Thanks to a blog post I read in November of 2012, I was introduced to a new book that had just come out, called The Handbuilt Home, by Ana White. It was purported to be a book that gave easy, comprehensive instructions to make furniture, no matter your experience level. On a whim I put the book on my Christmas list, and on the plane ride from Florida, where we spent the holidays with my family, back to Los Angeles where me and my partner had just moved, I read the book cover to cover and was penning a list of all the things we needed to buy at Home Depot on a drink napkin. Since putting all our stuff in storage in New York and spending 4 years in furnished rentals in Vancouver, we had no furniture to speak of, and more than anything, we needed a table and some places to sit; our first days in our LA rental found us in one primary spot in the house: a mattress in the middle of the living room floor, where we slept, ate, watched tv, read and cuddled. It took hardly any time at all for the coziness factor to wear off.
Anyways, my logic was this: we could either spend over a thousand dollars on a finished beautiful dining room table, or we could spend half that money on tools and materials and build one ourselves. Then, if we found the process to be fun and worthwhile, we could KEEP building furniture, making the investment of tools more cost effective with each project. Unfortunately, after our first two projects (a Farmhouse style dining room table and a matching bench), Claire’s interest had waned, but mine grew, and over the past year and some change I have continued to build furniture by myself, becoming more competent and taking on more challenging tasks. So far we have built the aforementioned dining room table and bench together, and I have worked solo on a coffee table, bookcase, printer console, upholstered vanity stool, and a rolling kitchen island, along with a slew of other smaller woodworking projects.
I wanted to share my latest furniture DIY creation here on my blog, because it is my most ambitious project to date. We recently got a master bathroom renovation to turn our tiny, barely functional hallway bath into an en suite with much more space and efficiency. In trying to make the most of our budget, I decided to take on the task of building our vanity, which, if purchased in the style and materials we wanted, would run us no less than $1500. With some free plans from Ana White’s website and a bit of advice from our contractor, I built the tile topped vanity from scratch and tiled the surrounding backsplash for $490, and it was custom built to fit the exact measurements inside our new bathroom. The project took about 11 days from start to finish, and the most difficult part of the whole project was the tiling. I had never tiled before and it was WAY more intense than I anticipated- I sprouted stress-induced fever blisters within hours after all the grouting was complete. I don’t think you can put a price on fever blisters, but all in all, the project came out beautifully and I am very very proud of it!
Although my recent wedding (if one could even call it that) was small and private, as a queer woman I feel compelled to share some of the details of our decision to get married. It’s really important that members of the LGBTQIA community are able to contribute their own experiences to the world, regardless of their subject matter, because we have lived so long in a society where our collective experiences have been suppressed rather than encouraged. Ours is a very simple and familiar tale of love, not unlike the stories that so many same sex couples have, and that’s where it’s significance lies; we want to be relatable and understood without people losing sight of the differences that make us unique. The more we share our stories and who we are, the less stigma I think there will be to recognize people from my community as whole, full formed individuals. We are not OTHER, we are others.
As a child, I never ever dreamed about having a wedding, and therefore never ever wanted one as an adult. In fact, my feelings about weddings have always been unromantic and complicated and they became even more so after finding myself in a loving relationship with a woman; who even wants to entertain the idea of having a marriage that your government won’t technically allow?
The beginning of my distaste for marriage in general was born out of defense. As I have mentioned before, I grew up poor in the deep south with parents of different races, but what seemed at times to set me apart more than any of those things was the fact that my parents were never married. The horror on people’s faces, adults and children alike, was obvious. “Why don’t you have the same last name as your Dad?”, they would ask. “Um. Because my parents never got married so I just have my Mom’s last name,” I would answer sheepishly, and then they would look at me like they didn’t know how a child like me could possibly exist.
This seems to be a recurring theme in my life.
They were wondering how I GOT here without a wedding, as if love and marriage were not mutually exclusive. I knew from a young age that a marriage didn’t equate love, a marriage didn’t validate a relationship, a marriage didn’t make you more important than any other couple that loved each other, but I didn’t know how to not feel embarrassed about my illegitimacy in other people’s eyes. So, like any other child, I internalized my feelings, and I grew into an adult who had a deep aversion to the idea of marriage, without ever really bothering to unpack it. This isn’t to say that I didn’t go to my friend’s weddings and cry uncontrollably as they walked down the aisle. I have always been so happy for my friends who found love, but I was happy for them BEFORE their wedding announcements, not because of them. I was happy for them on their seventh date, and happy for them when they moved in together, and happy for them when they talked passionately about their future. To me, that was legit as it got.
