broken out all over my lower face. If you knew nothing about me but what you saw, you might not feel inclined to talk with me either.

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I did speak to one French guy. I asked him in English how the view was from where he was standing and he silently signaled that he didn’t understand so I switched languages and suddenly he was no longer mute. He had lots to say, so long as it was in his own language.

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But our small talk was brief. He’d come with family. All the international tourists had come with family, or, at the very least, friends. The point is, no one came alone. As far as I could see, I was the only solitary tourist which also robbed me of my desire to strike up conversations with strangers. Each person already had with them the only person or people they cared to talk with. No need to have a superficial friendship with an American, especially a weird-looking, fat, thirty-six-year-old, unmarried, woman like me.

IMG_5014Maybe I’m projecting but I don’t think so. I’m very observant. It is what it is and, though I can’t change everything about me, I can lose weight and find a good dermatologist to help me with my face. It’s just going to take time and it’s not going to be easy. (More on this later.)

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Back in Flagstaff, I headed to the grocery store to score a picnic dinner. I remember when it used to be called New Frontiers. Now it’s part of the Whole Foods corporation. That didn’t bother me so much as the entire “village” that’s been built up around it. The fancy new apartments built above high-end retail chains are still looking for tenants. But what kind of people would want to live there? I know people who’ve lived in Flagstaff for most (if not all) their lives and they’d probably find this sort of thing appalling. Even the “village” street names attempt to give the new place a kind of “Old World” feel like “Piccadilly,” “Regent,” or “Cambridge.” It’s like they’re trying to make a miniature Europe except European villages derive their charm from their distinct personalities built over time. The people who own and work in the shops are the ones living above them. McDonald’s may be in cities the world over, but the village should not be defined by multi-national corporations.

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Tuesday I drove to Lake Mary hoping to snap some photos but it turned out I needed a permit to park my car there. So I turned around and headed to Sedona by way of Oak Creek Canyon where I also hoped to find photo ops, but I couldn’t seem to find a place to park my car for free there either. It was all national forest land and almost everything the government didn’t owned was privately owned.

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I wondered what happened to the commons. Is there anything that isn’t “owned” by anyone anymore? Then again, maybe it’s better this way. Nature’s worst enemy is man.

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Finally I found free parking near the most popular, touristy street in Sedona. I switched to a longer lens for this one. By the way, you wouldn’t believe how many people I saw with SLR cameras while I was away! There may be a camera on every smart phone but the more sophisticated amateur photography is far from dead.

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From Sedona I went to Jerome where there were more tourists, only in this case they were mostly Americans. Storm clouds followed me there, but I didn’t mind. Give me a cloudy day over a sunny day any day. Besides, in a place like Jerome, clouds only enhance beauty and mystery.

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The clouds followed me all the way home. There was a little rain as drove through Prescott Valley but mostly the sky was amazing. I had to pull over to the side of the road a couple of times just to capture the clouds. I wish I’d have caught some lightening as well, but lightening never seems to cooperate with me. I’ve seen some brilliant photographs of lightening by professionals, but I have yet to figure out how they do it. It can’t be sheer luck each time.

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Then I came home.

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The Background Character

 

My first day at Phoenix Comicon this year I photographed a young girl cosplaying as a “background character.” Her friends had much more elaborate costumes but she basically dressed as a normal kid, the only difference was the cardboard sign she wore around her neck with the words “I’m cosplaying as a background character,” or something like that. I took the picture quick and as soon as I finished, she ran toward her friends all excited that someone actually wanted to take her picture. Background characters aren’t used to getting the attention.

When I came home that evening, I was saddened to find many of my pictures from that day were out-of-focus, including hers. I brought my camera with me again the next day, only this time I attached it to my monopod and set it to auto-focus. But that background character was nowhere to be found, as though she’d faded back into the background where she belonged.

If I ever had a role on stage or screen, I’d probably be assigned to the background as well. After all, I watch more TV and movies than I care to admit. I know what a leading lady looks like and I’m just not leading lady material. A leading lady is slender and occasionally well-toned. Her skin is clear, she has high cheekbones, a delicate smile, and, when paired with the leading man, is physically smaller.

