4:30am on February 9th

Last night I had a dream that I was trying out for a high school cheerleading team. It wasn't the small town high school I graduated from, though. This was a full-blown Texas-style school with a football stadium the size of the neighborhood I grew up in. 

In the dream, in order to try out for the team after school, you had to wear their uniform all day so they could see how it looked on you. The current team members would walk around and take notes on clipboards on things like, "Did she smile enough in the uniform?" "Do her boobs fill up the top near the dart seams?" "How many boys turned their heads when she walked by?"

At one point I stood in an empty girls' bathroom, staring at myself in a full length mirror, tugging at the back of the pleated skirt, praying for some sweat pants and a hoodie. 

I made the team. 

And then fell apart, sobbing, behind the bleachers, because I only tried out because I really wanted to dance every single day, but I had no use for the cruel and exclusive club I had just been granted access to. It felt good to be accepted, and get a stamp of approval, but actually no it didn't and all I really wanted to do is starfish in the sunshine on the school sidewalk, my bellybutton plugged into the sky, poems written on palms. 

It's 4:30am and I'm sitting on the couch just like damn. Damn. How incredible to be granted this gift, this dream of so much clarity, on the eve of my retreat ending. The new moon. 

I'm going to eventually find the words to articulate the magic that this weekend was, or maybe not because that's impossible, but for now, I just need to share something about my experience leading the retreat and holding the space. 

Often when we hear of people who have been damaged from social hierarchies, it's because they were consistently, and often times brutally, rejected. In some way, and in some ungraceful fashion, they were given the message that they were not good enough to go to the parties, or get on the varsity team, or make boys turn their heads. And I am aware of how fucked up this is about to sound, but it's my truth and it's revealing itself, and so it counts. The truth is, that has never been my story. Sure there were profound moments of pain and judgement, but I always had a saved seat at the popular table.  My story is that once I got there, I'd realize it was not at all what I was looking for, and because I didn't know what else to do, I'd call them on their shit and fuck it all up and make people uncomfortable, and angry. I made enemies by getting to the "top" and then being like, "You're all assholes."  I kind of still do this. So no, I wasn't the nerd in the corner being made fun of, but I ended up alone, hated, and never belonging, either way.

In college I was so desperate for sisterhood that I joined a sorority. I got into them all during rush week and chose the one that I thought was the "best." The first week I was voted into a leadership position and thought this was going to finally be my jam until they poured a giant bucket of ice cream sprinkles onto the carpet and told us to separate them by color. I went to the college co-op that night and bought a journal. Finally, during the second semester, somewhere between the president declaring we weren't allowed to eat all day before rush events for fear of food being stuck in our teeth, and witnessing someone with cerebral palsy being denied access to a party because of her electric wheelchair, I snapped. I wrote a letter to headquarters, carefully listing each and every thing I had documented in my diary, and how and why I believed it was so horribly, terribly, wrong. The girls all hated me for it, and I crossed the street on my way to English class to avoid the house from then on. 

I could tell a hundred more stories just like this. Where I sign up for a thing that is very clear about what it is, and then defiantly and totally ungracefully tell them how harmful they are, and then cry for weeks wondering why everyone hates me. 

I didn't really see this until this morning. 

I started to do the very same thing with the photography community, in fact. I came in about 6 years ago and somehow ended up being invited to sit at the popular table. I got to be with the cool kids, and speak at the cool things. They stamped my hand and told me I had made it. Sounds awesome, right? Except, once again, the moment I jumped into that pool, I couldn't get out fast enough.

This time, though, by some miracle, instead of filling blank pages with lists of what they were doing to harm others, so I could later slam them over the head with it, I filled it with what I was missing in my own heart and ways I could maybe find it. 

Just like in my dream last night, I just wanted to dance, and the big problem wasn't the cheerleading squad (well, maybe, but...) it was (also) me thinking I needed the cheerleading squad in order to dance. If you want to dance, Michelle, just fucking dance. 

But here's the thing. Community is everything and sisterhood sustains me. And in the words of Madonna, eventually I realized, "I'm tired of dancing here all by myself." 

And so River Retreats were born. 

Again, I'm not going to even try to write about this weekend just yet, but after that dream and this realization, I just have to say, it's worth it. Finding the people who love you right up close and completely, is so worth it. Breaking the cycles that prevent us from being fully alive (although brutal) is definitely worth it, too. And I keep crying to the point of puffy eyes because I don't have to tug at the back of my skirt anymore, wishing. 

And my brain keeps trying to comb through the last 72 hours, like a mother searching for lice, to pick out the mistakes I made, and beat myself up for them. But I refuse. Not this. 

I woke up to the impatient chirping of a drained smoke detector over my bed. And I just laid there at first staring up at it like, "Oh fire alarm. I know how you feel, stuck all day and night on guard for a catastrophe that never actually happens. Screaming out when you think things are dangerous. But I really wanted to see how this dream ended. I really wanted to see what happens. UGH." 

But then after grouchily getting a drink of water and a bite of muffin, and tucking Thomas' feet back into the blankets, I got a text on my phone from one of the retreat sisters and it all just kind of lifted. A heaviness, finally, at last, was gone. 

I know exactly how it ends. And damn am I grateful. 

 

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.