Can You Love Her Too?

A few months ago, a string of events and circumstances left me broken, in one of the lowest points I can remember. When telling stories about ourselves, our minds will locate us in time and space. As we search for meaning, we identify that day when everything turned around, or the moment it all began to fall apart. For me, that was the day of the Women’s March, the same day that my grandmother died, January 21, 2017. Though she was 90-years-old and her death was expected and natural, the emotions, the sense of loss, the power of death swept over me. It was profound and emotional and I don’t think it’s arbitrary that this was the exact day I remember things started slipping.

berlinwomensmarch

Living abroad and losing a family member throws everything into question. You are back in bed with your own guilt and shame about leaving, reawakening family secrets that drove you away in the first place, as well as the reality, that there will be more losses, and especially that loss of time, that grinds on, as true, as the lines that crease our skin. Death has that power to invoke our own mortality while at the same time, spurring questions about how our lives have been lived, how they will continue to be lived, until they are not.

All of these questions about life and choices and the heaviness surrounding my grandmother’s death compelled to go home for the funeral, on a last minute international flight, at the very least, so that I didn’t have to live in more regret, or the question of whether I had made a mistake, made a wrong turn, or missed something important.

In a cab headed to Tegel Airport I felt something clench my chest, like a hand had reached in and squeezed. I thought it was anxiety about leaving my daughter for the first time, on another continent, while I flew back to the U.S. An hour later I started to feel uneasy and overwhelmed. I couldn’t sort through my physical feelings from the emotional ones and somewhere over the Atlantic, I fell into a fever, cold sweats, and nausea. By the time I landed at O’Hare I could barely stand straight. I drove holding a bag next to my face the whole way from Chicago in case I threw up in my Dad’s pick-up. I spent the next three days unable to get out of bed, missed the funeral, and was diagnosed with pneumonia and bronchitis.

Also, it was my birthday.

In the weeks to come, my daughter would need an MRI to rule out a brain tumor after she had some troubling exams on her eyes. While getting said MRI she would catch a super virus in the hospital leaving her hooked up to an IV and unable to eat, drink, or sit up on her own for six days.  I had mustered some adrenaline to get through the hospital stay, yet, my own health plummeted again, and I came out of the hospital with two more rounds of stomach flu, two sinus infections, and had been on three more rounds of antibiotics since I returned from the U.S.

hospital room
A photo I took as winter shifted to spring, from the hospital window, the plastic bird decal, a reminder we were on the inside.

This series of events were emotionally, spiritually, and physically draining in that way where you don’t know how to keep turning over the days. I kept thinking back, “When did this all start? Why is this happening?” and more pressing, “When is it going to end?” I was having trouble getting back into work, integrating my own health problems with caring for my daughter, trying to handle my job, working on my own recovery and also just trying to stay mentally stable enough to face each day. I didn’t want traditional counseling or psychotherapy, but I knew I needed support and someone to talk to about what was going on with me.

I began working with a wellness coach, referred to me by a mutual friend. We had bi-weekly sessions and explored my varied issues—family life, career, addiction recovery, emotional stability, depression, parenting, health and fitness, and even my artistic endeavors. I loved our sessions and found them such a comfort during some dark days where I felt completely hopeless. Because of my physical health problems, I had sunk into a depression, some days very uncertain about how things were ever going to get better. One day I hit a real wall. I was crying in the bathroom at work. On the way to yet another doctor’s appointment, I was sobbing so hard that a woman handed me a pack of Kleenex before she stepped out of the train.

Later that day while going through my list of “things wrong with me and my life,” I told my wellness coach, “And on top of everything… I just got the worst haircut.”

It was true, by no fault of my beloved stylist, but I wasn’t ready for the short bangs or the angled lob that was about four inches shorter than I imagined. It seems vain and superficial, but there is nothing like a bad haircut that can really throw you into self-doubt, wondering, who are you really?

