I’m super excited to be participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this April. I’m primarily an essayist and poet, so I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo (the attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in November). But, I stumbled across the Camp NaNoWriMo website and saw that it offered the flexibility to work on a variety of writing projects including poetry, and I was intrigued. It’s free, fun, summer camp-themed, the t-shirts feature a Storysquatch, I’ll have an excuse to eat “working” s’mores — there’s nothing that could make me love this more.
Also, I’m excited to push my personal writing back to the front of my brain — to make it a priority again. I haven’t written for myself in a very, very long time. I know that if I don’t do it now, I’ll keep finding reasons not to do it ever again.
To be fair, I write all day, but it’s for other people. I’m always working on a press release, an article, a landing page, a blog post, or something that isn’t the thing I *want* to be writing. I love my job and I’m good at it, but I suspect I stay super busy on purpose — a bit of self sabotage. I’ve committed to a 60 hour project (45 hours of writing) this month — so, expect some updates soon.
I’m also a graphic designer, so in order to really have fun with my goal, I created a camp-themed project sheet to keep on my desk and I want to share it with you!
I like to have a visual reminder of my goals in front of me, so the printable has a spot to write the specifics of your writing goal, make notes on your writing schedule, and has two sections for “rules” during the month. I used the left side to write the types of writing projects that I am allowing myself to work on: essays, poems, plays, blog posts, and articles. The right side is for the things that are prohibited during writing time: Facebook, Twitter, work, to-do’s, etc. I hope you like the printable and that it helps you to stay focused on your goal.
Well, I’ve got files to organize and s’mores to prep for my writing this month. Feel free to check in on my progress over on my camper profile here. And, if you need a little bit of fun, campy encouragement with your own writing, then sign up, print the project sheet I made for us, and come to camp with me!
I’ve been thinking about Hestia lately, the virgin goddess of home and hearth. Basically, her story goes like this: she was pursued by both Apollo (the god of the sun) and Poseidon (the god of the sea), but rejected both of them and chose to remain a perpetual virgin in order to keep the peace.
As a reward, Zeus gives her the duty of maintaining the fires of the Olympian hearth. Oh, and the hearth isn’t portable, so she was rewarded with a life in the kitchen… forever.
On the one hand, Hestia is a model for feminism, choosing not to marry and instead rejecting both of her suitors. On the other hand, she is now trapped in the freaking kitchen forever, an incredibly subordinate role. Is that what she really wanted?
Hey Hestia, good job there on keeping the peace and giving up all future sexy funtimes. Here’s your reward, you see that kitchen over there? That’s all you. Oh, and that fire’s not gonna tend itself. Yeah, you’re gonna be pretty busy and stuff so you won’t really get to hang out with the rest of us either, but uh, thanks again.
I won’t lie. That seems like a pretty raw deal. And although I already know the answer to this (hint: it has to do with wieners) why did she have to be a perpetual virgin? It’s not like fidelity was a big deal in Olympus. Gods know Zeus had sex with anything that moved. This sounds a bit like the whole double standard of the woman you want to have sex with versus the good girl you want to marry (or trap in your kitchen forever).
Hestia is also considered to be the most gentle, charitable, and kind of all the Greek gods… but really how hard is that. I’m sorry if I offend any of my currently practicing Hellenist friends here, but I’m gonna say it, Zeus is kind of a dick. It doesn’t take much to seem nicer than him. Yet, a point is made to say that Hestia is gentle and kind. It’s a nice image: sweet, gentle, Hestia, who will hang out in your kitchen stoking your fire all day (and that’s not an innuendo because shedoesn’t put out).
Does the contradiction of Hestia versus the more empowered goddesses reveal an understanding of the complexity of women’s roles? Or, does it just set up an impossible standard for women to meet? We all know those guys who want a Hestia on the streets and an Aphrodite between the sheets, but aren’t those two ideals mutually exclusive?
I know I struggled with this idea, but not for too long, because I lost my eligible-to-be-rewarded-with-a-life-in-the-hearth card a looooong time ago. Virginity, perpetual or otherwise, wasn’t on my agenda. And as a young woman, I hadn’t considered the prospect of staying home and tending the hearth. I just assumed I would be out wreaking havoc in the working world in some way. The idea that getting married and having a child would mean I would want to be home was inconceivable to me.
Now, as a modern woman who is highly educated, has career options, and yet is choosing to stay home while my son is young, there is a feeling of empowerment in the reclamation of the hearth as my domain and in seeing it as a reward rather than a punishment. I am choosing to cast aside the modern gods of wealth and martini lunches to keep the peace with my boys. I am here feeding the hearth fires by choice, though I am definitely not a virgin (insert whistle here).
So, here I am, feeling like one big contradiction, part Hestia and part Aphrodite, but keenly aware that I have the luxury of making that choice. And maybe, that’s the real task of modern womanhood — to embrace all of the contradictory aspects we’ve been taught about the divine feminine and to simply accept the pantheon within us.
I’ll leave you with my spoken word track of Hestia — a brief exploration into my role as a not so virginal hearth keeper:
Last weekend I was sitting in the drive thru of a fast food restaurant (attempting to salvage our weekend after our son hated the South American food we had for lunch) when across the parking lot I noticed a hurt pigeon. One of its wings was stretched out at a weird angle like it was broken and it seemed to be in distress. Before I knew what was happening, I had my hand on my seat belt and was screaming to my husband, “Do I need to go help that bird?!”
