Both my mother and her mother were musicians. My mother grew up singing in the church children’s choir that was conducted by her mother. When I was eight I joined my mom in her church choir as an honorary adult. My mother sang the alto parts with a clear resonance that could make the hairs stand up on my arms; I loved to listen to her sing. But I had to stand with the sopranos and sing their lines because I was a kid who couldn’t yet hit the low notes. I wanted to sing alto with my mom, her parts were much more interesting, more mature, and I wanted to be taken seriously, I wanted to be heard, I wanted to be close to her.

I didn’t become an alto until I was fourteen, the same year my mother sent me away from our home in Northern California to the Alaskan Island of Kodiak where I would live out my adolescence with my alcoholic father. After my parents had divorced, my mom had fallen in love with a woman whom she ultimately chose over me. My younger sister was not a problem for my mother, but I was too difficult, I was a handful, I was stubborn and independent and I was too much, I had always been too much. I didn’t want to leave but I had no choice and so I found myself on the Aleutian Chain for three years, learning how to comfort, protect and discipline myself. I buried my feelings of betrayal and threw myself into theater and music, where I discovered true community. Then it was time to choose a college and I had no doubt I would become an artist, because it was the only place I felt safe. I chose Seattle and Seattle chose me; it was love at first sight. I spent 17 years making a life in this town, and then I tore that life down to the bones and decided the only way to really start over was to get back to California. My mother was still there. She was still with the same woman, now legally married. I assumed enough time had passed that there was room for me, and I would be welcome. Over the next ten years as I built a new life, family and career, I came to slowly realize than even in the same state, my mother was unable to find a way to be a consistent presence in my life. We lived just ninety minutes apart, but only saw each other three times a year.

Even after I had a child, she could not be compelled to visit more often, for reasons I’ll never understand, especially now that I AM a mother. Last year I realized that I couldn’t stay in California any longer, I had to get back HOME to where I was truly myself – Seattle – the place I had chosen, where I found art school and became a woman and an artist and a wife and a divorcee, and a ghost. My ghost haunted me relentlessly in California until I packed up my new family and finally accepted my mother’s rejection. I set our course for Seattle, not looking back, hoping that it hurt her. She didn’t find time to see us off in person. Her goodbye on the phone was emotionless but I could feel the depth of her sadness and that gave me great, great satisfaction.

Last month I was in San Francisco on a business trip that I decided would not include a meet-up with my mother. Then, just days before the trip I changed my mind, deciding that I had to see her no matter what, because life is short, and what if I never saw her again, how could I live with myself? I resolved our time together would be purely enjoyable and experiential with no agendas or revisiting of the past. I chose the SFMOMA because we were always safe when we were surrounded by art.

She met me, she came with open arms and so did I because it had been quite some time since we’d been together, and we did and do love each other to pieces, and miracles can happen when hearts open. It turns out there was a choir in residence at the museum that weekend that was offering a public workshop and it was about to start when we arrived. We quickly and easily agreed it was for us. We joined 50 others, donning white robes with gray and pink sashes and we did vocal warm-ups and breathing exercises and diaphragm awareness and tongue twisters and the sounds we made together softened us, all of us, all the faces around the circle were open and inclusive. I was thrilled to revisit routines I’d learned in theater school, I was happy to see my mother enjoying some time in her body, with her breath, with her voice and with me and with my voice. And because our voices were free, we were free, and we were suddenly equals, members of the choir, and we were learning a song, we learned it together and we sang it together, we sang it in a round, everyone in the circle was singing, even our ancestors. Vibrant, radiant, beaming, we sang:

When I was born I cried and the world rejoiced

Live your life so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice

My father lives in Gig Harbor, just an hour away from Seattle, but I’m choosing
not to spend Christmas with him. He’ll be at home with my stepmom and his
youngest son, enjoying a John Wayne movie fest and a bottomless glass of white
wine. As the day progresses he will become quieter, with his immoveable half-
smile and faraway eyes taking him somewhere else, where everything has a
perfect order, like in a ritual, a ceremony, like he learned in the Coast Guard, like
his father learned in the Air Force, his father who was killed in WW2 when his
plane was shot down over North Africa. There is comfort in ritual, the discipline,
the patriarchy who never asks you who YOU want to be; you just have to be who
THEY want you to be. Sometime soon after Christmas dinner my father will slip
out while no one is looking and go for a long drive with the windows rolled down
and he’ll chain-smoke as he listens to the whistling of the wind and imagines he
is still on a ship, in the middle of the ocean, riding the waves. I choose not to visit
him on Christmas day, as his sadness and surrender to life makes me hate
myself so much because I have never figured out a way to save him.

