When I was a child, I was fascinated by people’s life stories. In the cozy library at LaVace Stewart Elementary, I even had the Dewey decimal number memorized: 920. That’s where I’d find tales of interesting people living remarkable lives.
In college, my interests narrowed to the biographies of artists, musicians, and writers. I dreamed of becoming a writer, of whittling away the hours playing with words on a page. I loved learning about the trajectories of a creative career, but the biographies almost always left something out.
What I was longing to know was how these makers and musicians actually spent each hour of their day. What activities did they fill their time with? What tiny steps did they take to actually fabricate their art?
I didn’t just want to know who they became, I wanted to know the details of becoming.
It’s a question I’m only now beginning to answer, but not from reading books about other people. Instead, I’m watching my friends reach middle age with burgeoning careers pursuing what those biographies like to call their “passion”.
The thing is, for the last two decades, what we’ve all been doing has looked an awful lot like work.
This past summer, I met up with my friend L in Denver. She was at an art festival selling her jewelry. I was absolutely amazed by her level of success, though not surprised by it. Throngs of people shelled out good money for her gorgeous handcrafted pieces.
L and I met almost 20 years ago. We’d already known each other for a couple of years before the night I pinpoint as the beginning of our deep friendship. We’d gone to an empty dive bar by ourselves to get away from the wild scene at our regular hangout, which was packed with friends, noise, and smoke.
Before that night, I don’t think we’d ever gone anywhere together, just the two of us. It was time, I guess, while being jostled around in a crowded booth, for one of us to snatch the other’s arm and make our escape.
A couple of hours later, at the dive bar, we told each other our stories. We discovered that both of us had lost our fathers when we were young. For the first time, I could see that the hole in her heart was the same size as the one in mine, even if it was a slightly different shape.
After that night, L and I had breakfast together every morning for years. We’d meet at our regular cafe and order bagels with cream cheese. (Oh! For that metabolism!) We’d sip our coffee, brown and warm, while we gossiped about friends.
Then we’d head off to work. She made jewelry. I wrote and waited tables.
L would head to her studio and for the next several hours, she labored, pounding away on metal, cutting and bending wire, mounting enamel and gemstones. I’d go home and scribble notes, songs, and journal entries for a couple of hours before heading to whatever odd job I was working at the time. Our offerings back then were simple, but we kept making them.
At night, we’d meet up again. This time our drinks were brown and cold. We’d ride bikes, hang out with friends, go see bands, and eventually say goodnight. We didn’t have to make plans to see each other again. We knew where each of us would be the next morning.
Day after day, year after year, we started and ended our days together, along with a rotating cast of artist friends. After breakfast and coffee, we would all wander off and get our work done. At night, we’d pour cold drinks and ride bikes around the empty streets of Austin.
I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that this is how true success is built: one strike of the hammer and scribbled word at a time. I learned it only by living it. If I keep crafting and editing the words on a page, words that reflect and organize my thoughts and ideas, my writing will get better. Just like L’s incredible jewelry, it will keep evolving into fantastic new designs.
See, it’s the same for you, no matter what your art form is. If you’re searching for advice in those biographies of other people’s lives, wondering how their art gets made, wondering about the process of becoming, remember this: If you keep working, your work will get better.
Between the coffee and the whiskey, you and me, we’ll become the artists we always dreamed of being.
“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
It is on a summer day, while bobbing languidly on a sweltering lake in Central Texas, that the realization comes to me. I am not outdoorsy after all.
My friends are flipping off the bow of a pontoon boat into the hot and muddy water. I lie in the shade, reading. I rest the book on my soft belly to watch them, and happen to notice that the book I’m reading, one on Buddhism, is labeled “self help”.
There have been clues leading to this moment.
Clue Number One: On my first overnight hike to the top of a mountain, I am teased for carrying a full set of dominoes. I have characteristically placed greater emphasis on entertainment than on my own weak knees, buckling under the weight of a too heavy pack.
