HOW TO BE
I’ve just placed black stones
on each window sill
& over the front & back
doors for protection.
Anxiety is an intruder,
anxiety takes the shape
of an intruder. I’m burning
sage to ward off
the negative spirits I’ve never
encountered but that just might
be here. I’m brewing
rose buds & lavender oil
on the stove, little cauldron,
to try & feel those old rose
colored glasses, to allow
them to be put back into place.
I’m cleaning the house
like my life depends
on its tidiness. Mary Oliver
asks, “Do you sense your place
here in the family of things?” &
I answer, “I’m trying.”
Witchcraft is the ancient balm
to help me feel like life is
still a bit enchanted, a bit
more than just what I see through
my tunneled vision, the illusion
that I somehow can influence
the forces & not just be
buffeted by these winds. I’m living
in Zelda Fitzgerald’s hometown
but I don’t feel glamorous.
I feel clumsy, cleaving.
I own no fur - one string
of black pearls. I take up
ballet, exercise to loosen
the grip of the intruder, maybe
that’s her influence. Maybe I
have many spirits watching
over me, not just the grandmother
my psychic friend tells me of. Maybe
there is more to my one little life
than I know - maybe it’ll all add
up to something, maybe I am
still learning how to be.
I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out where & how I fit into the world.
I’m still searching for where I fit into my own life exactly. I am twenty-six years old. My husband, Edward, is a third year medical school student who is training to be a psychiatrist. He has a clear, mostly structured path ahead of him & is quite busy. We met & became loose friends in 2011. We were neighbors. In 2013 we became best friends. We began dating in early 2015 & moved in together. Things moved quickly & by the end of 2016 we were married. I move where he needs to move for his career because he is my person. Because of this, my life needs to remain, at least for now, somewhat mobile & flexible so I can take at least some of it with me when we relocate to a new city every so often. I never thought I would be a housewife.
I’ve become lucky, hit the jackpot in some ways, to land where I have in life. My situation is such that I don’t need to have a job right now. I have time to work on myself, explore my interests, do creative projects & continue trying to learn to keep my mental illnesses a bit more at bay. I feel ungrateful saying I don’t like thinking of myself as a housewife when it’s given me so much freedom - more freedom than I’ve ever had before, really. I guess I just always assumed a real adult would earn money, that having a job was a part of every adult’s life - the thing you built the rest of it around.
I’ve had a hard time holding down traditional jobs. I got my first job under the table when I was 13 & worked my last one when I was 24. The pattern has been this - when I have an episode of depression getting out of bed becomes almost impossible so I call in sick too many days in a row & get fired. When I have a manic episode, I impulsively quit to “live my true life/dreams.”
My resume is very spotty - large chunks of time unaccounted for, no respectable excuse for them. If I could write a true resume for myself, it would read something like this…
September 2004 - Feb 2006 (Middle School)
My boss likes to touch me in ways that feel creepy - an arm around my waist when there is no reason for it.\
May 2006 - May 2008 (High School)
Law Firm Secretary
My boss keeps Playboy magazines in the supply closet. A decade after I resign he’ll be on trial for raping his wife & it will be all over the news in Pittsburgh.
August 2008 - February 2010 (High School)
Barista / Cafe Worker
I try to save a baby bird that falls from a nest behind the dumpster. I find him when I am taking out the garbage. I keep him in a to-go box in a nest of napkins, hidden in the back of the cafe until it’s time for me to go home. He does not live.
July 2010 (Freshman Year)
I move to Saint Louis for college. I have no idea what I want to study but college is just what children are expected to do in my family. I probably get into the university because my uncle is the dean of the art school. I get my first camera as a joint birthday gift from my mother & grandmother. I become obsessed with the Jon Krakauer book, “Into The Wild,” and keep a bag packed & ready to run away with in the corner of my dorm room.
June 2011 - February 2013 (Sophomore - Junior Years)
Computer Lab Tech / Archivist
Work-study jobs as part of my scholarships at the university. They are very boring & I spend most of my time looking at photographs of Iceland on my computer. I meet John here, he’s also working in the university library’s basement, & he introduces me to Edward.
December 2012 (Sophomore Year)
I hitchhike up the California coast during the university’s winter break. Back in Saint Louis during my sophomore year, I experienced my first real suicidal thoughts. Now here in San Fransisco, I contemplate the Golden Gate Bridge - how many people have ended their lives there, why they made that choice, what they felt as they went down.
