“He's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Emily Bronte
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.
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.
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.
She lost her 4th tooth, and the fairy brought her the kind of fancy dress that I, her Mama, always say no to. She put it on first thing the next morning and declared it would be perfect for the upcoming weekend of camping.
But this post isn't about the dress or the tooth. It's about the little girl who came to me six months ago, with tear-filled eyes, and told me she was tired of "hiding her brain." She was shaking and nervous, but clear.
After talking for a (long) while, we got to the bottom of it.
Lily taught herself how to read the summer before Kindergarten year in the backseat of the car on a drive home from Costco one day. It really was that sudden and out of the blue. Nobody taught her, nobody showed her, nobody did anything. The clerk at Costco gave her a little book, and on the ride home, she read the whole thing, out loud. I pulled over and asked her how she was doing it, and her reply was, "I just knew it was a code I needed to figure it. Once I figured it out, it all just makes sense now."
Thomas and I knew that Waldorf, in our experience, frowns on the "over intellectualization of children" and so while we didn't discourage her, we certainly didn't encourage her. And we told her not to tell anyone or ever, under any circumstances, read at school. (I know. I promise I know how awful that last sentence sounds. But you have to understand the culture of many Waldorf schools. It's all secrets; filled with "Don't tell anyone you watched that movie," or, "Don't tell anyone you ate that chocolate," or, "Don't tell anyone I let you look at photos on my phone." Secrets are honestly just so common and accepted in the culture, that I guess I didn't realize how toxic and dysfunctional it truly was. My heart feels like a crab is pinching it as I write these words.)
Everything was "fine" until about a week after she first began reading, when she "slipped." She was at a Birthday party for one of her classmates, and another child opened a card and couldn't figure out who it was from. Lily read the card to her, softly, and the surrounding parents snapped their necks at me as if she'd just screamed the worst curse word in the world.
I'm not sure what, exactly, happened next, but, the next Monday afternoon, the teacher sent an email home to everyone in the class. There were attachments in the email with "articles" asserting that early reading leads to disabilities. I was warned that she would suffer.
Especially girls, we were told. Girls should never read early. They felt bad for us, and shared ways that we could work together to stop the forbidden reading.
(This is not a joke. This really happened.)
We were being told that her big, beautiful brain was dangerous and harmful.
Again, I do not believe this is what happens at every Waldorf school. In fact, I know it doesn't. But it happened to us. It happened to Lily.
After hiring an outside educational consultant, and meeting with two other separate experts in the linguistic, IQ and emotional fields, Thomas and I made the decision to remove her from her lovely Waldorf school. You have to understand that, previously, Waldorf had my heart entirely. The beautiful toys and the songs and the wool hand-knit slippers. The warm hugs from the warm teachers. Waldorf is not all bad. This wasn't an easy decision for us. But it was one that once made, felt so incredibly right.
I have learned to let go and witnessed my girl absolutely blossom. I've apologized to her for not seeing clearly, earlier. Truthfully, I don't think I fully saw how damaging it was for her in Waldorf, until I saw the incredible transformation once she was removed. It was absolutely the right decision for us. For her.
So last Friday, the morning after she lost her 4th tooth, wearing the "most gorgeous dress in the world," when she hopped up on the bed and told me all about how fascinating compound words are and the book she is writing all about butterflies and pupas, and how she wishes she could read the entire library someday, I knew I needed to take photos. To document her, being her, unapologetically. So that someday, I can show her the images and tell her the story about how she, so bravely, spoke up about her own oppression.
And I thought I was done shooting, so I went back to my laundry, but then I turned around and saw her lying on a still-warm pile of clothes, reading one of her favorite books, and I ran and got my camera again. Because my goodness, yes.
Nothing about these images is perfect. There are stacks of stranger's photo albums from estate sales in the background. Chipped nail polish, tangled curls. Totally inopportune lighting.
But these are photos of courage. This is her story of courage.
I am so proud of her.
Little by little I am forgiving myself for ever putting her in such an unhealthy environment. I did the best I could with the information I had at the time. But I am sharing this here, tenderly, in the hopes that maybe it will help another child who might not be able to speak up the way Lily did.
There is nothing wrong with being a smart girl in this world. And I urge you to please, with all of my heart, deeply and truthfully question anyone who tells you otherwise.