A short hair history: When I was six years old I got a really bad boy haircut in kindergarten to please my mother who was sick of my perennial hair veil. I was already socially anxious, but for years, I truly believed that it was this single bad haircut that left me feeling like I didn’t belong, like there was something wrong with me. But, hair had always represented something bigger to me. It was about making a decision about who we are to the world, it was about crafting and creating a version to be loved. And for me, there was so much pressure on being a certain way and I lived in fear that with one wrong move, one erroneous scissor slip, I wouldn’t be loveable at all.

So, yeah, it was just a bad haircut, but it felt like the death knell on the last shred of mental health I was holding on to.

When doing any kind of self-improvement, it’s easy to focus on our best self. Who will we become if we get to tweak this or that? I had always believed that there was a best version of myself and spent most of my twenties and early thirties trying to figure out how to get to her, this imagined version of myself, this perfected version, like a sculpture, the ever-unfinished masterpiece.

sculpture

I knew exactly who she was. I could see her so clearly that she never seemed too out of reach. She always looks impeccable with rowdy, full hair. Somehow her legs always appear slightly longer in photos. She has my body type, but with a few inches shaved off here and there. She wears glitter for no reason and dances shamelessly in public (even when sober). She is known for her hilarity and wit, and can even banter in German. She is a good cook (even likes it) and a devoted wife and mom, who never tires. She can wear a pressed, white shirt without staining it before noon. She performs her many roles with vigor, while always reflecting a perfect inner calm, a nearly meditative state. She is whimsical, independent and free-spirited, never afraid of taking a risk. She is smart with money, but also a generous gift-giver who never misses the mark. She is comfortably extroverted while also quietly intellectual. She is brave and never worries about the consequences. And, her consequences are never regrets, but well-processed learning lessons.

So, that’s her, the, unrealistically developed and unattainable me. And there were so many ways of working on her. I thought about how much time I had spent wanting to love this person- this best version of myself, how many hours of the day I had spent strategizing, trying to figure out what I would still need to do to become her. There were degrees and resume boosters, new career paths, and experiences, travel and other forms of cachet. There were countless beauty products and treatments, investments in heels and platforms, eyelash and hair extensions. There were artistic performances, publications, and expressions, there were workouts and wellness routines, and parenting books, and cooking classes, and even if I got close, she was always fleeting.

Because, this version of myself was never real. In fact, I never realized that I even had this fantasy of myself until my wellness coach wrote to me that day after my bad haircut breakdown: “I wonder now, just what you think of yourself when you are in the depth of depression? Are you able to sit with yourself in these low places and just BE with her. The non-high energy, non-vibrant, sick Kate. Can you love her too?”

“Her? Who is her?” I thought, as though she was writing about someone I had never met.

Breathless for a moment, something clicked. Her.

I burst into tears on the train (again, always a good place to cry), realizing how I had compartmentalized these versions of myself, that I even withheld self-love, making it conditional upon performance, giving myself some unattainable standard, my constant discourse being, “Of course I can love myself, when I am perfect, when I finish this project, when everything about me looks right, and my life works out exactly the way it should, and I have this accomplishment or that fix…” For the first time, I realized that I had never loved myself as I was.

I was always waiting for someone better to show up.

And for the first time I asked myself, “Can you love her too?” And then I thought about the real her.

Can you love her… who was so terrified in the hospital that she closed her eyes instead of watching the doctors inserting an IV while her daughter screamed? Can you love her on those days, when completely isolated, desperately alone in a foreign country? Can you love, her, when she is sick and depressed, and even, when she wonders, if she will ever be okay. Can you love her when she is full of loss and regret and fear?

Can you love her?

It’s easy to love the highest versions of ourselves… but can we love the lowest ones too?  I had ignored this weaker, suffering version of myself, because I did not want to see her, I didn’t want it to be possible, that she was just as real, just as alive. Somehow I hadn’t seen, that these imperfections, had always made me stronger, they made me who I was. They taught me what I was capable of, because you can’t hide your weakness, without hiding your strength too. Because of course there would be missteps, and falling short, and always days, I would be a lesser version. Of course I was her.