Claire and I had been together three years when we got our domestic partnership in NYC, and contrary to popular belief, we didn’t do it because we wanted to have a legal declaration of love for one another; we did it because we wanted to be protected by the law when we both moved to Vancouver for my work. Getting a legal partnership was about security and safety, and this was the first time I recognized that this was the most basic benefit of a legal marriage. The fact that religious doctrine said we were not allowed to get married in the church was fine with me, cause my union with Claire had NOTHING to do with the church. It had everything to do with planning for a family one day, buying property, filing for taxes, getting insurance coverage, making sure that we would be taken care of should something awful happen to one of us. A union in the eyes of the law was a pragmatic decision, and had nothing to with God. I was angry that we couldn’t have this same basic right as other couples, because I didn’t even want a wedding, I just wanted equal rights! Although our decision to get a domestic partnership was a sensible one rather than a romantic one, it was still an incredibly special day, and I will never forget it. We had chosen a pair of very simple, inexpensive rings to exchange over dinner at our favorite restaurant in Prospect Heights where we lived at the time. We enlisted my closest friend Larry to accompany us to City Hall who posed as our photographer as we filled out the necessary paperwork. We took silly pictures next to the “Marriage Licenses” sign in the hallway. When we were finished and we had our paperwork, we stood in the elevator and cried with each other as we looked down at our certificate. Despite the practicality of our legal partnership, we knew we were absolutely committed to each other, and although that piece of paper didn’t dictate the importance of our relationship, the decision to get it did. It wasn’t the domestic partnership itself that was significant, it was the circumstances that encouraged us to get the domestic partnership in the first place; Claire was leaving her job and her friends to move across the country to share a life with me, and I wanted her to come with me more than anything in the world.
As legit as it gets.
Now, fast forward four years to when we moved to our new city and moved into our new home that we own. Nothing much has changed between us, except that we have survived some very difficult experiences and transitions, and thankfully flourished because of them. I still wanted to spend as much of my future with Claire as our love would allow. But guess what. That domestic partnership we got years ago in NYC? It didn’t mean anything here in California. It didn’t mean anything outside of the state of New York. We had to go through the whole process again. We marveled at the fact that this was taken for granted by so many same sex married couples; what if, whenever a married couple moved to a new state in the US, they had to get married again? I began to think that maybe this was a smart idea, that maybe some couples who weren’t really happy together might feel more inclined to separate or re-think their relationship if they were forced to go through the process over and over again. But it didn’t feel smart to us at the time. It felt like a hassle. It felt like no matter where we were or where we went, we didn’t ever count for real.
In late June, we are in Beverly Hills at a lawyer’s office drafting up our wills when we find out that they cannot be executed until we get a civil union in the state of California. This is the very week where the constitutionality of DOMA and Prop 8 are being reviewed by the Supreme Court, and Claire is pessimistic. She thinks that Prop 8 has a chance of working in our favor, but that DOMA will never be struck down in our foreseeable future. A few days later we are both literally awestruck when we wake in the morning and read the news headlines that the federal government is making same sex marriages legal. Speechless. We just hug tightly as my tears start to fall. Now, instead of having to get a Civil Union in the state of California, we are going to get an actual marriage. We will be recognized in the whole country as a legal couple. We wont have to keep filling out the same paperwork every time we move to a new place. If something terrible happens to one of us, we wont have to worry about whether or not the other person will be well taken care of financially. We don’t have to worry about being allowed hospital visits if one of us is sick. We don’t have to worry about who gets to be the legal guardian of any children we might adopt in the future. We don’t have to pay thousands of extra dollars annually for Claire to be be entitled to health insurance simply because she is viewed as a taxable dependent instead of as a spouse. We have always known that we were the same as other couples. But now we will be treated as such. This is what I am elated over.
The strange part about announcing our union for the second time is dealing with other people’s reactions; not everyone has the same attitude about marriage that I do, and marriage means many things to different people, so merging their expectations with our reality was a bit tricky. Most everyone was really happy and excited for us, which was certainly understandable in one respect, but it also reiterated the idea that our domestic partnership we had gotten several years ago didn’t count, that THIS was the real deal. I had never thought of our first legal union as a marriage, but I did think of it as our first public commitment to each other, and that mattered, and still matters, so much to me. In some ways, that one counts even more because we had to take a leap of faith to move forward with it. Making a commitment after seven years is easy when you’ve known each other for that long, when you’ve have had seven years of ups and downs, when you’ve learned to love all the difficult parts of each other for so long. But a commitment after three years with an immediate move to another country? That was dangerous territory, something we could have easily fallen apart over.
We told a few friends and family that we would be getting our marriage officiated soon, but most people didn’t find out till I posted pictures online the day of our wedding. It wasn’t an attempt to exclude any of the important people in our life, but rather a continuation of keeping the spirit of the event low key; we wanted an intimate experience, and that’s what we got, with only our officiant and our friend Kelly (who acted as witness) present.
All the pragmatism and utility in the world couldn’t keep this day from being special. On a whim, we drove down to San Diego a few days before the wedding to visit my high school friend, Henry, who works at a beautiful jewelry store, and he and his wife helped us pick out two simple, lovely rings to exchange. I wanted the most non-clunky, non-showy, functional ring I could find, so that it would never get in the way of what I was doing or where I was going; it seemed to perfectly symbolize my union with Claire- always present but never a burden. On Oct. 5th, Claire and I woke up, had breakfast, and picked out what we were going to wear, outfits that (magically!) matched. Our officiant arrived at our home while Claire was still in the shower, and she sat on the couch patiently as we finished getting ready. Kelly showed up looking radiant in a beautiful lacy white dress and served as our photographer while Claire and I stood in front of our homemade coffee table and listened to each other share her vows. I cried like a baby. Claire doesn’t write very much, but when she does, it speaks right to my heart. Ours was the briefest ceremony perhaps in the history of the world, but it had all the important parts we wanted: our declaration of love for one another, our “I Do”s, and a kiss. We exchanged our perfect rings, mine rose gold, Claire’s white gold, we had a toast, and then we took some fun, casual pictures on the front lawn of our house, with our dog, Rosie. There were a few parts in the day that I had wished our families had been there to witness our exchange of love, but we plan to have a party some time this year for all our friends and family to celebrate with us. I have no idea what the format will be, and honestly, I don’t care. We got the important part done already- the rest is just fun.
