Learning To Love You More




Assignment #14
Write your life story in less than a day.

Eugénie Frerichs
Victor, Idaho USA



The facts surrounding the events that occurred on the day of my birth vary depending on whether it's been a one-scotch or two-scotch dinner for my dad. One scotch and on that day 28 years ago the sun burst through the clouds the moment the MD in Aspen announced, "It's a girl!" Two scotches and not only did the sun break through, but a chorus of angels broke out in song, rainbows arched majestically from the hospital towards the peaks of the Maroon Bells, and the entire state of Colorado pledged to turn September 15, 1977, into a worldwide affair.
Ask my mother about the same day and oddly enough, all she can recall is that my dad wasn't there, and that upon arrival into the world of light and sound, I came out whichever damned way I pleased, which happened to be upside down and backwards, breaking her tailbone in the process.
I spent the first six months of my life in a makeshift crib of pillows and blankets tucked into the bottom drawer of a dresser in the girl's dormitory of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. My mom, her straight auburn hair hacked into a late-seventies bull cut, was the resident Dorm Mom and a music teacher, while my dad, in his final years of beards and rock climbing in wool knickers, taught his own interpretation of World History.
A scandal of sorts - I've never really pried - sent us to the Pacific Northwest soon after I was born. My older brother Nathan, round and cheeky, a shit-eating grin even back then, platinum blond hair like Tin Tin, was three. Our black Lab, Bozo, moved stiffly and was graying under his chin. My parents were broke, battered and worn from idealism and infidelity, and we drove around in a rusty maroon Volvo we called Bell. We were, to be sure, a sight, but it was, to be fair, 1978.
My early years in Portland are marked with pink tights, black leotards, and Princess Leia buns in my hair. A prima ballerina at three. Once old enough to cruise our southwest Portland neighborhood, I shed the pink in exchange for black parachute pants and a red and black cotton hat that I wore every day and called my Brain Cap. Everyone called me ELF (my initials). A white bicycle that didn't have a lick of rubber on its wheels scooted me through the streets. I was addicted to Barbeque-flavored corn nuts, and walked down to the Ross Island Grocery every day after school to buy a pack and wash it down with Hansen's grapefruit soda. Duran Duran posters hung in my room alongside a card catalog system I'd developed to check out my stuffed animals.
Our living room served as a theater, a dance stage, a radio studio, the Gin Rummy arena, and the jalape–o combat zone. My dad paid my brother a quarter for every pickled pepper he could eat, and we rolled on the carpet laughing as the tears streamed down his cheeks. For a while, I refused to take baths, because every time I stepped into the tub I'd get a jolt of pain. My dad thought I was being a wimp. My mom found out that an electric current was leaking into the tub and I was getting electrocuted. It was an old house. The address had a ring to it I'll never forget: 0123 SW Curry.
Most things thoughtful I can credit to my mom. We didn't own a TV back then, and instead listened to a radio she set in the hallway between my room and my brother's. At night we fell asleep to old classics like Jack Benny and the Thin Man. I dreamt of Batman climbing through my bedroom window to take me away - my first nightmare. When I couldn't sleep, my mom would sing the Moonshine Lullaby...Behind the hill, there's a sleepy little still, where your pappy's workin' in the moonlight... She wallpapered an upstairs room from floor to ceiling with New Yorker covers, and from there, she sewed my clothes and plotted to save the world. Downstairs, outside, she planted irises that smelled like root beer, mowed the lawn with a sticky push-mower, and couldn't get past plotting to save the world. It was an idyllic working class life, a single mom (eventually - they split when I was 6) who was a self-described "corporate hippy", raising two rosy-cheeked kids who tore around a gritty downtown Portland neighborhood cajoling with pasty Dungeons & Dragons fanatics, homeless men who lived under the Barber Boulevard overpass, stray dogs that we folded into our home and named Molly, painters and musicians who rented the duplex townhouses up the street, and crazy old ladies who we were forbidden to see yet who grew accustomed to our daily visits.