How could I have missed this blatant fact, that I was human?

Loving only one version of ourselves is denying who we are. It is depriving us of the capacity to love where we have been, where we are going. Denying our darkest nights is the same as forgetting our brightest days.

Now I know, it is not my best self that needs love, it is the other one.

The one who suffers? Love her.
Ashamed, guilty, full of regret? Love her.
Sick, worn down, weary? Love her.
Scared? Love her.
Gained ten pounds? Love her.
Depressed or anxious? Love her.
Exhausted? Love her.
Selfish, wanting, hopeless? Love her too.
Impatient, cruel or unkind? Forgive her, love her, love her, love her.  Even more…

Art Brain

Last week, a lawyer told me that the mayor of Berlin has declared it an artistic hub, and that immigration authorities should treat artistic visa applications kindly. The city is drawing artists from all over the world for its financial support of the arts, affordability, and the broad and varied arts scene. It is not surprising and the artistic qualities of Berlin manifest in its street life, history, and even in the everyday. I met a street artist the other day who sold me a few of his pieces and though he was not rich, he offered hope that there has been a city-wide personal and systematic investment.

Like New York and most international cities, in Berlin, you will always find the street musicians and performers, the painters who decorate the sidewalk, and the unexpected intersection variety show. There is also a kind of underground scene, even the graffiti or more fittingly titled “street art” that the authorities do not wipe clean. It’s refreshing and democratic and the artistic voices dominate the buildings and walls more than billboards.

The first time I met a real *artist*, I was in love. Though he was a highly trained and talented guitar player and song writer, it wasn’t his music that inspired me: it was his freedom in life and dedication to living passionately. He may have been the first person I ever met who fearlessly and abjectly denied a four-year degree to write songs.

There was his ability, and then there was his life. He picked me flowers off the street sidewalks and tucked them behind my ear. He drank beer with the homeless who slept along our block. He stayed up late playing piano and belting folk and blues like Tom Waits. He only paid in cash which he kept in a sock in his closet. His socks always had holes and he smelled like cigarettes and leather.

The summer I was studying for the bar, he brought me to a hidden lake in the backwoods at midnight to go swimming. A sign posted said the park was closed and I had heard of cops ticketing those who broke the rules. The water was calm, lit only by the veneer of moonlight, and I said to him, “I can’t.” I was afraid of getting a ticket at the same time my bar application was being processed by the Supreme Court.

Looking back, there were many things I feared unnecessarily.

To be fair, I had just picked him up in jail the week before after he was arrested in the same spot when he tried to fight a police officer. Young girls love anarchists, apparently. Every time we went to the grocery store, he would get caught with fistfuls from the bulk candy buckets. They would kick us out and he would laugh maniacally, throw his head back and ditch the remaining candy in his mouth before we ran out and jumped back on our bikes.

Art (and anarchy) were in his blood and I have always remembered and cherished this about him. In many ways, he changed my life, allowing me to forget about rules and expectations and allowed me to see myself without degrees or licenses or jobs and money. Who we are, is really, more tangible, more alive, when we let go, stripped down, even if it means illegal skinny dipping at midnight.

Though the musician was definitively prolific, the second “artist” I met in my life is anything but. She is eccentric, creative, brilliant, but cannot seem to finish anything. Her artistry, is not in an form or end, but in a kind of freedom: reckless and larger than life. The woman is connected to something that transcends the material world. She makes children light up. She is bright, weightless, and free. Despite her fraught aimlessness, she continues to be one of the most inspiring people I have met. She wears big hats and her car is a trunk full of clothes.  This is how I remember her, as she was always drifting between L.A. and New York, depending on the weather.

One year on her birthday, she shamelessly appeared at the restaurant in a short, yellow, layered, busty, satin $600 Betsey Johnson dress, fishnet stockings and 6-inch leopard print heels. Fabulously obnoxious, she also carried a dozen yellow roses to match. After dinner we went to a club called “Happy Endings,” an old Chinese (ahem) massage parlor near Chinatown. When the dancing slowed and the crowd trickled out into the night, I remember the trail of petals out of the club and onto the dirty Lower East Side streets, the way the roses fell behind her, tracing a path as she jumped on the back of a motorcycle and tore off down Delancey.