It was really important for us to stick to our wishes and be selfish about how we wanted this special day to be, despite the protestations of a lot of well intentioned people in our lives. I had the dream wedding I had never even realized I dreamed up, and nothing could be better than that.
I got my “Daisy Girl’s Guide to Girl Scouting” in the mail yesterday, a thick blue fancy looking binder with a magnetized closure flap on the side and a space to print out my name underneath the “This book belongs to:” tag. This binder is pretty much everything my 33 and 7 year old selves could have hoped for, although the 33 year old has a deep appreciation for the fact that this binder isn’t bright pink. Line drawings of butterflies, birds, flowers and fruit decorate the side flap, and when you open it up, the other side has big bright letters that read “Get ready to grow!” underneath a daisy with mascara on her eyelashes.
I wonder if there is a make-up application badge.
Written on the inside cover: “Girl Scouting builds girls of COURAGE, CONFIDENCE, and CHARACTER, who make the world a better place.”
I LOVE this sentence! These simple tenets, so obviously necessary for the development of a well rounded child, are the parts that seem to lose their import as we get older. Straightforward goals of having courage, confidence and character end up getting replaced by mantras like “don’t drive drunk”, “use condoms”, “contribute to a 401K”, and “remember that Hot Pockets are not a food group”. In some ways the adult credos are distant relatives to the kid ones, but they are much more distinct, more strict, more self serving than what we were taught as kids. Many of us won’t drive drunk because we don’t want to get in trouble with the law, but what about not wanting to endanger our life and the lives of others? Refraining from drunk driving should come from having integrity, not having a fear of a suspended license. And avoiding the Hot Pocket shelf in the freezer section shouldn’t just be about steering clear of bubble guts, it should also be about having the courage to make good decisions about our bodies. I wonder if a Girl Scout understand the difference.
Okay, so COURAGE, CONFIDENCE, and CHARACTER.
I can totally do this.
Next, I read The Girl Scout Promise posted on the inside front cover.
“On my honor I will try: To serve God…”
I haven’t even turned an actual page of my guide book and I am already stuck.
On my honor I will try…to…serve…God.
I have never really known how to explain how I felt about God, not now, nor when I was a little girl, even though I grew up right in the middle of the bible belt.
So how will I know how to “serve God”? I ‘m not even sure of what that means exactly. Which God is the Girl Scout Guide referring to? There are a lot to choose from. I didn’t realize that the Girl Scouts were affiliated with any religious group.
Although growing up I was surrounded on all sides by churches, I was able to successfully finish my 18 years in Birmingham without ever actually being a member of one. Which is not to say that I didn’t know how to play the system. In middle school, in order to spend more hang-out time with my best friends., I started joining them at the gigantic Baptist church down the street from our school on Wednesday nights. We hung out and gossiped and acted silly as always, just within the confines of stained glass windows and the expensive perfume of the church’s patrons. Little did I know at the time that the cheap hot dog and hamburger suppers they always served on these nights were an attempt to snare church-less young individuals like myself into their grasp, the young parishioners of the church having been encouraged to invite outside guests on Wednesday nights.
When I was five years old and my single mother moved us to Homewood, a small, middle class, comparatively colorless suburb of Birmingham, we were struggling, big time. My Mom found us a small, unimpressive apartment she could barely afford in this neighborhood because it had one of the best public school systems that the county had to offer. So what if she had to work her ass off 12 hours a day and I had to come home to an empty house after school and we had to survive on food stamps and endure relentless racism from everyone in the neighborhood (“Are you one of those people that adopts those kind of children? Bless your heart!” and “My goodness, this little girl is SO clean and well spoken!“)! Upon our arrival in Homewood, my Mom went to this very same gigantic church down the street from what would eventually become my middle school, and she asked for help. She needed resources, assistance in whatever way the church could provide. My mother had absolutely no family to ask for help, since they had estranged themselves from her when they found out she had fallen in love and given birth to a brown baby. Now my Mom and Dad were separated and she had no one else to turn to. The church said they couldn’t help her unless she became a member of their congregation, and would she like to fill out an information form and attend services on Sunday to pray with the parishioners?
No, my mother would NOT, thank you very much, and she walked out of the gigantic doors of the gigantic church, crying and I imagine feeling quite lonely.
My mother had grown up very content in the church, had been the star of every choir she had ever joined, but she became increasingly aware as she grew older the incongruities of what the followers preached and how the followers acted. She didn’t want to get help from an organization whose charity was based on stipulations and judgements of who she was and how she lived her life (she had too many things stacked up against her already in this conservative southern town: young single parent, unmarried, biracial child, no college education, un-apologetically high heels). I think she was also weary of bringing me into an environment where every single person around was white. It just didn’t sit well with her.
