Heart Shapes

I have been being a snoop today. I like being a snoop, and am one of those people who is guilty of looking in peoples’ medicine cabinets and awkwardly moving around homes at parties gazing intently at curios and especially, photographs.

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“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Brené Brown

 

This is what I did today; in the somewhat vain attempt at unpacking, I found myself snooping in one of Cody’s boxes that is full of old photo albums. Two baby books filled with sweet notes from his mother and photos in that classic 1970s sienna tone. The photos are of a blonde baby who looks remarkably like two of his nephews, Paul and Dominic. There is also a scrapbook of his first three years, filled with more photos and birthday cards. Then there are a few more photo albums. Two are of old family photos that range from baby Cody to teenage Cody, photos of his parents and grandparents. His mom had brown hair then, blonde now, cut in that poofy 70s/80s style that I think all of our moms wore. There are photos of his father cradling him as a newborn, in the exact same way that he later cradled his own son when River was born in 2004. In those photos, you actually couldn’t tell but for the age of the photographs that the man in the frame is his father and not Cody, for when River was born, Cody cut his hair short and clean in the same style as his father’s when he was born. Little Cody peeks out of photos, holding fish on fishing lines, dressed up in terrible Halloween costumes, sitting next to his father and mother and grandmother, posing on the trunk of a very old, silver Honda Civic. His father so young, and Cody so small: the family resemblance between the two is so strong. They share brows and shoulders, height and lankiness. Later, Teenage Cody begins to look as he does now: very tall, thin, with long-lashed eyes. Those long lashes show up in one photo from when he must have been about two.

There are also photo albums from later life, from when he moved to Austin in 1998. Cody out with friends, on the road to Albuquerque and Amarillo, and photos of the highways in between. Photos of him in Amsterdam with an old girlfriend who looks very sweet and very 90s in her baggy pants and oversized t-shirts. There is a photo of Cody from when he was building his first tattoo shop, when he was 25, and he looks almost exactly as he does today: glasses, beard and mustache, t-shirt, jeans, tattoos from tip to tail.

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Living with someone versus dating them and spending nights at each other’s houses is so different: all the cards are out on the table. All of each other’s strange little behaviors are on full display for each other to eke out over time; learn to tolerate, appreciate, and love. Cody puts a paper towel under the french press every morning while he makes coffee and it makes me crazy because it makes no sense. He apologizes almost constantly, seemingly just for moving around. I keep telling him he doesn’t have to do that. I wonder what things he notices about me that bug him, but he appreciates because they are mine, all the same.

In a set of the photographs, I saw the houses he lived in a tpwn in rural Louisiana, when he was learning to tattoo. There are photos of his first tattoo on an orange. There are photos of his Uncle and Aunt’s house, surrounded by potted plants and 5 gallon buckets of soil. This photo shows me why he collects so many plants and 5-gallon buckets of soil. This behavior of his ties back to the past, gives him some sense of continuity of time, perhaps. There is a photo of him in front of the school bus he lived in during his time in Louisiana, dressed up in the same leather coat he wears when it is cold, in front of a cook-fire. Cody loves cooking on an open fire. There are photos of his grandparents camp house in Center, Texas: an old, white trailer with a deck in the front. There are photos of the back porch with his mom and dad and grandmother. Little did I know that by looking at those photos on a quiet, rainy day in July (thanks be for the rain!) that I would learn so much about the man who I thought I knew the most about: the man who has become my best friend and my companion in this life.

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A few years ago, during the time when I was at the beginning of my “nervy b”, as I like to call it, I culled through hundreds of photos, scanning some and throwing away the rest. I used to have two photo albums but I don’t know where they are anymore. In some ways, during that time, I chose, albeit with a frame of mind that had a distinct lack of clarity, to literally throw out much of my past evidence. Today, I realized the sadness in that is that not that the things are gone, and neither the memories, but the signposts are no longer. Perhaps we hold on to objects not just because they are precious but because they help us re-establish that continuity of time in our own lives. Perhaps if I still had those photographs, I could remember better the times in my young life when I was friends with a boy named Eric, son of my mom’s best friend Pat. We used to do things all the time, dress up, ride horses, be really silly. Eric now has schizophrenia and lives in Florida: I wonder if he remembers anything from that time, at all?

