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.
I’m a poet. I always have been. And even though my writing of late has moved towards essays and magazine articles (money), I will always be a poet.
I love to talk and will spend hours chatting away in person, but when I write I am minimalist, I want to conserve words, I want crystallized moments to explode off the page in just a few sentences. I love the power of poetry. I love its beauty and its truth. And on days when the world seems ugly and gray, I remember that human beings can write poetry and how amazing that it is, and I am filled with hope again.
Despite April being the cruelest month (T.S. Eliot, anyone?), it is also National Poetry Month, so I’ve made a poster of fun ways we can celebrate poetry and share its beauty with those around us.
A high resolution printable pdf of this poster is available here.
He wanted to ride the carousel at the mall. He’s five now, so I got on with him intending only to help him find an animal and climb up. The carousel was old and small, and wobbled as everyone climbed aboard. I put him on top of a brown horse with a flowing mane and wild eyes — It was a good fit.
He grabbed onto the pole with both hands, leaned into it, trembled a bit and looked at me with worried eyes as he surveyed how high he was and felt the wobbling of the ride before it had even begun. He looked up and noticed that the pole was at its low point and asked me if it would go even higher.
He is awake now, this little boy. Aware. He struggles with the lankiness of his legs, tries to understand his changing body as he faces growth spurt after growth spurt in an unrelenting parade. He is no longer an over confident toddler who charges into battle, he sees the world around him and senses danger, feels overwhelmed by noises, is trying to find his place.
I decide to stay on the ride and stand next to him. I put both my hands firmly about his waist, lean in to him and whisper, “It’s okay, I’ve got you and I won’t let you fall.” His eyes meet mine and I feel his body relax, feel his tension fade. “Look at how pretty the carousel is” I tell him, and he does. He loosens more, looks around and points out the paintings, the mirrors, the old round light bulbs.
Feeling him trust me so completely moves me. I feel it deeply in my chest and I lean in and kiss the back of his head so he won’t notice that I’m tearing up. Good tears, “happy tears” we call them, but I don’t want him to have to ask me about them. I want him to stay in this moment. The ride starts and he grabs a little tighter to the pole, but is still relaxed, my hands still around his waist. He knows I won’t let him fall.
That’s my mantra as his mother. It’s the banner I wave as I march into this battle every day. I have him, I’m here, and I won’t let him fall. Look around, enjoy the world and don’t be afraid, I have you.
I am someone who knows what it’s like to fall, to wobble and look around for a guiding hand. I am made of worry and fear. I am often overwhelmed, scared, and then shut down.
I remember when I first discovered I was pregnant. At first, I was elated… but not long after, I curled up on the edge of the bed and sobbed as I remembered the loneliness and fear of my childhood. I knew that I had the potential to damage another human being forever. I was already afraid I would fail this tiny person who was still in the process of being made.
In crowded places, I look down and follow my husband’s feet, I stay focused on just getting through – I often miss the beauty of the place, the time, the moment. But, at least I have those feet to follow. I was fortunate to find someone who would hold me and make me feel safe, but I missed so much before I found him.
But this isn’t how it will be for my son, not him; he will know that there are hands gently but firmly around his waist. He can climb onto the highest, craziest looking horse on the carousel and I will stand next to him, I will lean in as the ride starts, and I will let him look around and enjoy the moment – I have him and I will never let him fall.
I am standing in a museum surrounded by marble statues of people from worlds long gone; they are echoes of some other unreal time. History is like that to me, it never feels real.
I pick a bench in a sunny, windowed corner to sit and write. I’ve come here to try to dispel the dark clouds that have been chasing me this week… to try to numb the swollen ache in my heart. I thought the art might help, that it would give me something to look at so I could get out of my head for a little while. Maybe, it would ease some of this ridiculous pain. Instead, I feel every piece. It’s like they’re all playing on the same vibration as this depression; each one feels like a thumb pushing on a deep bruise.
I am mourning an inexplicable loss, something that doesn’t exist, has no resolution, and I am powerless to make myself feel whole. I’m a control freak, so this kind of thing sucks. All I can do is wait it out.
Is it her? Is that what they like? I compare myself to every woman who walks by and every piece of art. Notice how imperfect I am. I have a thing for perfection, or rather for being perfect.
