The artist of my own life

I always wanted to be a work of art, a moment captured on canvas, the closing line of a poem that reached so far into a stranger’s gut, pulling it out would instantly kill them. I wanted an artist to see me on the street and know there was something kindred, something recognizable: our gift, our hole. Our faces wouldn’t have to meet, it would be a pull like smelling fresh bread in the air or tingling electrodes or Spidey Senses: You are in the presence of something beautiful, something you’ll never want to forget, something you’ll memorialize in your art. So take me. Use me. Remember me. I don’t even have to know.

As a little girl, I felt this way: special, but ultimately invisible, sometimes used. I wanted so desperately to be seen, I didn’t care if people took pieces of me in the process. I’d find myself posing in parks or sitting like a model in crowds, hoping to be captured. Remember that little girl sitting in the sun shredding pieces of grass, they would think years later, …how beautiful she was. I was a pedophile’s daydream, sitting pretty, looking oblivious, except that I wasn’t … at all. I was watching everything. Thankfully, I was terribly shy and would never under any circumstance talk to strangers unless forced. That was what I did and still do at times … reel people in because I look a certain way, and once they open their mouths, words hit a brick wall: me. But we all need our armor. And growing up without any, this was how I protected my soft spots. I’d project who I wanted to be, who I knew I was and became a mirage when most people got close. Which only perpetuated my need to be seen.

My cat does this (yes, I’m equating my behavior with a house cat). She’s beautiful, fluffy, has these striking blue eyes that reel strangers in every time. She sits across the room regally, inviting. Sometimes she’ll roll over on her back, reveling her fat belly amplifying the awwww factor. She acts how I know her to act when she’s alone with me – a huge lover. And I warn people, I warn them every damn time: she might bite you, she might freak out, she doesn’t always like strangers. But they don’t listen and although she’s getting better with age, she’ll inevitably hiss, bite, scratch, run away. I’m not saying I ever lashed out quite like she does, that wasn’t me, but I did run away a lot – internally – and what was left was my outer self picking up the pieces, doing most of the work to explain who I was, but quietly. See skin never had the words I needed and what human being is that intuitive?

One weekend in 1993, my dad played us a song he wrote about Polly Klaas – a girl about my age, maybe a little older, who had been kidnapped and murdered that same year. Petaluma, California, where she was from, was 30 minutes from my dad’s house. I’d been there numerous times and remember the whole event vividly from the time of her kidnapping to the time they found her body. Richard Allen Davis came into Polly’s room with a knife while she was having a slumber party, tied up her two friends, put a pillowcase over Polly’s head and told her friends to count to 1,000. He later strangled Polly with a piece of cloth and dumped her body into a shallow grave in the hills. Northern California was torn up about the whole thing. Kids weren’t allowed to go outside after dark, but the scariest part, was this happened in her own home, while her parents were sleeping and my dad was so horrified by the whole thing, he felt compelled to write Polly a song. I remember seeing the words, the music he put to it, the yellow-lined paper where he memorialized this girl he’d never met. And after he sang the song to us, I thought, I’m right here. I’m still here. I’m right here and you’ll never write me a song. I was jealous of a girl who had been brutally murdered because she had somehow gotten my father’s attention where I had failed.

Art is a gift – to the people we create art from; to the people we create art for. I wanted to be that gift again and again as if it would fill the missing pieces of me. I wanted to be in front of the lens, never needing to explain myself, that took too much effort, just being. And if you saw me, in those moments, and let me be … the was a good chance I’d let you in eventually.

I used to stare a lot, off into the distance, into space, into anything. Whenever I felt my mom taking a picture of me in those moments, I held my gaze outward, wanting to preserve whatever she saw in me. It was posed, but at some point, even seconds before I became aware, it was real. I was that girl embracing the world in front of me; thinking, pondering, mulling. My mom may not have know what was inside me fully, but she loved it anyway. To her, I was a masterpiece and everything I create out of that love, my existence, are the songs I write for myself. My poems, my shitty macaroni projects, my designs, my flaws; my life is the greatest work of art I’ll ever create. Art isn’t always pretty, but it’s real and I’ll mold it with my hands, my teeth, my bones, broken or not, until the moment I die.

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6 Responses to The artist of my own life

  1. Angella says:

    This. Oh God it touches me so.

    “My mom may not have know what was inside me fully, but she loved it anyway. To her, I was a masterpiece and everything I create out of that love, my existence, are the songs I write for myself. My poems, my shitty macaroni projects, my designs, my flaws; my life is the greatest work of art I’ll ever create. And I’ll mold it with my hands, my teeth, my bones, broken or not, until the moment I die.”

  2. rachvb says:

    Angella, you just caught this one posting. =)
    That means the world to me. Thank you. This could be so much more, I think, but I’ll leave it here for now. I’ve been in and out of it for a while.
    xoxoxo

  3. Ms. Moon says:

    I really hope that my kids can say the same about me. And you ARE an artist. You prove it with everything you do, say, breathe. You are.

    • rachvb says:

      Mary, you are one of the best mothers/grandmothers/keeper of chickens on the planet. I have no doubt your kids think that of you. And thank you xoxo

  4. Melissa Green says:

    Rachel, this is so powerful, so overbrimming with your truthfulness, your rich inner life, you explain so perfectly what it feels like to desire and need so deeply it hurts; you’ve given the reader a breathtaking, wrenching and poignant picture of a girl growing into her craft, who carries inside herself such a plethora of feelings, more than she can manage sometimes, a writer who knows who she is–has always known who she is and always believed when other people did not always see it–a girl who was waiting for time to bring her along the road until she could step into the identity of the writer/creator fully, confidently, and walk on into the future she always believed in.

    You are a wonder.

    Love,
    Melissa

    • rachvb says:

      Dear Melissa,
      I’m glad it comes across that I know who I am =) I suppose I do in the end, but I think for a long time I felt like knowing who I was meant I had to be happy all the time – weird right? – and I think right now, I’m learning or trying to embrace the “not happy all the time” parts; the really confused parts; the really complicated parts and I guess that means I know who I am or am on my way. I’m trying not to let my insecurities run the show anymore. We’ll see how that works out. Thank you for your beautiful message. You as well are a wonder and I’m so so glad to have you here. xoxo -Rach

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