June - August 2012 (Junior Year)
Missouri Botanical Gardens
It’s the hottest summer Saint Louis has had in a long time so I hurry around the garden photographing before hastily making my way back to the air conditioned communications offices to do edits. One of my images gets used on a sign post for a strange type of palm tree in the desert greenhouse (my favorite part of the gardens).
December 2013 (Junior Year)
I adopt Lena, the slowly aging little dog, but she is not yet slowly aging. She is afraid of everyone except for me. We choose each other - when I am at the adoption event & I pick her up, she growls at someone else when they walk over. This is my dog. This one wants to be mine. I need her too. I feel very alone in the world. When Edward first meets Lena he lays on the floor of the overpriced apartment I am renting a room in from an asshole 3rd year law student so she can walk on him & realize he’s not a threat. It works, she has liked him ever since.
February 2013 (Junior Year)
I go on the first of many medical leaves I’ll take from the university & spend a month sleeping for 22 or so hours a day in my mother’s farmhouse due to, at the time, undiagnosed bipolar disorder. I flee Saint Louis - I am losing my mind, I have to get out of there. I leave most of my belongings behind and never get them back. One night, while staying in the farmhouse, I drive myself to the ER & check myself in, telling them I am suicidal, to get away from my screaming mother & the filthy farmhouse. This is my first time in a psychiatric ward. The nurses do not believe I am a type 1 diabetic & do not want to give me my insulin. I get a big shot of Ativan in my ass in front of some male orderlies instead & by the morning my blood sugar is very high & I feel very sick.
April 2013 (Junior Year)
Saint Louis, MO
Lena & I spend a month or so living in my ex-fiance’s dorm room with him in because we literally have nowhere else to go. He is kind but it is very awkward & his suite mates hate me.
After a long drive from Saint Louis to Bellingham in under three days, Lena & I spend a while living in my car & subsisting on doughnuts stolen from the grocery store because my debit card is overdrawn. How do you start over? I was trying to start over somewhere beautiful.
June - July 2013
I see a flyer & get hired as a live-in caregiver for a passive aggressive old woman whose favorite form of communication is post-it notes. At least I am not living in my car anymore. I go to the local food bank, arrive early in the morning & wait in line for hours, once a week until I get approved for food stamps. I flee Bellingham with Lena when the old woman fires me. Again, I leave most of my belongings behind. It’s kind of traumatizing to keep having to flee, my continually shrinking collection of clothing & books with each abrupt move. I take only what will fit in one checked suitcase, one carryon bag & Lena. I have no safety net, no security in the world, very little to call my own. I do not take one photograph the whole time I am in Washington state.
After the failed attempt to start over in Bellingham, I am back in the hellhole that is my mother’s farmhouse. My attempt to start over, a new life, has failed. I am 22 & I feel like my whole life is already in pieces, hopelessness follows me like a fog - the feeling that my life will always be in pieces, that I am the failure, that I don’t know how to be a person or survive in the world. I should be graduating from the fancy university but I can’t make myself go to the classes. I am depressed as fuck, moving my body at all or showering feels like a heroic effort. I do not know how to adult.
August - November 2013
Saint Louis, MO
I have to get away from the farmhouse, again, fleeing - so Lena & I move back to Saint Louis, we rent a large turquoise bedroom in an arrogant asshole acquaintance’s house his daddy bought for him. I become a “webcam” girl on the internet because I have no car (it was breaking down & I had to sell it for scrap parts before returning from Bellingham to Greensburg) & the house is a dangerous walk from anywhere I could apply for a job. I hate it. To this day I cannot stand seeing the letters “bb” used to refer to a person because of those skeezy chatrooms.
Saint Louis, MO
I get commissioned by the university to do a shoot for them after they see some old images I took of the campus on a photo sharing website I no longer use. The job pays $500. It feels like more money than I’ve ever heard of.
November 2013 - April 2014
Saint Louis, MO
My roommate tells me about sugar daddies & I need money. I make a profile on a website. I do not want to sleep with the married old businessmen so I only go on first “dates” because nothing physical is expected on a first date. I get free meals & an envelope of money at the beginning of each meal. It works for a while but I hate it, it feels super icky.