But it didn’t keep her from walking through the doors on Christmas Eve every year with throngs of other churchgoers for Midnight Mass. We would sit in one of the rows furthest to the back while tears streamed down my mother’s cheeks, her voice joining the congregation’s to sing every song by heart. I wonder if the person my mother asked for help from the church ever recognized us on those chilly nights, scurrying out of the pew before Mass was over to avoid the crowd, and more importantly the stares.
I knew this sad tale about my Mom’s plea to the church for help, so I side-eyed the constant invites I would get from my friends, pretty much all of whom attended this church. But one day I found out that this church served food on Wednesday nights to everyone who attended youth services.
I came for the hot dogs.
But I stayed for the choir.
I guess it’s genetic. I have always been a sucker for a choir, just like my mom, and this church did not disappoint; behind it’s gigantic doors lay a gigantic stage with a booming piano and a microphone. “Oh, Jessica!,” they would say (you know they couldn’t pronounce my name correctly), “you are such a gorgeous soprano! Would you like to sing a solo in our next youth choir concert?”
Of course I did! Even if it meant grinning and bearing through 45 minutes of talking about Jesus with popular kids who ignored me every day at school (I was never bullied; I was just invisible). The bible study section of my Wednesday nights at church played out like an episode of Peanuts, with an adult “womp womp womping” in the background while I doodled on any scrap pieces of paper I could find. I can’t remember learning anything about God, or myself in those classes. But I can remember the lyrics and choreography to the Christian rap we performed at my final youth concert.
Eventually I stopped going to youth services on Wednesday nights. The sacrifices I had to make in order to sing solos had become too great. Talking about Jesus all the time was exhausting considering how much real life drama I was experiencing (nasty stepdad, mentally unwell stepmom, bills not getting paid, Mom working way too hard, Mom not quitting smoking like she promised, Mom is going to die one day, what will I do when my Mom dies one day, etc., etc.) and I found no solace or comfort in the myth of a Lord and Savior whose goodness I never saw bestowed upon the people who seemed to need it the most. I found my relief in books. In drawing. In creating things that made people smile. In finding friends who were every bit as irreverent as I was. In the belief that my grown up life didn’t have to look like the one I was living if I didn’t want it to.
I have no idea how to “serve God” since God hasn’t ever been anything I actually believed in with all my heart. I definitely went through a period in high school where I tried desperately to attach myself to some kind of glorious faith, like all my peers seemed to have done so effortlessly, and I have the diary entries to prove it: “I just wish E- would stop ACTING like he likes me and ACTUALLY like me! Why does he put me through this??? But whatever, cause I know that the Lord is my shepherd and I will totally get through this!” is, embarrassingly enough, an actual line from a diary entry I wrote when I was a teenager. In all my years of living a life surrounded by churches and church going folk, a shepherding Lord is pretty much the only thing that I could remember from the handful of sermons I had been forced to listen to, and I referenced it like a Jewel lyric. When I was younger, I wanted very badly to have my heart filled up with the idea of this perfect thing that would comfort me in my times of need, but I felt like a phony, like I was going through the motions of a dance I needed to learn.
I could not articulate this then, but looking back, I realize that I have always felt full, even when I was incredibly sad, or mad, or angry, or confused. It doesn’t feel like there is enough room in my heart for some foreign, uncompromising and undefined force when that space is already filled so deeply with my passion for all the people in this world, the beautiful ideas that exist around us, and my growing acceptance of all my parts, both good and bad. Maybe that’s what people mean when they say that God is in us and all around us. Maybe it’s just the concept of God that feels unsatisfying to me, but that feeling that God is supposed to elicit in you, that wonder and that drive to be good and to ignite love in every single thing you do, that power to feel whole even when you are in a dark place, maybe THAT is the feeling that people experience when they have faith in God. Maybe it’s not about a white man in the sky, which is all that my young mind could understand when I learned about God as a child; maybe it’s just about semantics.
Okay, so let me do a little revision:
The Girl Scout Promise:
On my honor, I will try:
God [the world, all the curious things in it, along with the safe parts and the scary parts about myself and others, and every single little thing in between] and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout law.
I doubt that The Girl Scout Promise allows for compromise; as far as I know, this promise has been written since the beginning of Scout-dom and has remained unchanged for all these decades. But, it says, right there on the inside cover, that “Girl Scouting builds girls of Courage, Confidence, and Character, who make the world a better place“. Well, my world would be a better place if I could redefine the Promise to better fit my understanding of it. And how much confidence does it take to stand tall, proud and unashamed for not having the same belief systems that everyone else around you seem to have?
Maybe just enough to make me good Girl Scout material?
A year ago I had the honor of returning to my alma mater to deliver the commencement speech to the graduating class of Catawba College, Class of 2013. Since then, parts of that speech have been shared in various forms over the Internet , so I am officially posting it here in it’s entirety on my website.
It has been exactly 10 years since I sat in the very seats you are sitting in now, and I remember everything about this day, from what I wore, to where my family sat, to who I hung out with at the parties I went to later that evening. What stands out for me most about my graduation day however was not a sense of accomplishment, as I had anticipated, but rather a sense of disconnectedness. I felt like I was outside of my body, watching everything that was happening to me, but not really taking part in any of it. I had been prepared to feel overwhelmed with happiness and excitement on this special day, and I did feel those things, to a certain extent, but I also felt disengaged. I never examined why until I was asked to be here today to give this commencement speech.
