Hello. This is not an art blog, but a series of autobiographical pieces, some with challenging subject matter. I’m coming to realize that love and beauty aren’t only possible where conditions are “smooth,” and that’s what I’ve been exploring through both my artwork and writing. Lines are blurring yet patterns are emerging. I’m sharing some of it here. Thank you for joining me.

So Is It Merely Coincidence?

Photo by Anna Marie January

 

Tell me again about your Beloved and the rainbow
About your Brother sitting across the street in his funky car
And the butterfly you just couldn’t shake

Tell me about the lights on your bicycle flashing
in the the middle of the night
About the girl who called out your Daughter’s name
And the message under the table

Tell me about the writing on the next page of the scratch pad
About roller hockey and the movie actor
About your dancing fire and the strange green light

What about the Rose that blooms at just the right time
Or your Father, his favorite seafood dish and your business meeting?

You shared that your Brother pointed to his head in your dream
And that although you were sad about leaving, you were not afraid to die because you knew the truth

Tell me again about your vivid dreams, the coyote and the hummingbirds

About the boy on the train who talked your ear off
And when you asked him his name, what did he say?

Then I can tell you about my hummingbirds
And the smoke in the night sky
About a stranger with a bouquet of flowers
A Soldier who called to talk about Brothers
And another Soldier who appeared at my window

I’ll tell you what the young man called out to me
As I was leaving the restaurant
About the oddly familiar way the little boy in the vet’s office looked at me, then kissed his dog.
What name did his mother call him when it was time to go?

I’ll tell you how grateful I am for all of you
And for those who share messages with such clarity
No longer afraid to say that they see and hear what others may not

So is it merely coincidence
That we met the night before our Sons’ birthdays?
Two candles in one slice of cake at The Olive Garden
That we met on a bridge, in a store, at the gas station?

We are the ones I am writing for
with
So Much Love

Moments of Grace: Signs and Synchronicities (#1 The Gas Station)

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Image: Anna Marie January

“There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  ~unknown

On a Sunday afternoon in August of 2015,  I received the worst news a mother could hear. My 22 year old son Nicholas had taken his own life.

I could write about that phone call, about when I fell through the earth, about our handsome son’s history, that little four year old who once asked: “Daddy, what is chaos?” And after listening to his father’s explanation replied, “Yeah. That’s what I like!”

I could write about our family, what I and everyone might have done differently and I could  describe my obsessive need to piece together his final days, to understand each event that led up to that moment when he decided he could take no more.

But not today. Because at times, almost simultaneously, pushing through the haze and waves of my grief are these incredibly powerful and healing experiences that I just can’t ignore.

The Gas Station

It was a particularly difficult morning for me, less than a month after I lost my son. I was feeling weighed down by debilitating exhaustion, a common companion to the shock and disbelief one experiences in the aftermath of traumatic events, I’m told. Faced with what seemed a monumental task–I headed out to put gas in my car.

While I stood there waiting for my tank to fill, I noticed, kitty-corner to me on the other side of the island, an elderly woman sitting in an older model white sedan. Her back seat was filled to the roof. She was a large woman, her movements slow and labored as she stood up and maneuvered around and in-between the car door and island. She wore a light blue hat with a dollar bill tucked into the fold.

We greeted each other with a “Good morning.”   I then said something that surprised me, probably as much as it did her!

Me: “You know when you’re feeling really bad? Sometimes if you do something for someone else, it helps you feel a little better?”

She looked at me and nodded yes.

Woman: “Did you lose someone too?”

Me: (Wow) “Yes, my son.”

Woman: “I’m so sorry. I just lost my sister. What was your son’s name?”

We briefly exchanged the relevant information and condolences.

Me: “You may think this is strange, but the reason I said that earlier is because I’d like to fill your gas tank, if you’ll allow me to.”

Woman: “Really? Thank you! (Laughed) You must have noticed the pillows and blankets back there–I’m on dialysis and have to bring those with me to get comfortable. Are you sure?”

Me: “Yes, I’m sure. Let me finish up here and I’ll come over and put my credit card in.”

We stood by her car and talked. I learned that she had lost many of her family members, including siblings, but was particularly close to this sister. Perhaps she recognized something in me, having experienced so much loss herself?

Woman: “When did your boy pass?”