I don’t look like that and wouldn’t even if I figured out how to lose this cumbersome weight I carry with me. So the only role I’d be eligible for would be the background character, nothing more than living scenery, the backdrop for a more important scene written for a more important character.

At Comicon, cosplayers compete for the spotlight with their elaborate and clever costumes. If your cosplay happens to be the winning combination, you’ll hardly be able to walk two feet without someone running up to you with a camera and asking for a picture with you. That in itself is an unofficial competition: Who’s going to have the most demands for a photograph?

A step above the beautiful unknowns dressed in cosplay are the invited guests, the celebrities who’ve already gained fame and fortune on TV or film and now sit at a booth while hundreds, maybe thousands, of fans queue up for an autograph or photo that they already paid a small fortune for. Of course, the fans insist it’s worth the price. And who am I to argue? You should see them gleefully admiring their celebrity photos and autographs after all is said and done! Some of them will tell you how a certain actor, when in character, has changed their lives. I realize this is hero worship. They even call the room they’re in “The Hall of Heroes.” But why are we worshipping actors? I don’t understand.

I went to Comicon alone. I always go alone. Occasionally I’ll meet up with someone I know once I’m there, but that wasn’t the case this year and that’s fine. It’s a difficult place to hang out with people since it’s so easy to get lost in the crowd. Besides, when I’m taking pictures it’s really best if I’m alone. Photography tends to hold things up. Several times people paused when they saw my camera and waited until I was done so as not to interfere with the scene. Those were usually crowd scenes though and for me, it would’ve been best if people kept walking as though I weren’t there. But how do I convey that? They’re just trying to be polite. I’m trying to take a candid photo. People are much more honest when they don’t realize they’re being photographed.

The light rail was an excellent mode of transportation. I rode from the end of the line in Mesa to the convention center on Washington in Phoenix. It was a popular way to travel to the con since parking was free there and a regular all-day pass was just $4. Sometimes there’d be standing-room-only, but most of the time I could sit and chat with other comiconers. It made the commute go quicker as we exchanged Comicon stories and advice.

I must admit, my mood disorder did manifest itself a time or two, but I don’t think anyone noticed. I’m pretty good at catching those inconvenient tears nowadays, even if they do seem to be triggered by very minor things. I saw a few others with tears too, but they tended to come from folks much younger than me who weren’t wandering alone, so I didn’t need to reach out to them. I can’t justify tears at my age, though. I mean, unless someone just died, I pretty much have to run away and hope I make it to a place where I can be alone before anyone notices. A few deep breaths later and the tears will be gone, although the sadness tends to linger.

That’s when I analyze the situation. When was the last time I had something to eat? If it’s been a while, I grab lunch or something. Afterwards, if the feeling remains, I’ll have a notebook and pen with me so I’ll just find a place to sit where there’s air conditioning which, during Comicon, is most likely going to be on the floor against a wall somewhere. But that’s okay.

Most of the people I meet at Comicon are super friendly and sometimes introduce me to new fandoms. The artists impress me the most because I couldn’t draw to save my life. I have yet to comprehend anime or manga but I will say that those who are into it tend to love anything Japanese so if that’s the gateway drug to another culture, then I’m one-hundred percent for it. It’s also pretty amazing when cosplayers have a new take on an old character or are able to meld two characters into one cosplay. I still feel sorry for anyone wearing a fuzzy costume, though. The heat in Phoenix this weekend was killer, although, as far as I know, nobody actually died.

I especially loved the guest authors, at least the ones I either heard at a panel or met at the “drinks with writers” event. I’m pretty sure they answered all my questions and they were very gracious and humble in doing so.

I can’t wait to return next year.

Undeclared Writer

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I’m a horrible writer. Don’t even try and tell me otherwise because I know it’s true. I was great in third grade and above average in high school but throw me into a world of John Greens and Barbara Kingsolvers and I pretty much suck. Once more, I can’t bear it. If I can’t be a great writer then what’s the point of writing at all?

I’ve met many writers in my time. In my adolescence some of my friends were secret poets. They’d write in meter and rhyme but dared not share their deepest longings with the world. I tried to be a poet too. My poems were all meant to be songs so they had to rhyme. Sure, song lyrics don’t have to rhyme but try telling that to Tim Rice, Stephen Sondheim, or Lin-Manuel Miranda. I love musicals and everyone knows all the great librettos rhyme. I mean, what would Pirates of the Penzance be without Gilbert’s clever and precise mastery of rhyme?

