The Morning Of

Today, at around 3:00pm, women from around the world are going to show up to my retreat, and I just need to take a second and let that sink to the bottom, and rise to the top, at the same time. Because life is life, and in the tornado of motherhood, I forgot that in 10 hours, one of my most giantest, and longest held, dreams is going to materialize. 

Gather the women.

It's been a calling of mine since as long as I can remember. Scrappy voice, skinned elbows, scrawny and awkward but super determined, kind of like a single blade of grass growing all bendy and thin from the smallest crack in the driveway pavement. My recipe has always called for equal parts hot mess and fierce warrior. It means I speak out the truth before it's refined and fight for what's right with my shirt accidentally on backwards. It's always been this way, and I never let it stop me. Sisterhood has always been what I'm here to preserve, with bandaids on both knees.

In college, I studied/fell madly in love with feminist artist Judy Chicago, and even made a tiny vagina plate shrine for my desk to help me remember what I was born to do. Her Womanhouse project made me cry the kinds of tears that come when you realize, with brutal clarity, why you were born. 

And this morning I woke up before my alarm, and all of this came slamming back into my consciousness. Because I packed away my plate, and I began to fill my journal pages with more things like, "Why the fuck can't we find the right high school for Braedon?" and less things like, "My top ten favorite graduate schools for me to study feminist art history someday..." I'm sure that the grandmother voices who have ushered me along in every single endeavor worth doing were still whispering in my ear, I just couldn't hear them over the screaming chorus of Mom Guilt. 

Today a group of incredible women from around the world will come together tucked away under ancient cedar trees, surrounded by books and tea and deer and endless homemade bone broth on tap. And visiting female artists from around Austin will visit us and teach us how to make things like "Fuck-it embroidered lavender eye pillows." And I have no clue what is about to unfold, but I know we will sit side by side and we will work with our hands and we will replenish the life-sustaining sister-love that is needed to make it in this world. Just like women have done since the beginning of time. What? You think we were weaving baskets around the fire, while our cavemen were out hunting, talking about the weather? Fuck, no! We were complaining about our partners and crying about our losses and celebrating the fuck out of our resiliency. 

Sisterhood is a survival skill, and that is what this weekend is all about: resuscitation in the name of art. 

We are going to road trip to super sacred river waters, way passed the point where phones lose all signal. We are going to laugh and maybe cry and definitely remember. 

And I did this. I made this. I slayed the snarling dragons of self doubt and shame with a sword made only of blind and blundering courage. I didn't know what the fuck I was doing every single step of the way. But I did it. 

And maybe that's so important for you to know. 

I was planning on waiting to write anything until after the retreat was all over. When I had a collection of photographs from everyone to share, shouting memories like rap battles back and forth until the mic gets dropped in an epic black and white of hands held tight under the Texas sky. But before this thing even begins, there is a thing worth noting: There is no logical or historically anchored reason I should be leading a retreat in 9 hours, and truthfully the odds have been against me since my first gulp of earthside air, and yet, here I am. 

I was born to do my little part in reminding women of their/our power. And even though I've been doing that with River Story for years and years, this gathering feels like HOLD ON. I am about to step into a drawing I made in a journal 15 years ago. Like stop everything just for a single second. It's kind of profound. And then, (and here is why I am even writing this) at the same time, I'm honestly just like holy fucking shit, this is not what I thought it looked like when you step into your wildest and most sincere purpose. 

For starters, I thought I'd have my shit together a little bit more. I thought my hair would be washed. I thought I'd have something resembling an actual outfit, and not hand me down yoga attire, to wear. I thought I'd have a PhD or at least a fancy car. 

I guess I also assumed that by now I'd be able to eat at Taco Bell without panicking over wether or not I think I saw the cashier slip me a ruffy. I assumed I'd have some sort of magical breathing technique that dispels all anxiety, instantly, so that I wasn't having a mild, but very real, panic attack while packing my car.  I thought I'd spend my waking hours looking out of my floor-to-ceiling office window at the sweeping ocean views, typing away on my bestsellers, while my children and husband lived without any sort of pain of any kind, ever. I'd be on the other side of things with the greener grass and the ironed clothing. I mean, right? I mean who wakes up kind of sweaty in a way too big "Polite as Fuck" sweatshirt because her daughter kicks her square in the face at 4:00am on the morning of her sacred sisterhood slumber party River Retreat and then goes online to pay her water bill? Where was that magazine cutout on my manifestation board collage in the summer of '98? 

So I forgot. Because I am in the middle of being an actual human being and not a staged instagram photo, and because, all of the real life. I forgot that I am fucking doing it! I am living the life of my dreams. I am gathering the women and continuing the Womanhouse work of one of my biggest heroes of all time, WHILE FOLDING THE DAMN LAUNDRY AND DRIVING TO AND FROM BALLET CLASS WITH UNMATCHED SOCKS.

I am doing it the only way I have ever done anything: by being the mighty-little-train-wreck-that-actually-never-really-crashes-but-kind-of-looks-like-she-did, that I've always been. 