Me: “About 3 1/2 weeks ago…”

Woman: “That’s right around the time my sister passed.”

Me: “It was August 23rd.”

Pause.

Woman:  (She almost whispered) “It was a Sunday.”

Me: “Yes. It was.”

Woman: “That’s the day my sister passed!”

Much longer pause…

With the tears that had been welling up in our eyes over the course of the conversation flowing freely now, we held each other. We were two perfect strangers with broken hearts, yes, but we had so much more in common. So there we stood–hugging and crying on a September morning at the Chevron Station. It was magic, really.

We said goodbye, and as she walked slowly toward the mini mart she called out “Now I can buy some food for my kitties!”

I was feeling so much more than just a little better. It’s difficult to describe. Stunned. Touched. Awed. I think the word I am looking for is LOVED. I remain grateful for our “chance” encounter.

 

 

 

 

 

Moments of Grace: Signs and Synchronicities (#2 A To-Do List)

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”   ~Ian MacLaren

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Image: Anna Marie January

Love. Trepidation. Tears. Truth. Memories. Laughter. Connection. Reconnection. Oh, and a Fire Dancer… The memorial service for my son was over, and there was nothing more for me to do. EVER. Well, at least there was nothing more I could do for Nick.

That kind of thinking dropped me into a new reality. For awhile, despite all the love and support, I felt disconnected, even from those closest to me. Everyday routines and places seemed bizarrely unfamiliar.

Certainly the apartment I rented three years earlier, the place where I came to cherish the freedom, quiet and order of living alone, had lost its’ sparkle. My little oasis was murky and dull. It felt, and even smelled like sadness.  I was done there.

My partner lovingly suggested I move in with her and her daughter, a proposal I had seriously considered, and then rejected several times before. I feared a situation where I had no real private space would only lead to imbalance, frustration, and ultimately another break up. My fundamental need for a hefty dose of solitude ranks high, immediately behind oxygen.

She also suggested converting the garage into a studio for me (not a first either), but this time I heard the idea in a different way, and it seemed like a viable plan.

The move and garage conversion generated countless to-do lists. One of the items on my list this October morning was so out of the ordinary, I wasn’t sure how to begin to prepare for it. I decided to tackle the most mundane chore first, the one that guaranteed a measure of frustration but would offer no surprises. I went to Home Depot.

Once there, I located the few small items I needed fairly easily (for a change). I was headed toward the checkout line, lost in my thoughts until an overly cheerful man loudly called out to me from behind a table. Instead of the usual “Are you a homeowner? For a limited time we are offering blah blah  blah remodel, blah blah…” he said:

“Hello over there! It’s a lovely day, isn’t it? Awww, why the sad face? Cheer up! What could be so terrible on a day like this?”

As he spoke, he came out from behind his table and stopped right in front of me, literally blocking my path. I reached out and put both of my hands on his shoulders. We were almost the same height. Now it was my turn.

“I could say something really weird to you right now.”

His entire demeanor changed. He looked at me with these piercing blue eyes and softly said:

“Go ahead.”

Because I was annoyed, I must confess that I think I answered him with the intention of either shocking, shaming or shutting him up. Probably all three.

“I’m on the way to pick up my son’s ashes.” (So there Mr. Cheerful, I thought to myself).

“My son died on September third,” he replied.

I was the one who was stunned. Under the buzzing fluorescent lights of my neighborhood Home Depot, once again I found myself standing in that deep knowing of the previously unimaginable with someone, who only a moment before, was a complete stranger!

“Are you Jewish?” he asked, as if he’d suddenly come up with a great idea.

“No, but I was raised…”

Before I could finish my sentence he reached out and pulled me into a sweet bear hug, and gently rocking, began to pray:

“Baruch atah Adonai,  Eloheinu melech haolam…”

Mark’s son was a married man in his early 40’s with children. He died of a drug overdose. Apparently he wasn’t taking the drugs the professionals had prescribed for him, and was secretly self-medicating with the one that killed him.

Mark and I agreed that as parents, our pain did not begin the day our sons died. But we knew that as long as they were alive, there was always hope. I told him how glad I was that we met and thanked him for the prayer. I also jokingly admitted my irritation with his initial approach. We laughed and hugged one last time.