I could have lived that life forever but with an unfortunate stroke of poor judgment my mom carted us off to the suburbs in 1986. Beaverton, they called it. Suburban hell. I was crushed. As far as I could tell at a precocious eight years old, everyone around me was na•ve to the ways of the real world. Everything was too clean. Too white. Too orderly, in my little mind. I was a city kid, concrete had seeped comfortably into my pores, and fending for myself was the order of the day. No sweetly signed napkins in my school lunch, I was in it to survive. It was hard to see what suburban life could do for me.
Then I learned to swim. Fourth grade. I'm not sure why I didn't know how to swim before fourth grade, but I remember clear as a summer's day the first time I went to a swimming lesson at our neighborhood pool. My eyes burned red with tears and chlorine, I was certain that I would drown, but someone said something at just the right time, and for the next six years I hung out at the pool from dawn Ôtil dusk. I swam on the swimteam, won a few awards, and got biceps (small ones). I was a closet jock; I still went to dance classes downtown four days a week, but at heart I was muscling my way down the pool and rolling around in the mud on the soccer field.
Junior high in the suburbs makes me think of hair spray, acid washed jeans, passing notes, getting a really bad perm, and having crushes, especially on the quarterback of the 9th grade football team until, to my dismay, he discovered God and became a born-again fundamentalist Christian. That was the end of that.
High school I will happily skip right over, as I did not enjoy it and got out of there as fast as I could, graduating with the class ahead of me. I spoke at the graduation as one of six valedictorians, and a boy named Duc, who shared the podium with me, accused me of cheating. It's hard to imagine what he really meant by that, and I never really considered early graduation an honor - it was a survival method. After reading a few lines from a speech I didn't write (someone else in the group was the scribe for us all), I turned in my badge, gave Sunset High School the proverbial bird, and flew. I've never been back.
The summer before college I went on an Outward Bound course in the North Cascades. It was one of my father's three rites-of-passage for each of his children. He would fund one backcountry experience, one car, and one college degree. Hard to say no. Two weeks into the course we had to evacuate our site or else get burned to a crisp by a forest fire on the next ridge over. We packed up and loaded out in the middle of the night, running down the trail with headlamps that barely broke through the smoky air. I laughed the whole way down, loving the thrill and the charge that came with fear. It was a small but significant turn in my life. At the end of the 21-day course we had to run ten miles and I crossed the finish line with a girl named Meghan. I'd never run that far, and never would have without Meghan. She was tiny, and she'd barely survived the course, her pack weighing as much as her, but as a cross-country runner she deservedly kicked all of our asses in the end. She told me something about long-distance running that has stuck with me - never look behind you, she said. It throws you off.
College. Loss of innocence, virginity, sobriety, optimism, sometimes in the usual ways, other times not so orthodox. I arrived at a ripe sixteen. My first hallucinogenic experience took place soon after, in a tree, where I sat for six hours with my friend Amanda. My first bout with alcohol poisoning occurred over Thanksgiving break, when I shot the best game of pool in my life. My first (and last) shaved head was revealed in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I studied for two months and concluded that all things vain were obstacles to saving the world. My first parasite ravaged my intestines in India, where I spent three months discovering just how truly horrible our country can be. My first reprimand came from a summer job with a corporation that disapproved of my putting my feet on my desk. My first love went unrequited - a Canadian climbing bum who studied philosophy and economics, who was fatally allergic to nuts and just as hopelessly romantic. He ended up spending more years at the Colorado College than I, six to my five, and when we'd finally decided the time might be right, my mom intervened. Not out of objection, she loved the guy, too. But she had other needs. Cancer had been eating at her insides, and by the time we all found out, there was little left to do but abandon ordinary lives and return home. My time to love, my time to save the world, these things had to wait.
I would recommend to everyone I know that they spend a year with a person who is dying. I really would. It should be a Learning to Love You More assignment: Drop your life and spend a year with someone who knows she is about to die. Wisdom and courage guide each day, and absolute humility, brevity, compassion, and authenticity dominate each exchange. I would NOT recommend doing this in a 1000 square foot house in the suburbs that is also filled with your twenty-three year-old brother, your stepfather, your brother's girlfriend, two dogs, one Norwegian Reiki healer, two hospice caregivers, a steady flow of visitors, and about thirty plants. That was a different challenge. But the time with my mom - I should just say that I owe everything that I am right now, the bad and the good, to the lessons I learned in that year.