I should probably go ahead and mention at this point that I have zero experience with birds – wounded or otherwise. I have never owned a bird, I have never known a friend with a bird, I have rarely even noticed birds on an individual basis, my brain usually just sees “birds” as a collective. I could be in a room full of birds and probably not really notice any of them individually unless they were specifically pointed out to me. Also, contrary to my brain’s promptings at that moment, I do not have a degree in veterinary medicine. I am an English and Communications major. If something needs to be talked at or written about, I’m your girl, but damaged birds are out of my depth.
Fortunately, the bird got up and flew away before I was able to jump out the car and run across the parking lot to… what? What exactly was my plan? Was I going to run over there and just pick up that parking lot bird? Was I going to bring it back to my car? Where was I going to take it? How *exactly* was I going to help it?
I can’t answer any of those questions. I don’t know what was going on, but I do know that if I attempted to pick up a wild pigeon I ran a pretty good chance of getting my face pecked off and/or catching some weird bird disease.
So, while I’m glad that the bird was okay and my face is intact, I almost *almost* wish that the bird hadn’t gotten up and that I had run over there so that I could know what my plan was. Clearly, some part of my brain had a plan, right? I love animals and if I were to encounter an injured one, I would definitely make sure it received help, but what on earth did I think I was personally going to do for that pigeon?
All I do know is that when the bird flew away seemingly unharmed, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I turned to my husband to tell him the good news about the pigeon and he was staring at me like I was insane.
“What did you think you were going to go do?” he asked me.
“I… I honestly don’t know.”
Please don’t let this be my future.
AND I STILL DON’T.
I’ve been thinking about the whole incident for days and I’m no closer to understanding what happened or why I felt so connected to that one random parking lot bird. I’m proud of the fact that I was concerned about the well-being of a living creature and that I modeled that concern in front of my son… but I’m a bit concerned about what’s going on upstairs. If I turn into a crazy bird lady, send help.
It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, the skies were clear, there was a slight breeze, but the peacocks… the peacocks were angry that day, my friends…
A few weeks ago, my son and I picked up lunch at the grocery store and went to Mayfield Park for a picnic. It’s a popular Austin park known for its historic cottage and brilliant peacocks that wander the grounds. I’d never been, but this seemed like the perfect way to spend an afternoon with my son. Peacocks are awesome, right?
Wrong. I would soon learn that peacocks are scary and Mayfield Park is full of them.
Shortly after Kai and I sat down at a picnic table just outside the main grounds, two peacocks came walking across a low stone wall next to another family. I was mesmerized by how large and beautiful the birds were and ran over to take pictures, but the other family seemed unnerved, looking down and sitting in perfect silence. Apparently, this wasn’t their first peacock rodeo – they knew something I didn’t know yet — peacocks are super jerks.
Pretty on the outside, evil on the inside.
Now, if you’ve never seen a peacock up close, let me tell you about them. They’re beautiful birds. Their feathers are colored in iridescent jewel tones that sparkle in the shadows and glimmer in the sunlight. They sport a crown of feathers on their heads, and the males have a brilliant train that trails behind them. They have a confident, regal walk… and a big case of bad attitude.
The larger of the two birds jumped up onto the rooftop of a small building and the other perched in the tree above the picnic tables, his magnificent tail hanging below him – as soon as this happened the other family grabbed their belongings and ran away. Okay, that’s weird, I thought, but whatever, I was happy enough to claim their table in the shade and spread out our lunch.
Another interesting fact about peacocks – they’re loud. Their call is not nearly as pretty as their feathers and can be unnerving. For example, as they call back and forth to each other you may suddenly realize that there are not just two peacocks, but that you are actually surrounded by peacocks. They’re quiet, and sneaky like really pretty velociraptors…You’ll look at your salad, get ready to take a bite, hear 5+ peacocks calling to each other all around you and realize that you are about to enact a much prettier version of a scene from Jurassic World. It doesn’t matter if your phone says it’s 2 pm, it’s about to be Peacock O’Clock.
It’s about to be Peacock O’Clock. Good thing I brought my crazy hands.
We started to eat our lunches, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. I’ll admit that I was feeling pretty good about having picked the perfect park for our lunch and thinking about what an awesome mom I was, but I’ll warn you now — peacocks can sense pride. Less than 30 seconds later a large peacock jumped up behind me on the wall and another walked towards Kai on his side of the table.
Hey Kai, look that peacock is walking towards you, let me take a picture, this is so cool… wait he’s coming fast, nope, move. Move now, Kai! Seriously, don’t just sit there, get up, now!
Hey look, he’s coming towards us, how cool! I’m sure he won’t attack us in a few minutes.
At this point I drop my phone and jump across the picnic table to grab my 8 year old who was inches from having a peacock beak in his leg and wondering what the hell had caused that to happen. I scooped our lunch into a bag as we backed into the wall… where the other large peacock was eyeballing us menacingly. We were effectively trapped between a rock wall full of peacocks and a hard place (also full of peacocks). We moved further down the wall and waited hoping that they would forget about us and just relax. There was a low bench here so we slowly pulled out our food and started eating again. The peacock which had us cornered turned and started walking towards us again.