This day, the one you are living now and the one I lived a decade ago, marks a very extraordinary time in a person’s life, in ways that I wasn’t able to articulate until now. We spend our entire childhoods waiting to graduate to the next level. We start off in diapers and then we graduate to big boy or big girl underwear. We start off eating mushy foods and then we move on to solids. We all know what is supposed to come next- it’s taught to us, like a story. Once we master one thing, we get to graduate to another thing that is a little more challenging, and so on and so on. We start off looking at books with pictures and then we move on to reading books with words. We graduate middle school and then we graduate high school and then we graduate college. But see, that’s where my story stopped. Ten years ago I was graduating. I was sitting on this very campus with some of these very same professors who supported me and cared for me for 4 years, and I realized that my college graduation was as far as I had been taught to go. I didn’t know what came next, and my parents and professors couldn’t tell me, either. Everything felt bizarre to me on my graduation day because I no longer had any guidelines to follow, and I felt really lost.
Some of you will be able to relate to this and others will not. Your plans might be set already to go to grad school right after Catawba, or to look for a job, or to plan an engagement and start a family. But to all of you that think you have your stories figured out, I want to assure you that you do not. Your story cannot be figured out yet, and you don’t want it to be. At my own graduation I was frozen with fear and unable to fully take part in what was happening because of it; the end of my 4 years at Catawba had suddenly brought me more freedom than I knew what to do with, because it was now MY turn to map out how I wanted my story to go. It was my turn to write it. I got to decide what I was graduating to next. It’s one thing to tell everyone that your story is about moving to New York City to be on Broadway, but it is quite another thing to make that story a reality, to believe in it with all your heart and to make it come true.
For a while after I graduated, my story was to work at Chili’s selling baby back ribs to newly married, pregnant girls that I had gone to high school with. My dad is a postal worker and my mom is a property manager. They both have strong work ethics and weak bank accounts, so though they always supported my dreams of becoming a professional actor, I knew that it was going to be all MY responsibility to make it happen. Which meant moving back to Birmingham and working three jobs to save as much money in as short a time as I could. I was miserable having to live back home in a city I no longer felt comfortable in, working at jobs that I hated, but I knew that writing my own story would not come without its’ sacrifices. Eventually I saved up enough money for two month’s rent and a UHaul, and, along with fellow Catawba grad Amy Stran, we both graduated from living at home to living on our own in Manhattan.
I continued to write my story, to lay out all the things I wanted to do so that, one by one, I could conquer them and move on to the next level. Everything went smoothly for a while- it was a miracle that we found an affordable place to live that didn’t have a bathtub sitting in the middle of the living room, but we did. Within our first month in the city, Amy met her future husband and I got cast as a lead in an unimpressive (but paying) Off Broadway musical. The next chapters I planned to put in my story were to get an agent, to join the actor’s unions, to become a Broadway star, and then, I guess be happy forever and ever. But it did not happen that way. Here, my story started writing itself without my help at all. After 6 months, the Off Broadway show I was in closed unexpectedly, and just like that, I was jobless and having to scrounge in our desk drawers for change so that I could have enough money to eat. I survived on peanut butter and Wendy’s Dollar menus for weeks.
I was auditioning all the time but not getting cast in anything, and eventually I knew I had to either get a “regular” job or move back home to Birmingham, which I could not bear to do. So. I started temping as a receptionist at a high end fashion house that makes VERY expensive gowns for celebrities to wear at red carpet events. Every once in a while I would get to the studio early to walk into the show room before the designers had come into work, and I would run my fingers over the silks and sequins on the dresses, imagining myself wearing them as I received one Tony award after another. If I stayed at this place, I knew I would have job security and benefits and a steady paycheck for the first time in my young life, but I also knew that working there would ensure that I’d never write the story I originally wanted for myself. It was a tough decision, some might even say a stupid one, but I trusted my gut, and within a week of quitting my receptionist job, I was hired as a waitress and cast in the chorus of a tiny production called “Believe In Me, A BigFoot Musical” in which I had two lines. I had no idea at the time, but Bigfoot was going to change everything I knew about where my story was going.
I spent my first few years in NYC trying to manage everything that I wanted to happen to me, mapping out exactly how I wanted to succeed. Some of it happened and some of it got derailed, but at one point I realized that the trick was not to get so caught up in the writing of my story, but to get caught up in the living of it. To recognize that there was power not only in changing the things I was unhappy with, but also in relinquishing control and letting myself get swept up in this beautiful life I was making for myself, the good AND the bad parts. Any normal person probably would have said no to accepting such a small role in a show like Bigfoot the Musical, but I had just spent several months behind a desk answering phones all day, so there was comfort for me in returning to what I had spent so much time nurturing at Catawba; a passion for storytelling onstage, sharing a rehearsal space and harmonizing with beautiful voices. On our final night of performance, there was a man in the audience named Frank who for some reason was riveted by the delivery of my two lines I had in the show, (more proof for all you theatre majors out there that there really are no small parts!). Frank was friends with a producer who was looking to recast the title role in a musical he was working on, and within a week I had auditioned and been cast.
