Carlee, Carlee, Carlee Chameleon

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Carlee, the beauty school director, tells me that she loves my glasses.

“Those are fabulous. I have a pair just like them! I love them!” She squealed. She is thin and wiry and impeccably dressed. A button-less, coral cardigan is draped around her sinewy, sculpted arms. Her white-hot-blonde curls dangle like tight springs at the tops of her shoulders. She was complimenting me, of course, because it is her job. But, I don’t mind. And, she’s right, my glasses are fabulous.

In the true spirit of chameleon-ism, I’m touring an aesthetics institute because, I’m thinking about changing color — again. I’ve been chided, warned, and scoffed at for entertaining this idea, but, I’ve also been patted on the back and encouraged. And, in managing other people’s responses to what I’m thinking about doing, I begin to realize just how much I’ve learned in this past year. And, not just about me.

When you’re a chameleon, color bleeds. You step on one leaf and your leg turns a waxy green, and then, in your next step, your webbed toe turns a bark-y brown. Then, you’re standing on a yellow blossom and your whole torso blooms along with it, igniting like a burst of sunlight. — Our surroundings change us. People. Places. Circumstances. Situations. Everyday, we step onto a new palate of incredible color. And, I can’t help but think, for so many years, all I wanted was to remain in one place. To understand myself in one color. — But, try as I may, it can’t be done.

Carlee holds the grey door open for me as we walk into a stairway of floor-to-ceiling windows. “This is our new space,” she says, “we just moved into this building, only a few months ago.” — I figured as much, because I made it to my interview on time only because I saw the shiny, new building, with it’s giant windows and inviting sign, as I drove by it on route to the old location — the location Google maps still deems accurate. At the top of the stairs, we walked onto a floor filled with classrooms. White, dry-erase boards lined the walls and book bags sat in chairs at empty desks. “The students are taking clients in the clinic today,” Carlee told me, pulling her cardigan tightly around her tiny frame. “And, it’s a good thing! It’s darn chilly up here!”

Carlee is the type of woman you’d expect to say “Darn chilly.” She is peppy, and, her breed of chameleon is chipper and bright. She is wiry, I suspect, because she is designed to pounce on you with unsolicited positivity and cheer at well-timed intervals. Her eyes are an icy blue, and they actually look at you, really look at you, when she is talking. “I hope I’m not going too fast,” she said, “I get kinda excited to show people around the new building. I graduated in 2008. And, I still can’t get over this new space!” Her tiny, one-inch heels click-clacked across the the top of the linoleum stairwell. “Let’s head back down to the clinic. Then, we can chat in my office.” Her eyes sparkled when they met mine, as if to hypnotize me, before she ushered me, with her twiggy arm, toward the stairs.

I watched the students in the clinic. Some were much younger than me, some, much older. They wore scrub-like uniforms with white, slip-on shoes. It was very clean and quiet. I found the whole scene very calming, custom-made for my OCD-like tendencies, tending toward cleanliness and the minimalist. I thought about one of the instructors from the the beauty school I worked for in Portland — Erica. — I recall her flawless skin and her immaculate attention to detail. For Erica, aesthetics were about so much more than appearances. They were about order. Beauty was her way of commanding the universe. And, there, standing beside Carlee, I felt bad for having thought Erica was an emotionless stickler. I see now, this kind of order, this clean and untouched universe, kept her sane.

Back in Carlee’s office, she sat behind her desk gathering materials to place in a white folder for my consideration. Tuition information. Financial aid applications. Course outlines. Scheduling options. And, should I decide to apply, a form to be completed by the person of my choice, serving as my letter of recommendation. She handed me the folder, closed, and looked at me, I mean, really looked. She was like a beautiful, delicately styled, praying mantis. I was not sure if she was going to hop across the desk and eat me, or gaze upon me with her big, icy eyes until I said something. And, then, I felt my color change right in front of her — I became, suddenly, a deep, peaceful, navy blue — a perfect match to the freshly painted, silky walls of her tiny office.

“Carlee, can I be honest with you about something?” Carlee tilted her head to the right, looking at me as if the answer to my question was obvious. “Of course,” she said.

“I’m thirty-two. And, I’m not sure if I’m going to apply for this program. But, I can tell you, I really like it here. The thing is, I’m a NYU graduate. And, that probably sounds like a snobby thing for me to say. But, when I think about investing in attending this program, I think, maybe, I’m too old or too something — like this is a non-sequitur — I don’t know. I’m not sure what I think I am. But, it would be a huge shift for me. And, I just wonder if you’ve had a student or students here that, maybe, sound like me. Because, I’d like to know that I’m not crazy for thinking about doing this. And, it’d be nice to hear it from someone who isn’t, you know, related to me.”