It is still one of my favorite memories of her, and of New York.

My friend Auley here in Berlin works a 9-to-5, but wants to leave his office work to be musician. He is classically trained though never considered himself an “artist.” He hesitates when I use the word to describe him. I think this is why he has been reluctant to pursue his vision, even though his passion has been clearly articulated (at least to me). He is also a professional dancer, guitar player, and genuinely committed to all art forms, but more importantly, a creative life.

I said to him, “But, you are an artist, so you will always have to create no matter what you are doing.” This got us to talking about what it means to be an “artist” and at what point the term applies to you or your life. I am also in the throes of writing an application for an artist visa, so it seemed particularly fitting to examine the question. As I explained to him one day, I always envisioned the arts very broadly and for my purposes consider artists both as producers of art but more importantly, having a vision, and living with creative purpose.

Still, there is a fear in letting go and in using the “A” word (I have found it difficult myself). I think for some, the question has to do with income—are you supported by your art or are you just creating alone? Born into capitalism, we are in many ways, defined by what we are paid to do. This can make any artistically motivated person strapped by an identity crisis the same reason writers become professors, publishers or critics, and painters become therapists or teachers. We are desperate to define ourselves, even at the cost of our passions.

I think the most important part of being a creative person, or an artist, is letting go, of fear, of expectation and of self. It occurred to me that I could not encourage Auley to let go of artistic fears, without also letting go of my own. Artistic progression demands risk and there are always parts of the self that we are unwilling or reluctant to share or express. We had a brief conversation about the difference between the image projected by artwork versus truth: reality versus desire in interpretation.

Still, artistic work must be vulnerable.

I decided it was high-time to release some (amateur, raw) recordings I have kept hidden, but for a few friends. While sitting at a bar in Kreuzberg, contemplating this blog, I sat next to an American who works for Sound Cloud in Berlin. Encouragingly, he quickly set up my account and helped me with the coding. I thought it fortuitous, and a sign.

You can find these recordings here.

I am adding some anecdotal history, because in the end, I am still a writer with a need to explain everything. Here are some raw, very simple recordings and a few stories to put them in context.

Big River (2009). This is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs I covered a few years ago when I first landed in New York. I always liked the very stark tonal change that shifts when a woman sings a man’s song, or vice versa. More importantly, this song reminded me of  the pain of women lost and of a woman who still chooses the wandering river over a man.

Who Will it Be (2009). I wrote this song for a lover, who threw down the gauntlet, in an age-old struggle over impassioned, but ultimately unrequited love. Most of the lyrics were inspired by one line he said over pillow talk: “You were built for unconditional love.” I could only take his words as an insult, for he saw me as a source of love, but not an object worthy of his own ‘unconditional’ affections. It occurred to me then, though, that it was better to be built this way, to risk love, than never to give love at all. I lost him to his own inability to love (I believed), though in the back of my mind I was always haunted by the idea that someone else would change him or give him the inspiration to love back. I obsessed over her, who she was, how she would captivate him or make him love, in a way that I hadn’t or ever could.

Winter’s Come and Gone (2008). This is the first song I ever recorded(a Gillian Welch cover)  in my bathroom in Minnesota as you can tell from the weak vocals and repetition. I loved my apartment in the attic; this room that felt like a tree house. There were raccoons in the trees, bats in rafters and always birds on the windowsill. I liked the idea of winter and the mood of seasons expressed in the organic shifts; the ability to take signs from nature; the tender range of human experience simplified in the color of a feather.

Lighthouse Keeper (2010). I love this song, which was first sent to me, converted from a rare 45 by my (ex) fiance before we left New York. At the time, we were in love and the song represented to me the secret desire to find respite in the storm. I liked the idea of a lighthouse keeper (a symbol of the soul), but also, dreaming of dedication to one that is aware, a true protector with a hyper-sensory connection and a keen sense of the world and the exploratory vision that isthe sea.

