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.