Although I couldn’t help but feeling anxious about going to the funeral home, I left the store with another very clear reminder that no matter how hard I try to convince myself otherwise, I am not alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moments of Grace: Signs and Synchronicities (#3 The Parking Lot)

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“There will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.” 

~Vice President Joe Biden

The Parking Lot

It was a beautiful day in the California beach town when I parked my car in the nearly empty lot. Knowing I would only be inside for a few minutes, I left the roof and windows of my mini cooper partially open for my little Maltese, Lulu.

The pink stucco exterior of the funeral home looked only vaguely familiar. The first time I visited was mostly a blur. I was there for a “viewing.” I was there to say a heart-rending goodbye to my 22 year old son, Nick. I am able to clearly recall relatively few images from that day, but those have been seared into my memory forever.

The interior looked even less familiar as I wandered from room to room looking for the Funeral Director. Then I noticed the rug. A wave of emotion threatened to crash down on my head.

Just as he had done on that day, the Funeral Director quietly appeared and led me in the right direction, his office this time. He offered me a seat, and let me know there would be a little paperwork to fill out before I could take my son’s ashes. He had a kind face and calm demeanor. I guess that sort of goes with the job. I imagine it’s not an easy one.

After the business was taken care of, he brought out a burgundy velvet bag and gently handed it to me. I was surprised by the weight, it was heavy.  I had questions. “We will want to spread his ashes, how can we open it?” After setting the bag on the table, he removed a black box with a white label on the lid that spelled out Nick’s full name. He showed me how to open it. I was glad to see it was a very tight fit, as my brain quickly indexed through several possible worst case scenarios. My next question:  “How do we know those are his ashes?” He explained something about a foolproof identification system they use which involves keeping a metal tag inside with the ashes at all times.

The exchange was both surreal and commonplace. I was a little wobbly when I stood up. I don’t know whether he sensed that, or if it is protocol, but he offered to carry the bag to my car. When we got out there, I realized I was not prepared. There was no place special enough for my son’s ashes. Lulu was in her carrier on the passenger seat, and I  briefly thought I could move her to the back and set the bag on the seat, but what if I had to make a sudden stop? I’d have to use the seat belt. I just couldn’t go there. I opted for the floor in front of the passenger seat, wrapping it in a purple tablecloth I happened to have in the car.

The Funeral Director must have been used to this awkward dance too, because he waited patiently until I got settled. I thanked him and we said goodbye.

After he went back in, I removed the tablecloth and picked up the burgundy velvet bag. Again, I was taken aback by the weight of the bag, which led to my association with holding a sleeping baby. I sat in that parking lot for awhile. Then I started driving.

For years I have entertained, if not completely believed, the idea that we are not our physical bodies, and that the body is simply a shell we no longer have any use for at the end of our lives. I repeated this over and over in my head and aloud, in an attempt to prepare myself for seeing Nick in physical form one last time that first day in the funeral home.

This concept proved to be particularly challenging for me to grasp, as the body in question was one I gave birth to, cared for, and watched grow into a strong and handsome young man. I remember the first time I saw his little feet. So these are what I was feeling when he would unleash a sudden flurry of kicks like a little alien tap dancer! Those sessions in utero were a harbinger of Nick’s intense energy, not unlike my own at times. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense, just as I recognize  the long, slow, deliberate, catlike stretches of his younger sister.

Not really having a plan or a sense of direction, I ended up at the beach. One positive thing that has come out of this devastating loss is a renewed connection and easier communication with my ex-husband, Nick’s father. As I sat thinking and looking out at the water, I checked my phone. I saw that he had left a message. He was wondering how I was holding up, given the day’s agenda. I returned his call and we began to make plans for a ceremony to scatter Nick’s ashes. During our conversation I received several calls and texts from a number I didn’t recognize, so I ignored them.

As it turned out, those calls and texts were from the Funeral Director. He asked if I had gotten far, and offered to meet me. He apologized and said there had been a mix-up with the paperwork. I told him I was sitting at the beach, not far from the funeral home, and that I could be back there in a few minutes, there was no need to meet me.

I left a message for Nick’s dad, telling him who the mystery caller was.

The Funeral Director came out to the parking lot to meet me. He had a ruddy complexion to begin with, and I’m telling you the poor guy looked mortified. Yes, I just wrote that. He began to apologize profusely, and in a strange twist, I found myself consoling him!

