Normal posts will resume tomorrow, including a my-gift-to-you book discount and more Mandalas for Marinke. But I’ve spent the past couple days, and especially this morning, thinking about my birthday, about where I am and where I want to be and especially where I come from.
36 years ago, I was born, to parents who were almost a decade younger then than I am today. The bits and pieces of themselves that made me didn’t stop flowing with my inception … they have continued to influence and help create me to this day. And I am forever grateful for all of the things that they have given me. When I think about what they have given me, my mind passes through countless experiences, across myriad traits, over many months and miles, and what I land on is the rarely-wavering core belief I hold that I am allowed to be anyone I want to be, create anything that I want to create and give voice to whatever inside me must be said.
Both of my parents are readers. Although I don’t remember the many times she read the same books to me over and over again as a baby, I do remember the magical days when I was a bit older and Mom read every Nancy Drew book to me. Of course, I could read myself by then … I started reading when I was just a couple of years old, and I’m sure I sometimes read passages of those books aloud to her … but mostly I remember her reading to me, sometimes in my bed until I fell asleep and sometimes at Village Inn where we ate pie and coffee in the middle of the night. I don’t remember Dad reading to me as much as I remember him just telling stories, and I’m certain that my love of narrative derives from the many hours of storytelling his voiced bathed me in. Each of them reads widely, across many topics and genres; and to this day I am endlessly inspired when each of them picks up the thread of an interest and follows it through numerous books to weave together a solid understanding of a sometimes-obscure topic. In recent years Dad has immersed himself in books about 1920s flapper women and the men of the boxing era. Mention any topic to Mom, and she will inevitably reply, “I have a book on that”.
I start here, with this love of reading that they instilled in me, because reading has opened the world up to me since I was a tiny child. Reading has accompanied me through most experiences of my life, teaching me things or illuminating my own ideas. Although it has occasionally been to my detriment (I’d sometimes rather read about people than talk to them), it has mostly been the conduit through which energy has flowed both into me and out through me.
But this is not the only creative force that my parents gave to me. Looking back across the photos in all of my albums, I remember so many whimsical, magical, intriguing, fascinating, wonder-filled moments, experiences and times. Most of these were couched inside of the mundane, because we are working class people who live in the “real world” and attended classes and went to jobs and fought about details and had to make our creativity thrive within the limiting constructs of every day life. I remember making up songs and dances with my siblings, writing stories, drawing fashions, creating collages, crafting friendship bracelets, decorating mail art, making zines, curating scrapbooks …
When I was 19, I dated a boy (because really, at 19, you’re still more of a boy than a man), who made big mistakes that landed him in prison for three years. And although his mistakes weren’t good, the punishment didn’t fit the crime. I was angry, and I was dealing with undiagnosed depression of my own, and what I did to handle this all was to take an interest in prison activism as some sort of means to try to understand my world. I read countless books about problems in prisons. I began writing letters to prisoners all around the country, launching a zine called Create Me Free that featured their writing and art, and eventually trying to turn this zine into a non-profit, which failed for a number of reasons not the least of which was that I was 19. My mom bought me the very expensive double-sided photo copier that I used to print off those zines and helped pay for the postage they required. Later, when I wound down the project by transitioning all of the prisoners to a “mentoring by mail” program, my father accepted a pen pal and continued to write to the imprisoned woman for many years. They let me do my own thing and they supported that thing in the ways that they could, which is characteristic of how I was raised from Day One until today.
(with mom’s parents)
But what I think is even more important than their support of my creative output is that they showed me how to love creative input, meaning that they offered me endless opportunities to find inspiration in all sorts of different places. From books, yes, but also from all other forms of entertainment. My mom took me to events ranging from free local contortionist shows at the park to costly Cirque du Soleil touring performances, from events at the library to Broadway musicals on the stage. My dad gave me hammer and nails, played the guitar and the banjo and the dulcimer, singing me the funniest songs when I was little. He took me to concerts, auctions and countless kitchen tables where the conversations often bored me until years later when I realized how many weird characters had surrounded me. I was encouraged to try all different sorts of things.
(with dad’s mom)
From my mom, I learned to try new restaurants and cuisines and recipes, something I enjoy to this day because if you have to eat three times a day then you might as well make something interesting of it. I learned to be crafty – she was the one that taught me to crochet among other things – and I learned that things saved for a rainy day eventually usually have a use, even if it’s just an artistic one. I learned that you have to work hard enough to put food on the table and you can still get creative about that food and where it comes from, how you prepare it and who you eat it with. I learned to love animals, to explore museums and to follow what captures my eye. One of the most amazing things about my mom is that she has this unique ability to show us “kids” that she loves us endlessly, that we are both her first and last priority in life, and yet she has never made me feel that I have to do anything in a way that she sees fit. She has sent me out into the world to make my way, never insinuating that I should be with her or be doing it differently, and yet I have no doubt that she is thrilled every time we talk or visit. My mom has done many things over the years but most recently she has started creating and showing art work at a local women’s gallery.