I graduated from chorus member of Bigfoot the Musical to my very first starring role at a prestigious theatre in Philadelphia, and over the course of the next several years I joined the actors unions, got an agent and a manager, and started working regularly in commercials, film, and television. This is how my story has gone. I never anticipated that film or tv was something that I would be a part of, was something that I would even enjoy, but it is, and I do. I graduated from steady employment in the entertainment industry to falling in love with Claire, my partner, who has supported and loved me courageously, and who has become an even bigger part of my story than I ever imagined another individual would. I graduated from falling in love to feeling brave enough to take my art seriously, starting my own web comic and freelancing as an illustrator. As of last week, I am officially a published author and artist, having contributed a comic I wrote and drew to an anthology called “The Letter Q”, which is a book about queer writers penning letters to themselves as young adults. Of all that I have accomplished in the 10 years since I have graduated from Catawba, this is the thing of which I am most proud, sharing my story with the LGBTQ community in support, in love, and in solidarity. It turns out that my story isn’t about one trajectory at all. My story bounces around; it has highs and lows, it veers off in one direction and then reverses and revisits areas it passed by in other years. So far, I still have not made it to Broadway; instead I have found immense joy in crafting my own story-telling technique, connecting with other people who may not have a voice of their own, and I cherish this more than anything my 22 year old self could have ever conjured.
My hope for you, class of 2012, is that you embrace the responsibility of drafting your own stories with gratitude and grace, that you allow yourselves to get swept up in the beautiful, unexpected moments of your life without losing sight of what makes you feel both happy and whole. I urge you to write your stories with vigor and commitment. To allow yourself to make mistakes. To relish in the journey of your story, and to remember to always write in pencil.
I wont lie to you; this did not start out innocently.
This, like many successful things that exist in our society at present, started out as a joke-slash-dare-slash-get-rich-quick scheme.
I was noticing a real trend in the popular media that I was consuming (or rather, being forced to consume). First there was Julie, the lady who started a blog detailing the remarkable act of cooking all of Julia Child’s grueling recipes. She documented the experience for a growing number of devout readers and got a book deal, which eventually became a movie (a movie telling a story that I was not particularly interested in, but who can resist Meryl Streep?)
There is also Gertie, the sewing enthusiast and vintage clothing lover who blogged her way through the tedious effort of making most of the garments from the 1952 “Vogue’s New Book for Better Sewing”. Her blog also procured a substantial number of avid readers, which eventually led to her publishing not one but two books (the second to be published next year), both instructional texts with gorgeous patterns for Gertie’s take on some of Vogue’s most iconoclastic ensembles. There’s the guy who started a tumblr blog chronicling the misadventures of his toddler son who, regardless of the circumstances (or perhaps in spite of them), is always, always crying. I assume that his new book, “Reasons My Son is Crying”, will be stocked on all the shelves of Urban Outfitters just in time for Christmas, right next to “Sh*it My Dad Says”, another project which began as a twitter feed and was magically transformed into a book deal even before the twitter account gained over 3 million followers.
The list of blog turned books goes on and on: “Stuff White People Like”, which is pretty self explanatory (and which consequently serves as more race-inspired fodder for me to agonize over (“Am I too white? Not white enough?! WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT MY MOM DOESN’T LIKE ANY OF THESE THINGS!?!!”), “I Can Has A Cheezburger?”, a collection of internet memes starring barely literate cats, “This Is Why You’re Fat”, a blog-turned-book of pictures showing ridiculously unhealthy edible concoctions (all of which I
would have eaten ate in college), and “The Joys of Engrish”, an astoundingly racist publication that makes fun of English translations from mostly Asian languages (for the record, I get the general joke, and I can see the humor in cultural misunderstandings based on dialect and language, but devoting an entire book to this subject matter is just another example of elitism; it seems unfair to poke fun of a specific group of people without turning the finger around on ourselves, in which case it just turns into bullying for profit. Which I suppose is the American way. But I digress).
As a consumer, experiencing the initial shift in the publishing market was notable, but it also seemed understandable when compared with the state of other media outlets, specifically TV. A small handful of reality shows that were originally groundbreaking and inventive had been saturated by networks wanting to create more revenue, in turn casting participants willing to do any and everything to have their 15 minutes (sometimes, sadly, an hour) of fame. So the first few brilliant seasons of MTV’s The Real World begot Big Brother, which begot Survivor, and then a bunch of weird, unintelligible stuff happened behind closed doors, and we ended up with Long Island Medium and that show about the Amish gang members. The same thing, on a smaller scale, seems to be happening with books. You don’t really have to write about anything NEW now; you only have to take an idea that someone else came up with it and do it again, or talk about it, or mimic it, or do it wrong, or gather a collection of things that someone else has done that you have witnessed, and package it up nice and neatly. Outside of fiction books, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of original content being generated.
I actually don’t think this is all bad.
I am a proud lover of DIY, and any book, website, blog or tutorial that can lay out, in easy, understandable terms, how to do something that I didn’t know how to do before is right up my alley. I have purchased (and benefited greatly from) a few of these books that began as blogs; “Gertie’s New Book for Better Sewing” has added several gorgeous items of handmade clothing to my closet and taught me all kinds of fascinating haute couture and alteration techniques that I never used in my previous sewing projects. Obviously Gertie didn’t create the techniques used in the original Vogue publication, but she translated the language into something comprehensible, giving readers like me a brand new appreciation for vintage design. And Ana White’s book “The Handbuilt Home” which began as a blog to detail her journey in teaching herself the art of woodworking, inspired me to start building my own furniture. Ana White of course didn’t invent the hammer or the nail, but she provided an example of a capable woman using power tools and lumber to construct functional and beautiful furniture for her home, and reading her book made me want to be just as accomplished. And now I am.