“It’s okay, really. It’s actually kind of funny,” I said as I walked around to the passenger side. I opened my car door, unwrapped the tablecloth and opened the bag to hand him the paperwork. Then I noticed the white label on the top of the box. It said MARIA SOME-OTHER-NAME SOME-OTHER-NAME…

“OH!” I think I jumped back.

“I was hoping to spare you that part,” he said quietly.

Then I started to laugh, I mean REALLY laugh, thinking about how I was crying and rocking MARIA SOME-OTHER-NAME SOME-OTHER-NAME’s ashes in the parking lot.

“That’s my son! He’s playing a joke on us!”

The Funeral Director apologized again and took the whole package back into the building to sort things out. I called Nick’s dad and updated him. He asked me if I’d read his text, I hadn’t. So I did.

Friday, October 2                      4:29 pm

I got your message. I thought it was the wrong urn too. Nicholas Prank.  Thanks.

Nick’s dad was now connected through the Bluetooth in my car, so when the Funeral Director returned we were all able to participate in the conversation. I reintroduced them. The Funeral Director apologized once again and assured us that he had double checked, and everything was now in order. He still looked tormented.

“This has never happened before,” he insisted.

“Oh we believe you!” We answered in unison, laughing. Colorful memories sprang to my mind of other times when we had heard those exact words in relation to Nick’s antics.

“I’m telling you, our son is pranking us. Here, read this text his dad sent me. I hadn’t even read it myself, and I said the same thing to you,” I urged.

The Funeral Director read the text message on my phone, and I could feel him relax a little. With a barely perceptible smile he said “Well, I just wish he would’ve given me a heads-up.”

“But that would’ve spoiled all the fun!” said Nick’s dad.

I’m not going to pretend the last eight months have been easy. There have been days when I could barely get out of bed. But there have been gifts too, those Moments of Grace I’ve been talking about. I never imagined I’d drive away from a funeral home with my son’s ashes in the car, smiling. I’m smiling right now as I write this. Smiling, and tearing up.

Thank you Nick. I love you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” ~Steve Jobs

yahtzee 1967
Image: ebay.com

Anita

I was never prepared for the smell. Each ambush by the god-awful stench was as disorienting as the first. It would go like this: The Neighborhood Girl and I would knock and wait, our bare feet burning on the sizzling hot, Los Angeles summer-sun-baked front step. Eventually, Anita would open her front door to invite us in, and that’s when it would hit me. I’ve always had an acute sense of smell, and for a moment, I considered running.

As the Tag-A-Long Kid, I would look to The Neighborhood Girl for my cues. She knew the ropes. At eight, she was a year older, and wiser in the ways of the world. We never talked about The Smell, or any of the other “unpleasantness” going on all around us. Once I was inside Anita’s house for a while, I would acclimate and even be able to eat the cookies she offered us.

Anita lived next door. She was morbidly obese, with stringy hair and extremely rotten teeth. Dirt got trapped in the folds of the pasty, sweaty skin on her neck and arms, and a network of deep black cracks could be seen on the permanently grey heels of her large, flat, bare feet. (It was around this time that I developed the habit of intensely scrutinizing other people’s feet, as if the answers that weren’t coming from their mouths might somehow be found down there).

Like most of the women in the area, including The Neighborhood Girl’s mother, Anita always wore muumuus. Sometimes her muumuu would have a tear with a safety pin, and not at all in a Cool Hand Luke car wash scene sort of way.

Despite these details, Anita seemed happier than the other adults in the neighborhood. And she played with us. She taught us card games and Yahtzee. I got the feeling that my role opposite her at the card table was an important one, not to be taken lightly. She was patient, but she didn’t baby us and allow us to win all the time. On her side of the table there was always a large glass of coke with ice and a burning cigarette in a full ashtray. The Neighborhood Girl and I got two cookies each that we would arrange on the table, breaking off the tiniest pieces in an unspoken contest to see who could make their cookies last the longest.

Anita would play as long as we wanted—until we tired of the games or the smell, and were ready to head back out into the streets and into other people’s houses. We basically ran loose until dark. I don’t remember ever having to check in, which is horrifying to me now, as a mother…but then again, so is the idea of a never ending game of cards.

