Upaya North, Part 1

My grandma grew up with a dozen siblings in a house on Munich Street in San Francisco’s Excelsior District. She was nineteen years old the day that the Golden Gate Bridge first opened. I like imagining her with her slender, stockinged legs and impossibly high heels waltzing happily across the bridge with her friends. I can see the lot of them in my mind: Their hair coiled perfectly like pin-up girls; their youthful red smiles.

Grandma, Balboa High School.
Mom, somewhere, sometime in the 60s.

Thirty years later, Mom was a seventeen year old girl during the Summer of Love. I imagine her sitting barefoot on Golden Gate Park’s Hippie Hill, music and smoke rising in defiance. The pots of peyote cacti that she sneaked into grandma’s garden would continue to grow inconspicuously on our patio throughout the 80s. I’m told by her former friend, Lonny, that she once “installed” some of said peyote in grandma’s coffee pot, and “the best day they ever had together” ensued.

That I would continue on as our family’s third generation in San Francisco seemed to have already been written in ink. I spent my own youth skateboarding along the Embarcadero when I should have been in school. I can see myself vividly, walking around with a group of friends in the Penny Arcade at Musee Mechanique, under the Cliffhouse. Decades later I still have my fortune, written out on a tiny card by a machine called The Magic Ray. It says:

My fortune.

Leaving California would not occur to me until much later.

By the time I was born, what was left of my family (grandma, mom, and sisters) was actively falling apart. Mom evolved into a violent alcoholic, and grandma was always her chief enabler. Our family’s never-ending drama reached its pinnacle when mom died prematurely at the age of forty-five, a direct consequence of her hard-and-fast lifestyle.

After mom died, only distrust grew between the rest of us. We became solitary characters in our shared narrative of unresolved trauma and suppressed grief. Each of us coped by instinct; clinging to whatever resources we’d been left with. Alcohol and drugs numbed the pain for each of us to differing extents, but eventually I chose to lean into my inborn sense of creativity. I’d always had a passion for drawing and painting, and though I didn’t realize it yet, these activities would have the potential to plant the seeds for the skills I would need carry me to through my pain.

My first ever oil painting, 1998.
Based on a dream and The Creation of Adam, by Michaelangelo.

All I knew for sure was that if I were to survive, I would have to amputate myself from my family. I knew that if I stayed, I’d never be anything more than their scapegoat, and that would be my own fault and no one else’s.

At first, I found a live/work opportunity 60 miles north of my childhood home in a dense redwood forest. I lived in a little army-green house called Tek Moira, along with a motley crew of other young adults. We all worked for a youth outdoor education program called Caritas Creek, and Tek Moira was one of several homes designated as employee housing. Each house had a name: The Vatican, Greyhouse, Castlewood.

My personal space at Tek consisted of the bottom bunk in a room with three walls of floor-to-ceiling windows. It remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve lived. The stillness I felt in that space was profound–it seemed to open up a portal to a new kind of creative expression that I hadn’t yet tapped into. It was in that forest room that I completed some of my earliest oil paintings; a triptych of myself, my mother, and my grandmother. I was unconsciously exploring what bound us together, and what made us different.

I look back at that time of my life and I realize that I was something of a refugee. I was safe, and my basic needs were being met, but the only life skills I’d mastered were how to survive, and how to make art. I didn’t even know how to express my most basic emotions.

My bunk-mate was a girl named Lisa, a kind-eyed yogini with a sharp aggressive streak (owed to her New Jersey upbringing). We were forever arguing about where our things belonged, and while I would say she was aggressive-aggressive, I admit that I incited her with my acts of passive-aggression. I seem to recall an incident in which, while organizing our room, I placed her shoes on her pillow and hid her accordion file folder in the basement. I vividly remember her seething contempt and the way she said, “You put my file folder in the basement?”

I could almost hear what she wanted to say but didn’t, “How dare you!”

I wasn’t used to someone coming right out and naming the unfairness of my behavior, and she wasn’t used to having to share her space with someone. Yet somehow–perhaps through our mutual desire to create a sense of peace around us–we explored the art of apology together. More than our arguments, I remember our earnest attempts to make amends, to hear each other out, and to do right by one another going forward. For me, it was the very first relationship I had that based on a mutual desire for reciprocal respect. Though we argued frequently, we became dear friends.

me and Lisa at Tek Moira, 2002.