Several years ago my online comic “High Yella Magic” received the attention of some reputable publishers and literary agents. Although I had never seriously thought of turning my comic into a book because I was still figuring out my style and learning how to draw and write stories proficiently, the idea appealed to me, and I took a couple of meetings to discuss the comic’s potential. I was pretty astonished to find out how sleazy the publishing field could be. The agent I met with told me in no uncertain terms that my stories, which were all honest retellings of my own experiences, needed to focus either on the fact that I was a biracial woman of color, or that I was queer. She told me I couldn’t write about both, because those two demographics were incompatible, too exclusive, impractical. Maybe she was referring more to money, rationalizing that the group of readers my stories would attract was not big enough to capitalize on.
But that’s not what I heard from her.
What I heard from her was “You can’t exist.”
I don’t exist.
I am not here. My stories don’t matter, therefore I didn’t matter.
I sat before her with several sheets of expensive card-stock paper onto which I had meticulously penciled, drawn, erased, sketched, penned and lettered over many, many hours the details of some of the most memorable events of my life. And with a quick toss of her hair, this agent told me that I needed to pick a side of who I was, and try and sell that, but not both sides. Not the actual truth. Just a thin version of the truth.
I walked out of the agency feeling a little numb and a little relieved. I felt like I had dodged a bullet. Because I don’t want to pick and choose the aspects of myself that seem profitable in order to get a book deal. Because my skin is brown and because my partner is a woman and because both of those things define me, neither of them completely, but neither without the other. Because being brown and being queer to me are valuable. Because who cares about a book deal when you have websites and blogs where you can essentially “publish” anything you want to anyone who cares to read it?
So like I said, this did not start out innocently.
I had some history. What would it take, I wondered, if not a decently written documentation of an interesting life lived, to get a book published?
Well, a blog of course!
At first my partner and I just brainstormed to come up with the most ridiculous ideas that what would attract the biggest audience.
“I want to start a blog about __________ so that I can get a book deal and a movie deal starring the most prolific actors of our time”.
- Adopting a bunch of cats despite my intense allergies, journaling about the daily doses of Claritin and furballs and pondering the deeper implications of loving something that causes me so much pain. (Starring Glenn Close)
- Gardening with a black thumb; one woman’s attempt to defy her murderous hands. (cast: the brilliant actor who plays Michonne from Walking Dead as the protagonist AND the plant).
- How To Renovate An Old Home With Absolutely And Unequivocably No Understanding Of How To Renovate An Old Home (Viola Davis, maybe?).
Our joke got old, and was mostly forgotten, until one day we were with some friends outside in the backyard looking at the night sky and talking about our childhoods. The major theme of my youth was the fact that I grew up poor and biracial in a mostly white, mostly wealthy southern town. The things that my partner and so many of my friends took for granted as kids, things like taking dance classes and going to camp and bringing their own lunch to school and learning piano, were things that I coveted, things that I STILL covet. I wanted nothing more than to spend my time after school learning ballet techniques in front of a mirror, making new friends from new places, not having to announce to the cashier that I qualified for a reduced-price lunch in the cafeteria every single day (she either had short term memory loss or took some sick pleasure in making me say those dreaded words out loud day after day). Instead I came home from school alone every afternoon and watched “Square One” on PBS, waiting for my Mom to get home from the hair salon where she worked. I supplemented my boredom by writing commercial jingles accompanied by my electric ORGAN, which I did not know how to play. I wanted to learn how to play a keyboard and instead I got an instructional pamphlet with a heavy 16-key organ that sounded like the longest, softest fart when you played a note. That’s all my Mom could afford, and I didn’t complain.
That night in the backyard, the subject of Girl Scouts came up. Unlike most adults, I don’t equate Girl Scouts with cookies at all; I sometimes forget that cookies are even a part of the organization. All I think about when I hear the words Girl Scout is how much I wanted to be a Scout when I was a kid. I always imagined that I would have excelled in it. I was a painfully polite little girl, eager to listen and eager to learn, enthused by the idea of community and leadership and thirsty for a chance to show off my talents to anyone who would appreciate them, even though I did not know the extent of my talents because I didn’t have many opportunities to explore them, at least not with the guidance of others. But my Mom couldn’t afford those things and I, of course, never complained. I remember going to day camp in the park during the summer when school was out, an expense my Mom struggled to pay for only because I was too young to stay home by myself. The Girl Scouts had come to the park to see if any of the day camp kids wanted to sign up to become a part of the organization, and they handed us a sheet of paper with contact information that mapped out everything the Girl Scouts would learn and achieve as members of the group. My heart beat fast as I imagined all the fun things I would get to do because of my involvement with the organization, all the badges I would get to wear and show off, which I only knew about because I saw it in a movie once. But then I read the included price breakdown for uniforms, badges, materials and activities required of all the Scouts. I squashed my hope down real quick.
