The Expressions We Make


“Well, someone is looking chipper.”

She’s sitting on one of the larger rocks off to the side.  A fellow hiker, one of the countless people you meet and effortlessly talk to and then equally as effortlessly part ways with while on the trails.  I’m probably a quarter mile in to what is about a solid half mile of pure uphill rock climbing.  I’m far enough away that she can’t hear my huffing and puffing (I’m assuming).

“Look at that smile.  You look like you could go another 10 miles of this,” she adds on.  Her pack is off and she is in the middle of eating.  A break from the trail.

“Don’t let the demeanor fool you,” I reply. “My legs are absolutely pissed I’m putting them through this.”

And they are.  My calf muscles are screaming and my quad muscles have fatigued out.  I’m already having trouble lifting my feet high enough up and I keep tripping over roots.  I’ve been periodically pushing myself up the mountain by clamping down on my bent leg’s thigh and pushing off it, as if to simultaneously keep the knee down while propelling the rest of me up.

It’s fitting that I’m having this conversation.  Perhaps a mile or so back on the trail, back when the terrain was relatively level, I had just realized that, when I’m knee-deep in the trail and too physically exhausted for the chitter-chatter of my mind to sustain itself, the corners of my mouth naturally turn up.

At that point, I was about two or so miles in to a solo hike, getting what might’ve been my last hike of 2016 before training and travel and work would fill up my weekends from now until the holidays.  I was already breathing heavily, my mouth slightly agape (and…smiling).  It was an expression I would keep as the terrain got rockier, as the incline got more extreme, and as I found myself essentially on my tiptoes as I scaled the mountainside.

“You couldn’t tell with that smile,” another hiker interjects, responding to what I had just said about pissed off legs, hoisting himself up the rock with hiking sticks that I start wishing I had brought along as well.

My natural smile as I hike.  Perhaps even part of why I hike in the first place.  But it’s not the expression I tend to get in other forms of exercise.

When I run, there’s almost a scowl on my face.  Brows naturally furrowing, as if focusing in on a complex question — or determined to push through an arduous project.  If my race pictures are of any indication, I can even look angry at times.  It’s as if running is a slow burn to whatever it is I’m dealing with.  Like I’m unearthing every demon, forcing them to the surface so they can be dealt with accordingly.  It’s really no wonder, then, that nearly every running playlist has Eminem’s “Not Afraid” on it.

But it’s time to exercise these demons / These motherfuckers are doing jumping jacks now

Surprisingly, none of that anger shows up behind the heavy bag.  The look I get when boxing or kickboxing is more laser-focused.  Instead of a slow burn, I feel like Artemis, goddess of the hunt, zeroing in with the kind of clarity a mountain lion must feel before striking at its prey.  It’s a similar look I get when practicing yoga.  Stoic grace.  Zeroed in.  A heavy calm.

And, when I hike, apparently I smile.

I spend a good portion of my remaining hiking contemplating this.  The faces I make as I get too exhausted for anything else but the activity at hand.  When the chitter-chatter of my brain is mercifully turned down and pretenses fall by the wayside and all that matters is that I keep going.

It’s beautiful, in a way.  The way they’re all so different.  The smile, the scowl, the focus.  Each activity bringing out something that — I hope, at least — rests at my core.  The furious, determined side of me.  The precise and focused side of me.

And – most importantly – the content side.  The side that is at peace.  The side that smiles effortlessly.  The side that, despite the brain’s chitter-chatter and the fatigue of it all, makes people go, “You couldn’t tell with that smile.”


I finish the trail in half of the time I had allotted myself.  I use up the other hours meandering back, avoiding the highway and opting instead for the deliriously gorgeous backroads.  I end up at an intersection in Meredith, NH — one that is about 15 minutes from the highway, with a McDonald’s and a few traffic lights and nothing else.

I’ve come to this intersection by accident once before.  Thirteen months back, when I was driving up to Freedom NH to find my childhood campground in a fevered haze, just days before my father would pass away.  When I realized what I had found back last September, I burst into tears.