My mother was a force. After her diagnosis, she wrote a poem, designed an engraving, and sent the two as gifts to all of her family and friends, thanking them for a good life. She then cashed in on her savings and bought one 8x10 oil-on-wood painting of three tomatoes by the Portland artist Sally Haley. She bought us plane tickets and we flew to Zurich where we rented a car, drove to the Matterhorn, ate fondue, and crossed the border into Lichtenstein just because. She flew to Utah and soaked up desert sun, pressing her hands to the sandstone and absorbing its warmth. She took a ferry to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the central coast of British Columbia and floated in a kayak past sacred totems and old-growth cedars whose long lives reduce ours to even smaller and less significant blips in time.
I buckled in and swayed with every sharp turn on this ride. I became the primary caregiver, administering all of her meds and monitoring every change in mood and physique. I drove her to her acupuncture appointments in China Town. I picked up inconspicuous brown bags from the acupuncturist's wife that were filled with herbs, hooves, and bugs, all of which I dutifully boiled down to a thick mud and forced my mom to drink. I smudged her meridians as Dr. Cheung had instructed me to do with big herbal bundles that looked like giant spliffs. I smiled sweetly at the hospice caregivers who frequently stormed out of the house, discouraged by their failed attempts at getting through to my mom. Their approach to reflecting on life and easing into death just didn't jive with her. "I'm not going to spend the last few days of my life focusing on my past," she said, and she'd turn back to my brother and give him a nod, signaling him to carry on with whatever form of entertainment he was providing, from banjo strumming to tall tales and dancing with the dogs.
I took on a lover who was ten years older and the perfect escape when I needed one. He was in importer of high-end Italian wines and he lived in an early 20th century apartment just behind the Envoy downtown. He taught me how to cook ravioli from scratch, and implored that I indulge in hour-long baths, away from the world, several times each week. I also fled into the dark room, where I spent hours processing rolls of black and white shots of my mom. I shot nudes of her disappearing body and hung them in a group show next to a series of portraits of my brother, mom and I brandishing our newly-etched family tattoos. With what little hours I had left I joined a modern dance company and infused my movements with all of the muck that had built up inside. I didn't know where else to put it, but between loveless passion, making pictures, and dancing, I got enough of the hurt out of my system to keep my head together at home.
The odd twist in this tale is that my mom grew up in a family of western medicine. Both of her parents had been doctors. Her only two siblings were both oncologists. Western medicine raised her, fed her, clothed her, and yet, at crunch time, it did nothing for her. Her insurance company wrote her six months into the diagnosis to tell her that she had officially lived longer than planned, and so they were dropping their coverage. Her western physician told her the cancer was too far along for his practice to make any difference. She went undeterred. She found two angels, one Chinese, the other Norwegian, and the combination of acupuncture and Reiki kept her pain-free and without a single night spent in the hospital.
She died on an ordinary day, almost exactly one year after the diagnosis. My brother, his girlfriend and I were hanging out in her room, filling out crossword puzzles and listening to music. I looked over and noticed she'd stopped breathing. That was it. Snuck out the back door so as not to bother us, true to form. She'd drawn a map with explicit directions to where in Colorado we were to scatter her ashes. We went, tossed them into the wind as aspen leaves rattled and twittered all around us, and that was the end. My own life beckoned, though it was no longer ordinary. At twenty, it was suddenly frighteningly short.
I wish I could say that from that day forward I've lived my life to the fullest extent possible, but lord knows that's a lie. I've had moments of grace with much floundering in between. In the post-mom days, chronological memory falls away to a log of notable good and bad decisions. I had the sense to head back to college and finish my last year, finishing cum laude with a class that was again not my own. I skipped graduation and returned to Portland to audition for a dance company, and with three months until our first rehearsal, I explored the central coast of British Columbia and made my way to Alaska, where I worked in a salmon cannery for seven days. I marveled at the endurance of the women working there, who stood in the drafty warehouse day after day, packing slices of dried meat into tiny cans and jars, hair nets concealing their real identities, the stench of smoky fish following them home each night and back to work the next morning.