That evening I handed my mom the sheet of paper with my eyes downcast and no hint of expectation in my face. I knew we couldn’t afford it. My Mom read over the information and commented on how it was so ridiculous that something like this should cost so much money (to be fair, anything that didn’t have a layaway option was considered expensive to my single parent mother), and eventually the paper found a home amidst others on our dining room table, covered in coffee rings and crumbs.
“I think I would make a fantastic Girl Scout” I joked to my friends, and they all nodded in agreement. Who else did they know who exhibited so much enthusiasm for learning new things, whose instagram page was overflowing with images of homemade marshmallows and handmade quilts?
I asked, “What else do Girl Scouts do, besides make things? What do those badges mean?”, but no one knew the answer. They, unlike myself, had not wanted to be Girl Scouts when they were younger. Maybe they had schedules too jam-packed with soccer practices and guitar lessons to have room for Girl Scouts. Maybe the good deeds and volunteer work required by the Scouts was uninteresting to them. Maybe they weren’t Girl Scout material, not like me. But then again, I had no idea what the Girl Scouts actually did, so I wasn’t quite sure if I really WAS Girl Scout material or if I just wanted to BE Girl Scout material.
“This,” I said to Claire, “is exactly the blog-to-book idea I am looking for.”
I laughed, but only for a moment, as I slowly realized that, unlike “Gardening with a Black Thumb”, I was actually kind of serious about this idea. The book part of the concept was the silly part, the part meant to illicit laughter and an eye-roll, but the blog part, the part where I really do learn and then write about what it means to be a Girl Scout and examine, publicly, how to navigate the gap between being a little girl who wants things she cannot have and a woman who has things she doesn’t need? That part was for real. Would I make a good Girl Scout now, as an adult? Would I have made a good Girl Scout way back then, as a kid? Will it be easy now with all I have learned and experienced as a grown woman, or will it be more difficult? Where will I fit in as a queer woman of color emulating the ideals of an organization that has always poised itself in my mind to be mostly white and almost always straight? Are Girl Scouts even still relevant today, given our current environment which seems to prize individuality and uniqueness rather than community-driven work and citizenry?
These are all absolutely genuine questions that I want to know the answers to, and since I don’t have a daughter that I can force to join on my behalf, I think I am just going to have to figure it out for myself. Of course, I could figure all of this out for myself BY myself. If this is all about personal growth, about relearning and revising the ideas I have about who I am vs who I was under the guise of “becoming” a Girl Scout, why not just do it on my own? Why blog about it? Why share it with anyone on the internet at all? I think I have to do it this way because my story does matter. Because there are not enough voices like mine in the world that are ever heard, and I can’t complain about the lack of representation that exists in the world if I am not willing to add perspective to the mix. I exist, and other people just like me exist, and it doesn’t matter how we share our stories, whether they are on TV or in books or in comics or in stories told by friends outside at night in the backyard. It just matters that they are heard.
Despite the (embarrassing) breadth of this blog post, I am not actually committing myself to “becoming” a Girl Scout just yet. I still have a bit to learn about being a Girl Scout, and I have to see if it’s even something that is doable for me as a 33 year old woman operating rogue, since I am unsure of how big a role the Scout leader plays in moving up the ranks. My fantasy of being a Girl Scout simply requires me to make some brownies and be nice to people for a few of months, and then I imagine that I will move up the ladder from Daisy Scout to…well, whatever type of Scout is next (Brownie, I think? Oh, how fitting!), and then I will get a bunch of badges, and then I will have learned a bunch of life lessons! Or not. I don’t really know what I am expecting to happen. But I want it to be genuine. If it isn’t serving me, if it ceases to be fun or interesting, then I won’t move forward with it. I have better things to do with my time than work on something that has lost it’s luster. But right now, I am intrigued.
At it’s best, this is an opportunity for a grown woman to make one of her childhood wishes come true. One major difference between Grown Jasika and Girl Jasika is that I went to the Girl Scouts of America webpage last night to see what materials were required to begin the process of becoming a Daisy Scout, and upon discovering that “The Daisy Girl’s Guide to Girl Scouting” handbook, a requirement for all girls interested in becoming a Scout, cost $22.50, I didn’t lower my eyes and feel ashamed.
I bought the damn book. Because I can afford it.
For those of you revisiting my site, you will see that much has changed!
I loved my old site so much, but because it was in Flash and I am not so adept at utilizing the html code that was required for me to operate the site myself, I thought it best to move forward and join the tried and true wordpress community. So far, fixing this site up to my specifications and updating all the information has been a breeze compared to working my other site, and I am so grateful for Kate McMillan at Outbox Online for revamping this site and teaching me the ins and outs of wordpressing.
Like my old website, this space will be a place for me to post up new artwork, share comics that I am working on, and news about events and upcoming tv/film appearances. I am also going to incorporate a few new things into this updated site, like posting blogs and pictures of some of my DIY/crafting projects, and creating a space to sell quality prints of my artwork that people can purchase directly from this site. Initially I was invited to comic cons to sign pictures and participate in panels on behalf of Fringe, but on a whim a few years ago my team and I decided to bring a few pieces of my artwork to try and sell to convention attendees, and they have sold like hotcakes ever since. I am so grateful to Fringe fans not only for their appreciation of my role on the show, but also for their ability to embrace all the other facets of my artistic endeavoring!
Thanks so much for following my progress, both on and off screen, and I hope to keep this site updated so that there is always something new for you to see here!