Anyone who knows me, knows I’m not a typical grown-up. I’m lucky enough to be married to an awesome audio engineer and he recorded me reading, Art Class, the poem I wrote to my son explaining this.
Art Class is about the time I took Kai to a toddler art class and quickly realized that I wasn’t anything like the other moms there. The thing is, I tend to feel like a little girl wearing a grown-up suit most of the time. Somehow, without being fully aware of it, I just slipped into adulthood. I never felt a defining moment — there was never a point at which I could say, “Ah ha! Now, I am a grown-up.”
I have often considered the idea that my maturation has been the result of simple time and inevitability with little conscious effort on my part. For the most part, I’m okay with this. However, there are times — mostly now as a parent — when I am forced to interact with groups of people who probably don’t want to talk about Doctor Who or my robot collection… the ones who are really, really okay with being very grown-up and I realize how differently we see the world.
For me, parenthood has been the ultimate proving ground. It’s forced me to interact outside of my comfort zone and made me choose whether to change or to ultimately accept myself for who I am.
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.
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.
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.
It was an amazing night full of wonderful stories by talented writers all celebrating motherhood. I was so honored to be a member of the cast this year.
Here is the video of me reading my essay, The Vagina-Mommy Incident. It’s about the time I thought it would be a good idea to tell Kai the proper name for our genitals and how great that went…
Thank you so much Ann Imig for creating this wonderful event! And, thank you to Wendi Aarons, Liz Mcguire, and Blythe Jewell for producing the Austin show so that I could get up and say the word vagina over and over in front of a room full of people. It is an experience I will always cherish.
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 >>