Recently, I started to people-watch and noticed for the first time in my life how men will stare at certain women. Grown men will slow their cars to watch a young woman in shorts cross the street, a woman in a dress walking past the entrance to West Elm causes a conversation to halt while the three men crane their necks to watch her walk by. It is creepy, this level of unabashed focus that I’m seeing men devote to a woman who is merely crossing their path. I’ve never paid attention to it before, and now I can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere and I feel like I’m losing a competition. I’m pretty enough, but my strong suits have always been humor and intelligence… not the kind of things that random men notice when I walk down the street.
The modern art made me sadder. I can’t really explain why. I stared at the replicated cardboard box, sleeping bag, pack of cigarettes, marble sculpted trash bag. A marble trash bag… that’s what I feel like sometimes… a waste of materials and talent.
I can’t let go. The sky is divided – filled partially with angry sun and heavy, dark clouds. They tease rain, but won’t let it go. It is both sunny and potentially stormy, I’m caught in the tension.
The statue in front of me has no head or arms, and is missing its legs from the knees down. Incomplete or damaged, I don’t know. It’s only a replica, so I feel nothing when I look at it; none of the artistic energy of the real one is there.
I whisper to the universe, If you ever loved me, let the rain fall.
What about that statue, the topless one. I wonder if they prefer the curve of her breasts; if she meets the standard. I wonder how many would turn to look at her in a crowded restaurant or bar. Even minerals are my competition. I stare at her breasts and feel a sense of loathing for her – for her perfect breasts, their shape and lift, for her look of contentment. I feel an alliance with the male statue across from her: poorly endowed, exposed, and forced to stare forever at her ample perfect chest.
I am not enjoying marble today.
I leave and enter the calm quiet solemnity of the masters – perfect imperfection – ample bodies and vacant empty stares. I stand for a long time in front of a Flemish portrait of a man with a curved mustache. His look is so sad; he’s pale, anemic. He stares at me while I examine his facial hair. It’s so realistic; I can’t even see the strokes. I want to climb into the painting and touch his mustache.
It’s cool and dark in here which matches my mood. All around me are paintings of saints and sinners. I’m stuck, standing still in front of The Visitation. I think it’s about the Virgin Mary but all I can focus on is the donkey in the corner staring at me, upstaging everyone else. He’s looking at me as if to say, “Pfft, I know, right?” I nod. I like this room, everyone in the paintings looks like they’re rolling their eyes.
I walk a few steps, but I’m stuck again, this time in front of another portrait of a man with sad eyes and a mustache. Maybe I stop here because he’s looking at me, while everyone else is looking off to one side – like they know they’re in the painting, but want to act casual. This guy though, he looks right at me, and I can feel his hurt or maybe he feels mine… or maybe his collar is too tight.
I leave the dark cool space and find myself in the hallway, assaulted by sunlight. The clouds look like they are giving up and the sun is claiming the sky. I feel heartbroken by the brightness, I turn and give one last look at the donkey who still gets me, scoff warily at the giant reproduction of a milk carton near the entrance, and head towards my car to find that despite the sun, one cloud – one persistent cloud – waited for me, and gives rain to blanket my path.
This is my poem Parents, about the things every parent knows and every potential parent should be told.
Before I had a child, no one told me the real truth about parenting (spoiler: it’s awesome, but HARD). Actually, to be fair, they probably tried, but I just wasn’t paying attention: Yes, of course I’m listening: Labor sucks, they never sleep, they…. omg look how tiny these socks are! And there’s a tiny matching hat!!
Nature is a jerk. It has a way of camouflaging the truth. It made babies tiny and adorable because you cant really get mad at something that little and cute.
Now, if a middle aged man kept coming into your room and crying in your face while you were asleep, or kept accidentally pooping or peeing on you… I’m pretty certain you would give him a piece of your mind. But, when a tiny little person with cute little spider monkey hands screams you awake from a deep sleep, then proceeds to vomit and/or pee on you all while smiling with his little baby mouth and sparkly eyes… what do you do? You smile the hell back and thank the universe for this wonderful tiny person.
*shakes fist at nature*
Here’s the thing, you can not, no matter how hard you try, convince someone that once they have a kid they will never ever sleep again. It’s like trying to explain color to a blind person. There is no frame of reference. You can try, you could say: Okay think about the most tired you’ve ever been and now quadruple that and expect to feel it every second of every day, for.ev.er.