Clue Number Two: As a ski instructor participating in a clinic on mastering moguls, I am informed of the presence of a “Martini Tree”, hidden just off the ski run we are traversing. Our clinic director mentions it in passing and returns to the lesson, but while my fellow instructors tackle the techniques presented with tenacity and focus, my eyes scan the woods at every pivot, searching for the little wooden box, nailed to a tree, containing gin and a jar of olives.
Clue Number Three: In the sub-zero pre-dawn of a Montana winter, my dog regularly goes cross country skiing with friends who swing by to pick her up. I wave goodbye to her and remain in bed, happily snuggled under mountains of flannel and feathers.
Amusing are the beliefs we hold about ourselves, and even more amusing is the day we realize they aren’t true. My belief that I am outdoorsy arises from a misunderstanding. I do love nature, but not for the reasons some of my more active friends do.
I’m a big fan of outdoorsy folks. I follow mountain bikers, skiers, hikers, and rock climbers on Instagram and celebrate their triumphs virtually. In an effort to befriend them over the years, I have engaged in countless attempts to keep up with their blazing intensity.
When I think of participating in these adventures, my memories are not of the pride and pleasure derived from scaling a summit, plunging from a waterfall, or conquering steep terrain on a pair of skis, but rather of gasping for air, spitting up water, or shivering in freezing winds, fingers frozen to the bone.
Introverts, like me, enjoy the intimacy found in engaging in conversation while doing something that doesn’t require us to look you in the eye. When introverts speak with you during activities that allow us to avoid eye contact, like hiking or lazily paddling a canoe, we can be vulnerable in a way that we cannot when we’re sitting across a table from you, looking directly at you.
My love of nature stems from the fact that it facilitates a genuine connection between my introverted self and other people. Nature is not a plaything, but a stage where my relationships act themselves out most authentically.
Having misunderstood my own motives for wanting to be outdoors, I have been left behind, feeling isolated and lonely, on several hikes by friends wanting to pursue their own experiences at their own pace. As they fade into the distance on the trail ahead, their mantra rings in my ears: You hike your hike, I’ll hike mine. Although a legitimate technique, this is decidedly not what I am after when I set off to travel a shaded trail with you.
It’s with great relief that I finally realize, on the pontoon boat that summer day, what I’m actually seeking when I step into a natural setting. I crave connection with you, and I am elated when I find it.
I am not outdoorsy, I just love the outdoors. Rather than conquer nature, I prefer to watch the sun and rain move across the landscape, to marvel at wild geese, to always carry dominoes, to relax my pace and find our place, here, in the family of things, together.
Sure, all three of us lived in the same house and shared the same resources, but only one of us received an education from my elementary school.
In the early 70’s, having purchased a cheap piece of rural land, my parents moved to a small boating town by the water to escape the city of Houston. My father envisioned it as something of a artists’ colony, while my Los Angeles born mother sat on a lawn chair in her gravel driveway, drinking iced tea (sweet or unsweet?) with our neighbor, lamenting her fate with every drag from a bummed cigarette.
Nevertheless, my father’s intuition about the property proved true. Over the years, more and more creatives and craftsmen moved in and by the time I was in high school, we lived in a mini Key West, full of parties, drinks, music, and reverie.
In the meantime, however, I attended elementary school without them.
I loved my school. It was red brick and small, with covered sidewalks attaching the buildings. Our principal and teachers were genuinely invested in the success of each tiny attendee and filled our classrooms with joy and passion for learning.
But we were poor. And in my school, being a poor kid with artsy parents was no different than being a poor kid with different types of parents, be they blue collar workers, newly immigrated entrepreneurs, unsavory alcoholics, or members of the Ku Klux Klan, which was still brazenly active in the area during my childhood.
So while there was a sense of equality and friendship among the students, there was also a dark undercurrent of violence that permeated our school days, carried from the homes of some of the students, tucked into torn backpacks and patched pockets, hidden under bandaids and grimy baseball caps.