“I don’t get it. I’m eating salad. Are they attracted to my salad?”
Kai seemed to think this was my fault and screamed “Of course! They’re mad at you for eating nature! They think you hate nature!”
I don’t hate nature. And I tried to tell the advancing peacock that, but he wasn’t listening. Then, I thought, well maybe he likes salad… maybe he’s just trying to get a bite of my salad, and (I’m not proud of this, but I was panicking) I threw a baby spinach leaf at his head. I don’t know what I expected to happen, but I think he was supposed to grab it out of the air with his beak and eat it like a Scooby snack… instead he dodged the spinach leaf and ran at us even faster.
Now, this may come as a surprise, but I don’t have a ton of experience with animals. The only thing I could think to do was to make myself look big. So I puffed myself up, balled up my fists, swung my arms out in front of me like a crazy person, looked that peacock right in its beady jerk eyes and said get back or I will punch you! And then Kai and I ran like crazy while it chased us towards the parking lot.
We were sweating and shaking, but relieved that the peacock stopped abruptly at the paved sidewalk. We made it. I was panting and trying to warn other people walking into the park to be careful which I’m sure they appreciated and didn’t think I was insane at all.
I was still confused by what had happened, so naturally, I went to Facebook for help. While a majority of the comments suggested that the peacocks were in love with me (my friends are jerks), several comments were about how my friends and family had also been attacked by peacocks at that very park. Why wasn’t anyone talking about this??
I have read tons of reviews for Mayfield Park and not once have I ever heard of anyone being attacked by peacocks. Yet, right here on my own Facebook page were comments by people I know and love all facing the same familiar shame – being chased out of a public park by really pretty birds. I can only assume that Mayfield Park is home to some sort of Peacock Fight Club, and we all know the first rule of Peacock Fight Club, right? (You DO NOT talk about Peacock Fight Club)
I learned some really important things during that lunch. For example, Peacocks are jerks and will attack you for no reason or if you are eating a salad. Throwing baby spinach is not an acceptable defense. And, most importantly, I am willing to punch a peacock if it hurts my child.
This is why being a parent is so amazing. Before I became a mother, I never had to think about what animals I would be willing to punch in self-defense. I love animals, and I would never condone hurting one, but I can tell you in all honesty, that as that peacock menacingly approached my child and refused to back away, I was willing to use Strunk and White to defend us. (Yes, I named my fists Strunk and White — I’m an English major.)
So, on the days when I feel like I’m overwhelmed, when I’m not doing enough or being enough as a parent, when I feel weak or tired, I can look back on the Great Peacock Attack of 2016 and know that I am enough. I can know that I am strong enough and smart enough to take care of my child in tense situations, and that I would do anything for my son — even if that thing is throwing my body in front of a group of charging peacocks.
When I was a kid, my favorite ride at Disney World was always 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I loved it. There was something wonderful about voyaging under the sea. Maybe it was the water, the colors, the fantastical ruins of Atlantis, or how my heart would race as the giant squid wrapped its tentacles around the Nautilus and all seemed lost before we wrestled free and triumphantly made our way back to the serene beauty of the tropical lagoon.
The roomier and more stylish Nautilus of my youth
As a parent, I wanted to share this adventure with my young son. As we prepared for our trip to Disneyland for his 5th birthday I was thrilled to discover that while 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride was gone, they had kept the subs for the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. Awesome. We watched videos of the ride on youtube and I waxed poetic about my childhood memories of a similar ride and told my son just how much fun it would be.
Once we were in the park, I couldn’t wait to get to that submarine ride. I skipped through the line and gleefully climbed aboard what seemed to be a much smaller version of the submarine of my youth. Hmm. It was then, about 5 seconds later, that my excitement quickly faded. As I climbed into the now tiny submarine and sat on the little stool by the minuscule window and the employee on the outside shut the door and locked us in the miniature submarine… that I suddenly realized that I no longer wanted to ride inside this teeny tiny little metal box that had no discernible opening from the inside.
I have always believed that life is all about learning and growing, seizing opportunities to learn more about ourselves, our likes and dislikes, who we really are. Well, this was one of those times. This was the moment that I realized quite clearly, that I am fucking claustrophobic.
Not wanting to immediately ruin this experience for my son, I took a deep breath and tried to relax. I did all the normal stuff to calm myself: I told myself that Disney employees do this all day long, I reminded myself that there were no skeletons on the sub, so obviously people got off eventually, I noted that we weren’t actually 20,000 leagues under a sea, I listened to the happy voices of the children, I looked at the smile on my son’s face… Yeah, none of that crap worked.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a panic attack, much less one that you are trying really really hard not to have, but for me, I had a feeling of creeping coldness that started at my feet and was spreading upward. I was certain that if that cold feeling made it all the way up to my head, I was going to do or say something super embarrassing. I tried to take my mind off of it and I started thinking about all the jobs and adventures that I was no longer interested in attempting: Deep sea diving? Right out. Exploring the Mariana Trench? Hell no. Marine biologist? Nope.
I tried looking up where the “captain” was standing thinking that the employee surely had an escape hatch. That made it worse. He was in a sealed dome. I swallowed a scream.