August 2013 - April 2014
Saint Louis, MO
I get a job as a dispatcher for an appliance repair company from an ad on Craigslist. I have this job until I go on a vacation that changes things. I got to Warren Wilson college in North Carolina to visit an old friend I have a crush on. We do LSD, sleep in the woods, drive around the Blue Ridge Mountains. I become rather obsessed with him, completely infatuated. After driving back to Saint Louis & being alone again for a few days, I leave for Pittsburgh in the middle of the night to surprise him while he’s on winter break. There will be no staying at the farmhouse this time. My mother says I cannot come back. I don’t want to. She has banned me for talking to her neighbors, who she does not like. I have three dogs by now. I tell my boss there is a family emergency. There is no family emergency. The boy & I go to New York City. Then he comes to visit me in Saint Louis. When he leaves, something breaks. I beg him not to leave me alone with myself. I am suicidal. We stop talking. I fall into a horrible depression then come out the other side of the mind that I have no time to waste. I quit the dispatcher job - it didn’t pay enough for me to stop going to dinners with the old businessmen anyway.
Endangered Wolf Center
I ask them if I can have free admission to the center - I am in love with watching the wolves behind their two boundaries of high chain-link fence - in exchange for sharing the photographs I take with them for Facebook posts, fund-raising, etc. They agree. The wolves are mostly there to be rehabilitated before being released back into the wild where they belong. They have large enclosures & the center intentionally keeps them as undomesticated as possible. I am absolutely enchanted by these wild creatures.
June 2014 - December 2014
Saint Louis, MO
I get a job nannying for an no-nonsense widowed lawyer with a sweet 15-year-old daughter & an autistic 18-year-old son who is large & throws tantrums & I do not know how to care for. The job pays enough that I can stop going to the dinners with the old men - envelopes of cash handed to me at the beginning of the meal! I drive the kids to tutors & swim practice & cook them dinner. The lawyer pays me less for overtime than for normal hours, but I am desperate for work, and most of the job is overtime. She can never give me any idea of when she is going to be home & I am going to be let off duty, though I formally am done with my scheduled hours at 6:00. I get fired when I fall into a depression & call in sick four days in a row.
My first suicide attempt.
Stability still feels new to me - doing the same tasks everyday before I get to work on my projects, having a person, mostly not having to worry too much about being able to pay the bills. Sometimes the stability feels stale, feels suffocating. But it’s a lot better than the alternatives I’ve already experienced. Everyday before getting down to work - taking or editing photographs, tinkering with my website, sharing images or writing/editing I pick clothes up off the floor, run the little robot vacuum, collect & clean most of the dishes from around the house, wipe off the counters, start a load of laundry if one needs to be done & feed the fish.
I need to feel like I am more than just a housewife. I’ve been taking photos for about a decade - occasionally for money, most often not. Something within me bucks against the idea that I am a housewife. I don’t like the label, “housewife.” In my mind it implies that I am not useful for more than doing laundry or organizing kitchen cabinets - but I haven’t come up with a better term.
This particular summer begins in a liminal space. We do not take a vacation. Instead, we move from Birmingham to Montgomery for Edward’s medical education. Another new city in which to almost, but not quite, put down roots again - just deep enough to be almost easily pulled up again. I will miss Mackenzie, a fellow bipolar woman who has a hard time going to her classes, who I became very close with while living in Birmingham. This is the cost of my stability, of my person - long periods of loneliness while he’s under medical school pressure & frequent moves to cities we would not pick, if either of us had any say.
The previous summer we traveled over 2,000 miles in Edward’s car with our giant black dog whose ancestors were bred to hunt boar but who is afraid of plastic bags & my slowly aging little dog, Lena, whose ancestors were bred to be doorbells & to hunt mice. We stayed in a yurt in Madrid NM. We wondered the streets of Santa Fe, We stayed in an old post office in the ghost town of Cisco UT & were followed by an angry spirit until we crossed the state line into Arizona. We visited Marfa TX because I was obsessed with the show “I Love Dick.” I bought a bunch of their art catalogs meaning to collage with them. They’d all still be intact on my bookshelf a year & a half later. We visited national parks. I lost my rose gold wedding band somewhere in the coral pink sand dunes. Edward got a suntan on his left arm from driving.
I fell in love with the Southwestern landscape. I felt like the best version of myself in it - maybe a version who could live in some sort of contented state, a version who felt inspired to create for something other than social media, a version who would live a simpler life of growing lavender & cacti & going for walks in the desert. I know it was a pipe-dream, some kind of nostalgia bubbling up from I don’t know what time, but it has stuck with me. Maybe that could be my place in the world someday.