Groups of children traveled together on foot to and from the school, and it was in these sunlit classrooms, filled with cockle burrs and wildflowers, that the remainder of our education was solidified. The groups operated as scared schools of fish, turning on each other quickly and without warning.
On one such walk, the large group I was with circled a lone boy who had used a racial slur to address a newly immigrated student from Vietnam. As the boy’s back was pinned against a wooden fence, we collectively threw rocks at him. Big rocks. And hard. In essence, we stoned him, until he lay in a small and shivering heap, his hands covering his head and face.
(Justice carried out swiftly and violently was something I witnessed very early on, and these images form my argument against such corporal punishment. I’ve seen children, after running through fields towards an outbreak of violence, arrive upon the scene breathless and, without so much as a question, start hurling rocks. I know, first hand, what mindless joiners we humans are.)
It was best for the girls of my neighborhood to travel together and walk the long and snaking pathway under the blazing sun in order to deliver each of us home safely, one at a time. The last girl had to walk home alone, and I marvel now, as an adult, at the naive bravery needed to walk those last few blocks by herself.
Although my home was a safe haven, a portion of these walks to and from school were not. While my parents and I dreamt of renovations and vacations, I was also spending a fair amount of my day trying to not get my “ass beat”. At home, I set the table, washed up, played with stuffed animals and did homework. I’m not sure if my parents ever knew the toughness my school was imbuing me with.
The other night, I was in a dance class and a woman walked in who bore a striking resemblance to one of these small, tough fighters. I immediately experienced a fuzzy and formless flashback of the two of us yelling at some foe I cannot remember now. What I can remember was the sense of righteousness I felt in protecting my person.
Though I’ve grown into someone who is typically calm and thoughtful, this toughness is still on hair trigger reserve, and can erupt as violently as it did under that hot sun, cheeks blazing with indignation and voice howling threats. I was a tiny, angry Ramona Quimby, and because of my size and appearance, I learned to fight verbally instead of physically. I never laid a hand on anyone, but boy could I scare some folks.
As I grew older, this fiery violence was conditioned out of me. I was taught that to be a polite lady, my boundaries must erase completely. That I mustn’t speak up against these boundaries being crossed. That I must “go with the flow” (this phrase usually spoken to me by whatever man I was dating). That I must let each aggression against my person, be it mental or physical, pile up in a secret room in my heart, never to be spoken of again.
When I think of these aggressions now, I would give anything to have that little Ramona Quimby fighter occupy the scenes instead of the “polite lady” I learned to be.
I can only think of one instance where I allowed her to save me, when a man approached me at an ATM, wearing boxer shorts from which he had pulled his erection. As he walked towards me with a sneering grin, I let the little fighter fly, screaming cruel and merciless threats in a ferocious growl. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve never seen a man in his condition run so fast, wobbling hurriedly into the night, away from this diminutive demon who was raised with one hell of an education.
It’s a perfect spring day in Austin, Texas, and I’m watching my roommate weed eat the garden.
I never thought that at age 42, I’d use the word “roommate”, unless I was telling a story about college. But here we are. And it’s pretty awesome.
I was much younger the first time J and I lived together. The day she moved in was the beginning of one of the most fun and fulfilling eras of my life, and she could not have arrived at a better time. I had been careening around the world, not so much sailing through my life as smashing into it, but I dreamt of a more carefree life, full of sunlight and singing.
I’d had groups of girlfriends before. The women that I was glued to during the four (ahem, I mean five) years of college are among my closest. But just months after we graduated, my father died suddenly, and I remained suspended in time as I watched my girlfriends reach adulthood without me.
Their engagements were announced while I was collapsed in a drunken heap on the floor of a boarding house in San Francisco. Their marriages were performed while I was skinned up from falling off a bicycle in the dark, damp hours before the wedding. And, worst of all, their babies arrived and grew up, as strangers to me, in the span of a ten-year bender.