Last weekend, Auley and I took a road trip to Prague and stayed in an old dance studio away from the tourist hub, with large skylights and bouncing naked acoustics, where we had two guitars and created a kind of freedom of space to explore what I have dubbed, “art brain.”

We carved out these days to embrace our detachment in dance, music, lyrical experimentation in a way that gives way to the creative. Letting go, we spent the weekend, exploring the back streets of Prague, sitting and scribbling at cafes, then returning to the studio to sing and dance and work on some new music—we are both affixed to folk given the one voice-guitar duo, though (fearlessly) pushing some boundaries towards the electronic.

Freedom comes first: a freedom of mind, freedom from fear and freedom from “self.”

We let go…and then…we make art.

Same Same

World travel, backpacking culture, and tourism, in general, breeds a certain type. Take the guy sharing a sleeper on my train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. He is wearing Thai pants and has matted blonde hair, grown stringy past his shoulders. His eyes are kind, but shifty, casual, as if to say, “I’ve done this before, and I might be slight and vegetarian, but don’t mess with me.”

He carries books about world religions and talks about cultural difference, name-dropping cities, countries and world wonders he has seen, as though he has assimilated into each landscape and frame effortlessly. He even has tattoos written in different languages written up and down his arms. His dirty feet are halfway up the ladder to the sleeper when he makes it known to me that the swastikas painted on his blanket are a common symbol in Hindu art meaning “good fortune and luck” not having anything to do with the Nazis. Incidentally, I had this knowledge previously, but thanked him for the clarification, as though I had been examining his blanket in the first place.

The world citizen must blend in, anywhere he goes. And he makes his efforts known, not unlike a host of travelers I have met along the way. Casual references are made:

“Oh have you been to…?”

“…. is just amazing, you must go there if you are going through…”

“If you stop in…, don’t forget to…”

His gestures are calm, as if he just spent 10 years on a yoga retreat. Nothing can phase him, because, as he so fervently implies, he has seen it all.

I don’t mind the helpful travel hints, but I sense a constant justification, as if the experience alone should lend itself to some kind of accomplishment and self-worth; that braving the East gives purpose and entitlement to experience, not only in the world at large, but the lives we live at home.

There is a group of Westerners on a yoga retreat where I am staying in Chiang Mai who meet routinely at 7:00, 12:00, and 6:00 (their unbending meal hours). On several (accidental) occasions, I have endured conversations from a nearby table where they discuss the importance of Eastern medicine, detox, bodily cleansing, and massage. There is one American woman from Portland who talks louder than the rest and says things like, “I know not everyone is a vegetarian, so I cannot order for the table, I mean, I am not that controlling. Just because I care about my body doesn’t mean I can tell other people what to put into theirs.”

(Across the table, eyes roll)

In another conversation she mentions this anecdote: “My friend suggested that I read a book about entitlement. She said I had this attitude of ‘entitlement.’ I didn’t want to read it, but I like to evolve, so I did. I guess she was right. I think maybe I do travel with a sense of entitlement.”

My favorite line: “I like to evolve.” We come from all over the world, but everyone leaves wearing beaded bracelets and Thai pants. This must be her definition of evolution: trading in Versace for market pants she probably bartered down from 5 dollars. Bragging about how little we can live on a day, as if choice makes the whole thing fun.

I can’t deny, we are all tourists, and I am not immune. There is something sad about the emptiness of it all. I wonder, can we ever really connect through travel? I was walking through Bangkok in a highly populated tourist area, and everyone was sort of floating along blindly. Maybe the Westerners were mesmerized, but they seemed bored with their own attempts at the exotic, bored with their purchases, bored with escape.