This particular summer begins with uncertainty, begins with trying to make peace with all the unknowns. I feel the anxiety in my body - it makes my blood feel cold with the puke green adrenaline, it makes me light-headed, makes the rooms I am in feel as if they are spinning. It helps to constantly move - bouncing a leg, or both legs, or strumming my fingers against the arm of the couch or busying myself with the logistics of the impending move. Half of our belongings are packed into brown U-Haul boxes. I am very anxious about how I am going to move my ridiculously large collection of houseplants safely to their/our new home. I am anxious about starting over in a new city. It has only been 2 years since I had to do that the previous time. I am very anxious about a lot of things.
Will I make friends there? Will I be okay? Will I be lonely? Will I ever see my husband or will his career completely eclipse our marriage, completely eclipse us? I take to laying under the sun on a bedsheet printed with black & white feathers with Lena. I am dancing the line of slathering myself with sunscreen, trying not to get burnt but needing the sun time to quell some of my anxiety. It helps.
The logistics of moving are overwhelming to me but it all goes so smoothly that, once we & our things are in the new yellow rental house in Montgomery, I keep wondering if it hasn’t actually happened yet. I’d obsessed about the logistics of finding a rental house & buying the right amount of U-Haul boxes & packing & moving trucks & schedules & heavy furniture for so long that I can't believe it has all worked. I feel like I’ve been given something I don’t deserve & it is going to be taken back. I wake early the first morning in the new house. I begin the unpacking, the nesting, the struggle for some illusion of control over life through the putting of items in their designated places.
Edward does brain scan research analysis work from home for the first while we are in Montgomery - it’s one of his “scholarly activity” modules he has to complete for school. We go on little adventures to the Montgomery zoo, the art museum, the dog park, the Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum where I am completely enraptured by the 1920s clothing, to shops & to try out restaurants. I buy a bicycle & only ride it a few times. I get stung in the nostril by a wasp while trying to smell a giant white flower from the neighbor’s magnolia tree - the one whose branches dip over into our backyard. We build raised beds & I grow all kinds of herbs & vegetables in the backyard. We hang fairy lights in the pagoda we end up never really using.
The best part of our new little rental house by far though, better than anywhere we’ve lived before, is my studio room. There is little bedroom with french doors that lead out to the deck & backyard that I turn into my artist studio. At first it is sparse - white bookshelves Edward puts together for me, an old wardrobe with the mirror on the front that is there when we move in, a desk I had ordered online & a chair. I decorate the wall next to my desk with postcards from the Chinati Foundation & New Mexico, with doodles on index cards, with pictures I take with my instant film camera & with prints of photographs I’ve taken.
I wake early in the morning & start the day in my studio with Lena, an audiobook & too much coffee. I tinker with my artist website. I ordered business cards with gold foil embossed onto them. I finally have a designated space, something that makes me feel like a “real artist” instead of just a housewife who follows her medical school husband around from city to city trying to cope.
I want to try dance & sign up for some ballet lessons. Since it’s unusual for someone to begin ballet training at the age of 26, no one in my level one class is over the age of ten. I am happy with this. I prefer them to the other adult students at another dance studio where I try a class The adult students take themselves way too seriously. The kids are sweet & give me tips in whispers not loud enough for the instructor to care about.
I add aquariums to my studio desk - one for the white elephant-ear beta fish I dub “Ghost” & one for fish who won’t murder each other. I spend a lot of time talking with the guy who handles the fish at Petco & I give him one of my business cards. It says, “Photographer / Artist / Human Being.” I tell him I like talking to him & that we should hang out sometime. I get an indoor composting bin & 2,000 red wriggler worms & I enjoy putting our kitchen scraps in there for my worm friends to eat until the swarms of fruit flies became a serious enough issue.
I’m searching, through all of these different projects, for my place in my own life. I’m seeking ways to fill my time in Montgomery - the long empty days, mouths wide open & menacing before me, while Edward is off doing his thing. There is no common thread between the projects except that they are my doing. I’m scrambling frantically for an identity, something I can define myself with, progress that can be measured, something that clicks, an ahah moment.
I do not have the ahah moment. I do not make any friends in Montgomery during the summer, much to my dismay. But I do make some promises to myself: I am going to get my type 1 diabetes under better control, I am going to keep making art because I needed to think of myself as an artist instead of just a lonely housewife, for my own ego’s sake, & I am going to get out of the depression I am slowly sinking into now that Edward is gone at the hospital working 11 or so hours a day.