Instead, I was hanging out with a sloppy group of loyal and fun dudes. Men who, for years, had graciously demanded nothing from me, emotionally. During the heydey of gentrification on the East Side of Austin, I procured a 600 square foot shanty and moved into it with three of my guy friends. The walls were literally falling down, but they were best ignored in favor of bonfires in the yard, all night drinking sessions, and generally experiencing the kind of reverie that men living without women enjoy. That is to say, my house was a shithole.
In those years of bike rides and rock shows, my very real emotions were bubbling beneath the surface and I began to feel like I was unraveling. I knew I needed to make some changes, stat, and as the boys all moved out in favor of other living situations, I decided I’d like to give the whole happiness thing a go. I smudged the house, bought some flowers, and committed to finally doing something about those walls.
I met J at a New Year’s Eve party that we were co hosting at a warehouse full of art studios. Because of our instant rapport and good timing, she was able to move in with me a short time later.
As we got to know each other, we discovered that we were in similar places in our lives. We were single and, I’m not going to lie, we looked GOOD. We decided to enjoy our natural chemistry as companions as we took advantage of our energy, attractiveness, and expendable incomes (it’s cheap to live in a shanty!) to go out and flirt mercilessly with any man we wanted to.
We grocery shopped together, we cooked together, and for the first time in a long time, I had someone to actually be a woman with. I traded in grease stained overalls for skinny jeans and heels and we had some serious Broad-City-style fun.
We had jobs that proved to be great conversation starters (J made cowboy boots and I taught ballet and worked at a winery) and solidified our cool girl status at any party we barged into.
We formed the East Austin Overdressed Feminist Society and rode bikes all over town while wearing skirts, heels, and makeup, a rare occurrence in those days in pre-hipster Austin. We formed a band and sang non-stop, dancing in our kitchen to 80s and 90s pop and drinking whiskey while listening to old country tunes.
Almost instantly, even more women came into our lives. Our little shack was like a beacon to ladies who were looking for deep relationships and were, for the moment, jaded and disappointed with the experience of seeking it from childish men. We would be a gang, and we would make the most of our time while we waited.
Because as fulfilled as we were, there was definitely a feeling that we were waiting for men, REAL men, to arrive. When they came, we would finally create happy homes, exactly like the ones we lived in now.
Looking back now, I have a few questions.
Why did we give this up? What were we looking for that could possibly measure up to this level of freedom, fun, and unconditional love and support? Why did we think that splitting up a compatible tribe of women into isolated nuclear families was something to aspire to? And if it was indeed necessary for us to move on, why didn’t we fully appreciate what was happening AS it was happening?
Now, after a decade apart, J and I have just left the men we waited so patiently for, and not without significant damage done to each of us. We are living together again, surrounded by our girlfriends, who all live close by. This time, we are both determined to appreciate what we have: unconditionally loving friendships with women who keep us entertained, educated, and soothed. For as long as it lasts, we will be here, together, and we will sing.
In the winter of 2012, I was a ski instructor at a busy mountain in New Mexico. The kids I taught were usually far from home, sometimes scared, and often cold.
As a shy child who had been enrolled in many a ski class, I remember what it was like to be dropped off, lonely and terrified, and suddenly see a smiling, warm adult emerge from a crowd of strangers, sauntering across the carpeted floor with a ski boot swagger.
She would squat next to me, ask my name and where I was from, and promise to look after me. She would tell me that her name was Sheila, or Donna, or Susan, or some other 70’s ski instructor name, and tell me something cool about her dog or travels. I remember the relief I felt upon realizing that this adult was fun and friendly, and most importantly, made me feel like the world was full of interesting people doing interesting things.
I’d go back home and proceed to tell everybody at school about my cool friend Sheila, or Donna, or Susan, her badass dog, and how we loved to talk about traveling while riding the chairlift together. I’d tell my friends of all the places that Sheila, or Donna, or Susan had been to and how I, too, would go to these places someday.