I got rid of almost everything I owned, sold it to strangers and left it on a street in Philadelphia to be combed over by neighbors from countries near and far. I used to have a bag of my great-grandmother’s hand-made lace. Where is it now? Not that it matters much, really. I suppose I am mulling over my own rejection of my continuity of time. At that moment, in the years between 2012-2014, I was so ashamed of myself and my decisions that I threw all evidence of it away. No wedding photos, and all evidence of Steve is gone except a box from China his father once gave to me. Even my wedding ring is gone, and I stuffed my wedding dress into a trash can on the back porch of that house in Philadelphia.

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Here I am, today, in 2016, going through boxes of my own and of Cody’s, as we piece together a new life in a funky house in Dripping Springs, Texas. I grew really sad during my perusal of photographs today, realizing that whatever I had that was like these objects before me, I had destroyed in mad, sad intention. It’s true that my parents have a treasure trove of photographs, so I need not really worry about that specifically, but it’s like I am looking back at these last few years and wondering about putting together the events in a chain that makes sense and represents my memories. I suppose that is what this writing project is all about: a memoir, the establishment of the story after many years have passed.

I love Cody for many reasons, but one of the main ones is his ability to recognize his own painful life events and hold on the positives. He has a very good sense of perspective and being present. He isn’t perfect, and neither am I. This morning I hung a bamboo shade of his on the window in the living room. It has a giant batik of butterflies on it, and it used to hang in the front window of his first tattoo shop on Burleson Road in south Austin. I remember staring at it during the hours of talking and tattooing that were the beginning of our long-standing friendship. And now it hangs in our house: the home we are building together, doing our best, muddling through, baring it all to each other, every day, and every night.

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.”
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

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7th Grade Girls

7th grade girls are sweet and funny oddballs who change so much in nine months it’s almost bewildering. This year I have heard all range of things, like:

“Ms Blythe. I was fine until _____ destroyed my life!”

“Ms Blythe, why do you know everything?” answered with, “Because she’s secretly a goddess who has lived for thousands of years.”

“Ms Blythe – do you like me?” I answer, “yes of course I like you!” Answer, “no you don’t.”

“Ms Blythe, Ms. _____ hates us.” I answer, “no, she doesn’t hate you.”

If 6th graders are bundles of raw emotion and sweet happiness, transitioning into teenagerdom, then 7th graders are bundles of raw emotion, anxiety, confusion, tears, and absolutism, albeit momentary.

I have taught 7th graders for most of the years that I have taught. I think, in fact, there has only been one year that I haven’t taught them. My friend Jackie coined 7th grade “The Crying Year” because most of them, at some point, will break down crying, sometimes for no reason. One of my favorite memories of The Crying Year was one day, several years ago, when we were listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bookends while drawing botanical drawings of pinecones. I looked up and noticed a child had buried himself in a fortress of binders. I went over to him, knelt down, and asked if he was ok, to which he replied, “this music makes me so emotional”, in his strange, monotone voice. Later I coaxed him out from underneath the fortress by changing the music.

We just ended our year, my first year of teaching 7th grade girls, as opposed to boys and girls together. I also taught 6th grade girls, but as I said above, they are still bundles of light and joy and excitement. They scamper everywhere. 7th grade girls can be sullen, funny, energetic, silly, disrespectful, lazy, and philosophically challenging. This year, one asked my coworker if she wanted to always be a teacher. She answered yes, and the student asked, “don’t you have any aspirations?”

It is an adventure working with middle schoolers, but in a single-gender environment it is almost as if the daily emotional toil is concentrated and ever-brimming at the surface, apt to boil over. The dramas are similar to the infighting of a small town; alliances shifting and changing daily, for very small and insignificant reasons. It is as if 7th grade girls exist on an emotional see-saw, perpetually tipping the balance in the direction of interpersonal dramas for a day or a week, and then reverting the see-saw to equilibrium once more.

I learned this year that this is the year in which kids stop talking to their parents and they seem to grow an almost adult concept of not wanting to burden their parents with their thoughts and fears. They seem to not want to add stress to their parents’ lives (a mark of their growing maturity) but also desperately need people to listen to the contents of their worried minds. Perhaps this is why we all glommed on to our junior high school friends so intensely, but I cannot tell you the amount of times I said this year to different students: let yourself be a child for a while longer, and tell your parents you love them and need them.

