I blame my parents.
Usually, this would be too bland a statement, the equivalent of a sixth grader shrugging her shoulders in response to every goddamn question, statement and choice she’s given. In this case, however, I mean it. It’s true. I absolutely blame them.
I blame them for making the most out of their youth together, waiting to start a family until they’d learned “enough” lessons the hard way, built a house in the middle of nowhere with their own hands, and gotten up close and personal with turning forty. I blame them for having their heads on straight by the time my brother and I came along. For wanting to raise honest kids instead of spoiled dipshits. For having the moral fiber to be hard-assed when it was warranted.
Sometimes even when it wasn’t.
To start, I blame them for not getting cable. Jeremy and I grew up fighting over everything EXCEPT the television remote, because we both were equally excited about getting to watch the animal of the week on Nature on PBS. We both wanted to see what Norm would improve next on This Old House. I was pretty damn sure that Hyacinth on Keeping Up Appearances was the funniest woman alive and her male equivalent was Red Skelton. I was also convinced it was “Skeleton” and not “Skelton” until I got my dad the VHS box set for Christmas in junior high.
At which point, I should mention, we still didn’t have cable.
I blame both of my parents for hiring a babysitter who wore flannel and taught me about Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and Alanis Morissette. I blame them for hiring a piano instructor when I wanted to be a musician and for not letting me quit when I got it into my head that being talented wasn’t cool. I blame them for letting me make as much goddamn noise on that piano as I wanted.
I blame my mom for being so damn classy, getting it stuck in my head that the demure silhouettes of 60s film stars were the epitome of sex appeal and that the vinyl shrink-wrapped pop stars of 1998 were roughly as interesting as the sticky sandbox dwellers with lollipops melting in their pockets and grime collecting in their dirty ears.
I blame my dad for never, ever looking at a map.
For taking Jeremy and I out of school early to go to Vermont so he could capture the perfect photograph.
For tuning my ear to guitar strings.
For putting me in my first pair of western boots and for bragging about the fact that both of his kids smelled like hay, horses, leather and maple syrup for their first ten years of life. For building a wooden swingset instead of buying one. For yelling at me when I tried to read in the car, demanding instead that I look out the window. For getting my boots really, really, really dirty and calming my mom down when she came home to kids who smelled like a Vermont farm.
I definitely blame my dad for the no-maps-not-now-not-ever thing, enough to mention it twice.
I blame my dad, because I can find my way anywhere without a map, going by the sun. I blame him for the pictures I take. I blame him for my ever-expanding boot collection. I blame him for the fact that once the leaves start to turn I can’t sleep unless I’ve gone for a drive and turned the radio to a country station. I blame him for my wanderlust.
I blame my mom for my pencil skirts.
You see, it’s really not my fault. They’re the one who messed it up.
Life would have been easier if I’d been the kid who was up to speed with the latest TV shows and music, who wore the same clothes as the popular girls and never, EVER cut off all of my hair. If I grew up thinking of alcohol as a way to escape rather than a thing to be explored – knowing what icewine was and why it was so difficult to make because the grapes had to freeze and that made more residual sugar and it’s still sweeter than reisling and dry wines are this and red wines are that and blah blah blah…
Life would have been easier if my parents hadn’t expected so much.
Now I just can’t imagine settling for anything less.
Car lights in the distance, blue-black and white-gold, something like feeling joy through soaked eyelashes.
I can’t help it if the goosebumps on my skin give away my thoughts. Thank God my skull holds itself together. Thank God for a good leather jacket and boots, for a battered copy of Catcher In The Rye and really, really high speeds. For the way sunlight looks through eyelids.
Lids, lashes, light, all these fragile things.
All they do is make it so easy to let the whole world slide off my shoulders. They make it easy to strut around like an asshole, convinced that most people walk around sleeping their lives away, convinced of a handful of ideas about hope and cynicism being related – one protects the other.
I still catch myself coming to stillness while moving at top speed.
The mind will go blank not for lack of thought or feeling, but rather because it has come to absolute center. Behind a paintbrush, piano or pair of trustworthy arms, I find that place. I could possibly be full of shit, but that would just be what someone said about me…
What they say is just what they say and only what they say and only an echo once their teeth are done gnashing and their words are all drawn out like graphite lines in the air. I imagine other things such as what it would be like to have lenses for my eyes that would allow me to see growth in time-lapsed photography. I imagine how other people feel when they breathe, because I breathe so slowly.