Here’s how I became The Tag-A-Long Kid. I was the only child of a single mother who had hired The Neighborhood Girl’s mother (with a drinking problem, a low wage earning husband, and three kids of her own), to provide child care. I had been staying with this particular family since I was five. Even with my extremely limited life experience, I had always sensed I was a little different. Here, my suspicions were confirmed. Whatever these differences were, they seemed to make me a target for harassment and abuse, both in their home and out in the neighborhood. At seven years old, I understood instinctively that in order to survive in this environment, I would have to blend in.

My mother’s arrival was always newsworthy—and increasingly rare. I viewed it as both a godsend and an affront to all my efforts at fitting in. I was mesmerized by her beauty (in private), and embarrassed by it in public. How could they miss the way her silky straight, waist length auburn hair brushed the top of her brown suede wrap-around mini skirt as she pranced along the walkway toward the front door, in knee high boots? She smelled so…

CLEAN. Then she would whisk me away for a weekend in another world. In this world, normally populated by adults only, I would eat sashimi with chopsticks in restaurants, watch newly released movies in theaters, and watch my mother and her friends get high. They talked about the war, politics, and music.

The re-entry was rough. I tended to keep the details about the weekends with my mother close to my little vest, probably out of a sense of guilt mixed with a dose of survival instinct. My mother and I both experienced some backlash after these weekends, albeit, in our own ways. She complained to me that The Neighborhood Girl’s mother kept raising her prices each week, claiming that I was eating too much.

The Neighborhood Girl and I liked to play handball in the street against an old wooden garage door in the late afternoons. One day, one of The Bad Boys, (sort of an Alfred E. Neuman looking guy who used to spend a lot of his time sitting in the street, slumped against a car with a gasoline soaked rag over his face) was relentlessly teasing me. His new nickname for me was Nigger Hair. He was getting a lot of use out of it. I was trying my best to block out his taunts and not miss the ball.

Anita did not come outside very often, and I didn’t even realize she was there until I heard this voice booming from somewhere behind me. I had never seen her angry. There she stood in her muumuu, her face all red, as she spat out “GODDAMMIT, STOP THAT NAME CALLIN’ YA. GOD. DAMN. SKINNY. LITTLE. PUNK!” (She may even have punctuated that with one more “goddammit”).

The Neighborhood Girl and I froze as the ball bounced into the street, eventually rolling to a stop in the gutter. For a few seconds I was too afraid to look at anybody. When my eyes finally settled on The Bad Boy, I saw something in him that I had never noticed before; he was still a kid too. I wonder if he was also, in some way, grateful that order had temporarily been restored out there. He never bothered me again.

One day The Neighborhood Girl and I knocked and waited at Anita’s door, looking for some friendly games of cards and Yahtzee along with our two cookies. She never answered. The man who lived in the back house told us that she had moved.

 

Mother’s Day

 

 

My Foster Mother
My Biological Mother

 

I was fourteen years old, stubborn and afraid. I didn’t bother to eat the breakfast they served the morning they transported me. Later, as I sat alone in a tiny, dimly lit room for hours on end, I regretted that decision. When someone finally brought me a sandwich, I was extremely grateful–not only for the sandwich, but also for the brown bag it came in. I would occupy myself for what seemed like several more hours by playing with that wrinkled paper bag. I’ve always had a good imagination, and by that age,  was quite used to spending time alone and having to find ways to quietly entertain myself.

My first clear memory of being left alone was at about four years old. My parents had left me in a motel room. They must have forgotten to even lock the door, because a strange man walked right in, looked around, picked up our radio, and left. I wonder to this day if he saw me. When they returned, Mom and Dad were not pleased, and demanded to know “What the hell happened to the radio!”  I told them that the man took it. This may have been the moment my outsized sense of guilt was born. Should I have tried to stop him?

The tiny room where I held on to that paper bag was a holding cell. For me it was the halfway point between Juvenile Hall and Family Court. I had spent the previous four days in Juvenile Hall wearing someone else’s underwear and getting patted down for silverware every time I left the kitchen. Although this was clearly not the optimal situation, I was aware that things could be a lot worse. When I arrived, I was shown a small kindness from an understanding black woman who took one look at my already tortured hair, and with a smile, allowed me to skip the mandatory lice shampooing.