I attempted to be poetic and thought how I was the personification of the nautilus and the actual nautilus that I was riding in was now my giant squid. I was gasping for breath trying to stay calm.
I started to wonder what would happen if just freaked the hell out. What If I started screaming and demanding to be let off? Did they have sub marshalls to tackle me? Surely, I could not be the only person to get claustrophobic in that itty bitty sub. Did they have some sort of crazy person freaking out back up plan? I was dangerously close to finding out.
I then started to wonder what would happen if I tried to pry open the lid and jumped out to swim to shore. I only stopped myself because I knew that the temporary thrill of being free would surely be replaced by the shame of being banned from Disneyland for life. I wasn’t sure I could afford the inevitable therapy bills for my son after that. Also, I really didn’t want my claim to fame to be “that crazy lady that scarred all those children” at Disneyland.
Leaving the cave and I was really ready to get out.
Soon we entered into the cave and things got more awesome. Because what could be better than being trapped in a tiny submarine and pretending to not have a panic attack so that you aren’t freaking out all the small children crammed next to you? Doing that in 30 seconds of absolute darkness. I was so stressed out that I wasn’t following the story. At one point, I heard my sweet little 4 year old son’s voice drift through the pitch black to ask me, “Mommy, are we in a shark?” To which I’m almost certain I said, “Yes,” which was an awful thing to say. Yes, my dear little child, we’ve been eaten by a shark, but isn’t this just sooooo fun?
Eventually we got out of the shark’s stomach or whatever was actually happening in the story and made our way back out to the sunny lagoon. I was done, really done, ready to get back to my life on land and leave my underwater adventures behind. And we were there, the home stretch, I was a few glorious minutes from getting out. I had made it. And then…
OF COURSE our submarine comes to a stop in a spot that I can tell is near, but not near enough to the spot we will exit. I am trembling from anxiety, but I know that if I can just hold on for one more minute, I’ll be okay… and that’s when Captain Nemo up in his little bubble dome announced that due to a boarding issue with the boat ahead of us, our ship which I have now dubbed the USS GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE, would be delayed from deboarding… but hey, we should just sit back and relax. Well, of course, I was on the inner row of the submarine staring right into a cement wall.
There I was, the most claustrophobic person in the sub, stuck staring into a wall. I was tempted to laugh at the situation, but my anxiety level was so high at that point, that I was certain it would come out as some sort of crazy hysterical cackle. For the next 15 agonizing minutes, I took deep breaths and continued to remind myself that I probably wouldn’t die there. Probably.
And while this ride was not the magical experience I hoped it would be, it was a valuable learning experience. I learned 3 important things:
I am seriously claustrophobic and I should probably see about getting that shit fixed.
You can never go home again: experiences from our childhood do not always translate well to our adult lives.
(The one I am actually proud of) I will do anything for my son. Even if that thing is swallowing a massive panic attack and not shoving small children out of my way in order to forcefully bust out of a submarine ride and swim to shore.
So, while I still have fond memories of my youthful voyages aboard the Nautilus, I have decided that, for now, my undersea adventure days are over and it’s probably best if leave the wonders of the Disney lagoon to braver souls than I.
Sitting in a nook where a quiet residential street turns to meet the lively chaos of South Congress Ave in Austin, Texas, is one of Candy Chang’s Before I Die walls. Unless you happen to drive through the neighborhood, or walk back that way to avoid the crowds, it would be easy to overlook. It sits in a spot where domestic life, business, and recreation all intersect. The location is a perfect symbol for the wall’s message.
If you’ve never seen a Before I Die wall, go find one ASAP. It’s a fun and truly profound piece of interactive art — just a large black and white chalkboard that asks you to consider a seemingly simple question: What do I want to do before I die? The playfulness of the presentation drew me to the wall, but the question brings me back time and again.
In the interest of full disclosure, while I visit the wall regularly, I have yet to write on it. I read it – laugh at the funny or deviant entries (there are plenty of those), smile at the profound or thoughtful ones – and then quietly walk away. I bring others to the wall and encourage them to write, but I just watch. The simple straightforwardness of the question causes me to freeze. It’s the worst kind of writer’s block… it’s not just about words; it’s about articulating desire and action.
I don’t know what to write. I want to do a million things. I want to do everything. I want to never die; I want to never grieve another loss. But, Candy Chang’s project, born from her own grief, makes me stop and face the fact that my time is limited and I have living to do. These walls are amazing because they look so innocent, so simple, but they hide in them a complex understanding of the human condition: our lives will end. Are we living them? The wall asks us to look inward.
I love reading the wall. Of course, I’m drawn to the humorous entries. My husband’s checked off desire to write on a giant chalkboard, the person who randomly wanted to slap Taylor Swift, the one who wanted to kiss a dragon. My son drew picture of Maleficent because he had just seen the movie. He is seven. He doesn’t need to worry about what he wants to do before he dies; he lives fully in the present all the time.
There are entries that are moving displays of community, of strangers trying to heal each other’s hurt. One entry read: Before I die I want to be skinny. Skinny was crossed out by another visitor who wrote happy next to it, and under it yet another wrote, You’re beautiful. The wall helps us see inside each other.