It’s one of those memories that make no sense as to why they stick the way that they did.  The way a child’s mind will latch on to a passing sign, or a casual comment by an adult, and remember it for the rest of their lives.

But that intersection meant something.

I have a snapshot-like memory of it, coming up to it in my father’s pick-up truck, knowing that it meant we were almost there.  Almost to the campground.  Almost to vacation.  After an exhausting 4-hour drive through Boston and into New Hampshire, we were barely 30 minutes out from that beloved childhood campground — a campground that has long since gone out of business and replaced by a more upscale RV-and-cabin company.

This time around, I calmly pull into the McDonald’s — something we never did as a family, no matter how many times we passed it — and order myself a post-hike treat.  I gravitate towards the things that feel like poetry, and I try to piece together exactly why this gesture feels as so.

It’s been an intensely retrospective year, and an intensely introspective past few years.  All of it marked by runs and hikes and time behind the heavy bag.  Time on the yoga mat and time teaching alongside it (fittingly enough, when I teach yoga, I naturally smile, and the chitter-chatter of the mind mercifully slides away).  All of it marked by things that remind me of what I am of.  The strength.  The anger.  The determination.  The focus.

And the natural smile.  What rises to the surface when everything else is too tired to take up space.  A reminder of what I am at my core.



There is time to pause when coming upon a funeral procession.

Waiting in your own vehicle, the steady steam of little purple flags and highbeams and hazards passing you by.  It’s a moment to reflect.

Music gets turned down when I come upon a funeral procession.  I might be on my way to get groceries.  Or to a class.  Or to a meeting.  For me, I’m going about a standard day.  For them, they are bringing a loved one to rest.  My morning’s agenda will bleed into the afternoon’s without much thought.  I will forget most of what I do that morning, none of it really lingering.  Their morning’s agenda will signal the start of something irrevocably different.

The funeral procession is universal.  It spans cultures, countries, centuries & millennia.  Somehow we have all banded together in this collective ritual.  By foot, by horse, by carriage, by hearse.  To the pyre, the temple, the gravesite.  We travel single file to lay the dead to rest.

This morning, I’m on the other side.  Now I’m the one in the procession, watching the cars that have to wait at intersections and streetlights.  I stare at the drivers, the passengers.  I see exhausted, impatient faces.  Are any of them reflecting?  Any taking that moment to pause?  Will any of them go to the grocery store or the gym or work with a little more reverence?

The procession for my brother-in-law is vast.  Two towns are essentially on pause as we pass through.  It gives the smallest hint as to how loved he was.  The impact he had.  The legacy he is leaving behind.

Tired, exasperated faces.  A few visibly showing regret — even annoyance — that they picked that time to be on the road, that time to turn left.  And now they are stuck in traffic.  Now they have to wait.

I want to huff out a, “Show some respect.”  But I know it’s easier to be angry than in pain.  Easier to be aggressive than confront mortality.  It’s something even more pervasive in human beings than funeral processions.

We pass by a yard sale on the way to the cemetery.  People perusing tables filled with knick-knacks and used appliances and old clothes.  A few miles from that, we pass a group of three girls in a front yard.  Whatever game they were playing has been put on pause.  All three watch us, hands on hips.  They’re middle school aged, at the absolute oldest.

A procession so long and vast that we snake around multiple roads in the cemetery.    As we park along the roadsides, an SUV attempts to pass by us.  As we come in to lay our loved one to rest, they are coming out after visiting theirs.

The weather holds out for us: what was promising to be a cold and cloudy and drizzly day has stayed relatively warm and sunny.  It is a sea of black around the new gravesite, around a casket with treble clefs carved into the corners (the smallest hint of his time as a drummer, his unyielding passion for music).  A large crow flies overhead as the minister gives the final words.  Some see crows as a bad omen.  Death.  Destruction.  Disease and dis-ease.  I see them as symbolic of change.  Of fearlessness.  They’re seen as spiritual guides in some cultures.  One foot in our world, one foot in the other.  They’re intelligent, resourceful creatures.  In some ways, it is the perfect bird to be flying overhead.