I started driving regularly when I was fourteen and my Dad would get too loaded
to drive us home. It went like this: we went to some friends’ house for dinner and
I monitored him closely throughout the evening, counting the drinks, waiting for
the telltale signs that he was past the point, as he started dancing or swaying to
whatever music was playing as if he was actually enjoying being in his body.
Then, when it was time to leave, I suggested out of earshot of the guests, that he
give me the keys to drive. When I asked quietly, with a friendly, conspiratorial
tone, he happily gave me the keys. It felt great to be in the driver’s seat. I felt
closer to my Dad because I too discovered a freedom behind the wheel, the
windows open to welcome the arctic wind, the click of the lighter as he brought
cigarette after cigarette to life, and I took in the second-hand smoke without
question, and the black night sky bedazzled us with the Aurora Borealis and the
brightest dippers and belts you ever did see. We hurtled through space on black
iced roads in our Ford pickup with the extra wide steering wheel and high beam
button on the floor that I tapped on and off as we rounded hairpin turns and flirted
with oncoming cars, and my Dad coached me through it all, serenely and sleepily
from the passenger side, and journey after journey home, I learned how to shine
a light in the dark.

When I was fifteen I went to a party where I went for broke trying to get the
attention of a skater punk boy named Tony Vrell. He didn’t notice me, so I tried
not to think about it by drinking 7 Lucky lagers and a half bottle of Jack Daniels. My behavior went mostly unnoticed until I accidentally pulled the speaker wires
out of the stereo and killed the party vibe. I don’t remember anything else until
the next morning, waking up in my bed, stumbling to the bathroom and finding
the sink completely filled with my mostly dried vomit. Dad was already up, and
he soon sort of confronted me, calmly and quietly, by handing me a bottle of
Liquid Plumr. After I spent a long time cleaning the bathroom, he told me to get
dressed; it was time to go get our first ever fake Christmas tree. We lived on an
island in the Alaskan wilderness, but we were getting a fake tree. I did not
protest; I considered myself to be getting off easy. We went to the Navy
Exchange across the base to get it and I excused myself twice during the
shopping to throw up in the ladies room. I was sure I was dying, I had never
been so hung-over, but I showed my Dad nothing. When we got home, he helped
me assemble the tree, and then announced he was heading out for the rest of
the day to go to a Skeet shooting match, so I should go ahead and decorate the
tree and get it all done before he got home. So that’s what I did. I put up the
second-tier Christmas ornaments that my Mom had let him have when she
divorced him, and I played the Henry Mancini Christmas Album on the turntable
and I fled to the memories of an unfractured family, and warm smells in the
kitchen and flickering lights and Santa Claus, and the true meaning of Christmas,
which is togetherness.

I will not be spending this Christmas with my Dad. I’ll be keeping it tight here in
Seattle with my husband and six year old daughter and we’ll fight with all we’ve
got to keep the wolves of the world order at bay and create some new Christmas
traditions and some new hope. I’ll go visit my Dad sometime next week, just the
two of us. Maybe we should go for a long drive. I’d insist on driving, and we’d
ride quietly, just us and the wind, feeling free, flying on the waves, with my
grandfather soaring high above us in that old metal bucket of bolts, strapped in
tight to the navigator’s seat where he’s analyzing the data on his analog
instruments, determining where we’re going.

“Keep your heads up,” he’d tell us. “You don’t want to miss the light when it first
appears on the horizon, all golden white, then beaming straight through your soul
like a baptism. I tell you there’s nothing like it, it’s better than Christmas morning.”

[Excerpt from performance at the Family Affair – Seattle, WA, July 20, 2016]:

Seven generations: Native American and many other cultures believe that we are playing out stories and traumas that originated with our ancestors up to seven generations ago.
I didn’t know that when I wrote this song I’m going to sing for you now: The Ladybug.
I wrote it because I was trying to understand this darkness I could not shake.
But since I’ve learned about the seven generations concept, and really explored it, I have come to realize that what our ancestors most want is for us to be happy and fulfilled, so we don’t waste our lives wondering and wondering:

What is it between us, who’s there
Is there anybody there
Let’s smash the ashes and crash our old car
Let’s break the rules and smoke at the bar
Oh, Who’s talking to you
That I can’t hear
Can’t we sleep without that tonight
Let us finally kill this fright
That makes us freeze, don’t forget to say please
It’s been so long, it always feels wrong
And when I say your name, I can’t help but blame
myself for taking too long, so many things that went wrong

We’re all just trying so hard to succeed
How many times have I watched you bleed
Oh wait for me, wait, don’t leave me behind
Another like me you’ll never find
I’ll give all my money to my own Daddy
before I think of the tax they made off of all of our backs
And when I finally came through they said I was past due
and they took my last shoe and you can blame me for coming unglued

A nice Sunday brunch, take a break for a while
Lie down on the cold blue tile
What is it between us, who’s there, is there anybody there
So fly away, fly away, fly away home
I can’t forget the way that it shone
On everybody but little old me
Every last person but me
Oh let’s smash the ashes, and crash our old car
Let’s break the rules and smoke at the bar
And kill seven men before noon
Or maybe it’s just the full moon

Julia Francis Copyright No Shrinking Violet 2008

I took my daughter to the zoo today. The eyes of silverback gorillas and snow leopards and Grizzly bears and Komodo dragons staring back at us, most of them near extinction, watching we humans, we the true wildlife that kill and disregard one another and our precious Earth. Those beautiful, wise animals who must see how far from the path we humans have strayed. Still, I have hope, for my daughter delighted in the quiet grace and wonder of each miraculous creature we encountered. And through her eyes, I did too.