On Thursday, when we all said goodbye and ushered them into cars and buses, there were many, many tears and marker-signed shirts and yearbooks with “H.A.G.S.” written all over the inside pages (Have A Great Summer). I giggled at them and hugged them, telling them they are fine as they are coming back to the school in a couple of months, but it was to no avail: “Ms Blythe! I love you so much. I am going to miss you!”

I am going to miss them, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There Is A Field

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Rumi

 

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Kate Bush – This Woman’s Work

Doors open, and doors close. There is one door in my life that I seemingly have cared about over all others that occasionally peeks open, as if wedged outward upon its tight hinges and overly-secure lock. Light peeks out, love even, if only for a moment. And then, it inevitably closes, tightly, lips pursed, as if the opening never occurred. At this time in my life, it is the first time that I have felt that its closing is not my fault.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
Rumi

 

 

 

Be Honest

What a loaded phrase.

What a practice. Can we, any of us, be truly honest with ourselves and with others?

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” – Virginia Woolf

Lately, I have been trying this out: this idea of being myself. I now understand that who we are, or what is important to us, is shifting almost constantly and therefore, our expressions of such self will also shift and change. For most of my young life, I felt like I should portray myself in one way, and hide everything else. I think I learned this from my mother, and from growing up in an immigrant family where success means everything and feelings are swept under the rug, or into the corners of coat closets.

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I have some strange health problems, that probably started when I was sixteen. I inherited a strange genetic immunodeficiency disease, most likely from my father’s side, that is named gammaglobulinemia. It manifests in many ways, mostly in my predilection for infections and constant arthritic-like pain in my hands, wrists, and hips. During my senior year, I had to take a rest cure for almost six months, and spent my days watching movies and eating scrambled eggs, wondering what would happen. During that time, the illness expressed itself in its most intense form to date, but here and there, it pops up, as if to remind me of my own delicate nature. I forget, or shove away, my actual nature almost on a daily basis, as if putting forth a calm and strong and independent persona will chase away the inconsistencies, the weaknesses, the sadnesses, the things about myself that I am afraid of.

A few weeks ago, I chose to do something different. I chose to go to a good doctor and to talk to people about how I feel on a daily basis. It is a huge change for me: previous to this, only those closest to me knew about my feelings of being in my body. Very few people know that I experience chronic pain that limits the way my body moves and feels in space. I took a chance recently and spoke about it, and realized, just as a I realized last winter, when I shared my life story with close friends in Maine, that those who care about you don’t hate you when you express weakness, but rather, they see you as more human, more like them. Today I sat in the woodshop and talked about my friends with another friend and talked about how I have an autoimmune illness and that’s why I feel sensitive a lot and have been going to to doctor a lot since the fall. My friend sat there and asked me, “so…your bones hurt all the time?” And I explained it: how my wrists, hands and hips hurt constantly. He told me that it was strange that someone who works with her hands so much has so much pain, and I told him the truth, that activity is one of the only things that helps with it. He said, “well, I suppose you would have given up on it a long time ago if it was the other way around.” I smiled and said, “well, I wouldn’t have been able to give up on it.”

I supposed there are great risks in the opening of the heart. What happens if people lean into you too close and pierce it, sometimes not in an act of malicious vengeance but just peering too close-in? I spoke with a studio-mate the other day about divorce and its long-lasting implications, and about how I feel at peace with it all finally, as if it happened a long time ago, a time I can’t really fully identify with anymore. She told me that her divorce is still taking its toll, ten years later. So we agreed that all of us experience loss, grief, decisions and their implications, in different ways, and no way is wrong or right.

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I feel like being honest and opening my heart, perhaps for the first time, is a great form of risk-taking, but it conversely feels empowering and creates a sense of confidence that I don’t think I have felt before. It’s a feeling as if my old pair of LL Bean shearling boots are on my feet all the time and that my toes are safe and warm inside sheep-y softness. Of course, self-doubt remains. Questions are tossed in my mind that range from: will they like me? What is wrong with me? Why am I so odd?

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I suppose, here, at the age of 35, living in my beautiful little house in Austin, Texas, that I am finally identifying with my special-ness, something that I was afraid of because I grew up in such a way that taught me that expressing my nature was wrong. But now, in baby steps, I am seeing that, what other people have said to me for years, might be true. Maybe I am an okay person.