Maybe I can’t think of what to write because I’m already living the life I want. Or, maybe I’ve reached an age where I know people, have known people, who were given the deadline. I held my breath and watched them scramble to fill in all the blanks at the last minute. Or, the most likely answer is that I’m just a big pain in the butt who overthinks everything. Whatever the reason, Chang’s wall does what art is supposed to do – it disrupts. It forces me to stop, to look, to think, to act. It forces me out of the comfortable monotony of my daily rhythm. Its complexity is hidden in its simplicity, and that is what makes it so great.
If you flip the question, if you ask me what I want to do while I’m alive, then I can write a hundred things, a million things. I want to write a book, an episode of Doctor Who, be on the Muppet Show, attempt stand up, travel the world, wake up in every time zone, and on and on. But when you ask the question the way Chang has, when you ask me what I want to do before I die… well, suddenly a whole lot of things seem less important. Everything is valued differently. Playing with my son, holding my husband’s hand, feeling loved, all suddenly top the list. This board is brutal; I walk up wanting to play with chalk and walk away contemplating the human condition.
There it is, right? The point. In black and white. You step up to the chalkboard, and it doesn’t matter what your skin color is or the chalk color you use, when you fill in that blank you are the same as everyone else. You can write a joke, a fear, a wish, but whatever you write, you do it with fragile human hands. Like everyone else who comes to the wall: you are alive, you will die. Candy Chang’s Before I Die wall is a gentle nudge then, a playful reminder whispering in my ear – you are here now, pay attention, and go fill in the blank.
The Before I Die wall I visit is located at 206 E. Elizabeth St. in Austin, Texas. Find a wall near you or view pictures of walls around the world here.
My name is pretty neat: Ava Love Hanna. Hanna is my married name. I only recently added that part after my son was born. For most of my life I was Ava Love. It’s a cool name. It stood out. It was unique.
If you were born in the last few years, this will probably say Ava on it…
Ava is a family name. My grandmother and my great-great-aunt were both named Ava. But, when I was a child, I must have been the only Ava around. I know this because no one ever got my name right. I learned to just answer to anything: Anna, Ana, Eva, Eve. Sure, why not. It was easier to just say mmhmm when someone butchered my name, than to spend five minutes going back and forth and trying to get them to understand that it was just three letters and that two of them were A’s. On the rare occasion that people did get it right, they would ask, “Oh, like Ava Gardner?” and I would shrug my six year old shoulders and say, “I guess so.” I had no idea who this Ava Gardner was and I started to develop an irrational dislike for her because every time someone actually got my name right they asked about her.
I also knew that I was the only Ava because any time I came across racks of customized items, they never had my name. Oh how I longed to be a Laura, Stephanie, or Amy, and have a thermos or a tiny bike-sized license plate with my name on it. The Amys got everything. I was once in a class that had seven Amys in it. SEVEN. Talk about feeling left out…
My once unique name has now surged in popularity. Because of course it did. Because now that I love having a distinctive name, my name is not only popular, but one of the most popular baby names of all time. Ha!Take that Amys 1 – 7!
It’s weird. I grew to love being the only Ava. Now, everyone is named Ava and it’s freaking me out… Also, I don’t quite know what the deal is, but it seems like only really grumpy parents are naming their kids Ava, or this new crop of Avas are acting like real jerks. I spent a week at Disneyland recently, and I almost developed a permanent tic from jumping every time someone screamed my name.
“AVA STOP IT!” “Ava get over HERE!” “Damn it, Ava!” “AVA!!!!”
It was so bad, that at one point my husband wondered why a random suburban mom was screaming at me. When you’ve always been the only Ava, you’re used to responding when you hear your name. I nearly choked on my mickey-shaped pretzel when the lady came up next to me shouting at her errant Ava who happened to be one seat over.
So listen Parents of New Avas: you seriously need to chill out. I can’t keep getting freaked out because I’m thinking that you’re yelling at me. Also, stop screaming at your kids. Take a parenting class, count to five, I don’t know, but just stop. And to all you new Avas out there wreaking havoc: come on man, act right. I’ve been holding down the Ava-fort mostly by myself for 40 years. Don’t screw this up for us.
Honestly, the fact that my name is so popular now feels weird. I feel a little violated, or something less dramatic, but still like that. I can’t quite describe it, but it feels like something that was really dear to me has been taken away, or at least fundamentally changed. My unique name became an integral part of my identity. At some point in my life, I accepted that it was okay to be different and I owned and embraced that difference. Now, I have to accept that my name – something that feels like a part of me, when it actually isn’t – is not really mine. It’s just a combination of letters and anyone can use them.
I’m sure everyone has had to deal with coming across someone with the same name. “Oh you’re named Susan? So am I!” And you both laugh and move on, but I had to get used to being the only Ava in a sea of Amys and now the game has changed and I’m struggling to feel okay with it.
I’ll get over it, I have no choice. There is an army of Avas now who are apparently scream-at-your-kids-in-public-worthy and I’d prefer to stay on their good side. So, I guess I’ll just sit here sipping coffee out of my new “Ava” personalized mug, or go put this tiny “Ava” license plate on my bike, and console myself by trying to predict what the next hip baby name will be.
I grew up in Houston, Texas. If you’ve never been to Houston, I can describe it for you like this: just imagine any dystopian movie and then replace all the crazed brain-eating zombies with crazed brain-eating conservatives and there you go.