Carlee paused. She laced her manicured fingers together over a stack of manila folders that sat in front of her on the desk. She leaned in a bit, like she was going to tell me a secret, but, instead of talking, her eyes met mine and softened. Now, she appeared more like a lean giraffe than an insect, her neck craning, gracefully toward me. Her swooping curls, tumbled forward from behind her ears and fluttered gracefully at the sides of her cheeks.

“Sarah, I know you probably think I’m here to sell you a seat in this class. And, technically, I am. But, the truth is, whether you apply or not, whether you enroll or not, or whether you walk out this door never to return again — or not — this class will be filled. And, I want you to be here because you want to be here. And, that’s up to you. You’ve got lots of time to think about that. But, here’s my answer to your question. I graduated from this institute in 2008. I was thirty-four. And, when I got here, all I knew was — it sounded good. It sounded like something different. It sounded like something fun. And, it sounded like changing. Changing my life. And, since then, I’ve worked in this amazing industry, and now, I’m the director of this school. I love it here. I enroll girls who are eighteen and I enroll women in their sixties. And, there’s one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty: You’re never too old to want something new, to do something new, to be someone new. It’s great that you have an undergraduate degree. Really, I think that’s great. But, do you think it’s great? Because, if not, you’re never too old to learn something new. — And, if you want to do that here, we’d love to have you.”

In the parking lot, I sat in the idling car and I drank the cold, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that I’d left in cup-holder to the left of the wheel. The little, plastic, Oregon license-plate-key-chain that reads “SARAH” dangled from the rear-view mirror where I’d hung it the day I drove out of Oregon for the last time. My eyes welled up with tears as I stared down at my shiny, white folder. Filled with clean, white pages, begging for navy blue ink.

The truth is, we can’t know what color we’ll turn next. We can only know that we’re changing. Learning. Painting legs and toes and torsos — with every, beautiful step.

ARTWORK: “Chameleon 2” By Tilen Ti

(www.etsy.com/shop/tilentiart)

All The Women We’re Not

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The women who hold the most sacred places in my life, all love old things.

Antique tables, lacquered armoires, oak inlay, varnished sterling silver spoons, and sets of fine china passed down from their mothers and their grandmothers before that.

Me — I prefer IKEA.

Clean lines. Black. White. Wood. Unfinished. Disposable. Too rudimentary to overthink. Bare walls and sharp edges. I have always hesitated when it’s come time to decorate. In Portland, I lived in my last apartment for almost three years and never hung one thing on the walls. That kind of commitment was too much for me. — Monuments to the past always left holes in my walls.

I spent, and sometimes still spend, much of my time wondering how to pay homage to these women and thier antique sensibility when I have no desire to inherit or admire their aged tables, hang my clothes in their finely-crafted dressers, or eat off their chipped, precious plates.

In a recent, somewhat morbid, conversation with my mother, I told her that when the time comes, there was only one piece from her carefully curated furniture collection that I want to keep — the rest, I intend sell to the highest bidder.

She sat across from me, smiling, in her reupholstered, cream-colored, living-room chair, with her feet elevated on a mismatched hassock that belonged to the couch that I sat on across the room. I could tell, a part of her was sad to hear this news, but, there was a flicker of something else in her eyes, too. — As I’ve aged, I have become so incredibly different than her, and, for the first time, I saw that my deviance has managed to bring her some kind of joy.

As women, we so often find ourselves attempting to recreate the lives our mothers have led. We are chameleons that so desperately want to re-live the lives that have given us our own. Secretly hoping that, somehow, it will help us to better understand ourselves. In a curious way, it is a sort of thanks. And, sometimes, we rebel against it. We try to become anything other than what our mothers have been or would have us be. We ford new, wide rivers, just to say we did. But, in time, we learn that the nature of every river is the same.

As I walk through the last few months in my Year of Happiness, I look for themes. At the onset of this project, I was so sure that by its end, I would know the woman I am. But, in a strange twist of fate, I’ve been surprised to discover that, more than anything else, I’m discovering all the women I’m not.

My cousin, roommate, and best friend has furniture pieces from her parent’s log cabin, her childhood summer home, placed throughout her house (which, it bears mentioning, was built in 1885). Many of them are in disrepair and, these pieces, are some of her most treasured. Weathered, and laced with meaning I’ll never quite understand, her collection is a map of who she was and who she has become. She scoffs at my need for stark, assemble-it-yourself, Swedish simplicity. — “Cheap shit.” She says.