It was through my conversations with Lisa that I started to consider my future. She’d gone to college and obtained a degree in education, and now she was pursuing her yoga instructor certificate (and would later open her own yoga studio). I’d long concluded that a college education was not for people like me: Poor, without parents or a supportive family, not that bright. After all, I’d been a D student in high school. I had serious doubts that I could live up to the rigor of a traditional college class.

But after staring at my triptych for a while, Lisa said, “You should get a degree in Art Therapy.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

She walked me over to the computer. It was 2002, and the internet was not what it is today. I had very little experience with it beyond the AOL landing page with its flashing headline news and rudimentary email. She typed in Naropa University into the search engine, and a website popped up.

“Take a look at this,” she said, leaving the room.

I think I must have stared at Naropa’s website for an hour or two, and it was the first time I ever felt the desire for something so specific. It was obvious right away that Naropa was for people exactly like me: Sensitive, deep-thinking, creative. The school’s curriculum was touted as contemplative, a word I’d never heard, didn’t know how to pronounce, and didn’t fully understand beyond being an outgrowth of “contemplate.” I assumed it meant that a deep-thinker like me would be thoroughly engaged.

Images of students in their classes splashed before my eyes: Ikebana (traditional Japanese flower arranging), chinese calligraphy, thangka painting (traditional Tibetan Buddhist scroll painting), and various courses in poetry.

This is it, I thought. This is my college.

I was dismayed when I realized that the campus was more than a thousand miles away in Boulder, Colorado.

But I could move there, I thought.

Excitement stirred within me at the notion of picking up and moving to another state.

Just as I was imagining myself living in the snowy mountains and meeting new people, I discovered that the annual tuition was tens of thousands of dollars.

I knew it could never happen.

My Rigorous and Strange Thoughts

 You think too much. 
You’re obsessive.
You take everything way too seriously.

I can recall the first time I was made aware of the way my thoughts seemed to wind themselves–of their own volition–around me. A single thought could loop once, twice, dozens of times around me, until I was bound within it.

I was twelve, and my friend Jane asked, “Why do you constantly harp on things?”

Her words were a slap.

I harp on things? The thought hooked itself into the meat of my brain and began its familiar revolution.

How I harped on those words, how I begged Jane to explain. “What do you mean?”

She was angry; mean. “You just…obsess. Over everything.”

Worry wart, my family called me.

I can still feel the way the words what if pecked at my brain like a flock of red-winged black birds, the day I found a used condom on the playground. My curiosity and poor impulse control led me to poke it with a stick. The instant the stick touched that gooey blob of latex, my hand seemed to vibrate with contagion. I knew about AIDS. I knew how babies were made. But my child-brain did a funny thing. A series of uncontrolled thoughts emerged in my mind:

 What if I get pregnant? 
What if I get AIDS?
What if I’m going to die?

I went home and confided in my grandmother about what happened. I told her about my thoughts.

 “Did you touch it with your bare hand?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“Well then, you’re fine.”

But I didn’t feel fine. Those worries wound around and around me, and nothing would stop them. Soon, I found myself blinking a specific number of times between the change of minutes on a digital clock. Or challenging myself to put each item of clothing on within fifteen seconds. Or avoiding touching certain things in the house, because they were contaminated by some invisible thing that could kill me. In my mind, the consequence of not doing these things would be the death of me or someone I loved.

It wasn’t until I was 26 years old and living in Chicago that I discovered the root of those thoughts. In the fall of 2007, my thoughts took on a brand-new form. Every time I drove over an especially deep pot hole, I thought, “What if I just ran over a person?” I would drive around the block, sometimes multiple times, looking for a person in the street. I would check my car for blood spatter. Look beneath it.

Once or twice I even checked the news for stories about a hit and run.

Of course, a rational line of thought would go something like this: Don’t you think you’d see a person if you hit them? Don’t you think bystanders would stop? Don’t you think you would be tracked down? Wouldn’t there be blood? Wouldn’t your car be dented?

To that, my brain would say, What if I didn’t see them? What if I’m in the middle of a psychotic break and I couldn’t see the person I ran over? What if the police are after me? What if I’m only imagining that I don’t see blood or dents?