To be fair, Houston’s come a long way lately, but when I was growing up there, it was the late 80’s/early 90’s. And Houston in the 90’s certainly wasn’t known for its picturesque parks, art scene, or lesbian mayor. Houston in the 90’s was largely known for its suburbs and its malls, neither of which I felt particularly drawn to. I knew there had to be more to life than to grow up, live by a big mall, and then die.
Eventually, I started college, which helped my mood. Despite my loathing of the suburbs, I was terrified to leave home and to brave the mega highways into downtown, so I went to a small school in the suburbs. I was a theatre major and in the first week of a technical workshop class, I met a handsome punk boy. He was so different from everyone I had ever known. He was hot and aloof and so very… not into malls. For some reason, he liked me too, so we started hanging out… this cool punk boy with his oxblood Doc Martins and me in my white Keds.
Since we were in the suburbs and we both lived at home there wasn’t much to do other than drive around. One day out of boredom we stopped by a big graveyard near campus. It was quiet and pretty. I was barely 18 years old, all of my grandparents were alive, and I had never been to a funeral, so for me, a graveyard was just a quiet place to hang out with my hot boyfriend. We had this genius idea to buy individual bottles of orange juice, empty them halfway and then pour in vodka… because then no one would ever suspect we were drinking! And that’s how we spent our days, wandering around a graveyard drinking super cheap vodka.
May 1993 all dressed up for a drama banquet. We moved in together a few months later. (I no longer shopped at the Gap.)
Over time, the punk boy’s coolness started to rub off on me. Black skirts and tights replaced my Gap jeans and Keds, and I was now into poetry and Bauhaus and so naturally, we kept hanging out in the graveyard. We took pictures of cool tombstones, hung out, got drunk. I found a photo in an old album the other day that had me leaning near a super ornate Vietnamese tombstone (orange juice bottle in hand) and the caption read “Dead Vietnamese Lady with her sidekick drunk living girl, Ava.” I was so very young and dumb. I had no concept of death then. I had never lost anyone. I’d never had to grieve.
That hot punk boy and I moved in together a year later. We moved to Austin and had lots of fun things to do and didn’t need to hang out in a graveyard for fun. Years later those days are all but a distant vodka soaked memory.
Recently my husband, (the same hot punk boyfriend from college) told me he had found a small graveyard hidden off the main road near our house. It was an old Masonic cemetery. I wanted to go see it, so we drove the street over and marveled at what seemed to be a very old gate. We walked in, my 6 year old son’s hand in mine. I was excited to share this moment of discovery with him. I wanted to look for really old tombstones, feel the quiet, sit on a bench with …. Hmm. Something didn’t feel right.
I looked down at my son, so full of life – his blonde hair, the light in his blue eyes. Holding his tiny hand, I felt a wave of sadness nearly overwhelm me. My legs felt weak. I looked around at the names nearest me Brodie, Cannon – Austin names – names that are part of a legacy. And, out of nowhere I thought, this is it. This is coming. For everyone I love. For me. Whether I like or not, this will happen. It won’t be optional this time. I will now be forced to spend time in graveyards in one way or another.
As an adult, I am now uncomfortable with the idea of death, it seems. It is an unwelcome specter hovering around the edges of my days. Unlike that naive 18 year old girl, I have now been to funerals. I’ve hugged sobbing mothers burying their sons. I’ve been assigned to interview cancer survivors for articles, and then been asked to craft memorial articles when they unexpectedly lost their battles. The grown up me has seen the reason for graveyards and they no longer hold any appeal.
Now, when I see tombstones I can’t help but think of the people resting beneath them – people who had feelings and opinions and families – people who told funny stories to their friends – people who drank orange juice.
So, I’m not as cool as I used to be. I dress a bit better, but I’m not as aloof about death. As I’m reaching middle age, I can’t afford to be. I have less time to be aloof and I have people who need me and people for whom I want to stick around. Now as a adult, when I should be accepting death as an eventuality, I am shaken and uneasy. It’s too close and I’ve seen too many people fall away too soon.
Dylan Thomas begged his father: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” That is NOT a problem. I have no intention of going quietly. Live fast and die young? Yeah, not so much anymore.
How about: Live fast, have a nice life, and die at a really old age with no complications or weird diseases that make you lose your mind or hunch over or anything and you’ve found peace and are totally okay with it because you’re like 100 and you just go in your sleep.
Or live fast and science cures aging and death, so let’s all hug.
These are my new mottos. Because, I no longer have the luxury of time and youthful ignorance – I’m less oblivious… I’m also less prone to drink cheap vodka, so in some ways I guess you take the good with the bad. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Because I could not stop for death he kindly stopped for me.” Screw that. If death comes near me, he better be wearing a cup, because I’m going out kicking.
Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side?
The notes drift into the kitchen and I feel them in my chest, know them by heart. There’s a special joy in unexpectedly hearing a song you love right when you need to hear it; a little gift from the universe. Serendipity. He heard it too and runs to me; his 6 year old hands outstretched, inviting me to dance. I move the half cooked eggs off the burner. Breakfast can wait, my dance partner can’t.
This is our song. The one I have sung to him nearly every night of his life.
The first night.