The older I get, the more I’ve felt myself retaliate against the need for things. The need for people. Forfeiting all that space can be dangerous.

But still, I collect all these women I’m not, in my own, quiet menagerie. The woman I’ve become in this past year is not nearly as significant as the women I’ve let go or the women I’ve chosen to keep in my company.

In the last year I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never be my mother. — An impressive career-driven woman with a laundry list of professional accolades that she’ll never share with you unless she’s pressed. The silent fortitude of a Japanese soldier. Caretaker to a feral cat colony in Brooklyn. Collector of snow globes. A woman who believes that the wrong rug can completely devastate a room. And, a beautiful mother who has, without knowing it, in her unique way, raised a daughter to mirror herself in the most unexpected ways.

In my quest to uncover myself, I’ve found it most useful to cast parts of myself aside. To become the like the old, weathered pieces my mother has carefully placed in every room of her house. For me, this process is different from my mother’s. — I had birds tattooed on my heel for my deceased grandparents, and, to me, this is far better than scraping my fork across their old china plates at Thanksgiving. And, while news of this development disappoints my mother, I know that the more often I let pieces of her go, the more like her I become. — Plates we’ve broken can be just as, if not more, beautiful when we glue what’s left of them back together.

When I move out on my own again, in the Spring, I look forward to sitting in my new space. My mother will help me move my cat up from Brooklyn and, then, she will likely spend the day cleaning my bathroom and kitchen voraciously, even though I’ll insist that there’s no need. — That is her way, and, I expect nothing less of her. She will begrudgingly agree to help me shop at IKEA for a MALM dresser (a piece that I have now assembled several times with expert skill) and she’ll weigh in on the various $20 area rugs, no doubt. And then, I will sit alone in my room, a beautiful canvas of barren walls, on a mattress with no box spring, beside my cat, who will stare up at me, as if to ask me — what comes next? A question for which I will have no answer.

But, in this mild Winter, I remain, sitting happily at the counter in my cousin’s kitchen, laughing along with her and her husband. Murray, their dog, has destroyed four chairs, and counting, from their hand-me-down dining room set. These foam-less, gnawed trophies now sit at the sills of the dining room windows, where Betsy, Murray’s Chihuahua/Shiba Inu-mix sister, sits gazing out into the Albany yonder, barking viciously at any and all invisible intruders who threaten us. And, I think, this is a fitting end for these chairs, these family heirlooms. Unsightly, perhaps, but, fixtures of the house in their own right. — Old things, destroyed by those of us who can never, truly appreciate their past. — Yet, there the pups sit, upon thier shredded thrones and, suddenly, the chair’s purpose and past matter little.

We are all here, now, together, in this old house.

ARTWORK: Daniel Blagg, “Ms. Wright’s Chair” (2013), Watercolor on paper.

 

 

A Hopelessly Romantic Mess

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Here’s the thing about Happiness — if you find any of it for yourself, there’s a line of people queued up beside you looking to get thier fair share.

In some ways, finding peace of mind is like winning the lottery. It’s liberating, and frankly, almost magical. But, we don’t live in a vacuum. Life is about connecting. So, finding love, or at the very least, a little romance, has commanded much of my attention of late. And, along with le romance, a few of my old messes have managed to boil over after bubbling on the back burner for a long, long time.

Dating at 32, is the pits. But, living in a new place makes it even worse. I feel like I’ve been walking on the surface of Mars, trying to keep my eyes fixed on what’s right in front of me while constantly tripping over my own feet, distracted by my phone, deciding whether or not to swipe right.

I’ve stopped counting all the bad dates I’ve been on. One bad date, sometimes, turns into two or three bad dates, because I’m still hesitant to throw up my hands and call a spade, a spade. I believe in giving people second chances, often to my own detriment. But, I’m learning quickly that, my best bet, usually, is to trust my gut — cut and run.

Sure, I’ve been some good dates too, but, nothing that’s stuck. Some weeks, it’s almost clinical. I’m juggling my coffee meet-ups like client meetings. I wonder what the fuck it is I’m missing here. I’ve got all this happiness, confidence, a new job, and amazing friends and family — all rooting me on. Yet, this weekend, I found myself sitting alone in my favorite, Albany coffee shop, staring forlornly out the big, glass window, wondering if I even believe in love anymore.