In Family Court my fate would be decided. From where I sat, my options looked pretty bleak. In retrospect, I now know that I wasn’t really a bad kid, but rather a victim of  circumstances. However, I certainly was acting out, and would continue to do so for a few years. My mother did not make it to court that day and as I sat there waiting, the gravity of my situation began to sink in. What I did not know was that my future Foster Parents, a lovely couple with two young daughters, had been waiting at the courthouse all day too.

As Mother’s Day rolls around again, this year I bought two cards. One is for my biological mother. We have recently reconnected after many years of on and off estrangement. Recognizing the gifts she has given me, some of which did not seem like gifts at the time, is an ongoing process. I’m finally beginning to understand the value of forgiveness, for everyone involved, in my heart–not just intellectually.

The other card is for the woman who waited all day to see me at the courthouse. I am so grateful for her consistent presence in my life over the past forty years. Along with her daughters, wonderful friends and extended family, we’ve shared the things that families do: births, deaths, weddings, illnesses, divorces, heartaches, joy, my coming out (twice), and countless other celebrations. I’m reminded of a little treasure of a book that I used to read to my own children when they were young. The title?  A Family is a Circle of People Who Love You. Yep.

“I’ll tell you all my secrets, but I lie about my past…” ~Tom Waits (Tango til’ They’re Sore)

 

I’ll Tell You All My Secrets, But I Lie About My Past by Anna Marie January, mixed media: wire, fabric, paint, canvas

B is for Backstage Baby Monkey

She blew through the dressing room door like a strong gust of wind, breathlessly regaling us with her story about being pulled over for a traffic stop. As the cop stood outside her driver’s side door, she noticed that the tip of her pasty had begun to poke through her black blouse. She described surreptitiously moving her forearm to dislodge the fabric, praying he didn’t notice.

Every woman in the room understood that if he had seen it, her situation would have become a lot more complicated. As it turned out, she dodged the ticket and the complications, and drove on through the night toward her destination. The black blouse she wore was made of the kind of fabric that, if you touched her, you might get a shock. Or maybe it wasn’t the fabric.

My mother and I had only just arrived ourselves, after spending several hours on the road. The dressing room was crowded with other performers who were unpacking and claiming their territories.

My mother and the woman in the black blouse with the errant pasty seemed happy to see each other again. They laughed and hugged. My mother once told me that this woman was The Most Beautiful One. As a serious and conscientious five year old, I took a mental note.

My mother was a burlesque dancer. In my eyes, she and all of the women she worked with were beautiful. However, for my mother, this was clearly an important distinction.

This particular dressing room was new for me, yet familiar. It was organized chaos under a haze of smoke, perfume, powder and Aqua Net. One entire wall was lined with a long row of mirrors and lights. Beneath them ran a counter, strewn with monogrammed makeup cases, their contents spilling out around them. There were false eyelashes, glues, and little cones made of a white mesh that resembled the backing used for needlepoint. These cones were glued onto the skin as a foundation for the essential “pasty.” The colorful sequin covered fronts were interchangeable.

Oh, and the doughnuts. There was always a large box of glazed doughnuts on the counter for all to share.

Every dancer arrived with her own set of elaborate costumes, and an envelope of sheet music to be played live by the band in the pit. Night Train and Satin Doll were in my mother’s envelope. Poles, hooks and hangers held flowing chiffon panels and gold lame, which hung alongside the feathered, the beaded and the rhinestone encrusted.

I was extremely proud to have been given the important job of “Fringe Untangler.” After washing my hands, of course, I provided a valuable service for the hurried performers. By fanning my little fingers and sliding my hands down the slippery cool threads, I patiently worked through the knots formed by a shimmy.

Yes, the setting was familiar, except for one thing. I had never encountered anything like this in all of my five years, and couldn’t believe my luck! The Smiling Boss, (a wrinkly grayish man), had a monkey that he carried around with him like a baby and it even wore a diaper! The Baby Monkey was the closest thing I’d seen to another child and potential playmate in this particular environment.

The sounds of the band warming up quickened the pace in the dressing room. My mother was only 5′ 3″  and didn’t stand out as being so much shorter than the rest. But from where I stood, these women were a glamorous tribe of Amazon Aunties in heels. I remember the full round undersides of their breasts covered with goose bumps, their nipples hidden by golden sequined cones. I remember the last minute costume checks and tongues running over teeth to remove any excess lipstick.

