I have always been a beginner. The art making process is one where you start from scratch, at home plate, new ball every time. I have never been the old hand, never a natural athlete, never a natural anything. Every effort has been a leap into space. My most intense admiration has always been for those who seem to naturally know what to do. In school they not only knew when to take the test but what was on it when they did. For those who could hit the ball and for whom the cheers came naturally. For those who could make a friend easily, walk without tripping, buy the right clothes and wear them gracefully. Is it part of an artist’s outlook to be a fumbling, bumbling fool? It certainly seems to be part of mine.
Thwaack! A knife sails past my head and into the wall. It is vibrating back and forth from the force of the throw. I look over at my mother, standing in the kitchen in a long nightgown. Her face is furious. A woman has obviously been scorned. I jump aboard our scratchy 60’s couch to peek outside the window – it is a rainy, foggy morning. Through the mist I see red bullets glow off and on from long finned tail lights as someone pumps the breaks. That someone is my father and he is leaving. I watch the car pull out and drive away. I am four years old. He is not coming back.
I wake up. I am in second grade: blackboard up front, oldish female teacher, 30 odd students lined up in five neat rows. I don’t have the slightest idea what is going on. All of my classmates are hunkered down to take a test. What test? I begin to frantically beg one classmate after another for instruction: which subject, how long, what to do? I am eight.
Next I am sitting in class in my favorite plaid pants and in my favorite special period – art class. We all go to a cordoned off section of the room near the back wall and each pull out a large sheet of khaki colored “manila” paper from the stack, find our child’s seat at a big round table and indulge in the luscious mixed tempura colors in front of us. It is hard to resist just going at the paint (no drawing first) – it lies on the spongy paper coolly and opaquely in thick solid bands of color. I am in heaven. I turn to someone to make a joke and when I turn back I realize I have toppled a full plastic container of sunshine yellow paint down my right leg. I am riveted to this moment. My favorite pants are ruined but I love yellow. I am ten.
There is an interruption of our 6th grade class; an office monitor has come into the room. Oh God who could it be? The class is tense with expectation. Mrs. Smith calls me to her desk at the front. I march anxiously up from a side seat (what have I done?) running through a list of possibilities. I have never been called to the office before. I am escorted to that glass door with closed venetian blinds and the door shuts behind me. I have been chosen as the best poet in our school to create a tribute to our teacher who is retiring at the end of the year. I work on it at night for a week – my longest poem ever. As I approach the podium to address the assembly I am paralyzed with fear, nausea and grief. My knees shake and I have no voice. I stare down at the microphone and do it anyway, quivers and all. I am twelve.
My childhood was this snapshot kind of life: brief punches of reality that made up my developmental moments. When the narrative is cut out and you have to wing it who could expect a normal soul to emerge? I think it is possible that all of my idols growing up (“the naturals”) had stories beyond their young lives to pull from. The ones with bag lunches, carefully packed sandwiches with the crust cut off, the ones with snack pudding. It is possible that they had fewer rivals for love and attention (I had 5, then 6, brothers and sisters). Maybe this gives you grace, poise, surety. Maybe they were just more certain of where they were going; I’ll never know. What I do know is that I was dropped willy nilly into a crazy quilt family and I will always have to piece things together. I am starting to believe that at some point we all do. The things in my life I have taken for granted I will never fully know, just as I will never know the grace of the sportsman, an easy gait among a group, or a flawlessly turned out style. I will have to take my lot – nervous and anxious and always looking outside of myself. This is why I pick up a pen to write or to draw or to dream a dream – to probe the world and possibly discover the things I’ve missed along the way. Who knows what you know and when or why. I do know this: uncertainty has been in part my family inheritance, my good fortune, and my deepest memory.