It’s been a long and vast morning.  I focus in on my sister.  I focus in on my niece, on my sister’s youngest daughter.  I lose my composure all over again.  I’ve reached the point where I’m crying for the pain of those around me.  It hurts because it hurts.  It hurts because tragedy ripples out.

Rituals around death.  Every culture has it.  Every religion has them.  Processions, prayers, tears.  Flowers, music, food.  Moments to pause.  Moments to reflect.  Moments to hold each other up because we all feel like collapsing.  Moments to move forward with a little more reverence.

As a lone car in randomized traffic, my husband and I pass four more yard sales on our way to the funeral’s reception (how food permeates every ritual, big and small. Punctuating everything from weddings to funerals to meetings with this life-sustaining activity).  People milling about in driveways, looking at someone else’s possessions, taking advantage of the unexpectedly nice weather.  I look out, wondering how many people are looking in.  Seeing two people with black clothes and tired faces.  I wonder how their mornings are going.  What’s on their minds.  Is today as simple as finding a cheap, used bicycle — or is something else lingering in the background?  What wars are being waged against their mortality, or at least against the fear of it?

Our highbeams and hazards are off.  The little purple flag with FUNERAL in white letters has been removed.  The morning signaled the start of something irrevocably different.  And now we are removed from the procession, from our long, unbreakable line.  A lone car in a sea of SUVs, pick-up trucks, sedans.  Everyone going in all sorts of directions.  Morning agendas blending into the afternoon’s.  Yard sales and children playing and people annoyed by the delays in life.


A wasp has made my back porch door its final resting place.  As the days and nights get colder and colder, it stays on the glass panel, moving minimally.  Far from its nest and, as far as I can tell, waiting to die.

It’s funny.  I viciously hate wasps.  I think nothing of spraying neurotoxin into the air and risking poisoning myself in order to effectively kill them off.  For this one, I wouldn’t even need poison to kill him off: I’d simply need something broad to hit the door with, and it would be gone.

And yet, I let it stay.

In this state, the wasp loses all menace.  From inside the house, I can watch its feelers slowly move and bend.  I can watch it attempt to get closer to where the sun hits.  It inches across the glass pane slowly, each leg a deliberate move.  It’s so innocent in this state.  I give him his spot, even opening the porch door slowly when I step outside.

On day three of the visit from the dying wasp, I get word from my sister.  My brother-in-law has passed away.

I am stunned into speechlessness.  Stunned into disbelief.  He had been on the losing end of a cancer battle, but he had been charging forward, regardless and relentless.

And we thought we had time.  Just a little more time.  One more family event.  One more outing.  One more barbecue.  One more baby shower.  One more cancer treatment trial, and maybe — just maybe — this one would be it.

Stunned.  Silent.  Numb.  It’s the calm before the storm.  The tsunami tide receding back before the big wave hits.

I get the news barely half a week after the one-year anniversary of my father’s passing — and barely a month after my older siblings’ mother had passed away as well.  It comes on the heels of health scares, an organ transplant rejection, a premature birth.  It comes on the heels of my little brother finally having the wires removed from his jaw, as he returns to life as usual before the motorcycle accident.  In the hurricane of unfortunate events, nothing is left dry.  When the tsunami hits, everything gets washed away.

“What are you going to do to take care of yourself?” asks my best friend.

“Do you need me to come home?” asks my husband.

“Keep telling me things you’re thankful for,” says a dear friend.

In this storm, I vacillate wildly between incoherent tears and a cascade of thoughts & words.  I vacillate between my stomach clenched & knotted and my stomach gurgling — a gentle reminder that I haven’t eaten since my morning run.  That my plans for the day had been upended the second I stepped out of the shower and checked my phone.  That I react to trauma by accidental starvation.

By the porch door, on the inside staring out, my black cat whines.  He wants to be hooked up to the harness and leash set-up we have in our backyard.  Well, truth be told, he wants to be allowed outside to roam the forest freely and terrorize the chipmunks & garter snakes, but this is our compromise.

I leash him up and let him outside to prowl.  I open the chicken coop cage and allow the chickens out to range as well.  The weather is warm and the skies are a vibrant blue. It’s a perfect fall day and I stand in my backyard, bare feet in the grass, hands in my sweater pockets, eyes drifting between the trees & deeper into the forest.