Two weeks ago, I was eating a goodbye breakfast at Magnolia with my friend Martha: she was moving to Houston in anticipation of moving to Washington, D.C. One day she will be an ambassador. Anyway, I ran into a friend who I hadn’t seen since I left Austin years ago. This friend and his wife and soon-to-be baby moved into my old house in Hyde Park after it worked out so that I could offer them that little place for the same rent that I had paid. They still live there, and he was very vocal at how thankful they are to have it. His daughter lives there, too. A tight fit in that small house with periwinkle kitchen walls and a veggie garden in the back.

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Stranger in a Strange Land

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In life come moments of clarity. This vision is only offered, not commanded. Your choice is to live in a state of grace or continue in normality. No blame. Fear can be an awesome obstacle when a time like this is presented. You will make great advancement and find your truth if you discharge fear and deconstruct your doubts. – the I Ching

The first tincture was of redwood and honey, I think, and the second was a spritz to the face that smelled like roasted poblano and brought me back to San Miguel de Allende’s dusty, windswept streets. In an instant it was changed to a murky, chocolate-flavored stuff that reminded me in some ways of coffee grounds. The last was a smear to the face of something golden from a large jug. This all happened during a story-circle for this month’s Pisces Full Moon: a circle of story-tellers and singers.

Moments of clarity and feelings of grounding have been hard to come by since my return to Austin; I feel like the place that I once called home is physically here, but everything is so different, including myself. Last night I saw old friends who didn’t even know I was back, and it made me realize that I haven’t truly been “living” here but continuing my attitude and behaviors of passing through, of being a drifter in one place or another. This is amplified now by still being separated from many of my belongings who still lie quietly in Maine, waiting for me to bring them here.

Last night’s theme was one of homecoming, and the first storyteller told a tale of being from Austin and just coming back after being a long time away in a very different place. Hers was the desert and mine was a northern island, but the feelings were the same. She said that a place becomes you, and I think she is right: I think I have even written here how I felt that life in Maine made you feel as if you were the environment that surrounded you: everything so interconnected, changeable, beautiful, mysteriously dark. Perhaps she felt the same away about her desert far away.

Homecoming is this idea full of levels of complication that start with the reality that you can never come home again: that home is different and so are its people. In my case, this city has transformed and swelled so that it seems like it is bursting at the seams, liable to just pour outward in a great torrent of people, cars, and buildings. This town, to me, always seemed a little sleepy and slow, not like Bar Harbor of course, but it was a nice feeling to feel at ease in a place all the time. And now the pace seems so fast that it seems likely to get swept up in it and carried along, without knowing which way you want to choose to go.

Is life so full of chapters? Apparently so.

Going Back

“You’ll have to excuse me: I’m drunk as a lord…” man on a couch in the studio hallway: 9 on a Wednesday night.

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It has been a long time since I have written any musings here, and my only excuse is a series of technological glitches and a lack of personal spaces. In Maine, I lived alone (with the exception of four months with roommates — that is another story for another day!) and also rented a studio at the Tool Barn: I spent most of my time on my own, in control of my spaces and what I did in them. With the exception of evenings with friends, I was very solitary. Since coming to Texas, I share my time, most of the time, with a very wonderful person who makes me laugh and I appreciate a lot. I live at my friend Jackie’s house, in a guest room, and about half of my stuff is still in Maine. I am separated from my trappings of life, for what they are, which now is very few, due to circumstance.

When I think about the fact that I have not slept in my bed, my comfy, lovely bed, in almost three months, or seen the embroidered portrait of the owls above that bed, or many of my little precious things around, I believe that this separateness led to the feelings of floatiness, of uncertainty at being “back” in the place that was my home until four years ago. It is a funny thing to feel your physical manifestations of self separated into three places. This must be what rich folks feel like, right?

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Twelfth Night

I think, also, that my absence from writing has been an expression of this feeling of not having a place. Turns out that returning to a place, no matter how long you had spent there in the past, is not the same as if you never left. In fact, it is entirely different: mostly in a good way. Mostly, there is the feeling of understanding how to get around while also appreciating each experience as unique and present and new. So although the newness is overwhelming, at least you know how to get to the grocery store.