Sometimes I don't want to write things because it sounds like I'm a raging ego-maniac. Like who the heck cares, Michelle. But then I think, no wait. I bet there is someone else out there just left of having it all figured out, and they need to know that they aren't alone and they need to keep going. Maybe there's someone else who loves being a Mother more than life and also knows she has a purpose all her own to fulfill, and maybe she needs to know that I fully support her. And she doesn't need to wait to feel better/easier/prettier. And it's OK to just put one foot in front of the other. 

Also, my writing serves as little trail markers for me. I'll admit that 99% of what I spill is totally selfish. Because I lose my way, and I get super disoriented, and I need these little warrior paint marks on the sides of the trees to get my scrappy self back on track. These posts are basically letters to myself to be like, hey, lady, stop worrying so much about Braedon's egg-drop science project and wether or not it will have an effect on his chances of getting a full scholarship to his dream college, and just take like two fucking seconds to look at what you've done. Look at what love can build, even when that love is hopelessly imperfect. Especially, actually.  

It's no longer a matter of when, because it's here. Today. My dream is my reality. And that's some potent stuff. But/and for now, my son's alarm just went off which means it's time for me to make some pancakes, and check some history homework, and re-start my load of towels in the laundry that I left overnight, and then later on I'll show up to a magical thicket in the woods, and hold some seriously sacred space for fierce primal feminine brilliance, and it's all here at the same time, together, and that, I'm realizing, is the gift.  

100 Best

SO many photography awards and "Best-of" lists are paid for. The photographer pays to advertise, to have high standing, and then they get put on a list. 

So lists usually make my eyes glaze over from so much ego-driven haze. 

But this one isn't like that. There is no money exchanged, no affiliation, and you don't submit images or nominate yourself or anything like that. They just do their homework and then pick. And so, it feels good to be in such great company. And for heaven's sake I bust my fanny to do what I love and sometimes when someone says, "Good job, Mama," it kind of feels good. 


Golden

Sometimes I feel wordy, and have everything to say all at once. 

And other times I am standing on one foot, in the tiniest sliver of sunshine, balancing on a single truth, ringing through my bones like just one note being played over and over on an old yellowing piano key. 

I am here. I am not dead yet. And in the overly chaotic and crowded room where all of my complexities frenzy about, there is one thing that remains both unfazed and untethered: 

There is so much more for me to do here. 

It's hard to be in this phase of preparation; navigating through all of the muck of the unknown and leaning into healing- it's just is the dirtiest of work. But as long as I can close my eyes and find that single unmoving cell, reminding me that this is not over yet, I'm golden. 

There is so much more for me to do. 


Voice

Of all of the things I am afraid of, speaking up for myself and my family, is not one. Speaking up to bullies is not one either. Neither is speaking out in the face of what I feel is unjust or unfair. 

It doesn't matter the cost or the bridges that get burned along the way. It doesn't matter how giant the turn my stomach makes as I speak my truth. I am small, but my voice is mighty. And I own that, today, fully and without apology. 

When I was in second grade, I cracked a boy named Steven in the head with a wooden baseball bat because he was taunting the special education students on the playground. He was forcing them to "fight like chickens" in a ring, and taking bets on who'd win. 

After a few days of trying to politely have my angry opposition heard, to no avail, I finally couldn't take it anymore. 

I'm not saying knocking this bully on his ass was the best choice, but it certainly was the first time I learned a super valuable life lesson: sometimes, when you are standing up for what you believe in, someone might get hurt. 

I wish I could write so much more. Lily is in the bath (Mommmmm! I need another washcloth!") and my meat sauce is ready to be put in jars for Braedon (Mommmmm! I'm starving every second of the day!") - but I couldn't not get this out. 

Again, mostly so that I don't forget. 

Sometimes, being a badass means you aren't going to be well-liked. Especially if you are a tiny little white girl with giant blue eyes. People want you to be polite, and pretty, and ladylike. 

I know I'm being vague here, but again, I only have one toe in this pool right now because, I am needed nonstop in Mama Land. But please just know that even though people might get pissed, and they will most likely call you names, and they will get that ugly pursed-mouth thing that people get when they want you to just disappear; you still have to let your truth be shared. Somehow. Someway. If for no other reason than to set it free.

Fuck 'em. Seriously. 

Now-a-days I leave the baseball bats behind, and choose my battles, and my words, very mindfully.  I promise myself I will journal about something 5 times before I am allowed to address it outwardly. But I refuse to be silent for the sake of being sweet. Um, no thanks. 

You don't need approval to do what you think is best. 

A truly strong person does not need the approval of others any more than a lion needs the approval of sheep.

Keep going. USE YOUR VOICE. The end.  

Worth

It was weird. Just as I was stacking the almond milk beside the gluten free pretzels, I felt it rise up in my chest. Maybe it was the Adele blaring in the background, or maybe it was the fact that I spent all morning grocery shopping at Target just to save $10, but either way, there it was. Slamming into my ribcage, hard, leaving me disoriented and nauseous. 

Guilt. 

I've been working on a super long blog post all about our journey to find Braedon a high school, and I definitely touched on this in there, but I'm not sure I ever really felt the impact, like felllllt it, until a few hours ago.  

