In January, I flew to Phoenix to celebrate my 38th birthday. My friend Jeanette, an incredible photographer and fellow traveler, hosted a gathering of women, all of us connected in one way or another. Our only real plan was to enjoy each other’s company in person. We went line dancing and thrift shopping and hiked up a mountain where my soul gave thanks to the desert where Greg and I began our life together, in Tucson 15 years ago, where I lived as a child for a summer, and where I was now returning as if coming home after the most difficult transition of my adult life. We cooked and ate and demonstrated hooping skills (of which I have none!), sang and read for each other, napped and snuggled and laughed and cried and broke a bed.
After the hike on my actual birthday, I showered and asked Jeanette what I should wear for the photo shoot she’d offered me as a birthday gift. If you know me in real life or live around here, you are most likely to see me wearing yoga pants and a cozy fleece, or jeans and boots and a tank top, or simply buried under a big down coat nine months of the year. For all the Indian dresses in eighth grade and the Doc Martens in high school, the fashion gene is not one I inherited. I go basic. I wear mostly the same few pieces of jewelry every day, each with a story inside it. I put on some tinted moisturizer in the morning and air-dry my hair and with a little lip gloss, I’m good to go.
But Jeanette, a fashionista bar none, had other ideas. As I stood there wrapped in a towel, she slid open her closet door and began shuffling through things for me to try on. I was a little squeamish about it, and at the same time in heaven, playing dress-ups like a little sister. So first it was the dress, and then the boots, and then the belt and cuff and necklace followed, and next thing I knew I was standing in the front yard while Jenica whipped out more shades of eyeshadow than I knew existed and applied them expertly as we stood there, just an inch apart in height, practically forehead to forehead. By the time Jeanette, Isabel, and I got in the car to drive to an empty underpass near the train tracks in downtown Phoenix, I felt like part movie-star and part imposter.
It took a while to get comfortable in front of the camera, to shake off the self-consciousness and inhabit something deeper within myself and let it be seen. We spent about an hour and a half shooting, walking around, laughing. Every now and then, Isabel would whisper, “Jesus Christ,” and I would say, “What?!”
It’s easy to play small. It’s easy to bury myself in baggy clothes. It’s easy to forget I’m a grown woman now, dare I say middle-aged? It’s easy to see how beautiful other people are. It’s easy to shy away from sharing aspects of myself–fierceness, vulnerability, power, grace, sexuality–unapologetically. But that day by the tracks, I stepped in. I had fun. I worked it. I felt it. This was the greatest gift.
Three months later, I had not yet seen the images from our shoot. Then last week at Jeanette’s house, I expected her to hand me a photo album. Instead, she sat me down in front of her computer screen and clicked “Play.” And as I watched, tears streamed down my face. I can’t even describe why exactly. Part of me couldn’t believe it, that this was, is me. And it wasn’t about the outfit or the make-up. It was about presence, and also Jeanette’s magic as a photographer, and about the poem Darlene wrote to go with the slideshow, which I knew nothing about before hearing it for the first time.
After seeing the video, Isabel, whose love and friendship have anchored me through so many changes during the past several years, shared this May Sarton poem. It’s one I’ve loved but had not read in a long time, and it couldn’t be more fitting.
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning. . .
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
And all I could say was yes. And thank you.