I looked at the tiny person I had made and felt such overwhelming love, deep incomprehensible love… and fear. I had absolutely no idea what to do next, no clue how to actually be a parent. I looked him over, saw his soft vulnerability, his total dependence and realized that I’d never really thought past being pregnant… Oh crap.
Who said that every wish would be heard and answered when wished on the morning star?
I took a breath, kissed him softly on the head and then suddenly I felt it rise up from somewhere deep inside my chest and head – an instinctual urge passed on in the genes of motherhood, a connection passed throughout the human race. I didn’t know how to be a parent, but I knew what to do right then: I sang to him.
I was surprised to hear the confidence in my voice, but it was there and I knew that meant I would be okay. His head on my heart, we melted into the rhythm of the song, connected as mother and child in those first new moments.
What’s so amazing, that keeps us stargazing, and what’do we think we might see?
I danced with my father to this song on the day I got married. It’s our song too, but I don’t know if he knows that. Growing up my father and I were far too much alike to really get along, and our relationship always felt stifled, uncomfortable. Neither of us was good at showing affection, it meant being too vulnerable or feeling dumb. Hugs were rare and often done quickly with one arm… But, we both loved the Muppets, so we had that. I remember hearing him singing this song while walking through the house. It was my favorite memory of him and I knew it was the only song we could dance to.
At my reception, as the first few notes made their way to the dance floor, my father, a shy man who hates to be the center of attention, who always shirks the public eye, grabbed me and spun me around the dance floor. We danced while he sang so loudly and enthusiastically that I couldn’t stop laughing and crying. It’s one of my favorite moments, seeing him so happy, and briefly feeling a comfortable connection between us.
All of us under its spell, we know that it’s probably magic…
Now, I am dancing with my little boy. His small hand in mine, I spin him around the room, sing loudly while he laughs and holds me tight. I feel our connection… parent to child to parent to child. I never really understood the lyrics before I had him, but here it was, the rainbow connection. It is this song, this love, these moments that connect our generations, our hearts.
Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices? I’ve heard them calling my name…
I’m still trying to feel like a parent so I listen for promptings from ancestral connections that taught the parents before me how to connect to their children, the ones that lie sleeping in my dna. I let those whispers guide me and I sing to him every night. Sometimes, he sings with me, other times he curls into my arm and falls asleep by the third stanza. I finish the song anyway and then lie next to him and listen to him breathing. I still don’t know exactly how to be a parent, I still don’t know if I’m doing it right, but I feel the strength of the bond growing between us, feel the connection that binds us to each other forever and fall asleep to the rhythm of his breath.
So the other night I had this dream that I was somehow entangled with religious fundamentalists and I was told to gather a few things that were really important to me before we all climbed onto a big tour bus. So there I was, crying and clutching my wedding ring, a manila folder full of papers… and a coffee maker… That sounds about right, I *do* love coffee (and manila folders).
Reading this essay at Testify’s “Coming Clean” Show – the first time I’ve ever spoken publicly about my Mormon background and leaving the church.
But I feel bad talking about my love of coffee; I’m not supposed to like it. While it might be a normal part of your day and there’s a Starbucks on every corner, I was raised Mormon and coffee was strictly off limits. It’s a part of the Word of Wisdom, a dietary code for Mormons that forbids coffee, tea, alcohol, and drugs. You know, all the fun stuff. Heck, I only tried coffee for the first time a couple of years ago, and maaaaaan is it awesome. But again, I feel bad. It’s the Mormon thing. I wasn’t just raised Mormon, I have profoundly Mormon roots. My ancestors were pioneers who left Scotland to travel across the country and build the temple in Salt Lake. I’m even related to a Mormon prophet. I tried being Mormon as an adult, I really did, and it just didn’t work for me. Our ideas on things are just too different. So, sometimes I feel okay that I tried to be Mormon and it didn’t work out, and then there’s other times that I know I’m disappointing people and that makes me feel pretty bad…until I have another cup of coffee.
To be honest, I never really fit in as a Mormon. I often felt like I was putting on an act. I’m a performer, so I fell into that role. I wasn’t Ava I was Mormon-Ava… and it was exhausting. I was unhappy all the time and felt restricted. I like to wear jeans, not skirts, and I like to cuss. I felt like I was always trying not to say fuck. One time I’m pretty sure I said bitch in front of the bishop and he pretended not to hear me. It takes a lot of energy to image manage all the time… mistakes will be made.
I discovered the joys of coffee in grad school. I was the mother of a small child and was working on my Master’s thesis – in poetry, because I apparently hate the idea of having a career that makes money- and I was as anxious and depressed as…. A poet. I started therapy and talked about my ocd, my exhaustion, my inability to concentrate. We discussed the possibility that I had untreated ADD and my therapist recommended I try a small cup of coffee. Huh? Ok. I went home and announced to my husband that I was going to Starbucks. I ordered a salted caramel mocha Frappuccino… I know, right? It’s just a caffeinated milkshake, but it was coffee, real coffee. I drank it nervously and waited. Aaaaaand, it was awesome. I wrote 10 pages that night and felt calmer than I had in years.
I don’t know the exact science of it, but for some reason, coffee calms me down and reduces my anxiety. It got me through my master’s degree, it makes me a better parent, a better person, and it helps my high strung type A personality find peace. It has enriched my life without needing more therapy or having to resort to psychiatric drugs. It also has made me feel like a grown up for the first time in my life. Allowing myself to drink it was like a rite of passage.