The Amazon Aunties definitely did not fawn over me. They regarded me with a benign neglect, tending to their business, but always ready to offer me another doughnut or take me to the bathroom if my mother was on stage.

The Smiling Boss seemed to have a smile for everyone but me, and I was never, under any circumstances, to touch that stupid Baby Monkey. So, eventually I lost interest. Without the possibility of the Baby Monkey’s companionship, I took to watching the show.

I’d lie there on my stomach between the dusty, heavy, velvet curtains, chin resting in my hands, feet swinging. My eyes were glued to the stage. I couldn’t see the band, but the music coming from the pit and the stage lighting shining on The Most Beautiful One, created a mesmerizing effect. There, she was transformed into a fantasy creature with an odd sort of power. It was as if she were taking control of that which was always being stolen from her.

As far as I could tell, The Stage Hand’s only job was to raise and lower the curtain. He never smiled, but he had a kindness in his eyes. He would occasionally shoo me away with a feigned sternness. I’d go back in to get a doughnut and return to my spot minutes later…

One day, my mother brought me to the hospital to visit The Most Beautiful One. Her boyfriend had beaten her nearly to death. She lay there in a coma with her mouth open. Her skinny arms were folded on top of her chest, hands curled inward like big chicken wings. There were tubes. And sounds. And smells. My mother gently stroked her hair, whispered to her, and cried. The Most Beautiful One must have been in that state for a while, because her perfect teeth were rotting.  Soon I would see my mother fall victim to explosive episodes of domestic violence at the hands of a handsome man who could have been Tony Curtis’ twin.

I woke in a familiar place: the backseat of our car. My mother looked at me through the rear view mirror, smiled and said, pointing to the man with wavy black hair in the passenger seat, “This is your new daddy.” The trumpet player from the band had joined our road trip.

 

Aphrodite in a Cheongsam

Image and Artwork: Anna Marie January

In the picture, I am sitting on my mother’s lap

Just long enough for him to snap the polaroid
Because she is late for work

I am careful not to smudge
Her expertly applied lipstick
Or mess her long straight hair

She looks so elegant in her springalators
And her dress
With the Chinese buttons

I have often wondered which parts of her
Were in me
Sort of like the acorn and the tree

On the internet
I found a poster of myself
From a photo shoot almost thirty years before
On baby blue satin
Covered only with fluffy white teddy bears

It had recently sold
For six dollars
They say it was in mint condition.

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” –Brene Brown

 

 

 

Kind of Blue and Broken Open by Anna Marie January, mixed media: wire, cord, paint, canvas

To be HUMAN

to be a WOMAN

a PARENT/ a PARTNER

to be ALONE

to walk the MIDDLE path/ to move between TWO worlds

WHITE and BLACK / GAY and STRAIGHT

HOPE and DESPAIR / BALANCE and INSTABILITY

paralyzing FEAR and blind CERTAINTY

INTUITION and PRAGMATISM


to SURVIVE the wrong BIG hands on LITTLE bodies

and go on to LOVE and BE LOVED anyway

to remove your clothing without being STRIPPED of your DIGNITY

to AGE / to keep DANCING

to tolerate AMBIVALENCE  and INDECISIVENESS

to have a change of HEART

to realize that you are so much MORE than you’ve been told

to LIVE accordingly

to forgive yourself FIRST


to understand that EVERYTHING might not turn out as you PLANNED

to survive the face of RAGE and a broken HEART

to understand that saying NO can be compassionate

to lose someone

to FOLLOW THROUGH / back off /  fight back / walk away

to STAY ALIVE

to CRY / to keep LAUGHING / to give BIRTH (ovarian fortitude?)

to face the KNIFE whether to your throat or to your breast

and go on to LOVE and BE LOVED anyway


to be HUMAN

to be a WOMAN

a PARENT / a PARTNER

to be ALONE

to realize that you are so much MORE than you’ve been told

to LIVE accordingly

to forgive yourself FIRST

to AGE/ to keep DANCING

to understand that EVERYTHING might not turn out as you PLANNED

to FOLLOW THROUGH / back off / fight back / walk away

to stay ALIVE

to keep laughing

to look for MOMENTS of Grace

to allow yourself to experience JOY.

 

Anna Marie January