Ten miles, even eleven miles around the fields and tobacco farms and strawberry patches – soon to become retirement communities – eleven miles of running and my breath still hasn’t picked up its pace. Strange. I am no Lance Armstrong. I don’t breathe with the same self-righteous exaggeration as my father. I try not to make noise unless a piano is involved…
…the satisfying scrape of a palatte knife over canvas. The sound of a heartbeat as felt through someone’s shoulder playing home to my ear.
My first memory of my father: I had been napping on his chest and wanted to wiggle away because he had fallen asleep and his breathing was too loud. Not snoring, not wheezing, he was just too loud. I wanted nothing to do with him, wondered where my mother was, butI was afraid to move and wake him up. There have been no improvements.
My mother made no noise and I thought she was some sort of angel, immune to human clumsiness and imbalance. She floated everywhere and smelled like Shalimar perfume and lace. She healed fevers and headaches with her cold hands on our foreheads – my brother and I – and made the kind of hot cocoa that you would crave even in the middle of July.
She gets a little lighter every few months, noticeably so. She doesn’t wear Shalimar anymore but everything she wears, touches or cooks smells incredible. she floats with more and more ease. Eventually she might just disappear; she’d smile coyly at her own clever trick and stand a bit straighter with pride for having pulled off such an exit.
She and I are very much alike.
Today I get to keep my clothes on and not worry about creating all the appropriate negative space, flexing and arching all the right places. No, today is just a portrait day and instead of fighting to keep my body still, I fight to stay awake and keep the same significant expression. I don’t know how long I slept last night – because I don’t think I did. What does it take to stay awake? The room is too serene to escape the seduction of rest.
All of these baby artists with their new sticks of charcoal, having only just learned about willow versus vine, having only just gotten the hang of perspective and having only just bought a few expensive sheets of cold-press paper… having only just cause to be exactly where they are. I used to wonder what our models thought about when I was still in school, on the other side of this equation.
“Baby artists.” I read that expression in a Janet Fitch novel and liked it too much to leave it alone. It’s affectionate. Honestly.
They seem to be struggling with my nose, when I take a break from posing and walk around the room to loosen my legs. Looking at their work makes me want to get back into portraiture because my work has lacked this sculptural approach for over a year. The places where I see the students struggling are the places where I used to feel uniquely skilled. I love hands, chins, eyes, noses… why waste so much time “trying” when you can just lay it down and be at peace with it on the first shot?
For the first time in years, I want to do the kind of work that tells people where to think, what part of their minds to open up. The beauty of abstraction is also its downfall.
I can see my next paintings in my head; I can taste the colors and feel the tactile quality of the oils, how it will be when it’s finished.
The painting stays in my head until I’m done posing for the morning. When I get home I already know I’m out of canvas… that’s when old bedding gets stretched, primed and recycled into a work of art. I wonder if Sam is still stretching his old shirts so he’ll still have a few dollars for coffee and cigarettes. I wonder if Evan is still using discarded windows instead of canvases. I wonder if Paige still paints with broken glass. As class draws to a close, lyrics circle my head:
There’s a lake, and at the bottom you’ll find all my friends. They don’t swim because they’re all dead. We never are what we intend or invent…
I hope that you would do this for me.
I want to know where the fireworks in my chest go, in the form of smoke, when the colors and lights get too blurry to see. Runny makeup is glamourous to some and when I was someone else I would have looked like this on purpose.
The perfume on my shoulders smells like a memory of someone else’s bed. Someone’s morning after a beautiful thunderstorm, someone’s salt. Like someone who has known much of passion and little of trust.
I am telling myself that I am safe and immune.
I sleep twice a week now. It gets rid of the sense of obligation as it relates to time, as though I’ve satisfied some task that I hadn’t yet gotten around to. The morning hours, I swear they’re such amazing kissers. Watching the sun rise, I usually feel like someone’s lover, close enough in proximity to see their sleepy eyes in the morning. I wouldn’t miss sunrise for the world. Sunsets are cliche.
My hair looks like a baby animal in the morning. Baby artist. We age in reverse because only AFTER childhood do we abandon having fushia/blue/pink plumage. I look like this if I sleep….