But, they just can’t comprehend it; it’s tacit knowledge, the kind that can only be learned via actual experience (and by then it’s too damn late and they are forced to have their own epiphany in the middle of the night while rocking what must be some sort of advanced human child who has evolved beyond the need for sleep).
Let’s be honest, it’s probably important that potential parents don’t understand how challenging parenting really is… otherwise, there would be zero chance of the human race continuing.
*continues to shake fist at nature and the manufacturers of tiny baby socks*
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.
I drew this comic last year and thought I would re-post it this week in celebration of the supreme court ruling on the defense of marriage act.
I spent a good portion of my week at the state capitol building protesting a bill that would restrict women’s freedoms in Texas. When you try and explain things like sb5 and doma to a 5 year old boy and he looks at you like you’re crazy… not because you are fighting them… but because they even exist in the first place, it really puts it into perspective. Let’s all stop trying to control each others bodies and hearts. No one loses when we let others pursue happiness.
And if I have to pull out my mom-voice, I will:If you don’t like what he’s doing, then don’t do it. No, I don’t care if it’s bothering you. Just go sit over there then. Why do you care what he’s doing? Is it hurting you? Are you losing anything? Did he make you do it, too? No? Okay, then, now you go do whatever makes you happy and he’s going to do what makes him happy, and I don’t want to have to come in here again.
Most people who have the disorder get it in the winter because it gets dark and they get mopey and are all,
Maaaaaan, I miss summer,
and I’m like,
Whatever losers! Woo Hoo! Dark and cold rocks! Let’s run naked through the woods! – right in their sad faces.
Now, however, it’s summer and I’m sad and moody and the rest of the world is like,
Yay summer! A million degrees! Sweating! Pools! BBQ’s! Mosquitoes trying to eat off our faces! or whatever. (Also, I am very sorry about getting all up in your faces last winter.)
So yes, most people who get SAD get it in the winter, but there is a summer version and it is the more rare form of an already rare disorder: “About 5 percent of adult Americans are thought to have winter seasonal affective disorder; researchers estimate that fewer than 1 percent have its summer variant.” Or so says the New York Times.
I’m one of those less than 1 percenters… because I’m all pale and mysterious so I get cool disorders that make me hide away in my dark house most of the day… and when I do venture out I’m withdrawn and moody, wear big black sunglasses and sigh dramatically.
Researchers are still unsure if it’s the heat or the light or a combination of both, For me, it’s not so much the heat (though omg it sucks), it’s the light… more specifically the WAY the light is shining. It’s too bright, it’s coming in at a weird angle. I feel out of sync with the rhythm of the planet at this time of year. My circadian rhythms are off, I feel out of sorts. My pockets hurt.
It’s like my brain is now cued for sunset instead of sunrise. I feel “weird” all day and fight off melancholy, and then as the day wanes and the light shifts, I feel okay again. Usually around 8 pm every night I start to feel the depression lift and I am suddenly and inexplicably myself again.
Off and on for the next few months I will battle this depression, and it sucks.
On the one hand, at least I know what it is. On the other hand, I hate knowing that it is a real thing and not just my imagination. Honestly, I think that this disorder affects more than one percent of the population. My facebook, twitter, and blog feed are filled with friends talking about feeling down for no reason right now. It almost seems that as a society we’ve become so desensitized to the seasons and nature that maybe we aren’t aware that as the planet moves, as the seasons change, that we, too, are affected.
Unlike the winter variant which involves staring at a lightbulb (or something), there is not a lot to help with summer SAD.
So, I fake it and make myself shower and work and all those normal human things even though I am totally not feeling it. I try to avoid pacing. I try to make myself sleep like a normal human. I watch Doctor Who. We pick our Halloween costumes and start working on them. We begin planning our big fall vacation. And when I feel like I can’t breathe, when I feel like this will never end … I will stop and breathe and try to remember that this will pass. It will take a few months, but it will pass.
Needless to say, our family will be hiding inside most of the summer, at least during the day. And when you invite us to your “It’s a million degrees – Let’s sit in direct sunlight and get sweaty – We love summer extravaganza!” parties… and you will… I will smile politely, thank you enthusiastically, and then silently count the days until fall. Oh, and next winter, when the tables are turned, I promise not to get all up in your sad face again.
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 >>