The thing other people cannot understand is that these are not like typical thoughts. They don’t rise and fall, they don’t respond to logic, they don’t leave room for other things, they can’t be willed or distracted away. I often describe the way the thoughts manifest inside my mind by using the example of a scene from the move, The Aviator. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the role of the American business magnate, Howard Hughes. The movie illustrates Hughes’ struggle with OCD, and in one memorable scene, he repeats, “Show me all the blue prints,” over and over. My thoughts are very much like that. They fire inside my head rapidly, back to back. There have been times when I’ve been so fatigued from obsessive thinking that my day-to-day functioning suffers until I withdraw from others.

In the Fall of 2007, no matter where I was or what I was doing, I worried whether I had killed someone with my car and was wanted by the authorities. I knew that it didn’t make sense, but the fear was real and unrelenting. Every rational thought was eclipsed by another what if.

After weeks of feeling as if I were on the precipice of a psychotic break (and, perhaps I was!), I met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Not everyone appreciates labels but learning that I have OCD was one of the most liberating moments of my life. I knew that what I was experiencing has a name, it is common, I am not alone, and there is treatment. I started taking Sertraline right away, and for the first time, I felt the way I imagined most other people do.


My obsessive thinking can be maladaptive, yes. Medication is not a cure-all, and when I’m under an unusual amount of stress, my brain will find something unhealthy to harp on.

But even beyond OCD, my thought process is rigorous and strange, and it can lead me to the unusual and delightful places that are directly responsible for the things I create.  

For instance, just last week a friend brought me an injured kitten. He was a fuzzy grey ball no bigger than a bolillo, and the tip of his tiny nose had been shorn clean off. I took him to the veterinarian where they weighed him (he was .8 lbs) and discovered that he was full of maggots. The little bugger was sedated, cleaned out, stitched up, and sent on his way with me until his adopter could pick him up the following day.

I had him with me for less than 24 hours, but I was impressed by his chutzpah and will to live. It was as if he had no sense of the pain he should be in. He was jolly. Ready for life.

His brief presence in my life started up my rigorous and strange thinking.

I contemplated the circumstances of suffering. His, and my own.

I thought about the fact that he had possibly been thrown from the window of a car, or mowed over unintentionally by a city worker cutting grass in the ditch he was found in. One possibility malevolent, the other random.    

I thought about the fact that my parents hadn’t wanted me, that I became a burden. Not unlike the kitten, I was cast away, helpless. In my helplessness, I was hurt both intentionally and unintentionally. My nose wasn’t shorn off, but I have carried the invisible wounds, the writhing maggots of Chronic PTSD. And yet, like the kitten, I have a jolly way about me. A will to live.

 I thought about the way pain gets transmitted, and even after we have stopped the cycle, there are the types of pain we can’t stop from being introduced into the world. The untimely death of a child. Cancer. Spontaneous acts of violence.

I take responsibility for the multi-generational pain I’ve been charged with healing, but what about the pain of a kitten in a ditch? Someone said, “You should go look and see if there are more.” After considering that, I said, “Well, there are always more.” There are always kittens in a ditch. Even after every last one of us has healed our own pain, pain will find a way to start the cycle somewhere again.

I am not a religious person (though I do have a BA in Religious Studies from Naropa University), but while I was contemplating the very beginnings of suffering, the thought of Eden emerged in my mind.

All sexist connotations aside, the concept of Original Sin finally made sense to me.

I wrote out a few lines of a poem:

 Who should bear the weight
of Nature’s cruelty?
Was it Eve’s originality
that bungled Eden?
The pleasant stasis of Eden replaced
by earthly disequilibrium.
The apple, destined to be
Humankind’s hot potato.
The hunger born of its taste
The mother of invention.
Did Eden, too, have
Hops, Poppies, Sex
Ready for the taking?
Our earthly desire to explore
Are they all just apple seeds?

Of course, I don’t believe in the story of Eden as truth, but it is an interesting way of understanding the nature of earthly experience. We have free will to interact with one another and our flora and fauna, and because humans are all capable of Good and Evil, there will always be the transmission of pain on earth. We can’t delete it from our existence.

Some might say it’s absurd that all of this was brought to the forefront of my consciousness by an .8-pound kitten.

But this is just how my brain works.

In my blog, I will share the products of my obsessive thoughts, both maladaptive and creative. I do hope you’ll interact with me.