I am thankful for good weather and good friends and snuggly cats and only having one class on the roster tonight.  I’m going to take care of myself by making homemade potato chips fried in bacon grease & then eating the whole batch.  I’ll be fine — no one needs to come home yet.

The cat gets his leash tangled up in the stone walkway and whines at me to unravel him.  The chickens continue to putter along, bobbing their heads at the ground, pecking at whatever might pass for food.

I am thankful for finishing assignments early and appointments being mercifully cancelled and warm sunlight and living by the mountains.  I’m going to take care of myself by drinking another cup of tea and taking another shower and then going on a drive.  No one needs to come home yet — I don’t even plan on being home for much longer today, anyway.

I turn to go back inside — to prepare everything to make homemade potato chips, to brew me another cup of tea.  The animals will be fine without my supervision for a little while.

I am thankful he lived long enough to walk his stepdaughter down the aisle.  I am thankful the world got to bear witness to such a kind and generous soul.

I step up onto the porch again, realizing that the wasp wasn’t in his usual spot.  I know he was there this morning.  But in getting the cat outside and my breathing to normalize, I didn’t even register him when coming out.  And he’s not there as I come back.

I check both panes of glass.  I check in between them.  I check the runners on both sides.  I check the corners.  I check the ground, the crevasses in the porch, the edges of the welcome mat.  Whether he had finally passed on and one of the chickens plucked him up or he got second wind and was able to fly away, fly back to a nest I would be destroying under any other circumstances, I don’t know.  All I know is that he’s gone.

The little wasp has left me, and I’m completely heartbroken about it.


I Feel 30.


I never feel my age.

When people remark on my youthful appearance, I feel exactly the age they say I look like.  When faced with a major responsibility or task, I feel younger.  When I look at what people typically do at my age, I lose numbers and feel nothing & everything at once.

By the same token, I never felt birthdays.  I never woke up on September 17th and remarked on how I now felt a sweet 16, or 21, or 25, or any of the years in between.


A new age was typically a slow burn, a gentle rumble.  Slipping into another year older like I’m slipping into a new routine.  A gentle recognition that I’m no longer the previous age.  And sometimes the age itself slips away and I have to do a quick set of math in my head — the current year minus 1986, or my little brother’s age plus 2.

But I felt 30.  I felt 30 wash over me as the nighttime festivities happening the day before my birthday slowly gave way and I sat in my car, sunroof open, my eyes on the night sky, counting down the minutes to midnight like it’s New Years.  I felt 30 slip into the car like a welcomed passenger when the clock struck 12 and it was technically, officially my birthday.

My hippy, mystical side points to everything that happened on September 16th – full moon, lunar eclipse, the last harvest moon falling close to the equinox, and all of this happening in my astrological house.  Right before my birthday, no less.  All the astrologists pointing to important changes, a sense of empowerment, new beginnings.  And even if it’s all mumbo-jumbo and pattern-matching and yet another bit of human folly, I appreciate it.  Bare minimum, it’s symbolic.  Regardless as to its validity, I feel all of it ushered in with my new age.


Amidst a weekend filled to the brim with exciting, fun, slightly scary, slightly exhausting adventures, I give myself a chance to look in the mirror.  Really look.  The lines in my forehead have been getting more pronounced.  The skin around my eyes folds a little more when I smile.  My face has become more angular.  I stare at my reflection and she stares back, her gaze a little more intimidating than before, her eyes telling a slightly different story than they did when they were younger.  And I walk away owning it, owning everything, owning the person I’m turning into.  If I could’ve, I would’ve owned the air around me.

I feel it.  I feel 30 like the dawn of a new season, like the day after a rainstorm.  I feel 30 come at me not like a truck or a hurricane, but like a beloved, sassy friend, exclaiming, “There you are, you sexy bitch.  What took you so long?” before taking me in their arms.