No one in this room is starving

And there are always leftovers left

So why do we wield these tight-fisted forks

And hide our hopes under napkins on laps

And endlessly ask what if what if

Instead of saying what we know:

That we don’t know

We don’t know, and who cares

We will never know, that’s the point

All we do know are colors and symbols on little screens

And cupcakes

And excellent coffee

And overpriced salads

And the sun reflecting on the water under the bridge

That we wish would carry us away to where we were meant to be

When all we really have is each other

Which is everything

I got it all back. All the things I’d lost, both deliberately and accidentally.
There it all was, waiting for me. Glistening, blinding bright light, two eagles dancing in the sky, whipped cream clouds, empty reservoirs, shiny new boxy buildings climbing up, up, up, the warmth of the sun on an iced breeze, the lakeshore lapping against the murky reeds, lilacs in full bloom and their fragrance like the ghost of a lover, the purple irises like erections, the deep purple buds still tight, still days from opening, like little nuts of possibility, compact energy. I was both the closed bud and the fully realized flower. My eyes were the color of the sky and the Puget Sound and the evergreen forest on a foggy morning. The Flower Moon was full over Lake Washington.

How many eyes did I look into that weekend?

When I opened my eyes wide and let my irises relax, then my energy changed and you opened your eyes wider too. And we were both completely comfortable with the pause that followed. We went somewhere else, together, where we were one in the same and we were not afraid to reveal to each other that we were really terrified and damaged and also full of childlike hope that taking the risk to be open would benefit both of us.

We stared into the void until we almost understood the meaning of it all, but then we were brought back to our bodies, and we laughed as we continued looking into each other’s eyes. The laugh was a kind of crying, the kind that heals. Then we noticed that our eyes had become the same color.

The wood floor was cold under my feet and I was too hungry to sleep.  I crept downstairs to the icebox and peered at the four small plates with one slice of butter on each one.  The Nazis had taken most of our food.  I knew it was wrong to steal, but I couldn’t help but stick my finger in my sister’s piece of butter.  I put my finger in my mouth and the creamy sweet butter melted over my tongue and down my throat.  I closed my eyes and reveled in the taste, trying not to feel guilty for being the oldest of us three sisters, and for having experienced the good carefree years before 1939 when I became eleven years old and the war started and changed all our lives forever.

So I’m sitting in a heated mineral pool in Desert Hot Springs with my sister watching an outdoor screening of ‘The Perfect Storm’ and I can’t stop thinking about the Bering Bomb (megastorm!!) that is dropping in Alaska right now that I hope hope hope is merciful.

I’m also reminded of being 10 years old when my childhood bestie Amy and I got to ride out under the Golden Gate Bridge on the Coast Guard Cutter Rush that our fathers were assigned to. It was a big day-long outing for families of the shipmen. Once the ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge into open water and things got rough, everyone retreated inside except for Amy and I. We stood at the bough of the ship and shouted and sang to the waves and we felt invincible and were so impressed with ourselves that we had outlasted the crew and all our other civilian shipmates.

Sure, we inevitably ended up below deck puking our guts out.  But I’m so grateful that we had those few moments face to face with the dangerous, irresistible sea.

I don’t remember so many things.  It scares me how much I don’t remember, which reminds me why there are other human beings in my life: they help me remember.  The little things my friends remember about me that I don’t: they are little precious, unexpected gifts.  This summer I sat around the campfire with two women I grew up with.  Long after our husbands and children had fallen asleep inside their tents and yurts, we sliced pieces of boozed up watermelon and suckled them over the red hot coals of the fire, then stared silently for long periods of time into those coals that grew brighter as the flames died out.  In our drunkenness in the darkness we remembered things about each other that we did not say aloud.

Then we remembered together for a while, and we recreated the whispering and uttering confessions, and the more we talked, the more spirits flew from the fire.  We smiled and we remembered how we saw the absolute best in one another.  Our dreams, our risks, our scars – all were game to be transformed into comedy or song, maybe even secret cheer or exclusive anthem.  I don’t remember thinking that we didn’t know anything; I knew that we knew it all.

I don’t remember realizing that things would never be scarier and more viscerally alive than they were back then.  But I do remember knowing that someday I would write it all down and that there is always a way to transform suffering.

I don’t  remember I don’t remember I don’t remember I don’t remember I don’t remember I don’t remember it being okay to say that I liked myself.