I’ve recently implemented a phone-free half-hour while I enjoy my daily Americano. Even my quest for romance has become hopelessly un-romantic. So, I take my break, gazing out onto Lark Street, watching people walk their big dogs, warm up their cars, and smoke cigarettes on the corner, waiting for the bus, while I sit very still and breathe deeply, managing my varying existential crises.

When you’re constantly in transition and somehow manage to find a rhythm, it’s jarring. You start wondering how and why you’ve become so comfortable. In my case, I start looking for new and better ways to make myself uncomfortable. — And, love is a sure-fire way to fuck your shit up. Especially when you realize that every bad date is just a huge mirror for your own insecurities. I thought that my happiness would draw positive, like-minded people to me like a magnet. But, I’m discovering, the exact opposite is true. Every date has been a reflection of who I used to be. — A bevy of men who want fixing and freedom. — And, suddenly, happiness has turned into a complicated dance where I’m managing my own crap and trying to manage other people’s crap too.

Being a chameleon is a beneficial trait when you’re playing the dating game. Trying on new skins can lead to new, interesting, and exciting experiences. Morphing into different versions of myself has given me the uncanny ability to make people feel comfortable. And, I can tell you from experience, it is far better to be on a date with a comfortable wet blanket than it is to be on a date with an anxious one. But, one lesson from my Year of Happiness has served as a backdrop for all of these new encounters, and has proved to be one of my most valuable dating tools yet. And, that lesson is: I’m not here to fix anyone.

Everyone is a mess, this — I know. I’m cool with messes. I can live in a mess. Heck, I can even make a mess appear neat and tidy. But, I’m done with cleaning messes, especially messes that aren’t my own. So, do I just keep moving from room to room? Do I take a breather and hang out in my bedroom, the one that I just Marie Kondo-ed? Or, do I level with myself and accept that, at 32, I’m not likely to find a room that isn’t totally filthy?

As an obvious hopeless romantic and an admittedly unrealistic, cinema-fed, true love, happily-ever-after kind of girl — this real-love in the real-world thing feels like eating rocks.

A friend of mine, who met her fiancé on an app, gave me this advice: “Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, like, when you are ready to put a gun in your mouth and end it all — book another date. Get out there and fucking go, go, go girl. Do it. Get it. Coffee. Drinks. Walk together somewhere awful. Anything. Go on 20 more bad dates. 30. 50. Because, you can’t give up! Even when you want to die, especially when you want to die — Sarah, you have to keep on swiping!”

So, I do. For better or worse. I keep on swiping, Goddammit. And, when my roommate makes fun of me for not knowing my date’s name as I run out the door to meet him, I laugh it off. Even if it is mildly depressing. Because, Happiness is about Believing. — There’s only so much joy you can spark organizing your own underwear drawer.

Though, I will say this about tidying up — sometimes amidst the mess, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for.

This weekend, searching for an old sweater, I opened a Rubbermaid bin that I had shipped back East when I moved home from Portland. It had been sitting, duct taped shut, in a corner for over a year. When I pulled back the dusty, plastic lid, sitting at the very top, neatly folded, I found my “I Believe” shirt. A navy tee that features, a unicorn, a jackalope, and a narwhal. And, I was reminded that, beyond our cynicism, inside all of our sealed up boxes, and buried under our filthy piles, in the messiest of our rooms, everyone of us has some forgotten treasure.

Those bits and pieces from our past lives — they don’t need fixing. They’ll always be there, boxed up or buried. Our old heart fragments, lost and forgotten, will always remain among the mess. They need discovering. So, it’s worth a little bit of poking around, even if you have to get your hands dirty.

In all honesty, I’ll never stop believing. — In love or in magic. — Because, I know, when you seek them out, you find them. It’s just, sometimes, we have to remind ourselves how important it is that we keep on searching, never stopping, until we find what we’re looking for.

So, I continue to take my friend’s advice, I bite the side of my cheek, and I swipe right.

Because, at the end of the day, I’m an addict — and, really, what’s one more cup of coffee?

 

 

 

Maybe I’ll Be Her For Awhile

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The last time I remember knowing exactly who I was, I was seventeen years old, sitting at my parent’s dining room table.

NYU had made an error. They’d sent out an email, congratulating recent early decision applicants on their acceptance to the university before the applicants had actually received their official acceptance letters in the mail. And, the evening I got my email, I sat in front of my PC, staring at my AOL home page, elated.

That night, long before becoming a drunk, sniffing, snorting, or smoking a drug — my whole body buzzed. I was more of an energetic mass than I was a person. And, for the first time, in maybe my entire life, I felt worthy. The vision of myself, one that I had carefully cultivated and constructed, had not only been validated, but, better still, handsomely rewarded.