I wear 30 like a form-fitting dress, hugging everything that needs to be hugged, accentuating everything that I want accentuated.  I wear 30 like the perfect pair of jeans, like the shoes that give your stride power and purpose, like the necklace that proves how elegant you were in the first place.  And 30 fits like the outfit I should’ve been wearing all along.


I carry my new age with me, through daredevil adventures that I hope I never give up on, around friends that I hope I never lose, across trips down paths that harken back to timeless moments.  I carry my new age with me as people continue to remark that I don’t look this age, look that age — that I look straight out of college, even though the college grads all look like babies to me.


I carry 30 as I make plans — new plans, old plans, vital plans.  I carry 30 as I let other things go uncharted.  I carry 30 the way I want to always be carrying myself: with pride, with dignity, like a badge of honor.

I carry 30 like one last “fuck you” to all things I thought I was supposed to be, all the outdated, toxic programming that held me back, all the expectations that kept things stagnant.  I carry 30 like a prominent middle finger, thrilled to be adding on the years so long as I keep making sure those years mean something.

I feel 30 the way I feel the glow of a sunrise.  I feel 30 the way I feel that first sip of coffee.  I feel 30 the way I feel things clicking into place, cards falling the way they’re destined to fall, the world making perfect sense through the rearview mirror.

I feel 30.  And damn it feels good.


Chicago, Virgil, and In This World – An Ode


Prologue: Character Study

“The neighborhoods here, they’re very reasonable.  It’s not expensive,” my taxi driver explains. “I mean, don’t get me wrong.  There are areas where it’s getting so expensive.  But those are the areas where, like, people are going around, saying how cool it is.  Those people with the, like, Van Dyke mustaches and like going to restaurants where they sit on milk crakes and eat their food off of, like, a freakin’ shovel…”

His energy is making a 5:30 a.m. taxi drive a little less foggy.  I listen to him talk about Chicago and his family and his life (in school for Linux Systems administration, wife with two lovely kids, dreams of troubleshooting remotely while living in the Bahamas) and I try to pinpoint his elusive accent.  His accent is vaguely Eastern European, and the way he structures his sentences supports that – but the occasional aqui and eso makes me doubt my initial observation.

“No, it’s so good to travel.  It’s so good.  My wife and I, we just spent some time in California, in Nevada…have you ever been to Zion National Park?  Oh my God, it is so beautiful.  And we spend all day driving around, and we find this inn, this, like, Summer Ranch Inn or something.  And this place is, like, spooky.  No one is around and there’s this old rocking horse in the yard and like I’m going, ‘someone is going to smack me in the face with a shovel or something here…’”

After spending the last 4 days traveling by public transit and by foot, it’s nice to just sit back and be delivered straight to the terminal for my flight back home.  It’s been a whirlwind of a trip, and the constant go-go-go is catching up on me.

O’Hare comes into a view after a string of tall, glassy hotels – hotels that, as my driver explains, were built that way because of all the regulations on reusing things like beams and stones and bricks.  I’ll be back home in a few hours – crossing over timezones, losing the time I gained getting here.

Back to reality.

My taxi driver continues to be jovial as he pulls up to the United entranceway.  He reminds me to make sure I have all the things, that it’s important not to forget anything, and he wishes me a safe trip.  I wish him the best of luck with everything and go off to check in.

Continue reading

Force Me Bold

abby tattoo

“You really don’t want to go any smaller than this,” she says as she looks at the tattoo print-out. “Any smaller and you’ll lose definition.”

She says something similar about the second printout: “At this size, some of these closer lines will start blending together in about 5 years’ time.”

“Neither of those are to scale,” I had warned in my ultra-cautious, nauseatingly-meek voice.  “I was actually thinking of something smaller?”

Two tattoo ideas — both meticulously researched, although one way more so than the other.  For one tattoo, I spent hours on a design website, agonizing over the perfect cursive font for the words.  The other tattoo had been mulled over for the last 8 years.  One is a line in a Spanish language poem.  The other is a variation of the Celtic trinity knot.  But both shared the same theme: small, subtle, unassuming.

And both were met with the same answer: that’s really not an option.