It would seem as if I have landed on my feet, despite a rusted out old Subaru Forester and no room of one’s own. I somehow have landed a wonderful, part-time (almost full-time but not quite) teaching position creating a course connecting science-technology-engineering-art-&math, am helping renovate an old Spartan Imperial Mansion that belongs to some friends in which I get to live until something more permanent shows up, spending time learning and rediscovering being in relationship, staring at Texas skies and sunsets, and creating where and when I can. Here is where I am wistful (and complain) about the fact that I miss the studio at the Tool Barn: especially late nights or early mornings when I was there alone, puttering around on projects.

But, as life is, if one thing, a series of temporary moments, I know that pieces are falling and settling into place, after what seems like quite a while to wait! My name, of course, is putting me to the test something fierce right now: probably a good lesson. A studio will come, a room of my own, a place to settle in with myself. Until then, I find rooms and doorways and the shady spots under trees.

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Cinema Paradiso

In Moments

Last night, I was sitting on a small bed in the lamplight and I was brushing my teeth. It was midnight and I was staring at my lover sitting at the opposite end of the room, staring off into space. He seemed to be thinking deeply about something, occasionally shifting his head and nodding, sometimes stroking his beard with his right hand. Distractedly, I moved my gaze to the ceiling, to a wreath I had made yesterday out of mustang grape vines and spent poppy pods. Feeling something, I looked back, and noticed him looking at me and smiling.

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Sunset thunderstorm with rainbow…yes, it was actually this color

On Sunday, I took a walk with a small and young friend who is new to me, despite having known him since he was about three. We watched pond skimmers on the surface of a tannin-stained creek and then threw rocks of increasing size into it, creating cannonball-like effects upon its surface. We moved on after the largest one created waves so large they spread almost instantly across the creek bed. Later, we were walking along a country lane and came upon a large field with a tilled-up bed on its left. The earth was black and stood up in perfect rows and the rest of the landscape was that early spring green that is so electric it seems colored in with a pencil rather than created through chlorophyll and sunlight. As we stood there, my young friend said, “don’t you want to own a bunch of land someday and have half of it fenced off so all you could do is ride a horse all around it?”. I smiled and said yes.

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Ireland’s fuchsia bells interpreted in textured sterling silver

Last night, my jewelry teacher of ten years, Bob, walked up to me and hugged me so close and laughingly asked, “are you suffering some culture shock? Hmmmmmmmm?”

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Good morning poppy forest

Last week, my best friend and I walked through my old and her current neighborhood, gazing at fancy houses and drinking iced coffees on a late spring afternoon. She tricked me, you see, into a false sense of strolling, because all of a sudden, we turned down an alley and before us was a house with four wooden tall birdhouses and a field of poppies. Rather like somewhere in Europe, but actually in Austin, Texas, the poppy flowers were suspended on their stalks and in the air at the same time, moving lightly and liltingly in the breeze. Someone else was on the other side of the field: we watched each other til we realized he was taking photos, so we moved out of his way.

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Sunlight at the Barton Creek Greenbelt

When we were driving back from Houston via Route 71, meandering toward Bastrop on rainy but sunny Saturday afternoon, two weeks ago?, on the right side there was a large field populated by beautiful black cows. The cows were that perfect, deep, midnight black that seems to pull all light into it. Some were standing, some walking, some laying down with babies beside them. The field, normally green and grassy, was overwhelmed with thousands, millions maybe, of pink buttercups, a wildflower that some call primroses but children of Houston seem to know them as buttercups, from the years of balancing them on our noses and holding them up to reflect their bright yellow pollen color onto our necks. The field was filled from highway to horizon with nothing but pink flowers and black cows. In the background was a bright blue sky, dotted ever so perfectly with white clouds.

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Maidenhair ferns on limestone

The other night, I drove home through a huge thunderstorm, in which my car was buffeted around by winds that reminded me of blizzard wind. Across the sky in front of me stretched a flash of white lightning on black sky so large it seemed to span miles.

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Look up!

On Monday I sat on a cool concrete patio of an old hotel-house with one of my best friends: someone I hadn’t seen for three and a half years. We drank Arnold Palmers and beers and went for a walk and looked at photos and laughed and confirmed our mutual doubts that we really don’t know anything.

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Top secret phone-call-making spot behind an ol’ oak tree

Being back in Texas is beautiful and overwhelming and friendly and strange all at the same time. Last night I skipped through the halls of an antique shop and spoke in silly Russian accents with another old friend…”you are soooooo prettttyyyyyyyy” we said. “No, you are sooooo prettyyyyyyy….your mama, she did goooood.”

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Branching