Light

I live as much as I can in the half light.

I can’t think straight in bright rooms and on clear sunny days. I can’t sleep in complete darkness. The day leaves afterimages on my tired eyes, which play havoc with my PTSD.

Writing happens in the filtered gray gloom of the library research stacks, and in the dusk of an evening bedroom. I write in the morning, when I’ve had enough coffee. In the fall, in the stormlight of September and November. The Golden Hour – a brief time period in the evening adored by photographers everywhere – is a signal to my exhausted brain that now, it can take a fifteen-minute break from vigilance.

I work in a fluorescent jungle. I’ve asked for a lid on my cubicle. They thought I was joking.

Something is different; however, in the respective brain processes for design work and writing. Something about design pulls me forward, outside and past my anxiety and my stray thoughts. Would it betray me too much a hipster to reference Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball here?

Too bad.

I read Emerson’s essay Nature in junior high school, sandwiched between The Most Dangerous Game and excerpts from A Separate Peace. The essay, in turn, sandwiched in among my memories; compressed until all the good nutritious filling oozed together to a paste. To one turn of phrase: transparent eyeball; an entity devoid of self but for the work and the observation of the work. Professionals sometimes call it flow.

And writer me, reaching for words in the half light, would give a lot for flow. I sidle around this anxiety, my ferret mind alert and squirming with worries.

Writing used to be easier. But the flipside of all this is a new notice of light. My brain went rogue in the middle of an August afternoon. A year later, struggling to juggle another adrenaline rush and a thought process like a high-strung horse, I noticed the light. August afternoon light is the worst thing in the world, with its sharp edged cold shadows and dry sunbaked yellows. It’s horrid, when you’re me, with a blood-blurred, time-fogged memory as certain as a frightened horse. Demons lurk in the cool blue shadows sliding away from a midwestern August town.

It’s odd to think about how I hate August now, after twenty-odd years of ambivalence. Schoolkid me saw it alternately as another month of freedom, and the start of summer’s end. Me today, knuckles white on the wheel, sees mortality slouched against the hot brick of a Main Street convenience store. If I die, it’s probably gonna be in August.

November is better. Daylight Savings Time shifts the light, changing the shapes of the shadows I see from behind the wheel. More often, I catch the sun through canopies of glowing leaves. These are the last weeks of fall – but the ginkgo and the sugar maple have clung to their gilt scarves as if just for this. The bright yellow fans flicker like snow, pushed out of their branches at last by the impatient wind. I was born in June, but my soul remembers November first, with its long dry blues, streaks of orange and flashes of gold.

It’s in this time of year when my anxiety-soaked brain rests. The great sweeps of storms have gone, the barometer and thermometer march a slow descent to frost and snow. I can peel my whitened knuckles from the steering wheel, take a softer grip on all things, and savor the waning light.

The Meaning of Home

For a contingent of American culture, November and December are months of homecoming. Families gather together for Thanksgiving, for Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s in the light of this holiday season that my thoughts turn towards the concept of home, and what it means to me.

Home is an entirely subjective concept, compounded of life experience and personal needs. In the case of my exceedingly large maternal connection, an amalgamation of Thanksgiving and Christmas is scheduled on a weekend, in competition with neither the in-laws’ plans, nor shotgun deer season. While ‘home’ under that definition at one point was the family farm, it’s now the people and the foods of family mythology. This family gathers at a rented facility and celebrates a homecoming in news, stories, mandarin orange jello salad, cheesy potatoes and cherry cheesecake bars.

I write about it with nostalgia, but not from immediate memory. Years passed, I exited childhood; ideological differences turned into awkward silence and distance. A certain unwillingness to have hard, real conversations, or seek one another outside the confines of what we all seem to see as a mandatory annual duty. We aren’t all this way, of course, but even the peacemakers among us quietly drew away into agreeable corners, preferring safety with a few to the danger of scooping out corn casserole at the table opposite the bleeding-heart liberal, the conspiracy theorist, the cultish Christian, the hippie outsider girlfriend, the alcoholic, the emotionally fragile new divorcee (and the equally emotionally fragile children threrof).

I say this all with a desire to change that, and an uncertainty of how to go about it. In this scenario, I’m the bleeding-heart liberal with the weird job. My questions are always answered, but it’s with surprise and an air of disinterest and suspicion – like how could I possibly care about their lives, with my white collar office job and my art studio? I feel like I’ve become part of the culture they disapprove of. When I chose a life in a metropolitan city over gravel roads and pastures, those doors of welcome home began to creak shut. They’re polite, and they do love me at least in the abstract, but they have never given me a sense of home.

Since I left my parents’ three-bedroom red rancher on the fringe of a rural township, I haven’t qualified anything as ‘home.’ Does home happen when you stop hiding your laptop on the closet shelf before you leave for work in the morning? When you buy your first couch? When you come back to it after a long absence? When others come to share a meal with you at your table? Do you need a housewarming party?

When I would talk about where I lived, it was ‘the apartment,’ or ‘my apartment.’ My mom’s house – my childhood house – was still ‘home.’ When I struggled with anxiety and depression, when I needed to heal, my apartment was my foxhole. But not home. And why not? I celebrated Christmases there. I welcomed people I would come to love, danced in the living room; perched with my elbows on the windowsill, listening to the raucous bar down the alley. But not home. Once a month, I was reminded that someone else granted me the space, in the rent checks I paid and the note announcing the pest person making his rounds, whose entrance I could not refuse. Every season, my windows needed to be changed out, my fire extinguishers inspected, and every two years the city apartment inspector would arrive to critique the cat hair on my rug.