As a ski instructor, I took great joy in getting to know my students in the same way, learning about them while regaling them with grand tales about my life. In the mornings, while other instructors raced around the classroom, affixing masking tape to boots and helmets, my group relaxed in tiny yellow plastic chairs, drinking hot cocoa, telling stories, laughing and talking about what the day would bring.
Having spent the morning getting to know each other, my class exploded onto the snow in a joyful pack, echoing jody calls accounting for our gloves (gloves!), helmets (helmets!), and vests (vests!), while happily skiing past the other classes, who were now collapsed into crying piles of skis and poles.
At the entrance to our classroom, there was a giant dry erase board with names scribbled all over it. My supervisor was like an air traffic controller, quickly assessing the needs of the dozens of wide-eyed kids spilling into the room while directing them to their teachers.
One day, I watched a six year old boy with big brown eyes and fluffy brown hair enter the room. He was yelling at everyone in his pathway, waving his hands wildly. My supervisor scanned the room and locked eyes with me.
The kid shuffled to my table and immediately slumped into a chair.
I welcomed him to our group and asked him where he was from, handing him some hot cocoa. He informed me, pushing the cocoa away, that he was from a state in the Northeast, a place that I could not possibly have heard of.
He proceeded to explain to me that his enrollment in this plebeian horror show had been a terrible mistake, and as soon as he notified his father, he would be freed from our mangey confines and would immediately set about the task of having us all fired.
I tried a dog story.
He responded by telling me that his father was so powerful that he could have anyone fired on the spot. He told of his father’s employees who had been dismissed for errors less offensive than the ones the staff of the ski school had already committed.
I tried a story about traveling.
He swung his head, glared at me, and said, “Where is your boss? I’m going to need to speak to your boss so that my father can tell him to fire you.”
Grabbing the leg of the tiny yellow chair the kid was lounging in, I swiftly slid it across the floor, so that now the boy and I were face to face. I growled, in a low voice, “Listen, kid, I’m from Texas, and in Texas, the women are in charge. And we ain’t afraid of nobody’s daddy.”
The kid’s eyes grew wide with wonder. I held his gaze, but as the seconds ticked by, I envisioned the police swooping in to the ski school to arrest me for traumatizing a child.
Instead, after the short pause, his mouth spilled open with a stream of questions.
In Texas, do the women tell the men what to do? Yes, they do.
In Texas, do the men do what the women say? You better believe it.
In Texas, is there a woman in charge of the whole state? Yes, there is. Her name is Ann Richards and she rides a motorcycle. (It had been almost 20 years since Ann was Governor and 6 years since she had died, but I thought the omission of these facts was incidental when weighed against the boy’s education.)
The kid was hooked. He couldn’t believe there was a place where women ran the whole show! A place where a woman wouldn’t be afraid of his all-powerful father! A fanciful place! What was this place even LIKE? What did Ann Richards wear while riding a motorcycle? What did the women look like? If a woman wasn’t scared of his daddy, did that mean that he didn’t have to be?
Throughout the day, he interrupted my lessons with random questions about the wondrous land of Texas, wiggling through ski lines to position himself to sit with me on the ski lift so that he could learn even more about this magical place.
My fellow ski instructors hooted and hollered over the story later that night, as we huddled together in my warm living room, wearing our thermals and drinking beer from mugs. They thought it was funny that I stood up to this tiny tyrant and for them, my story ended with the punchline, “Listen, kid, I’m from Texas”, which was repeated over and over, to peals of laughter.
But for me, my story ended when I said goodbye to the kid and sauntered to my truck with a ski boot swagger, imagining him returning home to tell his friends all about his ski instructor and the magical women of the far away land of Texas.
I'm Lisa Machac (rhymes with scotch). Reading and writing are my favorite things, followed closely by hanging out with quiet people, playing music, and eating pizza. I also dedicate a good amount of time to hanging out with my friends over at Genuine.