Coffee had become a symbol for me of all that is mature and grown up. But, I’m still new to it, and I’m paranoid that other people will see that. When I’m at the coffee bar at Whole Foods, I feel like I’m being watched. I try to act nonchalant as I add half and half or casually stir in sugar, but inside I’m thinking Is this right? I feel like maybe there are these unspoken commandments of coffee that were delivered to everyone else by Juan Valdez and his enchanted donkey when he magically appeared in a field of coffee… vines? trees? bushes? Look, I don’t even know how that stuff grows.
The first time I tried to order coffee through a drive-thru and the server asked me how many sugars and creams I wanted, I almost started crying. It was a Chick-fil-a (don’t judge me; I was in the middle of nowhere and I was willing to momentarily ignore their views on gay marriage in order to get coffee.) I told the kid I wanted 6 cream and 7 sugar, because that sounded like a reasonable number… but then I hear him frantically whispering to a coworker, she wants 6 cream and 7 sugar!! Can we even do that?? Seriously? I felt like an idiot, and I still don’t know what the deal was with that number. If anyone can tell me the magic answer to that question, I would appreciate it because I DON’T KNOW and pretty much avoid drive-thru coffee.
Drinking coffee was a point of no return for me. I remember sitting and sipping a cup at home before anyone else had woken up. It was quiet and I was feeling happy and proud of everything I had done that year, of who I was becoming… when I suddenly had a pang of sadness. I looked at the cup in my hand and realized that it meant that there was no going back, not this time. Coffee is non-negotiable in the Mormon Church. It was becoming normal to me, a welcome part of my morning, and yet I couldn’t talk about it, which felt odd. Something so ordinary was illicit. I couldn’t share this part of my life with people who had previously been important to me, people who had been at my wedding or had been there for the birth of my son. Willingly disobeying the Word of Wisdom meant that I was no longer temple worthy and that I risked alienating family and friends because of this one thing. Yet, I wasn’t willing to give it up… and I wondered what that said about me as a person? I had various Jack Mormon friends over the years who would attempt to excuse an occasional glass of wine by joking that hey even Jesus had turned water into wine (in one of his coolest party tricks ever), but sadly, I couldn’t justify this choice the same way. Jesus never turned anything into coffee, or at least no one wrote about it.
In the Mormon culture there are a couple of different subsets of members. I come from both kinds. My mom is a convert. Being a convert in the Mormon Church is a bit like coming from Muggle parents. Often time converts are pretty cool because they bring with them memories of what it was like outside of the bubble. My mom drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and had a whole other life before she met my dad and joined the church. On the other end is my dad’s side: pioneer stock, born in the covenant, always been Mormon types, whom I affectionately refer to as AlwaysMorms and who have never in their entire lives strayed from the Word of Wisdom. Imagine dealing with a staunch AlwaysMorm Bishop who has never tried coffee. Try explaining to him how it helps you with OCD, depression, and was even recommended to you by both your doctor and therapist. He either won’t or can’t understand and sees it simply as disobedience. And while I applaud his ability to strictly abide by his chosen code, I knew there was a danger in allowing myself to be led by someone who had no possibility of ever relating to me.
I try to avoid conflict, especially when it involves big life altering things and existential issues, so I did nothing. I just stopped going to church. I don’t say that I’m Mormon, but I’m not Not-Mormon. I never un-became Mormon, there’s a process and involves writing letters and talking to people, and I’m just not up to it, so I basically just stopped going to church and started drinking coffee… and this is the first time I’ve ever really spoken publicly about that, aside from a few accidental facebook posts. And I think maybe that’s the most passive aggressive way that you can leave a faith is to start doing something that’s against what that faith believes and then just make a mention of it on facebook. And that’s where I am. I don’t know what I am. I certainly don’t make Mormons happy, but I’m not Anti-Mormon enough to make people who have left the church happy. I feel hopelessly caught in the middle all because of a cup of coffee…
Wait, no, not because of coffee, not really, right? Coffee is just a symptom of a bigger issue.
I got tired… tired of never feeling good enough, of being told what to eat and drink and wear, of being warned that my failures or my disobedience would lead me to be separated from my family in the afterlife. I stopped pretending to be perfect and I stopped believing in God, or at least that version of God. I just stopped.
So that’s where I’m at, and I’m either a really really bad Mormon, or just a normal person who drinks coffee… it depends on your perspective really. And so that’s why I’m talking about this. I’m tired of hiding who I am. I’m tired of feeling like a disobedient child. I want to claim my life and my adulthood. I’m coming out so that hopefully I can leave behind the people who will judge me or shun me based on their preconceived ideas and standards of acceptable behavior. Instead, I want to welcome in people who will get to know me, the real me, based on the choices that make me healthy and happy and I can welcome those people into my life and let them accept me fully… coffee breath and all.
Ava Love Hanna is a writer, storyteller, and performer living in Austin, Texas. She vividly remembers the night her husband asked her if she wanted to go to Istanbul, but she thought they should have a baby instead. She stands by her choice, but is now very tired and still hasn't had a decent cup of Turkish coffee. Read more about Ava >>