I had no permanence. Apartments are transient – they’re cubbies that bear our name on a sticker, for a while, so long as we’re not too loud or too smelly and we take our garbage out every week and our neighbors aren’t allergic to cats.

‘Home,’ to me, is a sense of something being there when I get back. Not necessarily ownership (although ownership does lend itself), but an understanding that the space is recognized as my territory and other human beings can reasonably be expected to stay out until I invite them in.

In October of last year, I bought a house. Over one year later now, when I talk about ‘home,’ it’s this house. It’s a quirky place, old and worn in spots. Not modern enough for some. But I have doors that lock and latch and bolt and I choose who else has access. The walls will be what colors I choose; the carpet will come up when I have the wherewithal for new wood floors. The windows will open to the air in the middle of December if I overheat the kitchen. There is space for all of me and more. The Christmas tree this year will be real.

I am responsible for my own spiders; my own fire extinguishers; my own cat hair on my own rug. Home may be subject to the critique of others, but nobody’s opinion matters except mine. Home may just be an elaborate illusion of control, overlaid with pleasant memories – but I can’t say I mind.

Graphic Design Was Not My #LifeGoal

Image of a well used chalkboard with the words "Don't give up!!!" written on it in white chalk, in script lettering.

At seventeen, the future terrified me.

Artsy, sheltered, rural Mid-American me was not ambitious. I didn’t have Big Plans for my life. I knew I was going to college because that’s just what you did after high school in 2001, if you expect to make any kind of living. As a kid I’d run the gamut of Dream Jobs, from ballerina to fireman, marine biologist to zookeeper. I had a bent towards creative hobbies; I wrote, I read, I sketched; I painted ceramic ornaments from Wal*Mart with Aleene’s Acrylic Paint (Great stuff, long gone. Sigh.) By the time I walked up to shake hands and get my diploma, I had some rough ideas about being a journalist. Maybe? Sort of? Honestly the thought of asking strangers questions for a living tied my stomach up in knots. But my little moral compass (and motivation from a favorite teacher) was ticking towards using my words for good and not evil.

Well, less for evil, anyway.

I went to community college for my first two years. The counselor – bless him – wasn’t super sure what to do with me. I was a teacher’s pet! I would be A+ perfect because that’s what I do! Just tell me where I’m supposed to go and I’ll go do whatever in the most kickass way possible! Just tell me what to do!

I needed to figure out what to do for the rest of my life so I didn’t, you know, waste my entire education and end up destitute. Because really, when you’re seventeen and sheltered and the Internet is mostly a place to check your Hotmail, that’s all you know. You know you have to do this College Thing correctly or risk destroying the rest of your life. (News flash: going to college for something other than what you end up doing won’t ruin your life. Although crushing student debt is another story. But I digress.)

I was pretty sure I couldn’t sketch unicorns for a living (although someone probably is, and doing fabulously) but a journalism career still made me want to puke from fear.

I took the basics for an Associate of Sciences degree, dug into Statistics and Music Appreciation, US History, World Civilization and College Spanish I, and tried to pretend for a year that I knew what I was doing.

The next meeting with my counselor, however, was a little less frightening. “You’re transferring to Western Illinois University after you graduate here, right?”

“Yep!” Hopefully the panicked light in my eyes just looked, um, perky.

College Counselor scanned my credit hours. “There’s a brand new major up there called Graphic Communications. I think you might consider it.”

Me, just glad to have someone tell me to do a thing, while having no idea what ‘Graphic Communications’ meant: “Okay!”

We bumped journalism to a minor, restructured my classes to fit WIU’s Graphic Communication major, and off I went for my sophomore year. By the time I transferred, I had an AS, a vague idea of what jobs might be out there, and hope.

I picked up my textbooks for my first semester. One of them was Photoshop Down and Dirty Tricks by Scott Kelby.

I went through all the tutorials in a week. Before class started.

I couldn’t stop. Typically, I struggle to maintain the patience to acquire and improve a new skill. Yet here I was, hungrily soaking up drop shadows and pillow emboss and outer glow and layer effects and gradient overlays. Something in my brain clicked to this wizardry. I was gonna be the muthafuckin Gandalf of Photoshop.

When classes began, the work got significantly harder. I loved it. It was one of the few times I’d encountered an activity that lit me up. Graphic design makes my soul sing, in the way very little else does. We designed logos, recreated tax forms, screen printed tee shirts; made calendars, newsletters, and notepads.

I knew what a corporate identity was. I was the new queen of consistency.

Up until my junior year of college, school was the thing I went at with the intent to make other folks happy. My professors, my parents, my extended family – I’m a recovering people-pleaser, and back then I shoved myself into the expectations of every single person I valued. Was there anything else? I wasn’t ambitious. I didn’t have strong dreams of the future.

My story of college education is not a checklist for success. I was supremely lucky, to land in a career path that worked so well for me by utter accident.

Graphic design was not my #lifegoal. But although I fell into it by accident, it opened up the concept of loving my job; striving to improve at things I feel passionate about. It showed me that I was allowed to have life goals in the first place.

I mean, I’m still not an ambitious person. But I’ve learned how to direct my own life.

Still not Photoshop Gandalf, though. Working on that.

gandalf