For both, the random printout size is roughly as small as it can go.  The poem line will have to be about one and a half times bigger than planned.  The Celtic knot variation will easily have to be twice its planned size.  Maybe bigger.

well this was a fun experiment it’s time to go home now sorry to waste your time guess I’m never actually getting a tattoo.

Instead, I press forward.  I’ve wanted the Celtic knot variation ever since my summer in Belfast — a tattoo idea I originally (and whimsically) dreamt of getting upon returning to some part of the Motherland again (which, for me, meant Northern Ireland, or Ireland, or Scotland, or even England).  As the years wore on, such a plan received an asterisk at the end of its statement:

Return to the Motherland*

*or before I turn 30, whichever comes first.

Now, here I am, 4 weeks away from turning 30, my stomach dropping over being told how big my tattoos need to be in order for them to work — and still confirming an appointment date.

No, but it was supposed to be small.  Like, a square inch small.  Tiny.  Like it’s not even there.  Nothing crazy.  No bold statements.

I’m deliberately pushing myself out of my comfort zone.  When we get home, I cut out the Celtic knot’s printout and place it on my back, in between my shoulder blade and spine — the planned location for the tattoo (after wanting it on my ankle, then my shoulder, then the opposite side of my ankle, then back to my shoulder, then maybe on the hip, but, no, definitely on the shoulder).  I use my hypermobile shoulders to place the cutout printout on my back, careening backwards at the mirror to see what it will look like.

I smirk.  It actually looks pretty badass at that size.


“Now, I know I’m basically calling you out in front of people, but, remember, if something isn’t right, this is your time to speak up.  This is going to be on your body forever.”

“I know.  I definitely know.  And it’s something I’m already telling myself,” I respond.

My husband is keeping a watching eye out for me as the stencils are applied to my back.  His statements are not unfounded.  I have a nasty track record of just dealing with things.  Forever the Cool Girl, even when it’s a really stupid idea to be the Cool Girl.  Forever fearing making waves, so pretending I’m just going with the flow instead.  Never speaking up or advocating for myself.  Never putting my foot down.  I already know far too well that things have to be outright unbearable before I even dare do anything.  And — even then — I would circumnavigate and rebel in the shadows.

“This is definitely the time to be fussy,” says the tattoo artist.

I look in the mirror at the tattoo stencils.  They are so incredibly close to the location I want, but ever-so-slightly too low on my back.

This is not a time to deal with it.  Take that energy you usually spend on figuring out how you can live with it and apply it to actually saying what’s on your mind.

I turn from the mirror and make a slight grimace, as if it hurts me to actually ask for something different.

“If both could be moved up by, like, a half centimeter, that would be amazing,” I say.
“They’re really close to hitting the mark, but just a little bit too low.”

Without any trouble, the stencils are cleaned off and reapplied.  I look in the mirror a second time.  They’re exactly where I want them to be.  For a split second, I panic and am tempted to just back out.  This is it.  Those stencils turn into ink in about 2 minutes.  No going back after that.

“Let’s do this,” I say.



It forced me bold.  That’s how I explained it to my best friend after the initial meeting.  I was told my little square inch tattoo was going to be an impossibility with such an intricate and interwoven design.  I was told the lines in my lettering would need to be bigger and wider or else they’d lose distinctiveness before the decade was out.  Forced me to go from small and subtle to what felt like a bold statement.

(Although, now that they’re on my back, they seem so tiny and adorable.)


And because we both speak in metaphors and analogies, similes and symbolism, I quickly see the parallel between my tattoos and the last couple of years.  I don my best Maureen from Rent impression and yelp out, “It’s a metaphor!!”

Because, really, if I could sum up the last few years in three words, it would be: “force me bold”.

Force me bold.  Pry me away from all comforts of routine.  Throw me in the deep end.  Make it necessary to reevaluate everything, because the safety net is gone and there’s nothing for you to fall back on.  Create a trial by fire so that everything that needs to be burned can be burned.  Be told in no uncertain terms that there is no going back to the old way of doing things, that the only way forward is to carve out a new path.