In college I was much more likely to receive a higher grade if the final was based on a term paper as opposed to a more traditional exam. Even if I had to suffer through a traditional exam, my best scores were usually on the essay question.

It wasn’t until France, however, that writing truly became an obsession. I was lonely up there in my studio apartment and I longed to share my feelings with someone. But each day I’d come home alone to just my pen and paper, my only faithful companions.

Though I wrote some letters by hand, I must’ve written hundreds of emails to friends and family. The internet cafés made loads of money off me. Everything my voice couldn’t express in normal conversation took the form of writing. This was partially a reaction to my stubborn insistence to not (as much as possible) speak English in France. I just didn’t impose the same restraints on my writing. Maybe that’s why my written French suffers much more than my conversational French to this day….

It is therefore not surprising then that, following a good night’s rest, shower, and breakfast, my first request at the French psychiatric hospital was for pen and paper. When the nurses granted my wish, I sat and wrote an epistle to my brothers and sisters in Christ for I was sure the apocalypse was at hand. The nurses watched in bewilderment as I scribbled words in a language neither of them understood. I still have the letters I wrote to remind me of that bizarre interruption in my life. Many people with bipolar disorder struggle to remember their manic episodes, but I can never forget mine.

Diary-Fragments

Later, after I’d been forcibly medicated, my writings began to look more normal. I kept a diary and began to write a devotional, song lyrics, and a fictional story just to pass time. I had to because there were no books, magazines, games, group therapy, or anything else (with a few exceptions). Most people spent their days sitting in the waiting room, smoking cigarettes and staring at one another. I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke so I’d either stay in my room, hang out and sing in the adjacent waiting room, or request permission to write in the cafeteria where smoking was forbidden.

When I came back to the U.S. I continued to keep diaries. I also began to write a memoir and actually completed my first draft by the time I was twenty-five. The writing was terrible but it was still a part of me and I kept trying to write and rewrite that story for the next ten years or so. Last year I completed another draft but it’s still not good enough. Besides, how can I ever truly own that story? I didn’t create it; it just happened to me.

In between I’ve written essays. You can call them blog posts if you like but I’ve not really obeyed the rules for becoming a successful blogger. At this rate I’m lucky to have even one follower.

Never-Recovered

I’ve also written song lyrics and, occasionally, tried to attach melodies to them. Sometimes I fantasize about someone far more talented than me taking my imperfect and raw song material and turning into something amazing; giving my words a life beyond my wildest dreams.

Besides writing, I’ve taken photos and tinkered with them on Photoshop. I will sometimes make a digital collage and be thoroughly satisfied with it only to post it online and have it go completely unnoticed. The amateur videos I’ve created suffer much the same fate but those truly are rubbish. I deleted many of them last year and the remaining few are simply there for sentimental reasons.

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Some might say to me “don’t quit your day job” because that’s what we tell people who are too idealistic and aren’t well-anchored in reality. But that part of me was set adrift a long time ago. Now I watch self-help gurus online who tell me how to have vision and how to achieve goals. I read books with much the same sentiment and try and imagine my future.

What’s your story, Clara? What’s your vision? What’s your dream?

Well, this isn’t the definitive list but I suppose it’s a start:

I want to know I have value

I want to be a part of a community.

I want to collaborate with other creative people.

I want to turn my story into a story of hope.

I want to change the world.

 

 

 

 

Jubilation, Part 1

Dear Reader,

I’ve decided to take a break for the holidays.  I will be back with new posts on January 4th, 2016.  In the meantime, here are some collages I made to illustrate the meaning of “jubilation.”  The first 2 are made with old photos and the last two are made with photos I took this year. Let me know if you have any suggestions for new posts!  I have lots of ideas but I’m always open to new ones.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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An Imaginary Conversation

or “Une conversation imaginaire”

I’m lost.  I thought I had things figured out a little while ago but then something happened and now I feel like I have to start over – again.  I need a little advice and a bit of encouragement from someone I know, love, respect, and admire.  I need to talk with my best friend, but she lives far away and doesn’t seem to have time for me anymore.  Yet I know from experience that we can go for ages without a word and then, when we finally meet in person again, it’s like no time has passed at all.  We’re young and carefree again.  We act silly and perplex the people around us as we regress into our adolescence.  She is one of the most amazing people you will ever meet, but also very private.  So, I decided that since I couldn’t have a real conversation with her, I’d see what kind of help she’d offer in an imaginary conversation.  I’ll also conceal her identity so she can maintain her secret identity and continue being the superhero that she is.

