Joanna + Cooper // A River Story

Each weekend people fly here, to Austin, to meet me at these sacred waters hidden deep inside Pedernales. This is a reality I never, ever, not even for a second, take for granted. I cry almost every drive home along the long country roads, lit only by the stars. This is what I have to offer the world: My kintsugi heart gilded in flecks of gold and sea glass, muddy feet and weathered skin battered from the winds of a thousand storms. I speak the language of the rivers because they only know of words that deal with survival, and my armor has always been made of nothing more than salmon scales all along. 

 For years I show up and step in and promise to protect and proclaim and profess my love. For the skinned elbows, and the tears, and the rushing rapids. For the lightning bugs and the deer and the wobbly armadillos blindly trying to find their way home. 

But really it's all for Her. For the indestructible force that burns inside of every single woman.

This is our collective Home, this is where we belong, together, and week after week I am left speechless and in awe of just how breathtakingly beautiful it all really is. 

Coming Soon...

I am going to do another Kickstarter campaign. Soon. And as with any big risk, I might fail. Publicly. But there's also a chance I won't. There's a chance that maybe you will want to read my stories. There are no pictures this time, but I promise to paint truths all over the pages with as much honesty as I can muster up. I haven't finalized the campaign yet. I haven't even set the goal amount. But I have written the summary and I am building the mailing list.  

The Summary

Since I was a very small girl I've been a writer. Before I knew real actual regular people wrote books (which was actually like two weeks ago, because before that I thought only Gods and mythical heroes were capable of such thing) I’d write notes on slips of paper and leave them in my windowsill each night. I’d wait for God to take them, and when they didn’t disappear I’d tell myself he must have come to read them while I was sleeping while making his nightly God rounds, so I’d clear them out and stuff them in yesterday’s lunch sandwich bags and plant them under the deck. I am only realizing as I type this that about every six weeks, for my entire childhood, I held mini backyard funerals.

Last night my gay friend came out of the closet to me, and he hesitated for a while before finally just saying, “I have a boyfriend,” and I thought all night about what those five seconds of empty space were filled with. Was he frozen in terror, the words unable to escape his aching neck? Was he looking off into the distance out a small kitchen window, a soft rain misting the screen? Was he looking down at the Madonna's Greatest Hits album cover resting on his lap, to gain the ultimate courage? I literally thought about those few moments of hesitation all night. It fascinates me.

Because I’ve been doing it for 35 years.

The silence before the secret.

I am not gay. I guess that was kind of a big set up for a powerful lesbian reveal, and that would be awesome if I was, but that’s not the case. So while this collection of essays is not about me living a secret gay life, it is about telling long-held secrets. It’s about ending the longest hesitation ever in the world. It’s about telling the truth, and then telling it again, and then telling other ones until it feels like I can breathe again. Because lately I’ve been worrying that there’s not enough oxygen left in the world for all of the people here, and me mostly, and I know it’s because these words are taking up so much space in my ribcage.

My name is Michelle Gardella. I was born the only daughter of an addict and a murder-accomplice. My entire life I have worked tirelessly every single second of every single day to try and run as far from those two truths as humanly possible, and I have failed every single second of every single day. For the first time I am stopping to catch (re-claim) my breath the only way I know how.

I don’t even know if that’s possible, because the book hasn’t even been written yet, but I know what I’ve lived through and I know I don't know how to give up. I know what happens when a little wide-eyed girl ends up in the arms of an addict. And I know that we both survived for a reason. And I think it’s so that I can write this book. I really believe that with all of my heart. Because books saved my life. And so I’m returning the favor and going all in.  

I guess this is also my way of finally going back to that backyard in that shitty low-income neighborhood, behind that house filled with ghosts unimaginable, and getting on my hands and knees and, with bare hands, digging up those little ziplock baggies one at a time, and finally setting them free.

They were never really dead, anyway.


A Truth


Last week, as I was photographing Anjelica, and she was tracing the outline of her cancer scar on her goosebump covered skin, I heard a voice whisper a truth into my bones, literally from out of nowhere, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head, since. 

This is the work of resiliency.

I used to think it was all about hope, but mine is not a tribe of people wishing and waiting and hoping for things to change. No. Now I realize that the women who gather at the rivers are the ones who make it through to the other side. The warrior witnesses. The ones who who walk the walk and keep on going even when, especially when, hope is nowhere to be found. 

River Story sessions are a celebration of survival. Theirs, and mine.