Because I’m the perennial Cool Girl.  Because I’m the girl who’ll let herself drown before she makes waves.  Because I’m the girl who couldn’t leave a job no matter how terrible it was unless she had a sneaky excuse like moving away or returning to school.  Because I’m the girl who wouldn’t leave a profession until her burnout was so severe that it took a solid month after leaving before she could even find her footing again.

I will always need to be forced bold, because there’ll always be reason enough to deal.  Deal with a toxic environment, a toxic person.  Deal with less than desirable circumstances.  Deal with a scenario that wouldn’t exist if I had just a little bit of spine, a little bit of assertiveness.

I got my tattoos in the midst of yet more family shakeups.  More death.  More dying.  More pain.  More muddled & confusing uncertainty and the paralyzing anxiety it causes.  More reason for me to throw my hands in the air and go, “I am done with this phase of my life.”

But these phases force people bold, if they can let themselves be forced bold.  If they can let life pry away what it was going to take away from you anyway and be ready to stand on both feet.  To say what needs to be said.  Reach out when you need to reach out.  Do something that feels like going against character, only to realize you were simply going against outdated programming.

Be bold, be bold, and — yes — too bold.  Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.




Getting inked up becomes a great practice on focusing outwards.  When I’d feel a little antsy.  When the needle would hit an area without much muscle.  Time to look around the room, observe and perceive and make note.  I became very familiar with the tattoo artist’s books, her postcards for tattoo artist conventions, her sketches taped to the walls.

After a while, I notice the clock in the far back.  My eagle eyesight is starting to soften as I close in on 30, but I can still make out the 12 motorcycles in lieu of numbers, with the Harley Davidson logo in the center.  It might seem like obvious kitsch: a Harley decoration in a tattoo parlor, but such a discovery reassures me.  On that bench, hunched over as my designs became a reality, I was not even 24 hours out from my 3-day job with Harley Davidson.  And now I’m staring at 12 motorcycles arranged in a circle.

Even if it’s blind reassurance, it’s still reassuring me that I’m on the right path.  It’s a perfect coincidence.  It’s one of those little synchronicities that gives hint to the bigger plan for all of this.


Model Me

It’s Day One of a three-day modeling job — my first paid gig in over a year and a half.  I’m working the floor of Harley Davidson’s annual trade show, wearing clothes that won’t even be in stores for an additional year.  No one from the public is allowed in.  We had to sign confidentiality agreements beforehand — no pictures, no sharing, no nothing.  We need laminated credentials on a lanyard just to get through the door.

The floor of the trade show is massive.  I understand intellectually that it’s a big name at a big venue, but I’m not ready for the scene when the coordinator brings us through the glass doors.  The landscape can’t be taken in with just one glance around.  The sites and the sounds, the lights and production and special effects.  Motorcycles and tables and aisles and rows and columns.  A gigantic Harley decal on the glass corridor suspended from the ceiling.  Beautiful and intriguing excess that makes it easy to go blind to the types of hardships that are going on in the world around us.


I’m surrounded by strangers that I gladly go up to and shake hands with.  I’m full of smiles and a few jokes.  I’m Model Me: an aspect of myself that used to shine only in modeling situations.  It’s as close to an alternate persona as you can get.  The Sasha Fierce to the Beyonce.  Only I don’t believe in alternate personas — only situations where we feel freer to let certain sides of ourselves out.

Model Me is given her main outfit — black tank top, black skinny jeans, take-no-bullshit biker boots.  I station myself by the row of clothes I’ve been assigned to that day, just a stone’s throw from a gray mannequin.  I look over at the mannequin and smirk.  I’m not blind to what my job is, especially on a day like today; the only difference between the mannequin and me is that I move and talk and put the clothes on all by myself.


The trade show begins with a mass of people streaming through the aisles.  I stand in my current outfit — now with a Harley Davidson t-shirt over my tank top — with my hands on my hips, my chin up, my eyes decidedly not on the ground.  Model posture.  One that exudes confidence and poise.  I meet people’s eye contact and greet everyone.