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Me: So I’m trying to write a memoir or something and I’m stuck. I wrote my first draft. I gave you my first draft – and don’t worry, I don’t expect you to have had time to read it yet – I just hit a roadblock recently. A creative block maybe? Whatever. The point is, I’m not moving forward with anything and I need a little help.

IMG_1522Deirdre: [prompting me] Deirdre, how are you? How’s life? How’s your family?

Me: Sorry, I forgot. I’m not trying to be selfish and you know I listen to you when you need me to. Remember when we were going for a walk in Flagstaff after my last hospitalization up there and I repeated something back to you that you told me a few weeks before – a personal thing? You turned back to me in shock and said you didn’t think I listened to you. But I did and I still do. I always listen to you. I still think of you as my best friend even when we’re far apart.

So yes, of course. My bad. What’s up?

Deirdre: Life here is pretty good right now. [smiling] And don’t worry, I’ll let you be selfish this once, but just this once.

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Me: [sigh] Thanks so much! I’m so sorry. I’ll totally make it up to you. The next conversation – all about you. I promise.

Deirdre: Go on then.

Me: Okay. So when I wrote my memoir the first time – well, not the very first time but, you know, last spring – I was full of confidence. I thought my story was intriguing, compelling, and could potentially change lives. But now I think I may have gone in with the wrong motivations. I wouldn’t have admitted to it back then, but I think I actually did believe the memoir would pull me out of this rut I’m in and open doors to travel and speaking engagements and movie deals and so on. But now I realize I was wrong. I’ve done a lot of introspection since then, but if I give up on the memoir, what else is left for me? 

Deirdre: I’m sorry, Clara, but that’s a tough one. I’m not sure I’m qualified to give you the answers. I know you’ve tried many creative things since you’ve moved in with your parents but you haven’t made money off any of them. Have you even tried? I mean, even something as simple as entering a writing contest or submitting an essay or article to a local newspaper won’t garner much money, but at least it’s a start. Also, and don’t take this the wrong way, but you tend to stay fixated on the past. I don’t think it’s healthy for you. From what I see, the longer you linger in your old photographs and writings, the harder it is for you to push forward. You have so much potential! But it just seems to be wasting away.

Me: [wiping away a tear] Woe! Was that a tear? Weird. But yeah, I know I don’t show it by my actions but I totally see what you’re saying. And we’ve already talked about my work dilemma. It’s possible I can gain some help from the state mental health program. There’s also my parents. Dad said he’d pay for me to return to school, I just need to figure out what I’m going to study. And, to solve that problem, I need to kind of figure out what the end-game will be. So let’s be realistic. What am I capable of and what’s beyond my reach?

Deirdre: I still believe that almost anyone has the ability to achieve what they want to achieve in life. It just takes hard work and perseverance. Just look around. Remember the books I’ve given you over the years?

Me: Let me think – the one about writing by Anne Lamott, the Writer’s Notebook by someone else, the Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory to help me with my songwriting attempts, um, Coaching the Artist Within, and the Robert McKee one about screenwriting. Though I’ve probably missed something somewhere in there.

IMG_0127Deirdre: The point is, the tools you need to do what you want to do in life are within your reach. And you know that, even though we don’t talk much anymore, I’m still routing for you. The one thing you can’t do is just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. I spend my entire day working whether I feel like it or not. If you can’t do the same, you will never succeed. Plain and simple.

Me: I wish I had a boss. You know I’m not much of a self-starter. I’d never have run that marathon years ago had you not pushed me and encouraged me even when I whined and complained. How could you not have been annoyed with me? Never mind. I will figure this out. I’m so glad I talked with you. Have I told you lately how much I love your story? Because you’ve had your share of trials and tribulations too and you’ve emerged victorious! I know you can inspire others. You inspire me.

Finished