I danced professionally for a while, a year or two. I spent my savings on a plane ticket to L.A. to watch a dance performance by the German choreographer Pina Bausch. It was the best live performance I've ever seen, the entire stage blanketed from front to back and wing to wing with pink carnations, and two live German Shepherds with fierce feature roles. In seventy minutes of choreography, only fifteen contained movement that could be considered dance. The rest seemed to be 101 ways to relate - to each other, to the world. I thought it was brilliant. Bausch's work will inform everything I do, in any field, simply by virtue of its honesty, risk, aesthetic perfection, and total lack of concern for acceptance from the masses. She's on her own road, paving its course seconds before she takes the next step.
A common theme during this time is the act of diving into roles for which I had little or no experience and wrestling them to the ground until satisfied, which usually took six months to a year. I took on a project to restore an 80-acre wetland on the Washington side of the Columbia, and spent six months knee-deep in mud with blue herons barking at me and cattail duff constantly flying up my nose. I started surfing on the Oregon coast despite my overwhelming fear of large waves and my poor circulation, resulting in blue lips and thousands of nosedives. I apprenticed with a milliner for a year and studied the art of designing and constructing fine women's hats. I spent two years on top of a two-story warehouse planting and watering its green roof and making Superwoman clothes-changes to become the spokesperson for the building, touting (and truly believing) its triumphs as a green-building success-story for all the world to see. Much of the world came, I was impressed - we hosted delegates from Botswana, Japan, China, Russia, South America, Europe. I will never again underestimate the ability of a single project, in a single mid-sized town, executed by a little known nonprofit, to influence action on a global scale.
The performance art world in the form of PICA swallowed me next and still has most of me embroiled in its belly. I have since 2003 worked intensely with PICA to turn the idea of the Time-Based Art Festival into what it has finally become: an annual convergence of art and ideas that is meant to educate, inspire, and push people further than they ever thought they could go, whether they're performing in the festival or just watching. The idea's worked on me: the festival has expanded tenfold my understanding of how to live life. Artists are infinitely brave, this much I know.
The rest of me can still be found with my head in the clouds. Somewhere in these past few years I grew determined to live in the mountains and I've managed to split time between Portland and Telluride (first) and Jackson Hole (now). A dormant gene has switched to ON and now if I go for extended periods of time without inhaling mountain air I think I might die. Living up high, and encountering the people who've lived here for most of their lives, has inspired me to do things I never thought I could do, like run thirty miles in a day, or ski in the backcountry more often than not, or climb multi-pitch routes with nothing below me but air. Living with a man who is superhuman, and who excels in these disciplines, helps with my learning curve. They are all jocky things, I'll admit. I'm a novice in all mountain disciplines, but my experience is as real as anyone else's - my heart beats faster, I breathe harder, I'm directly in tune with my environment, I'm sweaty, I reek, and my unadulterated glee is audible.
The mental gains from living in the mountains are the best, and it is for those things - the clarity, confidence, humility, and connection to place - that I keep returning to this thin air. I couldn't live here all the time, I need PICA, I need the gritty places and the challenge of social evolution as experienced through art and design. But I'm getting closer to what might be a fine balance.
I'm 28 now. I'm heading back to Portland soon, but today I am still in Jackson Hole. I woke up early this morning and went skiing. I raced into town at midday, showered at a friend's house, and went into work at a gallery. A man from the Art Center came in and taught me how to load a Rolleiflex camera, as I'd forgotten, and had just gotten some new 120 film. My boyfriend brought me Thai food for dinner, and after scarfing down noodles and curry we went to a screening of a local artist's film, which wasn't that great. I got an email from my brother that said at the bottom, "Live a big life today." I can't quite say I was there, living a big life, but sometimes Normal can take up a lot of space. I'm not doing anything that I always assumed I'd be doing at 28. I aspire for much more, and I think it's getting close. I can't tell whether I'm charging at it or it's charging at me, but I've brought out my horns, just in case.