Two girls sat and had their hair braided by Thai women, their eyes unfocused, staring into the market, their dirty sandals kicked off, their posture, deadened, like unused puppets. They were resting, feeling self-satisfied, paying pennies for what would turn out to be at least an hour’s work. They seem disinterested, as if they are somewhere distant, glazed over, probably thinking about how to cleverly update their Facebook status. Even here, things do not change so much.

We cannot help being Westerners in the East, but I question the form of tourism that so cheaply and carelessly rips off cultures and habits, making the experience as disposable as the unused coins we find at the bottom of our backpacks. I understand the, “When in Rome…,” concept, but really, this appropriation of minority Eastern cultures by the West seems to have gone awry, especially when none of us will ever really know what it is like to live on 8000 baht a month. Most of us travel on European, American, or Canadian passports, another advantage, which we cannot deny or trade, even with a smile.

That is the privilege isn’t it? The passport that brings knowledge, and the knowledge that comes from “experiencing” cultures and people like studying caged animals at the zoo, without stopping to think, they never can or will have the money or freedom to “study” us. I laugh at the Fodder’s headings in the travel books, “Meet Your Minorities!” and tour offers to “Eat With the Locals!” It is not that the locals don’t want to sell these commodities or that they don’t want you there, it’s that they don’t give a shit. And the “exchange” has nothing to do with culture.

On my last night in Chiang Mai, I wanted a picture with the hotel waiter, Sum Chai, a man we had grown close to over the course of three weeks. Though he didn’t speak much English, we learned his name, traded whiskey and cigarettes and learned about his family. We always asked him to sit down at our table, but he graciously bowed and always brought back the change that we intended for his tip. He finally began to understand when we shout, “We LOVE YOU Sum Chai!” He would laugh and shake his head, turning away, bashfully.

I have spent more time with this man than my own family in the past six months and I will probably always remember him, so I didn’t think it inappropriate to ask for his picture. I stand next to him, posing in a clichéd arm-around-the-shoulder-because-we’re-so-close-way, looking awkwardly large next to his feeble frame. The flash goes off. He stands still for a second, and then runs to the other side of the camera lens quickly, wanting to see the results in the window. When I look at the photo later, his posture is stiff, his eyes look empty and cold. He is not smiling. I feel bad, like maybe I scared him.

Later I showed the picture to a friend who has been living in Thailand for 5 years. His only response was: “Well, what was he supposed to do? How many pictures do you think he has had taken? Do you think he even owns a camera? Do you think he has a bunch of photos lying around the house of him posing with his own family?”

I instantly feel silly, withdrawn, and a bit naïve for trying to capture this brief encounter in a way, I now see as presumptuous and possibly insensitive. Similarly, I am sickened, while I watch the others from the boat to Laos, hover and snap digital photos of a woman and her children as they are begging for food: moments to remember, and then tuck into the files of our desktops we will label, “Thailand” or “Laos, January 2011.”

I was sitting with a kid from Burma while at a bar in Northern Thailand and he told me about being a refugee. He had seen his own parents slaughtered, then, he and his sister escaped, following the mass exodus, running until they reached a refugee camp. After living years on the border of Thailand, he was finally able to gain refugee status and immigrate to the United States. Now he is in college in Tucson and lives less than two blocks from my old apartment near the U of A. We laugh at the coincidence, though I am still shaken by the warfare story, one that he revealed so casually and seemed so far off from anything close to my own quaint, suburban childhood.

It was New Year’s Eve and he was in Thailand to visit and find some old family and friends. We both sat at the same bar and shared a large bottle of Chang. After the count down, and the clock struck midnight, we all raised our glasses and cheered.

In Thainglish (Thai-English) there is a ubiquitous expression “same same, but different” which basically translates into, “same thing, but different in some ways.” You will often hear this shortened into, “same same.”

As the minutes pass, the laughter dies down, with blurry vision, I watch this boy, who through his smiles, has seen so much. I think about “same same.” I think about “same same, but different.” Even though we are both in Thailand, at this moment, at this table, same 2011 new year, same hotel patio bar, it is still clear to me, in muted words and passing eyes, there is a difference: I am merely a tourist, and he, is trying to come home.