I’d bust my ass in high school, and, with one click of my mouse, the Universe — and the the university of my dreams — had granted me my every wish. Suddenly I had become the one thing I had always dreamed I would be. And, for the first time in my life, I didn’t care that I had no one to tell.

I sat at the dining room table, my arms folded on my mother’s textured, green tablecloth, the day’s mail piled beside my right elbow and the large, white, water-pitcher-vase, that served as the table’s centerpiece, beside my left. My parents were still at work. I had two, maybe three hours before they’d arrive back home. Shaking, the news bottled up inside me like lightning, news that I knew was to good to relay over the phone, I didn’t quite know how to contain myself. So, I cried. I cried for a really long time. It felt like hours. Sitting quietly at the table, just feeling. Feeling everything. I felt the possibility in my future. I felt the satisfaction of having been rewarded for performing the hard work — work that I was never really sure would pay off. And, I felt like, maybe, having accomplished this one thing — I could be easier on myself.

Just one email in my AOL inbox, sent in error, suddenly gave me express permission to believe in myself and my ability — wholeheartedly. I felt solid, a beacon of myself, and, I cried because I’d been holding onto all that emotion for years. I’d been waiting. Waiting to be actualized or noticed or forgiven. And, there I sat, and — I didn’t have to wait anymore. At that table, I became everything all at once.

I let it enter me and exit my lungs in loud, lonely sobs. I was everything I had set out to be. And, in that moment, I was the most grateful I had ever been. I thanked God. I whispered promises into the air — promises that were meant to assure the powers that be:

I would hold up my end of the bargain.

***          ***          ***

Six months later, only one semester into my dream program at NYU — I dropped out. Promptly changing schools within the university.

Ever since then, I have waited for a night like the one I spent sitting at my parent’s dining room table. I’ve waited for the moment where I’ll feel  sure about who I am and what I’m meant to be doing. I’ve moved from job to job, relationship to relationship, city to city. But, I’ve never sat so still as I did that night, waiting for my parents to come home. Never since that night have I had a moment where I have been so proud to share something with them — with anyone. And, I have never had the Universe so perfectly deliver me my true heart’s desire the way that email delivered me my childhood dream.

Breaking into 2017, I think about the three months that remain in my Year of Happiness. I think about how, in one of the Christmas cards my father gave me this year, he told me that his wish for me is that my Year of Happiness extends into forever. And, I think about what it really means to know who I am and what direction I’m about to move in next.

As someone who was always the “good girl” — an exemplary student, a well behaved daughter, and a loyal friend and family member — it still baffles me that I ended up being the fuck-up with so little direction. It still surprises me when I remember that, there isn’t anything that lights me up today the way getting into NYU lit me up back then. And, I still feel it in my gut every time I change gears — the ambiguity of my purpose here. Where can I begin to find meaning when I don’t have the slightest idea where to look?

In a way, my Year of Happiness has given me something back, even if it is just a fraction of what it was — not purpose, but, a renewed sense of meaning. So far, these nine months and, I expect, the three that remain, have shown me that purpose isn’t always something specific. And, meaning is relative. Maybe it was always the Universe’s intention that I be an entirely new woman every few months. Maybe the God I thanked, those now fifteen years ago, always intended me to be lost and found and then lost again. Maybe it was never about the goals I set and failed to meet. — Maybe it was always about being the chameleon. — Changing with ease.

New skin is easier to grow into and slip out of these days. And, while I may have dropped out of the acting program at NYU, I am still a master performer. I’ve played many strange and tragic roles. I change casts and costumes whenever I like. I see someone I want to be, and, I don’t think about it — I become her. I move in and out of my own scenes, project new heroines, and think: “Maybe I’ll be her for awhile.”

This January, the tenth month in my Year of Happiness, I intend to celebrate my Chameleon — the actress I became without ever really becoming. Things I have always hated — the ambiguity, the uncertainty, the disappointment — maybe these are all functions of my greatest role. The one I have played so well, that the lines separating us are hardly blurred any longer. Her stage is set, and, I know my mark.

The truth is, you can’t know anything at seventeen. You can’t know who you’ll be or what you’ll do. You can’t know if your dream today is the dream you’ll have in six months or sixteen years. You can’t thank God for something that you delivered to yourself. And, it should be obvious, that you can’t expect anything that arrived in your AOL inbox back in 2001 to be worth a damn in 2017.

But, you can always sit at the dining room table.

Change color.

And, feel it out.