Mom’s most recent art sculpture (Crochet Callie)
From my dad, I learned that you’re never too sick to find the humor in a situation, never too tired to at least dream wildly and never too old to try new things or transform your way of thinking. I learned that you can love unique words and verbose language while still appreciating simple statements and micro-stories. I learned that television characters can teach you the most important things in life, but that there are more interesting things to do than sit in front of the screen. He taught me the paradox of doing things intently and with an eye towards perfection while never taking yourself or the world around you too seriously. He taught me that publishing isn’t the important part of writing. My dad has done many things over the years but most recently has developed a passion for crafting one-of-a-kind handmade pipes and sharing them locally but also learning Instagram (@sassafrasjoe) and sharing them there.
Some of dad’s handmade wooden pipes
From both of them, what I have inherited is the ability to find inspiration in all places. Sometimes I forget this, and I get bored by life, and I get mired in my own head, but when I remember it, it’s a magical thing. I learned that creativity and things that capture the imagination don’t live inside certain walls or bodies or income levels. I learned that tasty food can come from donut shops or trendy new restaurants, art that stirs the heart can be found in junk stores or galleries, stories that shatter preconceptions can come from books in bargain bins in used bookstores or on bestseller lists, music that brings you to tears can be played in coffee shops or concert halls, and life-changing conversations can happen in jails or jets. I learned that there is no distinction between low-brow and high-brow when it comes to what you can find to make your heart beat with excitement.
It was just me and my parents until I was 4, then my brother came along, and then a sister a couple years later. Those two siblings are my very best friends today.
Today, I may be captured by a headline on a tabloid or a “serious” magazine. I may watch reality TV, socio-political documentaries, blockbuster movies or indie art films. I may listen to emerging indie songwriters or hit songs from the 80s. This week happens to have included attending an Amy Goodman lecture, reading Season of the Witch, and walking through Golden Gate Park as well as plans in the next few days to see Dita Von Teese burlesque and at least one movie at the Green Film Festival. I recently went to Sweden and my two favorite things were the amazing snow sculptures inside of the IceHotel room that we paid a fortune to stay in for one night and the few hours we spent watching Swedes badly sing American rock songs in a karaoke bar. The former is something so many people have told me is on their “bucket list”; there hasn’t been a single person who told me they wished they had seen the latter. Both interested me equally. And there were many things – low-brow and high-brow – that didn’t really interest me at all on this trip. My parents taught me this, that magic may be anywhere, that no particular place has the special key to unlock the door of magic.
But most importantly, I learned from them the belief that I have the inalienable right to pursue these interests at all levels. I have never hesitated to pursue what interests me, whether that has meant writing to prisoners as a teenager or spending six figures on an advanced education in a topic I’ll not likely ever pursue as a career. I believe that I have the right to attend slam poetry and symphonies, church sermons and science lectures, art openings and impressive weddings … to dress as I please when I go to these things, to talk to anyone else in attendance, to ask their truth and tell them mine, to dance or drink or laugh or cry if I am moved to do any of those things. To be honest, I am not sure that my parents feel this same kind of comfort in moving between all types of spaces (I hope they do), but it is through their choices and decisions and influences and support that I have gained this belief, a belief so core to the center of me that I often forget that it’s even unusual. I go where I want to go, I take the chances that I want to take, and I believe wholeheartedly that if something moves me enough to pursue it then it’s absolutely what I must pursue … and I believe that I have the right to change my mind and pursue something else as well.
I’m a smart kid, I always was, but I never felt that my intelligence or ability obligated me to any certain type of life. My parents will love me and be proud of me whether I lead the world, join the world, decorate the world or hide from the world. I’m not saying that my childhood was perfect or that my parents were infallible; believe me have our own traumas and dramas including a history of depression that has been passed down through my genes and afflicts me in awful ways. But what I’m saying is that my parents gave me the gift of never feeling like I was obligated to do anything in the world and yet allowing me to feel as though I have every right to do what I wish, to be entertained by the things that catch my fancy and to create the items that can only be transmitted through the unique channel of my own experience. My parents created me so that I can create the world around me. On this 36th birthday of mine, I am thankful for that.