Representatives from over 82 countries make their way around everything Harley Davidson has to offer.  It is an outright tour of the world as people approach my area of the trade show.  People browsing through the samples, accents from all corners of the globe.  Talking to each other in fast foreign languages before turning to me and asking me in broken English to do a turn in my outfit, or try on a different outfit.  I change outfits and offer to try on outfits and remind people that I’m here for exactly that.  I smile broadly at people from cultures where broad smiles are indicative of fools and morons.

At one point I find myself next to a full-length mirror, leather jacket now adorning my skinny jeans and take-no-bullshit boots attire.  Off in the distance, “Back in Black” is playing.  There are few things in the world quite as badass-feeling as standing akimbo wearing a leather jacket and boots, with AC/DC in the background.  I desperately wish I could take a picture of this, if only to capture the moment.  Instead, I steal glimpses into the mirror.  Badass Model Me, at your service.


Working the floor as a model leaves a lot of time to get lost in your thoughts.  I bounce around all sorts of things — song lyrics, ideas for the manuscript I’m currently shin-deep in, memories that sing sweetly & hauntingly, random streams of consciousness & thought exercises — as I stand there and offer to try on another coat, another shirt, another blouse.

I think about the idea of Model Me — a concept that is almost as old as my modeling career.  I think about how Model Me and “Real” Me were so different for so long, as if I took the phrases “mild mannered” and “Superman” a little too much to heart.  For so long, there was a meek, shy, small & unassuming version of me — and then there was the exuberant, confident, strides-across-the-room-and-smiles-broadly-at-anyone version of me.  For so, so long, those two never really existed in the same place.

And why?  Was it because modeling gave me a confidence boost?  Now that one, I know is bullshit. This industry is not in the business of self-esteem boosting.  There had been far too many times where I was taken down a notch, sometimes from direct comments, and sometimes from just being in a room where I knew I was the oldest, the least-skinniest, certainly not the most gorgeous.  Plenty of reason to resort back to old ways, even in the modeling world.

Was it because it was a different environment?  I think we’re on to something there.  The modeling world removed me from my usual context and placed me square in the middle of one where being outgoing and social and confident was expected.  Far from any context where — if it even hinted at the idea that me staying small and unassuming would be in my best interest — I dove headfirst into old habits.

And now I’m a decade into my modeling career — and who knows how many years in removing the “Model” variable from Model Me.  I know I’m not that meek 19-year-old anymore.  Hell, I’m not even the meek 24-year-old anymore.  Or the meek 27-year-old.  In many ways, I’ve grown more into Actual Me (not Model Me, not quote-unquote “Real” Me) in the last two years than I have in the previous 27.  But, still, I know I can revert.  Become small, unassuming, meek.  Prove that I can take a 5’11” girl with broad shoulders & muscular arms & gargantuan legs and make her the smallest person in the room.


I crack jokes with the model who is stationed across the aisle from me.  I watch a man in a blue polo shirt walk the aisles with a black lab dog — the words “Bomb Detection K9” on his collar.  A reminder even in this opulence of the type of hardships that are going on in the world around us.

The day wears on and I lose energy — fast.  After nearly 9 hours on the floor — and with one hour left to go — I’m exceptionally silent.  I find myself engaging less and observing more.  Making noncommittal noises in response to smalltalk.  Exhaustion strips away layers and I’m reminded what rests at the core of Actual Me.  It starts taking more and more work to interact, to be both in the world and of it, not just the former.


At the end of Day One, we return to our street clothes and I hit the streets.  I fish out my headphones and open up the music on my phone and wander the streets of Boston.  Even after all that time on my feet, what I need most is yet more time on my feet.  I need a walk.  I need to be a pedestrian and talk to no one and observe everyone.  It recharges me, gets me ready for a long drive home — a drive spent alone, with yet more music, weirdly content on the road, even in the midst of the traffic.

Again, a reminder of what rests at the core of Actual Me.  That I can shift the things that need shifting — demolish old defenses and fortify what feels good & proper & right — but, at the core of it all, I know I am Most Me when my feet hit the pavement, when not a word needs to be spoken, when I can watch the world unfold around me with nothing more than the wind in my hair and music in my ears.

*since no pictures are allowed of the trade show, I included a smattering of modeling pictures from throughout the years, almost all from the years 2007 – 2010.