Just as there always is with my physical anxiety, the fear thoughts followed. "Why are you so selfish? Why are you choosing to be an artist? Your family would have so much more money if you'd just stop being so self-centered."

Woah. Hello bully. Damn. 

The things is, it's never been a choice for me. And I know that sounds so cliche and sappy, but I've always shared how creativity truly saves my life on a daily basis. If it wasn't for my pottery wheel, or camera, or journal, I truly would never be able to function. It's my Xanax. Truthfully. The act of sitting down to make something brings me right back to center, and gives me a most needed break from the beehives in my brain.

Kind of like yoga except different. 

Either way, my point is, I have always known and accepted that I have no choice. That, much like Anne Lamott has expressed, without my art I am kind of useless. Sure I teach, and of course I do other things, but imagining my life in the absence of photographs and words is completely unimaginable. I am a mess, scattered all over the place in a hundred different directions, and it's my art that always picks me up and puts all the pieces back together. 

So, where in the world was this heavy guilt coming from? What was this shame tapping me on the shoulder only to punch me in the face when I turn around? 

And then I sat down on the kitchen floor and took some breaths and remembered- it's tax season. It's let's-get-real-about-your-money, season. It's tuition-contracts-need-to-be-signed, season. 

Tis' the season of staring my monetary worth, and shortcomings, directly in the face.

Well, shit. Who the fuck wants to do that? Nobody. 

When being an artist is soul work, and there is no alternative, but there's also no alternative to feeding your children and paying your bills, things can feel super frustrating, sometimes. 

I straight up had a tantrum on the hardwood this morning. 

On the books, before expenses, I had one of my biggest, most profitable years ever. But I also had one of my largest expense reports ever.  So the final number isn't peanuts, but I'm not exactly picking out seasonal throw pillows from the full price section of Anthropologie anytime soon, either. And we can't afford to send both kids to elite private schools next year at 20K each. 

Thomas is making awesome money at his job, and climbing up the computer science ladder faster than I can keep up with. And I'm over here slingin bowls barefoot while listening to Mary Oliver's books on repeat. 

And I feel guilty about that. I feel like a failure because of that. I wake up at 2am and want to run as fast I can out into the parking lot and scream like a crazy person, because of that. 

And again, I made good money. But, I feel like the myth that successful photographers are making it rain on their private islands is kind of fucking with my head lately. 

And then I was like, why don't professional photographers speak honestly about all of this shit? Sure a whole bunch of people lie about it (and then sell workshops on how to get rich), but behind the scenes, and on their actual tax forms, very, very, very few are making more than a middle class wage (defined officially this year as under 114,000). The average, from the measly 12 people I reached out to for this blog post, after taxes and overhead and everything, is between 55-70K. Some (top wedding photographers) were ballin' and well into upper class territory, but some only made just over 10K. All told me they would only share their numbers with me if I didn't mention their names. And I didn't ask anyone to give me proof because it doesn't matter. The point of this post isn't about exploring the median income revenue of today's photographers. That's important, but texting 12 people is the max amount of scientific research I am willing to do today, and all I really want to do is speak up and be like, guess what, we are all in this together. 

I know for a fact I am not alone in feeling uneasy this time of year. I know that I am not the only professional artist who writes a big fat check to Uncle Sam and then wonders if it's all really worth it? Am I worth it? I cannot even tell you how many times this month I've actually said, "Please for the love of God can someone just tell me how to make a million dollars taking pictures and THROWING CLAY VASES THAT LOOK LIKE A FIVE YEAR OLD MADE THEM?!" Like why is that not possible?

It's such a maddening feeling. I am not a starving artist. But I am far from what anyone would call rich, and my parents don't still give me an allowance. And this grey area I'm in, this magical space between diamond slinging millionaire and upside down on a stripper pole dealing crack, is filled with some pretty incredible blessings. 

I just forget sometimes.  

And I guess, I just want to say the following to everyone, but mostly, to myself:

Fuck the guilt. Fuck the shame. Fuck apologizing for not being a neurosurgeon. Fuck that argument in my head going back and forth about money and desk jobs and worth. Because money is real, and rent is real and tuition is real, but the heart beating in my rib cage is real, too. And the way I feel after running through the forest with a woman who's just been submerged in a sacred river, is real, too. And giving wedding photos to a couple to help them remember their love even when his chest hair is stuck to the bar of soap in the shower, is real. 

And setting an example for my children that it's OK to follow the sound of the not so subtle callings that make you feel like you exhale stardust, is valid. And worth is so much more than your bottom line.

That being who you were meant to be, even if it isn't going to land you in the top 1%, is actually kind of important and beautiful and difficult and awesome. 

And worth it. You hear me? I don't care what your taxes or whatever show. The work you are doing is worth it. And we need it. And if you didn't do it you'd probably be so filled with sadness or stomach ulcers that you'd be a miserable Mom. And nobody wants that. And as long as you have food and shelter and love, and some kind of medical care just in case you step on a rusty nail, it's all going to be OK. 

No more guilt.